Charlie Chaplin was one of Hollywood’s earliest and largest stars, a filmmaking polymath who performed, directed, composed, produced, and wrote all of his films, a one-man brand who in Modern Times subjects himself to a possibly fatal question: whether he can escape being branded by the hot iron of capital. A British socialist who grew increasingly frustrated with American capitalism and Hollywood business practices throughout his career, he eventually left Hollywood and returned to his native England. Like many silent filmmakers, many of his earlier films explore questions of new technology and skeptically arouse the possibilities of modernization, thinking-through the relationship between new technological forms – both industrial and cinematic – and asking how one navigates modernity. Of course, many of his anxieties about industrial technology were also motivated by his own issues and frustrations with the rapidly growing Hollywood industry, exposing parallels between industry on-screen and industry in Hollywood that seem more prevalent in Modern Times than in any Chaplin film before or since. This is the film in which the personal will displayed in The Kid – where his Tramp character strategically manipulated capitalist products for new purposes with his mental ingenuity – seems to have been finally overpowered by capitalism’s singular ability to manipulate his body as the ultimate tool to its own ends.
Chaplin’s most famous character – the Tramp – was easily identifiable to most Americans, brandishing his top-hat and cane and what would be called the Chaplin mustache. The style of his earlier films tended to emphasize the homeless Tramp as an unmoored figure who had no place in society and had to creatively adapt to survive, refashioning everyday objects from their normal purposes in the swirling, fluctuating world of modern capitalism where, as Karl Marx said, “all that is solid melts into air”. His most famous silent comic rival Buster Keaton tended to fashion his films as linear trajectories, placing his character on train-tracks, moving forward on the way to modernity – locomotives shooting into a technological future – depicting characters who struggled to control these modern-day technologies. Keaton fashioned comic parodies of success narratives in the American tradition, mocking the idea of individuals pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Chaplin’s Tramp, comparatively, has no bootstraps, and as an iconic vision of working-class resourcefulness, did not traverse space linearly or pull himself up; his comic movement was much more unstable, much more slippery, much more uncertain. He fashions capitalism as something which requires comic creativity to survive. This is why Chaplin’s definitive visual symbol is the circle, his characters frequently forced to run around and around with no end, suggesting that capitalism was not a pathway toward future opportunity but a centrifugal and chaotic uncertainty.
Due to the creativity of his bodily movement, Chaplin’s body was famously called the eighth wonder of the world. In Modern Times, Chaplin’s Tramp has a job finally, but the rote mechanization of work threatens his very self-hood, his agency, his identity, his body refashioned as a pawn in an increasingly Taylorized, scientifically managed world, a person whose very motion cannot be separated from the rhythms of industrial labor. At times, his character is able to resist, assaulting the mechanization and dehumanization of industrial movement with his own body’s alarming, indescribable energy, even as the mechanization of his body metastasizes as a nervous tick which rationalizes the worker to the point of visible irrationality. The film ultimately meditates on whether what the opening describes as Chaplin’s personal ingenuity is truly a display of personal consciousness – resistant to the structures imposed by work – or simply a more perverse way of interacting with and legitimizing the system, allowing capitalism to use his body rather than rebelling against a system designed to constrict his motion into utilitarian forms and instrumental purposes. While Modern Times clearly worships Chaplin’s body – and is aware that Chaplin’s body has been worshipped – it also posits that clever and creative interplay with the system can only get him so far.
For this reason, 15 years after Modern Times in the early 50s, Chaplin would later remark that “these days if you step off the curb with your left foot (as opposed to your right one) they accuse you being a communist,” a statement which speaks not only to his anxiety about being labelled a communist, but the way in which McCarthyism and Anti-Soviet propaganda in the ‘50s would control the very movements of a man who was perhaps the most famous bodily mover in the country, a character whose very identity was his creative way of walking and embodying and physically inhabiting a capitalist world creatively, often not as a beacon to capitalism but a critique of it. All of which is to say: pay attention to how he moves in the film in relation to the technology around him, and the relationships between humanity and industry.
While films of the ‘30s increasingly emphasized linear narratives that set up problems and find solutions (which is what we would recognize from most films today), Chaplin’s films harken back to an older style which emphasizes viewing individual, disconnected moments, looking at character’s faces to consider feelings, their identities not defined by their ability to master their narratives but simply to stay adrift in a fluctuating world. While the linear narrative so frequently fetishizes the value of personal capitalization – of mobilizing screen time to better the self, to move up in the world by learning the rules of the game, implicitly ceding other aspects of the self to reach those goals – Chaplin’s cinema offers no such temporal linearity, no such progression, only an accumulation of concepts and ideas, variations on a theme that stretch the confines of the imagination. For instance, in the film’s most famous scene very early on, Chaplin melds with a machine that tries to feed him, his body turned into little more than a canvas for a machine’s personal expression. Even then though, Chaplin’s identity is relatively stable compared to a later scene where the Tramp is figuratively eaten by a machine (which is to say, swallowed up by capitalism) that is both menacingly cruel and frighteningly indifferent, not subject to an economy where evil is humanized. Machines seem to be both our masters and ready to devour us whole.
Later, as if to mock the more abject and (slightly) fanciful terrors of the complete dissolution of a worker’s body into a machine, one of the film’s final set-pieces hinges on a more quotidian and banal form of torture for the worker. This time, Chaplin’s boss is eaten by the machine (the worker temporarily absolved of punishment, witness to his manager’s comeuppance) only to have to feed the manager their lunch during lunch-hour (because their body is stuck in the machine). In an amusing instance of the Tramp turning capital-time against his manager, the former claims that he can’t help him out of the machine once his lunch bell rings, because this would require operating machinery during the factory’s designated lunch-hour. But the manager (and vicariously, the machine) still seems to have some control over him, forcing him to feed his manager lest he be presumably fired.
Only once does the film’s mise-en-scene and sense of time seem to work in tandem around the Tramp’s whims. During a domestic dream sequence, Chaplin conjures not love between him and his would-be partner but a mastery of time itself – a cow moving into frame at the snap of a finger for Chaplin to milk without any real effort, prey to his command – while the rest of the film operates out of lock-step with his desires and movements. He uncovers, or dreams, of a fallacious world of no resistance, where space and time warp around the needs and desires of the individual. But Chaplin’s film is not entirely invested in fulfilling dreams of success. His body, even at its most capable, cannot entirely swim against the grain of the world around him; it is in the rubbing together of that world and his body – the generative sparks and frictive and (sometimes literally) combustible energy Chaplin’s body draws from interacting with a world at odds with him – on which the film thrives.
Similarly, Chaplin’s voice, like his body, doesn’t ever amount to any unambiguous freedom. Chaplin’s film is mostly silent, but was released several years after sound became the norm in Hollywood in the late ‘20s. Almost no films were silent when this film came out, so the relative silence of the film wasn’t a technological obligation but a conscious choice and a personal statement on Chaplin’s behalf, suggesting his emphasis on sight rather than sound as a way of confronting the uncertainties of modernity. For the most part, only the company higher-ups can speak in the film, who have the power of sound and to be heard. Sounds in the film are often aligned with technological capitalism – whirring noises disrupting the placid stillness of earlier life – but Chaplin, as with his images and his body, is able to mobilize them comically as critique. Still, the film’s uncertainty about voice is still clearly apparent in the only sequence in the film where Chaplin truly seems to find purpose – when he sings at the end – and this troubles any easy equivalence of “voice” and “agency,” suggesting that returning the Tramp’s voice is in itself hardly tantamount to granting him full subjectivity (whatever that might mean). In the end, Chaplin’s singing is a nonsensically indecipherable mélange of noises and words, both a return to fluid personal expression – control over his own voice – and a question about the capacities of formal language to fulfill his desires. That his song is in multiple languages could suggest a kind of resistance to the confines of one national or cultural language, a desire to escape the confines of hermetic expression, but his status as performer still on a stage subject to the mediation of the audience still questions whether he is truly recovering his personal expression here. The scene offers a different form of economy – one focused on service rather than production – and it liberates him from the banal brutality of the production line, but it hardly frees him.
While capitalism is often discussed as a beacon of increasing pliability in mainstream society, Chaplin’s cinema both underlines the existential uncertainty of this very fluidity (rather than, say, homologizing fluidity with opportunity) and questions whether the experiential dimensions of capital really are so fluid for marginalized figures who have to march to the rhythms of industrial labor and whose malleable bodies are so well manipulated by the powers that be. While Chaplin’s comic body does resist forms of oppression, Modern Times is also deeply skeptical of dubious claims about the body’s ability to resist a system which seems to colonize the body’s every motion – that Chaplin’s Tramp’s body resists its corporate overseers is inseparable from the ways in which they try to mobilize his body in the first place. (For an alternative that focuses on similar existential comic circularity and itinerancy for the consumer rather than the worker, think of Wile E. Coyote’s incessant attempts to mobilize the tools of capitalist modernity, Acme products, to fulfill his role in an apparently predestined pas de deux, only to find himself trapped in an apparently circular loop of time that new tools do nothing to attenuate).
Chaplin’s Tramp concludes the film in quite a different state of motion: walking away from the screen, and from his character here, as he always does in his films, resigned to the fact that the fluidity of his body and identity (and the inability of capitalism’s orderly regimentation to fully digest him) also entail the ephemerality of each role he occupies, dooming him at the end of the day to be cast astray, wandering the earth in search of a place to call home, in search of a life that is truly fulfilling, in search of a film which could, perhaps, satiate him and provide a humane outlet for the experimental interplay of fluidity and mobility he lives with and through. In the midst of the Great Depression, many films featured unmoored characters on the run, errant, uncertain in their destination and goal, prey to swirling existential drift. The best of them understood the appeal of mobility but were deeply aware that this nomadic itinerancy is rooted in the anxieties of capitalism, not an escape from it – that society itself disposed of characters deemed useless by resigning them to a position of mobility that is neither mentally nor emotionally rewarding but existentially unsettling and unnerving. Modern Times, like so much of American fiction from this period, belies a pragmatic skepticism about this mobility, emphasizing the potent thrills of fluidity and movement rather than fixity and security, but also deeply aware that this mobility is partially conditioned by the machinations of power, even if it is not capable of fully controlling the actions of those who labor under it.