Peter Bogdanovich’s latest, Keaon documentary THE GREAT BUSTER, is…enjoyable enough. You get to see a great deal of clips from Buster’s films, and Bogdanovich nicely divides these between quick montages and long sequences where you get to see gags develop, at least somewhat. There are also an array of talking heads, some of whom know what they’re talking about. Even Johnny Knoxville justifies his presence, though Tarantino makes no sense. Norman Lloyd, Richard Lewis and Dick Van Dyke are invaluable, and Werner Herzog turns out to be a superb, offbeat choice, but it’s a shame the real expert, Patricia Eliot Tobias of the Buster Keaton Society, isn’t allowed to say more since everything she says is terrific, and better than Bogdanovich’s own VO.

PB wrote some terrific profiles back in the day but was never exactly a film critic, and too much of what he says here is just bland praise like “hilarious” or “great.” Which shouldn’t need saying, and for any benighted soul in the audience who ISN’T amused, doesn’t help them understand the appeal.

There’s also an odd structural device, which doesn’t pay off at all — the first two-thirds of the film tells Keaton’s life story in order, but skipping out the features he directed. We hear about Keaton’s hardworking final years, then the death, and then, after this emotional climax, PB takes us through the features, thinking to surprise us with the information that Keaton’s work was rediscovered towards the end of his life. Which is no surprise, really, and we’ve never really felt that Buster was forgotten, since we’ve seen how he was never out of work…

I can sort of see the theory behind this. But I’ve also seen this story told before, by Kevin Brownlow & David Gill in Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow, which tells the whole story in correct sequence, is full of people who knew and worked with Buster, and has nearly all the good interview footage of the man himself.

While it’s perfectly right that Buster should have a new major documentary every ten years or so, I doubt the Brownlow/Gill will ever be beaten.

38 Responses to “Flapshod”

  1. JAMES W COBB Says:

    Agreed. The Brownlow/Gill documentary is definitive. This new one does feature a number of talking heads who seem completely inappropriate and their comments are useless. I guess if this makes a new generation aware of Keaton, all the better. It also highlights how fine the recent restorations of his films are.

  2. True, the clips are mostly in superb shape.

    Some of the unlikelier talking heads turn out to be OK: Cybill Shepherd talks from an actor’s viewpoint and so offers some actual insight and expertise. But I think too many of these people have been chosen on the assumption that faces and names we recognise will help us engage (or help sell the film, which is understandable). But in fact, what pulls us in is people who have interesting things to say and can say them well.

  3. I haven’t yet seen this and now I’ve read your piece, don’t feel inclined to fork out for the DVD. But I was very pleased to read your comment about Patricia Eliot Tobias who is easily the most knowledgeable person alive today about BK’s life and work. She and the BK Society deserve great credit for the work they’ve done.

  4. Tony Williams Says:

    Sadly, such is the nature of most audio-commentaries and features today when so-called “experts” are chosen for their celebrity status rather than their acquired expertise. I think it is shame that you were not doing the audio-commentary on the recent Criterion DVD of LOCAL HERO since I think you would be much more cinematically and culturally aware concerning the film and its references than Mark (“The Exorcist is the greatest film in the world”) Commode.

  5. bensondonald Says:

    Is “Act” available anywhere on DVD? The similar Lloyd documentary is an extra on one of the Criterion releases, and “Unknown Chaplin” had its own releases some years back.

  6. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I actually feel that criticism of Keaton in general is a lagging. For instance, his movie THE GENERAL, looks pretty suspect today politically since it basically has a sympathetic Confederate guy as a hero/protagonist and as such it falls in the general tendency of the Lost Cause which blanketed every mainstream movie about the Civil War from 1915 until very recently. Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out that Spielberg’s Lincoln which came out this decade is the first movie on the Civil War that openly said slavery was the main political motivation of that conflict, when before every movie either lied/fudged the motives, or otherwise made a Confederate soldier an “apolitical” category. The General by Keaton absolutely does this. I mean yeah you can argue that the train chase the movie depicts happened. It did. But the framing of Keaton’s character Johnny who volunteers to serve the draft out of an attempt to impress a girl rather than actual political motivations looks suspect. Keaton said in an interview in the late 60s that Disney did a take on the movie on the ’60s which had a Union hero even if it broke the original historical event where it was a Confederate railman who gave chase. He said in that interview, to paraphrase, “I did it true, even if it meant the South was winning, and that was fine with me”.

    In general, cinephilia which came to Keaton’s rescue maybe gave him too much of a pass. At least in the apolitical version which Bogdanovich largely trafficked in. Now of course people on the left love Keaton as well, Welles (who was a proud Unionist) and Jarmusch, but the issues behind The General aren’t addressed.

  7. Tony Williams Says:

    Goddammit! It is a comedy after all. Are we now to ban Buster Keaton along with the Gish Sisters as Bowling Green State University did last year because of this fashionable political correct bullshit?. Get a life! Accept the film on its own terms. Are we now to ban John Ford because of his references to the Confederacy in his films. Look at it in the context of its time.

  8. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Keaton’s never been institutionalized to start with for him to be banned. There aren’t, to my knowledge, prominent institutions named after him. So he’s not in danger of that happening to him. And just because some actions and reactions are extreme doesn’t mean that the ground of criticism that it comes from ought to be dismissed.

    And you know the whole Keaton v. Chaplin thing was at least partly driven in some corners by the fact that Keaton’s movies eschewed politics as compared to Chaplin who was often castigated simply for having political stuff as compared to Keaton who avoided politics…which in the context of the Civil War is in fact dangerously irresponsible. The General isn’t the same as Birth of a Nation and GWTW in that it was a commercial failure and didn’t become part of Neo-Confederate identity the way those movies did. It does not have the same value, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t suspect.

  9. Tony Williams Says:

    Oh, so it’s “suspect”? I thought the film had other important values rather than be the subject of politically correct “nit picking”? This sounds very much like a HUAC mentality in terms of analyzing films.

  10. I always like to keep it calm and polite here, Tony.

    Sudarshan makes some fair points: Keaton’s avoidance of political commitment has been seen as an advantage over Chaplin, but we can also see it as a disadvantage. I would rather see it simply as a difference.

    The blackface actor in Seven Chances and several unpleasant racial jokes do stick out as unpleasant details today, even though we are quite capable of seeing the film as a product of a different time.

    I accept Keaton’s explanation of his decisions in The General – he felt it would be unkind to make the losing side the villains (in fact, he doesn’t make the Union spies villainous, just antagonistic to his hero’s goals).

    From the modern perspective, it often feels like people were much TOO sensitive towards the South’s feelings: the post-war reconstruction should have been carried out like denazification and the Confederate flag banned.

    But Keaton isn’t a political artist. Since everything is political, that means his films are vulnerable to attack here. But the strengths of his films have nothing to do with politics, so such attacks don’t really injure them. Pointing out that he’s weak or unsound sociopolicitically is a bit like criticising Chopin or Chagall or Shakespeare on the same grounds.

  11. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    It’s a fact that online and off, I have heard a lot of young cinephiles being put off by The General having a sympathetic confederate hero, and the movie essentially removing the political stuff completely. The movie has us rooting for the Confederate. So this political stuff is a barrier of entry for some young people discovering Keaton, especially since The General is considered to be his masterpiece, by Keaton himself and most critics.

    And I think asking serious questions about Keaton’s politics is in fact taking him seriously as an artist. Most of his work holds up well. This guy went to bat for Fatty Arbuckle in COPS and in his personal life, which is commendable since not many in Hollywood then are willing to do it. So I don’t think that should be or would be discounted.

  12. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, exactly David. I especially agree with your last sentence. But during The Gish sisters debate, I posted elsewhere that it would not be long before the p.c. Gestapo would be after Buster Keaton because of THE GENERAL and recent entries here have proved me right. On one of the FB TPTV sites, somebody pointed out that Cliff Richard put on blackface for one of his 60s musicals and I commented, “It was a different time then.” However, I fear this might be used for those with a vendetta against him especially the BBC. Also, some professors have been prevented from teaching classes on Woody Allen and other victims of the “Me, Too” movement so this thing has a tendency to spread and must be nipped in the bud. Polanksi’s film on the Dreyfuss Affair still remains unseen in the USA to date for reasons that have nothing to do with the film.

    I’m going to search for a link that argues against the artistry of Chaplin being focused on the political that derives from a classroom experience. We must also remember that 70 years ago, Chaplin and his films were taboo in America for all the wrong reasons.

  13. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I am not crazy about censoring the Gish sisters name from a university, but using the words “P.C. gestapo” is excessive. Unlike the gestapo, their complaints and feelings come from a real place. Ignoring that is not going to do any favors. The truth is for more than a hundred years, American cinema has performed free propaganda for white supremacy by burying the truth of the Civil War. And Keaton was definitely implicated in that, as is The General as this article points out in the opening paragraph (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/08/civil-war-cinema-confederacy-keaton-lost-cause).

    Chaplin said that The Great Dictator would not have been made, or made in the same way, had he known about the Holocaust or the shape it would take. By the same token, we need to accept that The General if it was made today would be roundly criticized and scrutinized. And where Chaplin can be pardoned for real ignorance (since few suspected how far Hitler would go in that time) and for the fact that it came before things truly escalated…Keaton made The General after Jim Crow, after the ruckus over Birth of a Nation by NAACP.

  14. One can as easily argue that Keaton’s attitude towards the war — and war itself — was mocking. “The General” doesn’t mention slavery (is there a single black person in the movie?), the Confederacy or anything else. All the men running to enlist might as well be college boys trying out for the team. Battles are fought in unoccupied spaces; we don’t see towns besieged or civilians affected in any way. The war comes close to being a sporting event, even with the final battle’s gags about men dropping dead. The only recognized stakes are romantic: Buster loses his girl because the big boys won’t let him play.

    Patriotism? When Buster saves the flag, instead of holding an audience-pleasing tableau he allows himself to be toppled by an angry Confederate officer, who was evidently cowering behind a rock. Andrews’s Raiders are efficient and dangerous, but there’s no villainy about them. The Union officers are comic oafs, flummoxed by a obstacle a civilian resolves in a second. And when Buster turns over his prisoner, the opposing officers are respectful equals.They both glare contemptuously at Buster when his gun goes off.

    I’m guessing Keaton was drawn to the story not only by the trains, but the notion of a lowly conductor taking on an army to reclaim his beloved engine (Was he ever tempted to name it Brown Eyes?). Also, the mythology already typed Confederates as romantic tragic heroes rather than foolish incompetents. So beside the general comic inclination to play the underdog, he may have thought it was funny to offer up Buster in a context normally reserved for matinee idols. When he postures in his officer’s uniform, he’s a parody of a standard hero.

    In the Red Skelton film “A Southern Yankee”, with gags and maybe story help by Keaton, Skelton is a Union man. And recognizing the war in a weird MGM way, he does some comic dancing with colored children. But as a hapless amateur spy, alone among the enemy and subject to death if exposed, he’s definitely the underdog despite being on the winning side.

    I finished off the chocolate carmel corn I was given, so posts should be a little more rational soon.

  15. Tony Williams Says:

    For some reason, I can not locate the promised article that I believe was written by John Fawell emphasizing the superiority of films such as THE KID over MODERN TIMES and THE GREAT DICTATOR based on student responses where the aesthetics of comedy became the elements most appreciated. However, noting DC’s comments about being “calm and polite”, my reaction is very different from F.R. Leavis’s response to C.P. Snow’s TWO CULTURES (though Snow got what he deserved) and equivalent to
    Peter Cook’s references to a “writer of ghastly books.” Q.D. Leavis also delivered a well-deserved put down of Viirginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” in SCRUTINY written from the perspective of a female critic who claimed no special privileges.She did not appeal to the wimps of her generation.

    Were the late Robin Wood still with his, he would describe this particular reaction to THE GENERAL as “stupid”. Andrew Britton would have been more caustic as he is in his response to Philip Corrigan in cineACTION 5 (1986): 50-53. But I don’t think my reference to the “pc brigade” is undeserved. Have these “young cineastes” never read Marx and Engels on the work of Balzac, an author they championed despite the fact that he was a reactionary monarchist? These talents did not condemn 100% an artist whose politics were diametrically opposed to theirs but engaged with the writings and found much of value

    Such feelings of prejudice reveal the danger of so-called internet criticism that lacks real critical acumen and belong to the world of “rottentomates.com”. Rather than appeasing the “snowflake” feelings of this younger generation of “cinephiiles” (a very good term since they are clearly not critics nor even exhibit any abilities in this realm,) it is far more important to challenge their ignorance and suggest they go out and do some real critical work rather than engage in sentimental gush. The whole issue is complex and nurturing the prejudices of this group does nobody any good, especially themselves.

    Certainly, the director of the oven sequence in George Formby’s LET GEORGE DO IT (1940) would have later regretted it n that comedy but the dream sequence scene where the comedian disrupts the Nuremberg Rally by beating up the Fuhrer to the glee of the S.S. proved a morale booster in those dark days. Film is complex and appealing to the infantile attitudes of these so-called young “cinephiles” does nobody any good. If they do not want to engage in the complexities of real historical criticism then they should go elsewhere and indulge in the latest STAR WARS and Superhero fantasy or the appalling 13th Doctor p.c. orientated series on BBC TV..

  16. I only recently heard a student state his discomfort about The General — it was discomfort, mind you, of the kind that I’ve always felt but it never bothered me to the extent of not being able to enjoy the film. There’s a tendency of the young to think that they’re the first ones to have noticed something, and so the reaction to a beloved classic which takes the wrong view of history is often, “Wait, why is nobody talking about this?” I’ve never found discussion to be a bad thing, but I try not to impose myself as an authority figure shouting down those who have questions. But UK academia is not currently as divided and censorious as in the US.

    The term “snowflakes,” I believe, should be banished for all but meteorological discourse. It doesn’t help us reach an understanding.

    I do think it’s very useful to compare The General with The Birth of a Nation to see the extent to which Keaton is NOT a propagandist. And Donald’s right, the film largely celebrates engineering over soldiering.

  17. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    In the case of Confederate nostalgia that is genuinely something older movie critics excused or discounted in their survey of old Hollywood movies and which is only recently been given attention to. The number of worthwhile movies about the Civil War and slavery can be counted on one hand before the 2010 decade. Think of how many Westerns are polluted by “sympathetic” confederate soldiers turned outlaws. Take Vera Cruz, where Gary Cooper’s character is a Confederate soldier and is presented as a “good-ish” character next to Burt Lancaster. Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee with Richard Harris as the good Confederate soldier with Heston as the corrupt Union general. Ford’s The Searchers is an exception in that it at least admits that Ethan Edwards’ Confed veteran has a real ideology of white supremacy, whereas Dundee and Vera Cruz are in denial.

    Anyway, I am just saying that if Keaton is to remain vital and alive in the 21st Century, as he absolutely deserves to be, people need to think of defenses for this or take into account critiques like this, if only for the purpose of devil’s advocacy. Remember That in 2026, 7 years from now, it will be the centenary of The General, and in fact the centenary of all of Keaton’s major works. In 2026 when they do a general re-release of The General, a lot of the younger movie critics and cinephiles of that time will be raising eyebrows about a sympathetic Confederate character. Fact is that if you want Keaton to be alive and engage with new audiences, you need to listen to what young people are looking at today and how they might see his stuff. Because cinephilia should reproduce itself in each generation.

    As it is, it’s interesting that Keaton made a number of period films…The Three Ages (which is a spoof of Griffith and is a romantic comedy), Old Hospitality which is an exemplary period movie and a great comedy and quite progressive. The General fits that, but it’s the most problematic in historical terms of anything Keaton did. Chaplin for the most part didn’t touch on history with the exceptions of The Gold Rush (if we consider the ’20s and discount his sound movies which definitely had more history in it). But Chaplin unlike Keaton wasn’t an American, and Keaton definitely had an American sensibility…and I think you need to address what kind of America Keaton was speaking to.

  18. Tony Williams Says:

    If future attention towards THE GENERAL focusses upon the irrelevant aspect of the film being about a “sympathetic confederate character” and less about Keaton’s artistry then it will reveal how low artistic interpretation and evaluation has fallen into virtual non-existence. The only valid response to such crass stupidity is either ignoring it or subjecting the objector to the type of withering criticism that used to occur at academic conferences or the past critical tradition of shaming the questioner for raising such irrelevant issues.This should lead to dialogue – unless the issue is one of protecting fragile and indefensible sensibilities based upon superficial impressionism as seems to be the case in the UK as well as most of USA higher education that has given up any form of critical analysis as opposed to “dumbing down.”.

    Indeed, the references to VERA CRUZ and MAJOR DUNDEE show present day lack of critical acumen. The two characters in each film are not stereotypes but complex characters related to the dynamics of each text. Cooper’s character goes to Mexico to restore his plantation. At the end of the film, he has rejected this goal to join the Revolution. Neither Cooper nor Lancaster are “good” or “bad guys” Ambivalence and change are key issues in this film along with class and race. Even Truffaut recognized this in his Cahiers analysis

    Likewise Amos Dundee is not a “general” but a Southerner who has joined the North while Tyreen is an Irish potato farmer who has joined the South to engage in delusions of grandeur. The whole film is a complex examination of split identity both individual and national. Unless younger audiences develop relevant skills of close reading and analysis in preference to one dimensional Smart Phone interpretations preferring attention on a stunted tree as opposed to seeing the context of a complex fertile wood, then the future of any creative approaches to Cinema is doomed.

    Keaton does not need that type of defense to ensure his survival into the (21st. He is far too great to suffer from politically correct nit-picking.

  19. But… I don’t think “dialogue” of a productive kind results from shaming or ignoring.

    While I can imagine some people I might want to shut down (Dinesh D’Souza, for instance), if I feel someone is well-intentioned but confused, arguing in good faith, I would simply address their objections. In the case of The General, the artistry of the comic film should be the focus, but it’s worth addressing any political issues upfront in a frank and UN-DEFENSIVE way, rather than allowing them to be a barrier to appreciating what’s most important about the film.

    In a class on Civil War representation, The General would make an interesting case study mostly for what it avoids showing or saying. But its real interest is as exemplary filmmaking.

  20. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, David but this assumes an ideal situation that no longer exists. The most likely scenario would be students spotting THE GENERAL’s Southern context, making a big deal about the Confederate association, tarring the instructor as “racist”, getting him/her fired, and closing down the class with administrative approval involving numbers, rather than -engaging in debate. That is what happened in Bowling Green State University with a complicit film and cultural studies faculty, none of whom had an qualifications in silent film history , who complicitly and silently eliminated the Gish sisters from campus without allowing any form of debate.

    This is what one faces now and if one gives “an inch”. They take “a mile”. If the rallying cry in the 1970s was “No platform for Fascists”, the same should now apply to fascist-minded politically correct students.

  21. Wait, was anybody fired at Bowling Green State Uni? or did they just remove Lillian Gish’s name from a theatre?

    I think that’s a silly thing to do, but I can see the other side’s argument — it would appear to them similar to removing monuments to Southern generals. It doesn’t get me upset.

    Any discussion of Birth of a Nation SHOULD focus on it as a racist text, so I don’t see that a film lecturer would be that likely to get in trouble for teaching it unless they decided to defend it as politics or history, in which case I think firing them would be a good idea.

    I think – and I may be wrong – the way to address The General’s choice of a Southerner as protagnist, is, as Sudarshan suggests, to talk about it, why we think Keaton did it, and calmly lay it out, allowing students to draw their own conclusions. If a knee-jerk political response blinds them to the film, that’s their loss, but also their choice.

    I’m quite undecided about Gone with the Wind, which I don’t like that much as a story or as a piece of cinema and which I do think is problematically romantic in a bad way. But a very good subject for study.

  22. Tony Williams Says:

    David C, You obviously do not know the full story of the disgraceful Bowling Green State University incident and I recommend you to contact Joseph McBride (one of the 50 signatories of a letter of protest that included Mike Hodges, James Earl Jones, Martin Scorsese, Malcolm McDowell, Bertrand Tavernier, and others) as well as follow links in wsws.org. They removed both Lilian Gish and her sister Dorothy (WHO NEVER APPEARED IN BIRTH OF A NATION!!!) from the University as well as holding on to the money given for scholarships and the archives she generously donated decades. ago rather than returning them as they should have. This is much more than a Southern monument issue since Gish was not alive during the period of the Confederacy. She donated money for scholarships on any aspect of Film, not exclusively to promote BOAN.,which she did not direct nor write its screenplay. The whole issue was disreputable tarnishing the idea of a university as a place to rationally discuss issues rather than engaging in “knee jerk” compliant responses to ignorant elements. But this is getting to be common over here and I’m sure it will in post-election UK.

    They ignored her other work in film, theater, and television: the fact that she was a feminist pioneer role model even directing films herself in the silent era and the fact that there was much more to her long career than the Griffith association on one controversial film. Stalinist practices of the Orwellian 1984 variety and political correctness are cultural allies in oppression of knowledge.

    NOBODY PROTESTED THERE, NOT EVEN FACULTY!!! This is because the Popular Culture Center set up by Ray Browne (and the presence of knowledgeable founding faculty such as Michael T. Marsden and Jack Nachbar) is very different from its original formation that respected historical knowledge not ignorant prejudice. As I mentioned before , nobody is an acknowledged expert in silent film history there and Anthony Slide has removed his archives from BGSU in protest.

    Current faculty in different subject areas also knew that if they did protest they would be fired due to the activities of the pc brigade and cowardly administrators. In a 1934 article, Gish mentioned that actors never knew what they be shooting since the screenplay pages were delivered to them on a daily basis and that any film would not necessarily follow the original source 100%. Yes, the film is vile but Dixon’s original is much worse, believe it or not. The fact that they vilified a deceased person who could not answer back and ignored the wider cultural and historical picture shows the inherent cowardice in this particular movement. One has to see people within their cultural and historical context, not condemn them according to the p.c. rules of a later generation as The New York Times is doing in the 1619 project by ignoring and rewriting history by journalists.,

    David C. on teaching THE GENERAL, you are again thinking ideally. The “knee jerk” response will also lead to the firing of the instructor in these times. You can not counter stupidity with rational counter-argument any longer so the best thing to do is immediately “nip it in the bud” in class with this answer, “This is irrelevant. We are now going to discuss the film aesthetically as an example of Keaton’s comedic genius ( and go on from there). I f you want to raise other issues, then I’m available in office hours to discuss them.”

    I’m afraid you need to do a lot more research into the BGSTU fiasco. The evidence is there – if you choose to explore it according to the copious and relevant detail available. Also GONE WITH THE WIND is also under attack – for the same reasons.

  23. First I’ve heard of this Gish / BGSU controversy, and, after an admittedly short time looking into it, it seems unfair to remove Gish’s name. But..,

    Tossing around phrases like “PC gestapo” and “fascist” when, the world, and the US specifically, home of BGSU and Birth of a Nation, is suffering a very definite resurgence of violent anti-semitism, is really out of line.

  24. It takes some strenuous mental gymnastics to decry the decline of critical acumen, while at the same time declaring the historical context of the war that drives the entire plot of the film is somehow off limits to talk about – or something that can only be broached during “office hours.”

  25. Tony Williams Says:

    C..20001. Not really. There is a time and place to discuss certain issues. Unless, the film is placed within a historical class dealing with the Civil War and not one concentrating on authorship, aesthetics, and comedy achievement, the office hours is an additional forum to discuss wider contextual issues as well as meeting at other times as a group.

    Chuck V. Also, I fail to see how a silent film comedy set in a different historical period has anything to do with anti-semitism. This is irrelevant to what happened in BGSU, the unfairness of the entire incident, and the refusal to engage in debate rather than an action that is also “fascist” in its actual overtones. Please do not cloud the issue.

  26. You’re the one who brought up the Gestapo. That is a very specific word with a very specific meaning. Even if we’re going to start using it somewhat metaphorically, let’s face it, the people responsible for removing Gish’s name are not arresting anyone, nor are they putting people in camps.

    This particular clouding of the issue started with you.

  27. Tony Williams Says:

    You obviously do not understand the use of metaphor which is not surprising since you do not know the difference between a capital “G” (that I did not use) and the lower case usage. Again, you are deliberately confusing are clouding the issue to defend the indefensible and I assume that you are quite happy to smear a deceased actress, one who can not answer back, who was a pioneer in many ways as well as defend the lack of integrity of BGSUin not returning her archives and scolarship money if she is that “bad”. How hypocritical!

    Now, in the depths of rural Illinois I met people who were arrested for demonstrating against Trump’s inaugeration and had to pay traveling expenses back and forth to Washington DC when attending legal hearings. I have more respect for those people than those cowards at BGSU that to, the best of my knowledge, did not demonstrate against a living person but cowardly chose to defame a woman of great dignity and stature.

    Are we now to revert to a pc version of the Hays Code or Legion of Decency according to arbitrary and irrelevant standards? I would suggest you read Philip Roth’s THE HUMAN STAIN especially the first part to see how hideous your defense of these people actually is.

  28. “First I’ve heard of this Gish / BGSU controversy, and, after an admittedly short time looking into it, it seems unfair to remove Gish’s name.”

    These words are my only comments on BGSU’s actions. While this is surely not the harsh condemnation you would no doubt prefer, it is not a defense.

    Criticizing you is not defending your enemies.

  29. Tony.

    You’ve got to stop frothing. Most of the disagreement here is not with your overall argument (nobody has argued that The General is primarily of interest because of its Civil War political stance) but with your tone and manner.

    I think you possibly WOULD get fired if you attempted to deal with an innocent question about Keaton’s intentions by exploding in this way. And, though I have no direct experience of US education, I frankly doubt your suggested approach to teaching The General would be safe from attack. “Our teacher showed a film that makes heroes of the South and then refused to allow any discussion in class,” could easily form the basis of a complaint.

    My preferred approach would be to welcome such a question, explain Keaton’s stated reasons, acknowledge that we might well do things differently today, point out that all old films will produce moments of discomfort but that these teach us about changing social attitudes, then state clearly that our reasons for studying the film have nothing to do with this and move on. And maybe if I was worried I’d make sure there was a recording of all this.

    What wouldn’t work is if I started spluttering about a pc gestapo, with or without caps.

    I’m not expecting this problem to get worse in Britain, making it one of the very few things I don’t expect to get worse. We have a pm who cracks wise about “piccaninnies,” so he’s not going to be driving any surge towards oppressive consideration.

    Are you aware that Lillian Gish spent her later years defending Griffith and saying he wasn’t a racist? I still disapprove of the university’s actions here, to be clear, but her historic role is more than simply as an actor. (No sense can be made of picking on poor Dorothy, of course.)

  30. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    If we are going to talk about aesthetics and so on, then it must bear in mind that Keaton believed in accurate period detail and authentic recreation. He recreated a Stephenson Engine for Old Hospitality and a story that alluded to the Hatfield-McCoy feud, and for The General he wanted to be as accurate to the original train chase as possible. He also chose to situate the story in the original accurate civil war context when again, if he wanted to simply focus on engineering and the chase, he could well have abstracted it.

    If you talk about The General in class from a pure aesthetic view, then you would have to talk about Keaton’s interest in historical detail and recreation, and that leaves you open to Keaton’s actual opinions on the civil war and what the movie’s approach is. For instance, all the scenes of The General before and after the train chase set in a Confederate town doesn’t show slavery there. We don’t see black slaves. Why wasn’t Keaton being accurate there? If Keaton acknowledged that his character came from a town that legalized slavery and fighting to preserve slavery, then you can say that The General is being honest and upfront or self-aware. That also opens up interesting questions about Keaton’s “great Stone face” character, the unsmiling everyman figure, who is often acted upon by the world, society, conventions, and constraints. In the context of The General, you can see him in the context of Confederacy as in the same ballpark of the ‘banality of evil’ not unlike ZELIG where the title’s character tendency to assimilate and be absorbed is critically addressed in the context of Nazism.

    The thing about GWTW is that it’s not a great work of art. As literature, it’s not a good book. In the context of Southern Gothic or Southern Literature, stuff by Faulkner, Williams, and others is way better. As cinema, its not a great movie. Birth of a Nation is in terms of film aesthetics is interesting, and it’s better than GWTW and less hypocritical to an extent, but it’s not a great movie as even Eisenstein pointed out. Griffith’s actual great stuff is his shorts, Way Down East, and Broken Blossoms (which again has issues with a white man playing a Chinese character but that’s something even a director way to DWG’s left like Nicholas Ray is guilty of in the far superior Savage Innocents).

    The General though is a great work of art, and for a long time people said it was the best film on the Civil War. And you can still make the case for that. And it’s definitely a problem if the “best film on the Civil War” doesn’t mention slavery, acknowledge it, and above all feature a Confederate protagonist as hero, and whose ending has him strutting in Confederate regalia moreover.

  31. Tony Williams Says:

    David C, I am not “frothing” but trying to engage in debate. The very fact that you use this term is demeaning and a covert attempt to shut down dialogue. Admittedly, the internet is not a good place to do this and your response falls short of the excellence of the Lincoln/ Douglas debates that took place in their time. You engage in “smear” and that really undermines your argument.

    Also, you are using a very twisted type of student response that is all too common, one which I can cite personally -“I hated this class. The professor knew more about the subject than I did.” Also, “I disliked this class because it disagreed with my politics.”

    Were your imaginary student to make such a comment, I would answer that the “time limit prohibited covering this particular issue in class but the student had the opportunity to discuss these wider issues in class or in a group outside the class.” Were I called to account I would respond, “The fact that he/she did not and used this anonymous form of attack reveals their inherent cowardice”.

    Also student evaluations often take the form of payback against the instructor, especially those who make them work. You must be aware of the fact that females and minorities are often the targets of such attacks. Usually, administrators recognized these comments and ignored them. Now, with falling enrollments, they tend to appease the mob mentality behind such comments.

    I am really shocked that a person of your stature is defending this malicious type of “dumb and dumber” attitude. As to the reference to “tone and manner” , have your never heard of indignation, especially “jusitfied indignation” that represents a natural response against one-dimensional and superficial interpretation? I know that Antony Slide, for one, would be more forceful in his response, another person who knows what he is talking about. I left reviewing books for one film journal because the editorial board wanted me to tarnish him as a racist because he wrote a book on Thomas Dixon that was by no means positive but critically examined him within the context of his times.

    A difference exists between how I would handle things in class and my general comments to people outside, many of whom are sympathetic and have left academia out of total disgust as to what is happening today. You are conflating two different situations. This is really shameful.

    Yes, I’m aware of Gish’s actions. This is as sad as the negative comments of George Lippard and Jack London on race. But does this mean we use remarks they made that belong in a very different historical context to as an excuse to ban them and their works? They belonged to different eras and often, unhappily, had certain feelings that later generations justly recognized as negative. I suppose theaters should remove the new version of CALL OF THE WILD from appearing. The same is true about John Ford and banning his touching and complex THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT (1953) reveals the re-emergence of the Hays Code in a more insidious manner.

    SR – You make some very good points. But Hollywood has always engaged in historical reconstruction as with Samuel Bronstein’s use of the Jack London Scrapbooks and photos to make the historically inaccurate JACK LONDON (1943). Also, we should not ask of a film more than it is prepared to give. THE GENERAL was a comedy not a film about slavery. Also, when Keaton finally gets the uniform he desires, mostly to impress his girlfriend as evident in the beginning, the final salute is played for laughs not to evoke the LOST CAUSE.

    Some recognition of the complexity and sophistication behind each film is important, not knee jerk response otherwise we end up with a travesty like the 13th Doctor that has turned a once popular franchise into a pc nightmare..

    I regret that a detailed debate is described as “frothing.” But these are the times we live in where complex arguments become impossible due to the encroaching realm of irrationality. I will end with citing that important phrase of F.R. Leavis in criticism,, “Yes, but…”

  32. Sudarshan — it’s OUR Hospitality. Buster himself seems to have forgotten this, referring to it just as “Hospitality” in a late TV interview, so you’re in good company. :)

    Keaton explained his choice of a southern protagonist, and his argument makes sense in context, so I don’t think it needs to be something we worry about. He avoided offending the south by making them the villains and he avoided showing slavery, probably because he didn’t think it was funny. You end up with a curiously apolitical Civil War intended to upset nobody. Not the way we’d tackle the question today, but as a filmmaker hoping for a large audience, Keaton had to work within prevailing prejudices.

    I think this is all decent stuff to discuss in a class and it can be disposed of quite quickly, with, as you suggest Tony, an invitation to raise the matter further in office hours.

    It’s hard to tell, frankly, whether you’re engaging in debate or attempting to shut down debate. Rather than responding to points about the film’s treatment of history, you began by arguing that this was not a suitable topic when dealing with this film. You opened with “Goddamnit!” and “Get a life!” and have gone on to evoke a metaphorical gestapo with a small g, accused others of “deliberately confusing and clouding the issue” and put words in people’s mouths: “I assume that you are quite happy to smear a deceased actress.”

    You also brought up the classroom as an environment where free speech and the exchange of ideas is now impossible — I haven’t experienced this myself. If things are getting mixed up, is it because we started with a blog discussion and now higher education is part of it? “I am really shocked that a person of your stature is defending this malicious type of “dumb and dumber” attitude.” Where have I done this? Please be specific.

    Indignation is all very well, but I like to keep things civil here. If you reread everyone’s comments (if you can spare a day or so) I think you will see that everyone but you has been very respectful. I’m happy for you to get indignant about events in the outside world and express that here, but snapping at other commenters is impolite and not a good way to illuminate issues. If someone treats you with disrespect, I would defend you the same way.

  33. Tony Williams Says:

    David C. Thanks for your comments and response to SR. I guess I get impatient with peripheral l issues raised to the forefront and the limitation of an actress’s significance to just one film role to the detriment of other areas where she proved herself a pioneer as well as a feminist role model. That is what BGSTU did to her as well as not having the honesty to return her archives and scholarship donations if they felt she was that bad! Likewise Margaret Sanger’s retrograde feelings should not obscure the key area where she made important contributions.

    On classroom discussion and office hours (a function that is now regarded as not being “cool” by most students who also have issues concerning part-time jobs and other classes here) there is a time and place between what a class is focused on and other issues best discussed elsewhere. For your information, I was threatened by a student two years ago whose group made her object to one comment I made in class that was by no means negative. Believe me, the whole issue was trivial but it had the danger of being used by a group for their own advantage and seized on by administrators wishing to keep numbers up at whatever cost to academic credibility. However, rather than devoting the entire class to discussing the whole question that would have taken up valuable class time (as well as kowtowing like a blacklist victim) and frustrated other students,I suggested the person write the final paper on the issue to explain the concerns. Actually, it said nothing new and generally followed what the class was about. The student got an A which was the average obtained on other papers.

    Naturally, I took offense at the conflation between what a class is focussed on and what should be discussed as a contextual issue best left to debate outside the classroom. Today, administrators (at least here) are eager to pounce on inflammatory personal and professional comments in evaluations by bad students rather than looking at the overall complex picture. I had to deal with this last semester with someone who waited to see when I would get bad evaluations (which happen) rather than considering the very different form of responses I usually received.

    Now this was a positive example of handling one problem. Others (as you may read in articles on Inside Higher education and Chronicle of Higher Education) have not been so lucky. things may be different in the UK but they are very precarious elsewhere.

  34. Thanks.

    I do agree with you that Sudarshan’s original post misstates the problem. He’s right that Keatonites should have our defenses ready, because the Civil War question is going to come up more often. But I don’t regard The General as suspect any more than Das Boot or Cross of Iron are suspect for showing events through the eyes of German characters in WWII. It’s different, I suppose, since we do root for Johnnie Gray more wholeheartedly, but it’s his personal happiness we’re invested in — after all, the cause is lost.

    I would certainly oppose any line of thinking that regarded the film as unsuitable for screening. But I’m all in favour of taking down Southern memorials. I would leave the Gish sisters alone and I would even have left Griffith’s name on the Director’s Guild Award, though I think he pretty well defines the concepts of “problematic,” “suspect” and all those other words. There are plenty of other reasons beyond even Birth of a Nation and Broken Blossoms to take issue with his sensibility, but having his name there encouraged people to think about film history.

  35. Tony Williams Says:

    Points taken. Over here (apart from those who denied it) it was common knowledge that all those Southern memorials were erected in the post-Reconstruction era to put the boot into the Southern African Americans and begin the “Lost Cause” mythology.

    For all his faults, Griffith was a pioneer of narrative cinema, as Tom Gunning has noted, but he is also someone who should not be confined to BOAN. He was a talent who also operated in other cinematic levels making him a forerunner stylistically but certainly not thematically. In that area, he deserves some qualified recognition and not limited to one problematic film.

    I’m really concerned that THE GENERAL may be affected by over-zealous reaction and Keaton regarded as the “Woody Allen” of silent cinema as a taboo figure. When I mentioned my interest in Jack London to a female academic some decades ago she responded, “Didn’t he use to beat up his wife?” Jack had many faults but that was not one of them!

  36. The London anecdote is extraordinary.

    Woody Allen is (to some small extent) taboo for distinct reasons, whereas The General may conceivably face a backlash not for anything Keaton did in his private life but for its attitude to history. It’s place in the canon OUGHT to be secure enough if we’re prepared to defend it on its merits. It’s certainly one I’d man the barricades to defend, but I’d always say “If you personally can’t get on with it because of its perceived politics, that’s a shame but it’s your choice.”

    Pendulums (pendulae?) swing back and forth so I don’t assume the current censorious climate is here to stay.

  37. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, precisely re. final line of second paragraph.” If you don’t like the class then you are free to drop it” that I use for those who don’t want to read short novels in their Composition classes rto help wth their writing.

    This is another ideal solution but it did not stop a student in my VIETNAM AND LITERATURE AND FILM class a decade ago from sending me vicious emails after he was constantly late for assignments and accusing me online of running anti-American, anti-military films and books. Ironically, half the material was American BACKFIRE by Loren Baritiz) , the rest being THE QUIET AMERICAN by Greene and films from the Viet Nam side rarely seen here.To my amazement, a former Chair supported his attitude stating that the War split the country despite the fact that said student was not even born at the time!

    Yes, I agree pendulums swing since the USA did not learn over Viet Nam in its longest war in Afghanistan

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