Thursday, 25 June 2009

Modern Times

In 1931, Charlie Chaplin had just completed City Lights. With the release of The Jazz Singer four years ago, sound had been introduced in films. Silent films had been around for at least three decades and with the contributions of masters like Griffith, Lang, Eisenstein and Chaplin during the last half achieved heights almost unimaginable considering its infancy (compared to other visual mediums of artistic expression like theatre). These early masters learnt their craft exclusively by experience: trial-and-error. The challenges were many and solutions painstakingly developed. The advent of sound however changed the picture overnight: people started clamouring for talkies, even if the products were marked by a distinct mark of mediocrity. This did not certainly sit well with Chaplin. Defiant as ever, he wrote and made a silent film. City Lights was a surprising hit: its maker was somewhat assured that the audience had not been completely desensitized to true art. The atmosphere in Hollywood was however claustrophobic and he wished to revisit his homeland across the Atlantic.

At the same time, M.K. Gandhi was in London to attend the Second Round Table Conference as the sole representative of the Congress. The official job was an utter failure, but he gained many friends and had even a greater number of interviewers. Chaplin was one. During their meeting, he confessed being confused about the Mahatma's opposition to machinery. A patient interviewee explained with a benign smile on his face, for some hundredth time maybe, that he did not oppose to machines so long as they did not encroach on the individual and hinder his growth - economic, philosophical and spiritual. The answer may have been the seed from which Modern Times emerged.

The indifference to talkies was not merely a result of defiance to conform to a changing market scenario or artistic arrogance. The other big factor was that people identified Chaplin with the Tramp and the Tramp with Chaplin. Popularity aside, the figure had grown so close to him that he was not yet ready to make a film without Charlot. One can of course naively wonder why he couldn't just let the Tramp talk. That was unthinkable, and with good reason. What had started out as a comical character gradually became more and more nuanced until it could elicit laughter and tears with equal dexterity. Charlot could say sorry, express sorrow, cheer up a gloomy soul and even fall in love with a lady of his choice with minimal verbal exchange (the little he said was through title-cards). All through a wide array of silent gestures. That was part of his charm. Chaplin was aware that the moment the Tramp spoke, this delicate charm would be abruptly disturbed.

Silent films were all but dead by then. The art inspired few filmmakers; Chaplin was perhaps the last (barring later regressive enthusiasts). Yet, he was bent on making Modern Times. He contemplated giving up filmmaking altogether, then dismissed the idea. The film was to be as much about man and machines as it would be about his own art. With the possibility of rejection hanging about, he wanted to have a last laugh. He had a flash of genius: why not make a mock-talkie? Where machines would talk while humans still mimed! The idea was an answer to both the inspirations: it was a clear show of rebellion against the day's cinematic fashion while also encompassing the central theme of machine dictating to man. And while Charlie cannot be credited as the first man to take up the theme - Fritz Lang's Metropolis was released in 1927 - he can now, in retrospect, be credited as one of the earliest foreseers of cyberpunk!

The 1936 movie introduces the Tramp in a depression-era scenario. A factory-worker by profession, he struggles to keep up with the pace of an assembly line. In contrast, his co-workers are adept at their jobs. This marks out the individualist streak in him, a distinction harped out throughout the film's length. In a world where conditions have reduced man to a state of undistinguished uniformity - established in the opening montage of a flock of sheep and a crowd - the Tramp is forever attempting to carve out a separate place for himself. He has no name, shelter or property. Nothing is known about his origin or forebears; therefore he is free from any materialistic links. The working conditions in the factory are humiliating; moreover everyone is monitored and regulated by the boss with the aid of telescreens. (As if one has any doubt about Chaplin's foresight, he had dealt with surveillance - a defining feature of everyday urban life now - long before Hitchcock explored it in Rear Window and Vertigo! And this was before George Orwell wrote 1984.) In a move to further increase productivity, boss tries the feeding machine: a device that helps workers eat as they work! The guinea-pig selected for the experiment is, as anyone can guess, our protagonist. The trial is a dismal showing; hilarious for us, not so much for the victim. The overbearing workload translates into a nervous breakdown for the Tramp and he is ushered into an institute, but not before he has had sweet revenge on the perpetrators.

During WWII, Charlie received a lot of negative publicity and reaction as a communist sympathiser. He was undoubtedly a socialist by political belief (having had a taste of grinding poverty in his childhood, he realised the need for basic living conditions for all), but without party affiliations or narrow-minded dogma. Neither did he share a phobia of Russians like most of his countrymen; that would be anathema to his independent nature. After being restored to good health at the hospital, as the Tramp goes about without care, he unfortunately lands up in prison on mistaken charges of being a communist. Without being quite aware of it, Chaplin somehow wrote down his own future!

The Gamin (played by Paulette Goddard), a child of the waterfront whose father has lost his job during the depression, is perhaps the only person in a position to understand the Tramp's predicament. She is rebellious, optimistic and charming. After her father dies in labour union clashes, fate's invisible hand works in bringing two unique people together. The resonance that moves and connects both is a shared destiny and outlook. Even in the midst of changing times, they are both trying to assert their right to live as individuals. The irony is, of course, that they are at the very bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Which does nothing to deter them from dreaming. The Tramp tries to do odd jobs, unsuccessfully every time. He is perhaps too idealistic to fit into the rutted ways of society. Their dream of a house for themselves is realised once: a ramshackle affair threatening to come to pieces at the slightest provocation. Yet, like the couple in Maupassant's short story Happiness, they are happy and contented. The Gamin finally procures a job as a dancer in a restaurant and convinces the manager to give her lover a trial as a waiter and singer. The Tramp is unconvincing in the former role but fares well in singing. But just as a hint of prosperity is about to touch the couple's lives, law stands in between. Luckily, they both manage to evade the authorities. In a touching final scene, The Tramp tries to cheer his girl up as they walk down a long road that leads to the horizon. Unaware of what awaits them in the distant journey to eternity, they are still optimistic and prepared. Their hands are empty yet hearts full of warm love and hope for the future. That is perhaps the secret behind the immortality of their story.

When the last title-card of the film flashed "Buck up, never say die! We'll get along!", it was also Chaplin telling us that he was ready embrace his changing environment. His next, The Great Dictator, was a talkie and almost as good as his silent greats. But, of course, Modern Times was the swansong of the Tramp. He had walked a long way since Kid Auto Races at Venice: a sojourn encompassing time, a great many number of films and extraordinary character development. Eternity, the cherished goal, has since embraced the iconic character. Every man and child, even to this very day, readily recognises "Charlie Chaplin" (as his synonymous alter-ego) - in fact, many do not know that the real Charlie never had a toothbrush moustache and did not go around in baggy pants, oversized shoes, tight overcoat, derby hat and twisted cane!

No Chaplin movie is complete without its comic moments. Even when he is constantly parodying contemporary society, he cannot be dark and humourless (perhaps Monsieur Verdoux is the only exception of sorts). That is perhaps the best thing about his films, he elicits laughter spontaneously. His humour is generous, kind and simple - for even if he is pointing fingers at you, he'd probably have you laugh a good deal before you realise the need for introspection and reform. That is his way of winning hearts; and it is also why millions flocked to watch his comedies. He made people happy when things were dark and gloomy around. Among my favourite moments in this movie are the Tramp's tryst with the feeding machine, his dream of a perfect happy home with the Gamin, a sweet day at home the lovers share, the desperate attempt to bring roast duck to an angry customer at the restaurant, and of course that unforgettable comic song that he sings! The ditty is in pseudo-Italian gibberish (possibly predicting Adenoid Hynkel's garbled "German" speech in The Great Dictator), and is the only occasion in the Tramp's reel-life when he spoke. It is also the director's way of telling talkie-producers that dialogue is not essential to great cinema. The other snippets of sound heard in the film are uttered by the telescreen, mechanical salesman and prison radio.

In many ways, Charlie embodied the complete filmmaker: he wrote his own movies, composed music himself, acted and directed. He tackled issues of deep importance yet constructed his films so as to be accessible to all and sundry. Modern Times is perhaps the piece that goes closest to portraying the man as he was - individualistic, good-humoured, optimistic, loving; also the closest study of his socio-economic and political ground. Its universal appeal lies in that it can be enjoyed and understood at various levels and ages. That is an attribute that few great works of art can lay claim to: enthralling scholar and child alike!


Anonymous said...

It was a splendid experience watching this film (thanks to you!). Truly, there were sequences in this film that made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. Obviously, if not impossible, it’s very very difficult to express both amusement and sorrow at the same time. Naturally, it must be far more difficult to make others want to do so. And, hence, I’m not the first one to bow to the artistic genius of Chaplin out of clear admiration and awe.

I surely couldn’t have written such a deft synopsis as you have done, Sudipto. But, there are some random thoughts on a few scenes from the film that I’d like to share:

1) There is this scene of the Tramp singing towards the end of the film, as you have mentioned. He acts while singing and all of us (on and off screen) who witness this thoroughly enjoy it and what more, understand it (a juicy story indeed!), even though what we hear is perfect lingual gibberish. We love the music and we love his acting even more. Well, Chaplin may have well pointed out the general attitude of the populace towards mindless entertainment. As the drudgery of industrialisation brings a close to individualism and art, giving way to the hopeless herd-instincts of modern times, people become more inclined to have a good share of raw fun without having to put in a lot of effort or brains. A good example may be what the TV soaps and shows drivel into the society today. Gibberish is the last thing that anyone cares about. Again, Chaplin might have also meant to convey that in order to give a good healthy laugh and a pure entertainment, one need not utter sense. After all, there is so much sense in non-sense at times (you know what I mean, Sudipto)!

2) We also have this scene inside the jail, when the minister and his wife come to pay their weekly visit. The tramp and the minister’s wife sit alongside, sipping tea. The tramp, as usual, a bit clumsy in his state, awkward, humble and looking poorer than ever beside the big Mem. She, the usual petite, polite, grim-faced, status-conscious lady of the 30’s, who has her nose almost always pointed up in the air, her manicured hands always covered in gloves and her short wavy hair covered under hats. She is the sort who thinks an impulsive smile or laugh is an unforgivable offence (in fact, her smile/laugh is always preceded by a proper scrutiny of the subject head-to-foot). Well, such is the situation when suddenly she feels the acids churning up her oddly indecent digestive systems. Her puppy hears the sound and tries to bark it off, which she quietens with an irritated “shoo”. It’s the Tramp’s turn now. A great deal of bubbling is heard from the depths of an unseen ally, yet once again. This time, the puppy barks off the new sound. In utter need of some other source of sound, the Tramp turns on the radio. But, even the radio takes the digestive problem of the duo seriously: “And, in case, you suffer from gastroenteritis...” Embarrassed, he soon turns it off. After a minute or two, the minister’s wife leaves with her husband, fumbling and faltering, thoroughly decomposed, forgetting the-offence-of-smiling and smiling a bit too widely as she shakes hands with the commissioner.

It might be Chaplin’s own way of saying through the Tramp’s portrayal, “ Well, dear lady, I may not have the aura of your style, but that doesn’t stop you from having the intestines of my style!”

Kaushik Chatterjee said...

Yes, as Sudipto has brilliantly explained, there is a quaint bit of our selves, often sleeping and indiscernible, that lurks inside us, frowned and berated by everything that is on the right side of law; that forges an easy and immediate connect with the Tramp, that quintessentially identifiable Charlie, a quirky, desperate, freak, very ordinary otherwise, who would more often than not, bend, rather than break the rules of the game, cock a snook at the authority, with an impish innocence, run free from following the usual prescriptions of the society, be caned and caged, to finally let his spirit soar aloft as it redeems itself in the final trials of life.

When the institution, the law, the society, their attendant trappings are repressive and unfair, imposed and intimidating, when the ‘master machine’ dehumanizes life and snuffs out the essence of liberty and innovativeness in man, and fails to address the core concerns of life and livelihood, the spirit of the tramp, his truant charm of defiance, symbolizes the eventual triumph of the very spirit of humankind against all arbitrary and absurd institutional machinations.

Here again, the sheer unnaturalness and piquancy of the situation, generates a kind of indulgent permissiveness to the free-riding, law-defying, deviant character of the tramp! When “ order is injustice, disorder is the beginning of justice ”… “ When there is hunger and poverty and unemployment, you do get my subaltern sympathy when you steal the odd loaf for your family and short-shrift your store master to bring a smile or two to your loved ones”.

However, it is worthwhile to be wary of situations when this fine line of distinction grows a bit tenuous and grey. Even under ordinary circumstances of society, when the laws and regulations are responsive and fair in that they curb the licentious in us while encouraging the spirit of the libertarian, there is still an inveterately odd, squeaky, escapist and street-smart element in us which tries to hold the rules of the society’s game to ransom, in order to gain a free leeway to enjoying cheap its odd crumbs (of pelf and popularity)!

While we generally like to chaff and chide at the ‘herd-mentality’ that reduces our society to mundane mediocrity, it is instructive to remember also, that often the silent, subservient, peaceful, law-abiding, propensity of our vast multitudes, is but the pivotal and adhesive element that sustains the very fabric of our society, to allow a few odd path breakers to take it, through unexpected twists and turns, to altogether newer and higher gradients of achievement!

You informed us of MKG’s salutary notes on machines, leaving a profound mark on Chaplin to inspire him to script such a spirited and heretical commentary on the ‘modern times’ (particularly, when you consider that he had the gall to highlight the ill-effects of mechanization, when ‘involuntary unemployment’ as a Keynesian would put it, was staring on your face in the aftermath of the “Great Depression”). I was just wondering how and if, while deeply empathizing with the brilliance of the freakish charm of the Tramp, the acutely conscientious, ethical and the moralist grain in MKG would also stand guard against the deliberate and mischievous transgression of rules of the society putting it, often, to no less peril!

My sincere apologies for this rather longish entry!

My Love

Sudipto Basu said...

No need for the apologies, Kaushik-da. You must be knowing by now of my long-evident affinity for long posts!

Charlie had been, both as himself and the Tramp, a model citizen in that he never deliberately harmed anyone (at least when he could avoid it). Anti-authoritarian and ecclesiastic yet conscientious and responsible; he was a tax-paying American who publicly rallied for his nation, as he had accepted it, even though he did not morally sanction warfare (and the War): at most, an urgent measure to contain fascism. The Tramp did bend a few rules - deliberately? - but seldom did he cause anyone a tiny morsel of unhappiness.

As for Gandhiji, he remained ignorant of the joys of films throughout his whole life (yes, sadly for me!). The only two movies that have been graced (as recorded by Louis Fischer) by the Mahatma's audience are Mission to Moscow (which he dismissed because it had "improper"-ly dressed ballerinas) and Ram Rajya (he presumably enjoyed its idealistic overtones). No Chaplin magic! But had he known of the Tramp's ordeals with the law, I am guessing he would smile widely and grow fond of the man. No stranger to bending and breaking unjust legal impositions, he would probably connect intuitively with that freakish individualistic streak. And after all, he'd have noticed how many lives (onscreen and offscreen) the Tramp had blessed with unconditional joy: so little disapprovals of kicks, mock-punches and likewise aside, I've no trouble imagining how MKG would adore Charlie! :)