Thursday, November 29, 2012

Buster Keaton is Alive and Well and Living in Chicago

Steve McQueen in Deadpan
[post 311]

I've returned from a long weekend in Chicago with ample evidence that Buster Keaton is alive and well. Or at least his ghost.

First, one for you conceptual art fans....

Video Installation by Steve McQueen

One of the most iconic images of the silent film era has to be that of  Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) surviving the facade of a house falling around him as his body is framed by an upstairs window. The "great stoneface" is as unflinching and stoic as ever..

Not long ago in this post I revisited this sequence and showed its reprise in a season two episode of Arrested Development.

UPDATE (12-7-12): Just came across this (much safer) two-person version by Olsen & Johnson from their movie All Over Town (1937):


But then in Chicago I spent an afternoon at the Arts Institute, which is currently hosting a special exhibition of installations by the British video artist, Steve McQueen (not to be confused with the American action hero of yesteryear). And lo and behold, one of his more popular pieces turns out to be Deadpan (1997), a 4-minute, continuous-loop film shot in 8mm consisting of variations on the house falling on, but miraculously missing, a solitary figure obliviously standing in its path, in this case Mc Queen himself.

I thought all the multiple camera angles were kind of cool but didn't necessarily add up to all that much profundity, so in fairness here's an actual art critic (Françoise Parfait) to argue otherwise:

The word “deadpan” originally described a game, then a person with an impassive wit and irony. The reference to Buster Keaton partly explains this term, because, in this installation, Steve McQueen draws inspiration from and uses part of the storm sequence in Steamboat Bill Jr., (1928) in which the façade of a wooden house falls onto the actor who is “miraculously” saved by the aperture of a window that happens to be open. The video is projected onto a vast screen measuring 3 x 4 metres, filling the entire wall of a darkened room, where the shiny floor reflects the image, thus creating a symmetrical fold. As is often the case in Steve McQueen’s work, the viewer is literally made to walk into the image and become immersed in it. A dozen shots with different merits and angles are edited using a cinematographic aesthetic (black-and-white, light, rigorous construction of image and frame) and a cinematographic rhetoric, alternating establishing shots, waist shots and close-ups of the motionless artist, subjected to the repeated collapse of the expanse of wood with the hole made by the window which he fits into. The head-on face, where the eyes stare into the viewer’s eyes, remains impassive, but is permeated by a slight flinch when the façade violently frames it. The gag of the original is swiftly defused and diverted; the reference to silent movies and entertainment films (often found in McQueen’s work, for he also has film training under his belt) is duplicated by a reference to the anthropometric portrait conjured up by the close-up of the face and its specific lighting, reinforced by the streaked lighting of the background. Steve McQueen’s black male body, reframed in relation to Buster Keaton’s white male body, relates back to depictions of black identity, which are often not included in prevailing models. So the issue is raised thus: at what risk can one be in the frame and, above all, remain in it? At the risk of elimination, exclusion and disappearance.... In Steve McQueen’s work, the frame defines the space of the body, the space of private life, the space of social representation and thereby the place of identity. It is never a foregone conclusion. The last shot shows the wooden wall falling onto the screen and making it completely dark; it gives the impression of burying onlookers in their own space, which is also the space of the image’s reflection. The screen wall of the exhibition room thus merges with the wall in the fiction film. The installation’s arrangement here enjoys its full ironical sense, by directly involving the viewer in the representation.  

I guess you could read all that into it, or maybe not... though it would be nice if she had a fuller understanding of the term "deadpan."

I can't show you the whole piece because there's nothing on the web except the "trailer" below, and they don't allow cameras in the installation. This restriction would make more sense if the installation were truly the "immersive" piece described above, but it wasn't. While the video did fill up an entire wall, it was not reflected on a shiny floor, so you never felt like you were actually inside the experience. You were just watching a video on a wall. Here's the slimmest of excerpts:

Unfortunately, that doesn't give you any idea of McQueen's variations on the theme, but if you get to Chicago by January 6, 2013, you can see for yourself.

500 Clown Frankenstein

Adrian Danzig, Dean Evans & Leah Urzendowski

The next day brought another visitation from Keaton's ghost when I finally got a chance to catch a performance by Chicago's long-standing company, 500 Clown, their three-clown reenactment of Frankenstein, which has been in their repertoire for a decade or so. Here's the program description:

Three Clowns embark on a madcap journey to construct Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. Bound in elaborate Edwardian costumes, they struggle through acrobatic feats in an extended battle with an unruly table. The Clowns stitch together the tale of the Doctor and the Monster from scraps of the classic novel and various Hollywood versions, inviting audience involvement throughout. Comic mayhem takes a sharp turn towards a devastating climax when one clown, forced into the tragic role of Shelley’s Creature, suffers abuse and abandonment.

This is one of those clown parodies that is less a satire of the original material than it is a saga of the valiant attempt of clowns to work together to coherently present a story. But being clowns, they will thankfully take us on many detours, which of course is the whole point. This they do quite well and the audience I sat in was merrily involved the whole way.

Now you all know my physical comedy radar is on 24/7, and some of you may even remember I did a long post dedicated to table tricks, so you won't be surprised to learn that I was happy to see 500 Clown's extensive use of the table pictured above as a major prop; apparently it has appeared in at least one of their other productions as well. This is a heavy, sturdy wooden table with a hinged top and leaves that can be added to each side, features that allow it to be configured in countless ways, including operating table and guillotine. Only some of those ways involve it being in a "normal" position.

This hit home with me not just because of the many uses they find for the table — what Time Out Chicago called "outrageous humor and apeshit acrobatics" — but because you can tell that a lot of their material grew out of just playing with all these possibilities. And that's my point. Comedy material can originate with anything — an improvisation, a character, a silly premise — but there are also riches to be found by starting with an exploration of the physical world. As I said in that earlier table post, "when I teach physical comedy, I like to play with this material world as much as possible, with oddball characters at odds with one another, and with all kinds of man-made stuff — chairs and tables, stairs and doors, walls and windows, and with every object that dares challenge our pride with the label unbreakable." In the case of 500 Clown Frankenstein, this one prop becomes the anchor for an entire show.

First a promo video for the show with some table action, and then I promise to bring this back around to Buster Keaton.

Once again you don't see it in the video, but then I told you these were appearances by Keaton's ghost. Somewhere in the middle of all the mayhem, 500 Clown does Keaton's house collapse with the table! The extended table is on end and topples over so that the opening passes over the head of one of the clowns, just like in Steamboat Bill, Jr. True it's not as spectacular nor nearly as dangerous as Keaton's stunt, but it's imaginative, visually stunning, and a nice homage to the great master.

And after a weekend of wholesome physical comedy fun in Chicago, an erotic footnote. (Knew that'd get your attention!) Back in New York, I caught the intense South African production of Mies Julie at St. Ann's Warehouse. There were no ghosts of Buster Keaton in sight, but there sure was another table, though the only acrobatics on this one were sexual.

And if you know Strindberg's original play, you can imagine how oh-so-serious and emotionally charged it all was. And me, I couldn't help hoping the table would tip over at the height of passion and introduce the barely clad characters into fresh possibilities, thereby ushering in a new era of sexual physical comedy. Send in the clowns!

1 comment:

Tanya Solomon said...

Saw the McQueen thing in NYC a while back. Snooooooze. It's amazing what artists with conceptual statements can get away with.