Pictures of Screens – “Fatty Joins the Force”

In jail, wearing a policeman’s hat and slouching against the bars of the cell, his face – a man-child’s written with petulance, frustration, and defeat – is streaked with dirt and the remnants of blubbering. He’s absurd, cartoonish, but also ironic; the recent turn of events that have landed him in prison must be weighing on him. He had been offered to join the force after he saved a young girl from drowning, even though he had always been courageously reluctant. That helpful push into the lake from his fickle lover was really at the root of why he dove into being a hero.

Roscoe Conkling "Fatty" Arbuckle in "Fatty Joins the Force" (1913), directed by George Nichols and produced by Mack Sennet
Roscoe Conkling “Fatty” Arbuckle

Twelve months ago I sat across from the man, Roscoe Conkling “Fatty” Arbuckle, trying not to catch weird reflections in the TV screen that I was photographing. This was part of a wider activity in which I decided to photograph films and various media I watched, with the goal of discovering what might be divulged over time.[^1] The first thing I learned is that photographing a screen is always a tricky dance when dealing with streamed media and less than perfect rewind and pause functions, especially when those functions are paired with that single option for the abysmal internet furnished by ________, that telecommunications provider, who has a monopoly in your area. Routinely, I found that no matter how hard I tried, the presence of the screen could not be erased from the photos – it was always there, the backdrop to those things which played on it. My photography was also imperfect, done with a phone and without a tripod. Shots were canted, images were cropped, objects and faces were blurred; later, when looking at the photos, I could usually see the materiality of the screen itself, like the one I have described above of Arbuckle from his film “Fatty Joins the Force” (1913), directed by George Nichols and produced by Mack Sennent.[^2]

[^1]: My photo album, Pictures of Screens, currently lives on my Flickr account.

[^2]: You can watch “Fatty Joins the Force” over at the Internet Archive.

I could have done a digital screen capture to rectify the cant, blur, and imperfection of my photography, but if I had I would not have been able to picture myself there in the room with Arbuckle, hunched over with my phone trying to take a photo of my TV in one of the worst winters to hit the Twin Cities in many years. The week prior to when I had uploaded the photo of Arbuckle there had been a run of days with temperatures below negative ten, and one day at negative twenty and another at negative twenty-three. That bitter cold was truly my first experience of a Minnesota winter, and when there was a high of even five outside, I was thankful.

Chilled in the Minneapolis-freeze, I had been struck by Arbuckle’s performance. Even with his distance from the modern era, Arbuckle is a masterful actor. When he is offered the chance to become a policeman, his character, Fatty, is still reeling from the initial shock of saving the young girl, but as the praises are bestowed upon him by the girl’s father, the police chief, Fatty’s frazzled state morphs into pride as he undoes his coat so he can drum on his stomach. His face contorts from a scowl to a smug smirk, and the moment is truly funny, not something that can be taught or studied, but something that is innate and has been honed for its medium.

It was also the irony of “Fatty Joins the Force” and the turn of events that led to Fatty’s imprisonment that registered with me. At the time I was feeling trapped and betrayed by some of my own decisions. My personal circumstances were wildly different, related to business choices I had made, but like Arbuckle’s character of Fatty, my metaphoric prison was, in part, the result of my own undoing.

Arbuckle’s own life likewise mirrored Fatty’s, when in 1921 he became implicated in the death of actress Virginia Rappe in one of Hollywood’s first scandals. There had been a party of bootleg liquor, and Rappe, who suffered from chronic cystitis, died shortly after of a ruptured bladder. Arbuckle became blamed for her death and was accused of raping her. Newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst had latched onto the story, and right, wrong, truth, or hearsay, had printed everything. In Hearst’s papers Rappe had been violated with a piece of ice, which was later reported to be a Coca-Cola or champagne bottle. Arbuckle, or rather “Fatty”, was accused of Rappe’s death, crushing her bladder with his own weight. Due to the high degree of improbability that someone could crush another person’s bladder with their weight, today it is widely accepted that Rappe died due to her own health issues. In his own lifetime, however, even though he was acquitted of rape and accidentally killing Rappe, Arbuckle’s career came to a halt, and it was only near the time of his death in 1932 that it began to recover.

When I look at the photo of Arbuckle behind bars now, a year later, these initial impressions fade, and it resonates quite differently. Although it is the police force of “Fatty Joins the Force” that is shown to be vacuous and self-serving, it is the society that the police protect that is also at fault. After having pies mashed into his face by a group of unruly kids, Fatty decides to return to the lake and have a swim to wash off the pies. While bathing, his uniform, which he has left in a bush, is found by the same group of kids. They proceed to destroy his trousers by cutting them. The kids run off and a man approaches the bush, discovering the top half to Fatty’s uniform. The man takes the top half of the uniform to the police station, where it is decided that Fatty has possibly drowned and that the lake is to be dredged. When Fatty finishes his swim, he finds only his destroyed trousers. Soon after, wearing the shredded pants, he encounters two women who report to the cops they have just seen a man who is more or less naked.[^3] With that, a mob flanked by Keystone Cops is chasing the “wild man at large.” It is not the cops who turn on themselves, but the society the cops protect that ultimately instigate Fatty’s satirical persecution.

[^3]: Sort of like Randy Newman’s “Naked Man,” from his album Good Old Boys.

The story and irony of “Fatty Joins the Force” is one of a comic tone, but its simple wide shots paint and lampoon a society whose checks and balances are there to serve and protect its own welfare. Humorously, in Fatty’s case, when you have no pants or shirt, you lose claim to your citizenship. Though it could be misconstrued as a leap in my own associative logic, when thinking about the irony of the film, the suggested corruption of government institutions, the satirizing of authority and police forces, and a complicit society that serves those with a voice but not those without, I cannot help but think of the preventable and tragic deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice; the militarization of our modern police forces caused by the unregulated greed of those in power; and the vast socioeconomic divide that isolates many Americans due to skin color, religion, and class. If people speak out against these injustices, like in my own locality, you might as well be ready to be persecuted for peaceful protests at the local monument to Moloch, the Mall of America.[^4] Whereas “Fatty Joins the Force” is comedic, our modern era proves to be wretched and shameful, but the parallels are there. It is impossible for me to not consider my own viewership alongside the contemporary moment.

[^4]: After a pre-Christmas protest lead by “Black Lives Matter” at the Mall of America earlier this past December, there was discussion about charges being brought against the organizers. John Reinan of the Star Tribune reports that Bloomington City Attorney Sandra Johnson is currently planning to file additional charges against protesters to deter other like demonstrations.

All this is to say is that my relationship to my photograph of Arbuckle has evolved over the course of the year; I assume that when I return to it in the future it will have continued to grow. I anticipate an analogous phenomenon with all the pictures I have taken of screens displaying images of films. When I initially started taking pictures of screens, I had done so to merely keep track of my viewing habits and to file away certain images that had an effect on me, either because of their composition, or due to the meaning they initiated inside and beyond their frames. What I did not expect to happen was that some of the meaning would be between the screen and me, and my own memories of it. If I had simply made digital screen captures of the films I watched, these memories and reflections of watching things would not have transpired in the same way.

For a very different set of reasons, in 2009 the Motion Picture Association of America [MPAA] urged teachers that when they needed to show film clips in a classroom, instead of copying media directly from source material like when ripping a DVD, rather to record clips off of a screen, TV set, or monitor with a separate videocamera, taking a tumble down the analog hole[^5] in their duplication of copy-righted works. Opponents to the MPAA’s retrograde rationale were quick to point out that physically recording film clips off a screen with a separate piece of video equipment was both time-consuming and the symptom of rather serpentine logic, no doubt borne from outmoded and antiquated notions of copyright and completely ignorant in the failure to acknowledge fair use.

[^5]: The analog hole, or analog loophole, is the unavoidable pitfall that a copy-protected digital work can always be reproduced via analog means.

The MPAA’s recommendation is silly to the point of inspired, and I am more interested in photographing screens with media that I consume for the other connections and associations that the process has revealed; my analog holes are rabbit holes I fall down. When returning to the photos, I see the actual spaces and environments in which I was watching those films. My viewership has a physical presence alongside that which I gaze on. In my living capture of it, I always see myself watching with certain thoughts in a certain space at a certain time, mixing with those other thoughts from another space at another time. There is a cold Minnesota that is embodied in Arbuckle’s performance, only to become a myopic America that has lost its way. In different rooms, houses, and apartments, on various TVs, computers, and devices, through the accidental reflections caught in images fractured, I remember what was misremembered in a barrage of meaning and flux.

3 thoughts on “Pictures of Screens – “Fatty Joins the Force”

  1. Yeah, that MPAA stuff is just bizarre. I could see an institution mandating that their teachers did that though, because they were afraid of being sued, but I’m guessing such practices are probably lost in the wider bureaucracy of academic institutions. That said, I don’t know, maybe places really do it.

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