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MODERN TIMES  : Then and now

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.

 

 

 

 

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