Charlie and the Artistic Expression
The upper class holds an unwavering dominance over the lower class in every society. This gives them the power to manipulate their underlings in almost any conceivable way. The lower class cannot sit back and allow their lives to be controlled by people in a higher position just because of the social class that they were born into. Herbert Marcuse believes that a commendable way for the lower class to fight back is through their art. Charlie, as a character in his movie Modern Times, represents the artistic movement that fights back in a society that is dominated by the upper class, which is what Marcuse identifies as the “Great Refusal” in chapter three of his book One-Dimensional Man through the progression of Charlie’s character and his quest to find his place in society.
In the beginning, Charlie is alienated from society when he cannot do the simple technical work that he is expected to. Often, his inept ability to do work also lands him in jail. According to Marcuse, “The crimes of society, the hell that man has made for man become unconquerable cosmic forces” (Marcuse 61). The upper class constantly tries to belittle Charlie and his fellow lower class friends, even creating a machine that feeds the workers while they are doing their job in the factory so that they no longer have to take a break from working. This proves that they do not value the well-being of their workers, ignoring their needs, and almost treating them like they are subhuman. Further, Charlie is fired from his job as a factory worker, shipyard worker, and night watchman for his lack of skill in those areas, and actually finds himself in jail also. The upper class has a very specific way of accomplishing tasks, and if Charlie cannot do it their way, then he is doomed to delve deeper and deeper into the wretches of poverty. This is exactly what happens in Modern Times. For someone who cannot play the upper class’s game, their rule is indeed as “unconquerable” as Marcuse claims. For an extended period of time, Charlie tries to play by the upper class’s rules, and fruitlessly attempts to fit in. For instance, when he is working in the shipyard, his flustered face portrays the determined mind of a man who wants to execute his job effectively, but ultimately cannot. Thus, he decides to change his approach.
Falling more in line with Marcuse’s idea of how to revolt against the upper class, Charlie decides to use his art to make money instead. Marcuse writes that “the magic or rational transgression, is an essential quality of even the most affirmative art; it is alienated also from the very public which it is addressed” (Marcuse 63). Thus, Charlie begins his fight back against the norms of society. He finds a job at a local restaurant as a singing waiter, and he is a huge success there. This is Charlie’s natural calling; the viewer can tell he puts his heart into the song and dance, as his facial expressions even change to match the mood of the song. The dance is, in Marcuse’s words, “affirmative art”, and it rings out as a rebellion against the upper class. Alas, Charlie has begun to earn money to pull himself up from poverty and make a better future for himself, by undermining the system and using art to make a name for himself instead of a fool of himself.
One-Dimensional Man and Modern Times show that art is the way to rebel against the norms of society and pave the way for a brighter future. Marcuse describes art as “the Great Refusal – the protest against that which is” (Marcuse 63). In the final scene of Modern Times, Charlie and the girl are seen walking off into the distance on a long road. The road symbolizes the “protest” that Marcuse talks of; it symbolizes the long journey that the lower class has to escape their alienation from society. We can see by the chronology of the movie that this is no coincidence, for Charlie and the girl walk along the road directly after Charlie’s dance at the restaurant. With these events in such close succession with each other, their connection is amplified, and it as if art paves the road to the revolution. Additionally, the fact that the juvenile welfare officers once again try to take the girl into custody, but both her and Charlie escape, shows the liberation that they have found in making art their way of life. Every time Charlie tries to do a profession that falls in line with the way society wants him to behave, he is captured by the officials and taken to jail. Now, he is done with all of their games. He has already proven that he can stand on his own, and he will not allow them to take him back into their world. He walks the road happily with only the girl by his side, showing that their Great Refusal frees them from the upper class’s clutches, and their cheerfulness is evident by the smiles on their faces.
Conclusively, Charlie in Modern Times is a wonderful representation of Marcuse’s idea of the Great Refusal, as he fights back by using his artistic abilities after trying and failing to follow the upper class’s way of doing things. Charlie is a leader that should be a role model for the lower class everywhere. He had his fair share of hardships in the movie, going to jail multiple times, but it only paved the way towards his rebellion. Society will never change its ways if everyone plays by the same rules everyday, so today is the day to make an artistic move, a move of freedom, a move of rebellion, and walk down the road to a brighter, more equal tomorrow with smiles on our faces.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial
Society. Boston: Beacon, 1991. Print.
"Modern Times (1936)." YouTube. YouTube, 28 Mar. 2012. Web. 20 Feb. 2014