"It was Keaton's notion that cutting, valuable as it was in a thousand ways, must not replace the recording function of the camera, must not create the happening. The happening must happen, be photographed intact, then be related by cutting to other happenings."I like to space out my Buster Keaton viewings, giving myself just enough time between films that I surprise myself with his genius with every binge. I find the whole "Chaplin vs. Keaton" debate more than a bit tedious, though obviously both are divergent yet titanic enough to warrant comparison. I will say, though, that for the undeniable mastery of the two of them, Keaton is the who, to me, best exemplifies comedy, not simply between them but in all of cinema. His cutting, camera technique, scripting, design and performance capture the flow of comedy better than I've seen anyone else do since.—Walter Kerr
The above quote gets at part of his skill at crafting movies: despite the obvious construction of the setpieces and the distancing effect of silent film pantomime when viewed through a modern prism (neither of which I intend as criticism), Keaton's movies feel so in the moment, so spontaneous, that I not only continue to marvel at his skill but feel surprise at the payoffs. Roger Ebert gets at that in his own praise of Keaton's work, saying "Another of Keaton's strategies was to avoid anticipation. Instead of showing you what was about to happen, he showed you what was happening; the surprise and the response are both unexpected, and funnier." I'm not the most devoted Keaton disciple, but I've seen some of this stuff more than once, and I almost forget what happens because Keaton does such a great job moving escalating every moment on its own terms without telephoning the next gag over the one that's currently playing.
I've been meaning to pick up Kino's Blu-Rays of The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr., and I'm ecstatic that the company is releasing his early shorts on Blu-Ray on my birthday (gift ideas, people). To get myself ready for that essential purchase, but mainly because it had simply been a while, I decided to visit (and revisit) some Keaton shorts.
My favorite of Keaton's shorts, though I hardly think I'm going out on a limb with that choice. One Week tells the story of a newlywed couple who discover that the house they purchased is a build-your-own kit, a situation made worse by meddling from a jilted suitor. The resulting monstrosity is one of Keaton's best sets, an angular, tilted, menacing house that looks like Dr. Caligari's summer cottage. The mishaps are brilliant; the lengthy gag about the piano alone leads to several other house-warping jokes as wee, wiry Keaton nearly pulls down his ceiling with the makeshift semi-pulley he rigs out of the chandelier. A bit involving the house spinning (the real thing, not a model) makes use of Keaton's intuitive undercranking to speed up his tumble around the place, giving a constant sense of action without repeatedly breaking the shots for variance. The short culminates in what may be my favorite silent punchline, a double bluff that continues to make me guffaw long after the initial surprise has dissipated.
From its first moments, as Keaton completes his titular vessel and finds he's made it so big he can't drag it out of his house, The Boat is suggestive, huge and hysterical. Where Chaplin continued to play the downtrodden Tramp long after he hit it big, Keaton was willing to play with the idea of his wealth, but ostentation proves his downfall here. Simply getting his yacht out of his garage rips apart the family house, while putting the damn thing in the water costs him a car. (The way he takes out his aggression for this by yanking his son up off the dock with one hand absolutely slays me.) At sea, matters are even worse, with Keaton slowly demolishing his prop into driftwood. The degradation of the ship in the storm is one of Keaton's best large but self-contained setpieces, surpassed only by his use of the train in The General and the house in One Week. Numerous Keaton films are masterclasses in filmmaking, but few are as succinct as this. The best example of this? Just watch how he subtly establishes the name of the boat solely for use in the punchline, which is so hysterical Keaton lets the mouthed word get the laughs without following up with an utterly redundant title card.
I've yet to see a bad Buster Keaton from the silent era, but obviously some shorts and features aren't as essential as others. The Paleface is one of Keaton's lesser efforts, entertaining but dispensable. Surprisingly, however, it does not particularly fall into the ever-looming trap under such old films of giving way to casual racism or jokes at the expense of Indians. Truth be told, it doesn't have that much to say about Native Americans at all despite its plot, centered on a oil company seeking to throw the Indians off the land to drill, yet Keaton clearly sympathizes with the downtrodden. His alliance with the put-upon makes the film's middle sag with inaction between chases, and the gags are a bit simple for the man who burst out of apprenticeship with Arbuckle with such timeless, advanced work as One Week and The Boat. Yet I still laugh at the simple cheek of Keaton, tied to a pole near the start to be burned for trespassing on Indian ground, keeps waddling away from the tinder pile when his executioner goes to fetch more (it reminds me of Eric Idle's playful convict in The Life of Brain jovially telling his killer that he's actually been released, only to say "just kidding!" when the Roman nearly lets him go.) Minor Keaton from this period, as the old cliché about masters goes, is still Keaton, and the comedy works well enough that The Paleface's chief failure seems to be that it is "merely funny" in comparison to so many outright brilliant works by its maker.
Purportedly a take on his friend and mentor Fatty Arbuckle's infamous scandal, Cops takes Keaton's gift for perfectly modulated manic crescendo into Kafkaesque realms. Keaton knew how to time his films perfectly, to the point that he can progress a film from trying to impress his lady with good business sense to an inadvertent bomb throwing at a police parade and make it all linear, if deliberately bewildering. Less reliant on stunts than Keaton's construction and pacing, Cops works on the basis of its deadpan presentation of lunacy: the outrageously overladen cart Keaton drives is presented, as ever, without comment, Keaton applying his own stoicism to the frame as he pilots the monolith on wheels through the streets until it almost seems to fit. And when he inadvertently tosses an anarchist's bomb into a crowd of police, all hell breaks loose. The ensuing chase adds more and more cops until it seems everyone in the city has turned into an officer, Keaton chased by a swarm wherever he goes.
Less grandiose than many of Keaton's other works, Cops is nevertheless one of the best showcases of Keaton's style and one of the best fusions of Keaton's own performance and the film's aesthetic around him. The black wave of uniformed officers crashing after Keaton is almost surreal, and every time he thinks he's gotten away, another flatfoot appears in front of him to stall until the horde catches up. As a commentary on Arbuckle, Cops does not sufficiently make the connection between the idea that everyone can act as judge, jury and executioner through public opinion and the literalization of this by filling the city at the end with cops and only cops. But Keaton's demented two-reeler is incredibly atmospheric, even unsettling despite its hilarity; even when he finally gets the upper hand over the police, a disapproving civilian sends him back into the vengeful arms of the law. As such, the wry end card punctuates the sense of doom hanging over such instant, public conviction. Many years later, Chaplin must have watched this with more than a faint hint of recognition, too.