At the culmination of Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times, the Factory Worker (commonly called “the Tramp”) breaks his long silence and sings. The moment is justly famous, as if audiences had been waiting decades to hear the voice of the downtrodden Worker. The Worker, however, does not quite attain to the voice, or the song, that he and his companion, the Gamin, had planned. The Worker has just lost his lyrics, which the Gamin has written on his shirt cuffs. These cuffs fly off his wrists at the start of his dance before the café crowd. “Sing! Nevermind the words,” urges the Gamin in an intertitle.
He wanted to leave nothing out. Given the film image’s powers of simultaneous arrest and dispersal, he may have believed it the surest means of preserving while imparting some measure of the densities and speeds generated across the spectrum of happenings, impasses, and transfigurations that marked what he and a few allies were engineering at San Francisco State that spring of 1967. The lambent play of sound and image might diffuse some of the private intensities driving their rupture of the knowledge-reproduction operations of the University—and might therefore document some slight tremor in the market systems of which it was part.
When Günther Anders arrived in New York in 1936, following three years of exile in Paris, he tried to achieve “‘a typically American’ breakthrough” (Interviews, 37). One of the first ventures this involved was writing a script for a Charlie Chaplin movie, a script, as Anders adds, that “probably went straight into the bin of some Hollywood agent” (37). For those familiar with Anders’s prolific postwar writings, especially the media theory advanced in the two uncannily prescient volumes of Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen (The Obsolescence of Human Beings), these Hollywood aspirations might come as a surprise.
Vita brevis? No, nobody will make me believe that life is short. It’s long—not because of long boredom, but because of its genuinely long duration. At least moving backwards, life is endless. “My” childhood in Breslau stretches into the depths of paleontological prehistory. My mind can only persuade me for a few seconds that my erstwhile namesake and I are one and the same —he must have been a distant ancestor.
Whether we accelerate the growth of a plant through time-lapse photography or show its form in forty-fold enlargement, in either case a geyser of new image-worlds hisses up at points in our existence where we would least have thought them possible.
—Walter Benjamin, “News About Flowers”
The 1938 documentary film Mony a Pickle (1938) stages a sequence in which a young couple imagines their future life in a flat of their own. As they each describe what they want in their new, modern home, their wishes come to life through the magic of trick photography.
The crown jewel in the 1937 Hollywood musical Ready, Willing, & Able is an elaborate song-and-dance number called “Too Marvelous for Words.” A lovestruck male theater producer, attempting to write a love letter by dictation, is surrounded by an army of female secretaries: hanging on his words, clinging to ladders, sitting at typewriters. As the music picks up tempo, the secretaries tap their keys in time.
If later testimonies are to be believed, around 1927 Peruvian poet Carlos Oquendo de Amat (1905-1936) published in Lima, under the title Celuloide (Celluloid), a magazine devoted to film news and reviews.
It will surprise no one to see wartime treated as an especially narrative problem. Indeed, given the long and apparently necessary relation between war and narrative, a relation that goes back at least to the Iliad and the in medias rage of Achilles, it is probably harder to think of them apart, harder to resist the urge to see both old and new wars in the ready and comfortable terms of already available narrative models: war as an epic or a revenge plot or a rescue mission or a buddy film or an echo of a previous war.