Giving the General Some
A new book treats Buster Keaton—and his art—as Buster Keaton deserves to be treated.
Few skills in life—and make no mistake, it is a skill—are more vital to maintaining and developing one’s humanness than finding a way to laugh, no matter the difficulty of the situation. Without laughter, we’re hollow, dried fruits falling to bits with a mere breath, so much dust on a surface plane. Essential, too, is the individual who can make us laugh, especially if we struggle on our own to induce a self-generated chuckle while walking about.
There’s an irony at play here. I’ve noticed that there are three things almost everyone thinks they are: smart, busy, and funny, though it’s rare to find a single person maintaining a .333 average on that score. Which is one reason why a wise, inducer of laughter is the kind of person all of us require in our respective life journeys, and why no one has ever been more necessary in the history of cinema than Buster Keaton, and why we’d be wise ourselves to spend some time with his perpetually modern self in our here and now.
Years ago, when home in the summers from college, I embarked on a Buster Keaton odyssey. This was a time when Charlie Chaplin was celebrated as the genius visionary of the early age of American cinema. His Little Tramp character was touted as the most iconic creation of the cinematic medium. This was an era when you were reliant on the video store for what you wished to see, so on Fridays I’d take full advantage of the rent ten-for-one deal, and depart the premises with a boatload of Buster Keaton films balanced against my chest. Come Monday, I would have been thoroughly wrecked—in a good way—and wowed in a manner I’ve only been a handful of times in my life. By the Beatles, Beethoven, the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thoreau’s journals, mid-period Billie Holiday.
Chaplin, I thought? Nah. Come on. Anyone could see that Keaton wasn’t just the man, he was the force of life.
There’s been a course correction when it comes to Keaton v. Chaplin, with the former having been critically elevated to his rightful perch, and the Tramp sagging back as something of a caricature, albeit an efficacious one, a doleful Mickey Mouse type. Thus we have a book like the recently published Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life, by James Curtis, which attempts to do for the artful Stone Face what Simon Callow has been doing in biographical form for Orson Welles, though in a single volume rather than Callow’s four. Curtis’s three-word subtitle speaks volumes and is voluminously respectful: We are talking about an artist here. Not a clown, “just a comedian,” a yucks-purveyor. A filmmaker like Jean Vigo was a filmmaker, and John Ford, and Howard Hawks; only, Keaton may be better than all of them.
Comedies get the shaft upon the critical landscape. Horror films do as well, as if even the best of these pictures represented undesirables at the party for the mucky-mucks. Something I learned very early on as I went further and further into cinematic art, was that you don’t want to be winning Oscars. If you are someone who does win Oscars, there’s a great chance you make staid, predictable, drama-lite, hackery. I think of reheated lasagna, going again for another turn around the microwave; it looks thick, filling, but the browning cheese is falling away, the edges cracking and turning upwards. Spare me the nullity of your statuettes and Oscar-viewing parties. Give me life, and give it to me straight and true, and that means you will also compel me to laugh in order to live.
A work of comedic movie artistry is akin to that person you have with you in the car on the long trip to a funeral or some such. It’s going to be a tough day, it’s a pain to get there, and having this person along for the ride—and the ride back, crucially—helps you get through it, and maybe helps you learn a thing or two about life and death and purpose and truth. When you get to the church, though, your buddy isn’t allowed inside. Not dapper and dour enough. Too real, even. Your buddy could well be a Buster Keaton comedy.
Curtis treats Keaton’s films the way I think a Hawthorne scholar would regard the stories: with the idea that this is an important undertaking that must be done with thought, care, and crisp, critical sobriety. They are discussed as movies we can watch again and again, always gleaning new insight. This is no book-length apologia for comedy, nor is it some jargon-y exercise in mental masturbation that one gets so often with the sort of academic writings that endeavor to take Keaton’s comedy seriously, and only make the reader say, “Come on, spare me this BS.”
We never think those academics are in earnest, in the few instances we might encounter what they write. Curtis is in earnest, as Keaton himself always was, at least in his pre-sound prime. The sound years were not kind to Keaton, being stripped as he was of his métier. To hear him speak in a movie must have been shocking at the time, with Keaton sounding like he’d just gargled a bucket of rocks. His unfortunate speaking voice casts him as a figure who might have played an annoying character on The Andy Griffith Show—Gomer Pyle without the duncery, more avuncular and less impish. In writing about the whole Keaton shebang, Curtis’s text wear’s thin as Keaton’s own material does. It’s for completists at that juncture., which is no knock. But to focus on those silent film years is to focus on purely transformative art. So what if a fraction of a book of this ilk is more valuable than the rest of it? That’s a damn solid fraction.
Welles was of the opinion that there is no finer American picture than Keaton’s The General (1926), a film about the love between an engineer and his train. If you watch it once—and you should, if you haven’t, and get your kids in on the action, too—you’re apt to watch it 100 times, because within a Keaton masterpiece, we see ourselves. It doesn’t do to call his characters Everymen. That sounds folkish, loose, not nuanced and specific. That’s the trick, though—to imbue a character with quirks and specificity, gradations of personness, but so that anyone can instantly identify with that core human. The Keatsian art, as well as the Keaton-esque.
Keaton’s characters, as he wrote them, played them, directed them, shepherded them, are on the verge of the tragic, or just plain stuck in the ruts of tragedy itself. These are the ruts of life. We all end up in their weathered grooves. I’ll watch a film noir where someone is shanghaied and it’s off to a tour of misery on a sealer ship, but another character still has some witty line that makes our protagonist laugh. When you’re at the hospital for the death of a relative, there’s still going to be a remark that causes you to smile. Humor is not cheap and commonplace, as the Academy treats even the best comedies, those that will always last. It’s as real as pain, the loss of love, the breaking down of the body; it’s what makes those realities of life manageable, and, what’s more, opportunities for growth. So long as you can laugh.
What we find in Curtis’s discussion of the best Keaton films is the idea that humor isn’t merely a coping agent. It’s a way of being, and if we don’t have some version of that way of being tattooed into our souls, we’re going to have a bloody awful time of just about everything, and we’ll also struggle to process and revel in joy, when it is at hand. Humor, as Buster Keaton understood it, doesn’t just get us through; it hoists us up so that we can see the world better, and we become people who exclaim “Ah hah!” rather than “Uh oh.”