AVA 3001: Topics in Film and Media Arts
25 May, 2005
Sherlock Jr. and Modern Times: A Comparison
Since last Wednesday, I've watched nothing but movies about the film industry. To make matters worse, Aviator just came out on DVD this week. That's the mechanical encrusted upon my life. Tomorrow in class, we will probably form a circle and read our papers aloud. Only, no one will want to read his or her paper. I don't want to read my paper either - not more than a hour ago I first heard the name Henri Bergson. Hopefully, the mechanical encrusted on the shy will be as funny as living Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton were both brilliant silent comedians but their approaches to comedy are polar in a number of respects. Chaplin, with the persona of a tramp, gets effect from defiance. In Modern Times, Chaplin aims this defiance primarily at technology. Keaton on the other hand, finds solutions using his ingenuity in conjunction with modern advancements around him. In Sherlock Jr., Keaton uses the lucky, ballistic, billiard ball to thwart the villains. Then, he turns a convertible’s roof into a sail. On the contrary, Chaplin’s experience with machines is much different. An automated feeding system short circuits on the Modern Times tramp. Keaton's deliverance in Sherlock Jr. relies on the institution prevailing while Chaplin's troubles sprout from a fully functioning overbearing system. Even being let out of jail is a problem for this guy.
Chaplin faces adversary in every lever, pulley, and gear. Even his low-tech shanty is too much for him to handle. His chair falls through the floor, everything he touches is like a chemical reaction, and the board over the doorway is always up for a fight. Contrast this to Keaton's ax trap or his dive through a window into women's clothing. At one point, Keaton falls victim to a piece of flypaper. He quickly figures out how to solve the problem and passes it off on the first person to come along. In a similar situation, the assembly line perpetually victimizes Chaplin. For one reason or another, he falls behind again and again in his all-important job of tightening bolts.
Chaplin's repetitive action of tightening things is Bergson's "mechanical encrusted upon the living." If Chaplin picked up a wrench for the first time and attempted to tighten his overseer's nose, he couldn't get the same laughs he got when he went on a robotic rampage turning everything that resembled a bolt. Chaplin doesn't just spill his co-worker's soup; he shakes as if he's still in the assembly line. Think about the chase scene with the hexagon-adorned lady. Now picture it without the context of Chaplin's mechanical behavior. Chaplin loses his wrenches but his hands continue to jerk. He goes on to cause more trouble in the control room. Chaplin does the same thing with the oilcan in people’s faces. The officer takes away the oil; Chaplin pulls out another can and repeats the same action on the officer.
In respect to Bergson’s theory, both comedians produce laughter with the same means. Sherlock Jr. repeats every major action twice. The villain purloins a pocket watch then the same actor breaks into a safe to get the pearls. In both sub stories, the evildoer steals the girl only to be uncovered for the fraud he is. The best example of mechanical encrusted upon Keaton comes in the last scene. Keaton uses the projected movie as a manual for his own love life. The audience sees what is happening and anticipates Keaton’s variation of the motions. Employed as a waiter, Chaplin gets caught up on the dance floor while serving roast duck. He also misuses the 'In' and 'Out' doors and during his number repeats the odd dance steps of the performance. When employed as an engineer’s assistant, he places things down on press even after he should learn not to.
In all these cases, the repetition is the source of humor but more so variation is the keystone. If Keaton was as suave as the star in the film he saw or Chaplin walked out the 'In' the audience would become tired of watching repetitive use injuries and not comedy. Each time Keaton takes a shot on the pool table and misses number 13, he does so with variation. The villain’s gestures reflect this each time. In Modern Times, the engineer scolds his assistant for flattening the oilcan. Chaplin innocently sets up another oilcan on the press. In the second instance, Chaplin reacts in time to save the oil but flattens the engineer’s coat. When Chaplin the waiter spins around the dance floor with roast duck or repeats his comic dance steps, he introduces new elements to make things more interesting. The duck lodges itself on a chandelier and Chaplin repeats the steps as a method of stalling the restaurant patrons.
Chaplin and Keaton lived in a transitional era between the Victorian and Industrial age. Chaplin chose to look at the past as utopia as in the department store scene. Keaton looked forward. When real life got him down, he dreamt his way onto the movie screen. The final scene in Sherlock Jr. shows Keaton's idealistic view of technology. Both made comedy from what Henri Bergson calls "the mechanical encrusted upon the living" but do so in varying ways.