Thursday, 25 June 2009
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!