“Keaton was beyond all praise, a very great artist, and one of the most beautiful men I ever saw on the screen. He was also a superb director. In the last analysis, nobody came near him. I was lucky enough to get to know him fairly well just at the end of his days. The Stage Door Canteen—a sort of cabaret-restaurant for servicemen run by show people—we both used to work there. I did magic and he washed dishes, for God’s sake. Keaton, one of the giants! What about The General—that’s a truly great movie, isn’t it? Now, finally, Keaton’s been ‘discovered.’ Too late to do him any good, of course—he lived all those long years in eclipse, and then, just as the sun was coming out again, he died. I wish I’d known him better than I did. A tremendously nice person, you know, but also a man of secrets. I can’t even imagine what they were.” — Orson Welles
Buster Keaton’s College
by Luis Buñuel (from Cahiers d’Art, 1927)
Here’s Buster Keaton in his wonderful new movie, College. Asepsia. Disinfection. Freed from tradition, our eyes have been rejuvenated in the youthful and restrained world of Buster, a great specialist against sentimental infection of all kinds. The film was as beautiful as a bathroom; with a Hispano’s vitality. Buster will never seek to make us cry, because he knows facile tears are old hat. He’s not, though, the kind of clown who’ll make us howl with laughter. We never stop smiling for an instant, not at him, but at ourselves, with the smile of well-being and Olympian strength.
We will always prefer, in cinema, the monotonous mien of a Keaton to the infinitesimal one of a Jannings. Filmmakers abuse the latter, multiplying the slightest contraction of his facial muscles to the nth degree. Grief in Jannings is a prism with a hundred faces. This is why he’s capable of acting on a surface fifty meters wide and, if asked for “a bit more,” will contrive to show us that you could base a whole film on nothing other than his face, a film called Jannings’ Expression; or, The Permutations of M Wrinkles Raised to the Power of n².
In Buster Keaton’s case his expression is as unpretentious as a bottle’s, for instance; albeit that his aseptic soul pirouettes around the circular and unambiguous track of his pupils. But the bottle and Buster’s face have infinite points of view.
They are wheels that must accomplish their mission in the rhythmic and architectonic gearing of the film. Montage—film’s golden key—is what combines, comments on, and unifies all these elements. Is greater cinegraphic virtue attainable? The inferiority of the “antivirtuoso” Buster, when compared to Chaplin, has been argued for, turning this to the disadvantage of the former, something akin to a stigma, while the rest of us deem it a virtue that Keaton creates comedy through a direct harmony with the implements, situations, and other resources of filmmaking. Keaton is full of humanity, but streets ahead of a recent and increate humanity, of humanity à la mode, if you like.
Much is made of the technique of films like Metropolis and Napoléon. That of films like College is never referred to, and that’s because the latter is so indissolubly mixed with the other elements that it isn’t even noticed, just as when living in a house we remain unaware of the calculus of resistance of the materials that go to form it. Superfilms must serve to give lessons to technicians: those of Keaton to give lessons to reality itself, with or without the technique of reality.
The Jannings School: European school: sentimentalism, a bias toward art and literature, tradition, etc.: John Barrymore, Veidt, Mosjoukine, etc.…
The Keaton School: American School: vitality, photogenia, a lack of noxious culture and tradition: Monte Blue, Laura la Plante, Bebe Daniels, Tom Moore, Menjou, Harry Langdon, etc.…
(click to enlarge)
In Sherlock Jr., Keaton’s character, a film projectionist, looks to the movie he’s showing for guidance on how to woo the woman he loves. Imitating the actors works like a charm until the film suddenly jumps forward in time. The lovers in the movie are now the proud parents of twin babies, leaving our hero quite perplexed about how to replicate that.
“It was on purpose that I started looking miserable, humiliated, hounded, and haunted, bedeviled, bewildered, and at my wit’s end. Some other comedians can get away with laughing at their own gags. Not me. The public just will not stand for it. And that is all right with me. All of my life I have been happiest when the folks watching me said to each other, ‘Look at the poor dope, wilya?’
Because of the way I looked on the stage and screen the public naturally assumed that I felt hopeless and unloved in my personal life. Nothing could be farther from the fact. As long back as I can remember I have considered myself a fabulously lucky man. From the beginning I was surrounded by interesting people who loved fun and knew how to create it. I’ve had few dull moments and not too many sad and defeated ones.”
-Buster Keaton, in his autobiography My Wonderful World of Slapstick (1960)