I’m a month into my mini-retirement in Montreal. So far, so good. A typical day consists of a late rise, breakfast, bread-baking, writing, exploration of this new city and night-time festivity with new chums. I’ll write more about the joys of not working in New Escapologist Issue Three, which should be available early in the new year.
A few days ago, I enjoyed Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times at a local cafe-theatre with live piano accompaniment from Roman Zavada.
It’s an entertaining film for Escapologists in that it sympathises with the modern escape fantasy. Chaplin’s character attempts to escape humiliating work in factories, ship yards and department stores. He also ensures a brief spell in prison where he is taken after being mistaken for a the leader of a Communist demonstration. Tellingly, Chaplin begs the jailer to keep him locked up when the subject of his future employment is raised. Prison incarceration is preferable, it seems, to the world of work!
It’s fun that the film begins with the rapidly-spinning hands of a clock. To any worker, it prompts instant identification: a watched clock is surely the truest motif of modern division-of-labour-type work.
I remember the phenomenon of clock-watching only too well. As a worker, my time would slip away quickly: barely noticed, seldom savoured, almost always wished away. You tell yourself that the money in your bank account at the end of the month will buy some sort of freedom and you’ll be able to think about escape more clearly with some money in the bank. By the time payday comes around, the rent needs paying and the whole thing starts again. Grim, grim, grim. Your youth is disappearing through your fingers. Nothing – not money, not job satisfaction – is worth that sacrifice.
There’s a great scene in Modern Times in which Chaplin’s character plays guinea pig to an efficiency-promoting technology: a ridiculous contraption that feeds the worker as he works, presumably to reduce leisurely lunch breaks. It’s a satire on the various technologies used to govern us and to maximise our efficiency as consumer-workers while it masquerades as some kind of liberating helper “because you’re worth it”.
The technology scene reminds me of how office workers today eat their mean little sandwich lunches secretively at their desks, while continuing to work or gawp into Cyberspace. Something that could be pleasurable for it’s own sake is now forsaken in favour of efficiency, convenience and cheapness. You don’t have to succumb to this.
Modern Times also presents a nice satire of the idealist fantasy of what you would do if only you could escape the drudgery of it all. Chaplin imagines a happy home in which fruit is conveniently plucked from vines around the doors and windows, and milk comes willingly and effortlessly from a cow’s udder. In this dream, he wants for nothing. It’s Utopian, ridiculous and unattainable: perhaps the Escapologist’s folly.
You can watch the entire film for free here.