Friday, September 7, 2007
GROUNDING ABSURDITY IN REALITY: Looking at 3 Short Films by Buster Keaton
By the time of Buster Keaton’s three triumphant features in two years—starting in 1923 with Our Hospitality and followed up by Sherlock, Jr., and The Navigator—he had already made upwards of two dozen shorts. I’m going to take a look at three of them, one each from the three preceding years.
The earliest, most ambitious, and least successful of the three is The Playhouse (1921). The Playhouse manages to presage Alec Guinness’s performance in Kind Hearts and Coronets, just about every Peter Sellers movie, Andre Benjamin’s video for “Hey Ya!” and much of Eddie Murphy’s recent career all in one go. Buster plays the stagehand, all the performers and the entire audience. As he says as one of the audience members, “This Buster Keaton fellow seems to be the whole show.” I’ve heard it’s supposed to be poking fun at Chaplin and other stars of the day who would credit themselves as star, director, writer and whatever other credits they could get their hands on. The shot of the playbill with a long list of the name “Buster Keaton” written next to each role works nicely to this effect.
However, there is no evidence of satire in the body of the piece. The only goal of most slapstick is a continual game of one-upmanship—up the stakes and thus the punchline. And so it is here. But the only gag that The Playhouse has at its disposal is the concept of Buster playing all of the characters, so it moves from set-piece to set-piece, emphasizing this point. Look, he’s the orchestra conductor—and all of the musicians in the pit. He’s everybody in the audience—an old man and his wife, a young mother and her child. Look, now he’s all of those performers on the stage in blackface. It gets bigger and bigger and more and more absurd, but there aren’t any real laughs because it hasn’t been grounded in anything. It’s not the absurd poking through and distorting reality Buster excels at, it’s merely ridiculous.
The film itself seems to sense this, and Buster wakes up from a dream. An angry man, perhaps a landlord, is waking him up. He’s being pulled out of his bed, thrown out of his apartment. They’re packing all of his things and moving him out. Then they even move out the walls, and it’s revealed that we’re still on the stage. Buster is the stagehand. He goes through a series of comic setpieces, each a narrative of Buster the bumbling stagehand improvising in order to cover-up his mistakes. In one, he hires a construction crew off the street to get on stage. In another, he poses as a monkey. This is all much funnier than the first half of the film, even though it is much less spectacular and conceptual. Though we can no longer marvel at the technical feat of twenty Buster Keatons all on the screen at one, we are now free to actually laugh, as the events that are transpiring are once again grounded in corporeal reality.
Buster’s charm, his magnetism, is in his ability to do things with physical objects that are so magnificent they seem to transcend the physical world. However, you must first be tied to something, profoundly connected to it, before you can transcend it. 1922’s Cops amply proves the rule. Cops utilizes a startlingly similar frame narrative as that of The General four years later. In the Civil War epic, Buster’s girlfriend tells him she doesn’t want to see him again until he’s a uniformed officer. Here, the order is a more pedestrian one, but no less difficult to fill. The love interest in Cops tells Buster, “I won’t marry you until you become a big businessman.” Then (unlike in The General, where Buster can’t seem to stop running into his sweetheart at every turn of the plot) she promptly disappears from the better portion film, making way for Buster’s moneymaking antics. (Her re-entrance is used to great effect, though, as one of a chain of reveals where characters we've already known are shown to have some connection with the police.)
Cops wastes no time throwing Buster into about four different frying pans, upping the stakes every scene. Here Cops succeeds precisely where The Playhouse failed. It grounds each moment of escalating absurdity in the reality of the moment. Within five minutes Buster has accidentally pickpocketed a policeman, paid a man for all of the possessions of someone else’s family, paid another man for a horse and carriage that didn’t belong to him, and ridden off with it all after watching the man who owned the stuff load his own possessions onto the carriage (thinking Buster was the moving man.) Despite the ridiculous nature of the situation, each step on the ladder has contained its own logic and we move to each one with a higher level of laughter without an increased sense of incredulity.
There a couple of sublime moments peppered throughout Cops—including a reveal shot with Buster under an umbrella that feels like an all-time classic image—but it’s the stunts that really mark themselves out for admiration. Buster grabbing onto a passing car with one hand looks like a separated shoulder at best, and the sequence with a ladder over a fence and Buster straddling it is one of those dangerous, he-really-did-it-himself moments that surrounds the Keaton myth (like the similarly famous image from another of his shorts of the house collapsing all around him while he’s utterly still at the center of it.)
The thing for me, though, that really makes a film recognizably a Buster Keaton film are those moments when the material objects in the physical world conform to the functions and properties of Buster’s needs at the time. Cops has a wonderful moment playing with this convention. Buster is locked in a trunk. The cop that has him trapped there starts to lift it up and carry him away. But, the bottom of the trunk revealed to be hollow, Buster crawls out from beneath. Before he runs off, and before the cop gives chase, both he and Buster pause and look under the trunk, even Buster surprised that he has so easily overcome another obstacle.
The Love Nest (1923) contains one of the immortal examples of the phenomena. Buster is having trouble taking a rowboat off of the deck of a whaling ship. He proclaims, rather grandiosely, “If the boat will not go to the water, the water shall go to the boat!” and proceeds to chop through the bottom of the ship with an axe, flooding it. He waits patiently for the water to rise and sets off in his new boat, “the Little Love Nest.” (The fact that all three boats in the short—the other two being “Cupid” and “the Love Nest”—have names referencing romance but are only populated by males, and that Buster sets off on the journey after forsaking his girlfriend at the beginning, is the subject of another essay entirely. One which I’d love to write—or read.)
All the classic slapstick principles are at play in The Love Nest: set-up, repeat, subvert expectations in order to generate laughs. The brilliant part comes at the end, when Buster subverts the audience’s expectations precisely by NOT doing so. (Or, as R. Kelly says in the commentary to his Locked in the Closet musical: “The cliffhanger is that there is no cliffhanger.”) Buster is out fishing on what is revealed to be a naval targeting site. He’s on target #3. We cut to an approaching naval battleship. “Target #1!” and the first target explodes: Set-up. The seaman calls out, “Target #2!” and the second target explodes: Repetition. “Target #3!”
Here’s where we expect something special to happen. We’re waiting for Buster to exert that magical part of his persona, that ability to bend reality to his own will. But guess what? Target #3 explodes, and Buster is blown sky high. The laugh is even bigger because we expected to be tricked—but the trick was that there was no trick! I have no idea how often this device had been used in film before, but it works rather well. Especially as it the first of three successive moments where the rug is pulled out from under us. 1.) Buster blows up. 2.) He wakes up back in his boat—most of what we’ve seen has been a dream. 3.) He never even left the harbor, therefore the reality of everything that’s come before is questioned.
Yet even here, in a film where every event is shown to be taking place within the protagonist’s mind, care is taken to ensure that there is a logical progression from the wants and needs of the hero to the action of the story. I don’t know that Buster ever returned to the conceptual heights of The Playhouse, but that sort of trickery is decidedly not what people went to see Buster Keaton for. We watch Buster with great identification, with the knowledge that he’s just a regular guy who’s doing everything he can to get by. The more investment in the protagonist’s desires we have, the greater the emotional response to even the most illogical of gags. Similarly, if the reality of the world presented has been strongly established, we are more forgiving—indeed, more impressed and amused by—flights of fancy. The Playhouse doesn’t work because there is no reason for it to exist. As hokey as the romantic frame narratives in The Love Nest and Cops are, they establish a reason for the rest of the story to exist. We care because we are following someone’s adventures, not just a tour-de-force technical achievement populated by an ever-escalating series of gags. That’s a lesson that Buster apparently learned, and one that every generation of comic artists should learn from him.
This essay was my contribution to the Slapstick Blog-a-thon hosted by Film of the Year.