Thursday, February 16, 2006
Reading James Agee's Life magazine piece on silent comedy, "Comedy's Greatest Era," provided me with the always-remarkable experience of laughing out loud at words on a page. I am a great admirer of any writer who can reach out from the misty mists of time to me in my solitude, completely divorced from the writer and yet startled into laughter. It's a great gift. James Thurber can do this. And sometimes Dave Barry, and Matt Groening (in Childhood Is Hell, he sprinkles about little pieces of "information"; one that still works on me is "The word 'titter' makes kids titter." OK, it's about laughter--well, a kind of laughing--so maybe that's cheating. But still.) In his piece, Agee surprises me into laughter with his description of a supposed practice of Mack Sennett. According to Agee--and I keep qualifying this because it's so odd--"Sennett used to hire a 'wild man' to sit in on his gag conferences, whose whole job was to think up 'wildies.'" Agee describes this strange creature as "an all but brainless, speechless man" with minimal powers of communication but "a totally uninhibited imagination." The wild man was "the group's subconscious mind, the source of all creative energy." Agee concludes that the "ideas were so weird and amorphous that Sennett can no longer remember a one of them." To compensate, Agee offers "a fair equivalent," a scene from an unnamed Laurel and Hardy picture that is "simple and real ... as a nightmare": "Laurel and Hardy are trying to move a piano across a narrow suspension bridge. The bridge is slung over a sickening chasm, between a couple of Alps. Midway they meet a gorilla." The paragraph end here, and Agee goes on without further comment to a new topic. And, without realizing it, "surprised by joy"--or wildness--I barked out a quick laugh.
Immediately the moment sent me reeling to other wildies of American culture, and reminded me how firmly the idea of wildness is implanted in early twentieth century culture. Of course, such goings-on reveal themselves as the nascent impulse of surrealism, in which a simple error in rhetoric, the non sequitur, becomes a startling, sublime thing. And it's built into the wildy Agee mentions--or invents? No matter; such uncertainty is part of the magic here: I prefer to think it never happened, that Stan and Ollie never encountered that sudden simian. And if it did, I would be equally pleased. The surreal shock melts the barrier between the inner world, in which everything is a subject, and the outer world of objects, until, as Freud describes the experience of falling in love, "the boundaries of the ego become indistinct." I am Thou, and Thou, I. And so with fact and fabrication. The power of the surreal experience is that, in having no connection to what goes on before, it forces me to make connections, if only to right the world again. And when the magic is working, the connection made then causes further gleeful havoc, more wild than wild. And so to Krazy Kat.
Pop culture--all kinds, really--in the 1920s and early '30s cavorted in the surreal as it folded everything into itself: the move toward the abstract in painting, the improvisatory impulses in jazz, the time-space-capades of Einstein, the peasant-to-king hopscotch the Soviets tried to play. Unfortunately, by the time the Depression and Hitler started thudding and jittering around like surrealism's doppelganger, it all grew nauseous and hollow. But for a decade-plus, the West seemed liberally laced with ever-curiouser curiosities. I can recall seeing--where? USA network's famous Night Flight on the weekends back in the '80s?--early stop-motion animations, dim and jerky, with little demons capering and vegetable-shapes rolling and gamboling; and Segar's salty family, the Oyls--Olive and Castor--and Alice the Goon and the Jeep and that muttering sailer with the pop-eye, "out of the inkwell" and into one's subconscious, with Betty Boop and her coterie of human-animal-whatsis hybrids, and Alley Oop, spun by their heels across the screen by Fleisher and Iwerks, the grand cavalcade of them, including Herriman's Krazy Kat, but also Windsor McKay's Little Nemo in Slumberland, and even Bill Holman's Smokey Stover, whose secret-code language peppered with "Foo" and the immortal "Notary Sojac[k]," made comedy a private world, an in-joke for anybody who was watching, non-linear, pre-rational, unconscious, like Agee's wild man.
These snippets of rarebit-fiend nightmares are impulses of the Id, Pleasure Principle yawps that hint of dark, instinctual urges--but which, as Sunday funnies and silents, as the anima as animation, at least partially serve to dispel that darkness, and leave us with slapstick. The trembling tendrils of this effect move through much of the movies--I would like to argue sit at the core of the movie-going experience itself, that "gazing game" I like to play. With the wild surrealism of silent comedy, your gaze is rewarded with glimpses into depths, but they engender deep laughs, not groans; and the reeling satirical dismay of surrealism becomes a pie in the face, a totter and tumble. At its best, such moments do offer some anxiety. But the end result is escape from that anxiety via comedy's "unfair somnambulism" (a phrase Krazy Kat's Officer Bull Pupp, in futile pursuit, applied to a sleepwalking Krazy who wire-walked across an open space to freedom). Camus would approve, I think, of such a counterpoint to absurdist tragedy--although he might insist they're the same, and that laughter is simply anguish spit out instead of swallowed. I can live with that. Actually, sometimes it seems I can only live if there is that.
Posted by Paul J. Marasa at 1:24 PM
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