by Raju Peddada
Monuments of Civilization: Analysis of Classics - Part II
Read Part I of this essay.
"The older Keaton got, the more one could see eternity in his look."
—Robert Benayoun, French film critic and author
"Tragedy is a closeup; comedy, a long shot."
(Swans - November 7, 2011) Buster Keaton had never known literacy, and it did not matter. He was a visual genius, the product of powerful instincts, physical action, and experience rather than words, with a clear and unique perspective, honed as a vaudeville action star, alongside his parents. A stage star at three years old, Keaton had had thirty years' worth of experience by the time he was fifteen. He was the acrobat that his father was looking for to complete their act. The theater was his home, as well as his school, and a veritable mine for acts that he resurrected in his films. Keaton, Sr. would throw a young Buster against the theater backdrop, which he then recaptured in "Steamboat Bill, Jr." in 1928; and another funny one was where he tries to pull a broom out of a knothole in the stage floor, a routine he revives in the "Playhouse" from 1921.
Keaton's vaudeville act faded by the time he was a young man, around 1915, under stiff competition from the new film industry. Serendipitously, Keaton ran into Roscoe Arbuckle (1887-1933) on the streets of New York around that time, who then persuaded a reluctant Keaton to appear in his two-reeled (film) shorts. "Fatty" Arbuckle was perhaps the original manufacturer of comedic films as an actor and director. He was the one who really gave us Keaton and Bob Hope. Though Keaton realized it later, going from a vaudeville act to films was the most natural transition for him, which he acknowledged by saying: "The greatest thing to me about picture making was the way it automatically did away with the physical limitations of the theater." Arbuckle, in 1920, transitioned to feature-length comedies at his Comique Studios, giving Keaton full freedom to create his own two-reelers, as well as appear in a feature-length film called "The Saphead" based on a Douglas Fairbanks Broadway hit. Keaton's luck was about to attain another dimension. Arbuckle, who had left the Keystone Studios, owned by Mack Sennett, brought along with him his cameraman, Elgin Lessley, who would eventually become the key that unlocked Keaton's genius.
Lessley's deft improvisational free-style cinematography yielded great compositions, angles, and long shots. In fact, the laser disc format allowed me to freeze any of Lessley's shots that looked like either the compositions by Louis-Jacques Mande Daguerre (French, 1801-87) Charles Negre (French, 1820-80), or Felice A. Beato (British, 1825-1907). Lessley, like the gentlemen above, was an aesthetic pioneer in photographing the human landscape and condition, in all its pathos. Keaton's improvisational and directorial genius, and his cinematographer's vision, was a potent combination that resulted in all the classics we have today. We also cannot ignore a key figure in Buster Keaton's development, his father, the consummate vaudevillian, Joe Keaton.
Experience was Keaton's best teacher, but more than anything, his father was the real molder of junior's talent. You can catch a glimpse of Joe Keaton in Buster's 1923 classic, "Our Hospitality," in which he kicks a hat off a man's head with one leg, while standing still with the other. In the 1925 masterpiece "Go West," he is seen in the shop window grabbing hold of the hooks on a rickety hat stand in a panic, and swinging himself atop it, all the while teetering precariously, long enough to prove that the stand wasn't attached to the floor. While watching "Go West" it was my older son, Butch, who discovered this minute nugget of a scene, and flagged me down to replay it. Indeed, after watching it again, I was astounded at the seemingly routine slap-stick scene, yet, profoundly inferential and metaphoric, and in the articulation of the act by the performer. It encapsulated how panic rendered a brain completely irrational, incoherent, and paralytic, as well as all the balancing a life demands. This is, perhaps, one of the best scenes I had ever watched, and Keaton films are replete with staged visual nuggets like this that appear utterly spontaneous. And, how did they ever manage the huge herd of cows in a town setting?
"I've simply been brought up being knocked down."
Buster Keaton was the father of action films, and his genius is evident in his intimate repertoire that fielded ropes, toy canons, fishing poles, ice cream scoops, and chimneys, but he was the true master of illusion-reality in wide open spaces in the long shots. Large, death-defying mechanical tricks were filmed with a dry documentary perspective that imprinted on our minds as reality, which was Lessley's mastery. Buster Keaton had once acknowledged the cinematographic brilliance of Elgin Lessley by quipping, "The best cameraman in the picture business." An absolute understatement, as far as what Lessley had meant to Keaton. Simply put, Lessley was the agent that made Buster Keaton's brilliance transcendental, transgenerational, and immortal.
We get a glimpse of Keaton's acrobatic genius when the camera pulls away for a long shot that shows his comedic oeuvre, with motorcycles, automobiles, bridges, trains, rivers, armies, and mountain valleys. Critic James Agee says "... it seems that the whole universe is in exquisite flying motion and the point of repose is the juggler's effortless, uninterested face." In fact, the stony, expressionless face counterbalanced his body, which voluminously spoke not only on his behalf, but ours too. Keaton delivered his dialogue by distorting and convoluting his body for clarity. On the other hand, any polite vacuity or hypocritical platitude got annihilated under that direct, straight-forward stare. Lessley, in his long or short compositions in the films, mirrored Keaton's penetrating gaze and unblinking vision, capturing the prevalent pathos in aesthetically discerning iconic moving images.
"His face looks straight at us out of his serious brown eyes in an almost disconcerting fashion"
—Peg Talmadge, Natalie Talmadge's mother, and Buster Keaton's mother-in-law.
Watching a Buster Keaton movie is a very special treat. It is not simply some comic action to pass the time, it is actually seeing the gilded age in action, as it dissolved into modernity of the roaring twenties. You can manifestly witness a vanishing culture on the brink, their dusty streets trampled by the horses as well as the earliest automobiles. You can see the developing towns, alongside rivers and railroad tracks, powered by menacing steam engines. And, streets flanked by new electric poles, with rudimentary fire and postal services; how they ate, dressed, and behaved. It was fascinating to see some really old folks in these films who must have been alive during the Civil War as Lincoln's contemporaries. Someone born in 1845 probably fought in the war, and would have been 75 when Keaton started to make his films. More than his inescapable sardonic humor, it's the visual history that always arrested me. You can actually smell the streets and hear their sounds.
Manufacturing humor is the hardest of all performing arts. It mandates a knowledge of human behavior in all its iterations, and Buster Keaton had experienced enough to articulate all of our incongruity-incoherence, with his improvisations. Keaton's seminal classic "The General" has many scenes that are indelibly iconic. In the beginning of the movie, after Keaton's character is unable to enlist in the army, his future father-in-law, who along with his son had enlisted, comes home to see his mail, and as he goes through his mail, tossing away worthless stuff, he, in the same flow of action, tosses off Keaton's framed picture leaning against the vase in disgust, next to the letters. The compressed potency in that simple unassuming act spoke volumes about how he felt about his daughter's suitor, Johnnie Gray, Keaton's character. In all earnestness, Keaton's humor had an inverse seriousness to it -- it was a reductionist satire of a society that was taking itself too seriously.
Who can forget Keaton as the general, struggling to get the wooden ties off of the tracks, sitting on the cowcatcher in front of the engine? Twenty-nine minutes into the movie we see a long shot that shows half the frame below, with Keaton cutting wood on the tender, behind the engine in the foreground, topped by the shot of the retreating army in the valley setting, with hamlets whizzing by in the distance. This cinematographic treat lasts for about 3 minutes, and those who miss it are missing a lot, and possibly are ignorant of cinematographic aesthetics. The smoking boxcar scene and the collapsing bridge under the train are not only extravagant, but charged of action. They were able to capture the texture, the mood, the atmosphere, and eventually the pathos of an era long vanished.
One scene in particular, rather hard to describe, but to me is a visual cake. It is when Keaton manages to hide under the dining table, while the union officers plot the situation, and while this is happening a cigar held by a union officer burns a hole in the tablecloth, and through this smoldering hole Keaton is able to see his kidnapped girlfriend. The metaphoric hole becomes a romantic vignette, seemingly conveying his burning love, as well as the danger of the situation. What made the texture and beauty come alive was great filmmaking fundamentals -- two-thirds in composition, and the beauty in asymmetry with the hole being off center, and the texture of the tablecloth.
One of my favorite films is the "Neighbors" from 1920, simply because of Joe Roberts's work. The film opens up with a scene where young lovers, Keaton and Virginia Fox, exchange a love note through the wooden fence, when all of the sudden the girl's father, Roberts, sniffs it out and swaggers over, and quickly confiscates the note from his daughter's hand, reacting horrifically after reading it. Roberts's facial expressions, his all-knowing swagger over to his daughter, and the way he confiscates the note is nothing but vaudevillian artistry at its pinnacle. The exaggerated movements, and the prefect pitch and use of his body, is what elicits fits of laughter. Roberts did not require the aid of visual gags or mechanical tricks to consummate humor; his body itself was the gag and the trick that he managed to deploy with absolute perfection.
One of the most complex comic sequences ever filmed, in "Neighbors," begins with Keaton trying to wake up a snoozing Roberts, the girl's father, by goading hammer taps on the forehead, which leads the man to wake up and chase Keaton through the door. As Roberts's character runs through the door, a swiveling wood plank, hinged in the center atop the door frame, built by Keaton, swings up rapidly after being pushed up by the door, sending the plank's aft down to slam the buttocks of whoever was passing through, in this case Roberts. Just the combination of Roberts's body language in reaction to the mechanical gag is something to behold. What ensues from that point on is a comic melee of neighbors, friends, black men, and policemen, in a cycle of raucous action after being hit by the swiveling plank, resulting in blame, accusations, and action... utterly inexplicable, but pure comic cacophony that becomes unbearable in laughter. Just magnificent!
Joe Roberts (1871-1923) was a member of the Summer Actors Colony for vaudevillians between Lake Michigan and Muskegon Lake, founded by Joe Keaton. Roberts became friends with the family there, and was eventually inducted into the film shorts that Buster Keaton made as an independent. Roberts became the comic essence in all movies he made with Keaton.
There are simply many gloriously high-contrast comic sequences, along with melancholic long shots by Lessley that don't call attention to themselves -- you only hear the audience imploding in cheer. We must see films like "The Navigator," "Seven Chances," "Go West," "Neighbors," "Our Hospitality" and "The General" to really understand what creative genius really means. The beauty lies not only in the performances, but also in the fundamentally sound craftsmanship. Most of these films were never scripted, which is why they looked very spontaneous. Keaton improvised constantly, developing his film through his vaudeville experience, in designing a gag-stunt for the audience. He often claimed "I always wanted an audience to outguess me... so I can double cross them." His cinematographer knew damn well to keep rolling the camera till Keaton said "cut!"
Keaton was largely left to his own devices by his then-boss, Joseph Schenck, in the mid twenties, as his films demanded bigger budgets and became more expressive, personal, and humorous. Narrative confidence poured out of him in this medium. This kind of freedom in today's micromanaged studio milieu is pure fantasy. Finally, Buster Keaton simply goes beyond the business of comic relief, into the presentation of a deadpan determinism, capturing humorous fatalism that make his films infinitely mysterious and elementally haunting. This forgotten auteur lived and flourished in comedy's defining era, carving out his own Mount Rushmore. Fortunately, Raymond Rohauer, a resourceful film collector, convinced Keaton to collect and preserve the rights, and reissue the prints of his greatest silents. Buster Keaton eventually saw his own rediscovery while alive, at the Venice Film Festival in 1965, to voluminous and repeated acclamation. In a wonderful inverse irony, Keaton defied real death in many of his dangerous stunts and tricks, and in doing so, he managed to defeat his own vulnerability and mortality, and defeat itself -- now, that is real genius.
Watch the touching "Buster & Eleanor Keaton, Tribute "
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)