The pressure of modernity within society, particularly within the urban environment, and it’s encroachment upon the traditional notions of the workplace and leisure time is contemplated in films like Modern Times (Chaplin, 1936) and Playtime (Tati, 1967), particularly as a critique of the impact or possible impact of technological innovation and echoing anxieties of the mechanic vision at the expense of the person.
Modern Times reacts in its critique as a more contentious relationship. The “Man versus the Machine,” in which technological progress is viewed at an antagonist level, and usually at the expense of the person, or in the case of this film, the worker sacrificing the dignity of the person in favor of making him just another function of the great machine of industry.
The film describes the “othering” of the worker from his own humanity, such as in the scene in which Chaplin’s character, The Tramp, is hooked up to a machine that feeds him a meal without sacrificing “valuable man-hours.”
Another example, when The Tramp, repetitively uses his wrenches to turn the nut on an ambiguous something, repeating the same motions over and over again, performing a function of the whole. He is so subsumed by this act that he continues to try to tighten things with his wrench even when he is no longer working, seemingly blinded to anything other than his mechanized small corner.
With Playtime, and the character Hulot, he is swept up in a world and society that has fully embraced technological innovation and gadgetry. Unlike Modern Times more antagonistic relationship between person and machine, Playtime utilizes a more resigned air. Hulot becomes the definitive bumbling leaf caught up in the remorseless wind of “progress.” There is no outright battle, merely Hulot being cluelessly overwhelmed, shunted and shuffled without any clear idea how to get along, “othering” those through him, that can’ keep up with progress and at some point becoming lost to the system.
In both films in settings like the workplace, both show a sense of being subsumed by the machine of industry. In in a scene in Playtime Hulot becomes lost in the cubical/box area of the average paper pusher, everyone so closed off (literally) in performing their assigned tasks that no one even realizes there is someone lost among them because everyone has a set purpose (at the risk of sounding cliché) like cogs in a machine. In Modern Times Tramp is literally lost in the internals, the cogs, of a giant machine when he is sucked into one at work.
There is a further sense of the invasion of modernity, how a society becoming ever more interconnected, fascinated, and mechanical to the point of wearing away of the public and private sectors to the point of reducing society to a frame work of recurring voyeuristic invasion of both the workplace and the home.
For example, when Hulot wanders into a place of business, he is made to wait in a clear walled waiting room open to the gaze of whoever happens by. Further sense of being judged or reminded that one is constantly under the scrutiny of others lie in the pictures of important individuals placed on each wall. Reminding anyone who sits there that they are under the constant regard of those around you and above you. This sense of constant observation is also echoed in Modern Times, though perhaps in a more abrupt “Big Brother is watching you” sense when the boss of the factory constantly watches his employee’s through a screen, ordering them to do this and that, separating the need for personal contact between authority and worker, furthering the sense of class division in the workplace.
Unlike Modern Times however, Playtime presents a more all-inclusive mechanized society. In a scene, Hulot is made welcome in the home of another and his family, we see that it satirizes the rupturing of the “private home” by reducing it to a voyeuristic show that anyone in a passing car can observe, satirizing the preoccupation with television replacing the fireplace in the home by framing various homes in a manner similar to one watching a television as they watch the latest programs.
In conclusion, both Modern Times and Playtime through comparing and contrasting, show a certain critique for the evolving technological urban environment, even if their approaches are somewhat different.