Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Ramon Riley Writing FIVE - Visual Culture’s Stronghold on Authentic Life

Ramon Riley 

Writing FIVE  - Visual Culture’s Stronghold on Authentic Life

The movie opens with a metaphor for us to consider.  White sheep being herded with a lone black sheep caught in the middle of the pack... The 1936 film Modern Times, written, directed and starring Charlie Chaplin directly and indirectly addresses many of the topics we have read in Practices of Looking...  by Sturken and Cartwright.

First, Modern Times was not very “modern” at all.  This is a silent film created and released after silent films had run their course.  Chaplin, however, was a master pantomime artist, so his resistance was an obvious attempt to promote his strongest attributes as an actor.  Voice was added in the film only as post-production to clarify the details of a scene through a phonograph, a radio and a television adding bit parts within the film.  Many people wondered why Chaplin resisted “talkies” when the technology was available. The expectation was that the world’s biggest star, the first million dollar movie star, should adopt current technology in order to stay relevant, and sticking with silent film was making Chaplin obsolete (1). 

Modern Times (1936)

Modern Times was also shot using an outdated film technique.  At 18 frames per second, a speed used for silent films, the action seemed more fast paced and animated when it was played at 24 frames per second, the new normal film speed of the time.  Like the lead character in the film the Little Tramp was trying to survive the world of industry, factory workers, and assembly lines, Chaplin was trying to survive the changing landscape of film.  Moreover, while Chaplin denied any messages beyond pure entertainment, many agree that Modern Times intentionally makes a statement about people’s insignificance in respect to the “machine” of industry.

Throughout Practices of Looking...  Sturken and Cartwright refer to us as a Western industrialized culture living in a multimedia environment, which stems from capitalism.  Discussed in chapter 1, social power and ideologies are are produced by images.  Navigating through imagery is not a passive process.  We influence the meaning and value of the marketable mass produced objects, images and experiences, or stuff, we buy.  This awareness is necessary in attempting to dissect our visual culture.  Not every culture is bombarded with images every second of everyday.  We are the connoisseurs of taste.  Our taste says much about who we are.  Through “representation”, we are like gods seeking visuals in our likeness and refining our taste.  This determines what we buy, whether literally or conceptually.  Buying gives us power, both actual and perceived.  Buying power (or surrendering buying power) is the canvas on which mass media attempts to understand and shape our habits, so they can sell us their stuff.

Radio and Television made “information” available to non-literate people, and this made capitalism more prevalent in daily life (p. 153).  Prior to radio and television, we could not put our trust in mass media to teach and give us “our” opinions.  Many never really question information from “trustworthy” faces of a trusted source of news, like FOX or CNN.  Our hearts, minds, and souls are the battlefield for the war between hegemonic and counter-hegemonic forces.  Does George Bush being marketed as the president one could have a beer with versus Al Gore, the pretentious snob, make Bush a more effective president?  Then, why are candidates personalities and temperaments reportable “news” for network “debates”?

Trust is important in the ideology of our consumer culture, and this trust can be easily manipulated.  In chapter 5, the idea is presented that films like JFK masterfully convince us of the film’s accuracy by incorporating television news footage or imagery to look like vintage news footage.  This is evidence at how deeply layered and in-grained visual culture is in the Western industrialized psyche (p. 157).  Perhaps, trust can be easily misplaced because the viewing audience convinces itself that viewing television replaces participation (p. 165).  We think that by “paying attention” to social and political issues we are informed and active.  And maybe we are.  Maybe “tuning in” provides data for the market researchers.  We use our buying power as political power.  

In Modern Times, our hero the Little Tramp can not escape the trappings of consumerism.  Whether he is falling asleep on a job, as a night watchmen, in a comfortable bed of a department store, the dream is to have the desired lifestyle.  During a scene with the Little Tramp and the Gamine resting their weary souls on the lawn of a well-to-do house, the two fantasize about what it would be like to have that house as a home for themselves.  They imagine a stocked refrigerator, fresh fruit from the tree outside their window, milk straight from a cow outside their door and having to give little effort for anything.  Coming back into consciousness, they decide to “give it a go” back to the city hoping to make a living.  Work hard to “take it easy”.

Chaplin and Goddard
Modern Times (1936)

Marx thought ideology brought “false consciousness” making the masses vulnerable to coercion.  Familiarity brings marketability which births sell-able products, projects and even political candidates.  Someone is getting powerful, and thus someone is getting rich by manipulating the masses.  Those who own production control ideas (p.51).  This also gives some insight to the widening income gap in America.  The rich keep getting richer because there are more ways to control media and thus more ways to gain capital.  In Modern Times, the omnipotent, omnipresent boss changes the speed of production from his big office removed from the sufferable realities of his men in an attempt to increase production and thus profit.

Althusser’s modifications of “ideology” (p.52-54) plays throughout the movie by the Little Tramp’s many failed attempts to conform.  The Little Tramp reads the newspaper about new opportunities to become a successful person and live the good life, and off he goes for the next humorous adventure.  Every time Tramp fails, however, he is jailed by police, and no one questions the inhumanity of the conditions, only Tramp’s incompetence.  We are interpellated.  We are so bombarded with messages and images that make us feel powerful, only to be disempowered by the magic trick or the dominant-hegemonic forces (p.57).  The Little Tramp was a failure for his humanity in context of the system.

Sex is the wildcard.  In Modern Times, Paulette Goddard was the object for the male “gaze”, as explored in chapter 3, which can manipulate the viewer, though she manages to contradict typical gender roles and sexual stereotypes to do so.  Chaplin, in his real life was known for objectifying young women to the point of questionable legality regarding his young muses.  The beautiful Goddard, Chaplin’s much younger wife and co-star, is one of many in the long tradition of beautiful screen women of desire.  In the film, Goddard as the Gamine is strong, savvy and able to survive.  She supports herself and her family.  While the Little Tramp is imprisoned, she gets a job and a house for the two of them upon Tramp’s release (4).  I would also argue the androgyny of Chaplin’s pantomime contradicts the stereotype of masculinity, which, in many ways, seems to champion gender equality.  Perhaps, the comedy genre allowed such contradictions to be tolerated or overlooked . Ultimately, the beautiful Gamine is successful as a dancer hired by an overweight club owner.  

In politics, the prowess and good looks of Barack Obama, was played up to get the first black man elected to the white house.  Our “gaze” was a target of manipulation during the 2008 political campaign.  More men would rather be Barack Obama, and more women would rather be with the democrat Barack Obama than the republican John McCain.  Not to be outdone, the republicans introduced America to Sarah Palin as a vice presidential candidate.  The lower the republicans were in the polls, the shorter Palin’s skirts became.  A vice-presidential candidate actually wore leather boots and leather skirts.  In addition, comparisons were made between Barack Obama and Will Smith, the top selling movie star at that time and a world savior in most of his films, to soften initial skepticism toward Obama’s race based on more than 80 years of under-representation and misrepresentation in mass media (that is putting it very mildly, too mildly).  Michelle Obama even went on the Oprah show comparing Obama’s and Smith’s pertruding ears.  This calculated comparison could be categorized as propaganda. 

But the most extreme example of the power of persuasion in visual culture is the misuse of the famous toothbrush style mustache of Chaplin by Adolf Hitler.  Clearly with this look, Hitler stole people’s trust by likening himself to an established friendly face (2).  Through the distorted filter of history, the mustache is often mistakenly referred to as Hitler’s, and many wrongly question why Chaplin looked like Hitler.  In addition to the historical impact the Natzi atrocities, Hitler claimed ownership of Chaplin’s look and changed the meaning of the swastika (originally a symbol for peace) simultaneously.  This was tragic to Chaplin.  As a result, Chaplin satirized Hitler in The Great Dictator, shortly after Modern Times to warn against blindly following leaders.  Before its release, the film was marketed as a brave and important film for it’s attack of Hitler (2).  Hitler’s propaganda was counter-attacked by something “propagand-ish”.

Chaplin and Hitler
w/ trademark toothbrush mustaches

The film climaxes with the speech that is now famously referenced in commercials and appropriated in hip-hop records.  The speech has even been posted to youtube with contemporary film images to further enhance and illustrate Chaplin’s words and meaning, in a posting called, “The Greatest Speech Ever Made”:  

Surprisingly, In its time, Chaplin’s speech was criticized as anti-climatic and flat.  My relating it to events that have happened over 60 years later, or by seeing black and white film as nostalgic, which was simply the standard for film at the time, is viewing the work out of historical context in some ways (p.109).  However, Chaplin’s ability to seemingly step off the screen and address us, the Western industrialized culture does seems current.  This implies Chaplin’s awareness of the lasting power of media, so he chose his words carefully. 

Reading Practices of Looking...  by Sturken and Cartwright makes me question if such passion has been simply marketed to me.  This is a mass produced film for profit.  Does this film have a political intent, making it propaganda, as Walter Benjamin’s essay warns (p.131)?  Or are Modern Times and The Great Dictator works by an artist, using his savoir faire; his popularity, pantomime, creative control, and power of media, to fight the very machine that had made him rich, but also resulted in his likeness being used to brainwash and kill. 

The first five weeks of this course has brought to light for me the seriousness and complexity of visual culture.  It plays out like a game for some, but it is literally life and death.  The lines between our Western Industrialized culture and visual culture are intertwined as a result.  We must buy something.  We are consumers more than we are a democracy. This may contradict the plight of many artists.  However, after all the analyzing, the artist and the audience must leave a space in their heart to enjoy...Art.

Modern Times concludes with our hero the Little Tramp and the Gamine narrowly escaping the law.  They leave town realizing they are still in tact, and thus, they embark on Chaplin’s trademark ending.  The Little Tramp and his mate walk away from the camera toward the horizon... and that is my idea of aesthetic beauty.... Roll credits.  

  1. Frank Nugent, "Modern Times (1936). Heralding the Return, After an Undue Absence, of Charlie Chapin in ‘ModernTimes’". The New York Times: Movie Review February 6, 1936–
  2. Bosley Crowther Wallace, "The Great Dictator (1940). THE SCREEN IN REVIEW; 'The Great Dictator,' by and With Charlie Chaplin...” The New York Times: Movie Review October 16, 1940–
  3. The Great Dictator (1940)
  4. The Gamin: Paulette Goddard,

No comments:

Post a Comment