Week 4


View Modern Times (Chaplin 1936) 


If this is your first silent film, notice the difference between this era and the sound era in relation to camera angles, story development, and overall mise-en-scene.  Pay particular attention to the frame rate (how many frames of film go by per second; 24 is standard) of the film.  Silent films tend to have a lower frame rate (16-18 frames per second or fps) than sound film, which gives it that “silent film look” that we are used to.  Also, notice how sound is often times unnecessary to produce an intriguing plot or developed characters.  Use your reading to notice the principles of film form and the idea of evaluation (is this film a masterpiece?).  Also, Chaplin uses synch sound for specific purposes in this film that supports his hesitation to progress from silent filmmaking to sound pictures.  And please, don’t be afraid of silent films...I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. 

Analysis (Read AFTER watching)


Modern Times is a pseudo-silent film.  In other words, it was produced after sound film was invented in 1927  and contains scenes that include synch sound (sound matching the images).  So if sound films were the norm in 1936, why did Charlie Chaplin elect to produce a silent film?    Chaplin had the idea that sound pictures would be a fad and refused for many years to succumb to the sound revolution, claiming that silent films were pure and fit his style much better.

Silent films frame rates existed first because film cameras were cranked by hand, producing varying speeds of motion, hence the jerky, quick movements that we associate with silent films.  Even when automatic film cameras were invented, filmmakers like Chaplin elected to used silent speed, or 16-18 frames per second, to shoot many of his scenes.  He believed in the end that the frame rate produced a more comical look.  We get the “sound speed” of 24 frames per second because it matches our perception of “real time.”  In other words, playing back a scene at 24 fps reproduces normal sound speech, without it being sped up or slowed down. 

     Notice that the only time in the film that you hear a voice or have a voice in synch with an actor is when it is produced through something electronic (the gibberish song excluded, as it is not english).  For example, voices are heard through the record player, the PA system, the “Big Brother” type screen in the restroom, and through the radio.  What is the message this is sending?  Do you see it fitting the theme of the film, in which machines are taking over humanity?

There are a couple good examples of rear projection in Modern Times.  The first is in the police car, and the second is when Charlie lets the boat float away.  The use is pretty apparent because it does not visually match the quality of the scenes before and after. 

Intellectual Montage

Montage and editing was introduced in our discussion of Psycho, so remember that montage is the juxtaposition of two shots.  Basically it is anytime a shot is editing together with another shot, but we usually understand montage as a noticeable sequence of time compression (i.e. the cliched idea is compressing days of fun, romantic events coupled with a love song to show a “montage” of a developing relationship). 

An intellectual montage is when two shots are put together to form a third idea.  When either of the two shots exist separately, they have their own meaning.  When put together, a different third meaning is produced.  There is a great, basic example of this in the beginning of Modern Times when sheep are shown flocked into a gate, followed by a shot of workers exiting a subway tunnel.  Separately, this is a shot of sheep and a shot of people, but together the viewer gets the idea that workers are treated and herded like animals.  Also, a fun addition is the one black sheep, symbolizing the tramp as an outcast. 

Narrative Aspects of Modern Times

Film form should be analyzed within this criteria because it is the narrative through which film form exists – why elements, characters, objects, conflicts, exist and how they relate to each other to form the narrative.   First, we’ll distinguish between narrative elements and stylistic elements.  Narrative elements make up the film’s story.  An example of this could be the cocaine in the cafeteria scene of Modern Times.  They are events or objects that propel the plot forward.  Stylistic elements do not contribute to the plot (or narrative) but are part of film form because they are repeated and contribute to the film as a whole.  They may make the film recognizable or memorable.   Stylistic elements include the use of higher frame rates in Modern Times, the appearance of the title cards, and the repetition of specific musical themes throughout the films, particularly Modern Times and its use of the final theme song, “Smile.” 

Read the section of the text titled “Form and Meaning.”  We are constantly searching for meaning in film and other works of art and there are different levels in doing so.  Bordwell’s different meanings progress from basic story to greater meaning in society.   Think of these levels of meanings when you are analyzing and criticizing film.  On what level do you operate?  Here are these meanings again, using Modern Times as the subject:

Referential Meaning – This is the basic plot.  This would be the elementary-level meaning of the film.

Modern Times is the story of an unlucky unemployed man looking for work who finds love along the way.”

Explicit Meaning – This goes beyond the plot to produce a greater theme of the film.  This would be the high school-level meaning of the film.

“Love is more important than money.”

Implicit Meaning – This is one step beyond explicit and gives a meaning that is more interpreted rather than shown in the film.  These may vary from individual to individual and may or may not be the intention of the filmmaker.  This is the college-level meaning of the film.

Modern Times is the battle of capitalism and the cold Industrial Age versus the warm workings of the human soul.”

Symptomatic Meaning -  Once again expanded to a broader meaning, symptomatic suggests a larger whole.  The key word for this meaning is society.  What does this film say about our culture as a whole during this time period? 

“In a time of economic hardships in 1930s American society, one man goes to extremes to conquer the impossible: employment.  Modern Times existed in a time when a downtrodden America needed a laugh.”

The Principles of Film Form: 


Functions are the elements that work together to make up the narrative form.  In other words, everything that you see on the screen should be a function, working to progress the plot to its ending.  This term will come up throughout the semester, but some functions in this film include the “nose powder”, the death of the gamine’s father, or the wood block at the shipyard.  All of these elements played a role, no matter how small, in the development of the story. 

Repetition and Similarity

Without similarity and repetition, we may not recognize parallels in character and plot or motifs that exist in the film.  A motif is a repeated element (stylistic or narrative).  For example, how many times did the tramp get arrested in Modern Times?  This is a repeated element.  The love theme of the film, “Smile,” is a stylistic motif that underscores certain scenes.  Motifs will be discussed throughout the rest of the course.

Difference and Variation

Repetitions must be different in some way each time we see them.  Even in films like Groundhog Day, we don’t see the same day play out the same ever time.  With that notion, every time the tramp is arrested, there is a different element involved in his capture and release:  the difference and variation. 


This is the progression of the story from beginning to end.  In your text, Bordwell uses segmentation in outline form to recognize the locations and plot progression.  Modern Times’s development is quite  interesting in that it is almost told in short stories.   The tramp’s journey goes from predicament to predicament that could almost exist separately as short vignettes.  The outline for the film would be fairly simple:  factory, jail, shipyard, jail, department store, jail, etc.


Unity and disunity is often one of the factors in our individual evaluation of a film.  A film has unity if all the parts of the form work together efficiently to produce an ending to the film.  A film may have disunity if the plot meanders with no meaning or parts of the film have no function in the narrative.  Ever seen a film that has an extended dialogue scene or action scene that does not have a purpose in the plot?  That is disunity.  Modern Times displays unity overall in my opinion, but this concept of disunity will definitely be important for other films. 

History & Society

Modern Times is notable as an example of the transition between silent and sound pictures and the final major release to use title cards.  Also, the “gibberish song” at the end of the film is the first time audiences had ever heard Chaplin’s voice.  This is also the final appearance of Chaplin’s character, The Tramp.  The most enduring image of the film is Chaplin progressing through the cogs of the machine in the first part of the film.  It is reminiscent of film spooling through a camera and no doubt reflects his love of the art. 

Modern Times is a great commentary on the developing industry in the country during the 1930s.  The beginning title card reads:  “A story of industry, of individual enterprise - humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness.”  What does this mean to you?   Is this the only message in the film?  Is the pursuit of happiness the driving force of this film?  Remember that the United States was in the middle of the Great Depression and many of the tramp’s problems (unemployment, hunger, etc) were problems of many during this time period.  In the end, the tramp only finds love.  Notice that food is a recurring function and motif in this film:  it is a catalyst for many misadventures and the object of many desires


One of the most important terms in film appreciation or film theory is auterism.  Once again, this will be developed throughout the course, but as an introduction, understand that an auteur is the “author” of a film.  More distinctively, auteurs are directors whose work is easily recognizable, through signature style, traits, or content.  Much like Hitchcock, Chaplin is an auteur because audiences knew exactly what to expect when going to see his films. 

Film is unique in that the director is always considered the most important creative force.  The director is usually given complete credit for the outcome of the film.  This is sometimes sad news for the overlooked screenwriter (in the case of these films, the director and screenwriter are the same).  Chaplin was perhaps one of the most fully developed auteurs in film history:  he wrote, directed, starred, and even scored his films. Perhaps only Woody Allen comes close to matching his many roles in filmmaking. 


Not too much to say 

within this criterion for

this film, other than it

is a slapstick comedy.