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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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Conjunctions and Chases

Most of Larry Semon’s films, with the extremely notable exception of 1925’s The Wizard of Oz, have a these-and-those-other-things structure to them: Bombs and Blunders, Babes and Boobs, Big Bluffs and Bowling Balls (and these are just half the ones starting with ‘B’), etc. Eisenstein theory of collision montage comes to mind:

“By what, then, is montage characterized and, consequently its cell – the shot? By collision. By conflict of two pieces in opposition to each other. By conflict. By collision” (from “The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram” (1929) in Film Form, pg 37).

Memorably, however, such strict alliterated title structures rarely delineate any actual conflicts, characters or other signifiers in Semon’s short, two-reel films. In fact the title usually doesn’t mean anything except as a kind-of truncated haiku. But at their best, they detail ideas far far away from the story on the screen and come off as surreal tone poems, full of color and cultural irreverence. The best of these are Plans and Pajamas (anxious dreaming, perhaps), Rummies and Razors (a poetically fateful pairing, visually as much as anything), and Huns and Hyphens (as in: the long lost civilization of Hyphens).

Along with no mention of either Huns or hyphens (but featuring a young Stan Laurel), Semon’s 1918 film Huns and Hyphens contains one of the strangest most thrilling and complexly unpredictable chase sequences in all of cinema:

In the first instance, whom is chasing whom doesn’t seem to matter. Halfway in, Larry’s character (in overalls) preys on the antagonist wearing the apron. In the second place, spacial characteristics such as mass, weight, height – even geography! – are powerless to effect the outcome of this comedy. Not only do pillars and walls cave in like cheese and crackers, but notice, too, how the city scene becomes a rural scene in a span of two seconds, and then back just as fast.

And then, the insane idea: human flight with your nemesis on an unguided umbrella. The complexity of this moment is that for Semon the filmmaker, the scene is a slapstick artist’s F.U. to the world encumbered by rules and disappointments. True flight, by which is meant the dream of human flight, by which is meant fake-flight, is the ultimate anti-Realist fantasy, and here it is the cathartic moment of the film. But, the characters are scared witless like they haven’t been throughout the chase. So, amidst this fantastic moment is revealed a very realistic human vulnerability: fear of death. Here we can sense Semon’s love of the ‘and’ conjunction, combining unrelated, even opposing ideas together with a simple grammatical function.

On a historical note, this high-hanging display of acrobatics atop a building predates both of Harold Lloyd’s sweaty-palms films: Never Weaken (1921) and Safety Last (1923), as well as Buster Keaton’s aerial, The Balloonatic (1923). All three are heavily influenced by this early feat of absurdity, and predates Eisenstein’s essay “The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram” by 11 years.

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