Archive for Buster Keaton

The Sunday Intertitle: Frozen Expression

Posted in FILM with tags , , on November 22, 2015 by dcairns


Forecasts hinted at snow so I watched Keaton’s THE FROZEN NORTH to get in the mood.

An odd one — Buster acts wildly out of character throughout, robbing a saloon, shooting a man and a woman dead, and then threatening another woman with rape. This is at least a bit funnier than it sounds — a dissolve shows Buster as his prospective victim sees him, in white Prussian uniform and monocle, as Buster Von Stroheim. So we’re in the realm of movie fantasy, not the realm of sex crime, which would be a crap realm to be in. But it’s all quite odd, since getting audience sympathy was normally something Keaton was careful about.


The ending reveals the whole story to have been a dream sequence, experienced by Buster after falling asleep at a movie show, which retroactively makes sense of everything and means you could then watch the film again without the same sense of nagging confusion/dissatisfaction.

A minor effort, then, but an interesting experiment, with Buster knowingly spoofing a lot of stock tough-guy poses. He doesn’t even wear his sawn-off porkpie hat until the end. In the shorts, Buster is usually consistent, though his role in life varies from vagabond to family man. In features, he could play a resourceful engineer or a feckless millionaire, with zero adjustment of performance style. This one has him not only acting out of character, but acting in a different style.

The Sunday Intertitle: Monkey on Man on Wire

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on September 20, 2015 by dcairns


Fiona definitely prefers Keaton to Chaplin, which is fine, except I don’t see the need to compare them at all. Do we need to decide that Fred Astaire is better than Gene Kelly? In certain respects, no doubt he is, but the comparison is of little help, obscuring rather than revealing the individual merits of each, or making Kelly’s merits seem somehow trivial.

Anyway, I was hoping to get Fiona to watch THE CIRCUS this week so I could write about it here, but we didn’t get to it. But we saw the opening when Paul Merton did his silent movie show in Edinburgh with Neil Brand on piano, and I subsequently showed her the bit with the lion and the bit with the monkeys, which are highlights in a feature usually considered less than totally successful. Read Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns for a cogent analysis of the story’s conceptual flaws.

The point is, Fiona laughed harder at the bit with the monkeys than she’s ever laughed at Keaton, I suspect. She likes monkeys. And also, everything about the scene is really brilliant. The cute monkeys become a deadly threat, since Chaplin is on a high wire. The trivial, degrading things they do to him — pulling his trousers down, biting his nose, climbing all over him and sticking a tail in his mouth — are all potentially fatal in this scenario.


(Exactly the same dynamic is at play when Chaplin finds himself trapped in a cage with a sleeping lion. A small dog outside starts yapping at him — apparently outraged that he should be in the cage where he doesn’t belong — and all his/our anxiety becomes focussed on the wee dog, which might waken the slumbering lion. Something small and cute becomes deadly — that’s always funny, like the Beast of Aargh in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, a cute bunny that can bite your head off, or like Mr. Stay-Puft in GHOSTBUSTERS if you want to lower the tone.)

Anyhow, the monkey-tightrope scene got Fiona genuinely hysterical, which I always enjoy seeing. Losing control of her faculties, she started narrating the action like a Benshi on nitrous oxide — “It’s biting his nose! Its tail is in his mouth!” She couldn’t breathe for laughing, and so couldn’t speak for not being able to breath, and for laughing at the same time, but couldn’t stop herself doing it. It was as if she could stop the scene being so life-threateningly funny if she could just describe it accurately. The critical impulse at work!

All this and the best banana-peel joke ever.

I guess hardcore Chaplin-haters MIGHT be able to sit through this scene without laughing, which I think would be proof of rigor mortis, or they might argue that it’s only funny because monkeys are funny. But it’s not just cute funny animal time — the USE of monkeys in a scenario with an underlying threat of death is extremely clever, the work of a master of comedy. And Chaplin’s convincing terror in the scene enhances it greatly — he knows when it’s funniest to play it serious.


“Comedy is a man in trouble.” Yeah. With a monkey in his mouth.

The Sunday Intertitle: Smile

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on August 9, 2015 by dcairns


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?





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