Chaplin’s legacy to the future
If there is one danger to being a comedian , it isn’t failing to make people laugh but rather failing to make people listen. Charlie Chaplin is rightly considered a comic genius. Whilst others use his template for laughs, he frequently used it to make us better humans. Beret wearer’s love Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and good for them. Metropolis is a very disturbing film, Modern Times is disturbing and funny a feat not easy to do. Long after the icing sugar of it’s pratfall’s wear out there is a sense of cognitive dissonance that isn’t as easy to shake off. Humour is a hard balancing act, too pious and you become schmaltz, too many guffaws and you make a lot of money. I understand why others go that route. Not Chaplin, not modern times.
Modern Times challenges the audience to reassess their position in life. A world of machines within machines. Those that do not fit the stereotype like the Gamin are left at the fringe of society to etch out an existence. Perhaps they are already beaten, but in this isolation they still assert an enviable sense of freedom when compared to those shepherded into the mainstream. The Gamin is her own woman, in possession of a creative mind that helps her to provide food to the rest of her family. After her father dies the Gamin experiences modern city life. In this world identity is lost within the mechanics of bureaucracy. Modernity can provide an infrastructure for a way of living but in the end it is only one way.
Technology is the model for the way life should be. Unlike the ramshackled homes of the Tramp and Gamin it is an ordered existence. The factory demonstrates how technology provides stability and security for its workers. The implication is that by working within these structures humans will be alright. But as the Tramp shows, there is an inherent nature within everyone to “buck the system” no matter how hard we wish to be integrated into it. Sometimes the results of rebellion against the machine are benign, others are dire. The Tramp falls into the mechanics of the factory and is carried back out again unharmed. The Gamin falls into the mechanics of the modern city and is lucky to escape. This is not happenstance as the factory itself is merely just a tool and not implicitly the villain. It’s the attitude of the world in which technology resides that is the true evil. The production line deals with metal components, modern life is manipulating flesh and blood.
The construction of Modern Times echoes the film’s themes. But unlike the world of Modern Times , Chaplin is not attempting to satisfy the audiences fantasies. Chaplin does not want to be consumed like the Tramp in the early part of the movie, he wants his audience to take a step back and observe the inner workings of the film, he wants the audience to engage with the subject . By jumping from soundtrack to silence, the audience becomes aware of the technology of the cinema. Alarm sounds draw your attention and instrumental passages highlight the action sequences. The highly anticipated scene of Chaplin speaking for the first time is controlled totally by Chaplin. Rather than being coerced into a momentous speech about the perils of modernity , this visual comic brings the importance back to his physical abilities. By singing a non sense tune Chaplin has rendered the technological importance of this new sound system obsolete. The audience must search like the characters for what is important in the life of the film, rather than merely follow along like sheep. In Modern Times Chaplin stands in the midst of technology and places human individuality throughout it.
In much the same way as the Gamin and Tramp are the symbolic children of their time so are we evocative of the early 21st century. Like a true visionary Chaplin’s tale is the same seen through the eyes of Henry Ford mass production or Face Book style social media. We are still human beings and our needs remain unchanged. But a universal dream of a comfortable life will always come at a cost, and that comes at the price of who we are. The Tramp leaves the security of the production line and begins to fashion his own identity in modernity, he loses the overalls of the factory worker and adopts the bowler hat and cane of the tramp. In a world fashioned and filtered more and more frequently by what a computer thinks we will like there is an increasing sense of generic opinion. It’s harder to have rough edges as these cut down who your audience might be. There is rarely a sense of ambiguity or “Trampism”. Chaplin’s Tramp is unfazed by his prison stays. It is frequently easier to by confined by a world gone globally acceptable, than to live aside from it.
The Gamin and the Tramp meet at a cross roads of their lives, both are developing in the modern city. They dream of a life like everyone else, a good house and a cow at their door. The concept of an easy life is fantasy to them. The Tramp finds the idea amusing but takes it more seriously when he realises what the dream means to the Gamin. The world has never stopped being hard to live in, however in the 21st century we’ve made it that much easier to edit out the bad bits. Whilst the Tramp has begun to forge his own identity, the former free spirit of the Gamin dims. She experiences soft beds, nice clothes and fresh foods. The Gamin believes that by gaining employment in a nightclub she has found a way to live in modernity. Work will provide her with an opportunity to be like everyone else. The Tramp realises otherwise.
By the end of Modern Times Chaplin has his couple ’spat’ from modern life . It is the petulant side of Modernity that is never publicised. It’s the update you don’t take up, or the contact detail you leave blank. Had the film been released today both the Tramp and the Gamin would have probably been rundown by a steamroller. A suitably nihilistic ending contrived via an online focus group of like’s and dislikes. We demand control over our world and believe we have it via technology. Keep that thought in mind next time you get caught in a thunderstorm. Chaplin’s ending is no less happy go lucky. The pair walk off into the distance, “Smile” is played and we are left to our own conclusions. For all intents and purposes their relationship probably breaks down with the Gamin heading back to the city to work as an escort. We don’t know, but Chaplin’s reiteration that humanity is flawed and far from certain is a win anyway.