Using ‘film as ideology’ one can analyze how the rhetoric In Modern Times (1936) serves ideological purposes. As Blakesley states in TheTerministic Screen, “As a cultural expression, films reveal not only the predispositions of filmmakers but they also serve ideological functions in the broader culture” (38).
We can see the how the ideological functions into the broader culture inModern Times by Charlie Chaplin, as this film serves to portray how the ‘new’ industrialized world suppresses human agency, creativity and contributes to a greater divide among the classes. The film articulates the constant struggle between man and machine through semiotic agency. In the opening credits, we see the gears of a clock, which reappears at several points in the film (the gears of the machine, clocking in at work, clock in the background of home scene with Tramp and his wife). The clock symbolizes the capitalists’ society’s obsession with ‘time as money’ and the industrialized nation keeping workers, ‘on the clock’. The obsession with ‘time is money’ is also portrayed in the scene with the Billows Feeding Machine, which promises to “eliminate the lunch hour, increase [your] production, and decrease [your] overhead’ (1936). The boss choses Tramp as the Guinea pig for testing out this machine and quickly discovers that it saves neither time nor money as the mechanism goes awry.
From an ideological perspective, we also see that Chaplin is communicating the great divide between the ‘working man’ and ‘bourgeois’ classes in his portrayal of work in the industrialized society. The ‘President of the Electro Steel Corp.” is first shown in his office calmly playing a puzzle while his secretary (of course the only woman working in the factory) brings him coffee. He watches the workers and barks orders remotely, over a large television screen; ‘Section Five. More Speed”. We see the industrial factory workers struggling to keep up, despite their best efforts, while the white, male boss sits far removed from it all in his lush office. Chaplin, in a form of pamphleteering, is articulating the political ideology of the working man and injustice of the class divide in the industrial times. The viewer feels Tramp’s struggle in the industrial age, so intense that he would rather be in jail than go back to tightening bolts all day long at lightning speed. And notice how in the end scene, Chaplin obtains a job in the bustling restaurant (also moving at a speed too fast for ‘modern man’), but the ‘happy ending’ is him escaping the role of the bustling waiter and hapless industrial worker, and embracing the life of the performer, who is able to enact creative agency.
Modern Times is brilliant in the regard that Chaplin articulates this cultural critique and clear political stance on the challenges and injustices of the industrial revolution while doing so in a comedic manner and, I might add, without a drop of dialogue. He uses a variety of techniques to articulate his message, from inserting images as metaphors (the sheep in the opening sequence that segues into the workers bustling on the streets) to the thoughtful use of sound (advertisement for Billows Feeding Machine over the phonograph) comedic scenes. After evaluating Modern Times from a ‘film as ideology’ point of view, I can certainly see why this is deemed one of the best movies of all time.
Blakesley, David. The Terministic Screen : Rhetorical Perspectives on Film, Southern Illinois University Press, 2003.
Chaplin, Charlie. Modern Times. Directed by Charlie Chaplin. Los Angeles: United Artists, 1936.