Chaplin’s Modern Times, in our time

Action Speaks
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  October 10, 2012

GEARHEAD Chaplin at work.

Action Speaks, the panel discussion series at Providence art space AS220, continues October 17 with a look at the Charlie Chaplin film Modern Times (1936), an enduring meditation on economic upheaval.

It is, no doubt, a critique of capitalism. But it is ambivalent about unionism and uncertain about just where the American project should go.

Panelists will include Tom McDonough, professor and chairman of the Art History department at State University of New York-Binghamton, Maureen Reddy, professor and chair of the English department at Rhode Island College, and Charles Musser, professor of American Studies, Film Studies, and Theater Studies at Yale University, where he teaches courses on silent cinema and documentaries.

The Phoenix caught up with Musser, at a conference in Italy, for a Q&A via email in advance of his appearance. The interview is edited and condensed.

CHARLIE CHAPLIN'S RECURRING CHARACTER "THE TRAMP" IS AT THE CENTER OFMODERN TIMES. TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT THE CHARACTER AND HIS CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE. Chaplin's tramp character was a gentleman tramp from the 1890s — and so even when he created the character in the 1910s, it was an old-fashioned tramp. Tramps might work — but never any place for very long. They did not want to conform to the economic expectations of industrial capitalism. He created it the same year that Ford created the auto assembly line. Tramp characters were popular in vaudeville and other forms of popular culture but Chaplin gave his versions a richness and complexity. Audiences — or at least working-class audiences — recognized a certain kind of fury hidden underneath his comedy.

THE FILM IS CERTAINLY A CRITIQUE OF ASSEMBLY-LINE CAPITALISM. BUT DOES IT OFFER UP AN ALTERNATIVE? I think comedy can offer a powerful means for criticism but it is not well-designed to offer specific alternatives. The more carefully one situates the film in 1930s America, the more evident it is that his comedy engages a wide range of issues confronting industrial America. Chaplin was not opposed to labor-saving devices, but he felt that it was wrong for them to be used to exploit and further oppress workers — to generate additional profits for owners rather than better wages and living conditions for workers. Of course he was also opposed to the use of a wide range of corporate practices used against its employees — such as Ford's use of private security guards for surveillance and to violently suppress demonstrations and undermine efforts to unionize. Chaplin insisted that he was not against capitalism per se, but its destructive manifestations.

WHAT CANMODERN TIMES TELL US ABOUT OUR OWN UNCERTAIN MOMENT? Massive unemployment; people losing jobs, losing houses; corporate profits going up as wages go down; increasing uses of surveillance. There are plenty of parallels between the Great Depression and the Great Recession. The biggest difference might be that there was no unemployment insurance — no safety net — in 1930s America, so people could fall into desperate poverty very quickly. Now it usually takes more time, and many people find themselves able to hold on to something rather than living in homeless shelters. So the social reforms and so-called "entitlement programs" such as Social Security, which came out of the 1930s and the Roosevelt Administration, have made a difference in a lot of people's lives. Of course, this is a moment — with the Presidential election — when we are talking about the future of these programs.

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