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. Continue reading