Subverting the Spectacle of Modern Times: Charlie Chaplin and the Situationists

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Still from Modern Times

“The construction of situations begins beyond the ruins of the modern spectacle. It is easy to see how much the very principle of the spectacle – nonintervention – is linked to the alienation of the old world. Conversely, the most pertinent revolutionary experiments in culture have sought to break the spectators’ psychological identification with the hero so as to draw them into activity. . . . The situation is thus designed to be lived by its constructors…

-Guy Debord, from “Preliminary Problems in Constructing a Situation.”

The scene is a familiar one to fans of Charlie Chaplin: the normally playful Tramp, introduced to us as an anonymous worker, laboring away at an assembly line, anonymously tightening bolts in an anonymous factory. Over. and over. and over again. By now, the argument is also familiar: technology that has the power to reduce costs and improve our lives can also alienate us from our humanity. The factory in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is so dynamically streamlined that it becomes completely static in its repetition: Modernization dictating an efficiency of motion. Driven mad by the dehumanizing task, the Tramp, in his insanity, becomes a creator, a magician of stasis, an alchemist transmuting the inert to give life where none existed before. He reprograms the space without lifting a pencil or building a wall.

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left: Hines’ Powerhouse Mechanic. right: a still from Modern Times

Soon after his assembly line breakdown, we see The Tramp in the factory’s generator room, gleefully pulling the mysterious and irresistible levers while the muscle-bound mechanic hopelessly attempts to keep up with Chaplin’s energy and undo the damage caused by his subversive ballet. The engine room romp culminates in an elegant gesture that recalls – and undermines – the famous 1920 Lewis Hine photograph known as Powerhouse Mechanic. The photo is part of a series of worker portraits created for the Works Progress Administration. It’s purpose – a type of propaganda really – was to glorify man as worker. To celebrate his strength and union with the machine. In Chaplin’s reinterpretation, the muscular factory worker overpowering the machine has been replaced by the frail Tramp, who easily defeats the machine with his almost feminine dance.

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Still from Modern Times
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still from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

In a conversation included in the Modern Times DVD, Belgian filmmakers Luc & Jean-Pierre comment on this dance and Chaplin’s transformative qualities. “The way he goes crazy – the entire mechanized world turns into a ballet. And the human body takes over the factory and transforms it into something else. It becomes a circus. The movements aren’t mechanical anymore, the human body begins to exist in a way that’s no longer machine-like. And when the guys are chasing him, to get him to stop his ballet, he exploits the machine.” The Tramp has broken away to regain his individuality and in so doing transforms the factory using its own machinery against it. “It becomes his ally,” says Dardenne, “it becomes his ally so he can continue his ballet.” It’s like, he says, Chaplin “walks into Metropolis and everything collapses.”

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Still from Modern Times

During his nervous breakdown, the Tramp’s wrenches – if man is a cog in the machine, surely these wrenches are its teeth – transform into donkey ears in a defiant gesture. Purpose and performance has been disrupted, program subverted. Taken over by animals, clowns, and dancers, the factory, as noted by the Dardennes, really does become a circus. Or to apply Debord’s ideas, Chaplin destroys the modern spectacle in constructing a reactionary situation. The Situationists ideas of intervention through derive and detournement were ambiguous at best, but Chaplin’s staged subversion of the factory seems to embody the very ideals of the Situationists (albeit within the limits of a fictional narrative).

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Still from Modern Times

It’s surprising then, to learn that in 1952, the Lettrist International, led by none other than eventual Situationist chief provacateur Guy Debord, denounced Chaplin with a somewhat ill-informed pamphlet, “No More Flat Feet,” distributed at a Chaplin press conference 16 years after the debut of Modern Times. Charlie Chaplin, according to the Lettrists (at least some of them. The pamphlet may have caused a rift in the movement. Again, Chaplin as agent of transformation – social transformation), was no longer relevant – if he was ever relevant at all. Their main dispute seemed to be that he used his art to speak against suffering and the dehumanizing aspects of Modernity. Debord writes “You are ‘he who turns the other cheek and the other ass cheek,’ but we are young and good-looking, and when we hear suffering we reply Revolution.” The Lettrists would have to wait until 1968 to see that Revolution – and even then it will be short lived. The Situationists had to realize that “constructing a situation” would never truly lead to social revolution. Their movement was ephemeral, their ideas brutally disproved by police in riot gear. Chaplin’s comedy, however, is timeless, and his humor and sincerity continues to inspire not just laughter, but also subversive reactions to accepted social and economic standards.

One would think that the Lettrists / Situationists could appreciate that. After all, it was they who scrawled “Ne travaillez jamais” (“never work”) on the walls of schools and factories in Paris. It was the Situationists who, in the Declaration of Amsterdam (1958), declared “The construction of a situation is the edification of a transient micro-ambiance and of the play of events for a unique moment in the lives of several persons.” In almost every situation in Modern Times – and most other Chaplin films – this is exactly the role played by The Tramp. He’s a man who, in the face of authority and modernity takes joy in briefly altering the lives of the people around him and the very space they occupy. A revolution of everyday life.