Modern Times

Contemporary anxieties about work are dominated by the uncertain outcomes of mass-automation. But before workers worried about being replaced by machines, they worried about becoming them. That so many jobs are so readily automatable is in part because a century of assembly-line capitalism has demanded workers pantomime the machines that now stand to take their place. In Charlie Chaplin’s silent-cinema classic Modern Times, the inevitable malfunction of this human-machine make-believe becomes cause for comedy.

Fordism transformed production in America after the First World War through a drastic reorganisation of factory work rhythms into rote sequences of repetitive actions. Work was standardised and sped-up, out of sync with the ordinary rhythms of human life. The dire consequences of this misalignment are the subject of Modern Times. In his autobiography, Chaplin describes how he initially conceived of the film in response to a conversation with a reporter about the psychic toil of Detroit production lines and tales of “healthy young men off the farms who, after 4-5 years at the belt system, became nervous wrecks”.

Such a nervous wreck – the Tramp – takes centre stage in Chaplin’s film. A marionette-like figure who moves through the world with the speed and dysfunction of modernity itself, the Tramp has all the features of a mass-produced commodity. He is an exemplar of the everyman worker, the disruptive forces of mass-manufacturing and the ways the two are increasingly blurred together. The late critic Peter Wollen captures this well in his description of the film’s famous factory sequence: 

Chaplin proves unable to acquire the new psycho-physical habits required under  Fordism.  He runs amok, unable to stop performing his segmented mechanical action even when away from the assembly line. Demented by the speed-up of the line and relentless video-surveillance, he throws himself into the machine itself, being swallowed up in it, and then after his release goes on compulsively tightening bolts everywhere inside and outside the factory, including bolt-like objects such as noses and buttons on women’s clothing. The image of incorporation into the machine is inverted when Chaplin is clamped into an automatic feeding machine that crams bolts into his mouth instead of lunch. The machine too runs amok defying its designer.

Chaplin coats this violent clash between human and machine in comedy not to transform it into palatable entertainment, but to heighten our disease by amplifying its central contradiction. The philosopher Henri Bergson thought that comedy resulted from our detection of “something mechanical encrusted on the living”. We laugh at the clumsy malfunction of Chaplin trapped in the repetition of factory work because “where one would expect to find the wideawake adaptability and the living pliableness of a human being”, we find instead “a certain mechanical inelasticity”.

Over the course of the Modern Times, the Tramp is a factory worker, a revolutionary, a convict, a ship-builder, a watchman, a mechanic and a performer. What unites these roles is the inevitable imperfection with which they are performed (a role which Chaplin ironically performs with perfection). Against the scientific standardisation espoused by America’s mass-manufacturing pioneers, accidents inevitably sabotage the Tramp’s stated intentions. He stumbles into leading a march of striking workers and is arrested, only to be set free from prison (against his wishes) for unwittingly foiling a jailbreak. Herein lies the liberatory potential of Chaplin’s film: no matter how rigid, optimised and predetermined our lives might seem, something incalculable always escapes us.

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