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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20. Our Hospitality

IMG_1063
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.

 

18. La Roue

laroue
February 17, 1923
directed by Abel Gance

The movie opens with the camera already moving, traveling on a railroad car, with the title and director credit. Then the mug of the director, facing the camera, though looking just beyond us, blinking through a reverie, superimposed on crisscrossed lines of the railroad tracks behind him. A few credits, and then suddenly the action – a railroad crash, filmed with complex editing like Griffith’s but faster, more intense, because this is the modern world. We are far removed from Griffith’s now-ancient scenes of country life. And we can tell its the modern world not just from the editing but from the filth. Everything is grimy. Interiors, exteriors, people, emotions. A man falls in love with his adopted daughter, all the time seeing the horror unfold within his heart. He becomes jealous of his son’s easy playfulness with her – of course he is in love with her too. And his boss is also in love with her, and in a position to make demands of her body to him.

This is the modern world, as symbolized by the wheel. The wheel is a combination of the circle and the cross. The spinning circle of Dr Mabuse is no longer about chaos but torture. The wheel of Saṃsāra. The breaking wheel. These wheels are iron, bathed in steam and smoke, driving faster and faster through the countryside. As the locomotive progressively gained speed through the 19th and 20th centuries, this movie makes great use of velocity. As the drama heats up, the editing becomes faster, and then faster, and then, when you don’t think it can, it gets even faster, until the shots are only single frames, undetectable in themselves, in an orgasm of terror.

Of the main characters here – the worker, the woman, the artist, the capitalist, each plays a role, but none is spared from the relentless turning of the wheel. The war is over, yes, but the torture continues. Gance was spared from the war only by his poor health, and this movie was made as his lover was dying of tuberculosis – that disease seen by Romantics as endemic to the hated new industrial era. Even though the characters fantasize about the Middle Ages, as the Romantics did, it is not Modernity, or even Industrial Capitalism that has trapped, bound, and tortured these people. Rather this suffering is the human condition itself. We are all to be broken on the wheel.

Bibliography
Kramer, Steven Philip and James Michael Welsh. Abel Gance. Twayne Publishers, 1978.