Monday, July 10, 2017

Charlie Chaplin and Anti-Comedy

Colin Spacetwinks has been sharing some of his old comedy writing/theory on Twitter recently, and one of the pieces that came up was his post about Too Many Cooks. He relates it specifically to the Space Ghost: Coast to Coast episode "Fire Ant" to talk about the technique of "dragging the joke out," and specifically to position it in the sort of "anti-comedy" popularized by Adult Swim. It's a good post, and its resurfacing is weirdly timely for me.

The Castro Theater just had a double feature of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times and Fritz Lang's Metropolis. I'd seen the latter a handful of times, though no more recently than a decade ago. The former I hadn't seen. It was, in fact, my first Chaplin movie period, I think. That's despite spending literal full weekends in college scheduling my sleep around what TCM was playing. I had a lot of fun in college.

The programming of that double feature was smart as hell in ways I did not anticipate. Even not having seen Modern Times, I knew the broad strokes made sense together. The short version is: they're both films about labor, featuring broad, iconic images of industrial machinery. The particulars were what I wasn't ready for. I didn't realize that, for instance, the opening shots are nearly identical.
Both films open on the face of the clock. They also both move from this into scenes of undifferentiated laborers moving to work. The main difference is a generic one: in Modern Times, the shift to the laborers is prefaced by a shot of sheep being driven forward. It sets up a parallel with the workers we are about to see. In Metropolis, the laborers move into the space of an elevator rather than directly into a factory. A title card then describes them as going 'deep below.' It's as concise a visual argument for the definition of genres -- comedy and science fiction -- as I've maybe ever seen. There's a whole essay there, but I want to talk a little more about Modern Times' comedy.

I bring up Spacetwinks' essay because one of the most striking aspects of Modern Times, to me, was how close it came to that kind of anti-humor. Plenty of it was the sort of humor I expected of Chaplin through cultural osmosis -- vaudevillian slapstick and mugging, underdog character work, &c. -- but the execution was surprising.

An early joke involves the boss testing out a machine that can feed laborers while they work. It's sold to him as a way to reduce the wasteful lunch break, and so he decides to have Chaplin give it a go. The scene is structured about how you would expect: everything goes well until it doesn't. Once it doesn't, it starts going worse and worse, quickly.

The thing, though, is that it isn't all that quickly. The scene itself lasts for, I'd guess, nearly ten full minutes. It's a funny scene, and it isn't structured like a Tim & Eric bit or anything; instead of languishing, it continuously escalates toward the conclusion. Even still, the scene itself struck me in a way much closer to that sort of anti-comedy than to a lot of the other jokes even within the film itself.

Another tangent that I'll note without diving into: I don't know that I've ever seen comedy theorized in a way that was anything but ahistorical. Comedians themselves are the worst about this, of course. But the rhythms of comedy change over time, and according to knowledge.

There is one other major scene that I read as anti-comedy in Modern Times. It comes near the end. Chaplin has been in and out of prison and work throughout the film. He is finally trying to make good by his ward, who has secured him an audition as a member of the waitstaff at a restaurant of Singing Waiters. Before the obvious joke, though, he has to actually wait on tables; in particular, on a gentleman who is furious that he has had to wait an hour for his roast duck.

About two thirds of the way through the bit, Chaplin is nearly at his table with the meal. The band strikes up, and he is immediately surrounded by dancers. He gets caught in their twirling and seething. The only part of him left visible his upstretched hand holding the plate of food. He does a full rotation of the floor, begins to walk forward, and gets caught up again. This is funny in its flouting of expectations. The scene seems to have played itself out, but it continues. It's when he gets caught again for the third time that it borders on the kind of comedy where "dragging out the joke" is itself the joke.

Unlike the automatic feeder, this sequence doesn't really structure itself by escalation. The thing that ultimately happens could have easily have happened the first time around with no great loss; the escalations are secondary to the act of languishing on the act of watching. At the time of the film's release, both scenes were, presumably, uproarious. They are not played like they are meant in some way as ironic commentary on comedy. But it's nearly a century on, and they feel that way now. To me at least.