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Buster Keaton: The Sound of His Obsession

Bill Frisell's ambient, fuzzy, meandering guitar doodles sound like they're trying to approximate the sad stillness blowing through the corridors of Keaton's mind.

The High Sign / One Week / Go West

Distributor: JP Cutler Media
Cast: Buster Keaton
Rated: unrated
US DVD release date: 2009-09-01

The DVD, Films of Buster Keaton / Music by Bill Frisell contains one feature and two short subjects starring Buster Keaton, with music provided by guitar master Bill Frisell. The shorts, The High Sign and One Week, are about wacky houses. They're both small masterpieces of comedy, essential and endlessly watchable not only for their set-pieces but for a hundred little touches.

The High Sign was written and directed by Keaton and Edward Cline in 1920 as Keaton's first solo short, but not released until a year later. It begins with brilliant sight gags about an unemployed Keaton finding a job at a shooting gallery. I refuse to describe the gags, which are bold, surreal and nonchalant. Some ideas are planted for pay-off later.

Even when predictability is set up, as in the sequence where Keaton makes practice shots, there are curious twists in addition to Keaton's special grace. Indeed, one gag (with a banana) depends on its apparent predictability. Another gag depends on Keaton's attempt to shoot somebody. In fact, most of the jokes involve guns and the ridiculous possibility of death, about which nobody seems much concerned.

This obsession with murder and death eventually drives the plot as Keaton's boss is revealed to be the leader of the Blinking Buzzards, a gang of blackmailers and cut-throats who recognize each other by their absurd "high sign" of crossing their hands below their noses like a buzzard's wings. The boss is so impressed by Keaton's non-existent sharpshooting skills that he promptly commissions him to execute a hit on a recalcitrant rich guy, August Nickelnurser. Keaton is only nonplussed by the fact that he's already been hired as the man's bodyguard. Apparently it would be all right if he were hired to bump off anyone else.

You might expect the rich guy to live in a mansion but he resides in an ordinary house with his daughter (Bartine Burkett). Having an hour or so to spare, he has his entire house booby-trapped with trapdoors and sliding panels. The last half of the film conveys Keaton's frantic chase through the house with the Buzzards. We see the entire set of the house, with walls and floors, so that we can follow the drops and passages from room to room within a single shot. It's dazzlingly imagined, meticulously cavorted and finely edited.

More elaborate domicile shenanigans await Keaton in One Week, which reaches heights of literally dizzying hilarity. This was the movie that Keaton and Cline released as Keaton's solo debut, although The High Sign was made right before it.

From High Sign

The idea is that Keaton and his bride (Sybil Seely) build a do-it-yourself house and it doesn't quite come out as planned. It's easy to go abruptly from inside to outside, not so easy to get back in. During a storm, the house spins like a carousel, as seen from both outside and inside. It's difficult to say which shots are funnier, and by "funny" we mean in the sense of making the viewer laugh out loud -- you know, like comedies are supposed to do. The humor derives not really from the house but from the interactions of the people with this bizarre situation, and we're also struck by the sheer imagination of how such ideas are conceived and executed, evidently with a camera spinning madly on its axis through a series of 360-degree turns.

This is one of several Keatons that use the famous stunt of the falling house-front. A famous sequence on the train tracks has a beautiful double-climax that never fails to be funny and impressive every time you see it. The first climax makes judicious use of the camera panning right, and the second uses a split-second edit. In Keaton, film grammar often contributes to the punchline.

The 1925 Go West is a relatively minor achievement among Keaton's features, although it's certainly an interesting and amiable film, even an unusual one whose details bear revisiting. It might have been selected for the Frisell treatment because his style matches it better, as will be discussed below.

As in The High Sign, the plot begins with our hero unemployed. He pawns his possessions and hops a train to New York for a brief, unsuccessful visit. He finds a lady's clutch purse, but the only thing of value in it is a tiny gun. Then he hops another train bound for Santa Fe, while thinking of Horace Greeley's statue and its inscription "Go west, young man." These train trips are handled with beautiful concision, the passage of time noted by superimpositions of the decreasing length of his bread and sausage.

He gets a job well enough as a cowhand and, like Androcles, makes friends with one particular animal by removing a stone from its hoof. This becomes the central relationship of the film, substituting for the romance we'd normally expect with the rancher's daughter (Kathleen Myers). The tiny ladies' gun comes in for quite a bit of action, with one of the jokes involving how it gets lost in the depths of Keaton's holster. It becomes an obvious symbol of the greenhorn's relative lack of prowess and experience amid the other hands. Although he manages to get it traded for a larger pistol after winning respect in a poker game, he hangs onto it and laters uses it in a shoot-out.

After a bit of business on the cattle train that mildly prefigures the locomotive antics in The General, the finale is set in Los Angeles, where a thousand head of cattle wander the streets and businesses in a sequence that may remind some people of the Barbra Streisand movie For Pete's Sake. This officially becomes surreal when Keaton dresses in a red devil suit to lure them to the stockyards.

As a musical project, this has a long history. Frisell was commissioned in the early '90s to create live improvisational accompaniment for screenings of six Keaton films. He composed melodies and even created loops, leaving space for improvisation by himself on electric and acoustic guitar, Kermit Driscoll on electric and acoustic bass, and Joey Baron on drums and percussion. The three scores here were released as a Nonesuch album in 1995, so this disc basically re-affixes them to the films, which are also available on Kino DVDs without Frisell's score. (One Week and The High Sign are on Kino's disc of The Saphead, while Go West is a different disc.)

Frisell's ambient, fuzzy, meandering guitar doodles sound like they're trying to approximate the sad stillness blowing through the corridors of Keaton's mind, which would make the music a subjective counterpoint to the action. This impression is confirmed by a statement in the PR material, which quotes Frisell saying, "We got into the psychology of what Keaton might have been thinking while acting out those scenes, and put that in our writing." If that's the intention, it demonstrates that such an idea is more distracting than appropriate.

I suppose somebody always has to be thinking "outside the box", and Frisell wouldn't have been interested in this project if it merely came down to mickey-mousing the action with traditional cues, but frankly the music doesn't serve the films well. Silent film music is programmatic by nature and that should probably be embraced rather than subverted.

Here, only the percussionist makes an attempt to echo what's going on (hammer blows, etc.), while other obvious onscreen cues (bells, ukulele) are only dimly alluded to, if not ignored. The opening of One Week shows a bell ringing and wedding party leaving the church. A wedding march would have been a cliché, but a cliché with good reason: it would work.

Bill Frisell

The score for Go West comes off much better with its ambling and loping western motifs. Still, although the music has an interesting sound if regarded as a thing unto itself, it only occasionally bears a passing resemblance to what happens onscreen aside from abrupt shifts of punctuation. (At The Rats and, you can read about and listen to an alternate modern score for this film from The Rats and People Motion Picture Orchestra.)

The result is a DVD that may introduce viewers to the visual brilliance that is Keaton (of which the two shorts are as great an entry as any), or possibly may encourage film buffs to explore the internal, sometimes dissonant soundscapes of Frisell (though one shouldn't start here), but which probably won't convince a lot of people that the two are ideal together.

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