Archive for Matt Groening

Why Does Herr X Run Amok?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2022 by dcairns

Interesting that Charlie’s journey into the big machine should become MODERN TIMES’ defining image. Lifting it out of the narrative makes it a beautiful man versus machine pic — Chaplin as organic spanner in the works. The fact that he’s daintily servicing the mechanism doesn’t matter — we can tell he DOESN’T BELONG THERE. The incongruity makes it a funny image, but rather epic at the same time. I remember being a touch disappointed the sequence doesn’t go on longer, with Charlie drawn deeper and deeper into the great clockwork innards.

Charlie getting swallowed by the machine — MOLOCH! — is further evidence that Chaplin is responding to the rich comic potential of Lang & Harbou’s METROPOLIS.

What makes the shot a surprising choice for posterdom is that Charlie is out of character — his mind has gone. The only time this happened to him, though two of his forthcoming characters, Hynkel and Verdoux, might be insane. Chaplin had regarded his mother Hannah’s mental illness as “an escape” from her intolerable poverty, and Charlie’s very temporary madness is certainly that — an eruption of LIBERTY, a throwing off of the shackles of industry, a bout of ludicrous bad behaviour whose hidden purpose — getting him sacked — is achieved just as neatly as if it had been consciously planned.

When he snaps, Charlie becomes, as I keep saying, an intense version of his Keystone self — a nasty, balletic, smutty imp who abuses his co-workers. It’s notable all along that Charlie and Chaplin are equally incapable of solidarity. Even before his breakdown, Charlie is a pain in the ass to work with. And while it’s gratifying to see him oil-can his boss, he squirts big Tiny Sandford a lot more.

Oh yes, the oil can. An unsavoury Freudian metaphor could be devised to explain its origins and purpose here. And we are indeed in that terrain, since the nut-like buttons on the sexy secretary’s skirt, and on the jacket of a big dignified woman, attract attention from the spanner-wielding maniac which is not quite sexual, but sex-adjacent. Indeed, Charlie’s losing interest in female prey when he spots a fire hydrant is a very funny, vaguely dirty moment in itself, since getting excited at fire hydrants is canine toilet behaviour. All through this, Chaplin is a biomechanical Harpo Marx, a demonic chaser of skirts and assaulter of authority, and like with Harpo, his real obsessions aren’t even human.

Although, hanging from the ceiling with the can held like a rapier, Charlie momentarily mutates into his United Artists co-founder and chum, Doug Fairbanks. Though the famous grin is more satanic.

Even in his demented state, Charlie is somehow able to recognise the threat inherent in a kop’s authority, which always struck me as an interesting demarcation line. Crazy, but not THAT crazy. Likewise, he punches in when re-entering the factory, but the gesture has lost all meaning, is sheer mechanical perseveration, the bureaucratic urge gone Pavlovian.

Matt Groening has said that Homer is the most interesting Simpson because his mistakes have the biggest consequences — he could theoretically destroy Springfield. And now the antic Charlie madman sets about potentially blowing up his despised workplace. We would love to see it happen, antisocial as it seems. Go full Nakatomi Plaza. Stephen de Souza upset the producers of DIE HARD by telling them that, despite the added cost, he was going to write that the building gets blown up — because the audience would hate that building by the film’s conclusion. Just as it had been necessary to blow up the BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.

Well, Chaplin doesn’t quite go that fire — he can have more fun with this factory later, and the Charlie character, a natural unconscious anarchist, never manages to actually overthrow anything. Fun watching him try though.

A shame Chaplin couldn’t or wouldn’t visualise his “cure” in this film, which adds to the sense of disconnected picaresque (which I’ve never had the slightest problem with — it actually seems like the most appropriate narrative form the Tramp character can inhabit). Later, when Charlie goes to jail, that WILL be depicted, unlike in CITY LIGHTS. So I’m assuming Chaplin didn’t want to go there, felt that seeing the character slowly emerge from madness wouldn’t be funny, whereas plunging into it with wholehearted glee clearly WAS.