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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