Because mo’ Buster is mo’ better.
A few days ago I curated the following essay by Charles Simic on Buster Keaton over at the Daily Beast. Check it out, won’t you?
Comedy is about timing, faultless timing. It’s not so much what the story is about, but the way it is told, with its twists and surprises, that makes it humorous. Keaton draws a hook with chalk on the wall and hangs his coat on it. A brat in the theater drops his half-sucked lollipop from the balcony on an elegant lady in a box who picks it up and uses it as a lorgnette. The hangman uses a blindfold intended for the victim to polish the medal on his jacket. The shorts, especially, are full of such wild inventions. No other silent-film comic star was as ingenious.
Among hundreds of examples from Keaton’s films, one of my favorites comes from the short Cops. At the annual New York City policemen’s parade, Buster and his horse and wagon find themselves in the midst of the marching cops. Buster wants to light a cigarette, and is searching his pockets for matches, when a bomb thrown by an anarchist from a rooftop lands next to him on the seat with its short fuse already sizzling. There’s a pause, “an inspiring pause,” as Twain says, building itself to a deep hush. When it has reached its proper duration, Buster picks up the bomb absentmindedly, lights his cigarette with it as if this were the most normal thing to do, and throws it back over his head.
The short Cops is paradigmatic Keaton. Again, the plot is simplicity itself. In the opening scene we see Buster behind bars. The bars turn out to belong to the garden gate of the house of a girl he is in love with. “I won’t marry you till you become a businessman,” she tells him. Off he goes, through a series of adventures, first with a fat police detective in a rush to grab a taxi, the contents of whose wallet end up in Buster’s hands. Next, he is conned by a stranger who sells him a load of furniture on the sidewalk, pretending he is a starving man being evicted. The actual owner of the furniture and his family are simply moving to another location. When Buster starts to load the goods into the wagon he has just bought, the owner mistakes him for the moving man they’ve been expecting. His trip across town through the busy traffic culminates when he finds himself at the head of the police parade passing the flag-draped reviewing stand where the chief of police, the mayor, and the young woman he met at the garden gate are watching in astonishment. Still, the crowd is cheering, and he thinks it’s for him. After he tosses the anarchist’s bomb and it explodes, all hell breaks loose. “Get some cops to protect our policemen,” the mayor orders the chief of police. People run for cover, the streets empty, the entire police force takes after the diminutive hero.
What an irony! Starting with love and his desire to better himself and impress the girl he adores, all he gets in return is endless trouble. It’s the comic asymmetry between his extravagant hope and the outcome that makes the plot here. The early part of the movie, with its quick shuffle of gags, gives the misleading impression of a series of small triumphs over unfavorable circumstances. Just when Buster thinks he has his bad luck finally conquered, disaster strikes again. The full force of law and order, as it were, descends on his head. Innocent as he is, he is being pursued by hundreds of policemen. Whatever he attempts to do, all his stunts and clever evasions, come to nothing because he cannot outrun his destiny. After a long chase, he ends up, unwittingly, at the very door of a police precinct. The cops are converging on him from all sides like angry hornets, blurring the entrance in their frenzy to lay their nightsticks on him, but incredibly Buster crawls between the legs of the last cop, he himself now dressed in a policeman’s uniform. Suddenly alone on the street, he pulls a key out of his pocket, locks the precinct’s door from the outside, and throws the key into a nearby trashcan. At that moment, the girl he is smitten with struts by. He looks soulfully at her, but she lifts her nose even higher and walks on. Buster hesitates for a moment, then goes to the trashcan and retrieves the key. “No guise can protect him now that his heart has been trampled on,” Gabriella Oldham says in her magnificent study of Keaton’s shorts. At the end of the film, we see him unlocking the door and being pulled by hundreds of policemen’s hands into the darkness of the building.
What makes Keaton unforgettable is the composure and dignity he maintains in the face of what amounts to a deluge of misfortune in this and his other films. It’s more than anyone can bear, we think. Still, since it’s the American Dream Buster is pursuing, we anticipate a happy ending, or at least the hero having the last laugh. That’s rarely the case. Keaton’s films, despite their laughs, have a melancholy air. When a lone tombstone with Buster’s porkpie hat resting on it accompanies the end in Cops, we are disconcerted. The images of him running down the wide, empty avenue, of his feeble attempt to disguise himself by holding his clip-on tie under his nose to simulate a mustache and goatee, are equally poignant. Let’s see if we can make our fate laugh, is his hope. Comedy at such a high level says more about the predicament of the ordinary individual in the world than tragedy does. If you seek true seriousness and you suspect that it is inseparable from laughter, then Buster Keaton ought to be your favorite philosopher.
In the winter of 1997 I was in L.A. on a job. I invited a woman to see a Buster Keaton movie at a place called Old Town Music Hall. She stood me up, but I went anyway and had one of the greatest nights of my life. I recently visited L.A. and went back to see another Buster movie at the Music Hall. Good to know such a place exists, you know?
[Photo Credit: Ambitus Orchestra]
Hey, there’s a new mayor. If you’ve read too much about it you might feel like our man Buster here.
Writing in the New York Times, here’s Oliver Sacks on the Joy of Old Age:
Eighty! I can hardly believe it. I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize it is almost over. My mother was the 16th of 18 children; I was the youngest of her four sons, and almost the youngest of the vast cousinhood on her side of the family. I was always the youngest boy in my class at high school. I have retained this feeling of being the youngest, even though now I am almost the oldest person I know.
I thought I would die at 41, when I had a bad fall and broke a leg while mountaineering alone. I splinted the leg as best I could and started to lever myself down the mountain, clumsily, with my arms. In the long hours that followed, I was assailed by memories, both good and bad. Most were in a mode of gratitude — gratitude for what I had been given by others, gratitude, too, that I had been able to give something back. “Awakenings” had been published the previous year.
At nearly 80, with a scattering of medical and surgical problems, none disabling, I feel glad to be alive — “I’m glad I’m not dead!” sometimes bursts out of me when the weather is perfect. (This is in contrast to a story I heard from a friend who, walking with Samuel Beckett in Paris on a perfect spring morning, said to him, “Doesn’t a day like this make you glad to be alive?” to which Beckett answered, “I wouldn’t go as far as that.”) I am grateful that I have experienced many things — some wonderful, some horrible — and that I have been able to write a dozen books, to receive innumerable letters from friends, colleagues and readers, and to enjoy what Nathaniel Hawthorne called “an intercourse with the world.”
“The tendency among spoilsport sportswriters is to make it all so so elegiac and bittersweet—to like us to see our own lives (easier for men, of course) in these [minor leaguers’] prospects; to make it all a gooey-nostalgic allegory for trying and failing while still young, an emblem for rum life lived well instead of just being an emblem for itself—is baloney and I’m not wrong about it. Believe me, I don’t see myself in those boys’ lives. They’re not my vicars, and I don’t fantasize—at least not about them. I go to the game to quit thinking about my life, to sit and stare at a pleasant field I know on which is played a game I also know by players whose lives, wives, drug and betting habits, childhood tragedies, and religious infatuations I don’t know and don’t want to. I’m just there to watch, to be pleased, maybe even thrilled, but not, God help me, to take moral instruction.”
Richard Ford, “A Minors Affair” [excerpt] (Harper’s, September 1992)
Thanks to the excellent site, It’s a Long Season, for the picture of Buster and the quote.
Need a pick-me-up?
Charlie Chaplin’s bum is at the mercy of a cruel world. Keaton, with his impassive face and a hat flat as a pancake, is a stoic. He confronts one setback after another with serenity worthy of a Buddhist monk. In one short film, “The Goat” (1921) he’s standing on the sidewalk behind two tailor’s dummies, under the impression that they are at the end of a bread line. When he discovers his mistake, he moves on quietly.
Keaton’s movies were a big success in Europe since his type of comedy doesn’t need a translation. I first saw one of his shorts in occupied Belgrade during the Second World War. I liked him instantly. His films are full of remarkable acrobatic stunts. Keaton started out in vaudeville when he was four years old working with his parents, whose comedy act included a lot of roughhousing; he was thrown by his father across the stage and sometimes even at the hecklers in the audience.
Ah, Buster. My hero.
Here’s James Agee on our man Buster:
Very early in [Keaton's] movie career friends asked him why he never smiled on the screen. He didn’t realize he didn’t. He had got the dead-pan habit in variety; on the screen he had merely been so hard at work it had never occurred to him there was anything to smile about. Now he tried it just once and never again. He was by his whole style and nature so much the most deeply “silent” of the silent comedians that even a smile was as deafeningly out of key as a yell. In a way his pictures are like a transcendent juggling act in which it seems that the whole universe is in exquisite flying motion and the one point of repose is the juggler’s effortless, uninterested face.
Keaton’s face ranked almost with Lincoln’s as an early American archetype; it was haunting, handsome, almost beautiful, yet it was irreducibly funny; he improved matters by topping it off with a deadly horizontal hat, as flat and thin as a phonograph record. One can never forget Keaton wearing it, standing erect at the prow as his little boat is being launched. The boat goes grandly down the skids and, just as grandly, straight on to the bottom. Keaton never budges. The last you see of him, the water lifts the hat off the stoic head and it floats away.
…Much of the charm and edge of Keaton’s comedy, however, lay in the subtle leverages of expression he could work against his nominal dead pan. Trapped in the side-wheel of a ferryboat, saving himself from drowning only by walking, then desperately running, inside the accelerating wheel like a squirrel in a cage, his only real concern was, obviously, to keep his hat on. Confronted by Love, he was not as deadpan as he was cracked up to be, either; there was an odd, abrupt motion of his head which suggested a horse nipping after a sugar lump.
Keaton worked strictly for laughs, but his work came from so far inside a curious and original spirit that he achieved a great deal besides, especially in his feature-length comedies. (For plain hard laughter his nineteen short comedies — the negatives of which have been lost — were even better.) He was the only major comedian who kept sentiment almost entirely out of his work, and he brought pure physical comedy to its greatest heights. Beneath his lack of emotion he was also uninsistently sardonic; deep below that, giving a disturbing tension and grandeur to the foolishness, for those who sensed it, there was in his comedy a freezing whisper not of pathos but of melancholia. With the humor, the craftsmanship and the action there was often, besides, a fine, still and sometimes dreamlike beauty. Much of his Civil War picture The General is within hailing distance of Mathew Brady. And there is a ghostly, unforgettable moment in The Navigator when, on a deserted, softly rolling ship, all the pale doors along a deck swing open as one behind Keaton and, as one, slam shut, in a hair-raising illusion of noise.
Perhaps because “dry’ comedy is so much more rare and odd than “dry” wit, there are people who never much cared for Keaton. Those who do cannot care mildly.
Oh, yeah. And Buster loved baseball too.
What do I know from tonight’s games? I don’t know dick, frankly, because The Wife was watching “Dancing with the Stars.” But I followed along on the computer, at least to check the scores, and saw some of the video highlights. What I learned was that Russell Martin was thrown out of the game while behind the plate for arguing balls and strikes. I know that the Yankees caught two runners stealing in one play and that Desmond Jennings made a spectacular catch in left field. Oh, and I learned that aside from Robinson Cano’s two hits, including a first inning home run, James Shield had his way with the Yanks. He lasted until two outs in the ninth, walked Eric Chavez and our old chum Kyle Farmaduke got the final out.
Final Score: Rays 5, Yanks 2.
I also know that Josh Beckett spit the bit, giving up six runs–an inside the park home run was the icing on the gravy–and now the Sox and Rays are tied for the wild card with two games left in the season.
Fat men can dance. In honor of David Ortiz, who busted a move last night after hitting a home run, here is the great Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (featuring our man Buster):
When I was sixteen the Regency Theater on the Upper West Side ran a Buster Keaton-Charlie Chaplin-Woody Allen revival for a few months. That was my introduction to Buster and it was love at first sight. I adore Chaplin too but Buster speaks to me in a more direct, personal way.
There’s a wonderful article on Buster by Jana Prikryl in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books. If you are not familiar with Buster, this here is a fine introduction:
More than fifty years have passed since critics rediscovered Buster Keaton and pronounced him the most “modern” silent film clown, a title he hasn’t shaken since. In his own day he was certainly famous but never commanded the wealth or popularity of Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd, and he suffered most when talkies arrived. It may be that later stars like Cary Grant and Paul Newman and Harrison Ford have made us more susceptible to Keaton’s model of offhand stoicism than his own audiences were. Seeking for his ghost is a fruitless business, though; for one thing, film comedy today has swung back toward the sappy, blatant slapstick that Keaton disdained. There’s some “irony” in what Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler do, but it’s irony that clamors to win the identification of the supposedly browbeaten everyman in every audience. Keaton took your average everyman and showed how majestically alone he was.
Very early in his movie career friends asked him why he never smiled on the screen. He didn’t he realzie he didn’t. He had got the dead-pan habit in variety; on the screen he had merely been so hard at work it had never occured to him there was anything to smile about. Now he tried it just once and never again. He was by his whole style and nature so much the most “silent” of the silent comedians that even a smile was as deafeningly out of key as a yell. In a way his pictures are like a transcendent juggling act in which it seems that the whole universe is in exquisite flying motion and the one point of repose is the juggler’s effortless, uninterested face.
Starting tonight, the Film Forum is hosting The Best of Buster Keaton. They will be showing a Buster movie, along with a couple of two-reelers, every Monday for the rest of the summer. Tonight gives Buster’s first feature for MGM–and arguably, his last good movie: “The Cameraman.” It’s worth seeing on the big screen for many reasons (the pool scene), not the least of which is this gorgeous sequence filmed at the original Yankee Stadium.
It ain’t that bad, chum. Cliff’s got the preview.
Never mind the pity party:
Let’s Go Yank-ees!