These Modern Times

Economics Film

Modern Times

USA, 1936

directed by Charlie Chaplin



Having just left the cinema after seeing City Lights with the profound conviction that Chaplin is great. For years I have been railing against him, but now, after those last two minutes of the film, I believe in him. He will give us something powerful in the years to come. This picture marks a turning point. It has almost a Shakespearean quality.

Henry Miller - “Letters to Anais Nin”




For years, I’ve stayed away from Charlie Chaplin. I knew he had strong politics and had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era, which intrigued me. I had seen snippets of his work in college classes, yet had never watched one of his films completely. Silent film has never seduced me the way talking pictures have. I love dialogue—the energy it sparks between actors as they move through the land of make-believe. Silent film, with its quiet black and white world, had never beckoned me.


But when I decided to write a film series comparing the Great Depression with the Great Recession, it dawned on me that Modern Times was a film I should probably sit down and watch in its entirety. Who better than Chaplin, I thought, to give me political insight into a post-agrarian, newly industrialized America? So it was, with a curious mind, that I decided to view Modern Times, hoping to find resonance between the economic situation of the 1930s and our own modern Great Recession.


Modern Times was released in 1936, seven years into the U.S.’s most significant economic downturn. The Great Depression began in 1929 when the Stock Market crashed and banks began to fail. Unemployment in the U.S. rose to 25 percent and reached 33 percent in some countries. The Depression ended in 1941 as the U.S. geared up to enter World War II. Chaplin made Modern Times after visiting Europe and witnessing the widespread effects that failing economies had on the daily life of workers.


The waves of immigration since the 1930s have radically altered the demographics of this country. Today’s Great Recession has carved a deep wound into communities of color. Predatory lending practices were targeted at those who were most vulnerable; they were lent toxic subprime mortgages by the very same banks President Barack Obama's administration has just bailed out. The S.E.C. is now investigating Goldman Sachs for making “shorts,” essentially betting that the inflated housing market would go bust (they recently posted first quarter earnings of $3.3 billion, setting aside $5.49 billion for compensation expenses). In 2008, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers were crumbling.


The hard times and poverty of the Great Depression shaped the psyche of a generation. The Depression turned many of that generation into savers and spendthrifts. But what happened along the way? Why are so many young people today embroiled in credit card debt, unhappy with our jobs, and questioning the progress of our society? Many of us distrust the corporate machine, yet why do we still buy on credit? My question, as I begin this series, is “What are the long–term psychological effects of the Great Recession, and how will it shape the psyche of this generation?” I will attempt to answer this by exploring films that are relevant to our current economic landscape.


In 2010, some of the most pressing issues we face, from climate change to water rights to sustainability, are directly linked to the way our world has approached industrialization: through imperialism, colonization and capitalism. Is this moment a crossroads for those who want economic, racial and social justice? (For those who read this series, I welcome your comments and hope to engage in a dialogue on this topic.)



The Film

Some of the thoughts that sprung to mind upon a first viewing of Modern Times: plot, subplot, physical comedy, genius. My initial impression of Chaplin was that, despite being known for the brilliance of his physical comedy, he would surely not be able to pull off a sustained narrative with the complexities of a compelling plotline, good acting, and sophisticated production design. It quickly became apparent that I had been judging Mr. Chaplin too harshly. I was surprised at the depth of emotion, from wonder to laughter, that I experienced while watching this silent film. After a second viewing, I honed in on three aspects of the film that I will explore here:


The morphing of human into automaton, and the subsequent psychological breakdown that ensues.Crime as a means of survival; subverting a system full of seemingly unending obstacles.The desire to consume and its implicit relationship to the American Dream.


Modern Times opens with the sweeping second hand of a clock. Time is in motion. Linear progress is implied, despite the circular face of the clock (whose inherent design implies a cyclical nature). The first character we meet is the President of the Electro-Steel Corp., an elderly white man dressed in a suit and tie and comfortably nestled in an office that is removed from the production floor. He watches the goings-on of his employees via a large, flat-screened monitor conveniently located behind his desk. In an Orwellian moment, he gazes at the factory floor and decides that production must be ramped up. Through the monitor (Chaplin’s foreshadowing of video-conferencing, the internet and security cameras all at once) he gives the order to a large, hulking worker in overalls. The news is relayed down to the factory floor, where Chaplin’s character, a Factory Worker, assembles nuts and bolts.


The machines are sped up and workers are expected to keep pace. While his co-workers adjust with no problem, the Factory Worker is a delicate figure. In his attempt to work faster, he starts to take on the characteristics of the machines around him. Chaplin’s physical brilliance as an actor and comedian are displayed as he morphs into an automaton. His movements, jerky and fast, lose the grace of the human form. A quick-moving robot seeking to accomplish its task, the Factory Worker as Machine loses connection to its internal regulatory controls (not unlike today’s big banks and Wall Street), moving faster and faster—a machine gone haywire. When the Factory Worker clocks out to take a bathroom break (and uses the opportunity to sneak a smoke), the image of the factory owner appears on a large monitor in the bathroom. Scolded and told to go back to work, he once again loses his humanity and morphs into robot. But this time, having lost the ability to clearly delineate where the man ends and the machine begins, he is unable to stop: moving faster and faster. Yet, the human automaton is unable to keep up with the physical and emotional limits imposed upon it by its flesh and blood form. When the factory uses him as a guinea pig to try out a new feeding machine intended to raise efficiency, the Factory Worker is literally a man encased in a machine, one that soon loses control and batters the hapless worker. Unable to reign in his robot-like behavior, he eventually has a nervous breakdown, resulting in his being fired from the factory and subsequently landing in jail. Released from jail and incapable of successfully re-integrating himself, he initially turns to crime as a way to get back into jail, where life seemed easier.


Through the subplot we are introduced to Gamin (meaning a street urchin; waif), the character played by Paulette Goddard. The Gamin is an orphan, reduced to a life on the streets and survival by any means necessary. Along her journey, she meets the Factory Worker, who tries to take responsibility for a crime that she has committed (stealing a loaf of bread) in the hopes of being thrown back in jail. When the truth is revealed, she too is thrown into the paddy wagon. After an accident, the two escape and their lives become intertwined.



Money, Money, Money…

Is crime merely a shade of grey in a world that has lost its black and white contours? On the grey scale of human morality, how does situation affect behavior, and when does survival-of-the-fittest push to the sidelines those who are not willing to play the game to win? For Chaplin’s characters, petty crime is necessary for survival. How does white collar crime differ, both in the way it is perpetrated and prosecuted? In today’s current economic climate, where is the real financial transparency for the events that lead to the Great Recession? Beyond Bernie Madoff, if corrupt corporate executives are predators complicit in the multitude of schemes that led to the stock market taking a tumble, then how does accountability look different today? As state governments declare furloughs and excise workers, companies enter bankruptcy, and lay-offs continue—is there really an end in sight for the Great Recession?


The Great Depression ended when the U.S. was pulled into a war. Production of necessary wartime machinery spurred the country into activity, resulting in an economic boom. How does our generation move away from war as a financially viable option for economic recovery/success? What lessons can we learn from the way the U.S. emerged from the Great Depression? As the world powers vie for control over resources (water, ore, petroleum, etc), many of which are located in the Global South, it is critical that we move forward in a more conscious way.


Unemployment lines ... then and now


In 2010, demanding financial transparency for the bank bailouts—and demanding that the federal government arrest Wall Street tycoons (and send them somewhere much less cush than Camp Cupcake)—can seem like a cry in the wilderness. How does it keep from going unheard in the midst of a three or four trillion dollar bailout, when people are scrambling to benefit from stimulus money that pours endlessly?


Furthermore, what are the long-term psychological effects of the twenty-first century’s Great Recession on the thirty-somethings living through it? For our parents in their fifties, sixties and seventies, life has been radically altered. Years of hard work and sacrifice have vanished overnight as stocks, bonds and pensions disappeared into thin air. As the charlatans on Wall Street pull magic tricks with the wave of a wand, our country has been impacted in a way that we will only fully understand decades from now. But how are we reacting in the moment? Is the life of luxury and endless credit still as tempting as ever? Are we still the same insatiable consumers that spend without saving, buy on credit, and live beyond our means?



Still Striving for the Dream?

Shortly after the Factory Worker and the Gamin settle in together, the Factory Worker gets a job as a night watchman at a luxury department store. One night, he sneaks the Gamin in, and she is seduced by the endless array of goods in the marketplace: fur coats, bone china and pillow-top beds. This invariably leads the Factory Worker to dream of white picket fences and self-milking cows—a world in which he, too, can achieve the American Dream. But when the American Dream is wrapped in materialism and endless consumerism, it morphs into a perverse nightmare, one in which we are constantly striving for an illusory goal. How does the dream become emblematic of the core issue the protagonist faces as he weaves through an endless obstacle course on his journey to happiness, especially since the structure of society is designed to reinforce the role of the worker and the fantasy of the marketplace?


In today’s economy, it simply isn’t practical to consume endlessly. On the one hand, job stability is no longer a guarantee. Buying on credit seemed okay when a steady paycheck ensured that one could make minimum monthly payments. But these days, even as the economy seems to be getting stronger, consumer spending has to be reigned in. Digging oneself deeper into debt is a recipe for depression and personal financial doom. But the other side of this discussion lies in the trash. We buy with abandon, and discard with equal disregard for the consequences. The earth cannot sustain the landfills being created as the goods of the marketplace are discarded for newer, shinier models. Plastics poison the earth, contaminate drainage systems and impact not only humans, but Earth’s other residents—animals and insects. Will Americans become more conscious consumers, buying only what is necessary, or will we slowly slide down the slippery slope of insatiable consumption yet again? Our biological imperative to grow, build and evolve should not be in conflict with the construction of communities, emerging economies or global development. The marketplace must find a way to move in sync with the natural rhythm of the humans and animals that it directly affects.


If we are still sleepwalking in the haze of this old American Dream, it’s time for us to wake up and redefine the contours of its landscape. What did that dream mean for your parents? Grandparents? For you? What will it mean for your children? When will Americans take more personal responsibility for the way our American Dream impacts the world? If we are constantly walking around with a mental shopping cart that is always looking to be filled, then maybe we need to examine why our desire is a bottomless pit.


It is at the intersection of evolution and economics that the collective psyche of film sleeps, waking to tell its cautionary tales, in the hopes that we can learn from history. Will the Great Recession alter the course of this generation’s collective psyche? And how has it affected the individual? As this series unfolds, I will use film to explore the interconnection of economics, psychology, sustainability and the role of the worker in today’s complex and evolving global community. Stay tuned for the next installment.