Technology is everywhere nowadays. From phones to our computers, from work to our homes, technology seems to be developing like lightning, bringing us everyday information, connecting us and simplifying our lives. And its effects on human beings is the main subject in the movies. If Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times were both respectively released during the Soviet Five-Year Plan and the American Great Depression, both filmmakers portray the urban and industrial life of people during the industrialization, using different cinematographic techniques. Based on each film context, an analysis will be drawn from a comparison of the industrial and city life scenes from Modern Times and Man with a Movie Camera. Certain parallels and differences can be found in both films.
It is undeniable that both filmmakers released their movies nearly at the same period, that’s in the late twenties and the early thirties. Both movies are famous for their new filmmaking approach in the 1920s. If both are silent movies, Vertov’s film is famous for its unusual editing, while Chaplin’s Modern Times is known especially for his pantomime performance and musical effects. In addition, certain modern themes can be pulled from both films such as the emphasis on machinery and production. Chaplin’s Modern Times is a narrative comedy, a mix of laugher and pathos, and a political commentary to express absurdity in the industrial capitalism and 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 position about industrialization, saying machines and humans form a tight union. As a result, he creates an experimental silent movie that depicts an everyday life of Russians in the Soviet cities when Stalin sought to industrialize the rustic USRR economy through heavy industry mainly. However, both filmmakers use different cinematographic methods to share their views on the mechanized era.
If Vertov rejects every theatrical element of the Hollywood’s films, Chaplin’s comedy movie has a real plot, true actors, sounds and music, and meaningful props and costume. He focuses on the mise-en-scène to draw a picture of the failed human-machine relationship during Great Depression through amusement and emotions. However, Vertov’s propagandistic documentary on Soviet citizens life has no plot and mirrors the reality simply as it is, with his Kino-pravda (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 the man. For him, the camera lens sees more than the naked human eye. As a result, he gives the viewer a new viewpoint of life that human beings would not experience, using his special effects, including mainly Kuleshov Effect but also dissolves, double-exposure, split-screen, Dutch angle, fast cutting, slow and fast motion effects and extreme close-ups shots. Consequently, both Vertov and Chaplin have different cinematographic methods to portray the everyday life and human-machine relationship during industrialization.
In the urban and industrial context, the main theme in Modern Times and Man with a Movie Camera is the human interaction with the machines of the modern time. While the Soviet factories are workers’ paradise, the American ones are represented as the big industrial man-eating monster and the factor of their dehumanization, unemployment, poverty, waves of strikes for freedom. Charlie Chaplin aka the Little Tramp represents the working-class in a dystopian city. And the film opens with the establishing shot of a clock, which symbolizes the mechanically-measures 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 and of workers rushing out of a subway to get to the factory. This is Chaplin’s metanarrative with which he shows that the working society is the sheepish, machine-like society where there is always a ‘black sheep’ to break norms in the society. In addition, the scenes are accelerated and supplemented with the fast violin music to show the social everyday rash and the pace of industry production. In addition, several scenes show the nature of poor working conditions. Particularly, when we see the Tramp struggling with his monotonous, robotic and inhuman work on a conveyor belt under his manager’s ubiquitous surveillance (from big television screens – reference to Big Brother). Dehumanization of workers is shown when the Tramp is swallowed and then vomited 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 Great Depression, suffer from diseases and breakdowns due to bad working conditions at work – Chaplin portrays when he suffers from muscular spasms and a breakdown, which leads him to ‘tightening’ buttons on women’s clothing, noses of other workers, and 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 reduces workers’ human nature to the technical level.
In addition, the hurtful nature of industrialization on the society are also shown in Modern Times. Unemployment is shown several times, once in a master shot, when we see a crowd of unemployed workers protesting and then with a high-angle shot, when we see them waiting to be hired in front of the factory’s gate. Poverty and social inequalities in the city is shown with the costume choice. A smart suit is for the wealthy upper class (the management or wealthy buyers in the department store), the dirty overalls are for the working-class and the homeless, like the Gamin and her family, are in ripped rags. Another aspect of poverty are the bread lines: many people are unemployed and seek for food, sometimes breaking rules, like does Paulette, the Gamin. The poor also dream about a better future, like the scene when the Tramp meets the Gamine, an adolescent orphan and both long for a dream house – the fantastic mise-en-scène (props and costumes) helps understand the viewers that the couple is dreaming: a full table, 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 film (human voices are heard only through technological devices: the boss who talks to his workers from the screens or the salesman who talks through a gramophone). Chaplin also uses many musical effects, natural sounds, like sirens, cowbells, auto horns. By combining all the techniques of mise-en-scène, such as overacting actors, exaggerated setting, funny props and costumes and orchestral music, he reinforces in a ridiculous way the narrative and social and industrial topics 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, interacting with the machines of the Soviet Union. He is famous especially for his special editing techniques ranging from high-angle shots and cross-cutting shots to close-up shots and low-angle shots of the camera. He mainly adopts the Kuleshov Effect technique throughout his film. As the main theme is the man-machine harmonization, he shoots men and women, places and things, factories and transport as it is an effort to equate them with each other, automatization is advantageous for humanity. For instance, he portrays happy women and men working at industries like in the scene where two women work on the sewing machines or a joyful woman folding cigarette boxes to show how happy people are to have a job. 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 woman’s face placed over 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, titling the angle of the camera to one side. He underlines the social collectivity required for rapid industrialization and perfect society. Collectivity of people is shown in a shot when we can see newborn babies lying in the hospital baskets, for instance. The city is very motorized and perfectly organized like the interior of a machine, shot in close-up shots, for instance, when we can see parts of moving tramways for instance. Vertov also displays in many shots social practices, such as marriage, divorce, funeral, birth, but also a man’s accident, with a fast cutting and fast motion to add some drama to the film. He also represents social class – the working class and the bourgeoisie with a close-up shot when he films a made-up woman. In addition, Vertov shows laborers engaging in sports after work – he wants to promote sports based on a discipline of body – for instance, he uses the dissolve as time is 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. By using it, he highlights the physical ability combined with the machine 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, which is 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 the industrialization, and invites the audience to reflect a utopian everyday life of a city (mainly through his Kuleshov Effect), where people, no matter their social class and everyday issues they experience, are equal and work 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 machine-man union. In contrast, Chaplin is hostile to the industrialization and puts a negative spin on the relationship between technology and the human, using comedy and exaggeration in his mise-en-scène. For him, the human is a slave of the technology. He reveals the greatest absurdity of Great Depression – unemployment, food shortages, social inequality and injustice, hard conditions at the factories and ubiquitous surveillance following the Fordist routinization of industry. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to ask which from both filmmakers succeeded to persuade the audience with their movies, Vertov or Chaplin. Can technology take control of humanity? This is the question everybody should raise.