Machine Made

In MODERN TIMES the people are mute but the machines talk. It wasn’t always thus: Chaplin seems to have initially planned the film as a full talkie.

GAMIN: ‘What’s your name?’

TRAMP: ‘Me? oh, mine’s a silly name. You wouldn’t like it. It begins with an “X”.’

GAMIN: ‘Begins with an “X”?’

TRAMP: ‘See if you can guess.’

GAMIN: ‘Not eczema?’

TRAMP: ‘Oh, worse than that — just call me Charlie.’

Remember Billy Wilder’s complaint that Chaplin was a genius, but when he let his characters talk he became like a child of four writing lyrics for Beethoven’s Ninth? Unfair, of course, but I think it’s true to say that dialogue like the above wouldn’t have improved MODERN TIMES. It might have felt more like the talkie inserts in LONESOME, inept longeurs. Of course, talking films had developed hugely since Pál Fejös’ 1928 masterpiece, but Chaplin hadn’t. You can see him recapitulating the history of sound films: music and sound only, now a part-talkie, then a full-fledged sound film with music and dialogue and effects (I guess he was able to skip out the phase where everyone stood around a hidden mic and talked, without benefit of music or post-produced FX).

The dialogue Chaplin considered, but rejected, is CHATTER — exactly the kind of talk the combination of pantomime and intertitles excluded, instead boiling the verbiage down to its purest narrative essentials, and putting the focus on behaviour. When we come to THE GREAT DICTATOR we will have to reckon with Chaplin’s decision to embrace talk, and his surprising success with it. But we’re not there yet.

The first voice we hear in MT is the boss, but we hear him over his METROPOLIS-style CCTV, or Skype or Zoom or whatever you want to call it. Something which is finally commonplace, and we do speak with our bosses quite a bit on it. Hang on in there, we’ll get the flying cars and jetpacks eventually.

So the boss is mechanized, effectively, and soon Charlie, discovered at the assembly line, will be mechanized too. The terrible thing about these machines, observes Anthony Hopkins in THE ELEPHANT MAN, is you can’t reason with them.

Chaplin had been inspired by the horror of Henry Ford’s assembly lines. Though he would quote Ford’s suggestion for a shorter working week, he was otherwise quite opposed to this kind of modernity. As David Robinson (also my source for the dialogue above) points out, MODERN TIMES would be attacked both for having a political subtext and for not having one. I suppose either attack can be justified, but the truth is that the film attacks capitalist modernity using the tools of pantomime and slapstick, therefore its arguments are, in a sense, unsophisticated: but beautiful, emotive, and surprising.

Also, we could propose that Chaplin’s criticism is tempered, or undermined, or corrupted, by his visual delight in whirling cogs and giant dynamos and the other accoutrements of industry, As Tati is a bit in love with the more domestic modernism of MON ONCLE and PLAYTIME. Still, the humour Chaplin concocts here is sufficiently black, sufficiently alarming, in fact, to make the film’s intent clear.

I’ve expended a lot of words and I still haven’t moved on a single moment from where I got to in my last post: Chaplin at the conveyor. Let’s make a start.

Charlie in his screen career has been drunk (often), drugged (in EASY STREET), concussed (CITY LIGHTS), and he has been not only in altered states himself but has participated in the hallucinations of others (transforming into a big chicken in THE GOLD RUSH). MODERN TIMES is the first time he goes mad, though. Maybe this final departure from consensus reality had to wait until after the death of Hannah Chaplin, which occurred in 1928.

Chaplin had a fear of madness, and his charming brother Sydney seems to have expected him to succumb to it, waiting, he once said, for that moment so he could sell the studio and relax on the proceeds. The portrayal of insanity in MT is not a realistic one: but it’s the kind of madness the Little Fellow WOULD get. It starts in the muscles. All that bolt-tightening becomes compulsive, a nervous tic. He fights against it: a twist of the body and that back-kick which he uses to cheer himself up, and the tic goes away. It’s like a skipping needle on a phonograph record, it just needs a nudge so that the mechanism can continue smoothly. Henry Bergson’s dictum that comedy arises from human beings behaving like machines is a good one, though of course it doesn’t remotely cover all humour.

At a certain point, of course, the bolt-tightening perseverance (mechanical continuation of a movement after it has lost all conscious purpose) can’t be stopped, and the subject (Charlie, or X) snaps — which comes as a kind of joyous release, really, the return of the repressed, in this case the impish, dervishlike demon of the Keystone era, comes out of the box — manic, anarchic, smutty, irrepressible…

TO BE CONTINUED

2 Responses to “Machine Made”

  1. Another famous assembly line: Donald Duck tightening the tops of artillery shells in “De Fuhrer’s Face”. The duck must also salute each of the little framed portraits of Hitler rolling down the belt, having no purpose except as a sort of mechanized loyalty test.

  2. A satire of capitalism transformed, with only minor adjustments, into a satire of Nazism…

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