There must be someone, somewhere, who has seen Buster Keaton in action and actually dislikes him. I feel sorry for that poor soul, and I don’t want to ever meet him.
Look, I can imagine a person not immediately loving the great stone-faced comedian, especially given how little we are educated about silent film, and given the cultural roadblocks we must jump over to understand early cinema. Silent movies look alien to us, at least at first. Those first three decades of cinema are magical, in that the rules weren’t set technically or aesthetically about what film could and should do. Film school was nonexistent; film studies, too. Film directors, writers, actors, producers, set designers, and all the rest were making it up as they went along, fixing things with duct tape and spit, inventing new methods on the fly to cover up mistakes or to squish wild ideas into a mold that wasn’t quite dry, yet. And silent comedy—the milieu of this great master of movies—was even more mysterious and shambolic, because laughter is strange and unwieldy in any form, especially a form being made as it was done. Then, there’s the natural degradations of silent movies before reliable, standard equipment became common—the sped-up (and unevenly meted out) film that makes everyone look like they’re on cocaine; the scratches and smears and splotches on even the best prints and reproductions; the title cards; the often-atrocious soundtracks that modern-day publishers impose on the movies.
Okay, okay, fine. But if you get past that, and just look at the stern fellow bolting into (and causing) all manner of madness, you start smiling immediately. And then you start laughing. Before I saw Go West for the first time, I thought the phrase “laughing so hard my sides hurt” was a stock cliché, not something that could—but did—actually happen. When I wrote about Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. a few years back, Darren Hughes sent me this comment:
Walter, four or five years ago, I made my three nephews watch Sherlock, Jr., which is one of my all-time favorites. They were 7, 8, and 10 at the time and had probably never seen a black-and-white film, let alone a silent one. After two or three minutes, they were chuckling, and by the end of the film they were rolling and making me stop and rewind. It’s just about the most perfect movie ever made.
“Just about the most perfect movie ever made.” And that’s the thing. If you cut through all the preconceptions about silent cinema and just watch, you laugh at Keaton’s persona and onscreen style. If you watch long enough, though, you become slackjawed by his filmmaking. He’s not just a hilarious performer—though he’s one of the best ever—but also one of the most inventive, audacious directors to have ever lived. He had the grand conceptual visions and technically innovative spirit that Charles Chaplin had but Keaton was more rough-and-tumble, and (thank God) far less prone to sentimentality or moralizing. For the whole of the 1920s, the prolific actor, stuntman, director, and conceptualist had maybe the most productive run of any film star ever. So many of film comedy’s conventions were either made or refined by him that we take them for granted. The camerawork, lighting, editing, and large-scale gags just floor me. For American talking cinema, Orson Welles or John Ford tend to loom large, crowding out the room. For our silent era, it’s Keaton.
…And to think that I almost didn’t find Keaton at all, and that, when I did finally get to him, it was because of jazz.
Back in 2000, I was getting into jazz in a serious way, reading Jerry Jazz Musician, looking at back issues of Jazziz in the Eudora Welty Library, and deciding what CDs to buy with the slim cash that I had. After reading a 5-star Jazziz review of Bill Frisell’s Ghost Town and hearing a NPR profile of the jazz guitarist back-to-back, I bought that album. I loved it. (I still love it.) It introduced me to Frisell’s spooky, ethereal, knotty but somehow gorgeous style, and, by the end of the year, I had ten Frisell records.
One of those initial ten albums was Frisell’s soundtrack to Buster Keaton’s Go West, about which I knew nothing. At this point, I had seen exactly one silent film: Nosferatu. It engaged me but its archaic conventions were so distancing that I wasn’t ever scared. I figured I would have the same experience with comedy—neato to consider but not emotionally involving. I sure didn’t imagine it as modern, which Frisell’s eerie music certainly was. “Why,” I wondered, “did Frisell create such a contemporary, angular, fragmented, electric soundtrack for this stodgy old movie?” I was intrigued but not yet enough to seek out the movie.
Around the same time, I heard Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um for the first time, and was particularly mesmerized by its instant classic, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” Now, I knew almost nothing about silent comedy but I knew Charlie Chaplin had a cane and Buster Keaton wore a porkpie hat. “Keaton again,” I thought, “and from an avant-garde bebopper at that! What is it with this guy?” And that was the nudge that made me finally check out Go West from Video Library.
Now, look. You jazz cats in the room are already laughing at me. I realize, now, that Mingus’s title was giving tribute to Lester Young, the legendary saxophonist well-known for wearing, um, a porkpie hat. Hell, I even owned a late Lester Young album at the time. I know all this now; I know it had nothing to do with Buster Keaton.
But I didn’t know that then. Good thing, too.
The music turned out to be entirely appropriate for Keaton’s cinema, which feels as fresh and modern as this morning, as the clicking of subway cars on the tracks, as the city skyline blinking into the night. Keaton movies feel like jazz—a little ramshackle, improvised, urban and urbane, present and alert, and with a firm foundation on which all the tomfoolery and swirling genius can stand. I’m fine with people citing Blazing Saddles as a great parody of the western, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller as a great postmodern western. But when people start talking about them as the first self-conscious westerns, I think to myself, “Go West got there first in 1925.”
Already, by 1925, western tropes—its stoic masculinity, its hard-bitten characters, its rural and mountainous landscapes, its grandiose vistas and mythic themes, its reliance on guns and fisticuffs—were so well-known that Keaton could lampoon everything about them, and know that his audience will get the jokes. So, he does, injecting a streetwise, modern, mocking, hip sensibility into a genre that sorely needed (and needs) all those things. And, again, it made me laugh so hard my sides hurt.
Video Library didn’t have much Keaton on its shelves. So, I went to eBay, and procured a Chinese bootleg box set of the master’s oeuvre. It features the lion’s share of his output, from 1920-1929—all of the features and most of the two-reeler shorts. I’ve seen a lot of the films at least once but not all of them, and—excepting Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr., The General, and Go West—I’ve rarely seen any of them more than once.
That ends now. Or, at least, it’ll end over the next few months. Starting in June, I’ll devote a new blog post to a Keaton feature or short, until I laugh my way through this collection. In all likelihood, I’ll delve into the roots of silent comedy, veering into the Keystone Kops, Mack Sennett and Hal Roach and Fatty Arbuckle productions, into books and articles of note, into the strange. haunting, and influential legacies of blackface and minstrelsy. I hope you’ll join me. Let’s laugh and learn about silent cinema together, through the lens of one of America’s finest filmmakers.