My Week With Buster
By Bret Dorman
Day 1 – Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Day 2 – The Navigator
Day 3 – Go West
Day 4 – Seven Chances
Day 5 – College
Day 6 – The General
Day 7 – Sherlock Jr.
Two questions: Why Buster Keaton? Why now?To answer these questions let me start with my childhood. I, like most kids, was concerned about what I liked because I wanted other kids to think I was cool. I didn’t like Star Wars because that was space stuff and nerdy. Of course once I actually watched Star Wars my primary goal in life was to become a Jedi. Because then I could become a Sith. And let’s face it, badguys have more fun.
I liked action movies, but I didn’t like hardcore martial arts. I mean, Asian people making “Hi-ya!” noises? That’s just SILLY! Then one birthday party my mom rented Jackie Chan’s First Strike because she heard somewhere that Jackie Chan was a thing. A thing young boys would probably like. So with all my friends around we popped it in the VHS player and watched Jackie Chan in koala underwear and bad lip synching. These… setbacks… were completely overshadowed by Jackie Chan’s precision in his fight scenes and daring stunts. For the first time in my life, I didn’t care what anyone thought of what I liked. This Jackie Chan guy was AWESOME.
Of course as I matured so did my tastes (well, they expanded) and my understanding/appreciation of film. I dismissed Silent Films as an outdated model. It wasn’t until college when I was “forced” to sit down and watch some as part of a film studies class i realized Silent Films could be like Super Nintendo, Nintendo, or even Atari games in the world of next-gen consoles. Sure they are outdated, but some of those games are awesome and have something no amount of graphics can replicate… good old fashion “magic.” I’ve seen some boring Silent Films and even Fritz Lang’s original Metropolis suffers from dialogue cards that stay up a bit to long and distract from the pacing (Giorgio Moroder’s version as the dialogue cards as subtitles which is a nice move for modern audiences). Seeing two Silent Films live (The Phantom of the Opera and Wax Works) with an organist accompanying the films was cool with a live crowd, but I’m not sure alone, at home, just checking them out I would have liked them AS much.So as my appreciation for the oldest of old school grew I still wasn’t overwhelmed. I saw Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush as well as some other shorts and thought they were great. But there was one guy I kept hearing a lot about. Buster Keaton. I heard he was the best. THE BEST. Of all time. Actor/Writer/PRoducer/Director it didn’t matter he was all of them and he excelled at every role. I saw some clips here or there on YouTube but never committed to a full movie.
So why now? I don’t know. It’s not like I’m in a drought of bad movies. It’s not like I need my creative batteries recharged and am looking for something “new” to do the job. It’s not like I am taking classes and am being “forced” to watch these movies…
It’s just time. I went on to Netflix, watched Sherlock Jr. on a Saturday night (well, at like 3am) and knew what I thought would happen had come true. I knew once I actually sat down to watch a Buster Keaton film that I’d be temporarily TOTALLY obsessed like I am with everything I like and would have to absorb as much as possible. I’ll be revisiting Sherlock Jr. but I decided for this week, starting Sunday, I would watch one film a day. Everything I watch will be available through either Netflix Instant or YouTube (in full, not in parts).
I just hope to share my thoughts and observations as I sit to to look at just a tiny slice from the body of work as done by THE GREATEST FILMMAKER of all time.
DAY 1 – STEAMBOAT BILL, JR
1928; 1hr 10min
available on Netflix Instant and YouTube
What I like about this movie is that is doesn’t rely heavily on dialogue cards. As I mentioned the cards can really slow down the pace of a Silent Film. And the dialogue usually isn’t very engaging. Normally it seems to be some exposition or a clever pun. But Buster Keaton excels at the visual. That’s how he tells his story. You don’t need to be told Willie is a hapless hero, you don’t need him to fumble over his words during a dialogue scene, all you need to do is see him trip and stumble over loose objects, dock edges, other people, and his own feet. His dad controls him and throws him around in an overbearing manner as he tries to “man up” his son.Yet by the end it’s not like Willie goes through some huge transformation. His gift is the ability to get the snot kick out of him. I think boxers have a term for it. It was part of the plot of Rocky III. During the huge climactic storm Willie is able to take anything that comes at him and spring into action using his nimble acrobatics to his advantage. He’s not the flawed character, everyone else around him is for trying to force him to be someone other than himself. When his loved ones (or his loved one’s loved ones) are in danger he decides to take pride in the traits others made fun of him for.
Along with the storm scene (which has some of Keaton’s most famous imagery, including the building falling down around him) is this funny hat sequence. Here you can see Keaton’s knack for timing and visual display. He looks like a sad, hopeless man just trying to please his father while his father aggressively dictates the scene:
Like with many scenes, Keaton and crew really milk this for all its worth. It seems like in the writing and pre-planning stages, they make sure that every scene has every gag from every point of view. No comedic stone is left unurned.
Overall Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a fantastic start to the week. Looking forward to seeing more from my new best bud…
DAY 2 – THE NAVIGATOR
available on Netflix Instant and YouTube
What I love most about The Navigator (its a bit slow at parts, not the best movie but still good) is that it doesn’t try to explain every little detail. It has an idea… let’s put two people on a boat together and make them do silly things. The whole part about Keaton being a doofy millionaire and Kathryn McGuire being his ‘true love’ is just as silly as them both thinking they’ve seen ghosts later on. The whole idea of the spies is absolutely absurd, but then again so is Keaton trying to repair a boat and bringing along a “DANGER: Men at Work” sign. The movie doesn’t try to explain every little detail. It just does. It puts in just the right amount of effort to make sure things make sense using its own abstract logic and then it plays in the moments.As I mentioned the movie is a bit slow at parts. For most of the 60 minute run time we are just seeing two people on a giant boat as things go slightly awry. The destruction level is kept at a fair minimum, so in turn the huge laugh out loud moments are as well. Instead of laughing at every turn or being mesmerized by the constant barrage of special effects, dangerous stunts, and impressive physicality; The Navigator works on a much more subtle, charming level. Seeing two spoiled, rich, and fancy people try to make dinner is entertaining, just not as much as Keaton flopping and flailing during the giant storm or Steamboat Bill, Jr.
What I do like though is that Keaton’s characters always have a knack for solving tough, challenging, life endangering situations by using his own physical and problem solving skills. As funny as it is to see him try to make food (good chuckle when he drilled into the can, then turned it to stop it from leaking which just made more spill out) I have to say I was just as intrigued by how he solved the problem. The complex series of levers, ramps, and ropes would be noggin-scratching for any other person to set up, but for Buster its just how he sees the world; A series of weird tasks and obstacles made easier by a complex set of gimmicks. Keaton also expertly solves these two problems with one quick action:
By the end I was getting a little antsy and then they reached an island of cannibals. What?! Keaton has to go and repair the ship (although you think there’s no way he A) knows how or B) could even if he did) and McGuire is kidnapped. As they both manage to get back on board there’s actually a bit of horror as you realize the end is near and there’s no possible way they can escape. Then, a dues ex machina occurs, giving the film the happy, charming ending fitting of an episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force (“Ok, our time is up, let’s just jump a few steps and get right to the ending” is how I imagine they tackle their episodes).
Overall, a solid entry by Keaton and crew. Not quite a dud but nowhere near a miss. Good Old Fashion Fun…
DAY 3 – GO WEST
1925; 1hr 9min
available on Netflix Instant
This is what I imagined most Keaton flicks to feel like. Long and slow, with moments of brilliance. It seems as though some of his best works are true tour de forces but for the most part he just made good movies. Of course I say that as a compliment. When you have a body of work as large as Keaton’s and your average product is good, that’s not so bad. What Go West lacks in laughs and high speed pacing though, it more than makes up for in heart.
I didn’t necessarily find myself attached to Friendless or Brown Eyes (the cow) as individuals, although I definitely felt sorry for them. Now is the perfect time to bring up Keaton’s understated tragic side of his films. Known as “The Great Stone Face” for never smiling in his movies (there’s a nice joke about it in this flick), Keaton is always being verbally or physically abused (even if its just by a bunch of barrels). It doesn’t matter if he’s educated (Steamboat Bill, Jr.), upper class (The Navigator), or just a wandering bum (Go West), he always manages to find himself in just the situation where he is out of his element. And he’s always being made fun of for it.With Go West, he and Brown Eyes are both castaways. They form a MUTUAL friendship. They need each other. Most of the time these kind of things are one sided, with one character pleading with another to leave or “get out!” At some point only to realize just before its too late that they should be together. Buster turns that on its head (or was that formulaic approach as cemented back then?) by making Friendless constantly fighting for Brown Eyes right from the get go. It’s endearing to see him try to save her from being branded, instead just shaving her. He stakes out the ranch all night to protect her from coyotes. He abandons a steady job to hop a train and to keep her safe. I found myself tearing up at moments because of how much he was willing to do for that poor cow. Silly? Perhaps. But that’s my best bud Buster, he knows how to tap into that emotional place sincerely.
Here though, we see two great things about Buster. One, how well he takes rejection. “I work here.” “You don’t seem to be.” And his look of ‘oh that’s it? Okay, well then I’ll be on my way’ is priceless. Also, I love how when given a task, even if he has NO clue how to do it, like milking a cow, he just goes for it:
The end L.A. scene is impressive purely on scale. Trying to wrangle that many live steer through sets with crowds is an achievement no matter what. As Keaton runs from store to store trying to gather the cattle there’s a gimmick or chuckle per store, sticking with Keaton’s philosophy of never letting anything go to waste. As he runs around being chased by cops and cows in a devil’s costume one can’t help but admire the absurdity of the situation as well as Keaton’s dedication to see the mission through.
Overall, Go West might not be best for just casual movie goers, but for film lovers and Keaton fans its another solid entry…
DAY 4 – SEVEN CHANCES
1925; 56 min
available on Netflix Instant
Did you know Buster Keaton is old? That his movies are old. That they are from a different time? Women and black people were treated differently back then. This movie has some of that stuff. I think its a bit overboard to call this movie totally racist. The old goofy man is black, but I don’t think he is goofy because of that, but because he’s old and its funnier if he can’t do stuff right since so much is riding on the letter he is carrying. Yes it would be funny if Keaton asked the black lady to marry him (maybe after a slight hesitation) but I can’t fault him for that. Anyone who thinks Keaton is running away from black people out of fear needs to remember he runs away from pretty much everything (even rabbits in Go West). And there is a nice looking, well dressed black gentleman in the country club. So yes it’s old timey, but worse crimes have been committed.
As far as women and relationships go I have no idea what’s going on. All we see at first is Keaton standing next to Ruth Dwyer. No real relationship. Then after getting the letter he asks her to marry him. Just like that. She says yes, but changes her mind after thinking its only for the money. Good for her for standing up! Then her mother tells her to think it over. But then Keaton proceeds to just ask anyone and everyone. Just like that. And everyone seems okay with it (even if they say no or laugh at him). By the end a bunch of marriage-starved crazy women chase him and act unruly, causing property destruction (the brick layer) and beating people up (the crane operator). The mob of women is more destructive and threatening than the stampede of steer in Go West. Huh…But overall the movie is fine. The old “last will” gimmick is reminiscent of haunted house challenges. Our hapless hero trying to hit on every woman he sees while dreaming of the one he loves is like every silly modern day rom-com. This movie is a bit more heavy on the dialogue and subtle physical humor which means its a slow start. The premise at first seems a bit better suited for a talkie. The biggest driving force is of course Keaton’s performance. That and knowing something, I mean something, has to happen to cause a big finale. Sure enough…
Thanks to the Internet I know I’m not the only one who thinks Tom Cruise is one of the best, if not the best cinematic runner. Well I think my best bud Buster could give him a run for his money (PUN INTENDED!). You know how one of the big gimmicks in older, silent films is to over or under crank the camera to add different speed affects? Well I don’t think Keaton needed that. As people run around him he blows by them with ease. Or as he is running something else will come from around a corner and he’ll burst away. I know you could say the other people just aren’t running as fast but still, Keaton’s form, speed, and balance is impressive. Especially as he maneuvers difficult terrain or dodges boulders with relative ease:
The movie, like always, has a pretty happy ending. I like how Keaton always seems dedicated to the women he likes, despite the fact there’s never a relationship (film codes could have prevented him from actually showing anything more than some handholding and a quick peck on the cheek or lips?). Here he puts the marriage on hold not because of money but because he can’t risk dragging his loved one into his bad luck. Noble, but luckily a faulty watch and last minute timing come to the rescue.
Overall, the big finale once again saved a slow start. Keaton continues to impress…
DAY 5 – COLLEGE
1927; 1 hr 6min
available on Youtube
I had always heard good things about College here and there, so I went in expecting this one to be on par with Steamboat Bill Jr. or even better. And honestly, throughout most of the film I was finding it more on par with his other works, perhaps a bit better, but not the masterpiece I had expected. After the big race I was ready to call. Another good movie, but not top tier. Then, after Keaton receives the phone call from Anne Cornwall, that all changed. If there’s one thing Keaton knows how to do it’s end his film strong. The difference between this and Go West or Seven Chances is that here you have all of the things Keaton failed miserably at he aces with ease. The emotional connection is strong and the set up of the entire movie comes to fruition. Plus as he hurls objects at Harold Goodwin he doesn’t hold back, which is a nice touch most modern movies would scale back a bit.
Once again, Keaton shows us that he never will give up and is willing to tackle any activity no matter what. Whether he is flipping and flinging cups as a soda jerk, playing third baseman, taking a backwards tumble without spilling coffee as a blackface waiter, or trying every single track and field sport; Keaton is always playing the lower status position. Even in the beginning when he is being awarded an academic medal, his suit falls to pieces right before everyone. I’m not sure if this spoke to the times, seeing as most of his early work came out pre-The Great Depression. Even so, I don’t think Keaton was trying to play to the audience, his character seems to come more from the heart. As he takes verbal and physical beatings he deflects them with his great stone face and foresight to know he’ll get the chance to be a hero.The movie plays more like a series of skits than an actual narrative, a form that suits Keaton well. Even his speech at the beginning has a nice visual touch that would make Michael Jackson jealous. I was always pretty athletic as a kid, despite never really pursuing it. I am pretty knowledgable of most sports and the rules/strategies so I can fill in or join a pick up game if need be. Do I like baseball? Not particularly. Can I play baseball? Sure. At least enough to pick up a ground ball and throw it to first or second. Keaton’s cluelessness not only provides laughs for us the audience, but for everyone in the movie as well. They openly ridicule him as he slowly learns the rules through trial and error. He never gets that shinning moment to upstage everyone. I kept waiting for him to find the one thing he was SUPER good at. When I saw track and field I knew he’d be great at running, only to be upstaged by two little kids. What makes the ending so great is when he finally gets that super hero moment, its on a personal level, with no spite for those who laughed at him involved (only anger at the d-bag guy hitting on his girl).
What also amazes me is how much Keaton can carry a movie himself. Most of the scenes, especially the 15 minute or so track and field segment, are Keaton basically doing each sport solo. There’s very limited interaction between him and the other athletes. As a waiter he has to adapt physically to tumbles (without spilling the coffee, very impressive) and goofily disguise his walk to stay incognito. The timing also with the in/out swinging doors is impressive. Several times I would expect him to do a double take as near miss and near miss occurred but he remained relatively oblivious to his own luck. And of course, one of the shining moment to showcase his mesmerizing presence and sharp timing is this soda jerk scene:
Keaton just has a knack for natural showmanship. As he messes up and messes up he still adds a minor little flair to feign impressiveness. It takes a lot of skill to actually do the things he’s trying to do and you know Keaton can do it, but its so much fun to watch the precision in the near misses and mess ups. It reminds me of Tim & Eric, precisely nailing the ‘bad video production’ of local cable access television only to end up elevating it to comedy art.
Overall, Keaton nails it. Next up is the movie highly regarded as not only his best, but one of the best overall, then finally I’ll revisit the movie that started it all…
DAY 6 – THE GENERAL
1926; 1hr 15min
available on YouTube
This is it, the much beloved Buster Keaton masterpiece. AFI currently lists it as the #18 best American movie. IMDB currently has it as #122 in its user picked Top 250. Could it possibly be as good as everyone said it is? The answer is simply yes. Is it my favorite? Simply, no. Strangely enough The General doesn’t have the hyper kinetic ending I’ve come to expect, even though the ending is a battle between Union and Confederate soldiers. However, this could be because the entire movie is non-stop on the go. And I do realize when most critics say “non-stop” they re being VERY (very very very VERY) generous. Movies I classify as non-stop are Crank, Crank 2, Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, Transporter 2, Chaffed Elbows, and Scott Pilgrim Vs The World. There may be one or two I’m leaving out. But all of them (with the exception of Robert Downey Sr’s Chaffed Elbows, a 60’s avante-guard underground masterpiece I was lucky enough to see in theater and is available only via bootleg DVD after scrounging Google a bit) all those movies are 2006-2011 aka very recently made movies. So I mean that as a compliment when I say The General is non-stop.
Once again Keaton showcases some familiar tones. One, he is an expert at some thing, but put out of his element. Yes he has train experience, but not war experience. Two, he has a passion or love for some thing (like being a detective or a cow). Three, he has a love for a lady who does not love him back until the very end, but still goes on an adventure with him. Four, his willingness to jump into a situation he where he has no idea what he is doing and his ability to solve problems uniquely and physically. Five, STUNTS! STUNTS! STUNTS! While camera trickery and creativity is fun to watch and something Keaton does have experience with; here he highlights his knack for adrenaline pumping, fast paced, good old fashion stunt work. Even though he’s fighting for the Confederates, you immediately find yourself rooting for him to get his train back.Part of what helps you root for him is the “simple misunderstanding” syndrome. The Confederacy doesn’t want to enlist Keaton not because of his stature, but because he is too useful as an engineer. Since Keaton doesn’t know this he is left emotionally defeated and heartbroken, since his girl won’t talk to him until he is able to don the uniform. This establishes his underdog status as well as sets up the double whammy for Keaton. Not only is he fighting to get his train back because its, well, his train (so to speak), but since Union spies took it, it also means he’s fighting in the war and earning his uniform, instead of just enlisting. Also, he doesn’t know at first she was taken so he gets to save her, as a soon-to-be soldier and let her see his bravery first hand, instead of just admiring him looking good in a uniform. With just a few minutes of set up, as goofy as they may be, Keaton is able to establish mounds of backstory that immediately make a simple kidnap-hijack into an instant epic.
A lot of the tension also comes from the impossibility of the real-time situation itself. Keaton has to catch up to The General while getting rid of obstacles and under fire. The fact that everything was basically filmed practically adds an unbelievable amount of weight to it. Again, I’m not anti-CGI, but The General is one of many films that shows the incredible power of practical effects. Keaton comes so close so many times to catching up with The General while also coming so close to failing completely. It helps that (perhaps due to their “limitations”) the camera stays pulled back and cuts remain limited, so the action plays out beautifully without any abstraction:
The General is not only one of the few movies I would dub non-stop, but also as a treasure in the fact it even exists. Movies I count in that category can range from “how did this get greenlit AND made so purely” like Crank 2 or Happy Gilmore/Billy Madison to “the production was a nightmare or involved extremely complicated things pulled off seemingly effortlessly” like JAWS or Terminator 2 to “it’s just so damn perfectly quirky perfect to just the right amount that suits me personally” like Reservoir Dogs or The Fifth Element. The fact that Buster Keaton could envision, then pull off a movie like this is amazing to think about. To actually sit down and watch it is both sublime and inspiring.
Overall, a masterpiece worthy of its praise. My personal favorite still remains the movie that started it all and will end the week…
DAY 7 – SHERLOCK JR.
1927 – 44min
available on Netflix Instant and YouTube
Right off the bat Buster once again establishes his hapless good guy status. He has to work his crummy day job in order to support his dream, becoming a detective (complete with fake mustache). There’s just a couple problems with this. First of all, he is just too nice. I’m a big fan of jokes that look like they are done, but go an extra step further (30 Rock is good at doing this). After he finds his third dollar to buy the good chocolates for his girl, he immediately fesses up and gives it to its rightful owner. But when another person comes along looking for a dollar, he gives one of his own. After a third person comes, Buster offers up his last remaining personal dollar and you think the joke ends with our hero thinking he was lucky, but ending up penniless. However, a clever turn of events shows the last man had a wallet FULL of money and doesn’t need the one measly dollar. After buying the cheap chocolates, we chuckle as Buster cleverly adds two tine lines to the $1.00 to make it look like $4.00. However, this is the move that will unfairly cement his doom just a few moments later. I’m a fan of those turnarounds, that have us siding with a specific action that later specifically is used against us.
After a quick shadowing and some funny sight gags, our hero decides to basically give up (while the girl does the real detecting). But this is where the movie takes a sharp turn. While asleep, the projectionist literally walks into the movie he is showing, becoming the main character. Here, he gets to be the confident man he’s always wanted to be while using his physicality. Wisely, Keaton doesn’t make his character dream of being in movies (which is Keaton’s passion, not his character’s) instead letting him use the movies as a tool to become anything he wants. While the projectionist let the shiek get the better of him, Sherlock Jr doesn’t let anything slip by, even the ol’ pool ball switcheroo. The build up as he barely misses to overtly misses, finally sinking the shot in without a hitch is one of Buster’s best moments, as he walks away triumphantly.Leave it to Buster to conclude strong, with two big chases. Even when he doesn’t have anyone hot on his tail or trying to catch someone directly in front of him, Buster still adds some spice. Not only does he ride a motorcycle on its handle bars at high speeds, he does so through traffic, across an unfinished bridge, and barely missing a train (in one of the most terrifying shots I’ve ever seen on film). Then he manages to escape the baddies by using their own devices against them. Not one to waste any opportunities though, we still get one last clever 4 wheel brake turned half car boat turned top sail carriage.
The best parts of this flick though aren’t even the silly physical gags or impressive stunt work, but the movie magic moments. I felt like such a kid again, stepping into a world of imagination: no hold barred. Keaton goes out of his way to even show off, including his movie screen trickery, with an audience in the foreground. As he steps into the frame and becomes part of the movie the audience in the second frame (his filmed audience) doesn’t react, but the real audience (us, the viewer) gasp with glee. Do the scenic cuts really make sense in the context of the film? If you really think about it they don’t, since none of those locations have the ‘actors’ in them or make any sense with the story. But seeing the projectionist toyed with as the movie impeccably changes at just the right moments highlights Buster at his best. He can’t control his surroundings, nor does he ever really benefit from them, but he always manages to tough it out and somehow come out on top. Here we see that in full action:
By the end, the projectionist looks to the film to see how to act like a manly man and win over the girl. He watches, studies, learns from, and tries to reenact what he sees. The power and influence of film comes to the forefront. It’s not enough to be in one, Buster still needs the movies to fuel his creative (and romantic) mojo. And like I mentioned up top, I like how they carry the joke one step further, with the in-movie movie transitioning to a later time period where the on screen couple have kids… and the projectionist is left scratching his head.
Sometimes you need a movie to remind you simultaneously of the magic of films and how they can’t be relied on for everything. As a HUGE film nerd, I find this message so hopelessly romantic. After seeing Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (with no idea of what it was about), that movie instantly became one of my all time favorites. Period. And after seeing Sherlock Jr. I am happy to say the same. I’m glad I watched this as my first Keaton movie, because it inspired this week as well as a true appreciation for Keaton as the Master as he has been remembered.
In Conclusion, Buster Keaton deserves every bit of praise he’s gotten. From stuntman, to straight man, to director, to dreamer; every movie from this week has shown him at his best. Before the blessing/curse of CGI, Keaton dared to practically film everything he could think up. Before focus groups and four quadrant marketing, Keaton told his stories the way he wanted. Before there were pioneers to learn from and admire, Keaton paved the way for generations or filmmakers and fans alike.
It’s nice to see the evolved form of cinematic entrainment in theaters… from the physcially impressive action scenes of The Raid: Redemption to the bombastic CGI-fueled robo-battles of The Transformer Series. But it’s also nice to look at the history and see where it all came from. I’d love to see these on the big screen, as they were originally intended, with a crowd of both Keaton fans and newbies. But thankfully, due to the powers of technology, these dreams aren’t lost forever… and for the right people, they can still spark the right amount of genuine entertainment and awe.