Tuesday, October 21, 2008

modern times, by charlie chaplin

When Film Club last convened, it was to watch (of all things) Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls. Viewed through a certain lens, Showgirls is "about" the way that modern centers of capitalism (Las Vegas and Los Angeles, specifically) seek to transform the human body into a commodity to be consumed.

This week we move to Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, a film which is also very interested in the human body, and the transformations that capitalism enacts upon it.

Unlike Showgirls, however, Modern Times is not really interested in the body as an object for consumption. What is is interested in, however-- and these are, of course, related --is the body as an agent of production, contemporary industrialized mass production in particular.

As the film opens, we're treated to the sight of Chaplin's Tramp working as a bolt-tightener on an assembly line. In this early sequence, the film explores, to great effect, the spectacle of working bodies synchronizing or de-synchronizing with the unvarying industrial pace of the belt. This shot, from late in the sequence, should give you the basic idea:

OK, so this is used for grand comic effect, but the underlying point—about the relationship between man and machine—is deadly serious. The machine is unvarying, which means that the component in the industrial production process that needs to be "corrected" is the worker. In effect, the worker needs to become more machine-like.

The assembly line ends up warping the Tramp in precisely this way: in these early scenes, he's been so hard-wired to tighten bolts that even when he's not working on the line he continues to automatically seek bolts to tighten, coming to resemble nothing quite so much as a robot run amok.

This is fairly prescient, given that the very concept of the robot was only given a name for the first time in 1921 (in Karel ńĆapek's play R.U.R.), and is presented in film for the first time in 1927, by Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

The film grows even more prescient if you consider the Tramp-and-machine system less as an early cinematic example of the robot and more as an early cinematic example of the human-robot hybrid, the cyborg (a concept that wasn't even named until 1960). The film does feature some pretty arresting images of human-machine hybrids, which, divorced from their comedic contexts, border on the nightmarish:

Thinking about Modern Times's prescient aspects in this way leads one to consider the possibility that the opening twenty minutes of Modern Times fit squarely within the tradition of the science-fiction dystopia. If that sounds odd, check out some of these shots, which seem, to me, like they could be slotted comfortably into Metropolis, Alphaville, A Clockwork Orange, or Brazil...

Oddly, despite all its futuristic trappings, it's worth noting that at the time Modern Times was likely experienced by audiences as something that was engaged in a bit of looking backwards as well as a bit of looking forwards. The Tramp had long been a mainstay of silent cinema, making appearances as early as 1914: by 1936, when Modern Times is released, he's a figure with a twenty-year history. Furthermore, he's a figure largely associated with the silent era, which, by 1936, is definitively over—as sound had debuted in 1927 and been largely embraced by the industry by 1929.

Modern Times is not, strictly speaking, a silent film—it utilizes synchronized sound effects, and delivers some lines of dialogue through loudspeakers, radios, and song—but it delivers the majority of its dialogue through intertitles, and is still shot at the silent rate (19 frames per second). These choices are interesting, given that as early as 1931, when Chaplin released City Lights (next week's pick, btw), he was allegedly worrying about whether audiences would still be open to silent films (at least that's what this Wikipedia article says).

If the use of silent film conventions might have seemed dated in 1931, then by 1936--nearly a decade into the development of sound film --it must have seemed willfully anachronistic, nostalgic even. By approaching a movie very much about the future with this sort of determined focus backwards, Chaplin makes an interesting point about "the present"—the "modern times" of the film's title. He seems, in essence, to be saying that the present is always the sum total of our memories and experience of the past and our thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears about the future. That is as true today as it was in 1936, and Modern Times, in its best moments, still works to capture that peculiar ambiguity.


Jamie said...

I watched "Modern Times" and "City Lights" back to back last month.

It's interesting how "Modern Times" deals with workers as machines, whereas "City Lights" has sequences in which workers are dealt with in a more sociological, class-system manner. Without the slapstick sequences, I think both films work more as human condition dramas as opposed to comedy, especially with the connotations you've highlighted here.

jpb said...

I've never seen City Lights, and I'm looking forward to it next week.

What do you think of the bigger screenshot size?

Jamie said...

I liked them, and you picked a good film in which to debut the bigger screenshots, since there are so many little details in each scene.