The Sunday Intertitle: Smile


What with Film Club coming up, I thought this week’s intertitle ought to come from Buster Keaton, since he was such an influence on Richard Lester. In GO WEST, Buster is able to parody Cecil B. DeMille’s THE VIRGINIAN, with a paraphrase of its most famous line (above), and Griffith’s BROKEN BLOSSOMS with his own reaction. Buster is literally unable to smile to save his life, so with a six-shooter aimed at his heart he resorts to the Gish Manipulation ~


(My maternal grandmother told me that, seeing Lillian Gish force a smile like this in BROKEN BLOSSOMS struck her and her young friends as hysterically funny when they saw it, which puzzled me, as I assumed Griffith’s films were taken seriously in their day. Then I did my sums and realized she must have seen it on re-release, probably the sonorized version, in the late twenties or early thirties — and Griffith’s Victorian melodrama would have seemed high camp to the young people of the jazz age. Did Edinburgh have a jazz age?)

Lester’s debt to Keaton isn’t just a fondness for slapstick, or a tendency to use accelerated motion to evoke silent-film action (only in a few films, from 1964-1966). There’s a whole philosophy of composition. We could start with the famous dictum “comedy is long shot, tragedy is closeup,” and then add in the love of flatness, emphasizing the screen’s two-dimensional aspect rather than trying to transcend it. The simple, flat, graphic composition is easy for the eye to read, and clarity is the most crucial factor in visual comedy. It also stylises everything, removes it from reality (look at Wes Anderson’s similar love of the planimetric shot), making it easier to achieve comic distance.

Lester credits Keaton with being the first to really use the space around the comedian as part of the joke. With Chaplin, he’s said, you always sense the proscenium arch (though Chaplin was certainly careful to get the right distance between subject and lens). With Keaton, somehow the shot itself is funny. Lester has used the example of Keaton and the cow in GO WEST — extremely beautiful, and inherently funny just by the arrangement of objects in 2D space.

I wasn’t exactly sure which shot he meant. But he could have meant all of them. You can tell this is a comedy, can’t you, just from the shapes?





8 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Smile”

  1. renlauoutil Says:

    Once more, a small but perfectly formed bit of insight.

  2. In a way Buster Keaton’s face is always in long shot, even in close up, which is why it work so perfectly for comedy. It’s the face of a silhouette.

  3. His subtle facial movements are great in closeup, though — and he adjusts his performance to the size of shot.

    In the documentary shot about the making of The Railrodder you see him shooting a scene and every movement seems extremely stylised. Compare it with what the actual Railrodder camera saw — he seems entirely natural. Because he was acting for THAT camera, not the documentary one.

  4. I remember seeing “Go West” with a college crowd. Keaton’s initial reaction to “SMILE” got a bigger laugh than the manipulations that followed. It was as if he’d just been smacked with a totally alien concept he couldn’t process.

    Walter Kerr talks about Keaton “noticing” things: Instead of doing a comedy take he’ll quietly study an object or situation for just a instant, Either he doesn’t instantly understand it or he’s trying to figure how to put it to work. It’s an almost canine thing.

    Compare to Stan Laurel laboring mightily to grasp something, ending with a triumphant grin and nod as he finally wraps his mind around it. Even then he’ll sometimes be halfway into the grin and nod when he suddenly decides he still doesn’t get it. See the turned-around statue in “Wrong Again.”

    Maybe Keaton’s more stylized shots could be taken as forcing the audience to view something that should be safe and familiar through his eyes. Bustervision.

  5. Oh that’s brilliant.

  6. Yes, brilliant.

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