Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin and Learning to Dance in a Machine World

By Christopher Barr POSTED ON DECEMBER 17, 2014

“I remain just one thing, and one thing only – and that is a clown.  It places me on a far higher plane that any politician.” 
- Charlie Chaplin





Modern Times is the story of a man navigating his life through the gears of the detached machine that is the American Industrial Corporation.  It is the story of this man’s relentless iconoclasticism while in the face of mechanized conformity of the most extreme sense of the word.  The film is also a love story, forged out of this modern mess of a society.  A factory worker, who is never referred to by name because in this world names are meaningless, is forced to keep up with the unrealistic production schedule of the corporation he works for.

Modern Times explores the obscurity of the very system that claims to be the best system for all to prosper in.  This is the tragedy that economic philosopher Karl Marx continuously warned the world about.  He worried that the Superstucture would consume the wills of men and transform them essentially into zombie workers, men that shed all ambition and devote themselves to the corporation.  Marx believed that the growth of a person into a knowing and understanding member of the species would fail if the corporate industrial complex succeeded.  Marx’s dreams of human freedom and equality sadly became broken down, rebuilt and repackaged into a form of control that greedy mindless men held over the livelihood of their thousands of nameless, faceless employee.


The film explores the monotonous daily lives of the less fortunate, but it also reveals that the fortunate may be financially and societally better off, they are not happier as a result.  The film shows that this system of mass production doesn’t work for pretty well all involved.  People are not machines that should be financially forced to work among machines for the so-called betterment of humanity.

Adding insult to injury, there is a moment in the beginning of the film where the factory worker, our hero, after performing his mind-numbing repetitive tasks on an assembly line, is subjected to this absurd contraption that was designed to mechanically feed the worker while he maintains his duties on the production line.  The project fails and causes the factory worker a great deal of humiliation and pain, a theme that runs throughout the film, indignities that the people of this city suffer through as they scramble to find food in the great depression of the early 1930’s.

It is rare in the history of cinema that a film that deals with such tragedy, true as it was then as it is today, can couple itself so magically with absurdist comedy.  The reason why this was made possible, and has quite frankly rarely been duplicated, was because the comic genius of Charlie Chaplin, the writer, director and star of the film.  Like his contemporary, the delightful Buster Keaton, Chaplin came from the silent era, the quiet times before the talkies of 1928 allowed the audience to hear what the characters were speaking.


Modern Times is from 1936 and is a mix of silent and talkie cinema.  Chaplin’s genius and comedic physicality was formed, like Buster Keaton, because there was no sound.  Chaplin had to perform his thoughts to his audience; he had to act out his ideas for all to see.  It’s a unique form of communication that has been sadly lost for the most part in modern cinema.  Chaplin walked with his feet pointed out at 45 degree angles and his buttocks high in the air, his arms fumbled and his eyes only blinked when absolutely necessary.  He created a skewed version of humanity in his gaze, his movements and his interactions with people in his stories who conform to the rule of society.  His character in Modern Times is ill at ease, he’s a man that fidgets and bumps into the on-goings of the machine, whether it is the people operating as police officers, jail guards or factory workers.

The film is a masterpiece of American cinema because Charlie Chaplin was able to come off as a bombastic clown in most scenes and simultaneous never lose sight of his film’s over all narrative.  He knew what story he was telling and never lost that story in the whims of comic relief.  Chaplin was able to provide enormously sidesplitting entertainment while commenting of the state of the world as he saw it.  His characters in his films often seemed oblivious but he as a man was not.  He knew the world was a mess, he knew that a group of pass-me-down elitist were running the world, holding the population for some sort of deranged ransom for their compliance.  His true genius is he knew that reality could only be passed down to the uninformed through comedy.  He knew the elite don’t tolerate overt descent but were so blinded by dollar signs that they rarely understood metaphor.  In this little window of weakness, Chaplin found his platform.


Modern Times also stars a young woman, whose sisters are taken away from her.  Here’s where the heart of the film exists, where one man simply wants to settle down with a gamin and live happily ever after.  The woman suffers in this machine age just as the factory worker when they cross paths.  After the factory worker has been subjected to a mental institution because of his lack of conformity, he goes to jail, where he oddly begins to enjoy himself.  The solace here is no one really expects much from prisoners so, even though locked up, the factory worker finds freedom.  Here we explore the even more absurd aspects of modern society.

The factory worker is set free from the jail when he helps guards recapture the jail when thugs attempt a break out.  It’s as if he stops them because he thinks that they don’t realize how good they really have it.  He sees it as if he is doing them a favor by releasing the prison guards from a cell.  Chaplin is telling his audience the freedom we think we have, we don’t, the society we think is looking out for our best interests and is there to protect us, isn’t.  Chaplin is telling us that society, like in FightClub, is insane.  He’s telling us that because we have been drinking the Koo-aid for so long we no longer see how unfree we truly are.

Modern Times is a beautifully shot film with massive set pieces and wonderful performances.  The film carries us through a series of vignettes that themselves stand alone as magnificent.  The scene where the factory worker is carried by the conveyer belt, after failing to keep up with tightening bolts on some arbitrary piece of equipment, into the guts of the machine.  Here he is squeezed in and around gears only to be reversed back out of the machine, as if spit out for having a pulse pumping through his veins, which itself physically happens when he is escorted off the property for being – weird.  There is a scene where he and his lady attempt to play house, living the domestic life, a promise of the American Dream, only for the house to fall apart in places, his chair collapsing through the floor, him leaning on a wall and falling through into a river.  Chaplin is telling that this dream we have is fake and it doesn’t hold up to reality. 


The restaurant scene toward the end demonstrates the true masterful vision that is Charlie Chaplin.  The factory worker is tasked to perform in front of an audience, he’s reluctant but his lady believes in him so he tries.  After realizing the lyrics to the song he was supposed to sing, lyrics written on his sleeves are gone, he improvises and gives a wonderfully entertaining performance as he mumbles the lyrics in unintelligible Italian while dancing around the floor in this comedic ballet, in and around the restaurant’s customers.


Chaplin conveys his contempt for the law as he manipulates the legal system for his own benefit, with the film ending with the factory worker and his lovely lady, after escaping the authorities, walking down the paved highway toward the mountains, Chaplin is encouraging us to get out and save ourselves from the trappings of an economical mechanized self-serving society, where the elite want it all.

Modern Times is a delightful film to behold.  It’s a journey into the greasy machine of modern society but it’s also about connection.  The film shows how the system is convinced that it knows your best interests better than you do.  Most importantly is the film shows that great minds will prevail, it shows that hope can be found at the end of the tunnel.  Modern Times shows us that other people can’t take your spirit if you don’t let them, the key here is and what the film is trying to convey; is be awake enough to learn how to protect yourself from a modern fast-moving, identity-stealing world. 

“I don’t believe that the public knows what it wants; this is the conclusion that I have drawn from my career.” 
- Charlie Chaplin

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