The Chaplin Machine: Slapstick, Fordism and the Avant-Garde by Owen Hatherley

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A Book Review by Tony Williams.

Today, it has become a tedious commonplace to listen to erroneous fallacies such as Fukayama’s “The End of History” – to which one can reply, “whose ideologically written history?” Since that time of unquestioned neo-liberal hegemonic control, other issues have appeared, including dismissals of a challenging and exciting era of early Soviet modernism via Stalinist smears and dubious postmodernist fallacies. Owen Hatherley’s The Chaplin Machine (London: Pluto Press: 2016), by an author who appears to be one of Britain’s most interesting and emerging critical talents in architectural and cultural criticism, is the first work I’ve read to deliver some deserved swipes at that intellectual virus Andrew Britton once described to have derived from “the bourgeois intelligentsia in the Age of Reagan” and certainly beyond! (As Robin Wood noted, its cowardly adherents never responded to or refuted the critiques.) Hatherley’s book explores a significant movement in Soviet film, art, and architecture within a Constructivist background that found its inspiration in the American slapstick comedy tradition of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. Such an inspiration is noticeable in Eisenstein’s early proletarian short Glumov’s Diary (1923) and Ivan the Terrible Part 2 (1946) where the presence of Meyerhold-influenced circus clowns during a provocative religious performance certainly displeased The Great Leader. Hatherley’s Militant Modernism, Landscapes of Communism, and The Ministry of Nostalgia will certainly add to my growing reading list, especially for any promising connections similar to what The Chaplin Machine delivers involving cinema, culture, and architecture.

Chaplin 02In this relatively brief 220 page-book of five chapters, as well as an introduction and conclusion, Hatherley outlines his thesis of rediscovering a once productive fertile relationship between Americanism, Fordism, and Chaplin that offered an alternative and progressive path to those industrial rigid models of dehumanized Taylorism and Stakhanovism. (Today, university administrators similarly impose on faculty to develop creative and insightful methods of teaching, which is often a losing battle.) American montage and comedic geography offered a technology of pleasure rather than drudgery and misery where the presence of Chaplin slapstick comedy offered a popular injection into avant-garde movements such as Constructivism. At that time, the avant-garde was not confined to the “better few” but was an experience shared by all classes. Far from being an ideological capitalist weapon, Americanism offered the possibility of potential links between Trotskyism and the transformation of everyday life (28) that sadly never gained realization. Constructivism played a key role in the cinema with adherents “wondering how to create a Communist Chaplin…trying to Bolshevise the architecture of industrial America; and finally…immolating themselves in the contradictions of trying to serve a Soviet state which somehow managed to replicate in even more brutal form the American combination of archaism and futurism” (32). By making America “strange”, Constructivist ostranenie was influenced less by an elitist conception of the avant-garde but more by the circus in which the  “diversity and complexity of the strategies employed in the period make any glib dismissal seem driven principally by the smugness of postmodernist, post-historical distance” (34).

A fascinating first chapter – “Constructing the Chaplin Machine: The Constructivist International Encounters the American Comedians” – documents early Soviet fascination with the “little tramp” in terms of seeing him as “a new man, and a potentially Socialist one” (45) with Stepanova’s illustrations depicting “the Chaplin-machine as montage, in a more casual, rough, representational version of Suprematist abstraction, but sharing the alignment of discrete shapes” (46). Keaton and Harold Lloyd are also examined in terms of their intuitive connections with the new industrial fascinations of these early Soviet theorists. Chapter Two – “Red Clowns to the Rescue: Biomechanics in Film, Factory and Circus” – examines the theatrical development by Meyerhold of mechanized Taylorised acting that fused into what the director described as “Chaplinism” in 1936 derived from American comedy and slapstick acrobatics (70). Here Biomechanics became “a complete revaluation of Taylorism to the point where it attains the quality of circus clowning” (72). This technique opposed the Taylorism from which it borrowed, leading to a certain practice involving “difficulty and strangeness” that Meyerhold’s pupils Tretiakov and Eisenstein took up in various ways. Hatherley quotes from Herbert Marcuse’s 1937 essay “The Affirmative Character of Culture” in which the artistry of the body “in effortless agility and relaxation, which can be displayed today only in the circus, vaudeville, and burlesque, herald the joy to which man will attain in being liberated from the ideal, once mankind, having become a true subject, succeeds in the mastery of matter” (77-78).

As well as revealing Meyerhold’s machine movement that attempted “to fuse the apparent industrial rationality of Taylorism with the production of movement based on joy rather than on eight hours of the same movement for the purposes of an unusually high pay cheque” (78) could this not apply elsewhere? Two thirds into Jerry Lewis’s Hardly Working (1980), redundant circus clown Bo is in danger of succumbing to a Taylorist regime. Instead, he makes an abrupt and unexplained decision to don his clown outfit once more as he delivers the mail turning Post Office routine into a live circus followed by an appreciative audience. Lewis’s vast knowledge of comedy, the circus, and Chaplin may explain this abrupt change of mind that remains ambiguous in the released version.

Chaplin 01Hatherley remarks that “as long as it remained something based on circus tricks, despite the organic connection with proletarian culture this might provide, Biomechanics represented something outside of everyday life, based on spectacle and amazement, at a safe distance. The truly utopian implications (italics mine) of Biomechanics lies elsewhere – in the possibility that it would make the factory more like the circus and the circus (and the associated popular forms – vaudeville, cinema) more like the factory, thus closing the gap” (78). A revolutionary premise follows: Work can be playful and joyous with the utopian synthesis of Taylorism and the Chaplin machine actually reducing the work time. This is my development of Hatherley’s premise. With the 1922 Eccentric (FEX) movement, an Americanised conception of Art derived from the circus thus opposes status quo values (see 83). Surveys of the comedies of Lev Kuleshov, Boris Barnet, and Vsevolod Pudovkin reveal the development of this pattern especially in the Eccentric star persona of Aleksandra Khoklova. Hatherley is quick to note the attitude of postmodernist historians who say virtually little about her blacklisting in the late 1930s. “This side of filmic populism has been descried by postmodernist historians in an interestingly dispassionate manner, lest they be accused of criticizing authentic popular desire” (92; see also 99 for another critique of this movement’s biased approach).

Buster Keaton’s comedic transformation of “the built environment” forms the subject of chapter three especially in terms of his collapsing buildings parodying Ford house-building kits (103) as well as American poster art influences on Soviet architects, Tatlin’s skyscrapers, department stores, billboards and Communist-Constructivist collaborations in the NEP era.

Chapter four explores challenges of the sound film focusing especially on Vertov’s Enthusiasm (1931), a film concluding deliberately with no apparent resolution in contrast to the orgiastic finale of Joris Iven’s Komsomol (1933) where Hans Eisler’s musical score suggests less of a nightmarish Tayloresque Five Year Plan but more “the possibility of a meaningful solidarity across the industrial countries” (154). This chapter concludes by noting the architectural ambiguity in Medvedkin’s Happiness (1934), one of the last creative fusions between American slapstick comedy and the Eccentrist tradition that exist in a tantalizing coherence. Noting the grim rural environment within the film, Hatherley comments that “the simple buildings in it are as mobile as any Constructivist dream; the autonomously active architecture of Keaton’s One Week and Steamboat Bill Jr is taken to genuinely surrealist levels” (171).

The concluding chapter “Life is getting Jollier, Comrades” sums up the reverberations this comedic movement had especially in the repressive Stalin era that owed much to “a complex dialectic between technological fetishism, popular ’entertainment’ and Modernist aesthetics, which was perhaps never fully resolved.” (177) Significantly, Hatherley finds an interesting connection to the earlier movement in the musical comedies directed by Eisenstein’s former colleague Grigory Alexandrov such as The Jolly Fellows (1934) and Circus (1936). Modeled on The King of Jazz (1931) but parodying its Hollywood heritage, The Jolly Fellows “paradoxically represents a more complete fulfillment of the demands of the Eccentrics themselves” (180) containing several Constructivist elements. Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) also engaged in a comedic assault on Taylorism. Appropriately, the Chaplin machine survived in its Soviet incarnation in the many circus attractions within the old Soviet Union. “This is where Chaplinism ended, in a spectacle of thrills and spills taken with the utmost seriousness, and treated as if it were permanent” (193).

Overall, this is a fascinating work providing fertile connections between art, architecture, the avant-garde, and popular culture that should stimulate further research. The recently rediscovered Orson Welles short Too Much Johnson (1937), designed to accompany a theatrical production, as was Eisenstein’s Glumov’s Diary, may also contain debts to such a tradition outlined in this work whose subject matter is treated in a serious critical historical materialist manner rather than the banal and blasé attitudes of a once dominant postmodernist tradition. Long may this pattern continue.

The Chaplin Machine is distributed in the US by The University of Chicago Press.

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is a frequent contributor to Film International and author of several books, including the forthcoming James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (Rowman & Littlefield).