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.
Cops is orchestrated calamity, set and shot mostly on the Los Angeles streets of 1922, less than two decades after Fénéon’s eventful year, and Keaton’s choreography makes plain how insane being on a street was at a time. You see, my lapse was in assuming that traffic operated then much as it does now.
Nope. Imagine a major city intersection with no stoplights, signs, or traffic signals of any kind; without painted lines on the asphalt, or even demarcated parking slots. Imagine that intersection with more than two converging lines of traffic, with pedestrians everywhere (because the line between sidewalks and streets is pretty blurred), and without everyone agreeing exactly on which side of the road they should be driving on. Imagine that intersection with a mix of automobiles—again, a newfangled contraption for which you didn’t necessarily need a license to drive just yet—and horse-drawn carts, because that was still common at the time. Imagine trolley lines cutting through that intersection. Imagine that the only thing keeping this intersection in order was a single police officer, directing traffic. Imagine what might happen if that lone cop got distracted.
And then imagine that intersection multiplied thousands of times throughout the city.
Suddenly, Fénéon’s France makes sense.
Cops, then, is a sort of documentary of Los Angeles, capturing the city as it is becoming itself. This is true of lots of early cinema—before building sets and shooting permits became common, before the era of painted backdrops (and later CGI), many movies were shot on the streets. One obsessive went so far as to trace urban history by using Keaton’s footage as his guide. Silent cinema, then, creates a visual record of bygone California life, in ways that just weren’t possible before photography. Seeing is believing, here, even if the cinematic narratives are preposterous—as was usually the case, for Keaton and everyone else.
That record reveals cool things, accidentally. Take a look at this.
It’s just a background shot, right? Nothing important happens here except Buster runs through it, trailed by cops. (Long story.) But it shows a sign for a dentist’s office, in Spanish, revealing that there was already enough of a Spanish-speaking populace in Los Angeles by 1922 (when the movie was released) that businesses catered to Hispanics. And check out the prices for routine dentistry if you want to become depressed about monetary inflation.
All throughout Cops, we see power lines crisscrossing the sky, businesses mashed together on city blocks, manholes steaming with funk, shop windows advertising their wares, billboards and ads vying for attention—the pulse of a city that no longer exists but which kinda looks like our own. Cops, more than most of Buster’s shorts, is a macro movie. It spreads out. Hundreds of uniformed extras and onlookers. Chaos and destruction in the streets. Traffic that only looks chaotic—Keaton and company had to choreograph it down to the millisecond. There’s a street parade, seen presumably with stock footage, as the film stock here lacks the crispness of the rest of the movie. But maybe not. In any case, whereas most Keaton shorts involve Buster in conflict with one or two galoots, here he’s against seemingly the entire police force. And, for once, he loses. He doesn’t get the girl. He can’t break free. He maybe even dies at the end.
Buster would perfect his grandiose visions in his features, particularly The General, The Navigator, and Steamboat Bill Jr. Cops is the first time he thought so big, and it doesn’t quite jell to my eyes. Its small moments are still its best moments. This particular tiny moment became one of the most iconic shots he ever produced:
He could do that all day, and I’d laugh every time.