Relational Destruction II: Million Dollar Legs
In Buster Keaton’s The General (1926), a train, conducted by Keaton, moves between South and North in the midst of the American Civil War. This machine dominates the film, channeling technology, bodies, and spectator along its singularized track. Gags are mediated by this mobile assemblage of metal. Humor and suspense derive their affectivity from the reservoirs of variation that its course allows. Keaton’s part is to scramble and re-orient the train as much as possible. In this sense, Keaton is an inoperable cog, disrupting, yet subjugated to, the will of metal. Everything contracts within the combination of train and tracks.
This closed circuit of potential makes The General something like a pinnacle of action-oriented cinema. The unworkable expenditure of movement is present but functions as a deviation, immediately feeding back dis-function in the form of creative variation. In other words, the surplus energy of the gag never fully escapes or disrupts the embedded causality of things. Destruction, surplus, and potentiality, before being identifiable as such, fold into the rule of the singular railroad.
Only six years later, with Million Dollar Legs (1932), things reverse (or rather, they return). The unworkable expenditure of movement functions as the law of the image. This is to say that the cinematic image’s surplus resists signification, prioritizing the energies of a non-representation. Slapstick returns to its pre-causal past. Rather than variations of action between a train and its tracks, Million Dollar Legs presents open relations between deformed images that have neither track nor train to act towards. In fact, causal relationships between clearly defined units are upended and in their place are crises between vaguely defined forms. It is not a world where man becomes a machinic-unit (i.e. Keaton) but a world where the very distinction between units blurs.
The narrative is of a nation, Klopstokia, in economic depression. Its president (W.C. Fields) vies for control while conspiring cabinet members plan to overtake his seat. His daughter (Susan Fleming) falls in love with an American (Jack Oakie) who recommends that the president enter his country into the Olympics—Klopstokia is comprised of citizen’s with fantastical athletic prowess—so as to relieve the country of its economic woes. The scenes in the film vaguely correspond to this plot, yet the movement onscreen, within the frame of the scene, flows beyond it.
The images do not causally organize around the narrative. This is to say that the image is in constant destabilization to the outlined plot. Within the frame, in place of narrative signification, is a surplus production of waste produced by non-causal relations of destruction. The plot is an already constituted architecture simply thrown around the images but through which they move in total blindness to the empty order that surrounds them.
The narrative architecture is, then, imaginary. It reveals itself retroactively but is in fact nowhere to be found onscreen. Any causal logic developed in response to Million Dollar Legs is a fiction written ex post facto, an absent architecture. The plot outlined above, although represented through speech in Million Dollar Legs—creating an empty frame—is absent from the film’s comedic organization. In other words, the causal links necessary to fill those expository plot points and give them presence are definitively absent.
Unlike a causally constructed film like The General, Million Dollar Legs fragments its gags, dissociating them from an aimed object. The difference: In The General gags are always directed at an object, namely the train, while in Million Dollar Legs there’s no stable center for action to organize around. Gags arise for their own sake (in lieu of an object).
Further, Million Dollar Legs provides a virtual blueprint for the work of later anarchic cinemas such as the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933). Yet Duck Soup takes chaos and debauchery as its rule only insofar as they plug their disruptions into a vaguely coherent message of political satire. Million Dollar Legs, rather, precedes any sort of satirical cogency.
If we compare the names of the two fictitious countries, Klopstokia and Freedonia, this central difference becomes clear. Klopstokia is an arbitrary signifier. It could refer to horse clopping but ultimately refers to whatever, while Freedonia carries with it an obvious reference to the politics and bureaucracy of the free world. Although both may be somewhat open, Duck Soup works through a satirical signification of chaos, thereby giving it representation, whereas Million Dollar Legs never does so. Duck Soup reorients the destruction of Million Dollar Legs towards a center, providing causal operability to open potential. The Marx Brothers contain surplus within a tenable network.
With these two films arise two distinct models of cinematic destruction. For Duck Soup it is a transactive model of destruction whilst for Million Dollar Legs it is relational. First let us look at Duck Soup. Transactive destruction defines a controlled economy of circulation amongst the images being destroyed. Take the famous mirror scene in Duck Soup. A mirror is broken only to have Firefly (Groucho Marx) arrive at the absent mirror to see his fake reflection performed by Pinky (Harpo Marx) impersonating him. The two engage in a reflected dance, eventually swapping sides, until the simulated reflection is broken by the introduction of Chicolini (Chico Marx), who is also impersonating Firefly. This disrupts the parallel exchange by introducing a third term. The introduction throws all three bodies into collision. The destruction of the mirror and the simulative performance that succeeds it dictate the rule of exchange between images in Duck Soup: destruction is the necessary condition of transaction.
In this model, the surplus energy released through destruction must be re-used in the following gag. Therefore an economy of transactive destruction works as pure negation, wherein that past is absolutely exterminated and subsumed with each present succession. This negation marks the destruction of a world so that each movement builds for itself a new world, which is itself destroyed by the following transaction. This rule of exchange is linear and destruction moves along a progressive course. Out of the ruins of destruction must emerge an equivalency that absolutely negates, yet adequately supplants, the previous destructive image in debauchery and humor.
Yet for Million Dollar Legs no transaction between images appears. The images are an unstable field of hostile partialities that move by an inherent relation of mutual destruction. They cannot transact, as to do so would imply autonomy from one image to the other. It would suggest the ability for the image to act on and be acted upon in a form of equivalent and regulated exchange. Rather, Million Dollar Legs suggests a form of destruction wherein the image repels the representational constitution of transactive exchange relations. It embodies something closer to a liquid flow, where exchange is unstable and modulating. No image negates its other, nor does it exchange for it a new world, but rather all are of the same destructive, unstable, and differential world.