Film analysis done for Charlie Chaplin’s film, “Modern Times”
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“While watching a silent picture each individual supplies the unspoken words according to his own understanding of the action. The dullard sees the story in his own way as does the intelligent, the wise, and so on-each one, as I said before, supplying his own understanding and everyone is pleased. But when the actor gives through the spoken word his own interpretation-then-well, there is bound to be disappointment.” – Charlie Chaplin. (taken from http://www.public.asu.edu/~ialong/Taylor46.txt)Drawing on audiences from many foreign countries, The Tramp was a universally known character.
This international recognition and success was due to Charlie Chaplin’s conviction that dialogue was superfluous and constricting. Chaplin wanted the images and plot action in his films to be interpreted by the viewer without the influence of dialogue. He wanted this interpretation to be based on the body language of his characters and the images he created with the mise-en-scene, his cinematography and editing. Chaplin did not want his audience to be restricted in their comprehension by imposing his own interpretation of his work through dialogue. Chaplin wanted silence.
In the Tramp’s last great movie, Chaplin satirizes technological advances that lead to worker exploitation in the American Industry. Through a series of comedic, dialogue-lacking segments, the Tramp shows us that no “talk” is necessary to tell a story. About a decade after the first “talkie” was released, the lack of “talking” in Modern Times (1936) seems to suggest Chaplin was against technology. This was not true. Chaplin was against the exploitation of human beings, but he embraced technology. His film uses many visual “special effects” and a synchronized musical score that could not have been possible without technology.
By using visual effects coupled with an accompanying musical score and wildly expressive body language, Chaplin allows the audience to think, feel, and hope with the characters while still preserving his character’s silence. Keeping the Tramp’s silence affords each of his audience-the dullard, the intelligent, the wise- the opportunity to form his own interpretation. Even in the final scene where the Tramp gives up his silence, Chaplin refrains from using understandable dialogue to keep his audience’s autonomy in interpreting the performance. His voice is finally heard, however- marking the end of the Tramp-Silence era, and the death of Chaplin as an actor in silent film.
Chaplin uses cinematography to exaggerate specific ideas or draw attention to specific situations. In the beginning of the Factory Scene, the audience is shown a clock approaching 6 o’clock. The image cuts to an overhead shot of a throng of white sheep and one black sheep which dissolves into an overhead shot of workers rushing to work. Regardless of each member of the audience’s interpretation of what these images mean, the importance of time in the film and how the lower class is dehumanized by it is unanimously understood. When the audience finally sees the Tramp, he is working at a conveyer belt. The Tramp’s stress and exhaustion is evident from his bodily movements while he repeatedly tightens bolts, but what is more interesting is the Tramp’s relationship with others in the scene. From the onset, it is clear that the Tramp interacts with his environment, but never truly assimilates into it. The shot of the white sheep with a lone black one resonates- the Tramp is an outsider.
During a short break, the conveyer belt stops and the workers rest. The Tramp, on the other hand, can’t stop his body from working. By emulating the Tramp’s quirky but rhythmic movements, the musical score foreshadows the beginning of his nervous breakdown. The Tramp has gotten so used to the rhythmic bolt tightening, that he can’t stop his hands from wanting to tighten anything that resembles a bolt. He chases a woman in an attempt to tighten her buttons, then he runs back to the factory after a policeman chases him. It is as if his robotic job has turned the Tramp into a robot. Though this scene is absurdly funny, the audience feels sympathy for this worker’s suffering. It is evident in the Tramp’s jerky, uncontrollable movements that his job is harming him physiologically and psychologically.
The musical score changes in accordance with the changes in the Tramp’s movements. In the other part of the sequence, the Tramp ballet dances and twirls around the factory with an oil squirter, matching his twirls and squirts to the rhythm of the music. Dancing with zest and enthusiasm, the Tramp seems to be mocking his fellow workers and their robotic work ethic. He dances to remember- to remember and to remind the workers that they are alive and free. That they are not robots controlled by the industry they work for. As the Tramp is carried away to an asylum, the audience sees the workers returning to their automated lives. They realize that the Tramp was unsuccessful in reminding the workers of their humanity.
In addition to using editing techniques to draw attention to specific situations, Chaplin creatively manipulated the mise-en-scene. In the Billows Machine Scene, the president of the factory is approached by salesmen selling a machine that makes workers more efficient by feeding them while they work. Chaplin is used as the test subject and he is aggressively strapped into the machine. Chaplin stares into the camera, confused. Once the feeding starts, Chaplin shows his wonder by staring wide-eyed at the machine. Initially his calm demeanor suggests that he is not bothered by the artificiality of this new way of feeding, (just as the American Industry was not initially bothered by the dehumanization of it’s workers). As soon as the machine malfunctions, however, Chaplin’s facial expressions suggest otherwise. Chaplin’s eyes portray his anguish since the rest of his face is covered by parts of the machine. With his eyes wide-open in horror and his eyebrows rising and crossing to portray his fear and confusion, the audience is laughing- but nervously.
The musical accompaniment further builds up their anxiety with its jumpiness and harsh metal clanking sounds, reminiscent of the machine’s movements. The scene climaxes with the Tramp being fed bolts from the malfunctioning machine. The audience gets it- the Tramp is not only emulating a machine with his rhythmic movements, he is slowly forced to turn into one. This figurative image once again suggests what the audience has implicitly understood since the first scene: the workers (like the sheep they are juxtaposed with in Chaplin’s montage) have no control over their lives. The factory they work for controls them. Just as Chaplin was being fed into the machine, workers were being fed into the American Industry.
In the third scene, the Tramp and the Gamin both share their dreams and aspirations with the audience. As the Tramp and the Gamin sit in the dirt with their raggedy clothes, the scene is juxtaposed with an image of a suburban couple parting outside their home. It is evident from their facial expressions and flirtatious body language that the Tramp and Gamin want to be that suburban couple with a suburban home. Their wish seems to come true as the music suddenly changes and the scene dissolves into a dream sequence where the Tramp and Gamin;s dirty faces and ripped clothing are replaced with new outfits.. The music is at once cheery and uplifting and the Tramp and Gamin seem to “dance” as they prepare for dinner.
Regardless of the couple’s lack of oral confessions of love, the audience can see the chemistry between them. The dullard may see this scene purely as the couple’s yearning for one another; the intelligent might see it as a desire for wealth and stability more than a desire for one another, and the wise might argue that they are simply day dreaming of any situation better then their current situation to escape their depressing reality. Though some emotions are obviously expressed through the acting and music, the Tramp’s silence during this dream sequence allows for diverse interpretations of his feelings towards the Gamin.