In July, 2015, the BBC released a list of the 100 Greatest American Films, curated by polling critics all over the world. I’m watching them and writing about them as a form of self taught film school. This week, in honor of April Fools Day, we’re doing number 67: Modern Times . — directed by Charlie Chaplin. As always, there will be spoilers.
I’m surprised the Charlie Chaplin classic, Modern Times, was not his highest ranked films on this list. It was outdone by The Gold Rush and City Lights by almost 40 paces. Released in 1936, the film arrives on the heels of The Great Depression, the end of the Dust Bowl,and is the next rung on the ladder to talkies after the “silent plus” release of City Lights five years earlier. Chaplin uses synchronized sound judiciously, choosing to sprinkle in moments of sound and effects to enhance his otherwise silent “little tramp” character. This is an interesting choice to make within the context of a narrative designed to question the drawbacks of technological innovation.
It’s widely agreed that Modern Times is a commentary on the pervasive dehumanizing impact of the mechanization of our modern lives. The first act plants the audience warmly in the arms of the familiar little tramp, who is diligently working on an assembly line tightening screws two at a time as they roll toward him — working double time to catch up with every stolen deep inhale or sip of water. He continues with the mindless monotony to the point that he’s unable to stop his wrists from turning the wrenches when he’s eating lunch or leaving for the day. He tightens anything that resembles a screw, a series of comedic escalations that peak when the fellow’s gaze lands on a buxom woman with unfortunate button placement — and the audience, which has now been trained to see loose screws everywhere, has a delightful jolt of anticipatory giggles having been trained to expect what might happen next.
Chaplin shows how the profit motivated executives at the company are eager to meld machines and man in order to get the most out of their employees. They experiment with a machine that will feed employees lunch as they continue to work in order to save that hour every day. There’s a video screen in the bathroom that the bosses can use to keep an eye on anyone who might be loitering off the line. What was so interesting watching this film in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic when most of the professionals I know are working from home, the question of where the dividing line resides between person and work, or human and machine, or employment and personal freedom, is top of mind given the shrinkage of our lives.
That bathroom screen, at least in my case, is no longer firmly in the realm of absurd extreme and has inched toward commonplace. We have brought our work home with us and now there is a blurred division between which is which. In my professional life, we often work through lunch and the contraption meant to feed us and keep us productive while we do, is a cultural straight jacket of our own making. There is a prescience to Chaplin’s narrative, those of us unable or unwilling to sacrifice some piece of our humanity and freedom to the machine of productivity are forced to live on the outskirts and find non-conventional means for survival.
There is of course the flipped view of modernization as well. In my own example, I can’t harp too strongly against expectations that accompany a blended work and home environment, because the alternative would be that I join the millions of people who are part of a workforce that is either unemployed as result of their inability to do their jobs remotely, or forced to choose between their guaranteed health and a guaranteed paycheck. This is all to say, that some embracing of modern innovation can provide security or an enhanced lifestyle in spite of the undesirable tradeoffs.
The irony embedded in Modern Times is that by demonstrating Chaplin’s reluctance to buy in to innovation while also lightly interspersing well timed examples of sound effects and voice over, his classic silent schtick is enhanced, and endowed with an invigorating freshness that saves the act from feeling tired. During this phase of Chaplin’s storied career he shows that silent films and scenes don’t need sound to be successful — for instance when the tramp blindly roller skates next to a pit in the department store. On the other hand, there are moments that simply would not work without the addition of sound, like the rumbling of the tramp’s stomach in the police station lobby which he tries to masks by turning up the radio only to hear a gastritis ad blaring out, or when the machine meant to feed him corn on the cob gets moving so quickly it sounds like a dentist’s drill. The use of sound has a grand finale when the little tramp fails as a server at his newfound girlfriend’s restaurant and is forced to literally sing for his supper, revealing his creative talents in full force.
Layered on top of the apparent skepticism of technical advances in this film is a caring depiction of a group the title cards label as “the unemployed”. Much of the journey of this film is centered around the hero’s desperate search for work and sustenance amongst a populous crowd of individuals equally eager to gain employment to survive. There is an obvious class discrepancy and there’s an almost Kafkaesque melancholy: without work you’ll starve, and the work you’ll be likely to get comes at the expense of individuality you need to feel human.
This paradox is inescapable to most Americans, and feels inextricable from any specific decade of our national existence. As this is the last Chaplin entry on this list, it feels the right moment to acknowledge his contribution to not only the landscape of American cinema but also to the artistry and comedic influence that accompanied his explorations of the psyche that forms the foundation of our collective existence.