It is high time that Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” (1936) be fit into our massive blog on Humanity and the Machine. It is not technically science fiction, as most of the films in this series are, but neither is Geoffrey Reggio’s “Quatsi Trilogy” which opened the series and yet it informs us so richly about our future.
Contextually, Chaplin’s “Modern Times” presents us with a romance between two optimistic homeless persons. Ideologically it pays respect to the poor and working classes during the height of the industrial era. As a piece of research into what makes humans laugh, “Modern Times” conducts us through a prolonged, elaborate and ingenious series of gags accomplished by a combination of rigged sets, split second choreography and virtuosic variations on the mechanization of humans.
I have pitted guns and movies against each other in this series more than once. “Modern Times” gives us a chance to compare the two very similar looking machines that produce them. Compare any state of the art factory assembly line, making say weapons of the WW I era, with the one in the movie set that manufactures laughs in Chaplin’s blockbuster movie. Both depend on a huge collective of workers. Both were made for a profit. It could be argued that Charlie Chaplin’s factory has produced something of much greater and lasting value for the benefit of more people than any other factory of its time.
As for the argument that movies are fantasy and not accurate when compared to the real world, even though it premiered almost seventy years ago, “Modern Times” managed to foresee the two-way screen that enables Big Brother to eavesdrop on law-abiding citizens. “The Matrix (1999), reminds those who have taken on the questionable karma of invading the privacy of the masses, that they too are being watched at all times, no doubt from all angles.
Surveillance may be a dandy method for catching criminals but it sets up the environment for a war on thought. Another fine science fiction film that delves into this subject and would deserve to be included in this series, if it wasn’t already discussed in these pages a few years back, is “Fahrenheit 451” (1966). As if we were actually paying attention, the French New Wave prophet Francois Truffaut brought Isaac Asimov’s science fiction classic to the screen to provided us with advanced warning on the totalitarian wet dream that is well on its way to becoming the norm in America today. See “Someone is Watching Me” – https://openchannelcontent.com/wordpress/2010/07/593/
Storytellers by nature are prophets. Could our best contemporary ones be on par with the old world prophets of scripture? Hardly. Those great oracles in the scriptures have had a long time for their prophecies to be adulterated by hypocrites. Their words have been being cooped by power brokers for thousands upon thousands of years. The modern day prophets haven’t been recognized yet.
There is an amusingly prophetic sequence in “Modern Times” where we were warned about this recent very grave and disastrous privacy violation imposed on Americans by our government. The Little Tramp is not a tramp yet but a factory worker. The first act of Modern Times deals with the events that lead up to his homelessness. His trouble begins when he clocks out for lunch two minutes early, ducks into the washroom and leans back on a washbasin for a cigarette break.
“Hey you! What are you doing there? shouts the boss,
The startled worker almost falls in the sink scissoring his legs twice in the air before his feet return to the floor.
Get back to work?”
From an enormous screen that moments ago was only a wall, a hard nosed executive frowns down on the little, blue-bibbed man.
Charlie drops his smoke and scurries back to the jangling noise and repetitive stress of the factory assembly line.
So many Americans seem to have skipped the shock response altogether and rushed back to their business without question.