Chaplin and Keaton: Polarized Cinematic Technique (Essay)

>NOTE: Very formal, read at your own risk.

The silent era of film history produced two comedic giants, similar in their use of slapstick and intricate physical gags throughout their films, but different in their cinematic techniques which they employed to convey both comedic and thematic messages. Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is riddled with social criticisms and deep political messages that are successfully communicated in a way that does not disrupt the cinematic space, thus seamlessly entwining the expression of his viewpoints with the means by which they are expressed: comedic irony.

Conversely, Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. calls attention to the ways in which the medium of film effects his comedic goal and, therefore, Keaton’s overall message, resulting in audiences laughing at the movie (how trickery is being used) rather than with it (how the characters are behaving). The feeding machine scene (00:09-00:13) in Modern Times and the movie-within-a-movie landscape scene (00:19-00:22) in Sherlock Jr. exhibit the two comedians’ separate styles of film making, both woven with commentary on the content of their films.

The comedy of the feeding machine scene in Chaplin’s Modern Times is brought about by the contrast in both the camera’s and the machine operator’s reaction to the machine’s malfunction and the factory worker’s opposite reaction. When the feeding machine goes haywire, it begins to pummel the factory worker (Chaplin) with corn (00:10), pour hot soup all over him (00:12), and feed him lug nuts (00:12), all to the shock and distress of the worker. Obviously in pain and desperate to get out of the contraption, the factory worker flails about, noticeable even when the camera cuts down to the machine operator who is trying to solve the problem (00:10) (a hint at what the operator should actually be paying attention to). Conversely, the men working to fix the machine are calm and unconcerned about the welfare of the worker. After one round of abuse, one operator says to another through a title card, “We’ll start with the soup again,” almost as if he didn’t even recognize the suffering of the worker. Chaplin’s technique of minimalism is what drives the situational irony home. The straight-on, perfectly still shots trading off between the feeding machine operators and the factory worker add to the calmness of the scene.

The comedy is enhanced by this ironically objective disposition to the torture of our main character. Chaplin’s purpose in this is to criticize the carelessness of those in charge, those who are willing to use and abuse others in the pursuit of money. The way in which he makes “our consciousness of the cinematic medium disappear” (Mast and Kawin 116) through a light-hearted soundtrack and a relaxed, uncomplicated composition also lends to the unconsciousness of what we are actually witnessing—one social class completely disregarding the wellbeing of another. By choosing not to incorporate any compositional or spacial criticism of the content of the scene (i.e. odd or disruptive angles, shot lengths, etc.) Chaplin’s criticism is even further supported through the ironic comedy produced.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Keaton’s purposefully meta film style comments on the nature of film and film viewing in the beginning of the movie-within-a-movie sequence in which the main character (Keaton) performs a series of stunts as the landscape changes with the scenes. In this gag, Keaton manipulates space and time to confuse and physically effect the boy who has stepped into a film, calling attention to the devices of film creation such as editing and set design. This then has its own effect on us, making us laugh because of both the physical stunts being performed and the way in which the scene pokes fun at our own belief in the tangibility, the realism, of film.

By making us face the “facade” of film, Keaton points out that watching film is watching a fabrication, a construction, and as we watch we behave like the boy in the movie-within-a-movie, falling about, completely at the mercy of the filmmaker who strings us along. This technique by which Keaton forces us to more fully realize the content of the comedy (of believing film) calls “attention to the expectations and desires with which we enter into a pact with narrative” (Gladfelder 146). Oddly, the scene’s comedic effect is less so produced by Keaton’s prat-falls and tumbles, but more so by his manipulative technique and the content-based commentary that coincides.

Chaplin and Keaton, seen almost as arch rivals of the silent era of film, utilized very different means by which they provided social, political, and artistic criticism through comedy, but shared in the same end: a comedic goal not met by the content of the gags alone, but also by the film making techniques that were a crucial supplementary factor in getting the artists’ point across.

Works Cited

Mast, Gerald, and Bruce Kawin. A Short History of the Movies. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008.

Gladfelder, Hal. “Sherlock Jr. (1924).” Film Analysis: A Norton Reader. Ed. Jeffrey Geiger and R.L. Rutsky. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2005.

Modern Times. Dir. Charlie Chaplin. Perf. Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard. 1936. DVD. Warner Home Video, 2006.

Sherlock Jr.. Dir. Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, and Ward Crane. 1924. Online. Google videos, 2007.


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