The year is 1908. A. Mutt, a gangly horseplayer with a head full of get-rich-quick schemes, has been sent to an insane asylum on account of his gambling addiction. Here he meets up with Jeff, squat, dim-witted man who believes himself to be a heavyweight boxing champion. Soon they set off into the world to make a buck together. Their suits are rumpled and cheap. Their physiognomies are so crudely drawn that they might well be called lumpenproletariat. But somehow they become the beloved protagonists of the first daily comic strip, moving from the sports page of the San Francisco Chronicle to William Randolph Hearst’s Examiner to national syndication, where they remained until 1983. Though Mutt and Jeff’s moneymaking plots were always stymied, they made the strip’s creator, Bud Fischer, wealthy and famous, and by 1916 he had begun animating them.
The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff opens in a frozen wasteland, with Mutt and Jeff having lost everything. They lay in their ratty beds in a bare room, shivering, then tussle over a tiny blanket, their only possession. (No date is given for the film, but I suspect it was made around 1930.) Finally they go outside to search for firewood. They encounter only one other living creature: a devil, who sends Mutt and Jeff plummeting to hell. But even in the underworld the poor devils are freezing their asses off, and icicles drip from their noses. Unable to wake up from the dream, Mutt and Jeff make the best of their situation: Mutt steals the last flame in hell and ends up happily flipping a devil in a frying pan above the meager fire.
Walter Benjamin credited the success of Disney’s animations with the fact that “the public recognizes their own lives in them.” Cartoons show us an impoverished world of violence, sadism, and alienation—not as fantasy but as realism. In her book Hollywood Flatlands, Esther Leslie expounds Benjamin’s theory: “The cartoons make clear that even our bodies do not belong to us—we have alienated them in exchange for money, or have given parts of them up in war. The cartoons expose the fact that what parades as civilization is actually barbarism.”
Film begins with tracing the path of motion. In the last years of the nineteenth century French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey finds novel ways to record and visualize the motions of the body over time. He's not interested in the person but in the motion itself. He develops “the graphic method,” in which movement is abstracted from the individual, exists as an independent entity and, most importantly, a useful commodity.
Marey wants to understand the motions of a bird in flight, so he attaches a bird to a harness so that the movement of its wings, now hooked up to wires and levers, cause lines to be etched onto charcoal-blackened paper wrapped around a revolving cylinder. He takes multiple exposures of a runner dressed all in black except for white lines and dots that, in the final photograph, represent points in time—motion-capture technology. If the body is a complex mechanism, Marey wonders, then how can it be optimized, improved? His first client is the French army, which asks him to devise a way to make soldiers march more efficiently.
At the same time that Marey is working for the French army, his protégé, Albert Londe, is documenting the distorted gait of women diagnosed with hysteria at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris. Londe photographs bodies that refuse to be coordinated, capturing inner rebellion expressed by excessive, strange, and uncontrollable motions.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Frederick Winslow Taylor is determined to optimize production in the American factory. He considers the human body to be just another moving component on the assembly line, and he sets himself to the task of making those bodies more efficient. His tool is the stopwatch.
Another team of researchers, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, found the field of Scientific Management, which addresses productivity from a progressive perspective. Rather than exhaust the bodies of workers, they strive to break down physical tasks into their most elementary gestures and eliminate unnecessary motions, making each movement more efficient. The thought workers could take responsibility for studying and optimizing their own motions—not only to increase profits, but to grant workers additional leisure time.
To this end the Gilbreths film all kinds of people at work: champion fencers, adroit bricklayers, famous surgeons, and the champion oyster opener of Rhode Island. They record their activities against gridded backgrounds, charting and measuring the movement of bodies over time. The Gilbreths believe that people will study these films and train themselves by imitating the efficient movements on screen.
To make these efficient motions all the more concrete, the Gilbreths created fantastic objects called chronocyclographs: wire sculptures of the light recorded by a 3D camera tracking the movement of workers’ hands. Frank Gilbreth named one chronocyclograph “Perfect Movement.” “It is extremely difficult to demonstrate to the average person the reality and value, and especially the money value of an intangible thing,” the Gilbreths wrote in one paper. “The motion model makes this value apparent and impressive. It makes tangible the fact that time is money and that an unnecessary motion is money lost forever.”
Karl Marx described how, in the industrial age, people came to be treated more like things, interchangeable parts in a factory, while the commodities they produced took on strangely human characteristics, at least in the way we talk and think about them. Commodities seemed to take on lives of their own. If the commodity is a condensation of social forces, and if it could speak, what might it say?
Walter Benjamin used the word innervation to describe how the nervous system changes fundamentally through one’s interaction with moving images. We must achieve synchronicity with the moving image in order to fully inhabit the technological world, he thought. Otherwise we will be destined to serve technology. “Film serves to train human beings in those new apperceptions and reactions demanded by interaction with an apparatus whose role in their loves is expanding almost daily,” Benjamin wrote in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” “To make the enormous technological apparatus of our time an object of human innervation—that is the historical task in whose service film finds its true meaning.”
Benjamin believed that the audience relates to the situation of the actor facing the camera, seeing it as analogous to that of the worker undergoing an aptitude test before her manager. And because of this, since this experience of testing is one that they understood from their own lives. More profoundly, Benjamin held out the utopian promise that cinema could break us out of habitual and deadening patterns of thought, so that we might see and experience the world anew. The introduction of the movie camera penetrated our reality, exploded our world in a split second, engendered what he called “the optical unconscious.” Charlie Chaplin and Mickey Mouse were just as radical as modernists like Picasso, and no special education was required to appreciate their art.
In 2006, I heard that a business college in New York was throwing out its 16mm reels. I rescued sixty instructional films, most of them from the mid-twentieth century. The films all looked like they had been shot in the same dreary institution, a convergence of the home, the office, the school, the factory, and the mental asylum. The films lacked any gloss of nostalgia, and implied that our whole world had become an institution to manage and monitor bodies.
I chose two films, Motion Studies Application and Folie à Deux, artless instructional productions from the early 1950s. Motion Studies Application was not made by the Gilbreths, though it illustrates their methods, showing a worker inserting wooden pegs into a series of holes—efficiently on one side of the screen, less so on the other. Folie à Deux is the clinical name for contagious paranoia, and the film—one of a series made to illustrate how to identify, but not treat, mental disorders—depicts a mother and daughter who have been institutionalized being interviewed by a psychiatrist. Both films represent people as mere bearers of motion. The productive workers of Motion Studies Application have their dysfunctional double in the institutionalized patients of Folie à Deux, just as Marey’s marching soldiers are shadowed by Londe’s perambulating hysterics.
I wanted to create a dialogue between them, access their hidden histories, perhaps liberate some utopian potential buried within the drab, discarded objects. I decided to make a third film that would put Motion Studies Application and Folie à Deux into dialectical motion. The result is my own The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff, which consists of a three-channel video incorporating the archival film and staged reenactments, sculptural objects, and drawings.
In slapstick and cartoons, there is a world where things live their own lives, beyond the control of their makers. The repression of the industrial world erupts, and we enter into the dream life of objects. There we find the revolutionary potential hidden between the efficient body of the worker and the disordered body of the mentally disturbed. In Modern Times (1936), when Chaplin’s efficiency on the assembly line turns manic, he pushes everyone’s buttons! In One Week (1920), Buster Keaton misreads a construction manual and builds his house inside out; it ends up spinning madly on its axis, like a merry-go-round. There is a moment of ecstasy, of liberation from the drabness and banality of small-town America and its cookie-cutter homes, before the inevitable, euphoric collapse.
Benjamin thought that jokes produced moments of liberation, abrupt fissures in the status quo, disorienting the senses. Theodor Adorno, on the other hand, looked at cartoons and saw cruel laughter, not liberation. To him, watching Donald Duck take a thrashing trained working people to be punished by their bosses. I think slapstick and cartoons posit a new relationship between the world of things and the world of people. Objects begin to speak, in a language all their own; the relationship between objects and their operators is changed fundamentally, with each reinventing the other, often vertiginously. The order of the world is destroyed, and nothing is posited in its place. That failure to prescribe a new direction is, I think, a strength. All we are told is that another world is possible. And that even in hell you can have a good laugh.