Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The General, Cops, The Playhouse

I watched Buster Keaton today, thinking I was just getting The General, but the DVD had the surprise bonus of Cops and The Playhouse as well. The General is really unbelievable because of the stunts. The stuff he does is stunning, particularly since it’s obvious there is no stunt person, either for Keaton or for the woman who plays his lover, and they’re doing absurdly dangerous things on a rapidly moving steam engine. In one scene, the train speeds forward, and Keaton perches on the front on the cow-catcher. He’s reaching out on to the tracks to grab heavy railroad ties that the enemy has lodged in the tracks, one after the other, to derail the train. As soon as he grabs one heavy tie (a single one would be enough to throw a person off balance), another comes up for him grab—and he gets that too. Somehow it’s funny, yet at the same time the suspense is unbelievable, which is an unusual combination I don’t often see (maybe in some Jim Carrey vehicles – though some purists might hate the comparison). He couldn’t possibly have made a mistake at picking up those ties with that train speeding along; I simply couldn’t envision how multiple takes were possible or even how they could manufacture dummy Styrofoam lightweight ties in 1927. The sheer complexity of so many of the shots in this film is mind boggling. It’s pretty surprising to know that it was a commercial flop.

Watching The General made me want to re-read Wes Gehring on “Comedian Comedy.” His characteristics of “the clown model” from The World of Comedy: Five Takes on Funny apply well to The General. He talks about how clown comedies encapsulate the “schtick” of the comedian. So if it’s a Keaton film, it captures his “schtick” (19), which in this case is a “man against machine” battle (7). We can tell it’s a clown comedy because “physical/ visual comedy” plays a large role in the plot (19). We see endless examples of physical comedy in The General. I like one very simple situation that occurs when Buster pays a visit to his girlfriend and two neighbor boys follow him inside. They seat themselves on a couch next to the couple in the parlor. Befuddled by the problem of the two boys, Keaton finally puts his hat on and bows to the young woman, which forces the two little boys to do the same. He opens the front door and politely allows them out before him. However, instead of following them out, he closes the door, takes his hat off, and sits back down next to his girl, this time alone (and victorious).

Also in the “clown model,” clowns tend to be “underdogs who frequently exhibit comically incompetent behavior” (30). We see this behavior repeatedly in The General when Keaton tries to be a soldier to please his girlfriend. She has told him to enlist in the confederate army, specifically not to show his face to her until he’s wearing a uniform. He’s been denied conscription, though, and whenever he tries to fake enlistment, he becomes inept and clumsy with hilarious results. He trips on his sword and makes a fool of himself generally.

Gehring goes on to say that film clowns are “nomadic, with direct literary ties to such picaresque heroes as Don Quixote and Huck Finn” (33). Even more specifically, Gehring gives some reasons they go on road (not all apply, but of those that do): “it gives the clown an endless supply of new settings for his comedy” (33), it places “a clown in some unlikely setting can be an ongoing joke in itself” (34) and it causes “pursuit by authority figures” (36). We see all these in The General because the film is an endless chase/pursuit scene.

So all this is interesting. It’s all Keaton against the machine. Maybe even more interesting because it was a surprise is The Playhouse. I absolutely loved the first half, in which Keaton played all the roles, the conductor, the musicians, the actors--ten or twelve across the stage (Mr. Brown, I think it was, in Blackface), the audience. It was so cool, particularly since they all were on camera at the same time (at least the ones on stage)—and this in the early 1920s, so it had to be done with amazing camera and film trickery unheard of at the time. It’s so elaborate that he even runs fake credits in the middle of the film with Buster Keaton listed for each of the actors and the crew. It’s very funny, I think. Unfortunately, though, the film goes on to include a bunch of Vaudeville skits, unremarkable mostly. One minor exception is a skit where Keaton dresses up as a monkey in a stage scene. The amazing thing about it is that he manages to capture the motions a monkey would make pretty remarkably, including running up the wall and walking on his hands and feet. But ho hum. There’s another sort of funny part of a skit where a man smoking a cigar catches his beard on fire and Keaton grabs an axe out of the place in the wall where it says “IN CASE OF FIRE.” Using the axe, he chops the man’s beard off, essentially shaving the man. It’s pretty funny, actually, but it lasts about 20 seconds. Ho hum too. I thought the same ho hum about Cops. It’s funny slapstick. The plot is not remarkable enough to recount here. More remarkable, though, are the amazing group scenes of parading cops which turn into huge numbers of cops chasing Keaton. The sheer choreography of it is worth noting—and of course it’s funny.

Keaton choreographs people and objects in ways that were stunning for the time, and they still are stunning because they require no special effects. They all just magically occur without stunt people or animation—impossible today.

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