Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: Pacific Film Archive Examines ‘The Mechanical Age’

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday September 01, 2006

Pacific Film Archive is taking a look back at the mechanical age from the vantage point of the digital age, screening films that in one way or another exemplify cinematic obsessions with machines. The films range from the silent era—including works by Fritz Lang and comedians Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin—to more recent fare such as Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990) and David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996). 

The series ties in with the concurrent “Measure of Time” exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum. 

Lang’s Metropolis starts things off at 3 p.m. Sunday, followed by Chaplin’s Modern Times at 6 p.m. Both films as categorized by PFA as depictions of “machine anxiety.” 

Metropolis, one of the most influential of all science fiction films, is a dystopian nightmare in which the age of machines enables a repressive societal structure in which workers are forced underground to work as slaves, running the machinery that enables the ruling class to thrive above ground. The film is full of typical Langian imagery—stark, symmetric compositions, grand in size and scope—including the iconic moment when the protagonist is bound to a machine that resembles a large clock, trying to keep up with the never-ending task of matching the movement of the machine’s arms to a series of flashing lights. The purpose of the machine is never explained but used merely as an Expressionistic and symbolic device: Mankind enslaved to both time and its own machines. 

Later in the film the mad scientist Rotwang sends his robot down into the workers’ netherworld, disguised as their saintly leader Maria, with the intent of using the machine-woman to spark a revolt. Again, man’s demise is threatened by the specter of his own machines run amok.  

Pairing Metropolis with Chaplin’s Modern Times makes for an interesting double feature. Neither film represents the best work of its creator, but both feature iconic moments that have stood the test of time. One of the most memorable images of Chaplin’s career comes when his beleaguered assembly line worker, in a mad frenzy of widget-tightening glee, hurls himself onto a conveyor belt and gets caught in the machine’s giant gears, only to single-mindedly begin tightening their bolts.  

Other themes in the series include “Mechanical Men,” featuring Edward Scissorhands as well as more silent films such as The Mechanical Man (1921) and the work of animator/comedian Charely Bowers; “Soviet Social Mechanics,” featuring Sergie Eisenstein’s The General Line (1929), and Pandora’s Box, Episode One: The Engineer’s Plot (1992); and “Terminal Machines,” featuring Stanley Kubrick’s experimental masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), in which a married couple discovers the thrill of having sex while watching or participating in car accidents.  

Two more silent films turn the camera’s gaze back on itself under the category of “The Mechanics of Cinema.” Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (1929) is a dizzying work which attempts to grant the camera the agility of the human eye. In another inspired double feature, it will be preceded by Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924), which is not only a brilliant and clever piece of filmmaking, with elaborately choreographed action and comedy sequences, but also a great piece of film criticism, employing innovative special effects techniques in a self-reflexive statement on the nature of film and filmgoing. It’s film-within-a-film structure, in which Buster, a projectionist, leaves the booth and walks onto the screen (a theme which later inspired Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo), sets up a series of masterly cinematic illusions which highlight the gaps in reality that come to light when three-dimensional action is relegated to the flat, two-dimensional surface of a movie screen.  

“The Mechanical Age” runs through Sunday, Oct. 22 at Pacific Film Archive’s theater at 2575 Bancroft Way. For a complete schedule, as well as information on the Berkeley Art Museum’s “Measure of Time” exhibit, see