Pandemic Diary 21: Reasons to ‘Smile’

“Buck up—never say die—we’ll get along.”

* * * *
Charlie Chaplin never published lyrics for the piece of music with which he concluded his 1936 film, Modern Times. The Tramp’s last gesture to the Gamine (Paulette Goddard) before the two literally walk off toward the sunset is to point to his mouth and draw a line up along his cheek.

“What’s the use in trying,” she had asked a moment earlier. The two are on the side of a road with no cars to hitch a ride, with all they own in kerchiefs on sticks. “Buck up—never say die—we’ll get along,” the Tramp’s last title card reads. The two walk off down the road and instrumental music swells and the film ends:

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Daily Prompt: Factory Unmade

The WordPress Daily Prompt for July 31 asks, “Automation has made it possible to produce so many objects—from bread to shoes—without the intervention of human hands (assuming that pressing a button doesn’t count). What things do you still prefer in their traditional, handmade version?”

Give me an old-fashioned, handmade iPad every time. You know the kind: Each one unique and prone to its own errors and quirks but the one that does some things uniquely better than any other iPad.

I know. It doesn’t exist, and why should it? But I have had favorite typewriters. And I continue to insist that I did not like the “feel” of certain computers, knowing that they are each the same, but still insisting that I can feel a relationship.

In one of my all-time favorite conversations, a friend and I attempted to identify whether various everyday objects were digital or analog. Not digital and analog devices and tools themselves, mind you. Not a digital watch versus a watch with a face, or “old” things versus “newfangled” digital things. We were looking at whether a device’s form or its function define its role in our world. (Of course, strictly speaking, we all live in an analog world in which digital—either/or—devices play a part.) In our game, if an object’s function defined its form, we declared it analog. If form ruled function, it was digital. (I know that this is a very incomplete analogy for digital versus analog.)

We were on a golf course while having this discussion, and we decided that my eight-iron was analog and his putter digital. You should have seen that putter.

In another conversation, this with my college roommate-slash-house philosopher Mike Pizzo, I found myself explaining in too much detail my ideas about this same concept. He sat patiently, waited for my big finish, and replied, “It’s heart versus brain,” which was his own pet analogy for, well, everything, but it also worked here.

Digital tools break tasks down into minute, discrete chunks. Analog audio records a stream containing a wave of sound, and a vinyl record or magnetic tape plays that stream of sound back; digital recorders also capture a sound wave but do so by capturing snippets of it at regular intervals, and digital players play back those snippets so quickly that it sounds like a stream of sound.

(Here’s a way to understand analog and digital. When I need to remember a letter’s place in the alphabet, I still sometimes silently sing the “Alphabet Song” I learned when I was a child and stop when I get to the letter in question. That is analog. If my brain was digital, each of the 26 letters would be equal and unique unto itself and I would be able to call up a letter’s file in question—the file for “G” says it is the seventh letter, for instance, but I needed to sing the song and count on my fingers to get that—without using its relation to the other letters in the alphabet.)

Digital audio and video are infinitely reproducible and can be manipulated almost to infinity (“that picture is fake! It was Photoshopped!”), and analog audio and video are not. In the digital world, there is no such thing as the phenomenon of “copies of copies,” in which a later generation copy of a document looks very little like the original, master document.

Conversations about a world that is only either digital or analog are digital; the rest are analog.

We live in a (mostly) digital world, a world that offers infinite reproducibility along with speed, the ability to produce the same loaf of bread or pair of pants or pop song again and again, the ability to meet goals more quickly by performing multiple, discrete tasks at the same time when once upon a time one had to perform those tasks in a particular order. (To get to “G,” I had to recite the alphabet part-way. What if I had all 26 letters’ files running in my head at the same time? “G” would be always already available to me.)

Automation gives us the ability to run multiple tasks at the same time with perpetually reproducible results. It gives us products that we can not have a personal relationship with, in spite of my insistence that I have a “feel” with certain computer keyboards. When perpetual reproducibility is something that is desired as a thing in itself, it can be disastrous.

Chaplin ridicules the heartlessness of automation for the sake of automation in one of his greatest films, 1936’s “Modern Times.” (If you are bothered by the sound of silverware scraping on a plate, this clip may irritate you.) It is a part of the famous 15-minute factory scene in which Chaplin’s Little Tramp eventually loses his mind while performing his gruelingly mindless drudge of a job (tightening bolts that are subsequently hammered by the worker beside him). The sales pitch for the “feeding machine” offers it as a way to “eliminate lunch hour” and stay ahead of the competition by keeping workers on the job while they are eating. Of course, the dance that is required to maintain anything like smooth operations is a delicate one and once any small element goes awry, the Tramp is almost beaten to death by the napkin holder.

Was my computer or your iPad built by a worker while they were being fed by a machine that held them in place on the assembly line?

I guess in my sloppy way I’m calling this “digital.” As in the conversation with my friend in which we declared certain things analog (handmade) and others digital, things that are not thought of in these terms, I offer the example of my haircut. The worst haircuts that have ever been foisted on me were automated in this way: a single set of clippers, five minutes and, “Next!” Those haircuts make me look like I have an audition next week for a acting job as a Marine gone bad. (And I am not an actor.) My current barber is more hands-on and takes 40 minutes on my head. He utilizes each pair of scissors in his arsenal. Each task on my head is addressed in turn and not rushed. He does not try to attack the whole job at once with a pair of (digital) clippers, unlike the mall hair cutters. I leave feeling like a piece of marble that had been worked on by Michelangelo. There is a line out his door most Saturday mornings.

The products of automation, much of the digital world, gives us a lot that is disposable, forgettable. Merely a long sequence of zeroes and ones. Useful, yes, but I like having things that show evidence of a human hand at work, evidence that someone cared. Like my killer haircut. I guess I want to see a hand-written sequence of zeroes and ones that would make a quirky iPad.

100 Years with The Tramp

One hundred years ago this month, Charlie Chaplin developed his most important creation, the Tramp. He started with the costume, and with it came the character, or the beginnings of one. On January 10, 1914, the Tramp, wearing what soon would be his globally recognized outfit of baggy pants, too-small derby hat, bendy cane, and little mustache, made his public debut in front of a crowd at a youth car derby in Venice, California. A film of his antics, “Kid Auto Races in Venice” was released a couple weeks later, in February.

The Tramp came to Chaplin fully formed, it appears. Not only is the costume complete in the movie but his full array of gestures—the twirl of the cane, the dismissive tip of the hat, the flat-footed walk, a kick of the leg to turn his body entirely around—is seen. (There is one prop and one gesture that are unfamiliar to viewers of today, though, and they did not stay with the character: he is seen smoking cigarettes throughout the short.)

“Kid Auto Races in Venice” is merely a series of unrelated scenes of the Tramp interfering with a film “crew” recording the day’s “Junior Vanderbilt Cup” races, an actual event taking place that day; in reality, the crew were actors and the real crew was unseen, giving us a very early example of a film within a film, a fictional documentation of a real event. The Tramp keeps sneaking into the camera frame, as if he wants to be in the movie, any movie, but before he can do more than mouth a “Hi” into the lens or primp himself up, he is pushed to the ground, pulled away, chased off.

(Here is all six minutes and nine seconds of “Kid Auto Races at Venice”):

In one five-second long sequence, he pushes a child out of the way so he can be seen alone on camera, flashes a quick “It’s okay” palm at the off-screen urchin, primps for the lens, and then reacts to a wad of paper thrown at his head by the child by wielding his cane like a spear. The child is spared by two film crew thugs who shove Charlie out of frame. Five seconds. It is sloppy–the child is off camera, after all, and the gestures are wild–but it is slick. A lot happens quickly. The moment is also a little mean, and that can be a surprise for someone whose main association with the Tramp is him holding the Kid in “The Kid,” made in 1921.


Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in “The Kid”

Some of the crowd, there to watch the races on the streets of Venice, California, were confronted by the sight of this one oddly dressed little man and what appeared to be two film crews photographing him (the real one and the “real” one). Onscreen, the spectators frequently ignore the cars zooming by to look at both foreign objects, the actor and those cameras and it often looks like the cameras were winning the attention of the crowd over both the cars and Chaplin.

He and the Mack Sennett crew were filming “Mabel’s Strange Predicament” when the studio decided to send the Tramp out into the world and visit the Venice races, and today, January 10, is the 100th anniversary of that debut. In February 1914, “Kid Auto Races” was released, followed two days later by “Mabel’s Strange Predicament.”

By the end of 1914, Chaplin would make another 33 films and become a national star; by the end of 1915, there were 13 more and his character was an international icon. In all, the Tramp appeared in 65 Chaplin shorts or features, ending with 1936’s “Modern Times.” (In “The Great Dictator,” from 1940, both his Jewish barber and the dictator Adenoid Hynkel certainly bear more than a passing resemblance to the Tramp.)

Chaplin was hired by Sennett at the end of 1913 and only instructed to be funny and look older. (He was 24.) He already had made one film for Sennett, “Making a Living,” in which he wore a walrus mustache and top hat (and complained that his best takes were cut out of the finished movie, forecasting future conflicts), and was making his second, “Mabel’s Strange Predicament,” when he was called to the set. In the rather cinematic version of the story he wrote in his “Autobiography,” published in 1964, Chaplin describes the moment:

I had no idea what makeup to put on. I did not like my get-up as the press reporter [in Making a Living]. However on the way to the wardrobe I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small mustache, which I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression.I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born.

Chaplin tended to romanticize his life story and he certainly had every right to, fifty years after the moment of his greatest creation. But the Tramp of these first Sennett one-reelers is not yet the plucky Everyman, he is by turns mean and put upon, apoplectic and self-centered. The one element already in place that would remain till the end of his career is the Tramp’s anti-authoritarianism: whoever is in charge–a film crew or the police, most especially the police–is there to be laughed at, evaded, escaped from, ignored, or swung at. Sometimes in a single gesture.

Film lovers would not be laughing at and studying Chaplin’s films one hundred years on if the Tramp had remained the pointlessly vain and strangely gymnastic dolt seen in “Kid Auto Races,” but this short movie shows more than a glimpse of what was to follow, for Chaplin and film. And it was made one hundred years ago today.