One of these days I'm going to find time to write at some length about my hero Buster Keaton, but meanwhile the Keaton industry is doing just fine without me, thank you very much. There's a new DVD collection, a new book, and a Monday nights retrospective this summer at the Film Forum here in New York. This outpouring is the inspiration for a lengthy (re-) appraisal of Keaton's life achievement by Jana Prikryl entitled "The Genius of Buster." Despite its being written for The New York Review of Books, the article does not over-intellectualize its subject. It's cogent, informative, and down to earth.
The logic in his first pictures, the two-reel shorts, resembles the logic of dreams. It was an alternate reality that freed him from narrative obligations—one thing simply followed another—and allowed him to pack a staggering quantity of life’s particulars into each twenty-minute film.
For several years Keaton had been playing with the comic payoff of situations that aren’t actually funny at all, in some cases hiring codirectors known for making dramas in hopes of deepening the realism. He brought in a protégé of D.W.Griffith, Donald Crisp, to help lend gravity to some scenes in The Navigator(1924), in which a rich young couple are set adrift on an abandoned ocean liner and run into cannibals on a desert island. At first their pampered helplessness leads to a long folly of slapstick (she can’t brew coffee; he can’t boil an egg), and after they adjust, it’s the gags of their triumph over circumstance (a Rube Goldberg machine prepares their breakfast; their bunks are cozily ensconced in the ship’s boiler room) that yield laughs. But Keaton went back and reshot the dramatic dockside scenes that got the pair trapped in the first place because he didn’t find Crisp’s version convincing enough.
Keaton always retained a vaudevillian’s appreciation for blackface routines and ethnic comedians of all kinds—the single way his films have grown dated. In several he walks up to someone from behind thinking he knows them, only to find that the person is black. That’s the joke. Later in life he declared that audiences would never laugh at a Civil War comedy whose villains are Southern: “They lost the war anyhow, so the audience resents it.” In The General he reversed his source material so that the film was about the heroic plight of a Southern railroad engineer rather than of the Northern hijackers (who in real life wound up not very comically hanged); the film itself is free of racist gags.
Chaplin is thought of as the socially and politically aware comedian (e.g., Shoulder Arms, Modern Times, The Great Dictator) but Keaton’s most coherent feature-length comedies—also including Go West and The Navigator and arguably The Cameraman—can’t stop playing with the immigrant nature of American identity: each of us is far from home, and the natives aren’t friendly.
"Half of our scenes, for God’s sakes, we only just talked over. We didn’t actually get out there and rehearse ‘em. We just walk through it and talk about it. We crank that first rehearsal. Because anything can happen—and generally did…. We used the rehearsal scenes instead of the second take."
Keaton wanted stories of a certain kind of innocence, and aspiration, and even mulish indifference to what might make people laugh (a hilarious film about the Civil War, for instance). His humor wasn’t a blank face that could be transferred willy-nilly to any kind of satire that might prove timely. This meant temporarily ignoring what the audience expected, and having the freedom to keep on inventing. “Anesthesia of the heart,” as Henri Bergson called it. That, after all, is the real soul of deadpan: such deep absorption in a task, or a way of being, that the audience thinks it alone can see that the whole thing’s going to hell.
Thanks to the well-read Noel Selegzi for the link! Read the whole article here.