Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Scenes I love: WWBD

"In a way his pictures are like a transcendent juggling act in which it seems that the whole universe is in exquisite flying motion and the one point of repose is the juggler's effortless, uninterested face." — James Agee, "Comedy's Greatest Era"

Everything I need to know about life I learned from Buster Keaton.

Okay, that's not completely true, but I like the sound of it. And it's a Starbucks-cup bromide that has rolled around my brain more than once recently.

As 2010 projects its final frames and we smash-cut to 2011, I'm getting all reflective and thoughtful, looking back at the past twelve months, taking stock of the significant narrative arcs of the year. 

What brings me to Keaton is a renewed appreciation of how we face adversity, those bumps and turns and unforeseen punji traps that make good plot points in movies but are hell to live through in real life.

You see, too many of my friends are going through too much of that hell lately. Relationships fracturing, critical health issues, the economy sinking them down like cement overshoes in a cheap gangster flick — life's slings and arrows, sound and fury, the whole unasked-for shitstorm, with no discernible fairness or reason or purpose in sight.

Indeed, 2010 saw my own full recovery from a medical cataclysm worthy of an episode of House, a long episode I've only alluded to slantwise in this blog. So, yeah, not only do I understand that Wile-E.-Coyote-falling-off-the-cliff feeling, I have fostered a new appreciation of the coping mechanisms we devise for ourselves to help soften the dusty whump! of impact.

Among my coping mechanisms, one I've recently recommended to others: favorite movies, comedies particularly. You know, "...best medicine," all that jazz.

Take The General, for instance. I've owned more video editions of this film than any other title, culminating this year with Kino's outstanding Blu-ray disc. In ten years, when it's available via a downloadable app to my Cerebrum Communicator, I'll no doubt get that one too.

Like Chaplin's The Gold Rush, Keaton's practically perfect 1927 Civil War masterpiece is a comedy of epic scale and ambition, and pinnacles lists of the top films of the silent era. Moreover — this point is often overlooked — it departs from Keaton's earlier shorts by delivering not a gag-a-minute string of slapstick setpieces, but instead an action-adventure-historical-war-espionage thriller deftly spiced with comic bits.

Set at the outbreak of the Civil War (or, as parts of the South still call it, the Unresolved Argument We'll Keep Bringing Up), one of the film's famous sequences involves a chase between two steam locomotives. One of them is the General, the engine beloved by its engineer, would-be Confederate soldier Johnnie Gray (Keaton). Union Army spies have commandeered the General to use it as a moving sabotage platform against Confederate forces.

Worse, they've kidnapped Johnnie's second great love, the girl Annabelle Lee. Earlier she rebuffed him after a misunderstanding branded him a coward unwilling to join the Confederate Army like all honorable Southern men. Now Johnnie is giving chase in another locomotive, the Texas, determined to defeat the saboteurs, take back his engine, and (possibly in this order) rescue the girl whose tintype he displays in the General's cab.

In hot pursuit, Johnnie clambers over the General's fuel tender onto the flatcar holding a cannon he acquired en route. He measures a handful of gunpowder in pinches, then tamps it down, loads the cannonball, lights the fuse, and returns to the engine's control cab. The cannon fires, yet the cannonball arcs (rather delicately) to his feet in the cab. Giving it that famous deadpan Keaton look, he rolls the cannonball off the speeding train shortly before it explodes.

He tries again. This time cool-headed desperation prompts him to forgo handfuls and pinches to shove the entire powder keg down the barrel. He loads another cannonball, lights the fuse. His retreat to the cab is interrupted when the flatcar's hitch snags his foot. Shaking the foot free, Johnnie also shakes the cannon barrel down to aim not overhead toward the Union saboteurs ahead of him, but straight at himself and the engine.

He retreats to safety by climbing the exterior of the engine to the cowcatcher up front — train track blurring mere inches beneath him, Union soldiers not far ahead, and mammoth artillery primed and pointed at the tonnage of locomotive against his back.

At the critical instant, the track curves just so, the cannon fires, and the blasting cannonball arcs not into the Texas but into the rear boxcar of the stolen General. The explosion leads the frightened Yankee raiders to believe that an outnumbering Confederate militia is hot on their tail.

In response, they block the track first with the damaged boxcar (Johnnie cleverly switches the rails to avoid a collision) and then by dropping large wooden railroad ties onto the track. Johnnie slows the Texas and runs ahead to lift the first log off the track. When the Texas's cowcatcher catches him like a spatula, he straddles it with the heavy railroad tie still in his arms.

But a second tie blocks the track ahead! Well — here's the beauty part — when the Texas approaches it he lifts the first tie and, with Olympian style and precision, heaves it onto the end of the second tie, catapulting it smoothly up and out of his trajectory with neither log clobbering him in the head. The chase can continue.

In that scene lies a metaphor, I'm sure of it.

It's classic Keaton, displaying the qualities that make the crisply expressive "stone-faced" Keaton character forever memorable: his steady resolve in the face of obstacles, his willingness to accept surprises and sudden changes of plan with dry aplomb, pausing only to perhaps slightly arch his eyebrows or momentarily stare the conundrum full in the face. It's as if tattooed on Keaton's chest is a motto taken from Kipling's Barrack Room Ballads: "When first under fire an' you're wishful to duck ... Be thankful you're livin', and trust to your luck / And march to your front like a soldier."

On the great railroad track of life, if only we could address our obstacles with such stoic resourcefulness focused on what we need to do rather than on the mugging-for-the-camera, hammed-up Oh, shit! of it all.

Adding to this chicken soup for the movie-lover's soul, remember that we're watching Joseph Frank Keaton, actor and director, performing dangerous and outrageous stunts with no camera trickery or stunt double because that's what it took to do the job. We can wish for a New Year's blip in the zeitgeist that manifests as people all across society — from the most brutally slinged-and-arrowed among us to simply humble writers who love movies — finding their bliss and reducing their blood pressure with one four-letter mantra: WWBD. What Would Buster Do?

Or how about Steamboat Bill, Jr.? This Mark Twain-like tale from 1928 is Keaton's last great feature. In it, Buster is a ukulele-strumming Harvard milquetoast who returns to Mississippi to find his father, a tough and crusty sidewheeler steamboat captain.

In the film's famous climax, a cyclone blows the local port town to smithereens. In terms of sheer physical damage, it's an amazing scene. It supersizes stunts and gags Keaton successfully rehearsed in earlier shorts such as "Back Stage" (made during his fruitful years with Fatty Arbuckle) and "One Week". It's the sort of destruction that nowadays would be consigned to CGI. Buildings peel apart and tumble down to splinters at Junior's feet. Houses lift off their foundations. Junior rides a wheeled hospital bed and flies through the air clinging to a tree uprooted and set flying as if to Oz. A dozen impressive large-scale visual feats come, bam-bam-bam, in this scene alone. And through it all his expression, as ever, registers only controlled alarm and a certain thoughtful interest in the forces buffeting him hither and thither.

Again St. Buster teaches us that, in a world of windswept and sometimes violent unpredictability, we can either teeter face-first into the gale and risk sliding through the mud on our ass, or allow life's vicissitudes to carry us where we must go to (in Junior's case) save the day, embrace reconciliation with our loved ones, and get the girl. 

"What Keaton did physically is actually quite startling when you discover that he did all of his own stunts," said Kevin Spacey in a 1999 American Film Institute special. In the cyclone scene, the stunt everybody remembers is the house. When the two-story, two-ton facade of a house descends to squash Keaton below, it smacks the ground and shatters, with Keaton saved by standing in the precise space of its small open window. Spacey again: "The famous one is when the house falls. He had to stand on a mark. I'm told it was a nail ... if he moved an inch to one side he would have been crushed to death."

In other words, when the walls are falling down, WWBD tells us: try to stand where the window is.

Never mind that The General is based on a true story and shows off Keaton's fanatical devotion to historical authenticity. He filmed it in Oregon for the scenery and because only there could he find the narrow-gauge track required for the genuine period locomotives he acquired. The beautiful Mathew Brady-inspired photography includes luscious moving long shots of vast forested mountainscapes, steaming locomotives (the coolest comedy props ever used), and warring Northern and Southern armies played by hundreds of Oregon National Guardsmen.

Never mind that its most famous moment, in which a real, full-sized train plummets off a burning high-span trestle bridge, is the most expensive shot from the silent era — $42,000, and some years ago I read that that equates into the millions today. Walter Kerr, in his indispensable The Silent Clowns, called it "surely the most stunning visual event ever arranged for a film comedy." It goes without saying that there were no second takes.

Never mind the comedic, dramatic, technical, and filmcraft sophistication on view throughout Keaton's silent-era, independent work.

No, the fulcrum point of both The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr. is Keaton's signature image — a man alone, making the most of whatever the hell's going on around him.

Watching Keaton today, we realize that he's the most modern of all silent screen masters. His ongoing travails at the whims of The Machine — meaning his beloved mechanical contrivances as well as Nature or "the Establishment" — make him our contemporary. By virtue of their subtlety and number, his confrontational pas de deux with modernity outgrace even Chaplin's marvelous Man-vs.-Machine allegories in Modern Times.

Also, today Chaplin often strikes us as oversentimental, maudlin even. That's not to downplay his genius or his comedy at all, though there's something about Keaton's restrained, underplayed determination as he faces each new obstacle that feels refreshingly timely. The Little Tramp was Chaplin's "Everyman," self-consciously created to embody all people from all times. The character's longevity is a testimony to that universality. But it's Keaton's innocent yet unflappable achiever we more identify with. As Keaton himself put it, "Charlie's tramp was a bum with a bum's philosophy. Lovable as he was, he would steal if he got the chance. My little fellow was a workingman, and honest." We feel for the Tramp, but we want to be like Keaton.

It's telling that the two most inventive actor-writer-directors Hollywood has ever produced, Keaton and Chaplin, in their heyday worked side by side but never together. One difference between these equal-yet-separate geniuses is that Chaplin was a stubbornly 19th-century Victorian making movies in, but unable to fully acclimate to, a whole new 20th century. Keaton, on the other hand, was a Machine Age modernist who grasped the world of Model T's and hand-cranked movie cameras as his toybox.

It's my suspicion that Chaplin, if delivered to New Year's Day 2011 via time machine, would be entirely at sea, and disgruntled to boot, within today's moviemaking world. Keaton, on the other hand, would leap into it with every downloadable app at his fingertips, meanwhile putting Steven Spielberg and James Cameron on hold until he chooses to take a video conference.

Keaton and Chaplin are both enjoying a boom of popular rediscovery in recent years. I can't help but suspect that — while both awe us and make us laugh — Chaplin speaks to our sense of nostalgia the way Dickens does, and Keaton connects with us as a fellow modernite. Who among us can't identify with his small, straight-backed figure standing atop his speeding engine, leaning forward as if his shoes are nailed to the roof, shading his eyes and gazing into the onrushing distance, wondering what the hell's coming next?