Sunday, July 11, 2010
ESSENTIAL CINEMA - Buster Keaton's The General
Though it's all but disappeared as a subject for Hollywood, you could make a good case that the American Civil War helped launch the movie business. After all, it provided the spark for the first blockbuster, D.W. Griffifth's 1915 "The Birth of the Nation," a film whose first half still impresses with its uncanny visual veracity -- you could be watching tattered newsreel footage of the war itself. Only Griffith's bilious sentimentality reminds us that Hollywood's worst qualities were born here, too. (The surreal racism that blights the film's second half, which portrays the Ku Klux Klan as heroic freedom fighters battling the sinister ex-slaves, makes it seem like a film made in some parallel universe where the South actually won the war.) But 11 years later, a far greater artist made an infinitely greater film, one that the world's most famous movie critic would rank among the ten best movies ever made. Strange to say, that film was a boisterous comedy made by a great comedian, and one that can still leave them in the aisles, as they say, today.
The film is "The General," Buster Keaton's 1927 masterpiece, though I hesitate to apply the word "masterpiece" to anything this funny. But Orson Welles (who ought to know) once said that Keaton's film was a hundred times more gorgeous-looking than "Gone With the Wind," and the proof is on the screen for anyone to see. Whereas that great Hollywood epic concerns itself with large matters -- an epic romance, an epic war, the fall of a city, the disappearance of a civilization -- "The General" concerns itself with the adventures of an ordinary young man and his love for his train. His story is set in the South, but the war doesn't concern him too much, except that it leads to him getting rejected by his girl when the Confederate army turns him down. The film, loosely based on a real historical incident, concerns Our Hero's attempt to steal his beloved locomotive, The General, back from the Yankees. (Oh, he also needs to rescue his girlfriend -- but you suspect that the train is really what matters here.) Complications ensue and of course, it all winds up with a terrific chase scene -- one of the best in the movies, and apparently the single most expensive movie sequence filmed up to that time.
In his day, Keaton was eclipsed by Charlie Chaplin; later, it became hip to say that Keaton was the real genius, and Chaplin a mere crowd-pleaser. In fact, there's no reason to choose; between the two of them, you have two types of comedy that cancel each other out. Chaplin is funny because he does funny things; he can't walk into a room without the ceiling caving in, or the floor turning into a skating rink. Keaton is funny because he doesn't do funny things; instead, he remains perfectly still, almost untouched as the world falls apart around him. If the ceiling caves in, you can bet that Keaton will have his back turned to it, lost in some reverie. He greets catastrophe and triumph alike with a thoughtful, melancholy gaze -- and, of course, he always comes out on top. In my favorite shot of "The General" (also, incidentally, one of the most dangerous stunts ever filmed), after being rejected by his girl, Buster glumly sits down on one of the coupling rods between two of his train's wheels to think. The train starts moving and the wheels begin to turn. Keaton remains sitting there, going around and around and around. Still thinking.
Buster Keaton's "The General" plays at The Loft Cinema Sunday, July 11, at 1 p.m., and Tuesday, July 13, at 7 p.m.
-- Justyn Dillingham is a 2009 graduate of the University of Arizona. He ever so slightly prefers Chaplin to Keaton.