THE PORTRAYAL OF THE CITY AND FACTORIES
IN MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA AND MODERN TIMES
An essay submitted for the course SML1021: Introduction to International Film
(Semester 1, 17/18)
School of Modern Languages
17 January 2018
Technology is everywhere nowadays. From our phones to our computers technology seems to be developing at the speed of light, bringing us vital information and connecting us. The effect of technology on human beings is the main subject in the movies. Though Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times were released during the Soviet Five-Year Plan and the American Great Depression respectively, both filmmakers portray the urban and industrial life of people during the industrialization using different cinematographic techniques. By analyzing the context of the two films, we can see that certain similarities and differences can be found in the industrial and city life scenes.
It is undeniable that both filmmakers released their movies at a similar point in time, i.e. the late twenties and early thirties. Both movies are famous for their filmmaking approach they used, which was newly developed in the 1920s. Although both are silent movies, Vertov’s film is famous for its unusual editing, while Chaplin’s Modern Times is especially known for his pantomime performance and musical effects. In addition, certain modern themes can be found in both films, such as the emphasis on machinery and production. Chaplin’s Modern Times is a narrative comedy, a mix of laughter and pathos, and a political commentary to express absurdity in industrial capitalism and the anxiety of the American society. Chaplin depicts the struggle to preserve humanity in the aftermath of America’s Great Depression, when mass unemployment, close surveillance, and exploitation of workers coincided with the sharp rise of industrial automation. In other words, he portrays the dehumanization of the workers by machines at factories, where the human hands are no more useful. Dziga Vertov, however, holds a positive view on industrialization, saying machines and humans form a tight union. As a result, he creates an experimental silent movie that depicts the everyday life of Russians in the Soviet cities when Stalin sought to industrialise the rural USRR economy mainly through heavy industry. However, both filmmakers use different cinematographic methods to share their views on the industrialized era.
While Vertov rejects every theatrical element of Hollywood films, Chaplin’s comedy movie has a real plot, true actors, sounds and music, and meaningful props and costumes. He focuses on the mise-en-scène to draw a picture of the failed human-machine relationship during the Great Depression through amusement and emotions. However, Vertov’s propagandistic documentary on the life of Soviet citizens has no plot and mirrors the reality simply as it is, with his Kinopravda (Film-Truth) editing and montage techniques: Vertov’s vision was to capture pieces of actuality, which, put together, have a deeper truth that the human eye cannot normally see. With his Kino-Eye (Cine-Eye) concept, he put machines above mankind. To him, the camera lens sees more than the naked eye. As a result, he gives the viewer a new viewpoint of life that human beings would not experience, by using special effects including mainly the Kuleshov Effect, but also dissolves, double-exposure, split-screen, Dutch angle, fast cutting, slow and fast motion effects as well as extreme close-up shots. Consequently, both Vertov and Chaplin have different cinematographic methods to portray everyday life and the human-machine relationship during industrialization.
In the urban and industrial framework, the main theme in Modern Times and Man with a Movie Camera is human interaction with the modern-day machines. While the Soviet factories are the place full of happiness for workers, the American ones are represented as a big industrial man-eating monster and the main factor in their dehumanization, unemployment, poverty, and waves of strikes for freedom. Charlie Chaplin, a.k.a. the Little Tramp, represents the working class in a dystopian city. The film opens with the establishing shot of a clock, which symbolizes the industrial time that rules the mechanized world (Time is money), followed by a juxtaposition of shots of sheep being herded with a black sheep in the middle, as well as workers rushing from a subway to get to the factory. This is Chaplin’s metanarrative with which he shows that the working society is a sheepish, mechanized society where there is always a ‘black sheep’ to break norms. The scenes are accelerated and supplemented with fast violin music to show the social everyday rush and the pace of industrial production. In addition, several scenes show the nature of the poor working conditions, particularly when we see the Tramp struggling with his monotonous, robotic and inhumane work on a conveyor belt under his manager’s ubiquitous surveillance (from big television screens – a reference to Big Brother). Dehumanisation of workers is shown when the Tramp is swallowed and then regurgitated by the oversized machine (in a funny effect of reverse motion) and when he is used as a ‘guinea pig’ to test the Feeding Machine which takes control of his hands (feeding is no more human). Many workers during the Great Depression suffered from diseases and breakdowns due to bad working conditions – Chaplin portrays this when he suffers from muscular spasms and a breakdown, which leads him to ‘tightening’ buttons on women’s clothing and even the noses of other workers, as well as squirting black oil on them and the boss. He is finally sent to the psychiatric hospital. As a result, Chaplin reveals how absurd industrialization is and how it decreases workers’ human nature to the mechanical level.
Moreover, the harmful nature of industrialization on society is also shown in Modern Times. Unemployment is shown several times, once in a master shot where we see a crowd of unemployed workers protesting, and then with a high-angle shot where we see them waiting to be hired in front of the factory’s gate. Poverty and social inequality in the city are shown through the choice of costume. A smart suit is worn by the wealthy upper class (the management or wealthy buyers in the department store) whereas the dirty overalls are for the working class and the homeless, such as the Gamin and her family, wear ripped rags. Another aspect of poverty is the bread queues: many people are unemployed and seek food, sometimes breaking rules, as the Gamine does. The poor also dream of a better future, which can be seen in the scene when the Tramp meets the Gamine, a teenage orphan, and they both long for a dream house – the fantastic mise-en-scène (props and costumes) helps the viewers understand that the couple is dreaming: a full table, an obedient cow delivering milk at the doorstep, a steak for dinner, grapes growing on the house, and well-dressed protagonists. As for sound and music, there are very few dialogues in the film as it is a pantomime (human voices are heard only through technological devices: the top manager who talks to his workers through the screens or the salesman who talks through a gramophone). Chaplin also uses many musical effects and natural sounds, like alarms, cowbells and car klaxons. By combining all the techniques of mise-en-scène such as overacting actors, exaggerated settings, funny props and costumes, and orchestral music, he reinforces the narrative as well as the social and industrial topics in a ridiculous way to show the everyday life of the workers in the American industry.
Meanwhile, Dziga Vertov also shows a utopian city of Soviet citizens at work and at play, co-operating with the machines. He is especially famous for his distinct editing techniques ranging from high-angle and cross-cutting to close-up and low-angle shots of the camera. He mainly adopts the Kuleshov Effect technique throughout the film. As the main theme is the man-machine harmonization, he shoots men and women, places and things, factories and transport as an attempt to associate them with one another, since automation is advantageous for humanity. For instance, he portrays happy men and women working in the industry, to show how happy people are to have a job, e.g. in the scenes where two women are working on the sewing machines and where a joyful woman is folding cigarette boxes. Here, he uses the so-called dynamic intensification by cross-cutting segments between shots of machinery in action to show the harmony between man and machine. He juxtaposes many shots of hands and machinery to show that the human hand is replaced by the machine, namely in the double-exposure shot to combine a woman’s face with a typewriter.
As for the Soviet society, the city has a lot of modern social buildings often in long shots – in one shot, he uses a Dutch angle, tilting the angle of the camera to one side. He underlines the social collectivity required for rapid industrialization and a perfect society. The collectivity of the people is shown in a shot when we can see new-born babies lying in hospital cribs, for instance. The city is very motorized and perfectly organized like the interior of a machine, shot in close-up shots, for instance, where we can see parts of moving tramways for instance. Vertov also displays social practices in many shots, such as marriage, divorce, funeral, birth, but also an accident experienced by a man, with fast cutting and fast motion to add some drama to the film. He also depicts social class, i.e. the working class and the bourgeoisie, with a close-up shot where he films a made-up woman. In addition, Vertov shows workers participating in sports after work, in an effort to promote physical activity. In doing so, he uses the dissolve to represent time passing in empty locations that fill with action right after, like in the scene of an empty beach becoming populated by women doing aerobics, or swimmers gliding through a previously calm sea. The slow motion is used in a sequence at the park during an athletics competition where a woman pirouettes before throwing a discus. Through this, he highlights physical ability being combined with mechanical ability. By the end of the film, he uses a stop-motion animation in a scene which shows the camera tripod moving on its own. In fact, by moving the inanimate object between each frame, he demonstrates the power and humanization of technology.
As a conclusion, both filmmakers in their silent films portray urban and industrial contexts in the cities within the same period, i.e. the economic development in Stalin’s Soviet Union and the Fordist American society. However, they express different opinions through their movies. The Soviet pioneer of Kinopravda, with his special effects related to editing and montage, appears to support industrialization and invites the audience to reflect upon a utopian everyday life of a city (mainly through his Kuleshov Effect), where people, regardless of their social class and everyday issues they experience, are equal and work in the factories to build a better Russia for future. With the help of his cameraman, who risks his life to capture every moment of the city, he wants nothing but the truth, without any exaggeration. As a result, he ends up creating a propagandistic movie, a picture of the perfect man-machine union. In contrast, Chaplin is hostile to the industrialization and puts a negative spin on the relationship between humans and technology, using comedy and exaggeration in his mise-en-scène. For him, the human is a slave of technology. He reveals the greatest absurdity of The Great Depression – unemployment, food shortages, social inequality, hard conditions at the factories and ubiquitous surveillance. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile questioning which of the two filmmakers succeeded in persuading the audience with their movies, Vertov or Chaplin. Can technology take control of humanity? This is the question everybody should be asking.
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