Chaplin’s Stuttering Body. The Utopian Potential of Film
“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)
With these optimistic words, the early film theorist Béla Balázs summarised the advent of (silent) film. The year was 1924, a tumultuous time between the two World Wars, one that witnessed a vast amount of changes — the rise of the modern metropolises with their busy streets and vitrines, a plethora of political movements giving a face to urban mass culture, the deaths and abdications of the last European emperors, and a new popular medium — film. And Berlin, where Balázs was writing these lines, was in the midst of it all. The new experience of seeing moving faces and bodies on the big screen, so much more intense than the memories convened in the family photo album, promised a fundamental change in the cultural landscape — the birth of visual culture.
The human body, Balázs intuited, particularly its face and its gestures, had become invisible behind the walls of text of literary culture, and, most importantly, had lost its unique expressivity in the generalised and generalising terms of language — even the most poetic description of brown eyes will not convey their unique shade that is evident with a mere glance. Here, Balázs is very close to Henri Bergson’s early critique of language, to whom he owes a lot, and which states, that, in their generalisation, words and concepts lose the unique nuance of our experience, and therefore alter it into something impersonal and abstract. How often, in retelling a personal story, do we feel like saying: “But you had to be there”! Human expressivity, in its gesticulation and countenance, Balázs continues, can ‘speak’ and be meaningful without the detour of abstraction, which language necessitates:
“The gesture of humans does not denote any concepts, but rather immediately their irrational self; and what is expressed in their faces and movements comes from a layer of the soul that words can never bring to light. Here, the spirit [Geist] is becoming body immediately, wordless, visible” (ibid.).
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.
· · ·
In The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, Walter Benjamin develops a primarily sociological function of film which was to prepare the subject for the accelerated rhythm of modern life, just as the viewer needed to sharpen his cognitive abilities to understand the action that flickers in front of him in quick succession. Outside the cinema, paying attention to the cars, the elbowing crowd, and the shop-windows on the city’s streets needed to be trained, and movies were the perfect opportunity to do so. Therefore, the actor’s body in front of the camera had to be subjugated to a number of “mechanised tests” (Benjamin, p. 30), with the best performance being the most unequivocally readable one, so that it would assist with the training of the audience. We can see how the optimistic outlook of Balázs is becoming ambivalent with Benjamin. This is evident when Benjamin compares the actor’s performance with the worker’s in the factories:
“Meanwhile the work process, especially since it has been standardised by the assembly line, daily generates countless mechanised tests. These tests are performed unawares, and those who fail are excluded from the work process” (ibid.).
Rather than expressing its unique being, the human body in front of the camera undergoes a dressage and is reduced to a number of typed movements and expressions: Say, the expressions of fear, awe, sadness, determination. This becomes evident when we watch the more mass-produced silent movies, in the majority of which we are confronted with types: The type of the hero, the damsel in distress, the criminal. This, though, does not lie in the essence of film, but rather in its production. Being very expensive, movies had to reach a wide audience to be profitable, and hence had to be understood and enjoyed by as many people as possible, not only on a national, but an international scale. This affiliation of film to capital was perceived by Balázs as well:
“The gesture that determines the action’s course and meaning must be understandable for the most different peoples, otherwise the movie won’t make profit. The language of gesture is quasi normalised in film” (Balázs, p. 22).
Benjamin’s ambivalence towards film, an invention which, in The Work of Art, he generally sees in a positive light, needs to be seen exactly in this connection to capital, whose aim towards profitability reduces human beings to mere instruments on and off screen (as we have seen in the association of film with the assembly line above). The interests of the capitalist class in film as a new means of exploitation, one that is aided by advertisement and the ‘movie star system’, is impoverishing its utopian potential, which lies in the masses becoming visible to themselves and thereby becoming self-aware, an actual political class — the proletariat:
“All this [the publicity machine] in order to distort and corrupt the original and justified interest of the masses in film — an interest in understanding themselves and therefore their class. Thus, the same is true of film capital in particular as of fascism in general: a compelling urge toward new social opportunities is being clandestinely exploited in the interests of a property-owning minority. For this reason alone, the expropriation of film capital is an urgent demand for the proletariat” (Benjamin, p. 34).
The critical point of film in the capitalist system therefore lies in the confrontation of the human body with the apparatus, be it in front of the camera or the screen. This dynamic is paralleled with the worker’s life outside the cinema, as in both cases, the body is forced to perform, to achieve results in the form of profit for the owners —the audience, by improving its reaction time to modern life and modern machines; the actor, by maintaining the film’s profitability. In both cases, also, the body needs to ‘in-corporate’ a certain set of gestures that comprise its whole ‘grammar’ and ‘vocabulary’ — tightening screws, pulling levers, rotating wheels, clocking in and out. This standardisation not only aims for the improved efficiency of work, but also for the worker’s substitutability, as these simple gestures can be learned by anyone. Even though the movie stars emanate an aura of untouchability, they too are measured against their ability to bring in profit, and will be gotten rid of as quickly as the ‘defective’ worker. They both are “tested” in front of the apparatus, subjected to the same logic of utility.
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.
“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).
Another dynamic comes to light, a “test” of a different order: No longer is the actor competing for the audience’s favour in the light of the film’s profitability, but rather in his ability to bring his own unique humanity, in spite of the demands of the apparatus, to light. This dynamic is particularly interesting in film comedy, which, during the silent era, had to primarily rely on the body becoming comical. With the comical figures of the theatre mainly consisting of types, meaning individuals that fail to affirm their individuality, the bourgeois audience, consisting of (at least apparently) autonomous subjects, could laugh about them from a position of superiority. This is a central aspect of Molière’s character comedies, where the protagonists, in eliciting a single trait, become ‘typical’, and thereby ridiculous (see Benjamin’s essay Fate and Character, but also Bergson’s Laughter).
The cinematic audience, on the other hand, originally consisted of the lower classes, women with their children, and the proletariat (as it was for a long time not considered an ‘art’), potentially leading to a different socio-political relation between the audience and the comedic actor/figure. While in the theatre, the humour is essentially accompanied by a certain malice due to the audience’s (apparent) superiority, in the quote above we can perceive a certain sympathy between audience and actor that is expressed in the latter’s “revenge”. No longer a ‘star’ under the service of capital, the actor becomes an ally of the viewing public. It is therefore no accident that the comedians of the silent film era are not known for being types, but rather individuals that elicit a idiosyncratic style—Keaton’s style, Lloyd’s style, Linder’s style. It is now the apparatus that has become the object of laughter, with its demands becoming painfully ridiculous — “Are you really asking me to spend all my life standing in front of a machine, repeating these five movements?”
In the case of Modern Times, this is specifically expressed by Chaplin’s response to the workers’ smooth stereotyped movements by developing a ‘stutter’. The worker’s gestures are adjusted meticulously to specific parts of the assembly line; Chaplin acquires these gestures, but he proliferates them, making them become asymmetric with the machine and thereby makes the attuned sequence break into a stutter, or a hiccup. In contrast to the well-adapted body of the worker, Chaplin’s body speaks either too coarsely or too subtly, he is constantly misunderstood — as when he picks up a flag that has fallen from a car and incites a demonstration — because he wants to be misunderstood. He is not using a different ‘vocabulary’ (set of gestures), as his gestures are the same as the worker’s; rather, he shows that the ‘vocabulary’ that is forced upon the worker does not result in a language, as the ‘words’, limited in their quantity already, only have meaning within a very specific context. For example, clocking in and out is a ‘meaningful’ movement only within the frame of, well, clocking in and out. Once the symmetry between body and apparatus is broken, this ‘language’ becomes completely unreadable, coming close to complete gibberish — like clocking in at home before dinner. Chaplin’s gestures appear like a foreign language, but their only aim is to liberate the working body: “He [Chaplin] plays the victorious revolution of the ‘humiliated and offended’” (Balázs, p. 105).
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.
· · ·
In an essay appropriately called He Stuttered, Gilles Deleuze speaks about “the writer who becomes a stutterer in language. He makes the language as such stutter: an affective and intensive language, and no longer an affectation of the one who speaks” (Deleuze, p. 107). This, I believe, stands in strong connection to Chaplin’s strategy, where the medium, though, is not language, but the body. Just as the writer overcomes the duality between language and meaning (or signifier and signified, if you want), by no longer writing: “He stuttered,” as an informative sentence or just lazily writing something like “He-hello my f-friend,” but by conveying the stutter in and through language itself, Chaplin’s body no longer signifies certain affectionate states like ‘nervous’ or ‘frustrated’, but incorporates the inability to speak immediately through his movements. “This exceeds the possibilities of speech and attains the power of the language, or even of language in its entirety. This means that a great writer is always like a foreigner in the language in which he expresses himself, even if this is his native tongue” (ibid., p. 109). We don’t ‘understand’ Chaplin’s body language — “With Chaplin […] the spiritual [seelische] improbability of his actions becomes more and more mysterious and develops, with time, the touchingly comical melancholy of not being understood” (Balázs, p. 100) — , and yet he ‘speaks’ to us on a fundamental level as we perceive his fundamental humanity — it is a solemn laughter that stands the “test” of time much better than all the other typical comedies of his time. This is wonderfully illustrated in Chaplin’s performance in the café at the end of Modern Times, where he has forgotten the song’s text, but not its gestures — the meaning of the song becomes superfluous because the liberated body has learned to speak once again. And yet, despite the success of the performance, he remains solidary with his companion till the end and they flee together into an unknown future.
The ambiguity, with which the film ends, stands in a stark contrast to the definitude of the stereotyped and functional language. Yet, this ambiguity is not an end, but a beginning. The solidary gesture establishes a contact between two human beings, a contact that is immediate and untouched by the apparatus. Instead of the star cult that poses a radical difference between audience and performer — a difference that, as we have seen, is only imaginary — the ending of Modern Times razes these barriers to the ground. This is echoed in Benjamin’s optimistic outlook to film, when he says that “the distinction between author and public is about to lose its axiomatic character” (Benjamin, p. 33f.). He observed that phenomenon in his contemporary Russian film, where “some of the actors taking part […] are not actors in our sense but people who portray themselves, and primarily in their own work process” (ibid., p. 34). This dynamic can develop stronger, where the film capital is not in the possession of a minority, but is rather a collective endeavour. This would allow the broad masses, the exploited, to film themselves and each other, and by that not only reflect on appropriate means of expression, but also become visible on the film screen to themselves and to others. Through this act of self-reflexion, of expressing and of seeing oneself, the viewers could develop a class consciousness. While for Balázs, what becomes potentially visible on the screen is the unique, pre-social body, for Benjamin it is the collective one that has been marked by exploitation and suppression; as film not only shows individual faces and gestures in close-ups, but, as Benjamin imagines, also the work process, the social issues, the struggle.
Thus, the apparatus becomes a servant in the subject’s maturity as it develops a solidarity with its peers and sees through the means, through which it is being exploited — for example by reducing one’s body language to a small set of gestures. While class is an economic factor, class consciousness, as an awareness of one’s position within society and its economy, is necessary to incite the subject’s maturity as a political being. But while films like Battleship Potemkin or Man with a Movie Camera do showcase this potential, we unfortunately know to what degree this has changed with the rise of Stalinism.
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.
Yet, the utopian history of film remains unwritten, and with the advent of the ‘talkies’, the specifically corporeal humour of silent film has come to its end (the Screwball Comedy of the 30s and 40s was primarily verbal). The schism between audience and actor has nowadays become complete, just as the film capital remains in the hands of the few. The history of film has witnessed several attempts of reappropriation, be it from the various New Waves, various video groups in the 70s and 80s, or, nowadays, Mumblecore movies. But what both Balázs and Benjamin imagined were not fringe movements that mainly interest the educated elite, but film as a truly democratic art form, through which people would be able to express themselves and become visible to themselves and to others (one might argue, that in its beginning, YouTube showcased a similar potential, but it didn’t take long for being a ‘YouTuber’ to become a business). This is essentially what Benjamin called the politisation of art.
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.
Balázs, Béla. Der sichtbare Mensch oder die Kultur des Films [The Visible Man or the Culture of Film]. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2001 [all quotes my translation].
Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological
Reproducibility: Second Version. In: The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, Belknap 2008, p. 19–55.
Deleuze, Gilles. “He Stuttered.” In: Critical and Clinical, Verso 1998, p. 107–114.
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.