Digital Polyphony

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A Tribute to Buster Keaton

Posted on July 29, 2010 at 1:18 AM

A Tribute to Buster Keaton

Comedy is timeless. Period. What was funny a hundred years ago is still funny today. People find themselves in the same types of situations, meet the same strange people, say the wrong damn things they've always done. We know this for a fact because , thanks the world of film, it's been recorded for us to still enjoy to this day. 

During the early era of the silent cinema, geniuses paved the way. I could list countless, but for this (and, who knows, maybe this will be a continuing series) I wanted to write up something about a personal favorite, Buster Keaton.

Now I won't bore you with the facts about the man, where he was born, how he was raised, the controversy that surrounded his personal life and mental stability or his fondness for porkpie hats which never quite exceeded his fondness of alcohol.

If you're untrained when watching a Keaton film, you'll probably say that it's just another silent film. It's much more than that, though, and Keaton's influence is what I wanted to focus on primarily in this brief and probably far from comprehensive look at how the man changed perceptions of comedy and filmmaking as a whole.

Like a lot of silent comedians, Keaton's characters often found themselves in odd and sometimes precarious situations. Keaton's take, though, wasn't slapstick or antics (though, do know he was entirely physical as silent comedies needed to be). He was all about "observing." From the subtle to the insane, and sometimes the comedy came from not observing at all such as the famous shot in Steamboat Bill Jr. where he's completely oblivious to a house falling on him. Yes that's him...yes that's a real house...and yes that's a great example of how he played the audience. That's just one, though, and often times his stunts, should they be called upon, were not only extravagant but he maintained that even, nonchalant composure to it all.

They called him the "Stone Face" because his expression rarely changed in his films. That was his gag. He was so focused on observing that, often, the comedy came from no reaction at all. It was subtle, many times completely missed if you weren't paying attention. It was never as obvious as it was with Chaplin, Llyod or especially Fatty Arbuckle. 

He was also a master of foreshadowing, and again subtly. In Our Hospitality, not one of his greats but still quite good, there's a point made about guns on a gunrack early on. It's also in the background a few times in various scenes. At the end, he's being chased and enters the house where the guns are. 

Instead of following the star, which most silent comedies do, they cut away from him and follow his purser. We follow him into the house that Buster just entered and notice all the guns on the gunrack are now gone. He then confronts buster, and once the two reconcile he opens his coat and pulls out all the guns because he knew the man would have grabbed them and shot him had they been there. Keaton loved misdirection and fooling his audience - either making them think one thing and pulling the rug out, or simply have them look at one thing while doing something else completely different and, as it turns out, far more relevant. 

Also amazing was his directing style. Silent Cinema was still, early on, rooted firmly in theatre. It often did its scenes on simple stage-like structures with just one shot. It was usually basic, a side view, and the actors would just perform the entire scene with an occasional cut away here and there. Keaton, though, used the eye of the camera probably better than any other comedian of the time. I mentioned Fatty Arbuckle earlier. Well, early on Keaton collaborated with Arbuckle quite a bit, and I think a great example of his style can be found in their film The Garage. Take note of the exterior and interior shots. The interiors were done by Arbuckle. Very basic, lots of wide shots and long takes. Now look at the exterior when they come up. Distinctly Keaton. Lots of quick cuts, the camera is not just sitting on some stage, it uses space and points of interest and edits everything together to tell a story.

Keaton's films show patience. They had things like establishing shots and a slow build, gradually introduced characters and used these new concepts called "irony" and "satire" to their benefit. Even in one of Buster's earliest shorts, The Haunted House (and a personal favorite, though many don't talk about it - and I think that's actually The Playhouse, I've seen it under both titles), he distinguishes himself already. Close ups, wide shots, lots of cuts for such an early silent era film. Also note the small scene of his spilling glue. In an era where pies-in-faces and crazy stunts were the norm, Buster took note of those little life observations like that far more. He was already ahead of his time.

He weaved this take and technique into wonderful stories on top of it all, usually about a boy-meets-girl scenario or a man trying to just do the right thing and, in many cases, not entirely coming out on top (which was the twist). They were simple, but here's one thing I loved: everything came naturally. Nothing ever felt like a setup to gag or stunt. It just casually walks in, does its thing, then we move on. Chaplin did that on occasion as well, but never as consistently. 

This is the type of comedy I like. The subtle kind with a bit of irony and a hell of a lot of misdirection and charm to it all. A gleeful playfulness that silent comedies always had and is why they are always going to be loved. If you've not had the joy of watching Keaton's work, you should start with his must sees in Sherlock Jr, The General. The Navigator (which had some very, very impressive sets and scenes...a technical feat in every sense) and Steamboat Bill Jr. He had a ton of shorts too that can make for a laugh on those long afternoons at work for a few minutes at least.

And trust me, you will laugh. It's guaranteed.

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Reply Eric Power
1:01 AM on July 30, 2010 
Buster Keaton was always my favorite actor from the silent era. He has always been a big inspiration, especially when considering my field of animation. The way he was able to convey emotion through body language and the slightest change in his expression is captivating.
I've recently been on a bit of a kick, checking out youtube videos of his work. I need to go back and rewatch some of his lengthier films at some point (once my Netflix queue quiets down).

Another great article man! Have you ever considered shooting video and showing off some of these gems? I'd love to have a joint review with you as part of my thoughts on film series.
Reply J. Conrady
12:22 AM on July 31, 2010 
He is certainly that. My professor in College really introduced me to him, I actually wrote some of this article going through ten year old notes from her class (she wrote a book on him too, apparently). It was so easy to just turn me on to him, it's so my style. I love Chaplin too, and Lloyd I've REALLY grown to like in the past few years, but Buster is just right on.

And thanks for stopping by, Mr. Power. ^_^