Mechanical Animal

Violet Glaze
Buster Keaton in The General

Who's the perfect silent film comedian for our techno-centric age? Here's a hint: he's the classic 'stoneface' who made machines his friends, not his entertainment enemies, during the course of his amazing cinematic career.

How much, really, can one learn about a person by asking, "Beatles? or Stones?" That'll only divide the pop-y intellectuals from the bad boy capitalists (not really a way to divine a personality). If you really need to know whether a person's palate is high or lowbrow, whether the future excites them or terrifies them, if they value innovation over familiarity, if their outlook is one of glassy-eyed optimism or judiciously tempered with jaundice, or even whether they do their own oil changes, you gotta ask them this: "Chaplin? or Keaton?"

You can start winnowing the wheat from the chaff from the get-go with this question, since more people have heard of Charlie Chaplin than Buster Keaton. They may not have ever seen one of Chaplin's films, but if they can recognize a James Dean or Elvis coffee mug from 50 paces, they'll be able to name his twinkly-eyed, bowler-hatted, bristle-mustached face. Buster Keaton, however, was born with a kisser that on bad mornings might scare you off your morning coffee and make you reach for the Dran-o instead. Hook-nosed and sallow, with cheekbones where eagles could nest and dark eyes that, when not languorously slack, brimmed with suspicion and hurt, he looked less like the perky Brit Chaplin and more like one of the Southern European immigrants who comprised the bulk of early nickelodeon audiences.

Sicilian? Sephardic? Navajo? Amazingly none of these; Keaton was Irish, the son of vaudeville performers Joe and Myra Keaton who, while on tour with the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company, birthed Buster in a Piqua, Iowa boarding house in 1895. "The Three Keatons" act consisted of Joe "disciplining" the young Buster by tossing him around like a rag doll. Through experience Buster learned two truisms that would define the timbre of his later legacy: the audience laughs loudest when the performer never cracks a smile, and any pratfall is possible if you know how to land. That second maxim got more difficult as the years went by, as Buster's maturation (while never a big man, Buster was 5'6" and 21 years old in the act's final run) and Joe's alcoholism made Buster's safety impossible. No longer able to trust his father's timing on stage, Buster left the act and set out on his own.

Buster Keaton journeyed to New York in pursuit of an offer on Broadway but soon had a chance encounter with silent comedian Fatty Arbuckle, who'd recently formed his own production company and needed actors. Keaton was game for an afternoon's work. His film debut is enshrined in the Arbuckle quickie The Butcher Boy (1917), but more important to film historians than that first appearance was Keaton's first exposure to the technology of film. The motion picture camera enthralled Keaton. He asked to take the device home that night, where he disassembled and reassembled the entire contraption — lenses, gears, celluloid, hand crank — so as to understand its mechanism completely. When he returned, Arbuckle offered him a $40 a week job. Keaton gladly chose Arbuckle's offer over the $250 a week gig on the Great White Way. Keaton was in love, and the object of his desire was the motion picture camera.

The camera, and, to a greater degree, all technologies and their possibilities, are the driving force behind Keaton's genius. It's the recurring springboard of his gags, the lynchpin of his technological contributions to film, the wellspring of his fascinations as an artist. Much is made about Keaton's legendary comic style (the stoicism, the jaw-dropping stunts, the slightly vinegary pall), but it's important to separate the skeleton from the flesh. The armature Keaton's idiom rests upon is the never-ending romance he felt with the mechanical world.

The General (1927), Keaton's masterpiece, expresses perfectly this kinship with machines; in this case, a giant steam locomotive. The inter-title introducing Keaton's railroad engineer character Johnnie Gray makes this abundantly clear: "There were two loves in his life. His engine, and…" We cut to a picture of his girlfriend Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), but the engine proves the less fickle sweetheart. Annabelle Lee is ashamed Johnnie was turned away from Confederate service (only because his railroad training made him more valuable than the usual cannon fodder) and tells him "I don't want you to speak to me again until you are in uniform". Heartbroken, Johnnie sits defeated on the locomotive crossbar. In one of the most famous images of Keaton's career, the engine starts up, lifting Keaton in a gentle carousel motion away from the site of his humiliation, an automated "there, there" from the truer of his two loves.

Chaplin didn't share Keaton's admiration of machines, but instead approached them with a prim Luddite disdain, or outright horror. Consider the famous sequence that opens Chaplin's Modern Times (1936), where Charlie is just another cog in a capitalist assembly line, a point made with sledgehammer subtlety when fatigue and stress reduce him to a ticcy automaton unable to stop straightening everything that looks like a bolt. He's made an example when a visiting inventor plugs him into a "feeding machine" that'll allow an employee to work through lunch without stopping. Eating, a simple, organic need, is reduced to an engineering problem. Charlie, strapped helplessly to this mechanized trough, is slapped indignantly with buttered ears of corn and splattered with hot soup. Eventually he snaps and giddily runs amuck, regaining his humanity by willfully destroying the factory that enslaves him.

In contrast, machines are the solutions to Keaton's problems. In the hurricane climax of Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), Buster is helpless, frantically struggling against the onslaught of wind and rain. He leaps into the gust, trying to gain ground but crumples repeatedly into a flailing heap by the unsympathetic meteorological assault. But when the storm brings the front façade of a house crashing down on Buster, his neck is saved only by luckily standing where the empty space of the open attic window hits the ground, creating a keyhole of space where he can remain unscathed. (This gag is not an illusion; Keaton built the full-weight set with only a few inches allowance for where he could safely position himself to avoid pulverization). Natural forces may blow Buster willy-nilly, but man-made items always make thoughtful allowance for his safety.

Keaton's career had a much narrower fertile period than Chaplin's. A combination of factors, including a bad business decision to sell his independent studio to MGM, a failing marriage, and an inherently more passive attitude towards success truncated Keaton's career prematurely. The Cameraman (1928), his first film distributed by MGM, is the last that bears a significant stamp of his auteur. Knowing this, it's bittersweet to see him as a newbie newsreel cameraman who buys a then-outdated hand crank model from a thrift store (possibly the same type that so bewitched Keaton a decade ago) in an effort to win the girl and make something of himself. He may fumble with the gadget in the opening scene and earn the derision of his bosses by running the film backwards, but in the denouement it's photographic evidence that proves Buster's square-jawed rival chickened out, and that Buster rescued the unconscious girl instead. Once again machines prove they can be trusted in Keaton's universe in ways people can't.

Unlike the tech-phobic Chaplin, who insisted the Little Tramp remain a silent character, Keaton was excited by the possibilities presented by sound film. Unfortunately by the early '30s his bad business acumen had caught up with him and he was stripped of all creative control. In four years Keaton was making buddy pics with Jimmy Durante (!?!) and succumbing to the same drinking problem that had bedeviled his father. Chaplin plowed ahead, his place in film history assured, but Keaton had to wait until a critical rediscovery of his work in the '50s for scholarship to recognize him as an innovator, artist, and genius. A shuffle of destiny in 1917 and Keaton could have been a footnote in the history of vaudeville instead of a motion picture pioneer, but, thanks to the intervention of the camera, Keaton's legacy remains immortal. That wonderful machine saves the day again.

Buster Keaton - The General

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.