Archive for Metropolis

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.

Machine Made

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2022 by dcairns

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…


The Sunday Intertitle: A Story of Industry

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2022 by dcairns

“Never had I known that these mechanical sounds could be arranged to sound so beautiful. I regarded it as one of the most exhilarating symphonies I have heard.” ~ Charles Chaplin on Dziga Vertov’s ENTHUSIASM (1930).

The idea that MODERN TIMES is a rip-off of Rene Clair’s A NOUS LA LIBERTE! is absurd, I think. Nobody credits it nowadays, and I feel bad for Clair that he had friends who urged him to sue. I think Chaplin probably saw it and was influenced a little, but apart from both films featuring conveyor belts, there’s nothing in it.

Given that Chaplin had expressed wild enthusiasm for Dziga Vertov’s ENTHUSIASM, it’s tempting to suppose that he might have been influenced by THAT film, which deals with Stalin’s (rather successful) initial five-year plan, and is set in the Donbas region of the Ukraine, with which we are now all so sadly familiar. Vertov has for too long been seen as a one-hit wonder, with everyone falling over themselves to praise MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (students tend to enjoy it far more than Eisenstein’s silents) and ignoring everything else. Buy the box set, it’s worth it! ENTHUSIASM shows an experimental approach to sound that perfectly compliments Vertov’s use of picture cutting. It’s a sound movie that eschews dialogue in favour of musical use of real sounds, and one can imagine Chaplin being inspired by this to likewise make a full sound film that still relies on pantomime, not verbiage.

However, we are all beholden to the ideas our minds come up with. Chaplin’s film resembles neither Clair’s (whose formal qualities are strongly influenced by its being a kind of operetta-film) nor Vertov’s (which is about montage, whereas Chaplin is about mise-en-scene, and more than that, performance).

Chaplin does, however, start his film with a montage idea, but it’s far more Eisensteinian than Vertovian: the comparison of workers using a subway with sheep being herded (to the slaughterhouse?). Think Kerensky the mechanical peacock in OCTOBER. Rather than going back and forth to create a visual fugue in which man and machine-bird merge into one idea, Chaplin just shows us sheep and then workers. Because once you’ve told your joke and made your point, you want to move on.

Chaplin continues in a vaguely Russian mode for a few seconds more: the factory, a glass painting and then lovely METROPOLIS-style sets, and the boss, monitoring work via 1936-era CCTV (also a METROPOLIS idea, I think), introduced with a cluster of newspaper-cartoon satirical signifiers: he’s doing a jigsaw, taking a pill (digestion, we presume) and reading the funnies. Tarzan features prominently, though Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers might have been more fitting, given the high-tech moderne settings.

And then the film changes mode completely, handing over the reins to Chaplin the actor, who will be the centre of sympathy and interest, rather than the common herd around him, making this not really a communistic film, because Chaplin can’t really get excited about the collective. His American side comes out in his individualism. Which is good, because it stops MODERN TIMES being a polemic — it’s anti-dehumanisation, but it’s not FOR anything, except Charlie. The human element personified.