Thursday, September 07, 2006

Modern Times (1936)

Modern Times (Charlie Chaplin, 1936)

In Modern Times, the iconic cinematic character The Tramp (Chaplin) is pitted against the woes of modernization. It's largely a pressing issue, even today, wherein humanity is enslaved by a culture of dehumanization based on the rapidly improving state of our technology and processes. Men and women become enslaved by the machineries of the money-hungry corporate world not knowing that they have trapped themselves, as The Tramp would literally show, in one of the giant wheels that keep the world fat and greedy.

Much more than it is a pressing issue, it is also depressing. With the advent of machines that can do almost anything (the film showcases an instrument that automatically feeds the laborers thus minimizing inefficiency by obliterating lunch hours), human beings are turned into just mere parts of a gigantic machinery and individualism is poised as an unneeded bother. The magic of Charlie Chaplin's film is that out of the pressing and depressing issues he decided to tackle, he still has the nerve to tell us to smile and enjoy, and quite frankly, he succeeds.

Chaplin's antics are wonderful. We first see The Tramp as a laborer in a factory. It's a funny sight, the minuscule Tramp forcing himself to keep up with the speeding conveyor belt, and annoying his co-workers, towering and somehow have been able to merge themselves with the machine. The factory itself is fantastic. An art-deco type of building with large contraptions composed of wheels, levers, and belts (it reminds me of Fritz Lang's futuristic world in Metropolis). The president sits in his office and observes his workers via cameras installed in almost every part of the building, which points out the idea that again, privacy is an inefficient human trait and shouldn't be a part of the workplace. The Tramp is booted off the factory after a nervous breakdown and mistakenly identified as a labor leader, is imprisoned.

The Tramp later on meets a waif (Paulette Goddard) and in a tender yet humorous scene dreams up of a life they will have together inside a suburban house. It's a tender and beautiful scene, amped up by Chaplin most recognizable musical composition. Their duo is hopeful that within a world that seems to have forgotten humanity for efficiency and wealth, they will find a place that will appreciate humanity's beauty. The Tramp finds a job at a department store, and there, the dream is extended with the waif skateboarding at the toy section or enjoying the comforts of a luxurious bedroom.

But again, the Tramp seems to be followed by misfortune, and is again booted off from the job. Finally, they find a job in a restaurant. The waif as a dancer, and the Tramp as a singer-waiter. Their misfortune ends in a hopeful scene that Chaplin originally intended as a tragic scene where the duo will be separated forever. The present ending is much more indelible and is a ray of hope in a world that persists to dispose of human traits in pursuit of material things the modern world has imposed on everyone.

Modern Times is Chaplin's last silent film. Interestingly, the film cannot strictly be considered a silent film as sound is an important element in the film. Human voices are only heard from mechanical sources. First, from the monitor where the corporation president details his orders. Second, from a recorded message from the inventors of the feeding machine. Third, from the radio. We finally hear human voices from a human source only when there's singing (by the restaurant singing waiters, and lastly, from The Tramp who utters his first words in film --- complete gibberish as he forgot the lyrics to his song).

Chaplin seems to be commenting on how humanity has been engulfed by a culture of machinery that the only voices that matter are those coming from machines themselves. In a final note, Chaplin insists that humanity does not persist as secondary machines. Humanity should persist as emotional creatures, and that human voices should be heard not to belittle human individuality and emotionality but to strengthen it with humor and enjoyment, thus, the songs. In the end, Chaplin's message is clear --- just smile.

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