A hero with a machine for a straight man

Buster Keaton
March 4, 2005

Buster Keaton's The General (19) opened the Pordenone silent film festival in Sacile, Northern Italy, last autumn. Accompanied by an aptly percussive new music score, the film did not disappoint as a celebration of hair-raising physical comedy and slapstick, but the big screen also revealed a use of landscape and sheer spectacle, with a full train plummeting from a sabotaged bridge amid a raging battle, that makes it a true historical epic of the American Civil War.

At its heart is the relationship between Johnnie, a diminutive railroad engineer, and his giant locomotive; and whatever the endless permutations of capture, escape and pursuit, most of the film's greatest moments revolve around the harmonious bond between man and machine.

Keaton had already shown what he could do with a replica of George Stephenson's Rocket (an early steam locomotive) in Our Hospitality (1923); and with a full-sized steamship in The Navigator (1924) and a riverboat in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) he completed an extraordinary celebration of technology that sharply and hilariously undercuts modernist anxiety about "the machine". His debonair young man is no mere clown, but rather a prototypical modern hero.

Who could disagree with Edward McPherson when he describes such films as "direct, visceral, immediate"? The best of what he offers as "merely a fan's notes" are indeed his efforts to capture the impact of seeing Keaton's extraordinary legerdemain and daring, whether in the ingenious special effects of Sherlock, Jr. (1924), the unexpected boxing-ring realism of Battling Butler (1926) or the stylish athleticism of College (19).

Unfortunately, McPherson also suffers from an antipathy to interpretation and a limited interest in modern film-makers' and artists' responses to his subject.

Keaton may have been a product of American vaudeville and early film-making, but his appeal, like Charlie Chaplin's, would spread far beyond such cultural specifics. Too often, McPherson seems to inhabit Keaton's own viewpoint, accepting his judgements without comment. Thus, of Keaton's immense fame in early Soviet Russia, we hear only (and misleadingly) that "his films were being knocked off in Russia"; while his canonisation by the Surrealists is completely disregarded, so that neither Luis Bu$uel's admiration for College nor Federico García Lorca's 1930 farce Buster Keaton Takes a Walk is mentioned. Samuel Beckett's 1965 Film , built entirely around Keaton, is dismissed in a sentence.

One can sympathise with McPherson's determination not to mummify Keaton in a protective wrapping of high culture, but to omit so much of what has kept him in view is surely perverse. And the book's lack of curiosity and independent scholarship is ultimately dispiriting.

As in almost every thumbnail account of the time-tripping Three Ages (1923), this is described as a parody of D. W. Griffith's Intolerance , which has no Stone Age segment and was seven years old. More familiarity with the period might have suggested Cecil B. DeMille's contemporary Adam's Rib , with its lavish prehistoric back story.

Two books conspicuously missing from McPherson's sources are David Robinson's pioneering study of the actual films and Robert Knopf's recent account of Keaton's stage and film work within a wider cultural framework.

Between the disciplines of text and context, this unambitious though entertaining book settles too easily for anecdote and showbiz sentiment.

Ian Christie is professor of film and media history, Birkbeck, University of London.

Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat

Author - Edward McPherson
Publisher - Faber
Pages - 288
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 571 21612 9

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