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Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’

by on November 22, 2012

The film ‘Modern Times’ even from the title suggests something futuristic and even robotic when we think of the technological advances around today. Of course this wasn’t meant through the title of the film when it was made but within the film itself there is much which looks at mechanical and robotic movement and performance.

Immediately we find ourselves in the mechanical setting of the factory at the start of the film and it is from his surroundings that Chaplin almost models his movements; which are in themselves extremely robotic. To me, because of the silence of the actors, and just the constant music in the background, it creates a seemingly more robotic environment in my opinion. Chaplin himself has very set expressions and his movement is incredibly precise and to the point, almost as if choreographed in the same way a ballet would be. I find it interesting though that Chaplin’s face is so expressive and his body is so deliberately robotic. Even once we leave the factory setting Chaplin uses motifs of the stylised robotic movement throughout the film, giving him that sense of performance in a seemingly every day situation like when he and the woman in the film find themselves their first little home by the river. This is a scene where the performative elements really shone through in terms of portraying Chaplin’s more ‘robotic’ side. A movement sequence which I particularly enjoyed was that of Chaplin entering the house to be hit by parts of it falling down. His reactions to the incidents occurring around him seemed fairly un-human in themselves because of his lack of facial expression at these points; arguably this could be because a plank of wood just fell on his head so he might not have wanted to smile. Following on from their makeshift breakfast in the somewhat makeshift house, whilst reading the paper Chaplin discovers the headline for work again and his reaction, as when he discovers other important things is very robotic because of his rigidity in both the body and the face.

We have continually addressed the idea of the automata being un-human because of its inability to express emotion through the face yet their movements are becoming more and more human. The thing which I enjoy so much about Chaplin and what I find so funny is his facial expression which tells us everything we need to know as an audience even without the now common use of speech in film.

Returning to the idea of performing objects in this film and relating the film to the module, it is more like previous posts which have talked more about dance and the seemingly robotic style it is adopting rather than taking us back to Jaquet Droz’s’ original automata. Because of the style in which Chaplin performs, and the robotic nature of his movement, the continuous comedy in the film is aided precisely by the fact that it is robotic. The reason why this comedic movement, which now appears commonplace to us is because Chaplin is so different to everyone else who appears in his films as characters big or small. His stylised movement seems more impressive now that we have film with speech, because everything has to be indicated by the face and body, so in this sense we arrive back at another topic of how just ‘being’ is in itself a performance. In my opinion, the character of Chaplin just ‘being’ is perfect because of its robotic precision but also because of its comedic spontinaeity.

The performance throughout the whole film is fantastic, as is the film itself and  Chaplin being likened even in the slightest to an automata would not be wrong but more importantly it is how he is shown off as a performing object which is most important.

Andrew Horton

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