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Deleuze, Genre, and the Burlesque

by James Crawford

The latter half of Gilles Deleuze’s Cinema I contends largely with American film genres, but he complicates traditional discourse by exploring these structures as patterns and narrative trajectories, rather than as categories containing discrete, identifiable parts. Conventional scholarship localizes genre as a series of expected syntactical elements (cowboys, horses, and shootouts for the Western, etc.) that give rise to different semantic meanings (suspicion of authority in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar; its reification in Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo). In Cinema I, Deleuze treats these forms more broadly, as a consequence of Situation (S) and Action (A). The Western most often takes the form SAS´, moving “from the situation to the action, which modified the situation” (160); by contrast, the detective film and the comedy follow the pattern ASA´, where “it is the action which discloses the situation, towards new action”(160). Charlie Chaplin’s films fall under Deleuze’s rubric of the “burlesque,” which takes on the form AS. This particular form allowed Chaplin to create a comedic scale between two ostensibly disparate situations. Deleuze offers the example of Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms (1918) where Charlie is engaged in battle and playfully scores a point for every shot he fires; correspondingly, as an enemy returns fire, Charlie then subtracts a point. For Deleuze the AS form “is the burlesque process itself” and consists in “the smallest difference from another action (firing a gun – playing a shot), but in this way it discloses the enormity of the distance between two situations (game of billiards – war)” (169). Whereas the SAS´ and ASA´ forms existed to bind cause and effect together—the “wild” Western frontier (S) is altered by the cowboy hero (A) and gives birth civilizing process (S´)—the AS exhibits the comedic relations between seemingly oppositional situations through similar and connected actions. Emotion and laughter are engendered simultaneously through the “connection” of dissimilar situations. According to Deleuze, Chaplin’s genius lies in stimulating this “laughter-emotion circuit, in which the one refers to the slight difference, the other to the great distance, without the one obliterating or diminishing the other, but both interchanging with one another, triggering each other off again” (171). The vast difference of situations—linked by the similar gesture—redoubles the laughter, precisely through emotion.


In The Great Dictator (1940) Charlie Chaplin pushes the burlesque form to its limit. Deleuze figuratively and literally sees the merging of Chaplin’s silent, “small form” burlesque (the beloved tramp, Charlie) with the newer, “large form” talkie comedy sequences (Adenoid Hynkel, the Adolf Hitler travesty). The physical difference between Charlie and the dictator is “as slight as the difference between their two moustaches” (171), yet the situations between the two characters “are infinitely far apart, as opposable as those of the victim and the executioner” (171). For Deleuze, Chaplin’s transformation—from silent to sound, from Charlie to Hynkel—is not just to demonstrate the struggle of good versus evil, but rather to elaborate the potential of cinema as a discourse producing machine. Similar physical gestures or characteristics (the moustache) link improbable situations and in doing so, articulate “two opposable Societies, one of which makes the slight difference between men into the instrument of an infinite distance between situations (tyranny), and the other which would make the slight difference between men the variable of a great situation of community and communality (Democracy)” (172). No longer are the contrasting situations solely a form of comedy. They become overt critical caricatures: opposed to the “series of silent Charlie films, (where) Chaplin could only reach the theme through idyllic dream images” (172), the talkie offers Chaplin a “realist force” (172) and further empowers the cinema to express discourse.


Transforming from the silent tramp, Chaplin echoes the form and sound of Hitler’s infamous public speeches and begins with marked verbal jabs at the tyrant—“der Weiner Schniztel mit der Lager Bierten” and “Sauerkraut”—parodying through “the false language of nonsense and terror, sound and fury” (172). Intelligible words decay into syllables, and again into comical spasms and coughing. The overall tenor of the speech does not change, but difference between sense and non-sense is ever so slight—as small as a syllable. The hyperbole of Hynkel’s diatribe is immediately recognisable from Leni Riefenstahl’s choreographed displays of Hitler in Triumph of the Will (1935), but there is an infinite difference in kind between these and Chaplin’s speech. These “incommensurable or opposed situations” (172), illuminated through the slight differences of action, explore the processes and forms that subtend them. Meaning no longer resides at the level of language’s morphological units, but in the totalized means by which ideas are communicated and framed within the proscenium arch—not content, but sound, image, décor, lighting. Statecraft as stagecraft. The critique is perhaps well worn in this contemporary moment, but cogent and incisive for its time, and even moving beyond the exigencies of the age. Chaplin’s silent adventures as the tramp, humorous but at times ultimately hermetic, transform into a meditation on language and on discourse in The Great Dictator.


In the scene immediately following this one, we learn that Hynkel, his inner circle, and in fact the entire fictional nation of Tomania, can speak intelligible, even cultured English, not unlike the voice we hear translating the dictator’s speech. However, it would be mistaken to read too much into the formal differences between the languages of two warring nations. German is not floated as a base, ugly language or one that contains no meaning in contrast to the cultivated, melodious tones of English. It is rather that German has been commandeered in the service of a distinct discourse: fascism. When language is co-opted into the political sphere, it loses meaning by being arrogated into having a force of meaning. All of this arises from simple linguistic mangling. For Deleuze, The Great Dictator retains all of the plasticity and variation, “power and signs” (172) available to the burlesque, but in pushing this mode to its limits, the film contributes insight into larger forms, connecting the figurative to the literal, the film to the world, and the small to the whole.

The Great Dictator and Deleuze

a clip from The Great Dictator that Deleuze mentioned in his writing

from The Great Dictator (1940)
Creator: Charles Chaplin
Posted by Chang Choi
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