Cinema Literature and Energy

Electric Modernity in Cinema - By A. Beltrand

Electric Modernity in Cinema
©Planète Energies

Comment realized by Alain Beltran, Senior Research Fellow, French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

Industrial electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... emerged between 1880 and 1900, with the development of technology such as incandescent bulbs, long-distance transmission systems, three-phase motors and transformers. In the same period, the beginnings of cinematography came into being, with the first movie projection shown in 1895 on Boulevard des Capucines in Paris by the Lumière brothers (although a number of other inventors claimed to have developed the technology first). The two innovations of electricity and cinema were therefore contemporaries of each other, intertwined from the very beginning. Cinema became ideally positioned to chronicle the rise of electric civilization, which – more or less – symbolized progress. However, cinematographers often distanced themselves from the topic, even using their movies as a vehicle to criticize the consequences of the electrical revolution.

The Silent Film Era

El hotel eléctrico (The Electric Hotel) is an eight-minute Spanish silent film from 1908, directed by and featuring Segundo de Chomón (1871-1929). In a hotel with every modern electrical convenience, levers on a table are used to automatically unpack suitcases into the right drawers, polish shoes with an electric brush and style a guest’s hair, along with a whole host of other “miracles” powered by the new energy. The movie’s special effects have gone down in film history and include one of the first examples of stop motion, a frame-by-frame animation technique that would later be used in films such as the Wallace and Gromit series and a number of Tim Burton’s creations. It begins as a sort of homage to the infinite possibilities of electricity, but a short circuit makes everything go haywire, sending the furniture and the clients into a frenzy. The effect is comedic, but it is also a lesson in approaching technology with caution.

Later, in 1922, came The Electric House by Buster Keaton (1895-1966). The 22-minute short is one of many examples of the actor and director’s exceptional talent. There are two parts to the plot, in which Buster, mistaken for an electrical engineer, is tasked with wiring a home from top to bottom. In the first part, every part of the house is made electric in an ode to modern comforts, from the indoor escalator to the billiard table, swimming pool, library, dining table and kitchen. Some of these inventions already existed at the time, but Keaton puts his own imaginative spin on them. The hero of the film is self-taught in matters of electricity, thanks to a book called “Electricity Made Easy”. However, his project is sabotaged by another character and, just like 1908’s El hotel eléctrico, complications set in and the house goes berserk in the second part of the movie, to great comedic effect. The film’s ending combines surprise with physicality in a decidedly slapstick manner, which has long been a main ingredient of action comedy in the English-speaking world – Charlie Chaplin’s films being some of the best examples.

Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times

The 1936 feature film Modern Times is one of the great masterpieces by Chaplin (1889-1977). It is probably best known for the first few minutes, where the main character is working on an assembly line. The humor has a dark undertone here, underlining how technology can enslave humans rather than set them free. The assembly line may run on electricity but, suggests Chaplin, the purpose of the work is ultimately decided by humans – who are sometimes pushed to the breaking point. Chaplin’s character works at Electro Steel Corporation, where turbo generators, dials and rheostats form a single machine controlled by a remote director. Electricity is everywhere in the factory, helping to increase productivity further and further – as had been the case in the real world since the late 1800s. To take things one step further, the factory’s director tests out a rather far-fetched machine on the movie’s unlucky hero, designed to feed the workers without them having to leave the assembly line. Here, productivity measures are pushed to their extreme, with the man, no longer able to move, becoming just an extension of the machine. Luckily for him, though, there’s a way out. A well­timed short circuit (there seems to be a pattern here!) causes the feeding machine to malfunction, and it is eventually scrapped. Then, as Chaplin’s Tramp character loses (or perhaps pretends to lose) his mind, he literally and figuratively sends the factory and its well­oiled machinery into chaos. He is taken away in an ambulance – but is he the crazy one, or are those who spend their lives in this world of turning cogs the ones not thinking straight? The U.S. poster for Modern Times shows Chaplin in character, determined to turn the electricity off and get his freedom back. Despite the economic crisis, money, corporations and powerful bosses – indeed, big business as a whole – were seen as core values by Americans in the 1930s. So the movie was received somewhat frostily in the United States, where Chaplin became known as an outsider who simply did not understand America. However, Modern Times is not so much a serious criticism of capitalism as it is an illustration of the danger of mechanization and the fate of those who cannot or will not accept having their autonomy taken away from them.

Jacques Tati's My Uncle

Released in 1958 after two years in production, My Uncle is one of the best known films by Jacques Tati (1907-1982), along with The Big Day and Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. Tati was even referred to as the French Charlie Chaplin by Boris Vian. Like Modern Times, Tati’s film juxtaposes two opposing worlds, personified by an industrialist who has had an ultra-modern house built, complete with kitchen bursting with electric gadgets, and his lovable, clumsy and bohemian brother-in-law, Monsieur Hulot, who is adored by children. The film is a mischievous take on post-war France, or Les Trente Glorieuses, the thirty-year period after 1945 when the country experienced strong economic growth until the oil crisis of 1973. The rise of cars and plastic transformed day-to-day life during this time. In homes, kitchens became the epicenter of the electrical revolution, with appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines and electric ovens becoming the symbol of newfound comfort. To fund it, French people turned to newly invented consumer credit through companies such as Crédit à l’Équipement Électroménager, founded in 1953, which still exists to this day under the name Cetelem (the final “em” stands for “electrical appliance” in French). At the time, a refrigerator cost the equivalent of several months’ salary, and washing machines were a luxury that a lot of French households could not afford. In 1963, French electric utility EDF launched its major “Compteur Bleu” project to increase powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... in residential buildings and thereby support the growing use of electrical appliances.

Jacques Tati’s film, like Jean Fourastié’s study Les Trente Glorieuses, demonstrates two different sides of France that do not fully understand each other. Monsieur Hulot’s traditional, village-like vision of the country seems incompatible with the modernist, radically forward­looking France espoused by his brother-in-law. The house where Monsieur Hulot’s sister and brother-in-law live is the epitome of this choice, particularly its ultra-sophisticated kitchen full of electric gadgets operated (wearing gloves) using a dashboard that looks like it belongs in an airplane rather than a family home. “Everything is electric,” the lady of the house says proudly as she shows off “her” kitchen to admiring neighbors. No more coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from... and gas – only electricity is modern enough. In this house, electric means automatic... except when Monsieur Hulot is around. Like Chaplin’s Tramp in Modern Times, he manages to inject chaos (or fun, depending on how you look at it) into this sterile, predictable world. And he’s not the only one who’s suspicious of progress. The nice-but-dim maid is frightened to pass through the innocuous ray of light that opens the garage (where the homeowners are trapped), saying she is scared of electricity because she might be electrocuted. Later on, when Monsieur Hulot’s sister uses the machines in the kitchen or her husband shaves with an electric razor, the appliances make so much noise that the people in the house cannot even hear each other speak. Tati’s criticism is less caustic than Chaplin’s: like it or not, the world is changing and electricity is the driving force. But, at the same time, the filmmaker reminds us of the good old days, when daily life had a more leisurely pace.

The 20th and even late 19th centuries were turned upside down by innovative applications of electricity the world over. And, from transportation to air conditioning, the future looks electric too. Cinema, which has been and will continue to be a reflection of its time, is a chronicle of the history of electricity, beginning more than a century ago and stretching on still today. But the silver screen can also remind us not to become slaves to machinery or the latest technology.


Find out more :

  1. The films mentioned can easily be watched online. El hotel eléctrico can be found on Wikipedia and The Electric House on YouTube, while Modern Times and My Uncle are classics that are widely available to hire or stream.
  2. On society’s relationship with electricity: La vie électrique, Histoire et imaginaire XVIII-XXIè siècles, Alain Beltran and Patrice Carré, Paris, Belin, 2016. 
  3. Changes in the 1960s: Jean Fourastié’s work Les Trente Glorieuses ou la révolution invisible, first published in 1979 and republished since, which begins with a description of two villages which are in fact one and the same place, before and after modernization; and Georges Rouquier’s documentary Farrebique, which depicts a hamlet in Aveyron in 1947 where inhabitants are, in particular, debating the introduction of electricity. 
  4. A number of authors have also written about consumerist society and the many electrical devices in it, including Boris Vian in Complainte du progrès (Les arts ménagers) in 1955 and Georges Perec in Les choses, une histoire des années soixante (published in 1965, awarded the Prix Renaudot).

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