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The Brilliance of Chaplin’s Modern Times

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The Brilliance of Modern Time’s Arguments

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So, on a purely artistic level, Modern Times is already a masterpiece like Chaplin’s previous works, but unlike Chaplin’s previous works, the 1936 production is more than just a feature-length comedy sketch. Deeper down, Modern Times addressed a lot of issues accompanying with industrial capitalism —unemployment, oppression, class mobility, etc. Comedy is just the medium to express Chaplin’s views. And, We’re still talking about is it beneficial to use a capitalistic mode of production in producing goods and services, and we’re also still talking about the effectiveness of mass participation in politics. The film still resonates with contemporary life.

In addition, no other contemporary films delved so deep into so sensitive a discussion. I feel like contemporary films are like beer — the joy of drinking beer starts when one opens the can and ends when one finishes drinking it; the joy of watching contemporary films starts when one walks into the cinema and ends when one walks out of it. Sure, the enjoyment is there, but it’s not on the same level as when one watches classic films like Modern Times. The 1936 film is more like wine — it tastes different if you choose to consume it immediately after you opened the bottle, let it breathe for a while, or choose not to open the bottle at all and let it age several years; one gets a different experience if they choose to focus on the slapstick comedy, or on the various criticisms on Capitalism as expressed in the film.

But let’s get back to the arguments itself. Although Chaplin made his arguments with industrial capitalism in mind, those criticisms — the misery brought about to humanity by mechanization, the emphasis on efficiency, the dehumanization, etc. — are strangely applicable to contemporary capitalism as well. Some scenes never quite change after 82 years — the slums, the outcasts, the toiling workers — they are still there, albeit instead of in the States, they are in all corners of the Earth.

Take the factory scene as an example, that scene (at the very beginning of the film) is used to criticize industrial capitalism’s emphasis on efficiency and its attempt to dehumanize workers in an attempt to achieve such efficiency. The feeding machine, the unrelenting speed, the detailed division (one can even say fragmentation) of labour are all scenes that come with a message — industrial capitalism are turning people into machines, doing a job as specific as cogs did inside a true machine, which people can never be. Though the industrial age is long gone for more “developed” places like the States, the United Kingdom, and Hong Kong, that dehumanizing trend has not stopped, hasn’t it? Capitalism has merely transformed to dehumanize people in other ways. Instead of using industrial machinery, capitalism now dehumanizes people through the use of electronic technology — phones, computers, fax machines, printers, and etc. — and instead of a moving assembly line, the environment in which the dehumanization process takes place happen in offices. The factory scene in Modern Times has never disappeared with the decline of industrial production in “developed” areas, it has merely transformed — instead of a boiler suit, our poor factory worker (played by Chaplin) now wears a white collar shirt and a tie; instead of working in a factory, he now works in an office block; and instead of screwing nuts over and over again, he now stares at the monitor typing away document after document. Swap these around and one can recreate a contemporary version of Modern Times’ factory scene.

As for the misery brought by capitalism, in my opinion, Chaplin probably meant the concentration of wealth and exacerbation of poverty for the working class. On this front, Hong Kong is likely a textbook example. In Modern Times, there is a scene in which the unemployed penniless factory worker and the gamin living in a shack and calling it a “paradise”. Well, though contemporary times have something called public housing, “paradises” such as those cages people pretend as “a place to live” reflects well contemporary capitalism’s destructive tendency to exploit the poor. Hongkongers know all too well the problem with market forces when it comes to housing. Markets do not guarantee people have enough to survive, they only guarantee people who can afford the product will get the product.

And there’s more, at the very beginning of the film when the audience is given a very brief synopsis of Modern Times, there’s this line saying the film is a story of “humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness”. Though the means of people trying to achieve happiness in life is different in contemporary times than in the ’30s, the pursuit of it has never changed. We’re still, regardless of where we live, striving to find happiness amidst all the toil and sadness in life. Perhaps the film resonates with the contemporary way of life because it gave us an opportunity to think about how we live our lives today by showing us how people used to live 80 years ago, as a reference point in how we got to where we are.

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