Friday, April 19, 2013

Charles Chaplin | Modern Times

black sheep
by Douglas Messerli

Charles Chaplin (writer and director) Modern Times / 1936

So much has been written about Charles Chaplin’s great 1936 film, Modern Times, that I should perhaps just express my admiration for this movie, which I revisited again the other day on the occasion of his birthday, and close my mouth to let the record stand. Anyone who knows me well, however, will understand that such a response would be impossible, seeming to me like an abandonment of my somewhat autobiographical representation of the cultural events of my lifetime. So, please forgive me if I repeat long repeated observations about Chaplin’s comic masterpiece. I might, however, have one insight that can help further appreciate the little tramp’s encounter with modern life.

     Let me begin where Chaplin’s film does: immediately after his inter-title statement— somewhat ironically, it appears to me, declaring this film to represent a “story of individual enterprise, crusading in the pursuit of happiness”— before the director represents the factory workers on their way to work, through a rather obvious metaphor, as a group of sheep, in the center of which is a single “black” one. The tramp is, obviously, the “black sheep,” as the Belgium directors Luc and Jean Pierre Dardennes pointed out in their commentary screened after the TCM showing. Yet, the first few scenes of Chaplin’s movie portray the tramp as a hard worker, mechanically tightening the bolts—which move quickly along a conveyor belt—in a mad attempt to keep up with the demands of the factory owner, not dissimilar to Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis. Bravely, the tramp moves up and down the line, deflected, as usual, by his fellow workers and nature (in the forms of a bee, an itch) along with the intrusions of the foreman. Even during a few seconds of break, in which the tramp, completely caught up in his mechanistic task, literally spins off into space, he is rebuked by the factory owner, whose image is suddenly projected across a bathroom wall, to return to work. In Modern Times big brother has clearly made an early appearance, long before George Orwell’s 1949 book. There is no room for personal behavior. The tramp as “factory worker” must suffer not only the abuse of his endlessly repetitive tasks, but the testing of a new feeding machine for factory employees, where he is literally spoon fed—while entrapped with the machine’s embrace—soup, diced cuts of meat (and, by accident, actual bolts), and, most ridiculously, cobs of corn on a never-ending rotisserie of insistent grinding across his mouth! Soon after, the “factory worker” must suffer the gigantic roulettes of the clogs and links of the machine which conveys the meaningless tools up to him.

      Is it any wonder that this well-intentioned, but tortured worker has, what Chaplin’s inter-titles describe as a “nervous breakdown,” a ridiculously funny series of balletic events in which he faces off with his fellow workers, using the machine that has tortured him, in turn, to torture them as well, alternating, well in advance of Harpo Marx’s antics, with chasing after any woman with buttons upon her dress in an attempt to “screw” them into place. In a sense, the innocent tramp has suddenly become, through the repetitiousness of his conveyor-belt acts, a kind of sexual maniac. Since his fellow employers have allowed themselves to become mere functionaries in the factory machine, the tramp, oil can in hand, deservedly treats them just as he might mechanical elements of the whole. His arrest represents a breakdown of the whole inhuman enterprise, which during his imprisonment, is completely closed down due to the Depression and worker strikes.

     These early scenes are among the most famous of the film, and seem to indicate that Chaplin’s work is primarily a statement of the inhumanity of new industrial usage as humans are transformed from individual artisans into mere mechanical robots—much like the workers in the new Ford automobile plants. But Chaplin, one must always remember, is at heart a romantic, and despite his early statements about worker abuse—issues Chaplin had explored and written about in the year just before the making of this film, as he travelled about Europe and met with legendary figures such as Mahatma Gandhi—he presents the rest of his film very much in the context of the cultural romanticism of his earlier works.
      The Tramp may be an outsider, but he is, Chaplin reminds us, time and again, a citizen of the community who might, given a chance, be committed to the most bourgeois aspects of society—if only given a chance. Although incarcerated in prison, the Tramp, as we know, is a complete innocent, even though he consumes a large salt-shaker full of cocaine, he ultimately saves the prison guards and officers from a group of escaping fellow-prisoners. His award for his acts, a lovely decorated prison cell, along with a radio and regular visitors, represents perhaps the most normative world in which he has ever existed. In a time of complete unemployment and brutal attacks on poverty-stricken individuals—portrayed so vividly through the experiences of the homeless gamin, Paulette Godard—the Tramp is protected, given special privileges he might never find on the outside. Despite his constant outsider designation, Charlie is happiest on the insides of society. He would be a perfectly moral and upright member of society, as I previously argued, if he was only allowed.
      In the deepest sense, this is the problem, always, with Chaplin’s works. The hero, finally, is less a rebel than a conservative figure who is simply projected—often quite literally through accidental movements through space—into outsider positions. The moment he is given pardon and freed from jail, an accidental drop of a red flag from a rig, the Tramp’s attempt to return it, and a group of radical strikers—which, without even comprehending, he leads into action—results in another arrest, this time for his being a radical!
     Freed again, and after a disastrously short-lived job as a ship-builder’s assistant, the Tramp is literally felled by the young gamin, who has stolen a loaf of bread. As always, the Romantic Chaplin figure attempts to protect her by claiming he is the thief, but societal forces, brutally un-Romantic, foil him, as they re-arrest the nearly starved girl. It is finally at this point that the Tramp seems realize that his problem lies in his good intentions, as he determines to taste nearly every dish a nearby café offers, without paying. It is important, it seems to me, that so much of this film is centered simply upon the possibility of being unable to eat, as the Dardennes brothers clearly described it. If the Tramp is often impervious to the unpredictable events with which society throws at him, he is, almost always, hungry, desperate to fulfill a hunger that is not only of the stomach but involves his needs of love and societal fulfillment!    
      Hoping to be re-arrested for his unpaid gluttony, he is again foiled by the reappearance in the police van of the beautiful Gamin. Again, quite by accident, they van is overturned, with the couple escaping. He insists that she go on without him, that she run from the imprisonment which he has sought. But again, another first in the Tramp’s life, everything changes, as she motions him to escape with her. Suddenly, the loner, the black sheep, is no longer alone.
      The rest of the film, for the first time in Chaplin’s work, tells the tale of two outsider individuals, not merely one. Together, they even dream together about a bourgeoisie life: imagining themselves intertwined in what later might be described as The American Dream, in a small suburban house. If the Tramp’s vision is highly paradisiacal—a tree of knowledge at his doorstep, a cow hobbling alongside the house to provide fresh milk—it is also an absurdly preposterous world, realized in reality by a shantytown house, where floor boards break under broken-down chairs and tables, and where the roof is held up by a utensil the might have been used to help clean it. Whatever this couple might aspire to is represented through the Tramp’s and the Gamin’s night—in the apotheosis of any consumer’s delight—where they locked in a large metropolitan Department Store where the Tramp works briefly as a night watchman. There, once more, they can eat, play—another of Chaplin’s major tropes—in the toy department, and sleep wondrously in the bedroom display, if only temporarily. A group of unemployed workers, one having been a torturous partner of the Tramp’s factory working days, attempt to rob the store, admitting, finally, that they are not thieves but simply hungry men.
      Again arrested, Charlie is released once more to find that the Gamin has obtained a job as a dancer in a local café. She helps him get a job as a waiter and singer. We know in advance how it will end. The tramp is an absolutely resolute waiter, but given his needed entries in and out of the kitchen and the dancing activities of the joint, he can never deliver up anything that he has promised, including a much requested duck.

     So, once more, he fails. Except—here a kind of miracle happens. Completely unable to remember the lyrics to the song he is supposed to sing, the Tramp is helped out by his faithful friend, the Gamin, as she writes them out upon his cuffs. The comic figure is once more foiled as in his marvelously manic dance preceding his song. The cuffs go flying off his coat. But here, suddenly, a miracle happens: encouraged by his “lover” (Chaplin secretly married Godard the very same year) as he sings out, for the first time allowing his audience to hear his voice*—French composer Léo Daniderff’s comic song, Je cherche après Titine—performed, however, in complete gibberish, nonsensical words from Italian and French that, nonetheless, convey its sexual themes. Here Chaplin is absolutely brilliant, both in his mime-like performance, his absurd singing, and his absolutely brilliant dance-like movements! For the first time in this film, as the Dardennes stated, he is in control; he has found his true home: the theater—the world of the film that has previously defined the Tramp’s existence.
      As fate would have it, however, the police catch up with the vagabond Gamin, and the Tramp, finally committed to a new world, must suddenly attempt to protect her, sending the two on another run from societal order—away from the police who represent that order. In another on-the-road sequence, the two sit side by side, in dismay, the Gamin finally admitting—despite her previously energized resistance of all authority—complete despair. What’s the use of going on, she proclaims. But the “black sheep,” a member of the herd nonetheless, speaks out from the cultural refrains of the period: “Buck up, put on a smile,” as the two go trudging down the highway—the Tramp, for the first time engaged with another—into the sunset, a conformist unable to find a society to which he can conform!

       It is quite obviously the end of the Tramp, a man who has found conformity outside of the very society in which he seeking to be part of, an outsider who has, nevertheless, found an inner contentment with those who have kept him so isolated. Sadly, it is a bit like a heavily bullied man finding peace with those who have perversely attacked him again and again, somewhat like a beaten wife coming home to her husband’s drunken fists. I now think Chaplin meant the first words of his film seriously, even if I can never comprehend how his trek down the California highway represents anything near to “the pursuit of happiness.”
    Chaplin’s later paternity suits with actress Joan Barry, and the final attacks by US authorities for his supposed Communist involvement, forced him to leave the US, suggesting what his perceptive 1936 film had already predicted. Smile as you might, there was still a white line dividing that highway, which symbolized the strict divides of American society.

Los Angeles, April 17, 2013

*Modern Times, one of the last of silent films, was not completely silent. Originally, Chaplin had planned it as a “talkie,” but felt that the myth of his Tramp figure would disappear with the realization of a voice. Accordingly, throughout most of the film, only the “machines”—the food-eating machine, the large-screen images of the factory’s owner, radios, etc.—“speak.” The final performance, in gibberish” is Chaplin’s first on-screen voice premiere. 

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