The Chaplin Machine: Slapstick, Fordism and the Communist Avant-Garde by Owen Hatherley

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Hardback, 240 pages
Publisher: Pluto Press (May 2016)
ISBN: 9780745336114
Language: English
Selected by Tank

For Owen Hatherley’s next trick, he’ll inject humour into the artworks of the communist avant-garde. With his typically deft and well-informed prose, The Chaplin Machine reveals how the quasi-mechanical automaton-like performances of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton might be seen as a pastiche mirroring of Fordism, and how this form of slapstick comedy was in turn adopted by the avant-garde in Soviet Russia. Hatherley includes a dizzying array of artworks, films and architecture to weave this astonishingly comedic tale of Soviet Russia. 


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Left, “The Chocolate Kiddies” from Dziga Vertov, One Sixth of the World (film still), 1926.
Right, “Colonialism” from Dziga Vertov, One Sixth of the World (film still), 1926 


Dziga Vertov’s 1926 documentary film One Sixth of the World is a panoramic picture of the industries and peoples of the Soviet Union, composed as a publicity film for Gostorg, the USSR’s foreign-trade corporation, and it begins with an image of that which the Soviet Union is not. A black American jazz band plays furiously, with the players losing themselves in their gestures and emphases, while affluent whites shimmy and foxtrot with similar abandon. This, Vertov’s intertitles unambiguously declare, is the decadence of a dying class, the dance as the system goes down; and it is immediately contrasted with images of sharecropping, and of black labourers in Europe’s African colonies, linking the bourgeoisie’s enjoyment of jazz to their exploitation of Africans and African Americans.

Yet there is something more complex at work than a mere juxtaposition of bourgeois leisure and exploited labour. Elizaveta Svilova’s fast-cut editing picks up the pace of the dancers, cuts precisely to their rhythmic movements, creating a pace and pulse that continues through the rest of the film. The American pop-cultural form may seem like the opposite of the gigantic revolutionary enclave, but this is deceptive. Instead, the avant-gardist Vertov takes what he requires from it – the metropolitan dynamism of its rhythm and pace – while refusing to ignore the networks of exploitation of which it is a part. Vertov and Svilova’s sect, the Kinoks, were at the edge of the Soviet avant-garde that was most critical of American importations, with Vertov’s frequent blasts against the fiction film, whether it be “Dostoevsky or Nat Pinkerton”. However, even the famous slogan of the Kinoks, usually translated as “life caught unawares”, has resonances which suggest comedy as much as revolutionary high-seriousness. Ben Brewster translates the phrase as “life slap-up”. Post-revolutionary life slipping on a banana skin, a pratfall, as a vertiginous and hard-to-negotiate new space – the world turned upside down.

Life slap-up can not only be seen in the unexpected corners of the urban environment captured against their will by Vertov and the Kinoks’ Kino-Eye1, but it can also be found in imaginary, prospective space. After Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, the first major Constructivist environments are sets for theatrical comedies. Liubov Popova’s set for Meyerhold’s 1922 production The Magnanimous Cuckold or Alexander Vesnin’s for Alexander Tairov’s The Man Who Was Thursday are the exemplars; their open-frame, industrial scaolds and moving parts create a comic environment where the ground can be literally moved from under your feet, inspiring as a means of dealing with a new kind of physical movement. It is these alignments – the political critique of, and dynamic sympathy for, American mass culture; the conception of contemporary urban life as necessarily comic, as “slapstick”, containing plenty of “new stupidities” as well as revolutionary new forms; the creation of a new comic space, via both architectural and directly physical means – that will run through this book. Americanism here is Chaplinism. 

[1] The Kinoks was a Soviet film collective lead by Dziga Vertov, who rejected conventional cinema in favour of the cinema of fact. The kino [cinema] eye was better, according to this group, than the human eye. Film was to be the only means to attain Marxist truth.