32. The General

The GeneralDecember 22, 1926
United Artists
Directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman

In Seven Chances he was a man who couldn’t stop running. At first no one would talk to him, but as soon as he figured out what to do, no one would leave him alone. They were all after him. Every woman in the town, along with rocks of every size. The mechanisms of the entire world, animate and inanimate, all on his tail, and all he wanted was to find his place.

Well actually, he already has his little place, what he wants is more than that. Unlike Chaplin’s tramp, Keaton plays characters who have a place in society, but are determined to move up. Ascend the social hierarchy. Work the system. But working the social system is always more complicated than it looks, as more and more elements are drawn into the struggle, until our aspiring hero must contend with mastering the physical world itself.

In the General, where his beloved woman, played by Marion Mack, is kidnapped by a band of enemy soldiers hijacking his beloved steam locomotive engine, the mastery needed is speed. He must chase down, overtake, and win back his own engine (and lady). Though many of the death-courting stunts Buster plays on the tracks were thought of on the fly, the movie is perfectly symmetrical. He makes a series of mishaps while chasing the General north (to the left of the screen), and then perfectly executes the same actions escaping south (to the right). At the top and center of this cannonball arc is the moment when he must break his woman free from the Union headquarters. At this single moment of rest, he observes the woman through the cigarhole of the tablecloth. It’s a clear allusion to a camera’s aperture that simulates the cinematic gaze. Through the tablecloth hole, she is all he can can see, and he sees her while remaining unobserved. In this moment, her worth is made so clear and powerful that he can do nothing else but make every effort possible to get her back.

He does, and his daring success wins him the love of his woman and an army commission. He has found his place as a soldier, which is to say his function. For in the Newtonian world of mechanics that provides the ontological mythology of Capitalism, it is not what a something is that matters, only what it does. A man is the sum of his actions. This question of the value of man is the principal difference between Chaplin and Keaton. Charlie’s ethical position is rooted in the Catholic belief in the inherent value of a human despite his deplorable condition. His successes result from accidents and dei ex machinis. Buster is never given that grace. He must always remain industrious, propel himself forward, never at rest.

And it goes for his woman as well. For there was more than physical beauty in that image he stole from under the dining room table. Once rescued, it is she that removes the pin allowing the engine to detach from the train and escape the camp, and she who sets a rope trap that delays the pursuing train for a few seconds. And because it’s comedy, he takes it too far. Tasked with stoking the furnace, she rejects the ugly log with a hole in it and replaces it with dainty sliver. Buster throttles her for a second before remembering himself, and gives her a kiss instead. Their domestic harmony is assured.

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25. Seven Chances

March 11, 1925
Metro-Goldwyn
Directed by Buster Keaton

Seven Fascinating Things about Seven Chances

1. The Color
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Credits blast onto the screen in two-strip Technicolor, lime green text on a wood-brown background. Buster as James Shannon stands with a lovely woman, a puppy between them, in the door of a white picket fence. Roses are in full bloom. As the suburbs pass quickly through all the colors of the four seasons, the warm red hues of damaged film flood the frame from the left and right. He can’t get the words out to his girlfriend to tell her he loves her and wants her forever. Before we know it, the scene changes, and Buster is back at the office. The color is gone. Time has passed him by.

2. The Text
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Shannon stands to inherit $7,000,000, but on condition he is married by 7:00 pm on his 27th birthday, which is today. Time is running out. It shouldn’t be a problem, but he is still unable to talk about love. The main conflict of this movie is communication gone wrong, and what follows is a series of delays caused by a general inability to communicate. When he tries to propose to his fiancee next words come out wrong and she storms off offended. Once inside, she talks about it to her mother and realizes she was too rash. She reaches for the phone to call him at work, but Shannon has knocked the phone off the hook.

What is significant about all of these communication failures to a modern audience is that they couldn’t happen anymore, and could no longer move a plot forward. It’s simply far too easy now to get a hold of anyone who’s already in your social circle. She writes him a note and gives it to a messenger with a horse, effectively sending him an old-fashioned text.

3. The New Woman
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The operator Miss Smith, played by Jean Arthur, doesn’t take shit from any of the men at the office. When she takes Mary’s call, she’s reading a book. When a rejected Shannon returns to the office, he accidently opens the door to the operator’s workspace, and she glares at him while he finds he way out. The device that moves the plot forward is unreliability of modern communication, but what moves the story forward is the tremendous male anxiety at the new status of women in modernity. Since his fiancee has rejected him, Shannon is forced to find a woman to marry at a moment’s notice, with only his partner and lawyer to help. Now this shouldn’t be hard, considering that he stands to be worth seven million, but women have more options now. It’s far easier to say no, which is what the seven women that Shannon knows proceed to do, and they collectively laugh in his face. He has to start asking women he doesn’t know. Most hilarious is the hat check girl, played by Rosalind Byrne with a stone face of her own. She’s only trying to do her job, but must deal with the clueless and obnoxious Shannon. We know he’s eventually going to have to ask her. The look she gives as she shakes her head, contemptuous and tired, releases the comic tension of the first half.

4. The Driver
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Having struck out with the women in his upper class social circle, he and his partners split up, each agreeing to meet at the Broad St. church at 5:00 with a bride. Shannon drives off in his roadster, and his next target is a woman not only driving, but driving the same car! The camera tracks from other vehicles driving alongside. He begins his courtship and distracted, he crashes. After a shot of the crash, the camera returns to track the woman looking behind her, and she turns her head back around just in time to swerve out of the way of a parked pickup truck. I’ve watched this four-second shot over and over in marvel. Little seems to be known about the woman who plays this role that combines both comic expression and a dazzling dangerous stunt, all of which is over and forgotten in seconds, as Buster is already after the next one.

5. The Photographic Image
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His partner had the good sense to take out a newspaper advertisement (top front page) that plainly states his case. It includes a photograph of the man worth $7 million. Buster, admitting defeat, shows up to the church empty-handed and passes out on the first aisle, and by 5:00 the entire church is full of hopeful women wearing makeshift wedding gowns. They take no notice of him in the aisle until they match his picture to the photographic image in the newspaper, and the magical moment of modern reflection is made.

6. What Time Is It?vlcsnap-2015-10-23-22h04m10s254

After waking and seeing the church full of women who could either devour him in affections or tear him apart, Buster makes his escape, and runs through the streets of town, trying to find how much time he still has left. His attempts to discern the time are thwarted, climaxing in a scene where he finds a clock maker’s store, and the camera pans across the storefront window, full of clocks all showing different times. Even inside the store, no clock agrees with any other, as if he has left the temporal world. Such is the vertiginous feeling of not knowing the time in a modern world ruled by the precision of the clock. The clock is perhaps even more important than the engine in differentiating the modern industrial world from the feudal one. He still has a chance, if he can get a marriage by 7. But what time is it now, can you please tell me? Is it too late for me?

7. The Indifference of the Physical Worldvlcsnap-2015-10-23-22h21m39s87

You can see it in the chase scene, where in addition to fleeing from the mob of women, he must also flee the path of tumbling boulders. Individual people have wills of their own – they can be reasoned with and persuaded. A mob is trickier – the mass will is unlikely to change once it gets going. But the rocks cannot be reasoned with at all – they are solely the product of mechanics. Force equals Mass times Acceleration. And even crueller than the forces of gravity is the cruelty of time. What drives this movie is time’s sheer disregard for us. Time keeps moving forward despite our petty desires. Getting older is the most obvious form of the cruelty of this indifferent process. 27 an especially difficult age. Shannon finds himself back at the house he started the movie from, where time continued to pass him by, and it’s 7:02. But fuck that, they get married anyway. And lo! It’s actually 6:59. It has never been too late.

22. The Navigator

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October 13, 1924
Metro-Goldwyn
Directed by Buster Keaton and Donald Crisp

Having proved himself in the mountains, against the waterfall, as well as in the relations of society, and even within his own psyche, the Navigator strands Keaton in the sea. That immortal adversary of man. But now he is set with a woman, who this time plays an actual partner. In Sherlock, Jr., the woman may have solved the mystery and closed the narrative, but in this movie she is right there at his side in the struggle, as the Kid was for Chaplin. And it’s a perfect parody of the explicitly socialist Kid, because this time it’s two rich individuals, male and female, who find themselves with a ship equipped with provisions meant to provide for the many. In a reverse fish-and-loaves scenario, the two individuals must somehow find a way to make use of the the food and shelter of the masses. How will they do it? Turns out it’s comically easy. When you’re rich, things fall into place for you. The deus ex machina is your lived experience.

The ship itself, the USAT Buford, has an interesting history. It was used for transport during the Spanish-American War and the Great War, and then after that it was used during the Red Scare to deport anarchists, communists, and other subversives. Among these esteemed passengers was American citizen Emma Goldman, who was handed over to the Soviet Union in 1920. She immediately began agitating there, fleeing west after the Kronstadt rebellion in 1921, publishing her story under the title “My Disillusionment in Russia.” Fred Gabourie, Keaton’s technical director, meaning he helped cinematically realize Keaton’s gags and stunts, was offered the ship for $2500, a deal he immediately took, and the entire movie was then built around this singular prop.

It’s not as immediately hilarious as the previous two features, but the gags are still fantastic, and one deserves special attention. The first night after our hero and the woman have boarded the ship and found themselves alone with each other, drifting aimless and clueless through the sea, they set off to their cabins for the night. After donning sailor uniforms as pajamas, the woman discovers that she shares her cabin with a frightening portrait of the captain that interferes with her ability to sleep. The only thing to do is throw it overboard, where it gets caught and dangles in front of Buster’s porthole. The portrait swings into and out of view and casts a menacing aspect through the dark at Keaton. The captain in the portrait is none other than Donald Crisp, who played Battlin’ Burrows in Broken Blossoms and is co-director of this film. It’s a marvelous moment of enunciation, where the co-director literally invades the space between Keaton and the woman he desires, frightens both of them, and provokes them into a higher pitch of comic tension.

21. Sherlock, Jr.

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April 21, 1924
Metro
Directed by Buster Keaton

In Our Hospitality, our unsmiling hero must prove his ability to survive both the struggle within a mechanized society as well as in the torrent of the natural world. But not satisfied, Keaton was able to take Sherlock, Jr. up one more level into the psychic world, where the hero must navigate his own desire. This is the first great movie to make explicit the essential connection between cinema and dreaming as spaces where we come face to face with our own desires.

The first two reels take place in the waking world, but the secret world of the libido is already highlighted from the beginning.He is reading a book about how to be a detective, and the camera pulls out to show that he is actually slacking on his real job, which is sweeping the floor of a cinema. But hidden in the pile of refuse he neglects lies money – Sherlock finds a dollar (good detecting!), but then the local street tough finds an entire wallet full of cash in that same pile that the hero missed.

In the third reel he falls asleep running the projector at his day job, which leads to the famous scene where the dreaming Keaton first steps through the frame into the film. After being ejected once, he tries again successfully, only to find himself in a montage of landscapes which he must maneuver. Now if Keaton were not on the screen, this progression of images would seem rather arbitrary and make no sense. The landscapes (a quiet garden, a busy street, a mountain ledge, a desert railroad track) do not follow each other in any meaningful way. But this is exactly how the libido works. There is no organic unity to desire – the libido is inorganic, pasting together disparate elements. This was Freud’s great discovery – there is no respect for the organic where desire is concerned. it is a death drive.

After this, the camera zooms in just enough for the frame of the screen to disappear, and the dream turns into a narrative, one where all the actors of the frame story reappear. Frames of all kinds repeat, in addition to the central frame of the movie screen. Curtains, doorways, windows, mirrors that are actually doors, other escape routes that cannot be seen. Sherlock is able, along with his very able assistant, to pass between all of these with aplomb. By the time we get to the motorcycle ride, he is in full control of this dreamworld. We have all had dreams of being on a high-speed vehicle that we cannot control but which continues to go and go without crashing or stopping. Here the entire world rearranges itself to accommodate the path of the speeding motorcycle. Eventually, he does come to a stop, plunging into the lake with the girl in his arms. When he wakes, the mystery has already wrapped itself up – it was actually all pretty obvious, they just had to go to the pawnshop. He turns out to not be much of a detective, but as a dreamer he might be unbeatable.

20. Our Hospitality

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November 19, 1923
Metro
Directed by Buster Keaton and John G. Blystone

The Civil War is over, and the South won!

Sorry, let’s back up a bit. Or rather speed ahead to Fatty Arbuckle, the first great screen comedian and mentor also to both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. When Fatty Arbuckle’s career was ruined by the scandal of rape and murder of a young woman, Keaton rose to take his place. He made excellent shorts and was given a chance to direct a feature, or what was more like a trilogy of intercut shorts called Three Ages. The ages in question were the Stone Age, Imperial Rome, and the modern era. Jeff Mills, who come to think of it looks a bit like Buster, composed a score for this one, where prehistory and ancient times, with their anachronistic gags, act as preludes for the techno assault of the modern world, with automobiles, bank balances, and illegal liquor.

However great the shorts and the first feature, Keaton made an enormous creative leap with his second movie Our Hospitality. The anachronism gags are abandoned almost entirely in favor of meticulous period detail. And there aren’t any gags at all in the opening scene, which is a horrifying depiction of revenge murder and the widow’s flight north to Manhattan, where in 1830 the very first shoots of modernity are in bloom. McKay takes the very first steam locomotive, and the first four reels are the journey south, to a destination with both plantations and mountains. The primitive locomotive is so ridiculously quaint that it feels like a dream. It constantly falls apart, becomes derailed, and when it does work, can easily be outrun by a dog.

In the fifth reel, we get to the trick. McKay in invited by the daughter of his father’s rival Canfield. Once the family discovers who she’s brought home, they are filled with murderous lust but can’t kill him because he has already been accepted as a guest in their home. They must offer him hospitality until he leaves the house. And they’re not planning for a duel betwee gentlemen. As soon as McKay steps outside the door, crosses the threshold between inside and outside, it’s hunter and hunted. They fire at him, and he has only his wits to save him, getting him back into the house each time.

After a few feints, he makes the dash in the sixth reel, and immediately finds himself in the mountains. Then the brothers are tethered together by rope, and both plunge into the river, return to land, and their tether is severed by the steam locomotive passing left to right. The river reconsumes McKay, along with the Canfield daughter who has followed him. McKay saves the daughter, catching her just as she goes over the big waterfall and then saving himself. This act of heroism wins her heart and by extension the hearts of the girl’s father and brothers. All is resolved.

There’s a symmetry in this film where the train journey of reels two and three is mirrored by a river journey of reels six and seven. The train is man conquering nature, and the river is nature reconquering man. The first half sees man conquer nature but turn on his brother, and the second sees man almost succumb to nature’s chaos and then find brotherhood in the face of this danger. Survival in a world both natural and mechanical.

Now when I said that the South won, I am speaking of the hegemonic victory. Reconstruction failed after Grant – it was dismantled by Rutherford Hayes’ administration. When Birth of a Nation came out, that movie’s nauseating perspective was accepted as historical fact. Our Hospitality is a devastating critique of the romantic southeren nostalgia for the antebellum years. The Southerners themselves are ridiculous characters. Foppish, casually brutal, obsessed with honor at the expense of compassion. Our Hospitality is not only the first great comedy feature, but it is a satire great enough to deliver an equivalent blow against the Birth of a Nation’s horror-melodrama.

Bibliography

  • Gunning, Tom. “Buster Keaton, or the Work of Comedy in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Cineaste, Vol 21, No 3, 1995.
  • Robinson, David. Buster Keaton. Indiana University Press, 1969.