But I get ahead of myself. If I’m discussing methodicalness, I really ought to take it one step at a time. I probably should have ended Part One, “I am intrigued, though, to begin to imagine a comedy that is as methodical as it is ludic.” Within a system, the two approaches don’t have to be mutually exclusive; a balance can be achieved. And, really, I don’t need to “begin to imagine” this comedy. It already exists: classic slapstick often relies on such a balance. Consider this scene from The Kid.
Fleeing the policeman, Chaplin’s Tramp and Coogan’s Kid pass through the archway at the far end of the courtyard and speed up the street toward the camera. Chaplin drops his pack, tripping the policeman. As the policeman falls, Tramp and Kid pivot, running back to the open archway. But they stop short: The Kid dodges left, The Tramp right, plastering themselves against the walls to either side, as the cop continues through. The pair doubles-back, this time turning toward the side alleyway as their pursuer recovers. Rounding the corner, they again abruptly stop, hugging the wall, letting the policeman run past. Finally, they dart inside the adjacent door, to home and, momentarily, to safety.
With each evasion, with each maneuver and change of direction, the comedy compounds. (In Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious, Freud describes how a punchline frees psychic energy, resulting in pleasure; in Three Essays On The Theory Of Sexuality, in a passage that footnotes Jokes, he argues that relatively slight “fore-pleasure” and tension oscillate, resonating, deferring the moment of release. Ultimately, a greater end-pleasure is attained.)
I also think of Dutch painting— from the appearance of the courtyard, so reminiscent of De Hooch, to the right-angled, Mondrian-like movement through space.
To put it another way, in this scene, we witness not just zany pratfalls but, also, a systematic working-through of a problem. A situation, with rules, parameters, or variables, is established, and each possibility is explored in turn: forward, back; near, far; left, right; moving, still. The scene, then, combines the kind of playfulness characteristic of Andrew Masullo’s paintings and the methodicalness typical of Suzan Frecon’s drawings (see Part One.)
Chaplin re-visits this scene once more before the movie ends. Here, The Tramp sits in the doorway to his apartment, unable to get in, tired and despondent, having spent the night searching for The Kid. He sleeps, entering “Dreamland” (as the on-screen text calls it), which is an Edenic courtyard, covered in roses and populated by angels. At first, The Tramp has no wings, but a “Shopping” trip fixes that. The guardian angel at the gate snoozes, letting “Sin” in. Paradise quickly devolves into a melee and, once again, the cop ends up pursuing Chaplin. The chase is much the same, but the wings are a new variable, a change in the rules. Chaplin, of course, takes advantage of these new possibilities. So to our list of paired abstract possibilities, we can add a couple more: up, down; flying, earthbound.1
Forward, back; near, far; left, right . . . my catalog self-consciously recalls another: “open, closed; wide, narrow; three, six, five; radial, side-by-side, one behind the other.” This latter is from a Lawrence Weschler essay, “Another Easy Piece: The Judd Ant.” Part Three of this series will ask the question, “Is Donald Judd funny?”
1The logic and rhetoric I introduced via Freud would suggest this scene should result in the ultimate release, the end-pleasure anticipated and set up by the earlier chase. However, this being a film by Chaplin, whose comedies combine humor and pathos, the policeman shoots down the airborne Tramp.