I. Intro: Where Are We?
The film begins with a literal unity of text and image. The opening intertitle promises “Kid Auto Races at Venice, California,” before cutting to a child in a soapbox derby car accelerating through a diagonal path of spectators. If the frame of the shot – situating the child’s path such that he passes directly through the middle of the screen – doesn’t direct the spectator’s attention immediately to the racecourse, the throng of people attending the event clues the filmgoer to the intended object of study. Text, image and the borrowed gaze of hundreds of viewers conspire to produce a singular focus: the race. The inattentive audience member could be forgiven for missing the one gaze that is directed off-screen: a dog who wanders nonchalantly into the void beyond the left limit of the frame.
And yet, just as the racers zoom by, in the spot on the screen recently vacated by our laconic mutt, a man is accosted by a police officer and – seemingly without critical recognition – wanders into the center of the shot. He vacillates, receiving unheard instructions from behind the camera as he ambles from one to the other side of the frame. A few members of the race-going public look at him with curious concern. Does he not see the camera whose view he is impeding? Is he not concerned for his safety, standing in the middle of the raceway?
The meddling man leaves the frame as a match cut takes us to another view of the race, with two new child drivers zooming toward the bottom-right of the frame. The shot ends without event, assuring the viewer that the earlier incident with the flummoxed gentleman impeding the filmmakers was an unhappy accident; now we are free to tune our attention, along with the live spectators, to the action on the course.
And yet, after another intertitle announces a shot of race attendees in “The Grand Stand,” the meddling man reappears. This time he wilfully assumes the centre of the frame, walking in time to the slow pan right. As fellow members of the public politely pretend not to notice the camera by fixing their eyes on the racecourse off-screen right (or, in a more advanced school, covering their faces with handkerchiefs or programs), our shabbily dressed interloper brazenly mugs and vogues. He strikes pose after pose, cycling through identities so quickly that it is difficult to identify them. He is cocky, then careful; cautious, and then carefree; curious, and then confused. At last, a nattily dressed man emerges from behind the camera to forcibly throw him out of the camera’s (and our) way.
The title of the film, Kid Auto Races at Venice (Henry Lehrman, 1914), therefore participates in its central gag: making an audience believe it is at a car race when it is really attending a slapstick performance. The promised automotive spectacle is only there to properly situate viewers for the actual focus of the film: the meddling man (Charles Chaplin) constantly spleening the film director (Lehrman) by interrupting his shots. Only through the assumption that the children in their handmade racers are the centre of attention does the gag function properly. Were the tramp’s antics to be presented in an empty room, they would cease to produce comedy and instead would produce anxiety – Chaplin’s gaze directed repeatedly at the audience through the camera would give viewers the sense of an overly-intimate ritual. This set of topological concerns – object of attention, audience, interruption – provides a template for an enormous amount of the comedy Chaplin would create through the rest of his career.1
And yet, this gag, as endearing as it is, is itself only a distraction from what is really at stake in the film. Rather than the aforementioned paradigm that situates Chaplin as a diversion between the audience and its object, Kid Auto Races provides a model to its audience of how to situate oneself in relation to the movie camera. What the film reveals is that the invention of the moving picture has opened to every human being a position of continual observation and spectatorship. This is not a metaphysical postulate, but a material reality of lived life: being in public space means potentially being filmed, just as watching a film means potentially watching anyone else as they were filmed. Kid Auto Races – and, specifically, the performance of the Tramp – teaches its viewers the mutability of self-fashioning in the immediate wake of moving pictures. Chaplin introduces us to “the camera as camera,” suggesting that he is with us amid the crowds of potential spectators that could at any time be panned by potential filmmakers.2 At the same time, Chaplin demonstrates how different he is from his audience in that he already understands how to redirect and manipulate the camera’s gaze. His performance invites any audience not only to laugh at or with him, but to realise that, within the field of filmic visibility, they are capable of the same performance of self-reflexivity. All character is open to interpretation because, at any moment of any performance of any character, someone could be watching and interpreting.
Because the camera secures the possibility of not just visibility but repeated visibility, Chaplin identifies the movie camera as a magic mirror that produces an archive of its reflections. This mirror establishes, therefore, a complicated set of three relations between audience and performer: first, the relation between performer and audience described above; second, a relation between performer and self (as Chaplin’s strutting and posing represent a process of self-reflection and invention); and third, a relation between audience and self, as any audience anywhere can become subject to the recording of the movie camera, just as they see demonstrated before them on the screen.3 This third relation explains why, when the live audience in Venice is confronted by Chaplin’s and Lehrman’s antics, most race-goers ignore the vaudeville act to pay attention instead to the camera and its gaze. In our fibre-optic age – an age in which we all carry little movie cameras snugly in our pockets, taking them out to simultaneously record and watch ourselves being recorded, mincing and mugging and preening and posing – Chaplin’s early identification of movie camera as magic mirror is worth reconsidering.
II. From Costume to Character
It is almost a shame that the film is the first appearance of the Tramp’s famous costume, as this fact has tended to eclipse all other interpretation of the work. Added to this is the confusion of whether or not Kid Auto Races should be considered the first at all. In Chaplin’s autobiography, he forgets the film altogether, focusing instead on the first appearance of his character in a studio setting.4 The film Chaplin remembers, Mabel’s Strange Predicament (Mabel Normand, 1914), was filmed first but released second. Kid Auto Races is the first public appearance of the outfit in two regards: (1) it was released first and (2) being filmed live at the soapbox race, it is a documentary record of the first time the public saw the Tramp.
The relation of clothes to film matters because the costume interprets the protean nature of character in the age of the moving picture. Although it is likely that most elements of the Tramp’s outfit came from various English vaudeville sources, many of the specific relations between costume elements in Chaplin’s invention were new.5 It is these relations that Chaplin focuses on when he describes his process of inventing the ensemble:
On my way to the wardrobe, I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane, and a derby hat. I wanted everything a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. […] I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the make-up made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked onto the stage he was fully born.6
According to Mack Sennett, each element of the costume came from a different actor on the Keystone payroll. The saggy pants were Fatty Arbuckle’s; the small coat, Charlie Avery’s; and the giant shoes belonged to Ford Sterling – the star whose position of prominence Chaplin was seeking to replace.7 Chaplin may have elided these details from his recollection because he was attempting to invent a comic character that could do all the other actors’ jobs. Rather than focusing on an ensemble, Chaplin saw the potential in film for individual personality to take over the screen by assuming all the potential identities previously spread over a number of distinct vaudeville types. The rule of the costume is therefore a rule of relations rather than any specific character traits: “everything a contradiction” so that any performance of any character could be justified.
Whenever Chaplin talks about the importance of character, therefore, what he is really discussing is a process of relation. This is evident from his first impressions of the Keystone style, where he records two contradictory criticisms of the studio. The first is in relation to the importance placed on chase scenes. In response to Sennett describing the Keystone method of having no plan other than “following the natural sequence of events until it leads up to a chase,” Chaplin bemoans: “Personally, I hated a chase. It dissipates one’s personality; little as I knew about movies, I knew that nothing transcended personality.”8 The second is in relation to the studio’s adoration of Sterling. Chaplin remembers, “I went from set to set watching the companies at work. They all seemed to be imitating Ford Sterling. This worried me […] I wondered what Sennett expected of me. He had seen my work and must have known I was not suitable to play Ford’s type of comedy; my style was just the opposite.”9 Again, the two criticisms seem at odds; if films are all about personality, Keystone’s dedication to Sterling’s personality should surely not be worrying. Likewise, if Chaplin’s style has to do with character, his style could not be “just the opposite” to the production of a famous character.
Sterling’s style is opposite to Chaplin’s because, while both are concerned with character, Sterling wants to make one character and Chaplin wants to make them all. Any specific character is anathema to the success of film, for Chaplin, because “nothing transcends personality,” including any specific personality. The movie screen is a space where a series of contradictions can produce meaning through their euphonious and cacophonous interactions; although Chaplin will produce this effect with a character, his understanding of what is novel in the medium of film is in keeping with Sergei Eisenstein’s theories of montage.10 resides also in the circumstance that the spectator is drawn into a creative act in which his individuality is not subordinated to the author’s individuality, but is opened up throughout the process of fusion with the author’s intention […]. In fact, every spectator, in correspondence with his individuality, and in his own way and out of his own experience – out of the womb of his fantasy, out of the warp and weft of his associations, all conditioned by the premises of his character, habits and social appurtenances, creates an image in accordance with the representational guidance suggested by the author, leading him to understanding and experience of the author’s theme. This is the same image that was planned and created by the author, but this image is at the same time created also by the spectator himself.” Sergei Eisenstein, Film Sense (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1942), p. 33.] It therefore makes perfect sense that Chaplin would, later in his career, ask Eisenstein for help understanding audience reception of his Tramp character.11
III. From Contradiction to Constellation
Chaplin triumphs both costume and character for the series of contradictory relations they produce; film, to be successful, must properly situate these relations for an audience. When he describes the character of the Tramp to Sennett for the first time, these contradictions take centre stage: “This fellow is many-sided, a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer […] He would have you believe he is a scientist, a musician, a duke, a polo player […] he is not above picking up cigarette butts or robbing a baby of its candy.”12 However, Keystone’s limitations on Chaplin’s development of this multi-faceted character prevent it from reaching the audience in the proper way. Going to see Mabel’s Strange Predicament when it premieres, Chaplin is mortified to find his appearance on screen met with “cold silence.”13 The management of his character by the editors had reduced his protean tramp to the vaudeville type of the “funny drunk” he became famous playing on Fred Karno’s stage tour.14 After this failure, Chaplin is forced to adjust his methodology: he begins to “contrive business and gags just for entering and exiting a scene,” in order to avoid “the butchers in the cutting room.”15 The classic narrative of his ascent continues: he must leave the repressive atmosphere of Keystone Studios in order to find the proper space to situate his Tramp character on screen.
However, Kid Auto Races – not Mabel’s Strange Predicament – is the first public appearance of Chaplin’s Tramp; he forgets it from his autobiography because it interrupts a smooth reading of Keystone’s suppression of his artistic freedom. Unlike in the former, Kid Auto Races gives Chaplin ample time to develop his character, to carefully work through any gag he wants to develop. In fact, the basic premise of the film could be summarised with Chaplin’s words: nothing – not even an auto race – transcends personality. The simultaneous absence of a sustained attention paid to the film within either Chaplin’s or the scholarly record, along with the repeated presence of its mistaken citation as the unequivocal first appearance of the figure of the Tramp, only serves to emphasise the importance of Kid Auto Races.
One reason for its strange position, both outside and inside common understandings of Chaplin’s history, is its formal difference from films like Mabel’s Strange Romance. Kid Auto Races was an occasional film, which Keystone would shoot by sending a camera and a crew to a location where they knew a crowd would already be gathered in order to produce a readymade (and free) backdrop of unsuspecting extras. An example of what this normally looked like is Tango Tangles (Mack Sennett, 1914), where footage of a professional ballroom dance is juxtaposed with Sterling, Arbuckle and Chaplin beating each other in a mad frenzy to win the affection of Sadie Lampe. Like with Tango Tangles, the Keystone crew went to Venice because they knew a crowd awaited them; the Junior Vanderbilt Cup Race had been established six years prior and had grown in popularity in each year of its existence.16 From a certain perspective, Kid Auto Races attempts to copy the basic formula of Tango Tangles: record events of general documentary interest, then record a fight in front of the gathered crowd.
Yet the film that results from this formula is starkly different because it aims not at the audience on hand at the event, but at the movie audience watching the events unfold on a screen. Chaplin’s costume and character assume all their ambiguous contradictions because they are directed at the camera; his individual performance reigns over the slapstick bits directed at the crowd in Venice. Given the time he desired to work with the dialectic of his dress and delivery, Chaplin produced something in Kid Auto Races that goes beyond any Keystone formula and gestures to the fundamental principles of how film functions as a medium. As Walter Benjamin notes,
[T]he film actor lacks the opportunity of the stage actor to adjust to the audience during his performance, since he does not present his performance to the audience in person. This permits the audience to take the position of a critic, without experiencing any personal contact with the actor. The audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera. Consequently the audience takes the position of the camera; its approach is that of testing.17
Two decades before Benjamin described the formal distinction between stage and screen audience, Chaplin materialised it in a six-minute short. Kid Auto Races is an instruction manual to a newly film-conscious public: how to identify with the camera.
Chaplin, however, goes even further than Benjamin – where the latter notes a strict division between performer and audience, Chaplin recognises that the performer in a film could always potentially be an audience member, and vice-versa. This recognition was hard-earned, as Chaplin was an obsessive viewer of his own work.18 As he would note repeatedly in early interviews, his consumption of his own performances was mirthless: “I usually go to see myself the first night […] but I don’t laugh […] if it isn’t a success – then it’s terrible – to feel you’re a failure all over the world at the same time.”19 This practice of critical self-viewing is endured because it is crucial to his understanding of how comedy in general works. In a 1915 interview, Chaplin explains his growth as a filmmaker in an anecdote with special relevance to what he and Benjamin share in their analyses:
I know now why my comedy is good, if you will pardon me for saying that […] but I didn’t when I first started. I was on a train from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I picked up a train acquaintance. He said, when we got off, “I want to take you to a motion picture show and show you a nut.” When I saw the screen, there was I. He said, “The man is clear crazy, but he certainly can put across the comedy stuff.” He didn’t know me at all. I thought, “Crazy as a fox.”20
Here Benjamin’s characterisation of the film audience as taking the position of a critic is apt. Chaplin’s companion shares the film with him because he has a reading of it. The man on the screen is crazy, but knows something about comedy. His desire to share the film with a person he has just met on a train is a recognition that any person anywhere could watch the film with him and share his position as critic.
The anecdote demonstrates not just this relation between audience and performer, but further all three forms of relationality Chaplin demonstrates in Kid Auto Races: (1) the relation of audience to performer; (2) the relation of audience to self; and (3) the relation of performer to self. If we imagine the film Chaplin and his friend watch is Kid Auto Races – not too much of an improbability, given the fact that, historically, the film must be a Keystone production and that, further, it must be a film that shows the audience a man who is a nut – we see the first relation clearly. The Tramp performs an act for the camera, which the audience identifies with. As the camera, the audience is trying to look at the race, but the Tramp comes in between, hence the imputation of craziness: the man is getting in the way on purpose. The audience as camera recognizes the comedy stuff that is being put across.
Chaplin’s companion is further defining a relation to himself, a relation to being judged by a camera as he himself, as camera, judges. By calling the man a nut, by assuming the role of critic, he is trying on a position of authority much like the Tramp on screen tries on his poses of respectability. This train acquaintance therefore would have you believe he is a scientist, while clearly not being above picking up a cigarette butt – in this case, the role of cigarette butt played by a misrecognised Chaplin carried from coach to theatre. The way the figure on the screen offers up the contradictions of his costume and character has provided a model of relation to the audience member that allows him to try on different attitudes and positions.
Finally, the anecdote demonstrates how film produces a relation between the performer and self, not limited to the sense that a movie star can watch their own performance on screen, but that any audience member can equally reflect on their role as performer as well. Chaplin says, “When I saw the screen, there was I.” Surely the statement is literally true for Chaplin; he sits in his civilian clothes and watches himself, in the past, in his costume, gesticulating before a camera. However, the statement “When I saw the screen, there was I” resonates as well for Chaplin’s companion. What he sees of himself on screen is the position he is offered, the position of an auditor who judges and reflects on the images on the screen. Additionally, should the two men be watching Kid Auto Races as suggested, they watch a number of audience members from the past who, rather than calmly watching the Tramp, begin to mimic and participate in his performance of a nut. In the seventh shot of the film, a man in a hat and coat imitates Lehrman, looking self-consciously at the camera and urging Chaplin out of the frame. In the eighth shot, several men begin to stare into the camera and smile; one man crosses the racecourse with a knowing look, effecting an exaggerated Tramp-like gait and stamping his cane into the ground. In the eleventh shot, Chaplin has to physically warn children out of his shot so they do not steal the spotlight – the man in the hat and coat physically throws the Tramp off camera, thereby completely assuming the Lehrman role. It is evident the Tramp produced a series of relations that easily allowed onlookers to participate as actors before the camera. Audience not only knows itself as audience, but therefore knows itself as performer as well.
Kid Auto Races – along with Chaplin’s costume and character – encourages active audience participation at all levels; the race-goers in Venice try on different attitudes to impress the camera just as the train acquaintance tries on a performance before Chaplin’s regard, going out of his way to impress upon him his knowledge of film. Chaplin is therefore “crazy like a fox” not only because his companion has bought a ticket to his film, adding to the actor’s celebrity and income, but because, by affecting the role of knowledgeable subject in relation to the film, the man has been caught in the constellation of relations produced by Chaplin’s approach to cinema. It is, in the end, not any specifics of costume or character that produce the hook that brings audiences to love the Tramp; it is, rather, the constellation of contradictory relations that defines cinema as a form, and within which audiences find themselves as critic, camera and performer.
IV. Coda – There We Are
When I saw the screen, there was I – the statement bears a stark similarity to Freud’s famous dictum, wo es war, soll ich werden.21 Literally where it was, there I will be, Jacques Lacan translates it as “where it was itself […] it is my duty to come into being.”22. While the expression holds literally true for Chaplin – watching his own figure from his semi-anonymous spot in the movie theatre – it seems even more apt for any other viewer of Kid Auto Races. The dictum would read, “Where I saw it as a member of an audience, there I must come into being through the performance of mastery.” Or, perhaps more simply, “Where I saw the nut pretending to be a gentleman, there will I pretend to be an expert on nuts pretending to be gentlemen.” Or, perhaps most simply, “When I saw the screen, there was I.”
The ability to identify with the camera, to recognise in the figures moving on screen the possible plasticity of one’s own personality, was not originally native to film. It was learned through the hard-earned work of performers like Chaplin. Just 18 years before Kid Auto Races, Maxim Gorky described a trip to the movie theatre as a visit to “the kingdom of shadows.” Shaken by the experience, Gorky asserts the definitive difference between himself and the lives represented on the screen: “It is terrifying to see, but it is the movement of shadows, only shadows.”23 Over a century later, when the first smart phone capable of recording a video from a user-facing camera (that is, allowing a user to record themselves while watching themselves record themselves being recorded) is introduced, the horror of the kingdom of shadows has receded and been replaced by indifference. In fact, early reviews of the device fail to note the camera’s eventual ubiquitous use making self-movies, instead focusing on the potential for the device to aid in video-conferencing.24 The constellation of relations that Chaplin introduced in Kid Auto Races guides viewers through this passage from terror to belonging, from finding themselves lost in relation to the screen to assuming character positions in its reflections. Where it – the kingdom of shadows – was, there we find ourselves in our many screens, playing with identity: a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer.
- Slavoj Žižek, Enjoy Your Symptom! (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 4. ↩
- Walter Kerr, The Silent Clowns (New York: Knopf, 1975), p. 22. ↩
- This is to add additional depth to the work of critics like David Robinson who note the feedback between Chaplin and critical response, but not the model of a feedback loop Chaplin establishes with his gestures of self-fashioning; see David Robinson, Chaplin: The Mirror of Opinion (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1984). ↩
- Chaplin skips in his history at Keystone from Mabel’s Strange Predicament to Between Showers (Lehrman, 1914); see Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964), p. 147. ↩
- David Robinson. Chaplin: His Life and Art (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985), p. 114. ↩
- Chaplin, op. cit., p. 144. ↩
- Mack Sennett & Cameron Shipp, The King of Comedy (New York: Doubleday, 1954), p. 157. ↩
- Chaplin, op. cit., pp. 141–142. ↩
- ibid, p. 142. ↩
- “The strength of [dialectical montage ↩
- Yuri Tsivian, “Charlie Chaplin and His Shadows: On Laws of Fortuity in Art,” Critical Inquiry 40 (Spring 2014): p. 72. ↩
- Chaplin, op. cit., p. 144. ↩
- ibid, p. 148. ↩
- Mary E. Porter, “Charlie Chaplin, Cheerful Comedian,” in Charlie Chaplin: Interviews, Kevin J. Hayes, ed. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi), p. 7. ↩
- Chaplin, op. cit., p. 148. ↩
- John Bengston, Silent Traces: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Charlie Chaplin (Santa Monica: Santa Monica Press, 2006), p. 16. ↩
- Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations, Harry Zohn, trans. (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), p. 228. ↩
- Andrew Sarris, “The Tramp Transformed” in The Essential Chaplin, Richard Schickel, ed. (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006), p. 8. ↩
- Charles Chaplin, quoted in Miriam Teichner, “Charlie Chaplin: A Tragedian Would Be,” in Charlie Chaplin: Interviews, Kevin J. Hayes, ed. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi), p. 15. ↩
- Charles Chaplin, quoted in Victor Eubank, “The Funniest Man on the Screen,” in Charlie Chaplin: Interviews, Kevin J. Hayes, ed. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi), p. 4. ↩
- Sigmund Freud, “New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud vol. XXII, James Strachey trans. (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1976), p. 80. ↩
- Jacques Lacan, “The Freudian Thing,” in Ecrits, Bruce Fink trans. (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006), pp. 347–348. ↩
- Maxim Gorky, “The First Sight,” in Colin Harding and Simon Popple, eds, In the Kingdom of Shadows: A Companion to Early Cinema (Madison and Teaneck: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996), p. 5. ↩
- Kristyn Maslog-Levis, “Sony Ericsson Z1010,” ZDNet (August 2004), https://www.zdnet.com/product/sony-ericsson-z1010/ ↩