Monday, 8 February 2016

“Mock-documentaries are a more reliable source than documentaries”

Nanook of the North is credited as being one of the first feature length documentaries. Made in 1922 by Robert J. Flaherty, it shows the lives of the Inuit people of Quebec, Canada, from fishing and hunting to eating with family. The hypocrisy of this film is that many parts were reconstructed in order to add to the romanticism of the narrative; the ‘family’ at the centre of the film were cast and paid Inuit; the famous walrus scene was re-enacted with spears that were no longer the primary hunting tool, and the clothes worn were nostalgic costume, not the western clothes they had come to appropriate (Duncan 1999: 1). It has been argued that these elements of dramatizing information are still appropriate for the factual discourse of documentary (Ward 2005: 32), however I believe that Nanook of the North falls under the umbrella category of docufiction, and more specifically, docudrama – a text with documentary content, but presented in a fictional form (Springer, Rhodes 2006: 4). In this essay, I argue that the mock-documentary is a more reliable source than the documentary due to the underhand production and actualisation of the documentary form, in comparison to the upfront nature of the mock-documentary, shown through parody and satire. The reason I am using the term ‘mock-documentary’ rather than mockumentary, pseudo-documentary or any other term, is succinctly explained by Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight “mock-documentary suggests its origins in copying a pre-existing form, in an effort to construct… a screen from with which the audience is assumed to be familiar” (2001: 1). By comparing mock-documentaries to documentaries, as well as using my own film, Looking for George as a source, I hope to show how mock-documentaries should be taken as a more valid source of opinion through parodying the often covert agenda’s of documentaries.
Initially, this will be addressed through comparing the current Reggie Yate’s documentaries, Extreme Russia with sketches from the political mock-documentary TRWBT. Subsequent to this, I will explore the techniques that are employed to convey the information about characters in documentaries, mock-documentaries and hoaxes, looking specifically at the cast/crew dynamic of Troll-Hunter, the presenter characters of Dale Mailey from TRWBT and Benjamin Crawley in Looking for George. I will question the authenticity of the documentary presenter and their authority to educate the public. Finally, I will discuss the ethical nature of the mock-documentary, which involves a critique of whether the satirical form trivialises the information or opinion it attempts to convey. I will conclude this essay with an informed opinion of why mock-documentaries are to be taken as a more valuable source of opinion in comparison with documentaries, based on the commentary they make about politics, the media or the documentary form itself. 

A brief history of the Documentary, and the form of the Mockumentary 
According to John Parris Springer and Gary D. Rhodes, Kino Pravda of early 20th Century Russia was the beginning of documentary filmmaking, pioneered by Dziga Vertov with non-fictional films that attempted to record the facts of unscripted life in the newly formed Soviet Union, rejecting any fictional or narrative elements (2006: 1). In 1960’s France, Jean Rouch began to develop his own style of documentary film making, helping to popularise the conventions of cinéma vérité by using hand-held camerawork and synchronous sound. At the same time, ‘direct cinema’ was being developed through the documentaries of Richard Leacock, D.A Pennebaker and the brothers David and Albert Maysles, who worked on observational documentaries. They believed in letting the narrative come together in the editing suite, whilst allowing the filming to remain strictly non-interventionist, unlike Rouch who had a more provocative and interactive approach towards his subjects (Hight 2010: 110). I believe that the problem with the documentary form is the façade of truth, which is undercut by the agenda of the presenter and crew as well as the post-production manipulation of interviews and action, making it seem as though a narrative has developed organically when in fact it has been constructed. A reaction to the documentary format was the mock-documentary and hoax, which parody and satire the tired techniques in order to expose how inauthentic the presentation of information is. These texts often questioned the role of the crew and the presenters, who are edited to seem as though they are invisible to the interviewee, as well as having no agenda other than to film the action truthfully. 

What is the agenda of the text to be communicated to its audience? 
The agenda of the mock-documentary is often made clear through the commentary or critique they are making. This is often not the case in documentaries that are presented as sources of quotable information, created with no intent other than to inform. In my opinion, this is not the case in Reggie Yate’s documentary series, Extreme Russia. The episode to be discussed is called Far Right and Proud. Both the title of the series and that of the episode create a bias towards a fervent nationalism that is supported by the narration over the introduction that includes insightful snippets such as “growing up in the 80’s, Russia was painted as this weird, big baddie”, images of Russian policemen out in force and marches with Putin’s face on the flags. Reggie Yates, a former children’s television presenter and BBC radio 1 host, was chosen to investigate why far right groups, which are well known racist strongholds, were rising in numbers. It seemed as though Yates’ race was used to provoke responses from the small-minded racists interviewed, with comments describing mixed-race children as “freaks”. Yates talked to Dmitry Demushkin, a former neo-nazi, who now led a far-right group and agreed to speak with Yates; however, Demushkin’s agenda outweighed the importance of Yates’ interview about the group’s beliefs. It became apparent that Demushkin was using his interaction with a black man to eliminate previous racist accusations by posting pictures on social media. Yates agreed to attend a self-defence class run by Demushkin, in which he met a man who invited him to a traditional Russian sauna. The nudity obviously made Yates uncomfortable as he made allusions to the apparent homosexuality of being naked in a sauna with another man, belittling the tradition and implying that the tough Russian man was a repressed homosexual. Yates’ agenda here is clear, despite the unbiased pretence of reporting on the support of political parties in Russia. The documentary demonizes the views of the entire group by showing clips that portray them as racist, homophobic and infers the self-defence classes run by Demushkin are the cause of racist attacks on immigrants with no clear evidential link. The agenda of the program The Revolution Will Be Televised (TRWBT) is made clear from the opening title sequence that reads, “Our world is full of hypocrisy, corruption and greed. Someone has to fight back. Shame it had to be these guys”. The idea is that the series exposes the hypocrisy of the media, the corruption of the government and the greed of multi-national corporations. The series is a mock-documentary because it uses factual information but presents it satirically. Like all mock-documentaries, TRWBT relies on audience media literacy to recognise the documentary format of its sketches, and therefore understand the satire. In the first series, one of the sketches used continuously presents mock-documentary style coverage of two lesser-known MP’s, a Conservative named James Tottingham-Burbage, and a Lib-Dem called Barnaby Plankton. In episode three, the two characters wander around an estate, talking presumably to those with lower incomes, about the cuts to their benefits. They ask them how they would feel about moving out of their council houses and into a cardboard box. The agenda is clear: to show how ludicrous the welfare cuts are; to satirize the relationship between politicians and the public, and to poke fun at the documentary technique of the infallibility of the presenters by portraying them as silly and ridiculous. When brainstorming the plot for Looking for George, we took inspiration from TRWBT in the form of political critique. Our agenda was to criticise the political far right parties in the UK for hijacking the patron saint, Saint George, and using him as a figurehead in the Protection of English National Identity Party, or PENIP. The English Defence League use the Saint George flag at marches and often sing the song “With Saint George in my heart, keep me English” at rallies. Through research we discovered that Saint George was historically born in Palestine, fought for the Roman army, and was born to Greek and Palestinian parents. In addition, he is the patron saint for at least four other countries. We tried to make our agenda clear through the blatant parody of the BNP 2014 banned party political broadcast, available on Youtube, in which an animated English Bulldog trots through different parts of Great Britain, criticising the effect of immigration and ‘Islamification’ of the UK. We directly satirised the final part of the video in which a politician says “Just listen to ordinary people like you”, followed by the opinions of apparently ‘ordinary’ people who ask for “British jobs for British people” and the restoration of capital punishment. We began our propaganda video with Saint George drinking a beer, a reflection of the many pictures of Nigel Farage drinking, apparently to make him a more likeable and relatable candidate. We then went on to have opinions from ‘ordinary’ people that reflected the anti-immigration feelings of parties like the BNP and UKIP. We wanted to highlight not only how Saint George had has his identity hijacked in the name of political propaganda, but also how politicians themselves become a product of their campaign rather than retaining their individuality. Our film was released on the same day as the British general election 2015, an election that was dubbed by the BBC as the ‘social media election’ (Wendling 2015: 1). The candidates had become caricatures of their parties, and I feel this was captured in Saint George’s character in the apparent control during the propaganda video, contrasted with the drunken antics towards the end of the film. Whilst our film requires the audience to have an understanding of the policies of UKIP, the use of Saint George by the EDL, and potentially the BNP political broadcast, it is not essential in order for them to grasp the parody of far right policies. Paul Ward’s description of the mock-documentary is apt to what we attempt to achieve with the PENIP party broadcast, “The sober discourse of an informational documentary mode is juxtaposed with ludicrous statistics and outright lies, so that the original conventions appear ludicrous too” (2005: 74). Our agenda is to mock the political broadcast, but its feature in our mock-documentary is made clear from the captions, highlighting the documentary technique that we are satirising. Whilst the agenda of the documentary is supposedly clear from the offset, as shown in Reggie Yates’ narrative introduction, there are often hidden motives that are revealed after a closer reading. On the other hand, the mock-documentary is more open with its intentions, providing they have a level of media literacy and are aware of its fictional nature, and the tropes it is parodying. In this way, the agenda is communicated in a more transparent manner to the audience, despite the biased opinions. 

What techniques are employed to convey information about characters and their roles? The introductory narration is one of the tell-tale signs of a documentary program, often spoken in an over-enthusiastic and disjointed voice. The narration is often used throughout, especially when the presenter is on screen travelling, walking or thinking. Alternatively, the presenter will directly address the camera, breaking the fourth wall and connecting with us, the ‘audience at home’. As aforementioned, captions indicating where footage has come from are another documentary technique, but captions are also used to demonstrate who interviewees are. In most documentaries, the crew are invisible, never being caught on camera or spoken to directly. The effect of this is to create a sense of verisimilitude that implies the action has organically occurred with no directions from the producer or cameraman, often achieved in the editing suite during post-production. The issue I have with this is the pretence of reality, the idea that the action would have happened regardless of whether the camera were there or not.  By parodying the documentary techniques, the mock-documentary highlights the hypocrisy of the documentary. This is achieved in Man Bites Dog, where Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde write, produce and direct the film, as well as editing, filming and acting in it. As seen in fig. 3, the men are often in shot interacting with the main character, with the reflexivity taking a dark turn as they end up participating and facilitating the murders, rapes and cover-ups of the serial killer they originally intended to document.

Another film where the cast/crew are involved in the action of the documentary they are shooting is Troll-Hunter, a Norwegian hand-held horror/hoax about a group of students who, whilst filming about bear killings, accidently become involved with a troll-hunter and uncover a government level cover-up. The self-reflexive nature of involving the crew as cast in this film is purely fictional, as the cast in the film are actually actors. However, this film also satirises another documentary trope; the found footage declaration at the beginning of the film. Troll-Hunter begins with a statement that declares the footage was delivered to the production company as hard disks of rushes, and they have released the film as unedited clips, in chronological order, with no image manipulation. It then goes on to claim that a “team of investigators” had concluded this footage was real. These statements encourage the audience to extend their belief to the idea of reality within the footage. This is one of the reasons hoaxes are not as valid a source of information as mock-documentaries, as they attempt to con the audience into believing the films they watch are factually correct. The presenter is often portrayed as being a source of knowledge and authority in the documentary form, shown through their point of view being constantly consulted in relation to the topic they are investigating. Brian Cox is a physicist and a professor of physics at the University of Manchester, a respected academic in his field, and therefore fully entitled to present documentaries on space. However, when Stacey Dooley, a BBC3 television personality, presents documentaries on marijuana production in South Africa in her recent series Stacey Dooley Investigates, it is difficult to see what her authoritative status is. When Dooley shadows the airport drug enforcement, and comes across a package that was labelled with an address in E16, she gives the valuable insight “The hipsters won’t have any weed to smoke”, and during a three minute action sequence in which she rides with the police, she helpfully points out where she is and what she’s doing, in case we hadn’t been paying attention, “I’m not looking to push my luck, this is Johannesburg, and we’re door stepping drug dealers”. We try and parody the presenter of documentaries like Dooley with the beginning of Looking for George, having a slow-zoom in to Benjamin Crawley standing in a museum, saying “I’m Benjamin Crawley, part-time historian, full-time Englishman, and today I’m in a museum”. By pointing out the generic spot he’s in, we highlight the absurdity of presenter’s narrative. This continues with our travelling shots of Crawley walking along streets in Hebden Bridge or around Manchester Piccadilly Gardens. The humour is accentuated in the wardrobe choice of the Crawley, satirising Richard Clay, a BBC history presenter. The long coat, the flyaway hair and the tucked in shirt are all parodies of the documentary presenter attire. This is just one of the ways we parody the documentary techniques employed to build the characters role. We use typical documentary shots such as the presenter walking towards the camera and then walking past, but we mocked them by having ridiculous narrative. TRWBT also parodies the presenter with the character ‘Dale Maily’, a reference to the sensationalist newspaper and online gossip site, The Daily Mail. In series one, episode three, Dale Maily introduces his story with the tagline “I’m Dale Maily, the fearless hetero journalist” and finishes with “Telling you the right way to think”. The small section of ‘news’ involves him reporting on an English boating race, pretending to hold similar beliefs to those he is interviewing in order to get a response from them. He asks a young man about the Falklands, calling the Argentinians ‘Argies’ and questioning whether or not they should be “beaten down”. The young man responds by saying, “We should let the Argies take the Falklands, and then we kick the shit out of them, and take the Falklands back!” to which Maily and the young man guffaw. The coverage of the boat race highlights the lack of ethnic or religious diversity, and attempts to poke fun at the opinions of the upper class. The Dale Maily sketch uses news tropes such as location shooting, hand-held camera and natural lighting that increase the verisimilitude of the piece; however, because the content is sardonic, the effect is to highlight the ridiculousness of the situation.

 What are the ethical concerns behind the mock-documentary? 
While TRWBT uses factual information, Looking For George uses information that is false and potentially misleading. This could be viewed negatively, as with the first on air hoax by Orson Welles in War of the Worlds in 1938, where a story of alien invasion was broadcast as a news item resulting in a panicked public and policemen storming the studio. The program caused a local mayor to call the studio and announce there were mobs on the streets of a Midwestern town. However, in Looking For George, as Roscoe and Hight say of mock-documentaries, we attempted to “engage directly with a factual discourse, and effectively to encourage viewers to develop critical awareness of the partial, constructed nature of documentary” (2001: 160). We did this through questioning the authenticity of the presenter through using Benjamin Crawley to ridicule the seriousness of documentary presenters. Our film is a hybrid of what Roscoe and Hight would refer to as “parody” and “critique”; parody because we appropriate documentary aesthetics to emphasize humour; and critique because we engage critically in the reflexivity towards factual discourse, raising questions about unethical interviewing practice in the apparent spontaneity of our doorstep interview with Saint George. A lot of mock-documentaries, particularly low budget shorts use non-professional actors. The positive aspect of this is that a platform is created for previously unknown artists. However, the use of a working script and non-professionals means that the quality control is low, and the actors may not have a say in the final cut of the film, as the story is mainly created in the editing suite. This means they may not agree with how they or their character is portrayed, for example, in Looking for George, the actor Mritunjay Sharma was originally cast as Saint George, however his acting was not to a high enough standard that the crew collectively agreed was necessary for one of the main characters of the film. We had to regroup and change our working script, deciding to change the story line in order to work with one of the actors who had more skill in improvisation. We still wanted to use Sharma, however we created a different role for him, which would allow us to use more documentary tropes. We had a ‘victim confession’, which is often used in documentaries, and blurred out Sharma’s face, dubbing over his voice with another actors, and distorting it to an almost humorous level of unrecognizability. The ethical problem with this is that we didn’t consult Sharma before we changed his character, as ultimately, the creative control lies with the crew, not the actors. This meant although he had auditioned for the role of Saint George, he ended up being an anonymous character, with another actor speaking his lines. This could be viewed as unfair, however with the time constraints and limited filming time, we made the executive decision that the harm would be minor and would be a fair judgement for the benefit for the film. With conclusions like these being made without the actor’s agreement, it could be argued that the mock-documentary practice of creating the story in the editorial suite draws actors in with a false sense of trust, as they are never exactly sure of how their character will turn out. The documentary form and style is described by Springer and Rhodes as including “historically specific devices such as the authoritative voiceover narration… the use of on-camera interviews; forms of evidence such as archival photographs, diagrams, maps and charts; and such visual characteristics as handheld camera” (2006: 4). The mock-documentary borrows these documentary elements, as Looking for George did with Crawley’s insightful narration, the interview with Johanna Eccles, the historical images of Saint George and the shaky hand-held footage. Instead of claiming to be filming real people in a “segment of the real world” (ibid), it bases its content on self-referential irony through acknowledgement of the crews presence, satirical narrative and fictional content. The “real world” of the mock-documentary us irrelevant, because what is important is the critique the director/cast are trying to highlight. To be read correctly, Looking for George relies on the audiences knowledge of the documentary format, a basic knowledge of the political parties of Great Britain, and the typical presenter characteristics. Our film serves as a metacommentary on the rise of far right parties in the UK. Whilst non-fiction television attempts to “mediate aspects of the socio-historical world according to varying agendas, ethics and representation styles that typically incorporate a direct address to their assumed domestic audiences” (Hight 2010: 102), the mock-documentary seeks to upset this through parodying many of the techniques used by highlighting their tired effect on the audience. The mock-documentaries are an essential element of modern day media, critical to weed out the tired conventions that become less and less effective with use. Humour points out the pomposity of the documentary form so it can continue to grow in a healthy direction, and while the mock-documentary may not tell us the correct facts about the patron saint of England, we are taught about how documentary and political propaganda rhetoric is dangerous in influencing the nation. 

Duncan, Dean, W. (1999) ‘Nanook of the North’ in The Criterion Collection. Accessed online: [11.05.2015] 
Hight, Craig (2010) Television Mockumentary: Reflexivity, satire and a call to play. Manchester University Press: Manchester Roscoe, Jane and Craig Hight (2001) Faking It: Mock-documentary and the Subversion of Factuality. Manchester University Press: Manchester 
Springer, John Parris and Gary D. Rhodes (2006) Docufictions: Essays on the Intersection of Documentary and Fictional Filmmaking. McFarland & Co. Inc: USA Ward, Paul (2005) Documentary: The Margins of Reality. Wallflower: London 
Wendling, Mike (2015) ‘What makes a ‘social media election’? on BBC. Accessed online: [11.05.2015] 

Banned BNP Broadcast 2014. Accessed online: [15.05.2015]
Extreme Russia dir. By Chris Alcock. (UK: BBCthree, 2015)
Looking for George dir. By Amelie Eckersley, John Hemsoll, Jenny Mcintyre (UK: Unreleased, 2015)
Man Bites Dog dir. By Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde (Belgium: Les Artistes Anonymes: 1993)
Nanook of the North dir. By Robert J. Flaherty (USA: Les Frère Revillion, Pathé Exchange, 1922)
Stacey Dooley Investigates dir. By Joyce Trozzo (UK: BBCthree, 2015)
Troll-Hunter dir. By André Øvredal (Norway: Filmkameratene A/S, Film Fund FUZZ: 2011) 

War of the Worlds dir. By Orson Welles (USA: Columbia Broadcasting System, 1938)

Sunday, 7 February 2016

According to Simon Critchley “What is funny, finally, is having a body.” Discussing the comic treatment of the body.

Freud believed there were two types of jokes – the tendentious and the non-tendentious. The non-tendentious joke is innocent, which Freud believed didn’t make us laugh as much as the tendentious joke that provokes laughter from sexual or violent humour. Anthony Storr, an English psychiatrist, believes that the tendentious joke is a way of “bypassing the barriers against the direct expression of both obscenity and aggression which civilisation has set up” (1989: 87). By examining two silent films starring Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, I will explore why the tendentious humour of vaudeville and slapstick comedy make us laugh. Simon Critchley argues that it is “having a body” that makes us laugh, which I will discuss in relation to the varying control Keaton and Chaplin seem to have over their bodily functions, through engaging with the idea of the body as a machine and the body as an organism. The commentary these films make on the industrialisation and advances in cinematic technology will be discussed in relation to the physicality used by both Keaton and Chaplin in the films Sherlock Jr. and Modern Times. Finally, I will discuss how Keaton and Chaplin embody aspects of Terrie Wadell and Lewis Hyde’s idea of ‘Trickster’ in relation to the carnivalesque atmosphere they create through using their bodies to create humour.
Modern Times was made in 1936 during the great depression, which Chaplin believed was created by the efficiency of the industrialisation taking jobs away from people, and a dependency on machines. Sherlock Jr. was made in 1924, during the cinematic boom of Hollywood, with Vaudeville humour being directly translated from the theatre to the screen. The advances in cinematic technology are seen in the camera work and dynamism of the narrative, relying as much on clever camera control as the acrobatic ability of Buster Keaton. The shift from the verbal theatrical performances to the non-verbal silent film, (Modern Times isn’t a silent film, but there is minimal dialogue) highlights the necessity for the body to create humour, whilst relying on the machine to capture the image. The symbiosis between machine and actor permeates the performances of Keaton and Chaplin through creating machine-like gestures.
The machine-like body is like a puppet in that the comic figure doesn’t seem like a full person but more of an imitation of a person. Through the imitation, we are made hyper-aware of the body, the incongruity of which makes us laugh. One example of this is the scene in Sherlock Jr. when Keaton shadows the Sheikh down the street, copying his every move. Initially, we laugh at the height difference between the two characters, the age difference and their clothing, however as the gag continues, it is the rigidity of Keaton’s movement in unnatural synchronicity with the Sheikh that makes us laugh, shown through the closeness with which he is able to follow him, whilst the Sheikh apparently remains unaware. The Sheikh stops abruptly in the road to avoid a car, leaning forward as he does so, and Keaton leans forward with him. The Sheikh takes a step to one side, and so Keaton follows in time. The repetitiveness of Keaton’s movements blurs the lines between being human and machine, which is reflected in the fact this is the first scene in which the camera moves with the actors. It is as though as Keaton begins to possess machine-like qualities, the camera increases the illusion of reality. The machine-like movements would have been achieved through rigorous rehearsal, highlighting the acrobatic control Keaton has over his body, whilst this scene attempts to create humour through presenting the body as unlike itself. There is a loss of self/identity, which produces an incongruity that makes us laugh.
In comparison, Modern Times attempts to show how the machine and the body are merging completely and the negativity that surrounds reliance on machines that are not always better than humans. The scene to be discussed begins with the controller being offered a test trial of a machine that will increase productivity by eliminating the lunch-hour. The machine works by feeding the men as they work, with no need for interaction, as food is pushed and poured into the workman’s mouth before being wiped away. At first the machine seems to work efficiently, however it begins to malfunction by pouring the soup all over Chaplin, spinning the corn cob too fast whilst pressing it against his mouth, and constantly patting his mouth down with the antiseptic contraption that reminds one of a persistent and oblivious child-minder. Through the machine’s inability to recognise the bolts that have replaced the canapés, Chaplin critiques the lack of humanity of the machine, and places a defective humanity on it as it becomes more human through its weakness. We laugh because the machine isn’t acting like a machine, just like when we laugh at Keaton’s rigid physicality because his body isn’t acting like a human body. Chaplin’s factory scene progresses to Chaplin becoming so ingrained with the tightening bolts that he cannot shake the machine-like movement, and becomes obsessed with making sure the moving assembly line is complete. This obsession leads to him falling into the machine itself, and there is an iconic moment where he is fed through the cogs of the machine, almost becoming part of the machine itself. From being accosted by a defective machine to being swallowed and incorporated into one, Chaplin’s commentary on industrialisation critiques the lack of humanness of machines, and portrays a negative image of how technology is swallowing our humanity and individuality, making our bodies cogs in their greater workings.
The comic incongruity derives from our expectation of the body to act like a body, when in fact Keaton and Chaplin perform these sketches in relation or similar to machines. The body as a machine makes us laugh because when the actors pretend not to be human, we are made aware of our own bodies, how imperfect they are, and the machine-like gestures draw attention to our own clumsiness. The awkwardness with which we inhabit our bodies makes us laugh, according to Critchley, who argues that humour works through “a play of distance and proximity, where the reader has their nose rubbed in the physical object being described, but in a manner that is remote and resolutely unsentimental” (2002: 45). This can be explored in relation to Chaplin using slapstick comedy to bring attention to the dangers of relying on machines, as well as Keaton’s machine-like gestures highlighting the advances of cinema.
We laugh when our bodies do things of their own accord because it seems as though they are out of our control. Bodily functions like sex, defecation and digestion create comedy from the most basic quality of being socially unacceptable, in other words, tendentious. Critchley believed that the body cannot be controlled, and that the abject body in humour doing rude things that are degrading and clumsy, makes us laugh. It is the pompous man farting as he bows that tickles us because we are made aware of how out of control of our own bodily functions we actually are. The involuntary actions that are unexpected trigger laughter such as Keaton falling on the banana skin, because he doesn’t plan for it to happen. Keaton is given a banana by the Sheikh as the Sheikh attempts to woo the girl. Keaton takes the banana away and sits down, suddenly thinking of a genius plan to eat the banana and throw the peel on the ground for the Sheikh to fall on. He calls the Sheikh over, but he stops just short of the skin, leaving Keaton visibly frustrated. As Keaton see’s the Sheikh begin to kiss the girls hand, Keaton jumps up in anger, forgetting his carefully laid trap and falls head over heels, landing on his back before doing a further backwards roll. Keaton’s elasticity in his movement derives from the vaudeville performances he was involved in with his parents from the age of five. The Three Keaton’s performed clown-like stunts where Keaton would mimic his father, who would lose his temper and throw the child around, usually with acrobatic finesse, but sometimes, due to his father’s drinking, the show ended in injuries. The idea of slapstick and vaudeville humour is that the exaggerated aggression causes laughter because we are aware it causes very little harm, however in the case of Sherlock Jr. there was a scene where Keaton broke his neck and continued to film, not realising he had majorly injured. We are often told it is “thoughtless” to laugh at the misfortune of others, which is right. If we were to think about the pain inflicted on the actor, we would feel sympathy or a similarly consumptive emotion. And emotion kills laughter. There is a momentary apprehension at seeing Keaton slip on the banana skin until we remember it is a gag and laugh with relief. Critchley argues, “We laugh because we are troubled by what we laugh at, because it somehow frightens us” (2002: 56-57), which conflicts with my earlier argument that emotion kills laughter. However, what Critchley argues is that we are laugh in order to replace our fear, which is why tendentious jokes are often laughed at despite their violent or inappropriate content.
The medium of film legitimises our laughter at the pain because we are assured by the fictional safety of the characters. In the fictional world of the film, the boy will be ok. The body acting like its own separate entity makes us laugh at the absurd nature of being out of control. The reality is that Keaton rehearsed his rolls, flips and falls, and was safe throughout the majority of his gags. This raises the question of whether we would laugh if Keaton was in real danger. It seems as through his body is unbreakable, so we laugh at the caricature Keaton creates, the physical comedy forming excessive characteristics that become unreal, and therefore separate to ourselves. We are unable to relate to his body, and therefore laugh at the body we cannot have.
Keaton and Chaplin perform ‘Trickster’, creating a carnivalesque atmosphere that breaks down social hierarchy to create laughter. They use their bodies to expose the weaknesses we all experience in order for communal laughter to bring the audience together, however these ‘weaknesses’ are performed through a high level of control, embodied in the energy of the trickster. Terrie Wadell, in her book wild/lives, writes that ‘Trickster’ is an archetype of “transformation and liminality” (2010: xi). In Sherlock Jr. Keaton is simply called ‘the boy’, the generic name removing him to the realm of parody, beyond ordinary identification. Wadell argued that this archetype is an unconscious energy that is altered when it is brought into the conscious sphere and is recognised (2010: 2), which can be explored in relation to the dream-sequence in Sherlock Jr. where the double exposure of Keaton creates a ghost like figure who, in a surreal twist, is able to cross into the film being projected in the auditorium, disrupting the spatial and temporal unity of the film we watch. This idea of ‘Trickster’ is explored further by Hyde, who argued that a ‘Trickster’ doesn’t live in one place, rather he “passes through each… when there is a moment of silence, and he enlivens each with mischief” (2008: 6), oddly applicable to Keaton’s ability to cross into the film. When Keaton’s ghost-like double, or ‘Trickster’ becomes a part of the film, the setting changes, creating situations that are made funny by the fact it is Keaton’s body that remains constant, enlivening each empty landscape or setting with his physical humour. In this scene, what is funny is Keaton’s ability to create humour from his body being present throughout the location changes.
The carnivalesque environment allows ‘Trickster’ to be performed because of the ability to parody realism, as shown in the self-reflexivity of the banana skin gag. Keaton parodies the tired sketch by showing how it doesn’t work anymore; his mind expects the trick to succeed, but his body fails by slipping on it. The carnivalesque is present in cinema because, as Stam writes, cinema grew up “in the shadow of the side show” (1989: 113), with the cinema and the fairground being situated near each other. The physicality of theatre was directly transported from stage to screen, with the light-hearted approach to violence coming with it. Stam goes on to argue that this attitude towards violence “reflects a carnivalesque strategy of radical simplification aimed at the unmasking and ridiculing of the hypocrisies of a Power stripped of all euphemism” (1989: 108). This idea is as relevant to Chaplin’s critique of industrialisation as it is to Keaton’s exposition of our human pomposity. Keaton used physical humour to bring the audience to an equal level, using laughter to form a consciousness free of dogmatism. Henri Bergson, a 20th century French philosopher, in his essay on the meaning of the comic, argued that comedy is about sociability, “our laughter is always the laughter of the group” (1901: 4), laughter is based upon differences, exclusion and a sense of belonging. We are able to laugh at the violent physical comedy of Keaton and Chaplin because they are so immortal in their apparent ability to avoid pain, that they are unidentifiable to us. The humour of the body then, in this case, is used as a social masquerade to critique a wider problem, as ‘Trickster’ is an energy that is able to disrupt normality and confuse our distinctions between our social dualisms, like the body as the machine and the body as an organism.

While Critchley believes what is funny in finality is having a body, for Bakhtin, according to Stam, the body is “a festival of becoming, a plurality, not a closed system but a perpetual experiment” (1989: 157). The varying control Keaton and Chaplin pretend to have over their body as an organism or as a machine, creates a comic effect through their ‘Trickster’ performance. Comedy has the unique privilege to draw attention to seriousness in a way tragedy cannot. Keaton draws our attention to the body as an uncontrollable force through his presentation of the body as n organism, while Chaplin shows how our dependence on technology is detrimental to our health and society by presenting the body as becoming part of the machine.

Film Feelings

Film Feelings is a place for me to discuss films in essay and review form, as well as document my own film progress and post my own work.