literature

Modern Times

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There are volumes upon volumes of history texts dedicated to explaining the effect of the Great Depression on public sentiment within the United States. Like all things practical in these modern times, they serve a very specific purpose to explain a very specific phenomenon in a very specific, reductionist and mechanistic manner. If it is the job of historians to interpret facts and generate a narrative, it is the job of the popular artist to express the sentiment of a generation. Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times may well be one of those cultural classics, embodying on screen the morose of disillusioned Americans during the Great Depression. It is ironic, then, that a film we consider to epitomize its eponymous era is such a backhanded, albeit entertainingly subtle, condemnation of those times. The film is an enduring criticism of American industrialization, the separation of the managing class from the working class and the obsession with efficiency over community. Indeed, the final Little Tramp picture show can only be read as an indictment of the dehumanization of the industrial era.

The Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton once remarked that the problems of the world could be condensed into two root issues: the recognition of man as an animal and the rejection of such a fact. The opening act of Modern Times hews closely to the former issue. The Little Tramp's employment in a factor assembly line is closely linked to the efficiency ideals of Andrew Carnegie, a social Darwinist. As a sight gag, the continuously accelerating production belt, upon which Chaplin's character endlessly and evermore hopelessly tightens bolts to widgets intended for God-knows-what provides humor at the expense of human ineptitude. However, as the indignities increase, including a pre-Orwellian (and yet undeniably Big Brother-esque) video screen upon which an apparent superior appears to chastise and fire the Little Tramp, the viewer is asked to participate in his sorrows-sorrows created by an impersonal, demanding job.

At present, it is difficult to imagine a person in the job market with no prospects. In our highly mobile society, experience and education lead to prospects across the country. It is easy to forget that no more than, and quite reasonably less than, 50 years ago, people still tended to remain in a regional job market. The melancholy of Chaplin's character is easier to understand with this in mind. Absentmindedly getting caught up in a communist political protest, the Tramp is arrested by the local police. In an era when people were looking so much for an alternative to the dog-eat-dog capitalism, the hold on capital by the upper echelon insured likewise social enforcement by said echelon. It is sad to see the Tramp imprisoned for what is an honest mistake, and sadder still to see his naïveté also be the reason for his release.

Chaplin's interaction with the street waif (apparently named Ellen, cf. IMDb) throughout the movie is a demonstration of the inability to initiate and maintain upward mobility in the early 20th century. When Ellen introduces the Tramp to a shackwork home on an empty lot, she dismisses it as "not Buckingham Palace," and yet it suffices for them as a home. Chaplin subtextually requests that the viewer be satisfied with this happy home established after so much hardship, but, this story is a tragicomedy, and of course it cannot last. The Dust Bowl displaced hundreds of Midwest farmers, and bank foreclosures put many families out on the street during the era. These long-established simple family homes were of course replaced with the commercialized megafarm. Thematically, it is little wonder that Modern Times relates to its contemporary audience.

Finally, as an indictment of capitalism, there is little else to point to than the Tramp's employment at a department store. Though trusted with responsibility, Chaplin has his signature character freely open the store to his fellow riffraff. The distribution of goods to the general populace is the definition of the proletariat revolution. We are to take this act of subversion as an act of altruism, and our sympathy for the Little Tramp is only meant to increase when he is once again arrested and fired from a job. And for what? Being compassionate? And so Chaplin's character, perhaps acknowledging that it was his final film, walks off into the sunset, but in so doing he is leaving behind the town that has brought him nothing but trouble and indignities in a social Darwinist work model. Of course, he is not alone: the heroic prince gets his pauper beauty-Ellen, of course, goes with him.
A brief review of Charlie Chaplain's famous silent film featuring The Little Tramp.
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