Saturday, 23 March 2013

"We Ain't Burglars. We're Hungry" - the Genius of Charlie Chaplin

Plus ca change et plus la meme...

"Modern Times" was written and directed by Charlie Chaplin and released in 1936; but true to its title, it is as relevant now as then and stands as a testament to the genius of a man stereotyped in the popular imagination as the clown Tramp, ducking swinging ladders and falling into water troughs. Even more than later great offerings, this film shows just how deeply thoughtful and humane his work was, taking huge risks to bring to the commercial screen a story that partly through its comedic nature but also because of its very serious undertones, powerfully decried the injustice that so affected his view of the world.

It was Chaplin's final silent movie and co-starred his then-partner, Paulette Goddard. Inspired by a combination of a tour of Depression-era Europe and a long conversation on industrialisation with Mahatma Gandhi, it was also his first and decidedly most overtly political film, and part of the case against him when Senator Eugene McCarthy hounded him out of the USA nearly twenty years later. A deeply humane film, combining slapstick comedy with powerful political commentary, Modern Times tells the story of the iconic Tramp character struggling with life in an increasingly frenetic, competitive and commodified world. He is a cog in a giant machine - literally, in one memorable sequence in the steel mill he works in at the beginning.

Modern Times was filmed not only at the height of the Depression, which ruined so many lives and ultimately provoked global conflict; it was also crafted not long after the advent of Taylorism, which in the name of efficiency reduced the human input in manufacturing to the simplest and fewest individual steps possible. F W Taylor, lauded by modernists from Henry Ford to Vladimir Lenin, advocated a world where there was little creativity or individual realisation: a worker would perform repetitive tasks ad nauseam in order to obtain mass efficiencies of scale for their employer. Divorced from the ultimate product of their labour, deskilled from any craft or profession, and completely and rapidly replaceable, the Taylorite worker would be docile, obedient and cheap. Ford adapted this theory only in as far as paying high enough wages that he could create and sustain a market for what was produced - a useful and now largely forgotten concept, but one that nevertheless remained in essence as exploitative and debilitating as Taylor's more fundamentalist approach.

And so, after an initial sequence where a herd of sheep is juxtaposed with a crowd of people heading to work, we see Chaplin's character driven to distraction as he repeatedly tightens bolts on an assembly line while the factory owner does jigsaw puzzles in his luxurious office. The workers' toilet breaks are monitored by video (a strikingly futuristic concept for the time) and the employer is keen to try out the "Bellows Feeding Machine" on Chaplin. This automatic device promises to feed the workforce without them needing either a lunch break or even the need to breathe: eliminate the lunch hour and stay ahead of your competitors! the sales pitch proposes. The trial needless to say provides a platform for some amusing slapstick comedy which leaves Chaplin appearing like Hitler on acid, but the more serious point is made and The Tramp is sacked after having a nervous breakdown.
An accidental Communist
Out of work, he is accidentally mistaken for a Communist, a crime in the supposed Land of the Free, and incarcerated, only to be released when he equally accidentally stymies a jail break while under the influence of (again accidentally ingested) cocaine - an extremely daring move for the time, when the film code banned depiction of drug use from films.

This is perhaps the most poignant part of the film - for the Tramp prefers the security of prison to the vicissitudes of the outside world, with its unfairness and uncertainties. He repeatedly tries to get himself re-imprisoned, even offering to take the fall for Goddard's character, with whom he falls in love and tries to find so-called honest work to provide for.

Goddard is a young "gamine", in Hollywood parlance a sort of mischievous young woman living on the edge of society, a grown up street urchin. Like others in the film, she steals not from badness but in order to survive - she and her family are ecstatic when she manages to thieve six bananas from a boat. Likewise, when he is the nightwatchman of a store, Chaplin's character lets some former workmates steal food because they are starving.

In sharp contrast, others thrive in these modern times - and both the Gamine and the Tramp have to entertain and serve them in the climax of the film where they work in a restaurant, she as a dancer and he as a singing waiter. This leads to some telling moments as drunken, boorish bourgeoisie cavort around the hardworking staff. The centre-piece is a scene of sheer ingenuity, seemingly taken in a single, continuous shot, showing Chaplin taking a roast duck to a customer across a crowded dance floor in a tour de force imitated hundreds of times since but never yet equalled.

The US Library of Congress declared Modern Times as "culturally significant" in 1989, leading to it being given official protection for preservation for future generations and leading to special screenings at a recent Cannes Film Festival. But it is more than a record of its epoch - its portrayal of an exploitative world where people struggle hard to simply survive and where many are denied what others in the same country, same city, even the same street take for granted, has never been so pertinent.

While the factories Chaplin lampooned in the USA and Europe are now frequently silent and empty, the goods we consume all too often continue to be made by marginalised workers on dehumanised production lines, where breaks are minimalised luxuries if they even exist. Consider the computer giant Apple Corporation's allegedly prison-like conditions in their oriental factories where the pseudo-virtuous Steve Jobs creamed off so much of his personal fortune from people so desperate that their employer places nets outside windows to prevent frequently made suicide attempts.

Chaplin went on to make other films, such as The Great Dictator, which were political in their content, but perhaps not as controversial or challenging to the society he lived and worked in as Modern Times. His exile from America, dreadful though it was, was proof enough of how he was a giant and just how small minded McCarthy and the anti-communists were when they proclaimed liberty as they snuffed it out.

In a world where the skew of wealth between rich and poor is far, far worse than it was in 1936, where laws not even contemplated in the Depression era give the police in supposedly democratic states unparallelled powers of arrest over trade unionists and other social activists, and where US citizens are eight times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist, Modern Times may be over 80 years old, but remains as fresh and relevant as ever.

Ultimately, Chaplin was an optimist - when Goddard's character asks him, "What's the use of trying?", the Tramp grins as the strains of Smile, composed by Chaplin, begin to play. He replies confidently, "Buck up - never say die! We'll get along."

It is the optimism of a better, fairer tomorrow, a tomorrow of humanity and equality. It is a cry from a passionate heart and one that, though made in silence, deserves to be heard as loudly as ever.

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