Chaplin, Keaton, and the “operational aesthetic” (Alicia Ferrández Cros)

The “operational aesthetic” is described in Tom Gunning’s ‘Crazy Machines in the Garden of Forking Paths: Mischief Gags and The Origins of American Film Comedy’ as the fascination with the way new technologies work. This phenomenon can be seen in both Buster Keaton’s and Charlie Chaplin’s films, as they usually interact with machines. However, while the outcomes in Keaton’s films, as a result of this interaction, tend to be positive, in Chaplin’s they usually lead the character to misery.

Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ depicts the struggles of the tramp to come to terms with the increasingly technological world he lives in. In the sequence where a new machine to improve productivity is being trialed, Chaplin’s character is subject to the treatment and ends up suffering the malfunctions of the new technology. Although with no chaotic consequences to the character, the use of the machine does more bad than good, while at the same time satisfying the desire to be witness to the workings of it –which Gunning refers to. Later in the film, the same occurs when Chaplin is ‘swallowed’ by the engine he is doomed to work with, this time resulting in a nervous breakdown that makes him lose his job.

On the other hand, in Keaton’s film ‘Sherlock Jr’, the main character maintains a different relationship with technology. In the motorcycle scene, Keaton is unaware of being alone in the vehycle, having lost the driver on the way. Both the viewer and himself have the feeling that he is going to fall off the motorcycle at any moment, and so it makes the character panic. However, that only lasts for a few minutes, as in the end it is the motorcycle driving itself that allows him to save the girl. Therefore, there is a sort of reconciliation of humanity with technology here, and it shows that, in spite of its dangers, it can at times be helpful.

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