film: Newmeyer, Taylor: Safety Last! (1923)

Click picture for licensing details.
Click picture for licensing details.

Drinking for seven hours, and suddenly the inclination to make fun like this, and it’s not unusual? Mentioning Kafka is rarely a smart idea. The only instance I can recall when it was okay was during a discussion over whether the Germans or the Czechs have more claim to him. Using the word Kafkaesque is never a smart idea. Ever. No, I take this all back: one has to earn the right to use the word in the same way Milton claimed to have earned the right to blank verse, something one earns through perseverance and bleeding fingers. Mostly I hear the word dribbling out of the mouths of people whose reading lists comprise little more than The Metamorphosis, On the Road, and maybe something by Bukowski. And would the word be better replaced by “nightmarish?” Yes, I think we could successfully eschew Kafka in our idle chatter and the sun might continue circling the earth.

The idea of “Kafkaesque” brings another detail to my mind, something that the term does not mean, something I’ve never heard anyone mention before. And the reason I call it forth now is because this slapstick romantic comedy uses a similar technique. I meant to discuss the importance of Harold Lloyd here, but this technique is more important to me:

A technique Kafka enjoyed using, at least in his short stories, was to begin by presenting a major problem, and instead of solving it, to instead solve an extremely minor and unrelated problem and present that as the dénouement. What this means, essentially, is that we’re dealing with a tragedy masquerading as a comedy. I just came up with this shit, my head hurts, but golly, thanks booze! This differs from my general theory of tragedy, in which what’s bad for the protagonist is generally good for some lollygagging third party, e.g., what’s bad for Hamlet is ultimately good for Denmark, differs because what’s good for the protagonist is bad for the protagonist. I cannot remember a specific example in Kafka, but I do recall observing this.

So, now we have Harold Lloyd, and here’s a brief synopsis: he moves to the city to make his fortune so his girlfriend can marry him. He gets a shit job, barely makes ends meet, and writes to her that he’s very wealthy. She finally comes out to see him and hilarity ensues as he repeatedly convinces her that he’s rich and important. And then he invents a zany scheme to become rich, very dangerous, and pulls it off so that he’ll win $1,000. Super. The film ends as he and his gal walk off arm in arm, presumably to get married the following day. Is he worse off than before? Yes. Because in the beginning:
• His girlfriend is an idiot.
• He landed his best friend a police record.
• He needs money to eat.

And by the end:

• He’s now also got a police record.
• He’s been lying to his girlfriend and has a lot of ‘splainin to do.
• He landed his best friend in jail.
• He alienated all his coworkers.
• He got hurt a whole bunch and now has to cover medical expenses.
• He broke a very large and expensive clock.
• He needs new clothes after his adventure.
• His girlfriend is still an idiot.
And where did all his problem-solving energy go? Easy. He spent the last half hour of the film trying to climb a tall building in a publicity stunt. Climbing the building becomes the main problem. But what about all the money he wins in doing so? I mean, really, $1000 is a lot of money, especially when we see that his rent is $14 per 3 weeks, and a meal is only 15 cents. Let’s do the arithmetic, shall we? Roughly, rent for two equals $880 per year, and food for two is around $365. That’s $1,245. What I mean is that he’s by no means wealthy, and will probably spend most of that money on fixing all the things he’s damaged. This should all be beside the point, and I’m writing now 14 hours later, with a hangover, because it’s early cinema doing comedy, and there’s something of an appeal to the down-and-out American that we love so well. Chaplin, for instance. We don’t consider it a tragedy to leave an American in rags, because we know that there’s always riches in the future. Horatio Alger’s bootblack Ragged Dick doesn’t begin in tragic circumstances like a chimney sweep of Blake’s, and there’s the great American dream, that the future always looks brighter. Recent polls show that for the first time in the history of the U.S., a majority of citizens believe that the nation’s best years have passed. And perhaps it’s that new mentality that forces our comedies to tie up all loose ends positively, why we’re not going to create a comic hero with the depth of Chaplin, Lloyd, or Keaton these days.

A last note: this film exploits the capabilities of the new medium immediately by tricking the viewer into believing the protagonist to be in jail as the film begins, about to be hung. When the camera changes position, we see that he’s only on a train platform and our eyes deceived us.

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