Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Loving the man in the pork-pie hat

There are certain things in life that everyone should experience. Like love or seeing the Grand Canyon or never having to watch Elizabeth Berkley act again. I’d like to add another one to the list and posit that the world would be a better place if we could all experience at least one Buster Keaton movie.

For those who don’t know, this is Buster Keaton and a small pony. Keaton is the taller one.

In the 1910s and 1920s, there were three silent film comedians who ruled the roost: Harold Lloyd, some nobody named Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. The masses loved Harold Lloyd and then forgot him. The masses and the critics loved Charlie Chaplin and remembered him -- I think mostly because it seemed weird that Hitler would copy his mustache. Some of the masses, some of the critics and all the finest morose people loved Buster Keaton, and today he’s remembered by pretty much those exact same groups.

Buster Keaton made unusual comedy which combined his gifts for physical grace and athleticism, a willingness to work on a grand scale including – I swear to God – blowing up a bridge and an entire steam locomotive for the sake of one good gag, and an ability to make an audience laugh or break their heart with equal ease. He always played the underdog, something that fit his small stature and deadpan countenance, but he played the underdog with bite. His characters would put up with only so much before they fought back – sometimes with exploding locomotives.

Because Keaton and his writers made much of their film's stories up as they went along, Keaton's movies have a free-wheeling joy and absurdity, never constrained by much of anything. His movies span a wide spectrum of subject matter, from “The General” where he plays an incompetent recruit who ends up saving the day to “Go West” where he plays a cowboy in love with his cow. (Okay, and a woman, but mostly he loves the cow. Her name is Brown Eyes, and she is pretty cute. Like a chunkier Sarah Jessica Parker.)

Whatever the subject matter, viewers can always rely on action and incredible stunts, the likes of which should put Bruckheimer to shame, especially considering this was nearly a century before CGI. With Keaton’s films you can laugh and then gasp as you watch him let a house fall around him, stand nearly horizontal in a tornado, grab on to a speeding car like a real-life cartoon character, hang upside down from a waterfall and jump from a moving train. With that last stunt, he actually broke his neck – but got up and finished the scene and then went another three months without realizing what he’d done. I’m telling you, the guy was tough.

So if you’re looking for a rarefied comedy experience, check out Buster. In fact, if you have 20 minutes or so right now, here are links to part one, part two and part three of his two-reel classic, “Cops.” It might well be your first experience in loving the man with the pork-pie hat.


Sonya said...

One of my professors in my first year introduced me to Charlie and, most importantly, Buster and it was because of them that I didn't leave school for the safety of my home town.

I LOVE Buster and always like a person a bit more if they know who he is.

But I have been known to say that he was a 1920's supermodel when people ask me who he is :)

Liz said...

I know what you mean about liking people a bit more when you know they share your love for Buster.

And I love your supermodel answer. I'm pretty sure he could've been one, too. Have you seen the muscles he had? Wow!

Jessica said...

All I know about Buster Keaton is that Buffy and Owen were supposed to go to a Buster Keaton festival in the episode "Never Kill a Boy on the First Date". If it's good enough for Whedon to reference, it's good enough for me! I shall add it to my "to be watched" list.

ALSO: I just read the first five issues of the Buffy, season 8 comic. Have you read it yet? Have you reviewed it yet? If not, may I highly recommend both?

Liz said...

Jessica, if you love Buffy, I think you'll like Buster Keaton. Totally different styles, obviously, but he has that same mixture of seriousness and absurdity that underscores Whedon's stuff. If you decide to rent some, I'd recommend "Our Hospitality," "The General" or my personal favorite, "The Cameraman."

Re: the comics, I did actually write a review of the first issue way, way back but I got sidetracked after the third issue. I'm hoping they'll compile them into a collection, if they haven't already. And you're right -- they are really, really good.

Scrap Irony said...

I too thought of the Buffy episode reference to Keaton when I saw this post. "Keaton is key" being the phrase that immediately jumped to mind.

As for the Buffy comics, there is a collection of the first five comics available in bookstores already, and the second set of five is slated to come out this summer.

And may I just take this moment to say, "lalala Dollhouse lalala new Whedon show" and do the accompanying happy dance.

Trey said...

I'm ashamed to admit that I was introduced to Buster Keaton by Johnny Depp's performance in "Benny & Joon". I redeemed myself from getting a Keaton education after that, though. Great stuff.

Liz said...

Scrap Irony, thanks for the tip on the comic collection. That'll be a good way for me to catch up. And heck yes on the new Whedon show. I'm pleased as punch to know a new one's coming. Let's hope the network lets it thrive.

Trey, there's no shame in discovering Keaton through Johnny Depp. Many, many good things start with Johnny! :-)

jenn said...

Posts like this are the reason I love this blog, Liz. Seriously-- Buster is amazing and I just finished watching "Cops" and fell totally in love with hit. How magical it must have been especially when it was first made. And it's not even a 'talkie', go figure! ;)

Jessica said...

I'm making note of those titles right now!

Actually, they did throw them into a collection, the first five is already out as a TP and the second collection is coming out this month. So it's all good. :)

Liz said...

Jenn, I'm so glad you liked "Cops" and share in the Buster love. He's amazing, and I really think you'll enjoy his other movies, too. You've got to try "Sherlock Jr." and "Our Hospitality" and then let me know what you think.

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