On Owen Hatherleys The Chaplin Machine
As the devastating effects of neoliberalism are painfully incurred even by those (middle) classes once immune to the abuses of capital, the bygone world of applied Marxism is seeing a resurgence; consequently, its nuances have started to slowly emerge. What was until recently considered by many a monolithic ideology of pure evil is now being reexamined, at least in some circles (the fact that an American candidate has exhumed the taboo word “socialism” during his campaign without being lynched is also symptomatic). A series of books, like Agata Pyzik’s Poor but Sexy or Susan Buck-Morss’s Dreamworld and Catastrophe, and exhibitions, like the recent Red Africa at Calvert Gallery or the Tate’s forthcoming show in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution are helping to deflate the overblown prejudices and assumptions that the Iron Curtain left behind. These and other projects do not look with nostalgia at an idyllic past that never was, nor do they serve as preposterous lessons of historical revisionism. What they often do is to try to challenge the perspective through which much of what happened on the other side of the Berlin Wall has been assimilated in the West. Among these post-Communist thinkers, the voice and writings of Owen Hatherley have been a prominent presence over recent years. Though architecture and its social implications have constituted the epicentre of his analysis, Hatherley has been venturing into culture from his very first book, Militant Modernism (in which he dealt with, among others, the films of Duan Makavejev).
His latest book, The Chaplin Machine: Slapstick, Fordism and the Communist Avant-Garde, primarily focuses on a cinema whose treatment both benefits and suffers from a non-specialist approach. The subject is here framed and understood as part of an organic, social whole, though Hatherley verges more on the descriptive than the hermeneutic when delving into cinematic material. With so much academic work nonchalantly leaping into improbable, overly wishful interpretations, the author’s sobriety may even be salutary. The book’s stated aim is to dispel a few myths surrounding the Soviet Avant-Garde, which is still often considered as an over-theorized, humourless and doctrinaire artistic practice. Instead, as Hatherley shows, avant-garde filmmakers in the Soviet Union were greatly inspired by what would be considered their cultural antonyms, the silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. Soviet artists were equally fascinated by American cinema as well as by the wonders of industrialization made possible by the advent of the scientific management of labor. Taylorism in fact was not at all rejected by Bolsheviks, and its productive techniques were closely analyzed in the attempt to translate them into the Soviet context. “Ford plus Chaplin plus Lenin” is the formula Hatherley adopts to examine “the interplay between industrial organization, comic entertainment and socialist politics in the aesthetics of the avant-garde.”
Technological advancement was the driving force and muse of Constructivism; the conveyor belt was seen as a carrier of emancipatory change rather than exploitation. In “My Discovery of America,” a lyrical travelogue of his 1925 trip to the United States, the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky declared his fascination with the transformative forces of industrial progress he had witnessed in American cities. His conviction that the same forces could be deployed at the service of workers’ liberation as opposed to profit was widely shared by the Soviet intelligentsia, Lenin included. The playwright Vsevolod Meyerhold even devised an acting technique closely modeled on the scientific principles of Taylorism in opposition to the psychological identification of the Stanislavskian method. Biomechanics, as Meyerhold’s method was called is “the treatment of the body as an object to the point where objectification becomes reversed.” Hatherley opines that “its truly utopian implication lies in the possibility to make the factory more like the circus.” As the subsequent history of the Soviet Union dramatically proved, the contradictory fascination with the propulsive engine of capitalism turned out to be a fatal one as workers found themselves oppressed rather than in charge. But what The Chaplin Machine… focuses on is that historical moment when “technology and industry created a supplementary dreamlife, an inadvertent proliferation of fantasy that was enriching, developing technologies beyond utilitarian horizons.” So much so that Charlie Chaplin himself, widely praised in the West for his humanism, was seen by Marxist critics like Walter Benjamin as the mechanic embodiment of cinema’s industrial matrix. Hatherley calls him “not a Taylorist ‘trained gorilla’ so much as a self-propelling marionette,” The mechanized Soviet actor then was a sort of revolutionary Taylorist creature that was as class conscious as it was post-humanly utopian.
Another persistent myth the book convincingly debunks is that constructivism and the avant-garde were merely the result of a sort of superimposition of politics onto arts. Far from simply being a politicized art form, Soviet cinema was the artistic outcome of a political revolution. Bolshevism did not dictate cinematic and artistic practices in its own image but rather created the very (social) conditions for them to flourish. As Susan Buck-Morss noted in her essay “Revolutionary Art: The Bolshevik Experience,” “the ‘time’ of the cultural avant-garde is not the same as that of the vanguard party as the artistic revolution came to be distinguished from political revolution, of which it was merely symptomatic.” While many associate the Soviet Union (only) with the brutal suppression of freedoms, artistic and otherwise, the book describes the admittedly short-lived moment when experimental art was not only encouraged, but actually state-funded. Unlike government-sponsored propaganda, the art produced in the early days of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was indeed the embodiment of a revolutionary impatience to see the world change for the better (though history teaches us that things didn’t go exactly as planned). American progress and its images were, paradoxical as it may sound, a great catalyst for revolutionary transformation. The critical engagement with American cinema and industrial culture spawned what could be termed Soviet Slapstick as groups—like The Factory of the Eccentric Actor (FEX)—addressed the need for comedy that even Leon Trotsky lamented in his 1924 book Literature and Revolution.
Works like FEX’s Devil’s Wheel, Lev Kuleshov’s Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks and the Eccentrist Manifesto “serve as major corrective to the still depressingly prevalent view of the 1920s avant-garde as haughtily aloof from ‘popular culture.’” It so appears that one of the unsung achievements of the October Revolution was to have at least tried to bring laughter to a land not exactly known for its smiles. Hatherley’s book goes on to explore the world of soviet advertising and its utopian promises, the reception of American comedies by soviet critics, architectural constructivism as well as the dynamism of billboards. Another interesting chapter is dedicated to the advent of sound and the rhythm of Socialist Construction in Soviet Cinema wherein the author talks about Vertov’s Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass, Joris Ivens’s Komsomol (Song of the Heroes), and the very interesting-sounding K-Sh-E: Komsomol, Patron of Electrification by Esfir Shub. Curiously, the first Five Year Plan (1928 – 32) coincided with the advent of synchronized sound in Soviet cinema which Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Alexandrov skeptically welcomed in their famous “Statement on Sound” where they feared that “by using ‘ADHESION’ between sound and image in creating straightforward talking films, the linguistic universalism of film” could be lost. They in fact called for a “contrapuntual, orchestral use of sound via a DISTINCT NON-SYNCHRONISATION.” A very interesting issue Hatherley raises is the immense complicity of the American industry in the transformative violence of the Five Year Plan and the human toll it claimed. With the U.S. nearing the Depression, American companies “accepted lucrative commissions for the Soviet industrial expansion,” notes the author, before listing the names of companies that had taken part in it.
With Medvedkin’s Happiness standing as a late example of Soviet slapstick that somehow survived the violent conformism and reactionary aesthetics of Stalinism, the era of Red Clowns and subversive laughter came to a bitter end. The forced implementation by Stalin of Socialist Realism as the official form of artistic expression denounced and effectively terminated constructivism, considered as a form of bourgeois decadence. With his book, Hatherley openly confutes Boris Groys’s claim that there was a substantial continuity between the avant-garde and the Totalitarian art of Stalinism but never really sketches the Russian critic’s argument. It would also have been interesting for Hatherley’s case to be accompanied by an economic analyses of the early Soviet film industry, its distribution (before Stalin’s autocratic isolationism, foreign films were regularly distributed in soviet theaters) and production modes. That said, The Chaplin Machine is a precious and thoroughly researched book, shedding light on a very stimulating chapter of (film) history that saw filmmakers attempting to exceed the rectangular borders of the screen to break into the phenomenal world of the everyday. It tells the happy end-less story of a group of artists and “politicians” whom after having successfully destroyed the old world tried to create a new, less miserable one.