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Charlie Chaplin in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Reflexive Ambiguity in Modern Times

From: College Literature
Volume 40, Number 1, Winter 2013
pp. 45-65 | 10.1353/lit.2013.0007



Charlie Chaplin produced Modern Times in the midst of social upheaval and professional peril: the Great Depression called into question the optimism that had surrounded the ‘Machine Age,’ and the success of talking motion pictures threatened Chaplin’s cinematic career as a silent filmmaker and star. These factors have influenced a critical consensus that views Modern Times as resorting to exhausted Chaplin formulas and shying away from social criticism. In light of a careful reading of the reflexive gestures in Chaplin’s film and of primary documents of the period, Howe questions this consensus. Instead, his analysis interprets the reflexivity in Chaplin’s film as representations of production and consumption that emphasize the dynamism that these two economic forces exerted on society as a whole and on Hollywood in particular. The film’s double reflexivity, Howe concludes, establishes a parallel between Chaplin’s dilemma as a filmmaker and the equivocal cultural attitudes toward the influence of industrial technology on economics, politics, and aesthetics because both derive from the tension between technological change in society and the technological basis of art in the early twentieth century. In that intersection of forces, Modern Times reflects not only Chaplin’s own political and aesthetic concerns, but also the complex meanings that technology had acquired in both the production of culture and the culture of production.