Modernist Times: Chaplin's Use of Modernist Aesthetics


Modernism is a somewhat vague artistic movement and often escapes clear definition. It is clear that modernism deals with the concerns of a time period extending from the 1860s to the 1970s. Modernist art and culture seems to share a common theme of rejection of the “traditionalism” of form that ruled art in the time preceding this era, but the modernist movement expands well beyond the simple rebellion against previous rigid artistic standards: “Rather, modernism encompasses a whole range of cultural and artistic practices that register, respond to, and reflect upon processes of modernization and the experience of modernity [...]” (Hansen 60). It is in the regard of the reflection of the modern experience that Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 Depression-era social commentary “Modern Times” reveals itself as a truly modernist text.

“Modern Times” expertly reveals the myriad conflicts that arise from the pro-industrialist sentiment of the time. In the world that Chaplin’s film portrays, a mad need for compartmentalization and order exists. This essential factor for the success of industrialization crushes the individual either by turning him or her into a machine or by rounding up the individual with the outlying masses that serve no efficient function for society. The theme of compartmentalization in the film is bolstered by the common modernist aesthetics of disjunction and a lack of purpose. Though lacking a clear response to the problems of the times other than never giving up on attempting to succeed with what society gives you, Chaplin’s “Modern Times” remains an excellent representation of the dehumanization inherent in the industrialist social model.

Disjunction is in many ways a common theme to modernist art and culture because it is a means of rejecting the fluidity and consistency indicative of the art preceding the modern era. On a more relevant level, the disjunctive aesthetic is also a means of artistically representing the confusion and unpredictability of the new social elements introduced in the modern era. Stretched thin by the rapidly changing economic and cultural standards of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the modern consciousness cannot help but be divided between the instinctive and the efficiently purposeful. “Modern Times” seems to suggest that the forced application of the purposeful can lead the bodily functions to become disjointed. An early comedic element of “Modern Times” involves Chaplin’s Tramp character desperately trying to keep up with the nut-tightening demands of his job. When he walks away from the conveyor belt, he has to focus intensely to stop his body from continuing the mechanical motions of tightening nuts. The Tramp is represented as “a robotized victim of the machine” in a clear criticism of the mechanization inherent in work at an assembly line (Stewart 297). The human is used so much like a mindless machine in this type of industrial role that the mechanical twitches of his body become disjointed from his autonomous consciousness. This imagery of the human as a machine is meaningfully resurrected when the Tramp is working as a waiter at a fancy restaurant. He brings out a platter of food, and just as he is preparing to serve a table the dance floor erupts with activity. The Tramp is caught up with the dancing and an overhead shot depicts the platter and the Tramp underneath being swirled round and round, as if he were stuck in the same machine into which he dove in the factory scene: “[...] Charlie is waltzed and wheeled mechanically be spinning partners back and forth across the jammed dance floor, the laden disc of his serving tray [...] looking in the dramatic overhead shot like the fate of a dazed tiddlywink among an aggressive herd of cogwheels” (Stewart 299). It is significant that the platter holds up a roast duck standing out in stark contrast to the wheeling dresses and suit surrounding it, for this depicts the sitting-duck helplessness of the individual in the face of the massive nature of modern culture. In the need for compartmentalization seen in mass culture, even the high class people are forced to mechanically conform to the standards of their society. The disjointed movements of the Tramp’s mechanically derived madness and the disjunction of the human body represented as a part of a machine help to drive home the relevance that the concerns of “Modern Times” has for the modern man.

In the face of the rigid controls that industrialist society places on purpose and role, purposelessness is the most blatant and effective means of subversion. Non-teleological movement has been a consistent theme of Chaplin’s and indeed of most silent slapstick film stars. Comedy is generated as the protagonist staggers from one dangerous situation to the next, only emerging unscathed or better off due to pure luck. Chaplin took this theme further by applying it to his very gait. The way that the Tramp character moves is unique to Chaplin, and is a uniquely modernist artistic choice. Not only is his waddling and stumbling a means of representing disjunction in movement, but it also makes every step seem unplanned. Chaplin’s “‘spasmodic, nonpurposive gait’” (McCabe 436) as described by Walter Benjamin is a physical embodiment of “automatism issuing from the sensory bombardment of modernity” (McCabe 439). It almost seems as if fate or time is pushing Chaplin forward and he is merely catching his balance rather than propelling himself. This unique gait is present in “Modern Times”, and to some extent this is the last movie to contain it in its purest form; the next Chaplin movie abandons the Tramp character that defines most of Chaplin’s slapstick comedy. The theme of lack of purpose carries over to the cinematography. In Chaplin’s greatest moments of stumbling comedy, the camera does not zoom in on his character or track him that much. For the most part, the camera merely sits in place to capture a large setting in which Chaplin staggers to and fro. These scenes are also usually long takes, and so avoid the purposive act of utilizing careful editing to jump across diegetic time and space: “The scene remains constant through whole episodes; shooting is rarely broken up by close-ups; there is never a fancy or complicated take, no characterization through carefully selected details. There is never a perfectly mastered movement from situation to situation--because the idea that the camera is free from the unity of place, to which objects are in reality subservient, was a revolution by which Chaplin remains to this day unmoved” (MacKay 313). Industrialism requires that people be defined by their purpose or profession so that they can be properly utilized for maximum efficiency. To have no purpose is the ultimate way to disrupt this system. In the case of the Tramp and the unemployed masses among which he occasionally finds himself, the police take this purposeless lot and drag them off to prison, where there position in society can be clearly defined: “The police focus on bureaucratic concerns: that order be restored to the streets and that all be rounded up and put in their compartments” (Nysenholc 114). In “Modern Times” it is clearly shown that imprisonment is the main means by which the industrialist society can compartmentalize the purposeless. The overriding themes of dehumanization and compartmentalization in “Modern Times” confirm its place among established modernist texts for its accurate reflection of the social trends of the 1930s. The modernist aesthetic tendency toward themes of disjunction and lack of intent serve to reinforce the disparaging picture of modern life that Chaplin wished to portray. This depiction was so masterfully realized and unprecedented in 1936 that some critics consider “Modern Times” to be the first film to portray contemporary American life.

Works Cited:
Hansen, Miriam. "The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism." Modernism/modernity 6.2 (1999): 59-77. Web.

MacKay, John (translator and introd.). "Walter Benjamin and Rudolf Arnheim on Charlie Chaplin." Yale Journal of Criticism: Interpretation in the Humanities 9.2 (1996): 309-14. Web.

McCabe, Susan, 1960-. "‘Delight in Dislocation’: The Cinematic Modernism of Stein, Chaplin, and Man Ray." Modernism/modernity 8.3 (2001): 429-52. Web.

Nysenholc, Adolphe. Charlie Chaplin: His Reflection in Modern Times. 101 Vol. Berlin; New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1991.

Stewart, Garrett. "Modern Hard Times: Chaplin and the Cinema of Self-Reflection." Critical Inquiry 3.2 (1976): 295-314. Web.

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