In Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times there exists a struggle between natural, human autonomy and the strict regimentation of an increasingly mechanized industrial society. Charlie is confronted with a system of mass production that devalues individual human worth in favor of maximum productivity and economic efficiency. However, the film can be boiled down even further so as to have a more universal and timeless appeal. As the text card at the beginning of the film reads, Modern Times is a story of “humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness.” It is this aspect of the film that humans can identify with regardless of vocation and time period. As a result, seventy years following the original screening of Modern Times in 1936, Kanye West and music video director Michel Gondry created the video for “Heard Em Say” and the visuals for the video were undoubtedly influenced by the film. So much so that they evoked the iconography of Charlie’s Tramp character and the films department store sequence to address the varied social and economic issues of their modern reality. By closely analyzing the mise-enscene and the lyrics in Kanye West’s music video and comparing them with the department store sequence in Modern Times, one can begin to identify similar points of view regarding the systemic disempowerment and impoverishment of individuals in the face of impersonal forces of authority and mechanized industry.
Both Modern Times and the music video symbolically feature a department store and they utilize it so as to provide two different groups of poor, disadvantaged and hungry people with a playground to explore and indulge in the luxuries that were previously unavailable to them. In Modern Times, Charlie is finally hit with a stroke of good luck as he approaches the department store to find that the night watchmen has broken his leg, meaning a job has just opened up. Charlie sees this as an opportunity that he must capitalize on. However, there is a bit of subtext to this in that despite Charlie’s good fortune, it did not come without the deeply unfortunate circumstance of another man. Regardless, Charlie gets the job with the help of a letter recommending employment and so begins Charlie and the gamin’s perusal and indulgence of all that the store has to offer from sweets to toys and beds. For the first time in the film the audience is able to see the two live out their fantasies of having a nice house and an abundance of goods without being criminalized by authorities for their vagrancy. This lasts until Charlie is unearthed amongst a display of clothes by a shopping customer and is consequently escorted out of the store and into a police vehicle by a policeman.
In Kanye’s music video we have the same department store setup, with Gondry keying the viewer into the fact that this department store is Macys and that Kanye is a homeless guardian of three children. They are allowed to enter the store by a night watchmen, similarly to Modern Times but under different circumstances, and then one can notice a major difference. The department store in the music video is envisioned by Gondry to be a sort of surreal dreamscape in which the children fly, chairs rearrange themselves, cars become beds, food is magically revealed, racks of suits dance in conjunction with Kanye and so on.
Gondry, being a masterful manipulator of mise-en-scene utilized stop-motion photography with painstaking detail to create the aesthetic of the department store and to include several small visual cues that allude to Modern Times and Charlie Chaplin’s influence as well as reveal a hostile opposition towards authority figures. The first occurs 2 minutes into the video when several televisions assemble on top of one another to depict Kanye in white, old-fashioned costuming, smiling as he holds a white top hat and shakes it. This appears to be an overt signifier to the vaudeville style of comedic acting that Charlie championed. Secondly, escalators are featured in both depictions of the department store to negative effect. In Modern Times, Charlie struggles with the pace of the escalator while being pursued by Big Bill and his gang, suggesting that technology and mechanization are outpacing human ability, just as it was for Charlie when working on the conveyor belt at the steel mill. In Kanye’s video, towards the end at 3:27, several white pianos are resting on the escalator as it goes down and suddenly they all topple over one another like dominoes suggesting, in a similar manner to Modern Times, that technological advancements could damage the prestige of classical instruments like the piano. Lastly, at 1:15, Kanye can be seen holding a suit and staring at a display of ties. Interestingly enough the ties are being displayed on pigs, a farm animal often associated with greed, gluttony and in America it can be a synonym for police. Gondry is trying to make a connection between tie-wearing and authority by using the pigs as a display for the ties. People with power and wealth usually wear ties making the symbolism entirely plausible. Even in Modern Times, the men standing around giving orders in the Electro Steel Mill were adorned with ties and very nice attire while Charlie wore dirty overalls and some of his coworkers didn’t even have shirts.
One of the major things the music video has in common with the film is a hostile attitude towards authority figures and it conveys that through the lyricism and the presence of the police in thwarting the fun of the children in the video. Kanye raps, “But they can’t cop cars without seein’ cop cars, I guess they want us all behind bars.” This coincides with the visuals in the music video as the night watchman bursts out in front of the children with his police car bed. As Kanye’s family is African American this also implies racial profiling and again only a few seconds later at 1:19, the children can be seen in the background of the shot while Adam Levine is singing the chorus. Their legs are spread and their arms are against the wall, the night watchman’s tie and his badge are clearly visible so as to denote his authority. This is reminiscent of several moments throughout Modern Times in which Charlie finds himself opposite the police, under their watch or in their custody. In one sequence, Charlie is purposefully trying to be sent to jail for theft as it would be a more favorable a place for him than the streets. Kanye also raps in reference to employment issues, “Before you ask me to get a job today, can I at least get a raise on a minimum wage?” Just as Charlie struggled to find employment that sustained him throughout Modern Times, Kanye too is channeling his discontent and unwillingness to subjugate himself to the rigors of an exploitative workplace.
Towards the very end of the music video the viewer is cued into a narrative twist that suggests that the night watchman, Adam Levine, was in fact dreaming up the events of the video, which further explains its aesthetic but also has imbedded within it some interesting commentary on the hopes, desires and limitations of authority figures in a way that slightly humanizes them within the confines of their job description. It suggests that the night watchman is at least subconsciously thinking about allowing the impoverished homeless people access to the amenities of the vacant department store. It is in this slightly positive depiction of authority that ultimately sets the video apart from Modern Times. Upon waking up, however, he is shocked back into reality at which point he confuses his dream world with the real one that the customers now inhabit. In a panic he runs to the bed he dreamed that they were asleep in to get them out, of course, they were never there and the night watchmen is left perplexed. This paints the watchman with a bit of sentimentality, and this I believe partly explains the ambiguous but pessimistic nature of the lyric in the chorus, “It hurts but it may be the only way.” The watchman is suggesting that while it hurts that there is such social inequality in the world, he is powerless under the responsibilities of his job to do anything to remedy the situation. He can’t just let homeless people into the store at night despite the feelings of guilt that surround his job of protecting toys and empty beds from thieves when homeless people could be getting good use out of them. But maybe that is just the way the world works. As Big Bill said after bumping into Charlie in the department store, “We ain’t burglars, we’re hungry.”
The comparison between Modern Times and Kanye’s “Heard Em Say” video is full of subtle social commentary, but perhaps the most interesting aspect is simply that it still holds weight today. The fact that two entirely different pop culture artifacts, created seventy years apart, can be grappling with similar societal issues through very different mediums and technological advancements is quite astonishing. The music video exists as a testament to the great impact Charlie Chaplin and his film, Modern Times had on society. Michel Gondry’s subtle and intelligent manipulation of mise-en-scene coupled with Kanye’s biting lyricism allowed for much ambiguity and callback to the social and economic issues highlighted by Chaplin. The one undeniable similarity between the family depicted in the music video and Charlie and the gamin is their honorable, but fleeting sense of happiness within the department store despite facing down the forces of authority and mechanization that ceaselessly aimed for their suppression.