The Sunday Intertitle: Feeding Time

Before Charlie can have his full-fledged breakdown, he is subjected to an experimental lunch administered by feeding machine. I’ve dealt with this sequence before but there’s always more to say. This rather chilling CLOCKWORK ORANGE sequence is introduced by another talking machine, a recorded sales pitch setting up the idea of the device that lets the worker eat hands-free, so he can continue to labour on behalf of his employer while ingesting the required protein.

As usual when a meal is portrayed in Chaplin’s films, it’s a strange series of courses, chosen for their slapstick potential rather than their adding up into a square or even oblong meal. Soup, corn and pie.

Of course, the machine wouldn’t work unless the worker could operate without seeing what he’s doing, since the metallic dinner table of the feeding machine comes between the hired hand and his hands. But since the machine never gets adopted — “Not practical,” rules the boss (regular unfunnyman Al Ernest Garcia), after Charlie has collapsed — this needn’t bother us.

I had forgotten that the test takes place at the conveyor belt — low angles showing the technician fiddling with the sparking apparatus also reveal Charlie’s hands, their spanners reflexively and uselessly tapping up and down at the stationary belt.

What makes the sequence perfectly cruel and funny is Charlie’s dismay at the whole thing — when the machine is working perfectly, it’s a distressing ordeal. He views each mouthful with alarm, is continually terrified by the mouth-wiping arm. When the thing starts malfunctioning, the horror escalates. In THE CIRCUS, Chaplin revived the comedic impact of the banana peel by laying it on a tightrope. Here, he attempts to breathe fresh life into the custard cream pie by having it delivered robotically. It’s not quite as brilliant a conceit because the mechanical aspect doesn’t make the pie especially more degrading than it normally is, and the prop, otherwise so elegantly designed and smoothly (dys)functional, is unable to deliver a pie into the kisser with the skilled splurch of a Keystone pro — Chaplin has to deliberately smear his face around in the plate to get gooey enough. Progress has yet to supply us with an android Conklin.

But the sequence has this wonderfully chilling aspect to it, partly because the nature of the operation dictates that the scene be played in close-ish medium shot. The usual comic distance is shortened, the suffering is intensified. The whole thing is a torture machine worthy of Kafka’s penal colony anyway, but the victim’s dismay and suffering are brought close to us. Even though we now can see the actor’s eyebrows aren’t real, his distress is. With the cream pie adding another painterly effect (impasto), the tormented subject takes on the aspect of a Francis Bacon pope.

A standard complaint about MODERN TIMES is that it’s episodic, without a strong link between sequences of the kind found in Chaplin’s previous features. “A bunch of two-reelers spliced together” is the complaint. But I’ve never felt this to be a problem. It’s a picaresque yarn, like O LUCKY MAN! — it takes advantage of Charlie’s Tramp status — though he has to DISCOVER that freedom in this movie, starting off as a wage slave — the Tramp becomes our guide through different aspects of modern civilisation. Well, perhaps not a guide, since it’s all so strange to him. He’s no Virgil, nor does he have a Virgil equivalent to show him the way, unless we count the “Gamin.”

Anyway, you could in theory remove the whole eating machine from the film without wrecking the story, but its inclusion does add more of a reason for Charlie to go mad, on this particular day. Maybe a restful lunch hour was the only thing allowing him to hold it together. We know how THAT feels.

7 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Feeding Time”

  1. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Francis Bacon’s screaming pope was in fact inspired by a close-up in Battleship Potemkin (his favorite movie). It’s the one with the lady and her glasses smashed during the Odessa Steps sequence (which given happenings in Ukraine is quite pertinent just a few years shy of its centenary).

  2. I recall my interchanges with Francis Bacon HERE

  3. Here Chaplin is, for all intents and purposes, a severed head. Somehow a head left to its own devices is funny.

    Ollie’s head sticks up through a floor in “Way Out West”. Stan tries to pull him up, and only succeeds in stretching his neck a few feet. He then hides Ollie’s noggin with a bucket when Fin suspects intruders. Fin trips over it, then kicks it angrily (hurting his foot, if that’s any consolation).

    There’s a Three Stooges short where Moe gets his head stuck through a wooden wall and his cohorts try to pry him loose with a crowbar. We get a view of Moe’s head in the center of the screen, grimacing as the hooked end of the crowbar seeks out his face.

    In “The Daredevil” stunt man Ben Turpin is tied to a post in a cellar filling with water, and the crew takes off and forgets him. In addition to rising water a cat swims by, pursued by dog, and uses him as a perch. Turpin’s head, the only part of him that can move, becomes a cross between a parrot and a ventriloquist’s dummy.

    Early in “The Inspector General”, Danny Kaye’s medicine show duties include impersonating an ancient disembodied head. Not allowed to speak, he mugs like crazy and has to feign eagerness to swallow the vile stuff Walter Slezak makes him drink.

    George Melies made different use of heads without bodies. His own head was inflated with a pump, and elsewhere cloned into hammy musical notes. His portrayal of a solar eclipse had a fey male moon passing before an outrageously lecherous sun, inviting the viewer to speculate.

  4. And of course, Conklin becomes a helpless head when his machine is shut down. Chaplin becomes his feeding mechanism, showing how it should be done.

  5. Mark Fuller Says:

    Yorick was a comic…….and [SPOILER] as played by Willem Dafoe in The Northman, funnier when beheaded.

  6. Quite chop-fallen.

    Yes, the Conklin scene is a sort-of imprecise reversal of this one, isn’t it?

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