Saturday, November 17, 2007

Modern Times d. Charles Chaplin, 1936

when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail

That saying kept bouncing through my head during the entire screening - the first section of the film is that idea taken to the nth degree. That is, what happens when the world you live in equips you to do one thing?

Tellingly credited as "A Factory Work" - note that lovely indefinite article - Chaplin is a sort of cipher for what it means to be dehumanized by work; his rote assembly-line jop seeps into his core being, performing a good chunk of Marx's social theory. He leaves the assembly line, pulling every lever that he sees, twisting every dial, tightening every bolt, and oiling every cog that makes noise - machinic and human alike. The assembly line, so it goes, gives him one way of going, even displacing his sexuality, as he - thrice - attempts to tighten various Ts and As.

But later sections of the film present two different reverses. One - that which Mr. A Factory Worker employs most - is to get away. When him and his equally indefinite gamin (Paulette Goddard, spunky and beautiful) muse on their dream home together, the audience is given a bucolic idyll: a cow replaces the car in the driveway; grapes, instead of powerlines, crowd the window. This is the escapist dream. Indeed, Chaplin's factory worker finds refuge in prison, a place that, yes, is part of the mechanical system, but also exists outside of it.

The second reverse is the more interesting: subversion. Although the film ends on an escapist note - with the former factory worker and the gamin walking into the sunset - subversion of the machinic system, within the system itself, is at the heart of Chaplin's Little Tramp character. Made in 1936, well after the advent of sound, Modern Times is a mostly silent film. Even when we hear a character speak, it is through some type of medium: loudspeaker, record, screen, or radio. No personal communication is heard; this absence - juxtaposed against speech's disembodied presence elsewhere - is alarming. The implicature is that personal communication is difficult to come by in this world. Toward the end of the film, Chaplin's Tramp is forced to perform in a singing act. He forgets the words and instead offers an ad-libbed mixture of French and Italian; his actions sell the story. A couple of things are interesting here: 1) The audience of the Tramp's song responds extremely positively; the factory worker has used the constraints of the society in order to achieve real communication 2) The language of the modern world is action, not words; the content of words are no longer important, only the context that they are couched in. Whether you subscribe to one conclusion or the other, or an admix of both, the point is that the factory worker - now the Little Tramp - has figured a way in which to navigate the non-communicative, mechanical world that allows him to subvert its rules and be wholly and uniquely himself.

Another quick thing: the title can be read two ways: 1) As a synonym for "the modern era" and 2) As a temporal figure. Via the latter reading, the film can be interpreted as a collision of different temporalities; the Tramp, then, becomes a mutable figure whose job it is to figure out how each time is best navigated. I'll check this out next viewing.


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