Comedy and Cultural Critique in American Film

By Ryan Bishop | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
The Feeding Machine and Feeding
the Machine: Silence, Sound and
the Technologies of Cinema

I think everybody should be a machine.

Andy Warhol, Art News, 1963

Charlie Chaplin as the Tramp stands at the assembly line where he mechanistically turns two screws every few seconds for hours on end. He falls behind, rushes to catch up and loses his sanity in the process; he snaps right there on the line, eventually following the screws into the workings of the machinery of the automated assembly-line belt. As his body threads over the gears of interlocking parts, it looks like nothing other than celluloid film being threaded into a projector. His body become film, Chaplin’s movie on mechanical assembly-line production proves an allegory for the film industry, his reflections engaging the technologies that provide him with his art. Buster Keaton plays a projectionist in a slightly earlier film and falls asleep beside the projector. Understanding cinema’s deep pull on the unconscious, Keaton’s character enters the stuff of dreams by entering the film itself, and once having done so, becomes subject to the manipulations of the editing table and film’s capacity to change chronotopes in a flash: the character-as-object within the mise-en-scène. Both iconic films, Modern Times (1936) and Sherlock Jr. (1924) respectively offer different engagements with the visual techne of cinema and its by-then decades of manipulation of visual representation, as well as of time, space and corporeal constraints, while also providing uniquely nuanced engagements with the visual technologies of their craft.

If Chaplin enters the mechanical age by being fed into a machine, Keaton enters it by feeding himself into a camera/projector/screen cinematic apparatus and exploring how electric mass media will forever change our sense of self, reality and fantasy. These two films provide a fulcrum around which this chapter turns, films that explicitly engage in the cultural critique of cinema and use cinema’s techne to provide a criticism of the very means that allow them to perform the critique in the first place.

-22-

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