Reviews

City Buster/Country Buster: 'Buster Keaton: Go West and Battling Butler'

Battling Butler (1926)

Buster Keaton is believable as a bum, a boxer or a dandy.


Battling Butler

Director: Buster Keaton
Cast: Buster Keaton, Snitz Edwards, Sally O'Neil
Distributor: Kino
Release date: 2011-09-27

Not quite super-human, and certainly not alien (he’s much too earthy for that), Buster Keaton is in some ways…extra-human? Alt-human? No mere man or woman can or should endure the brutal beatings inflicted upon poor Buster’s body, but not only does Keaton endure them, he does so without visible complaint. Or barely visible. I want to say he’s a, or even the model of forbearance in cinema, but again that seems a too human-based word. As Buster most often takes punishment like an inanimate object, it’s less forbearance than simply being. In the world of comic action and reaction, Buster Keaton just is.

That, of course, doesn’t stop the punishment, as is amply proven in this dual release featuring Go West (1925) and Battling Butler (1926). The latter film in particular finds Keaton’s character getting pummeled pretty badly, before giving back just as good. Keaton plays Alfred Butler, a pampered aristocrat who, in order to impress and retain the affections of a farm girl, pretends to be a professional boxer, also named Alfred Butler. The ensuing film is a revolving identity door, with Keaton getting deeper and deeper into his deception, until forced to prove himself in and out of the ring.

Keaton’s athleticism was always evident, but in Battling Butler we get to see him in fine fighting form, if not a top-echelon pugilist than one helluva contender. He could be believable as a bum, a boxer or a dandy. He looks incredibly dapper when slicked up, and his iconic non-expression is ideal for playing bored aristocrats. In truth, this non-expression is nothing of the kind; rather, its modulations are so finely calibrated as to be beneath normal human detection. Here, his heavy eyelids, weighty with ennui, just as soon retract when his character is provoked, like an owl on high alert.

The film was based on a successful stage play and the structure shows. Where many of Buster’s other silent features move through escalating comic episodes in constructions comparable to the whacked-out house of his short masterpiece “One Week,” Battling Butler feels more theatrically blocky, if never really stage-bound.

In fact, much of its humor happens outdoors. Encouraged by his exasperated father to rough it, Alfred can’t resist bringing the city with him: his tent in the woods includes a brass bed, a bear rug, and a butler, played by the great craggy Snitz Edwards. Keaton and Edwards share some nice moments, such as identically moping on train steps or having the lights go out around them in an empty boxing theater. The country girl (Sally O’Neil) comes replete, of course, with a BIG father and BIG brother, brutal bumpkins willing to kill to gain a heavyweight champion son/brother-in-law.

The funniest bits are often the most brutal. Purportedly, the boxing scenes, from the training to the final battle between both Butlers, were viewed by Martin Scorsese and his actors and crew before the making of Raging Bull, and one can see why. “Authentic” seems too mild a word, as it implies a kind of alibi. This is genuine brawling; you can see, even feel Buster’s face swell.

Special features for Battling Butler include excerpts from a Keaton-penned screenplay for a tantalizing but unproduced 1947 remake, and photographs from the 1922 stage production.

Go West (1925)

Go West is in some ways Keaton’s take on Charles Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), with the kid replaced by a cow. Keaton plays a character named Friendless -- perhaps the ideal moniker for his entire cinematic persona -- who, after trading all his belongings, bed included, for a loaf of bread and some meat, heads west.

Every actor wants to make a Western, and comedians are no exception. Keaton knew a good genre when he had one, and he made a real Western, while still getting the most out of his townie-out-West bit. Although his cowboy walk is exaggerated, he does it right there in the dust, and though stuck with a totally inadequate gun that drops into the bottom of its holster, it isn’t long before he’s proving himself the most cow-ish of cowboys.

It’s funny and odd seeing Keaton interact with animals, rather than the usual humans or material contraptions. Initially curious and prodding, like a puppy poking a new toy, ultimately he gives animals the same utilitarian space that he does mechanical objects. Given a stool and a bucket to milk a cow, Friendless places the bucket under the udders, sits on the stool at the cow’s head and waits for it to do its job. Later he shows a laying chicken the same patience.

Though there is a girl (Kathleen Myers), she isn’t really the love interest. In a touching “Androcles and the Lion” moment, Friendless pulls a debilitating rock from the hoof of the subsequently endeared Brown Eyes, a cow whose doleful bovine eyes are almost no match for Keaton’s own. Again his supposed non-expressivity is challenged; after Brown Eyes she kisses him, his face almost gives.

Raymond Durgnat, in his book on comedy The Crazy Mirror, wrote of Keaton as sometimes displaying “a fastidious delicacy worthy of Dorian Gray fingering rose-petals,” and we see some of that delicacy in Keaton’s interactions with Brown Eyes. In some ways, this is Buster at his most tender and emotional. It takes a cow to break him.

There are some nice self-reflexive gags, showing just how popular the comedian was, and how recognizable were his trademarks: Threatened at gunpoint to smile, he must resort to using his fingers to push up the sides of his immobile mouth, a nod to Lillian Gish in D. W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) as well as his own stoic persona. At another point, he’s forced into a debate: cowboy hat or pork pie?

The great thrill of the film is Keaton’s herding of cattle through the streets of Los Angeles, an event that makes for some hilariously startling juxtaposition of cows and department stores, as well as satiric analogies between cows and humans. At one point, I was reminded a bit of Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948), and wondered whether if, just as Scorsese and crew watched Battling Butler, Hawks ran Go West. There is a similar traffic-jamming of civilization and wilderness as when, in Red River, Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift) herds the cattle through the streets of Abilene, encouraged by Mayor Harry Carey to “Keep ‘em coming…” Needless to say, Keaton’s Friendless gets a different kind of welcome.

Extras include an audio recording of Keaton riffing on Chaplin’s The Kid, and brainstorming ideas for TV’s Wagon Train; and a Western-themed Hal Roach short starring -- what else? -- monkeys.

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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