chapter  13
10 Pages

back to the “slap”: slapstick’s hyperbolic gesture and the rhetoric of violence

The life of slapstick bodies is far from peaceful. Faces are hit by pies, bodies suffer slaps and blows, they tumble, fall, collapse, are dropped, ejected, or thrown from cars or trains at full speed, are run over by buses and knocked down by fists, bricks, frying pans, or mallets. Already in the opening scene of The Fatal Mallet (1914), an aggressive Charlie Chaplin throws a brick at Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett, playing a pretty girl and her suitor, then gets it thrown back at him; in Laughing Gas (1914), Chaplin pretends to be a dentist though he is only the janitor at the dentist’s office; when a patient can’t stop laughing because of the anesthetic gas, Charlie knocks him out with a club. In One Week (1920), while struggling with a build-it-yourself house kit he received as a wedding gift, Buster Keaton gets crushed by a piano (twice), falls from a high window and then from a rafter that he saws off while sitting on it, and is finally ejected from his portable home when it starts spinning during a storm. I have always been amazed and somehow frightened by what human bodies have to endure in slapstick comedy. Some theorists, like Petr Kral or Raymond Benayoun, see poetry or surrealism in these destructive and


violent acts and situations. Ado Kyrou finds in these moments of “humour fou” a liberating principle that provides an anarchic answer to the question of why “we should accept the laws that dog us like hard collars, why logic must always keep us away from our dearest needs.”1 Yet these views on slapstick films seem to me an easy way to forget about (or conveniently put aside) the extreme violence they display, the darker side of an apparently joyful genre. Even Petr Kral finally admits that the wildness of slapstick alienates (fascinates) as much as it liberates: “The most poetic violence on screen carries inevitably an obscure part that only the spectator can finally reject.”2