Buster Keaton #11: Cops (1922)

Cops (Buster on a cart)

It probably says something about me that I keep Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines in my car, as a perfect quick read for when I’m stuck in line somewhere or I forgot to bring a book to the doctor’s office. Fénéon discovered Georges Seurat, published James Joyce in French, worked for anarchist magazines, probably sent (or at least commissioned) bombs on their behalf to government offices, and then ended up working for the French War Department. Along with all this craziness, for a year (1906), he published anonymous news items for Le Matin, a daily paper. His terse, ironic accounts summed up incidents of murder, mayhem, and controversy, bit by bit. Imagine the column as a witty, more mordant version of your newspaper’s police blotter, or an early 20th-century Twitter account focused solely on everyday French lunacy.

His thousands of meanly hilarious, acridly informative pieces do, collectively, give a stunning, bloody portrait of France at the cusp of the modern era. Amid the infanticides, poisonings, wife-beatings, labor strikes, political corruption, and shootouts—France was nuts in 1906—are Fénéon’s renditions of vehicular mayhem. A sampling:

Ribas was walking backward in front of the roller leveling a road in the Gard. The roller picked up speed and crushed him.

At the station in Mâcon, Mouroux had his legs severed by an engine. “Look at my feet on the tracks!” he cried, then fainted.

Catherine Rosello of Toulon, mother of four, got out of the way of a freight train. She was then run over by a passenger train.

Raoul Blanchard, of the 123rd Infantry, who was riding his bicycle in Tonnay-Charente, killed himself running into a wall.

Fallen from a train traveling at high speed, Marie Steckel, 3, of Saint-Germain, was found playing on the gravel ballast.

Because his friend refused to kill him, a 19-year-old boy of Liffol, Haute-Marne, got himself beheaded by a train.

Marcel Prévost fell, in Saint-Germain, under the wheels of an automobile going three miles an hour. The young man broke his ribs.

Mlle Martin and M. Rougeon will leave behind no progeny. A through train ran them over at Clamart. They were to be married soon.

His foot caught in the coupling of two rails as if in a trap, Gorgeon, of Saint-Dié, struggled. A train cut him in half.

I confess that I’ve always found these items to be the least believable, though I know Fénéon was just recording what he scanned in the papers and putting his own, weird spin on it for Le Matin. How do you get run over by a car going slower than an average man’s walk? How do you ride a bicycle fast enough to kill yourself that way? Did that many people really decide to do the stupidest things possible in the presence of trains? Yes, I realize that automobiles were brand-new at the time, that trains were relatively new, and that suicide attempts were (and are) common. But still. Come on.

It wasn’t until watching Buster Keaton’s Cops that the sheer chaos of early vehicular life became clear to me, and that I could see how automobile/train calamity could be so common.
Continue reading

Posted in Buster Keaton, Film | Leave a comment

Buster Keaton #10: The Paleface (1922)

Paleface (kiss)

The Paleface ends, so far as I can tell, with Buster Keaton’s first kiss. And it’s with Virginia Fox, his loveliest and most nimble-footed foil up to that point. So, it’s got that going for it.

It’s weird that it took him over ten shorts to smooch a girl, given that 1) most of Keaton’s shorts are romantic comedies at their roots; 2) Keaton was rather handsome with that long face, soulful eyes, and sharp cheekbones, and routinely played men who—no matter how prone they were to pratfalls—knew who they wanted and went about getting her, in the rough-and-tumble manner of Clark Gable; and 3) that the women (Fox, Sybil Seely, Bartine Burkett) were equally rough-and-tumble, knew what they wanted (Buster, usually), and were less shy about getting it than most romantic-movie dames at the time.

Then again, maybe not. Even by the boy’s-club standards of slapstick’s creation, Buster’s shorts are oddly sexless. In a Keaton short, finding love largely means finding someone who will slap you around with affection instead of animosity—in short, someone who’ll put up with your bullshit. The possibility of fucking seems incidental to Keaton’s sense of romance.

So, it’s jarring (in a good way) to see, at the end of The Paleface, Keaton swing Fox around for a swooning kiss. He must have known it, too, for he immediately makes the moment ironic, putting it in quote marks. He kisses her hand, and then the swoon-kiss… and then this title card: Continue reading

Posted in Buster Keaton, Film | Leave a comment

Gratitude #3: D’Angelo at the Tabernacle, Atlanta, GA

On the night of 14 June 2015, I saw D’Angelo and his band perform at the Tabernacle, a former church converted into a beautiful, acoustically remarkable, concert venue. I’d been there before, on Valentine’s Day 2014, to dance to Trey Anastasio and his band. That show was terrific but D’Angelo’s was otherworldly. Maybe I just have good luck at that venue.

I hadn’t planned on going. $75 a ticket seemed much; it was a Sunday night; I live in Athens, 70 miles away. Hell, I didn’t even know about the show until my friend Louisa called me to ask if I was going. I’ve loved D’Angelo since back in the day, and Voodoo (2000) was one of Those Records That Got Me Through Life. Something she said in that phone call stuck with me. “Walter, I know it’s 75 bucks,” she said, “and you’ll have to book a hotel room for the night, so more like $150. But I want you to think about this: You could save that 150 bucks. You could. But, in twenty years, if you don’t spend that $150 on this show, will you remember how you spent that money you saved?”

No, I wouldn’t. So I went. And I’ll remember it. Here’s the letter I wrote to her and my friend Dan two days later. It’s slightly edited, to remove personal details, but otherwise this is what I wrote in a rush while the concert was fresh in my memory. Enjoy.


Dear Louisa and Dan,

Around the fourth song, “Brown Sugar” (from D’Angelo’s first album), I did something I don’t normally do at shows. Normally, I’m in the moment, just sweating and shuffling my feet and singing along. And I was doing that here. But I was also at a remove, looking at the show from a bird’s-eye view a bit, and ranking the show as it was happening. As in: Is this the best concert I’ve ever attended? The Bob Mould show at Nuomo’s in 2005 has been in the top #3, with the Old 97’s New Year’s Eve show at the Longhorse Ballroom swapping with the Mould in my mind. The 2nd Phish show I saw (7/26/97, Austin, TX, Southpark Meadows) is always in the mix. Is this show, right now, as good as those? That’s not the question—it clearly is. But is it better?

I was consciously thinking these things as D’Angelo and his 10-piece band roared and shimmied and coaxed their way through a 3-hour show that modulated between hard funk, sly croon, sober meditation, and balls-to-the-wall rockout. I drank only water, so my mind was clear. (Have I ever told you that, on principle, I don’t drink or do drugs at concerts? I might have a beer at a show, but even that’s rare. There’s lots of reasons for this, but mostly it’s that I figure that, if I’ve made the effort and expense to be there, I want to remember it and to experience it, and those desires circumvent any wish to get fucked up.)

What astonished me immediately about D’Angelo were three things:

1) The use of call-and-response throughout the show, with D’Angelo coaxing the audience into singing along and timed hand-claps, gestures… without being overtly theatrical about it. It all felt natural, the movements of a man totally in control of both the band and his audience. He’s up there dancing, changing costumes, interacting with the band, playing guitar and keyboards, singing his heart out in a variety of modes (croon, shout, R&B simmer, angry swagger), and he’s fully present in all of it. He’s pudgier than he was when he last did this, but he’s not fat; he looks like a fit 41-year-old man, which is what he is, after all. But, if I’m that energetic and alert onstage for 3 hours at his age, I’ll be doing all right. He was totally comfortable in his skin, which was sexy as hell, and magnetic. You couldn’t take your eyes off him.

2) His band. They’re as responsive to him as he is to the sold-out crowd. There’s a lot of stagework on top of the musicianship–synchronized hip shakes and dancing, band members crisscrossing the stage and switching mikes, music that stops on a dime (and then starts again). Kendra Foster, mostly doing backup singing, co-wrote many of the lyrics on Black Messiah, and she’s electric. She’s never not in motion, with these hypnotic dance moves that aren’t purely sexualized or provocative—just really cool, spacey, and yet somehow always on point with the rhythms. The band, including D’Angelo, is dressed mostly in blacks and greys, which means that, as theatrical as the show sometimes gets, the motions don’t feel flashy or forced, like “Oh wow we’re going to impress you now.”

3) The songs are both exactly like the studio versions but also expansive, with room to breathe, with breaks for improvisation, with sudden switches in time signature, tempo, and melody. As audience members, we always knew where the songs were and where they were headed, but we were also consistently surprised by them.


D’Angelo played about an hour. As we were cheering, a guy next to me said, “that was good but it seemed short.” I said, “honestly, I think we’re just getting started.” And I was right. The first encore, coming after a delicious wait, lasted about 45 minutes, roaring through stuff on Voodoo (my favorite of his three records) and Black Messiah, plus a vamp that appeared to be unconnected to any particular song. And then another wait.

It was during the second encore that I finally decided that this was the best concert I’d ever been privileged to see. After playing my 2nd-favorite song on Black Messiah—“Tutu (Til It’s Done)”—he dove into the song we all knew he would play, and the song we all knew he was the most ambivalent about. Indeed, he mock-started it at least 5 times, going up to the mike, opening his mouth to start the first verse, and then turning away hilariously at the last second, the band vamping behind him.

When he finally got going, something beautiful and really touching happened. You know how, in Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, the concert starts with just David Byrne onstage, and with each song a new band member comes on stage? This was the opposite of that. The drummer stepped away first, walking up to D’Angelo and giving him a high five, and then walking off the stage. Everyone else keeps playing. We all keep singing, “How does it feeeeeellll?” Then, a minute later, a backup singer does it, giving D’Angelo an honest-to-God hug before he departs. Then one of the guitarists. And so on. Each time a band member leaves, he or she gets thunderous applause. Eventually, D’Angelo’s sitting, playing his Yamaha keyboard, and it’s just him, Kendra Foster, and Pino Palladino. The song has lost most of its musicians but none of its intensity, because the audience’s swaying and singing keeps it going. D’Angelo planned it that way, of course, but it doesn’t feel planned. Kendra leaves, with the crowd thundering for her.

So, that leaves D’Angelo and Pino. If you’ve read my Glide piece, then you know what I think Pino adds to D’Angelo’s vision. The crowd knows it, too. You don’t have the world’s best funk/R&B/soul/dance band in the world without a great bassist. Even before Pino puts down his instrument, people are cheering for him. He gives D’Angelo a hug at the piano—for a second, the music stops (because D’Angelo is hugging him back)—and we keep it going with our singing and rhythmic handclaps. Finally, D’Angelo stops on the perfect cadence, and simply says, almost shyly, “We are so grateful, and so blessed. Thank you.”

And he’s gone.

Look, Robert Christgau wrote a better version of this 15 years ago, but nothing has changed in the interim, except D’Angelo didn’t take his shirt off. He didn’t need to.

It was some show, man.

Love and all best,

P.S. Oh, one thing I forget to mention: I always thought women throwing bras at the stage was a rock-movie cliché that didn’t happen in real life. But, um, no, apparently it’s a thing. Girls were near passing out.


Posted in Letterbox, Music | 3 Comments

Buster Keaton #9: The Boat (1921)

The Boat

Released 10 November 1921. Written & directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline. Starring Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Eddie Cline, and two unidentified child actors.

Around the second time Buster drills a hole into the bottom of his boat, as he’s in it at sea, I said out loud, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING, MAN?” But the Keaton family—played by Keaton, Sybil Seely, and two adorable but unidentified boys—has spent the entire short proving that it is utterly unseaworthy, so why was I surprised? Every step has been a disaster. They built the boat (the Damfino) inside their house but didn’t make any plans to get it out of the house. The house pays the price. They don’t know how to launch the boat into the sea from the harbor. The harbor, and the family car, pays the price. The Damfino, though it is an engineering contraption worthy of Rube Goldberg, isn’t really a good boat. The family pays the price. Hell, they’re lucky to make it out alive.
Continue reading

Posted in Buster Keaton, Film | Leave a comment

Buster Keaton #8: The Playhouse (1921)


From a technical standpoint, The Playhouse is Buster Keaton’s most formally inventive film before Sherlock Jr. Six decades before bluescreening or greenscreening, seventy years before we saw three Michael J. Foxes at once onscreen during Back to the Future II, there’s this:

Continue reading

Posted in Buster Keaton, Film | Leave a comment

Gratitude #2

Spent two days rambling around Nashville, ostensibly in town for a (terrific) Phish concert in a new downtown amphitheater overlooking the Korean War Veterans Bridge, which itself loomed over the Cumberland River with its briny, musky scent enveloping the skyscrapers. And, OK, that was great. But that was Tuesday, and I arrived early Monday afternoon with a day to kill. 

So, found my cheap hotel across from Opryland. Wandered around the huge hotel complex, really a series of indoor mini-forests and chi-chi restaurants & boutique shops connected by hotel carpet and the white- noise hum of air conditioning, and thinking, Jesus, how American this all is. A manufactured wilderness–several, actually–nestled next to a fake French Quarter, all of which is plopped inside a biosphere dreamt up equally by Buckminster Fuller and Porter Waggoner, it’s a place where the country has been commodified in more ways than one. Being an American, I sorta loved it, in spite of myself. It was a pleasant place to walk, anyway, a place without sweating and the self-consciousness that brings out in me.

Otherwise, I sweated, and not just outside at the sweltering concerts I saw in Atlanta (twice!), Tuscaloosa, and here. I braved Prince’s Hot Chicken, glorious and delectably juicy and Oh My God Make It Stop Spicy and Lord I’m Gonna Regret This In Four Hours. I had posole and horchata as Mas Tacos Por Favor (cash only,  bring your friends), a window-unit-cooled tiny spot in the hood. I spent too much at Parnassus Books.

I got lost a lot in Nashville. Well, no. I would have, if I didn’t have my new smartphone with the fancy GPS that spoke to me in a smooth, slightly stern female voice–I’ve named her Samantha, after a certain movie. Yes, I’ve entered mid-2009, with my first smartphone. This allowed me to tweet from the concerts, despite the lack of available wi-fi, for the first time. Is that a blessing? It kept me out of trouble, though I’ve already figured out that beer, secondhand weed smoke, and an active mobile phone represents a bad combination for me. But I’m grateful for the lesson.

I’m grateful for lots, which I suppose is why I’m writing this on a lonely post-vacation night. I’m grateful for the mountains around Nashville, for modern cellular technology, for the faux splendor of a city reinventing itself, for a long conversation at Pinewood Social over lox & bagels & Crema coffee with a fellow writer (and a stranger, till he wanted to peek at the book I was reading), for good cheap food, for being able to jog 2.5 miles on the treadmill every day during my hotel-hopping, even for the drunk who kept puking on himself at the Nashville show and then trying to hit on the women friends I was with, for the blonde sizzler with bee-strung lips who danced with a Chinese accordion fan for the whole show; and, most of all, for the four boys from Vermont who, in 1983, decided to form a weird band, and how that band got me to all this in the first place. Bravo and thank you to all of it.

Posted in Me, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Buster reading

I’m just returning from vacation, jumping from Phish tour into a load of work left behind at the office and at home. So, this week’s Buster Keaton post will be short, and not on a particular film.

For this edition, I want to focus on the resources I’ve been using to contextualize my watching of Buster Keaton’s cinema of the 1920s. They’ve proven useful to me; maybe they will to you, too.

First, the movies themselves. For viewing, I’m using Kino Lorber’s Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection, 1920-1923. When I (finally) get to the features this fall, I’ll go ahead and plunk down the hard cash for The Ultimate Buster Keaton Collection, which will overlap with the shorts I already have but will include all the full movies (pre-1930) in one fell swoop. Kino does God’s work in its archiving and distribution of early cinema, and the company’s collections are the places to start for all things Buster.

As references, and for making GIFs, I turn to the Internet Archive’s Buster Keaton section. The intrepid folks there have collected and uploaded most of the films. They can be streamed or downloaded in lo-res versions. The movies distributed prior to 1923 are in the public domain, while everything else can be seen only in snippets. Well, OK, that’s not true at all—Sherlock Jr. (1927) is there in full, and are other post-1923 classics. I’ve never figured out the Archive’s legal status to my satisfaction, so I hesitate to recommend it, exactly, but it’s a useful starting point. Then again, since Keaton’s two sons are dead, as is his last wife Eleanor, I can’t discern the Keaton Estate’s legal status, either. Hell, almost everything can be found on YouTube as well, so go nuts.

I’ve mentioned the key books in passing but I want to give more attention to them here:

My Wonderful World of Slapstick by Buster Keaton, with Charles Samuels: Buster’s memoir-of-sorts. Rollicking, funny, gossipy, and full of technical insights, it’s a great read. As with most memoirs and autobiographies, I have my doubts about the book’s veracity in parts—it’s very much a book that’s about creating and sustaining the myth of Buster Keaton, and sometimes myth outstrips reality. That’s a running theme in Buster’s cinema, so we should hardly be surprised. So, it’s heavily weighted toward the pre-1930 years of vaudeville and his early, best works, when he owned and controlled a studio. The alcoholic years and decades of depression, divorce(s), and the diminishing returns of TV are here, sure, but not in as much detail as an impersonal biographer might give. And that’s okay, ultimately. You can’t expect Buster to rub salt and lemon juice into those wounds, though he owns up to his major mistakes like a champ, in such chapters as “The Chapter I Hate to Write” and “My Worst Mistake.”

Buster Keaton: Interviews, edited by Kevin W. Sweeney: This one collects sixteen interviews and interview-based profiles with the actor/director, mostly from the 1950s and 1960s. (Full disclosure: I worked with Sweeney on this book, when I worked for University Press of Mississippi, the book’s publisher.) The timeframe of the interviews reflect how little critical attention was given to silent comedy during the period in which they flourished; interviewers such as Kevin Brownlow, Penelope Gilliatt, Studs Terkel, and Rex Reed were rediscovering him—and other silent stars—during the final decade of Keaton’s life. There’s considerable overlap in the questions asked and anecdotes told, as Keaton was perfecting his late-period interviewee persona by this point, but they are good stories and offer enough sides of him to be interesting. This book’s filmography and biographical chronology have been my grounds zero for basic info on Keaton.

The Parade’s Gone By… by Kevin Brownlow: For years, the definitive tome on early American cinema, and still a go-to book. Brownlow’s 20-page interview-based profile of Buster is one of the earliest, and still one of the best. As a whole, Parade is all over the place. Some chapters are profiles of stars and directors, while others are blow-by-blow accounts of the making of particular films, while still others are essentially critiques of films and/or film artists, and others are more-or-less straight reportage. Brownlow interviewed over 100 folks involved in early movies, in a mad dash to get these folks on tape before they died, and the seams often show. What the book lacks in cohesion is made up for by its breadth—Brownlow really did talk to every big name available, and he asked the best, sharpest, most detail-oriented questions he could.

Two articles have proven invaluable to me in my thinking about the silent era. Matthew Dessem’s long essay, The Gag Man,” was published for The Dissolve (RIP) on 24 April 2014. Ostensibly about Clyde Bruckman, a gag writer on the periphery of every silent comedy you can imagine, it really uses Bruckman as a lens through which we can view and understand early American cinema. It’s one of the best-researched and most vividly written essays on cinema I have read in years, heartbreaking and deeply learned all at once. “The Gag Man” has given me a true understanding of how silent comedy got made, why it’s so hard to attribute proper credit to its most brilliant jokes, and what cinema looked like before it became domesticated.

The second essay, more specifically on Keaton, is Charlie Fox’s Buster Keaton’s Cure,” for Cabinet (Winter 2014-2015). It concerns Keaton’s oeuvre after he gave up Buster Keaton Studios (aka, “My Worst Mistake”), giving the genius’s work in the 1940s and 1950s their due, and placing it in a continuum with the 1920s masterpieces. Fox and Dessem’s essays, collectively, offer a fully formed vision of Keaton’s whole career.

Subjects for further research: In the fall and winter, I plan to read—or at least skim—the following: Marion Meade’s biography, Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase; Edward McPherson’s Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat; Lisle Foote’s Buster Keaton’s Crew: The Team Behind His Silent Films; and the encyclopedia A-Z of Silent Comedy. If you’ve got suggestions or, hey, wanna send me free books/resources, let me know.


Posted in Books, Buster Keaton, Film | Leave a comment