Comedy is a notoriously slippery subject. Kant called laughter “an affect that arises if a tense expectation is transformed into nothing” (1), and theories of the comic usually share this fate, critical expectation dissolving into a void of counter-example and, well, laughter. Humour seems to resist the assignation of depth, even to parody the language of interpretation. “Times flies like an arrow,” Groucho Marx once said. “Fruit flies like a banana.” Try parsing that.
Machine-Age Comedy manages to wring some sense from a feral language. Its guiding idea is that technological modernity has altered both the structure and content of the comic, and the book makes the case that twentieth-century comedy thought through the human relationship to the machine world, attempting to restore some measure of parity between these machines and the people who created them. The most interesting aspect of this thesis is that the machines with which we surround ourselves have made actual contributions to the formal structure of comic texts, lacing them with tics and stutters and an enduring interest in repetition. Modern comedy, says Michael North, is machine comedy.
The book reads a series of comic works across media and between both popular and high traditions: Dziga Vertov alongside Buster Keaton, Marcel Duchamp next to Rube Goldberg, Samuel Beckett with David Foster Wallace. There’s a chapter devoted to Walt Disney and another to Wyndham Lewis. These chapters do an admirable job of actually reading these works, by which I mean that they shy away from systematic theories of comedy in favour of interpreting these works in their particularity. For the liveliness and specificity of its readings, North deserves a great deal of credit. The readings are particularly strong when they are applied to works whose humour has been obscured by their absorption into the academic canon. Vertov and Duchamp are the shining examples here. One senses the humour in Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov, 1929), but to hear Annette Michelson tell it, you’d think you’d seen a different film (2).
There’s also something fresh and revelatory about an approach unencumbered by the boundaries of discipline and specialty. Reading Machine-Age Comedy, one wonders whether the absence of strong analyses of comedy in the domain of film studies is a casualty of these very divisions. The more rigid our interpretive walls, the less flexible our critical movements seem to become. And descriptions of comedy need nothing if not interpretive flexibility.
Its breadth and critical imagination aside, however, I found myself wishing that Machine-Age Comedy took greater liberties with theoretical speculation – if not about comedy generally, then about the modernity in which the book situates these works. North’s resistance to general theories of comedy and laughter (he alludes frequently and appropriately to Henri Bergson) helps him to read these works in their specificity, but the overall thesis – that the comic has a special relationship to the machine and therefore to modernity itself – could use some elaboration. It’s a rich idea.
25 years ago, Linda Hutcheon suggested that twentieth-century art forms could be defined by their interest in parody, but North is wary of this kind of pronouncement (3). This caution diverts the book’s attention from larger patterns apparent in its surprising textual connections. North is adept at making formal comparisons between the work of Keaton and Vertov, for instance, but there is much more to be said about what these comparisons imply for our understanding of film history. The book focuses on The Cameraman (1928), Keaton’s first film for MGM, and compares it to the similarly titled Man with a Movie Camera. And while it is instructive that the two films were released only a year apart, Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924) is an equally apt comparison. Keaton once suggested that Sherlock arose out of a desire to display “some of these tricks I knew from the stage,” and that film is a vast menagerie of trick camera work and terrifying stunt work (4). It also includes the famous sequence in which Keaton wanders up to a film screen, jumps inside, and is then tossed around by the action of a frenetic, nonsensical montage. Keaton may not have had the intellectual chops of the early Soviet cinema, but the sequence is as intensely self-reflective as any moment in the history of narrative filmmaking.
The connection to Soviet cinema is stronger than North lets on. Yuri Tsivian has suggested that early Soviet filmmakers were fascinated by the “lower genres” of American film – the adventure serial, the detective thriller, and the slapstick comedy – and that early Soviet interest in these films contributed at least in part to the development of the aesthetic of montage (5). And the fact that slapstick comedy may have had a hand in the creation of avant-garde film is lost in the usual accounts of high modernist film. (Again, Michelson’s work is instructive.) North’s wonderful intuitions about these works – that, for instance, a humble cartoonist might help us to think about an art gallery darling – bring these connections to the foreground, but they don’t situate them very firmly in this historical context. All of which is to say, North’s book – perhaps because of the interdisciplinary approach that is otherwise its strength – gestures at connections that it fails to fully articulate. Film scholars would do well to follow up on these intuitions and allow them to alter our thinking about the relationship between high modernism and the popular cinema.
It’s also the case that North shies away from the ambivalence and the rough edges of some of these comedies. Keaton is again a good example. North argues that Keaton’s films defetishise the machine, restoring human beings to a kind of productive parity with their mechanical creations. In making this argument, the book follows a long line of optimistic readers of Keaton’s work. But it’s hard not to feel that this reading misses the irony and sadness of films like College (1927) and The Navigator (1924). In those films (and many others), Keaton’s adoption of machine-like behaviour is accompanied by a profound ambivalence as well as an awareness that his ability to perform like a mechanism is an obstacle to his achievement of human intimacy. It may be a cliché that, beneath their limber movements and painted smiles, all clowns are actually sad. But some really are, and industrial modernity seems to have contributed to that sadness.
Alongside Machine-Age Comedy’s impressive insistence upon the comedy of the machine, then, we might also consider the ambivalence of the human relationship to the objects of modernity. At several points in the book, North suggests that comic works be read in light of the promise of modernity, the hope that our machines have been created not as giant, mechanical tethers to the tent pole of capital, but as useful devices in service of human freedom. In Keaton’s work, as in Duchamp’s and Goldberg’s and even Walt Disney’s, they look like both.
Machine-Age Comedy, by Michael North, Oxford University Press, New York, 2009.
- Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar, Hackett, Indianapolis, 1987, p. 203.
- Michelson’s discussion of Man with a Movie Camera can be found in “‘The Man with the Movie Camera’: From Magician to Epistemologist”, Artforum no. 10.7, March 1972, pp. 60-72.
- Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms, University of Illinois Press, Champaign, 2000.
- The quotation appears in Henry Jenkins, “‘This Fellow Keaton Seems to Be the Whole Show’: Buster Keaton, Interrupted Performance, and the Vaudeville Aesthetic”, in Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., edited by Andrew Horton, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1997, p. 46.
- See Yuri Tsivian, “Between the Old and the New: Soviet Film Culture in 1918-1924”, Griffithiana, nos. 55/56, 1996, pp. 15-63.