The Chaplin Machine by Owen Hatherley

Owen Hatherley is something of a prolific author; since bursting onto the scene with his “MIlitant Modernism” book in 2009, he’s produced another five varied titles as well as a vast number of articles, most often on architecture, politics and culture. It was “Militant Modernism” that first attracted me to his work; a short and fascinating book from Zero, it threw new light on a number of aspects of the subject. I went on to read his “A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain” from Verso, and have his others on the TBR. You might have picked up that Hatherley is usually published by left-wing publishers, and his most recent work, “The Chaplin Machine”, was produced by the venerable independent, Pluto Press, and I was so pleased to receive a review copy of the book from them.

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We’re used to thinking of Russia and America as enemies, two diametrically opposed forces in conflict ideologically. However, as Hatherley shows here, the West had a considerable influence on the East, and in unexpected ways. “The Chaplin Machine” takes us back to the early days of the Soviet Union when the Russians were fascinated by America, and in particular its industrial methods. At the time, the USA was in the grip of mechanisation and automation, with new methods of production line working coming to the fore; Taylorism was a kind of theory of scientific management, intended to increase the efficiency of manufacturing but often at the cost of workers, who were often regarded as no better than beasts of burden.

Such views would of course have been at odds with the Communist beliefs, but the Soviets were hypnotised by the modernity of the American workplace, and in fact often used US companies to supply (and run) their factories in an attempt to drag feudal Russia into the 20th century. The American methods didn’t only dazzle the businessmen; they also had an effect on Soviet art, in particular theatre and film-making, which was heavily influenced by the early cinema of Hollywood. Chaplin was lauded by the Russians, celebrated as not only epitomising the little man against the state, but also seen as representing a modern, almost mechanistic type of human being, with his jerky movements. Until I read Hatherley’s book I hadn’t quite appreciated how popular Chaplin (and his peers Keaton and Lloyd) were in the Soviet Union, but from the amount of material quoted here, it’s quite clear they were huge!

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The book is divided into sections, broadly covering the influence of American comedians on Constructivist art, how the science of biomechanics was used in visual arts, architecture and the use of sound films. This heady, cross-cultural mix allows Hatherley to expand his arguments about the importance of the American influence on Russia and these are never less than convincing. The absurd and eccentric was present in both American and Soviet art at the time, and was often all the more effective in the latter by taking place in an unlikely setting. The discussion of a number of well-known and lesser Soviet films was fascinating; Eisenstein is of course a film-maker I know and love (his Ivan the Terrible films are stylistically stunning), but there are a *load* of other titles I now want to seek out. And I have to say that the book itself is a lovely object; a nice hardback with a eye-catching cover, it’s illustrated with a number of film stills and posters, all of which strikingly illustrate Hatherley’s arguments.

Certainly, the early days of Soviet Union seem to have been either misjudged or dismissed, but the different influences affecting the nation at the time were fascinating. The book was developed from Hatherley’s postgraduate research but despite the occasional academic tone, it’s an absolutely exhilarating read; the breadth of his knowledge and the wide range of sources he draws on is impressive. If you have a love of Constructivism, Eisenstein, Russian film, slapstick, architecture and politics, then “The Chaplin Machine” is most definitely for you – highly recommended!

Review copy kindly provided by Pluto Press for which many thanks!

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As an aside, it’s all to easy to forget the effects that the avant-garde of the early 20th century still has on our modern art forms – until you see something like this!

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