Anxiety & The Machine



The first half of the twentieth century saw a maelstrom of social, economic and environmental changes within the developed world, largely due to accelerated urbanisation of cities, the infectious spread of international capitalism and a rapidly altering political landscape.

America’s presence on the global economic and cultural stage played a key role in the development of manufacturing technologies far exceeding the capabilities of previous ages; with increasing demand for industrial production and labour leading to concerns over the eventual dehumanisation and commodification of employment both within the US and abroad, as well as doubts raised on the legitimacy of the ethics behind technologies both modern and speculative—resulting in the most substantial paradigm shift of American social attitudes since The Civil War. Through the eyes of modernist filmmakers one can piece together an intricate web of criticisms and satires reflecting on phenomena that shaped the first half of the twentieth century, largely through the experiences of the working class—but within the context of science-fiction or comedy screenplay, how just and reliable are these sources as a reflection on the true concerns of citizens?

Chaplin & Modernity

Domination of mechanisation, modernity and the plight of the working man has been a core filmic theme of Chaplin’s works ever since his production of City Lights in 1931, on the transient, pandemonious nature of modernity—a whirlpool of evanescent images, the film surrounds The Tramp, A Blind Girl and An Eccentric Millionaire; the tragedy being that The Tramp is acknowledged and connects only by those who can’t judge him—An Eccentric Millionaire being drunk around his lower-class friend, adamantly denying their companionship the next morning, and A Blind Girl blissfully unaware of the man who purchases her flowers—the latter leading to “the greatest single piece of acting ever committed to celluloid”, as argued by critic James Agee, in the form of the film’s closing scene, a touching, poignant reunion of two beloved (though on a personal level I still award that honour to any scene from Wiseau's The Room).


Chaplin’s exploration of the modern condition was unprecedented in his field, particularly for as artist working in Hollywood, explored only to a similar level by European Dadaist cognoscenti in early experimental Arthouse cinema – at least before the post-modern period.


January 5th, 1936—director and actor Charlie Chaplin releases Modern Times, a seminal (even by his standards) comedy film on the plight of a steel mill worker (again affectionately named The Tramp) in pursuit of the American Dream, under the shadow of the Great Depression. Drawing similarities with other more harsh depictions of the Depression era such as John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937), Chaplin’s character opens as a typical underdog worker under the rule of an almost Orwellian factory boss, presenting himself to workers on large projected screens to ensure that they continue working.


Unlike Steinbeck’s novella, however, Chaplain utilises comedy and visual metaphors to indirectly reference the issues of working people within urban America (compared to Steinbeck’s portrayal of dispossessed and disenfranchised migrant workers in rural California)—with everything from the imagery of The Tramp being pulled into factory machines, as a human literally worked by the cogs of capitalism, to the constant use of time-stamping machines suggesting at an eerie existence in which humans uncomfortably adjust their lives to suit the machine, in the name of increased productivity. Reoccurring reference is made later in Chaplin’s career within films such as The Great Dictator (1940), echoed in the words of it’s iconic closing speech: “Don't give yourselves to these unnatural men—machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines, you are not cattle, you are men!”.

The opening twenty minutes of the film serves as a self-contained background plot which leads into the more traditionally narrative-driven remaining hour of the film, but also happens to contain the vast majority of modernist criticisms and visual metaphors which give Modern Times it’s praise. The opening image of the film, for example, is a surreal 5-second stock shot of sheep routing through sty gates, being match cut graphically with the entrance of workers in a large factory—an interesting choice of transition not popularised until post-WW2 by Wells and Kubrick, most famously used in 2001 to transition between Act one and two.


Contrasting the use of direct references and visual metaphors, Chaplin opens up two lines of dialogue with the audience, one superliminal and the other subliminal, one speaking through rationalism and the other comedy; as seen in a later scene, in which The Tramp, suffering a nervous breakdown after falling into one of the machines, mistakes anything vaguely bolt-shaped as a workable part, nervously twitching his arms as he attempts to use a wrench to tighten a co-workers nose—droll, but most would agree the representation is not entirely accurate.


Recovered of the earlier nervous breakdown, The Tramp follows standard Chaplin protocol and mistakenly finds himself as the leader of a workers’ rights march, being arrested by the FBI on account of encouraging communist ideals; an interesting, albeit slightly unrelated, wider criticism made by Chaplain on increased government surveillance on citizens in the years shortly before WW2, and an almost pre-emptive detail drawing parallels with Chaplin himself, who was surveyed heavily by the FBI in the years following the end of WW2, as a powerful (non-American) public figure and outwardly spoken Soviet sympathiser—“like the tramp in Modern Times who gets caught in the cogs of modern industry, Charlie Chaplin, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, found himself entangled in the “machinery” of McCarthyism”.


Despite being locked away however, The Tramp finds pleasure in prison routine, refusing to be granted release after another unintentional act of heroism in saving captured prison guards. Modern Times was not the only film of the generation that threw sharp glares at the treatment of workers in factory environments, with Rene Clairé’s 1931 film À Nous La Liberté also contrasting and relating the existing prison environment with mass manufacturing work (the similarities in plot points being close enough to spark a lawsuit by Clairé’s studio in 1936); starring ex-convicts Émile and Louis parting ways upon escaping prison, one becoming a successful factory owner, the other an underpaid worker at the same institution—both unaware of each other’s fate. The film ends touchingly, two friends unexpectedly reunited and returning to their original life as street entertainers, realising the beauty in emotional bonds, casting away material obsessions.

Tati's Playtime

Playtime, from 1967, is another commonly discussed article of film history with regards to modernity and the human condition. Directed by Jacques Tati, his envisioned modernist life, though set many decades later than previously discussed narratives and focusing more on the nuances of modernist construct (and produced well within the era of post-modernism with the benefit of hindsight, similar to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil), the film presents an entirely different interpretation of modernity—through not the eyes of an industrial worker but a French salary man, Monsieur Hulot (much like Chaplin’s affinity with The Tramp as a returning character played by himself, Tati does the same). That is not to claim that Playtime places itself in direct opposition to the other productions, but rather that the image of modernism and the machine it presents is more domestic, not glaringly negative—being only ostensibly so. The façade of Paris within Playtime is one of glass panes and squeaky furniture, where inhabitants are not slaves to the machines, but merely the system’s insistence on unnecessary order and sequence.


The most iconic scene from the film is undoubtedly The Royal Garden Restaurant, and accounting for almost half of the film’s total running time, it is where Tati exploits to the fullest extent his skills in comedic timing and satirisation, manipulating expectations of his audience. His obsession with Chaplin’s comedic style (and that of other silent filmmakers) is most clear in this shot sequence, with everything from the use of spacial jokes, slapstick and delicate utilisation of audio linking back to pioneered techniques many decades ago. Within the relatively short duration of the sequence, The Royal Garden Restaurant is constructed, opens and falls apart in spectacular, almost hyperbolic fashion, in direct homage to the restaurant scene at the end of Modern Times. A drunk party guest, for example, attempts to grab at a small notch visible on the wall, pulling down the entire ceiling around his fellow diners during the process—a direct statement against the obsession with façade in modernity, linked indirectly to the introduction of mechanisation but a satirisation nevertheless.


Nowhere within Tati’s scenes are to be seen the fearful, decrepit and disenfranchised as in the worlds of Chaplin or Clairé; painting not necessarily an indifferent image of modernity, but one that concerns itself more with the human condition in a post-mechanised, modern world—the calm after the storm, if you will. A man alone within the crowd, Monsieur Hulot walks purposelessly into glass door after glass door, unable to reach his goal, lost in marvel of the maelstrom of modern Paris that unfolds around him. Tati’s representation of modernity is not flattering, nor overtly negative—but is it more accurate? The position and opinions of contemporary writers is complex, littered with hindsight and afterthought—and if one focuses purely on how just a criticism each period presents with regards to the effects of early twentieth-century mechanisation, it can be said that the concepts brought forth by Playtime, Brazil, Mon Oncle (and possibly even Blade Runner) are more relatable to conditions today. The last one hundred years has shown that the machine is not something physical as often depicted in early productions—it is an omnipresent, all encompassing cultural shift regardless of social or geographical borders.


The final lens through which to examine anxiety and the machine is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), released at a time when the effects of the deadliest European conflict in human history were still being felt, both socio-culturally and economically. Touching also on the ethics surrounding technological developments, albeit more speculative in nature, the film stands a middle between Modern Times and Playtime, warning of a future class divide in which the rich rule over workers in a grand synecdochic Metropolis, machine-workers being forced to habitat vast caves under the city. The film laid the groundwork for many other science-fiction films popularised today, from Blade Runner and The Fifth Element to Dr.Strangelove and even the Batman series, with Lang’s grandiose set design and army of 37,000 cast members having set an unbeaten standard for depicting the raw power of mechanisation and the ensuing modern age.


The film applies to itself a liberal plot, and ends in the destruction of the worker’s underworld, dramatic death of the evil scientist Rotwang and touching union between the two opposing classes of citizens; yet perhaps most interestingly, the film critiques more, in a similar fashion to Playtime, human nature, than applying any blame to mechanisation—“There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator”, proclaims Maria, as she pleads Freder to help his father unite the people of Metropolis with the people down below. The sub-plot involving Maschinenmensch, Rotwang’s robotic Maria tasked with destroying the underworld, certainly warns against becoming too reliant on mechanical technologies with a classic deployment of the ‘Frankenstein complex’, and many scenes shot in the underworld factories depict workers being burdened with unnecessarily physically taxing operations (similar to Chaplin’s Modern Times); but the central plot of Metropolis essentially blames the human condition for the destructive class divide and “all seven deadly sins”, the introduction of mechanised operations merely allowing the above to flourish and accelerate.


It can be summarised that the representation of concerns felt by the working populace in most modernist films are certainly accurate, but often deeply flawed—whilst no writer doubts that workers in the early years of Fordism felt deep anxieties concerning mechanisation and mass production, the choice made by the majority of modernist film-makers to place blame onto the ideologies that mass production and modernity represent and not man himself have been shown to be incorrect, being rather the system under which the machine operated; a system of governance and utilisation controlled by man and man himself, at fault for disenfranchisement, maltreatment and resentment—“The airplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men; cries out for universal brotherhood; for the unity of us all.” The concerns shown are entirely valid and just in representation, and though perhaps exaggerated in certain scenes, they serve as important historical documents nevertheless, to be treasured and reflected upon for generations to come.