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TO LAUGH, OR NOT TO LAUGH?

William Graves

The broken bones of World War I and the economic depression of 1920-21 marked a turning point for American society. The emergence of welfare capitalism, and the movement towards materialism and sexual freedom gave rise to a new wave of investment for one of Americas newest industries: cinema. It was during this time that the American film industry found its roots in the Hollywood production studios that still financially dominate Western Film today. The new economic power behind the film industry gave the major comic stars of the 1910s and 1920s the ability to produce feature length films. The three pioneers of this period were Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Together they transformed early 20th Century slapstick comedy into a form of self-expression (Belton 1994, p. 175) through which their acts would arise from the unique nature of their screen characters. (Belton 1994, p. 175) The silent nature of 1920s cinema lent well to melodrama due to its ability to transcend the barriers of language. Its exaggerated actions replaced dialogue prior to the sound film revolution. Charlie Chaplain developed the screen character of The Tramp, which also transcended the barriers of language. Belton describes him as a world-famous universal cinematic symbol for our common humanity. (1994, p. 175) Chaplains character embodied the prevalent mood of the time in the sense that he bridged the borders of old Victorian culture and the new American Dream. As an outsider like Voltaires Candide he could critique in all directions. The Tramps hunger and homelessness made him the defiant opponent of all arbitrary authority especially policemen. (Belton, 1994, p.103) In Chaplains 1921 film The Kid this is particularly evident through the constant struggle with the policeman and absurd use of authority. The satirical caricature of a doctor ordering The Kid away from his loving father to a workhouse is Chaplins frustration manifested on film. Chaplin himself met this reality at the age of seven. This is where slapstick meets self-expression. As Belton argues, much of Chaplins slapstick was often aimed at others, Keatons was just as frequently directed at himself. (1994, p. 175) In Buster Keatons The General (1926) he has two loves, his engine and his fiance. Man fetishizing machine is a common theme throughout cinematic

history, from Kenneth Angers Scorpio Rising (1963) to Steve McQueens racing axiom in Le Mans; When youre racing, its life, anything that happens before or after is just waiting,(1971) In these films the machine is an immense character without which the film could not function even on a basic level. In The General the machine takes the form of a locomotive. Like the Porsche 917s in Le Mans, the raw power and danger of the machines of The General, be that the locomotive, or a canon, allow for an array of errors with the knowledge that if any of the gags had not gone to plan, they would have resulted in death or destruction. This is even more evident when a house collapses in a cyclone narrowly missing Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928). The locomotives speed allows for Keatons simultaneously decelerated and accelerated gags. This lends itself well to Keatons mechanical, cerebral process of comedy making. In The Kid however, one can see that the comedy is not set against machine-induced suspense, but pure human-made emotion. Chaplins use of machinery is microscopic in that it becomes a tool. Belton pins this on Chaplins resistance to the modern world (1994, p. 175), be that the revolving door in The Cure (1917), the escalator in The Floorwalker (1916) or a Murphy bed in One A.M. (1916). To see the machine as a tool, in The Kid the automobile is used as a tool in delivering the child from the mother to The Tramp. Then in the fantastical roof chase as it carries away The Kid towards an orphanage. Finally the automobile carries The Tramp to The Kids new home, where all is reconciled. Later in Modern Times (1936) Chaplin is made a victim of mechanised industrialisation. It becomes clear that while Chaplin rejected the modern world, Keaton embraced it. More often than not, Keatons co-star was a machine. (Belton, 1994, p. 176). Furthermore, not only is Keatons hero subject to an immense machine, his hero is like a miniscule dot encompassed by an immense and catastrophic milieu, in a transformation-space. (Deleuze, 1983, p. 173) Through this we see Keatons genuine originality in giving what Deleuze calls Keatons large form and burlesque (as opposed to Chaplins small form) (1983, pp. 169-177).I Deleuze argues this reconciliation between the large form and burlesque is done against

all odds (1983, p. 173.). We can see this in the vast American landscapes and challenges that Keatons hero overcomes; encountering and evading the Union army yet finding it impossible to remove a bear trap, to saving his life with a broken sword to yet another doomed canon gag that turns into a success at the final second. Keaton creates an intricate mis-en-scne labyrinth within which he focuses a gag on the most minute of detail for a far-reaching effect, nearly always on the edge of danger and against the world. Keatons attention to such detail helps to illuminate Cooks statement that Keaton always maintained that comedy must be funny without being ridiculous, and for this reason he took great pains to make his films credible in dramatic as well as comic terms. (Cook, 1981, p. 206) The cerebral comedy of Keaton is somewhat analytic in its mechanization and can be analyzed as such to a greater extent than the emotional comedy of Chaplin. The most beautiful of moments in Chaplins films cannot be analyzed with words meaningfully, for they find themselves located not upon language but upon what is mystical; the empathy from which compassion holds its roots. Through Chaplins comedy we are unified to his humanity, through Keatons comedy we are unified to his machine. That is not to say that either one of them are incapable of appealing to both, it is to say that this is the realm in which they have mastered. Chaplins genius lies in making us laugh as much as moving us. (Deleuze 1983, p. 171) There is a realism that shines through the laughter like a diamond bullet cutting silence. The emotion between father and son in The Kid is as serious and as powerful as De Sicas 1948 neo-realist masterpiece The Bicycle Thief despite the melodramatic void separating them. We must remember the cinematic apparatus to better understand this. Having a burning canon pointed towards you or finding a child in a pile of rubbish and not knowing what to do with it is no laughing matter for the involved party. However, as a disinterested spectator: many a drama will turn into a comedy (Bergson 1900/ 1911, p. 12) The genius in Chaplins comedy, as in Keatons, is in its entanglement with the tragic. Cook too agues this point but adds that sentimentality does not play as important a part in Keatons work as it

does in Chaplins (1981, p. 208). Chaplins The Kid followed his own loss of a child. He painstakingly made the film by shooting more takes per scene than in any other film of his career. Chaplin and Keaton have found themselves inseparable from one another despite difference in style, appearance and attitude. In 1963 Samuel Beckett wrote his only screenplay, Film. His original choice for the lead was Charlie Chaplin, however it was eventually handed to Keaton.II The slapstick comedy of Chaplin and Keaton is an obvious precursor to Becketts, in particular the tramps Estragon and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot (1952). Chaplain echoed the absurdity of a situation through comedy, as did Keaton. Slap-stick laughs in the face of fate, just as Camus Sisyphus surmounts his fate with scorn, and escapes meaninglessness by creating values for himself while saying no to hope. Chaplin surmounts machinery with scorn, and escapes through laughter. When Estragon poses the question What do we do, now that we are happy? (1952, p.60) he does so because Vladimir asks him to say hes happy even if its not true. (1952, p.60) This is Becketts answer to Camus solution that one must imagine Sisyphus happy, (1942, p. 593) even if its not true. Beckett unlike Camus offers no solution, despite Camus denying Sisyphus the hope that denies the absurd from the works of Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Kierkegaard and so on. But what solutions do Chaplin and Keaton have to offer? Can it be What do we do, now that we are laughing? The beauty of Beckett is in the vanishing of the problem, not because it has been solved, but because it was never a problem as such, at least one that can be meaningfully spoken of. The beauty of laughter is in its transcendent properties. Camus myth starts with what is essentially a reformulation of Hamlets soliloquy (Shakespeare 1603, p. 265) To be, or not to be, that is the question:/ Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer/ The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,/ Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles. Death cannot be separated from Keaton and Chaplins humour as they are face to face with it. Yet death is not an event in life. We have come to see that discourse on the absurd is fixated on the unknown, the unspeakable, the metaphysical, and humour seems to be too. The laughter in Chaplin and Keaton, like Beckett, arises not in words,

but in between the cogs of the machine; in the shadow land. Like T. S. Eliot said Between the emotion/ And the response/ Falls the shadow (1925, p. 70) One cannot understand happiness and laughter through language, logic, mathematics or physics; one must feel and live through it again and again, for it metamorphoses time and time again. The very same film, with its unchanging binary code flickering in a digital machine, or celluloid reel penetrated by light onto a screen, will bring new laughter each time, never the same as before. Like each mineral flake of Sisyphuss night-filled mountain that forms a world, so too the world must be seen not in its physical constituents that exist as a fact, but as the extent to which we can express them. William Blake is no more naturally blessed To see the world in a grain of sand/ And a heaven in a wildflower, than any eternal humanIII. And comedy works too upon this hidden terrain. Every laugh is a new laugh signified from the same fact with a new human becoming. The problem of the absurd void vanishes, not by a solution, as Camus and Sartre sought to provide, but through forgetting the problem. We can speak of the shortest distance between two points as being a straight line, and we can say that is true for everyone, but we cannot speak of what it is that constitutes laughter, we can just learn not think but to laugh, and when we dont think the problem solves itself, for there are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical. (Wittgenstein 1921, prop. 6.522)

BIBLIOGRAPHY Belton, J. (1994) American Cinema/ American Culture. Published 1994. New York City: McGraw-Hill. Bergson, H. Laughter. Online available at intersci.ss.uci.edu/wiki/eBooks/.../Bergson/Laughter%20Bergson.pdf 1900/ 1911 Cook Deleuze, G. (1983) Cinema 1. Translated from French by H. Tomlinson and B. Habberjam. Published 1986. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota. Eliot, T. S. (1925) The Hollow Man from T.S. Eliot: Collected Poems. Published 1956. London: Faber and Faber Limited. Blake, W. (1803) Blake Poems. Auguries of Innocence. Published 1994. London: Everymans Library. Shakespeare http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/image?img=1998.04.0773 Camus, A. The Plague, The Fall, Exile and The Kingdom, And Selected Essays. (1942) The Myth of Sisyphus. Translated from French by A. A. Knopf. Published 1975. London: Everymans Library. Beckett, S. (1952) Waiting for Godot. Published 1987. London: Grove Atlantic Inc. Wittgenstein, L. (1921) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Translated from German by D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness. Introduction by Bertrand Russell. Published 2010. Abingdon: Routledge. Kant, I. (1784) An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? [online] [source: Immanuel Kant. Practical Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, translated and edited by Mary J. Gregor, 1996] Available at: http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/ethics/kant/enlightenment.htm [last accessed 14th February 2012] Rimbaud, R. (1886) Illuminations. Translated from French by John Ashbery (A dual language edition). Published 2011. Manchester: Carcanet.

These pages cover the chapter: Small form and burlesque, which discuss, amongst others, Chaplin and Keatons use of small form and burlesque in relation to the action-image. II After reaching his private secretary, Rosset, who had commissioned the screenplay, was met with an answer: Mr. Chaplin doesnt read scripts. (Talmer, J., A film of few words and one Keaton in Downtown Express, Vol. 18, Issue 52, 2006) As Chaplin was unavailable, Alan Schneider was sent on a hunt for Keaton.
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Schnieder eventually found him beat up, broke and alone. Keatons first-words to Schneider were: Yes, I accept the offer. III The eternal human lives in the present, for eternal refers to timelessness be that the limitless imagination and hence infinity in expression, as Blake says Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,/And eternity in an hour.