This week we watched Modern Times (Chaplin 1936), read a recent article on it by Lawrence Howe (which contains some useful contextualisation for the film, even though I am not wholly convinced by its argument), had a brief introduction to Marxist ideas about capitalism and the class society it produces, and then spent quite a while discussing some basic essay writing skills.
As described by Frederick Engels, in his ‘Preface to the English Edition of 1888 of The Communist Manifesto’, Marx’s ‘fundamental proposition’ concerning history and class is that
the whole history of mankind … has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; that the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which, nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class – the proletariat – cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class – the bourgeoisie – without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinctions and class struggles. (in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, ed. by David McLellan (Oxford: OUP, 1998), 48.)
Starting with this broad sweep ties back to the work we did on historical periodisation in week 2 as we started to think about ‘modernity’, but more importantly gave me an opportunity to include a picture of the lovely late Andy Whitfield on the powerpoint slide explaining classical slave societies (Feudalism had to make do with a picture of Errol Flynn as Robin Hood.)
Capitalism, Marx argued, is defined by the exploitative relationship between the bourgeoisie (or capitalist class), who own and control the means of production (from factories to financial instruments), and the proletariat (or working class), who sell their labour for a wage which is worth less than the value created by their labour. All that extra value they create is used to pay for raw materials, plant, etc; and all that is left over from that – surplus value, in Marx’s term – is taken by the capitalist. Although there might be small individual and partial exceptions, the capitalist will always look to increase production of surplus value – by introducing ‘rationalised’ production processes and increasing automation, by lowering or freezing wages, by extending the working day (including reducing breaks), by offering productivity bonuses, by resisting unionisation of the workforce and health/safety legislation, by casualising the workforce, by not paying the costs of pollution, by relocating to countries with weaker unions/workplace protections/ environmental laws, and by avoiding/evading taxes and manipulating political systems.
Before discussing Modern Times, we took a look at several short sequences from Metropolis (Lang 1927), a film I really wanted to include on the module but which is too long for the screening session (and perhaps in that respect a bit cruel as an introduction to silent cinema – although next week we will be watching Man with a Movie Camera, so I am not sure where the greater cruelty lies).
Lang’s film spatialise class relations in a manner that will become common in dystopian visions, and also in the real world. Here the spatial division is vertical, recalling the literal and figurative descents into poverty in Gaskell’s Mary Barton. The garden in which the city’s wealthy youths play is somewhere high up and pristine. Freder’s father’s office – as controller of the city – is also elevated above all, symbolising his pan optical powers (making him an important figure when we dip our toes into a little de Certeau in a few weeks). Then there is the magnificent metropolis itself, beneath which are the machines which sustain it. And beneath the level even of the machines, as Lang’s opening sequence shows, is the city of the workers.
We also took a look at some of the machinery in the film: the 10-hour shift clock and 24-hour clock over which the shift change is announced (we have already seen Lang’s obsession with clocks in M), the rather abstract machine which overheats and transforms, in Freder’s eyes, into a barbaric ancient idol into whose maw the workers are fed; and the even more abstract clock machine that Freder undertakes to operate so as to free an exhausted worker, only to become a kind of knackered Christ figure himself as he struggles to keep up with its incomprehensible demands for repetitive motion.
Some of this imagery is picked up on directly in Chaplin’s film, which also begins with the image of a clock and workers trudging to the factory like lambs to the slaughter.
Before the screening, I suggested some possible binary oppositions that could be used to try to think through the logic of the film:
capitalist and worker
surveiller and surveilled
employed and unemployed
production and consumption
lack and plenty
work and leisure
human and automaton
conformity and difference
law and lawlessness
order and chaos
authority and resistance
male and female
adult and child
As ever, a lot of these terms sort of overlap or seem to be describing the same things from different angles.
The boss using the giant screen in the bathroom to berate Chaplin on his break establishes that the relationship between capitalist and worker is a power relationship (we have already seen the boss goofing off, doing a jigsaw and reading the funny pages – Flash Gordon, if I am not mistaken, since the visible page is Tarzan?) – and that this power relationship includes bullying and surveillance (which includes workers having to clock-in and clock-out, even for bathroom trips). Furthermore, the fact that the boss even contemplates subjecting his works to the Billows Automatic Feeding Machine so that can they be fed lunch without needing to leave the production line indicates the extent to which he does not think of them as human beings but as mere parts of a technical apparatus, as cogs in a machine. (It is also an example of trying to increase productivity through automation so as to increase surplus value, or profit, at the expense of the worker.)
Such control systems or disciplinary structures as the factory represents also provide most of the other key locations of the film: asylum, prison, orphanage, department store, restaurant.
Talking about the department store – designed to move customers through the space in such a way as to organise and prolong their experience within the retail environment (think about how IKEA has no windows or clocks and only one route through the warehouse – and, at least according to one of the class, blocks cell phone reception) – also facilitated a way to think about the interconnections of production and consumption.
Chaplin and the gamin (Paulette Goddard), of course, are disruptive forces of chaos in all this. Chaplin’s derangement by the repetitive labour of the production line shows how poorly we all, as humans, fit the environments created to maximise the extraction of our labour power for other people’s profit. The gamin’s initial gender-blurring – posing like Peter Pan, providing food for the family when her father is unemployed – and her refusal to be subordinated to state systems (the law around property, the orphanage to which her younger siblings are sent) betoken a similar energy. Both she and Chaplin are often positioned as childlike, and their attempts to find a space in the adult world are endearing parodies of that world: the dream vision of a suburban home Chaplin imagines, the run-down shack the gamin crafts into the image of a suburban idyll, the way they play and dress up in the department store. (And they are not alone in not fitting in this world: the prim and severe vicar’s wife whose stomach nonetheless gurgles when she drinks tea; the scarcely glimpsed ‘gay’ prisoner, who minces out of the dining hall and into his cell; the unemployed men forced to break into the department store because they are starving; and so on.)
Then it was time for a break, for the grand unveiling of the essay questions, for reminders to do the library quiz online within 24 hours, and for essay-writing advice.
The latter is especially tough, I find, to do for a whole group, none of whom have yet submitted any work. Makes it hard to know where to begin, what particular strengths and weaknesses each student has. So we did some very basic stuff.
On stucture, taking Strunk and White’s advice: ‘Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic.’ So a brief introduction to what is going to be discussed, probably somewhere between 5 and 8 paragraphs, each devoted to making, developing and supporting a single idea in a chain of ideas/paragraphs, and a short conclusion tying it all together. For a 1200 word essay, the introduction and conclusion should probably need no more than a sentence or two each. Revise the introduction once the essay is completed so as to ensure it describes what the essay actually does, rather than what you intended to do (the initial introduction can also be used to help think through revisions to early drafts). No new ideas to be introduced in the conclusion – and never end with a quotation (it is supposed to be your conclusion).
Using spell-check (make sure it is set to English UK; remember it won’t catch certain kinds of errors, such as typing ‘form’ when you mean ‘from’). Use grammar-check sparingly, as typically you need to understand grammar in order to make sense of its recommendations. Instead, concentrate on becoming a better writer (obligatory plug for the genuinely excellent kids’ book, The English Repair Kit by Angela Burt and William Vandyck).
We covered rules about laying how to quote and paraphrase and reference (MLA-style).
Finally, we thought about writing in a more formal academic style, but how that did not necessarily mean writing in long sentences. Focus on short, clear sentences, and work in length-variety where necessary – focus on the connection between what you want to say and the best way to say it clearly.
And then wrapped it all up with another quotation from Strunk and White:
Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 2, “Urbanizing Modernity: Utopia/Dystopia and the City of the Future Past.”
Desser, David. “Race, Space and Class: The Politics of Cityscapes in Science-Fiction Films.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 80–96.
Jenkins, Henry. “Looking at the City in The Matrix Franchise.” Cities in Transition: The Moving Image and the Modern Metropolis. Ed. Andrew Webber and Emma Wilson. London: Wallflower, 2008. 176–192.
Mellen, Joan. Modern Times. London: BFI, 2006.
Sobchack, Vivian. “Cities on the Edge of Time: The Urban Science-Fiction Film.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 123–143.
Staiger, Janet. “Future Noir: Contemporary Representations of Visionary Cities.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 97–122.
By imagining future cities, sf often highlights contemporary concerns about the city. See, for example, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants (1953), Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (1966), John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968), Thomas Disch’s 334 (1972), Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (1999), Tricia Sullivan’s Maul (2003) and Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon (2014).
The same is true of many sf films, such as Metropolis (Lang 1927), Things to Come (Menzies 1936), Alphaville (Godard 1965), Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971), THX 1138 (Lucas 1971), Soylent Green (Fleischer 1973), Blade Runner (1982), Akira (Ôtomo 1988), Dark City (Proyas 1998), Minority Report (Spielberg 2002), Code 46 (Winterbottom 2003), District 13 (Morel 2004), Children of Men (Cuarón 2006), La Antena (Sapir 2007) and In Time (Niccol 2011).
Modern Times was partly inspired by À Nous la Liberté (Clair 1931).