New Internationalist

Farce as reality

Issue 395

A 1930s vision of the future stuns Lindsey Collen with the shock of the new.

Sarah John
Sarah John

The film club that Ram and I are in, not at all a highbrow one, varies its choice of monthly film so that members get to watch and discuss newish films with a difference and also old classics. The old classics vary – from serious stuff like Fellini’s Julietta of the Spirits that, incidentally, everybody loved, to the less serious. Which is how Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times came up. We thought it was going to show us ‘modern times’ way back then in 1936. And we thought it would still be very funny even if dated. Everyone loves the absurdity of this kind of slick farce.

Then, when it came to the discussion afterwards, out on the big open verandah over a glass of wine or tumbler of juice, we realized how modern the film still is, and how it reflects today’s Mauritius quite accurately. Rising unemployment. Factory closures. The role of the prisons, probation services, psychi-atric hospitals, religious men, police, bourgeois ladies, the press, the whole lot, in keeping a system ticking over even as it tilts into crisis. The newspapers of that week were about drugs inside the Beau Bassin prison. Just like the drugs in the prison in the film. But the similarities went much further.

Conversation turned to how Chaplin depicts a night-time security guard in a department store going around on roller skates to cover each floor in time to clock in for the next one, thus taking 1930s factory speed-ups to their artistic extremes, to the limits of the imagination. Like the automatic ‘worker-feeding’ machine, designed to come and feed someone right at their place in the assembly line, even automatically wiping their mouth afterwards. And like the boss who keeps watch over the toilets with a hidden camera, just in case a worker like Chaplin should lean on a washbasin and take a puff at a cigarette when he should be back at his post at the conveyor belt, being productive.

That was when a textile factory worker put her head back and laughed, saying: ‘At Francois Woo’s high-tech spinning mill at La Tour Koenig, the shopfloor workers are all young men on rollerblades now!’ She described how they speed around, brake sharply, turn corners on a penny, all the while checking on the spools as they whiz past. She explained how they get literally weeks of training in how to fall so as not to hurt themselves. We mulled over the 2006-07 government budget making the retirement age gradually shift from 60 to 65 – while workers are put on rollerblades.

Another member followed on. ‘Absurd, but there’s a shirt factory in Port Louis where the boss, exactly one month ago, installed closed-circuit TV cameras in the toilet area, so that he can check that the women machinists don’t “waste time” hanging around instead of getting back to their sewing machines.’ Farce, we realized, was now reality.

At this point discussion turned to the unforget-tably sublime ‘Nonsense Song’ while Chaplin is working in a restaurant. Having lost his crib sheet for the words of the song he’s about to sing for clients, he has to make up the song as he dances. His dance, by the way, must have been the inspiration for the Michael Jackson moonwalk. This scene attacked the concept of saving money by making workers become ‘multi-tasked’ – waiters at the restaurant were expected to serve at table for the duration of the meal, and then nip back to change out of their waiters’ uniforms into showbiz outfits so they could each produce a song-and-dance performance for the diners. This way their employers only had to pay one lot of people for both sets of tasks.

At this point, another member exclaimed loudly: ‘Like my wife’s younger sister! She’s from Rodrigues Island. She works at one of the tourist hotels there, as a waitress. She and the other hotel serving staff, as part of their scheme of duties, have to sing and dance the Sega after having served the meal. Just like in the film!’

So Modern Times turned out, after the discussion, to be more modern and even more tragically funny than we had expected. Or than Chaplin could ever have guessed.

Lindsey Collen is a Mauritian novelist.

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