Swans Commentary » swans.com October 24, 2011  



The Forgotten Auteur
Buster Keaton: The Genius of his Films


by Raju Peddada


Monuments of Civilization: Analysis of Classics - Part I



[Author's preface: I had been rummaging my cranium for an auteur to review and do a salutary panegyric on his body of work. But who? To be considered truly classic and monumental, it had to be somebody whose work was universal and inclusive, in a special way -- whose work advanced our cultural arts and sciences. A creator, who invariably, would be the catalyst that elevated our collective experience. Akira Kurasawa and Stanley Kubrick had been on my radar: their work, masterful and inventive, furthered the art of films, and also depicted the human condition, as manifestly wretched in depth. Their films, though influential, were esoteric and introspectively depressing, and to a great extent, morbid, like "The Throne of Blood" and "The Seven Samurai" or "A Clockwork Orange" and "Full Metal Jacket" that today are enjoyed, for the most part, by the immersed film purists and makers, rather than by general audiences. It had to be someone who was not a solipsist, who made films for the general audience, rather than for his own narcissistic gratification. I found our man, accidentally, in sharing something I had seen before, with my boys two Saturdays ago, which now, I want to share with you. The operative word here is "sharing." Sharing laughter, in his depiction of our ironies, foibles, false pride, and paradoxes in our differences and dysfunctions, and that too without the aid of sound -- truly magical and magisterial.]
"Blessed are they who can laugh at themselves for they shall never cease to be amused."


(Swans - October 24, 2011)   Over a generation ago, two years after the VHS-VCR format, and four years before the CD, the "Home Video Disc format" called Laser disc came into the market, ushering in the "Laser" technology for image archiving and the movies. This licensed commercial optical storage medium that NASA had relied on was licensed out in 1978 as the "Optical Videodisc System" to Pioneer Electronics, who then marketed it under the brand name "LaserDisc." The technologies and concepts behind laser disc are the forerunners of the compact disc and DVD today. David Paul Gregg invented this technology in 1958 (patented through 1961-90), the first laser disc movie "Jaws" was made commercially available on December 15, 1978, and the last movie "Bringing Out the Dead" was in 2000. Pioneer Electronics stopped the production of laser-disc players on January 14, 2009. However, many ardent film devotees, interested in quality optics, still use this medium for their home theaters.

Being an ardent connoisseur of films, the Laser disc allowed me to go back and forth innumerable times, without destroying the movie, as the "temporal technology" of VHS-VCR did. This durability allowed a close study of the pathology of films, in a manner befitting the medium that should have been intrinsic to it, and not ephemeral. In fact, speaking of their durability, my entire collection of laser discs was under 10 inches of water in the basement for over six hours in 2007. The lovely jackets were destroyed, but nothing happened to the discs.

In the late 1980s through the '90s, I was able to get my hands on fundamentally seminal films that the American Film Institute and the Library of Congress had deemed as national treasures -- films like D.W. Griffith's controversial "The Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance," as well as Erich Von Stroheim's "Greed" from 1924; Robert Flaherty's "Nanook of the North" from 1922; "The Covered Wagon" by James D. Cruze in 1923; and the boxed sets of Buster Keaton (Joseph Frank Keaton 1895-1966) films from the early to mid '20s. Among these were the two masterpieces, restored from the original, and highly-flammable nitrate prints: "Our Hospitality" from 1923, about the culture of feuding families, and "The General" from 1926, a Civil War classic about a stolen train by the Union spies; surprisingly sympathetic towards the confederates of the south.

Three weeks ago, I found my jaded sons, 6 and 9 years old, placidly watching their Saturday afternoon movie with their grandmother, when it clicked in me. I asked them if they were interested in watching something really special, something that was "silent" yet, funny, and that had horses as well as cars on the roads, and something that was almost a hundred years old, which showed people in action that were actually alive in the 19th century. Their body language did not issue forth a resounding "yes!"; rather, a reluctant one, on the condition that I would relieve them of the burden of watching if they found it dorky and let them go back to their action flick.

I pulled out "The General," starring Buster Keaton as Johnnie Gray, written and co-directed by Clyde Bruckman and the star himself, and made with a relatively huge budget of $750,000, funded by the then-Metro chief, Joseph Schenck, in 1925. It was a box office failure, and was considered "tedious" by its contemporary critics. Today, the critics hail it as one the greatest films ever made. A constant tug-of-war ensues between two sets of critics, one claiming "Citizen Kane" as the best, and the other faction advocating "The General" as the greatest, and I lean towards the latter. Movies in general can best be judged by the body language of the viewers. Ten minutes into the movie, the boys, who were lolling around insouciantly on the couch with glazed expressions, their feet carving patterns on the mat, suddenly sat up. They reformed their bodies into crouching positions, and dove into the movie.

It didn't take all of sixteen minutes for them to display all of their teeth in smiles, followed by laughter ascending to guffaws, which bodied forth throughout the movie in voluminous and billowing decibels. The 2011 Buster Keaton film festival was on, with the boys, their grandmother, and I in attendance. What surprised me was my own amazement at the ingeniousness of the silent narrative, and the perfectly timed and choreographed action that induced fitful mirth and cheer, even if you had the disposition of Brothers Grimm or Mr. Scrooge, and despite having seen it before, years ago.

I can say with certitude that most of my sons' classmates have never seen a Buster Keaton movie, and how fortunate they were to be seeing something that was considered a national treasure, and in the process develop an inclination and taste for historic and culturally significant things. As matter of fact, most of the kids today come from households that have been bred on comedies, stuffed with jump-cut montages of sultry-slap-shtick "innuendo-tic" action purveyed by Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, and Ben Stiller. Kids influenced by these shtick flicks, increasingly use impudently-inferential adult lexicon, laden with innuendos, that erase any and all semblance of innocence left in them.

Buster Keaton is a far cry from the crude impudence proliferating as humor; he presented a vanished world in metaphors, paradoxes, and ironies, in mind-bending action that prompted "how the hell did he do that?" Speaking with your body is a lost art that reached its apogee during the Buster Keaton era. The only contemporary film I can think of that uses the body as a medium of communication is "The Godfather." The characters in Keaton films spoke manifestly, with their bodies, compared to the pleonastic and banal cacophony as dialogue we ingest in contemporary fare. The limitations of the film technology in the 20s, in an inverse manner, produced a great body of piercing commentary and dialogue, with action only -- and this type of narrative was clearer for the "noise" it did not come with. In a way, it increased individual perspicacity. It was fundamentally pure, minimal, and primal communication between the characters and the audience. All dialogue was visual -- nothing adverse, rather conducive for a species that relies mainly on the sense of sight.

Some of the best fictive prose narratives came about in the 1920s with artists like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Carl Sandburg, and Edith Wharton, who were called "the lost generation," I suppose between the wars. During the same period, in incidental similitude, the genius of Buster Keaton was cemented, for his body's narrative faculty and capacity -- and, a narrative that conveyed, in symbolic and gyroscopic action, the intangible nuances of survival, in manifest, yet in deliberate incongruence and incoherence for the audience, that generally brought the house down. A deadpan stone-faced Keaton expressed all the human emotions with his body. Keaton's masterfully-staged control wielded this designed dichotomy.

Another noted actor of that time, and my favorite, who starred in both Keaton and Charlie Chaplin films, was Joe Roberts. He, better than anybody, used his fat, barrel-shaped body, at times looking more like an upright Beluga whale, as a narrative tool to consummate unspoken dialogue. His brilliantly nuanced as well as exaggerated movements clearly and voluminously spoke his intent, his motives and the consequences of his actions in the films in which he had worked. He was indeed the Arthur Miller of bodily play and delivery.

Humor depends inordinately on surprise and incongruity, augmented by our incoherence. Size did matter in Buster Keaton movies; while a diminutive and effeminate Charlie Chaplin was good with facial expressions, Keaton was short and muscular, a compact acrobat for the stunts he staged with his taut body. On the other hand, Joe Roberts was a portly giant that tapered from the top to a billowing middle, then narrowing down to look like pupa in motion. His physical bearing alone packed explosive hilarity; his jerky movements, exacerbated by the slow speed of the camera, rendered him utterly funny, even before he looked at the camera. The counterbalancing anthroposcopy of Buster Keaton and Joe Roberts represented a strange comic singularity, yet captured the duality of our existence -- the binary opposites and aspects of life, depicted in vaudevillian fashion on the celluloid. Life is a sad and ironical comedy, which remains as inexplicable, as the humor that portrays it.

What is humor, and how do we explain it? Plato, Socrates, Hobbes, and Kant tried explicating humor, but failed. Humor is simply inexplicable, even by the psychologists. E. B. White once remarked, "Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog, few people are interested and the frog dies." Translating humor or third-party explanations is a sure way to deflate humor. Humor is instinctive, and it has triggers in our alchemy and psyche, which are flicked on at some incongruous incident or something incoherent. Humor subsists and flourishes in our cognitive dissonance. Various types of humor evolved over time, and its purveyors have specialized in satire, parody, mimicry, sarcasm, and ridicule -- jokes at others' expense, dry, deadpan humor, and the witty highbrow humor of the intellectually gifted.

Humor is adaptive, it transforms to fit its time, and it can also be trans-generational. What was humor in Germany before the Berlin Wall became lethal after 1961 in East Berlin. The Czarist humor also became punishable at the hands of the Bolsheviks. The bourgeoisie humor clashed with the proletarian humor in Western Europe. For that matter, humor can be classified into cultural, racial, and economical, and all them compartmentally regional. Cross-cultural humor is what Buster Keaton managed to manufacture -- humor based on common issues prevalent in all societies: pride, compassion, love, hate, feuding, and survival. Keaton films provided a temporary escape in our collective mirth by depicting our common existential conundrums.

It is not sufficient enough to say that Keaton was another seminal filmmaker of the twenties. For me, his movies not only provided an escape in laughter, but sucked me into a romanticist and melancholic sphere of the "Roaring Twenties." A period when the Gilded Age dissolved into a dangerous modernity, when conservative dress codes were ripped for the casual, especially for women, as the "Flapper" who redefined modern womanhood, with short skirts and bobbed hair. In fact, I sometimes tend to glaze over the humor, and fade into the beginning the 20th century, the missing years between the wars, that had wrought the most accelerated change in mankind's history. Also, a period of cultural exchange, when American authors were trying to corral an identity in the lofty literary realm of Europe, Paris in particular. While all this took place in New York, Paris, and London, an unassuming and reluctant actor-turned-writer, producer, and director on the West Coast provided much needed laughter, for what was slowly devolving to that year, 1929. Buster Keaton was the pioneer of action movies, a genius in staging risky gags and stunts, which he choreographed to perfection, that looked almost real and spontaneous. In Part II of this panegyric, we will explore more of his genius and his masterpieces, specific movies, and what makes them not only visual adventures, but treasures to behold. Meanwhile, I implore you to get "The General" and watch it, and be surprised at the surprises it holds.

"The secret to Humor is surprise."


Watch the touching "Buster & Eleanor Keaton, Tribute "


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About the Author

Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines.   (back)


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Published October 24, 2011