Issue #11 February 2018

Chaplin’s Stuttering Body. The Utopian Potential of Film

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt —The Sneezer, The Yawner, The Strong Stench (f.l.t.r.)

“With time, the invention of printing has rendered the human face unreadable. […] By that, the visible being [Geist] has turned into a readable being, and the visual culture has turned into a conceptual one. […] Nowadays, another machine is at work, which is turning culture back to the visual and is giving humans a new face. It is called the cinematograph” (Balázs, p. 16)

It is unsurprising that Balázs was fascinated by the cinematic close-up, which showed human faces and hands in detail; as banal as this might appear from our perspective, the close-up was indeed a technical novelty at that time. Yet, as the evolution of silent film has shown, it was not only the viewer that had to re-learn to read the immediate language of the body, but also the body that had to learn to become readable. A stereotyped language of gestures and countenance had to be developed, so that the viewer can understand the development of the action quickly and unequivocally; considering that the theatrical acting style was immediately perceived as overly dramatic, more reduced and economical ways of playing had to be found under the guise of naturalism. Such attempts to render the human body readable predate the advent of film, as for example with Lavater’s physiognomics of the criminal, which used the medium of the portrait in silhouette, or Jean-Martin Charcot with the photographic documentation of hysteria. It is no accident that both criminology and neurology were interested in the typing of the human body as a means of control, and, in a certain way, film was no different.

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The apparatus sets a fixed and external notion of utility, one that is general in as far as it does not address anyone in specific (only the ‘work force’, the ‘human capital’) and thereby elicits a semblance of neutrality. Just like the camera only shows ‘what is there’, the socio-political apparatus becomes an intermediary between the body and the world, a contact which it channels and modifies. The audience therefore doesn’t identify itself directly with the actor, it does so by its intermediary, the apparatus: “The audience only empathises with the actor by empathising with the camera. It assumes its stance: it tests” (Benjamin, The Work of Art: 3. edition, my translation quoted from the Suhrkamp edition, p. 488). Subjugated by the apparatus, the body’s language is reduced to stereotypical movements, filtering out all the ‘unnecessary’ elements, the ones that express its uniqueness — as we will see in the following quote, Benjamin does not propose an anti-technological solution, but rather an inversion of the power relation within cinema. And it is within cinema that we can witness how this might look, when we see Charlie Chaplin in his Modern Times, counteracting the body’s systematic subjugation with an unlikely weapon — laughter.

Franz Xavier Messerschmidt —A Jester, An Archvillain, A Sullen Old Soldier (f.l.t.r.)

“To perform in the glare of arc lamps while simultaneously meeting the demands of the microphone is a test performance of the highest order. To accomplish it is to preserve one’s humanity in the face of the apparatus. Interest in this performance is widespread. For the majority of city dwellers, throughout the workday in offices and factories, have to relinquish their humanity in the face of an apparatus. In the evening these same masses fill the cinemas, to witness the film actor taking revenge on their behalf not only by asserting his humanity (or what appears to them as such) against the apparatus, but by placing that apparatus in the service of his triumph” (Benjamin 31).

Modern Times begins with a basic gesture of the working body: the tightening of screws. But instead of using this gesture appropriately, which would keep the machine working, Chaplin multiplies it, gives it a life on its own; and by this systematic inappropriateness, the machine ends up literally exploding. While his body language works with a reduced vocabulary that extensively amounts to the workers’, it is intensively loaded with a revolutionary potential due to the agility with which he manages to enrich it — the laughter, which his gestures elicit, alienates the worker from his quotidian life and makes him reflect on his own (socio-political) situation. As Benjamin notes: “Chaplin’s gestures aren’t really actorly” (Benjamin, p. 10401placeholder). Laughter, as Benjamin notes in The Author as Producer, initiates thought by alienating us from our day-to-day life, it renders the self-evident strange — and thereby alterable.

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But, however the minority that owns the means of film production is constituted, be it a party or capitalist owners, as soon as audience and actor (and film maker) become dissociated, as soon as both are subjugated under the demands of the apparatus, they are forced into a logic of either-or: either you are in front of the screen or in front of the camera, either you are an owner, or you are owned. Chaplin, on the other hand, becomes completely nomadic by contrasting the unambiguity of the subjected working body, whose ridiculousness he uncovers, with another praxis that yet lacks words. But it is necessarily ignited by laughter.

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt — The Childishly Crying + A Lescerous Fop (left and right) ; Adrien Tournachon — Horror (for Duchenne’s Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine) (middle)

Meanwhile the fight for film, in the strict sense sketched above, is over, as we remain mere consumers, invisible in the cinema hall’s darkness, enchanted by the distant stars and the explosions at point-blank range, passive to the point where the only action that is still granted to us is the buying of the movie ticket. Still, the question of the body’s relation to the apparatus remains pertinent, especially since the proliferation of its forms —TVs, computers, smartphones. The choice, as Benjamin reminds us, is between unfolding the utopian potential of the apparatus, or becoming its victims. To echo the joke from Friends — if you don’t own a TV, what do you point your furniture at? — one might ask: How is your body aligned to the apparatus? Check your posture.

Works Cited


Quote from the annotations to The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, but I couldn’t find it in the translated version, so it’s from the German version and my translation.


February 2018


Nietzsche’s Rift: Heidegger’s Pathway to Thinking

by Justin Richards

Chaplin’s Stuttering Body. The Utopian Potential of Film

by Timofei Gerber

Ships, Persons, and Hegelian Selves

by Antonio Wolf

Navigating Post Truth: Nietzsche Contra Plato

by John C. Brady