Tag Archives: anarchy

Semon’s Anti-Rationalist Spirit

Like Herriman’s Krazy Kat universe and Langdon’s peculiar passivity, there is something extraterrestrial about Larry Semon’s chase sequences. An example culled from Dull Care (1919):

Here’s amazing angular photography work that’s refreshing for an early two-reel slapstick (typically filmed flat). This image is half comicstrip, half Duchamps; a grocery clerk walking on the surface of the moon:

Especially in masterworks like The Rent Collector (1921), The Saw Mill (1922), and the finale of  The Bellhop (1921) Semon’s daring sight gags and his incessant penchant for fallings, smashings and chasings are not simply crafty spectacle designed to surprise and thrill his audience. Though often plot-less, the stories are not tomfollery, or some inert loop of mania-for-mania’s-sake.

Instead, Semon plots are aggressively anti-rational: the internal logic of the narrative is constantly reversing itself, doubling over, and falling out its own windows. Who follows their pursuers? Why is the city next to the farm? What scientific property will be subverted in next frame? And while the visuals are clear, they’re not abundantly precise, a la Keaton, nor is the performance elevated above the setting, a la Chaplin. The settings are utter visual abstraction: high, low, up, down, big, small, busy, quiet, dark, light, etc., etc.

In the best of Semon there remains a dream-like distance to these visualizations, the effect of imagining stories that are half-real, half something else entirely. The timing is metaphysically perfect but physically impossible, provoking not only laughter but wonder and thought.

Here’s a triptych of diagonally composed thought bubbles. First, a horse looks on at a dubious attempt at murder:

Then the thugs replace the horse, finding themselves now on the other end of a gun:

But then the thugs’ mirrored threat of death manifests in a unmanned steamroller heading for their original target.

There is trickery, manipulation, and violence at work,  but there is also magic, awe, and a general spirit of unpredictability; both sides of the anarchy coin. The chase concludes with Semon’s signature maddash-on-air, a continuing visual motif in his anti-rational cinema:

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From Frizzboomski, the Anarchist, a 1905 strip posted at Barnacle Press:

The relationship between anarchism and slapstick is inconclusive. Antonin Artaud, the actor and philosopher behind Theater of Cruelty, was the first to spell out the relationship in his 1938 book, The Theater and its Double. Writing specifically about the Marx Brothers, he describes anarchy as “an essential disintegration of the real by poetry.”

Particularly the end of Animal Crackers (clip above) Artaud calls it “a distinct poetic state of mind that can be called surrealism”.

So in the strip above, written by Walter Bradford, we sense a strange tension between form and content. The content is a bumbling anarchist who always lands in a tub of soap only to hear the taunt “Call Again-ski!” to which he replies “Reveng-ski!” In other words, anarchists are idiots who smell bad. But the form of the piece turns the whole world into a random series of botched assassination attempts and comeuppances, bookended by miraculous opportunity and an insatiable need to repeat the randomness all over again. In other words, the aesthetic is an appeal to anarchy.

It’s almost as if Artaud was reading Fizzboomski when he wrote, “There is nothing at once so hallucinatory and so terrible as this type of man-hunt, this battle of rivals, this chase in the shadows…”

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