Historian Dan Kamin emphasises how human actor’s voices are only heard on loudspeakers whereas when characters speak to one another their words occur on printed subtitles. The world of this film thus presents machines as most advanced, yet being advanced in one way (having the power of speech) hardly cancels out the destructive power machinery is given. The feeding machine announces its functions through an LP record and the device’s viciously mechanical/repetitive quality and its urge to present itself as superior are emphasised by how the voice recording points out 3 times that the lunch hour can now be eliminated from the work day (David A. Gerstein: http://wso.williams.edu/~dgerstei/chaplin/machines.html).
Chaplin’s angst over the transition to the technological advancement to sound was widely known, as Chaplin felt that sound would compromise the entertainment ideals and lead to a world made up of novelty-orientated robots (Robinson 1985: pg 458). The difficulty that Chaplin had in coming to terms with the ‘Machine Age’ and the realisation that he could not withstand modernisation forever is portrayed in Chaplin’s use of speech (however grudgingly) in ‘Modern times’; an aspect of the film that leaned towards favouring technology.
Modern technology is also shown to be an oppressive tool used by upper management to monitor the workers. The omniscient and omnipotent ‘big brother’ management is very much a focal aspect of ‘Modern Times’, reflecting the fears workers had of being turned into machines by managers who controlled the pace of the production line and often speeded it up. A two-way television screen, on-line audio and video transmission ensure that all workers are monitored, to the extent of a screen in the toilets from which the President can urge the worker back to work, suggesting that these controlling devices destroy all individual privacy:
“Hey, quit stalling. Get back to work. Go on.” The factory scene is therefore one of almost ‘nightmarish efficiency’ in which the President can observe all parts of the plant operation from his desk and issues orders to increase production on the lines: “Section 5 – Speed ‘er up – 41” then later: “Section 5 – give ’em the limit”, as the conveyor belt is sped up to a frenzied pace, Charlie makes a heroic effort to keep up. However, under the intense strain of the job, Charlie is slowly driven insane and becomes engulfed by the assembly line.
Charlie literally lies prone on the belt and is dragged, swallowed and eaten up by the whizzing wheels, gears and cogs of the monstrous machine. His body moves its way through the gears until the production line direction is reversed and Charlie finally emerges free of the machine; “Charlie has been devoured by the machine age in the geary maw of a huge construction device”, (1995: David A. Gerstein http://wso.williams.edu/~dgerstei/chaplin/machines.html). The film proposes that this environment turns people into programmed machinery.
The metaphor of society sucking the energy from human individuals is a dark view of culture indeed. ‘Modern Times’ depicts Charlie getting caught up in a machine, running through the gears smoothly without any control over his fate and ending up exactly where the machine leads. Chaplin’s metaphor was directly influenced by a Marxist understanding of capitalism, an understanding that workers are divorced from their work product and alienated from themselves, becoming, instead of full human beings, a cog in a machine.
Charlie has been literally devoured by the machine age, unable to protect himself from the huge construction device. Charlie has been ingested by the greedy machine which is unable to stop consuming and producing. Charlie is unable to defend himself against the processes of industrialization and therefore is involuntarily carried along by the industrial age. The machine, in its own excesses, devours Charlie, identifying him as an industrial product instead of the human he is.
Another comic example of the dehumanising impact of industrialization occurs while the mechanic is stuck in the machine. As Charlie struggles to free him, the lunch whistle sounds and he immediately goes to retrieve his lunch rather than continue trying to free his boss. When the mechanic interrupts his Pavlovian response to remind him of his predicament, Charlie attempts the difficult task of feeding him instead of getting him out of the machine – after all, “it’s ‘lunch time’.
By exaggerating the factory’s conditioning, the film makes both humorous and thought-provoking points. Modern machinery would appear to be ingesting Chaplin thus he is once again ‘a cog in the machine’, reflected also when the feeding machine feeds Charlie bolts which have been accidentally left on its tray, thus forcing him to “literally ingest progress” (1995: David A. Gerstein http://wso.williams.edu/~dgerstei/chaplin/machines.html). Charlie is all at once absorbed in this immense machine.
With wrenches aloft, Charlie proceeds to demonically tighten everything in sight. In the factory control-room, he pulls levers and switches causing explosions in the equipment. The jittery process Charlie must go through to control his trained hands shows the dichotomy created between reality and job. Eventually Charlie is unable to separate the two and attempts to tighten anything resembling the two bolts of the assembly line. People and objects have become the same, merely ‘things’ to perform the intended function upon. Charlie has been driven mad by technology, resulting in a nervous breakdown. Charlie’s resulting pathos gains sympathy and understanding from his audience against the monstrous machines.
In ‘Modern Times’ technology is not exalted. The machines are worshipped and appear more elevated that the highest man (The President), yet whilst not ennobling Charlie the machines bring the boss down to his level; the boss is seen as agitated and exhausted by his mechanized life. The machines are persistent, just as Charlie is confronted with the superior’s image and voice in the toilet; the management is confronted by the feeding machine, insistent on its own usefulness. Whilst the machines are ennobling, they do cause vulgarity in their malfunctions, e.g. masticating on workers (‘The Age of the Mass 1914-39’ in ‘History Today’ Aug 2001, Vol. 51, Issue 8: pg 44).
Outside of the manufacturing plants, strikes and riots suggest that people are not happy with the social conditions. In an ironic sequence, Charlie tries to return a flag (assumedly red) that has fallen off a passing truck and is wrongly arrested as a communist. Towards the end of the film, Charlie in an attempt of the utopian bourgeois home life with the gamine, eagerly rushed off to work at the reopened factories. Once there, he determinedly clears his way through the crowd and is the last one allowed to work that day. The scene, although satiric, provide an interesting counterpoint to the rest of the film’s disdain for capitalistic ethos. Now, having something to work for outside of himself (the gamine) Charlie will even push others out of the way to get a job.
Yet at the end of ‘Modern Times’ there is an unquenchable optimism that resumes. Charlie and his female counterpart ‘The Gamine’ are the “only two live spirits in a world of automations” (Robinson 1985: pg 459). Robinson also sees them as “spiritual escapees from a world in which Chaplin saw no other hope”. Many writers, artists and social philosophers from Huxley in ‘Brave New World’ to Chaplin in ‘Modern Times’ have examined the fears of a society liable to become machine-like and dominated by mass-culture. Many have reflected on the newly found engagement with machines resulting in humans slow transformation into machines.
The great depression of the early thirties was a product of technological change, yet there were underlying darker ideologies of the time: “The exigent socio-economic problems of the early thirties adopts postures regarding the technocratic ideology of instrumental reason that reduces everything to mensuration, efficiency and standardized technique” ( James Sexton (1994) ‘Hearst Essays’, New York and London Press: Introduction). Sexton goes on to discuss a link between modern technology and totalitarian ideology (indeed a great fear of Chaplin’s), as well as highlighting the willingness to sacrifice intellectual freedom to the needs to production and society.
‘Modern Times’ presents a powerful indictment of the mechanized workplace and the post-Ford industrialization of everyday life. Often described as a satire of the machine age, ‘Modern Times’ has in fact a broader theme: the dehumanising effects of many aspects of modernity, including industrialisation, bureaucracy, urbanization and law enforcement. With a balanced mixture of satire, humour and pathos it provides a keenly observed piece of social criticism, presenting a denunciation of the equalities associated with capitalism.
To conclude I will quote from Chaplin’s presentation of ‘The Great Dictator’, in which he urges incessantly for men to remain autonomous despite advancements in technology; “Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men, machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts. You are not machines. You are not cattle. You are men”. (http://www.mistral.co.uk/hammerwood/chaplin.html)