After the “YouTubeLoop,” What is the Comic Legacy of Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen?

DownloadedFile-1

In yesterday’s post, I made a brief reading of the recent 44 minute video of Woody Allen “stammering” over the span of his career.   The picture I used as a thumbnail for the blog post came from the beginning of Woody Allen’s film Bananas. The reason I chose this image was because it nicely illustrated the mechanistic-slash-comic aspect of the video; in addition, it also illustrated what Henri Bergson believed was the essence of the comic: mechanical repetition. For Bergson, we laugh at the Jack-in-the-Box, or any mechanical repitition, because it is a caricature of life and freedom or what he called élan vital.  Like many in his time, Bergson’s theory is based on an organicist model or what the German’s called Lebensphilosophie (life philosophy). The greatest challenges to life philosophy can be found in meaningless, mechanical habits.  For thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche or Georges Bataille, the source of these mechanical habits was the growing mechanization of society – a society in which everything meaningful or progressive had “utility.”  For this reason, both Nietzsche and Bataille pursued a “vitalism” which looked to act without any meaningful end.  Life, as they understood it, was excessive.  For us to put a determined end on existence, by way of work, mechanism, and habits was, in effect, to say “no” to life.  Saying “yes” to life would be to affirm what Maurice Blanchot would call “un-working.”  Saying yes to life, for Bergson, would be equivalent to saying yes to elan vital and no to the mechanical gesture. To be sure, filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin, who lived in and around the time Nietzsche, Bergson, and Bataille lived and wrote on vitalism, knew that the greatest threat to vitalism and élan vital was posed by technology.    America, with its concept of the assembly line and mechanical mass production, became the focal point for many Europeans (including Nietzsche, Batialle, Martin Heidegger, Karl Marx, and many others) of what is to come; namely, an existence in which the individual is lost in (and to) the machine. And this is the point: life was at stake – life embodied in the individual (the subject) and his/or her freedom. We see this tension between life and the machine comically elaborated in both Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times (1936) and in Woody Allen’s repetition of key scenes of this film (with, of course, some variation) in Bananas (1971): Here is Chaplin’s film: As you can see, Chaplin is the subject of the machine.  However, his comic gesturing (and the absurd nature of the machine – a toy of sorts – he is subject to) make him distinct from the machine.  Both his gestures and the absurd nature of the machine give him some kind of agency. Here’s Allen’s film, Bananas: This film does something nearly identical to Modern Times.  The machine and Allen’s gestural responses to it give Allen agency.   As one can see, Allen believes that such responses are still affective and meaningful. Although 35 years and major advances in technology and history separate them, both of these clips communicate the same message about comedy and its challenge to mechanization.  For both, one mechanism seems to be defeating another and élan vital triumphs (comically). It must be noted that, for many thinkers and film critics of the early 20th century, the source of this scenario (of comedy versus the mechanical), which Allen repeats, is Charlie Chaplin. In his book Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction and the Arts Between the World Wars, Tyrus Miller notes that Andre Bazin, the famous French Film critic, wrote a seminal essay in 1948 about Chaplin claiming that Chaplin’s comedy was a means of ‘brushing aside danger’.  Miller goes on to note that Bazin sees Chaplin’s power as the power of “mimicry” which acts by “reabsorbing time and space”(51).  What he means by this is that Chaplin’s comedy wins time and space back for organic humanity and beats the machine at its own game.  Bazin bases his advancement of mimicry on the work of the surrealist Roger Caillois who claimed that insects, like humans, imitate the environment in order to protect themselves from being killed. Miller reads this in terms of the medium of film: Supplementing Bazin’s claim that time reabsorbs space, then, we might say that Chaplin’s organic body becomes a mimetic extension of cinematic technology, which breaks down movement into constitutive fragments, discarding some while isolating others.  Having incorporated the technical principle of montage into his physical movements, Chaplin is able to mirror it back to the camera in embodied form. (52). Sounding much like Walter Benjamin, Miller argues that Chaplin becomes the “very allegory of cinema in its inaugural phase and the changes in experience it will precipitate”(52). The self survives as a “minimal self: as much technical as organic, and held together by the stiffening bonds of laughter”(52). This presupposes that there is a community between the comedian and the audience and that if we don’t have comedians who can mimic the damage wrought by technology – that is, if we don’t have comedy to laugh at, our agency and selfhood will be diminished to such an extent that instead of a minimal self, there will be no self. It’s fascinating to note that Theodor Adorno also suggests this call for comedy and the minimal self in his book Minima Moralia.   Three decades following Adorno’s plea for the minimal self, comedy and the minimal self are evoked by Jean-Luc Nancy in an essay on Baudelaire in his book The Birth of Presence.  But, as I will show in future blogs, Nancy likens laughter to an explosion.  But the question is this: what does it explode?  Does post-modern laughter – for lack of a better word – explode the machine or the person?  If the latter, then we can surmise that Nancy thinks we can no longer protect ourselves from the machine and might as well celebrate nihilism. Regardless of Nancy’s take on laughter, Allen seems to be more on the side of Chaplin.  He has an optimistic view of comedy and sees it as a “defense” against technology and empty, mechanical repetition. In yesterdays video, however, I wondered about the meaning of the mechanically reproduced stammering which has become a micro-stammering of sorts (concentrated into 44 minutes). Did that video testifiy to the obliteration of the self and absorption into the medium or something else?  How, in fact, do we understand ourselves and one of our greatest defenses (comedy) by way of being looped, re-looped and morphed by new technology?  Has Allen’s stammer exploded and been emptied of all its human (organic) content?  Does such a video evince a subject who is powerless and “defenseless” against the ever expanding field of technology (with all its information and audio and video “flows” and “feeds”)? How does comedy and how do “we” – who are “in the network,” who come after Chaplin and Allen’s comic parody of technology and who now come after the “YouTube-loop” of Woody Allen…stammering – “live on?”  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s