Friday, March 30, 2012

Tempest in a flat hat

It must be a year for the classics: I read Ivanhoe for the first time earlier this year, went onto Dickens' Barnaby Rudge, and am now reading Moby Dick.  I'd begun this years ago, and got about half way through it, I think, before I either abandoned it or got sidetracked by something else.  I vividly remembered the scene in which Ishmael goes overboard and seems to be abandoned in the unending sea.  Apart from that little else remained with me.   But someone on Twitter the other day (who says Twitter can't be intellectual?) said they'd thoroughly enjoyed it, and so I thought I'd give it another go.  I've got a copy somewhere, but I'm actually reading it on Kindle, as I have done with about half the books I've read this year.

However, between all the classics I've also managed to fit in some lighter reading, including Buster Keaton: tempest in a flat hat, by Edward mcPherson.  I came across a copy of this at the University Bookshop in their sale department.  Buster Keaton being an actor/director I admire hugely I couldn't resist getting the book.

It's both a biography and a synopsis of each of his movies.   Well, all the silent ones at least, and the early talkies.   I've only ever seen a few of Keaton's movies - I have The General and Steamboat Bill on DVD.  And I think I've seen The Navigator at some point, along with maybe one or two of the two-reelers he produced.  So my rating of his movies relies a great deal of what I've read about Keaton over the years.   McPherson has seen all the movies - crikey! - and is able not only to give the 'plots' (such as they are) but delineate some of the more amazing sequences, and show how these fitted into Keaton's approach to filmmaking overall.

I'd love to be in the position to see some of these old works; McPherson's enthusiasm rubs off all the time.   But beyond that his biographical information about Keaton is fascinating, from his growing-up with his family in vaudeville (he barely went to school at any point, which speaks volumes for learning in a different way), to his gradual slide into films along with his friend, Roscoe ('Fatty') Arbuckle, through the years in which he and his friends made movies at the drop of a hat, to the years when he was cast aside by the big studios, to his eventual comeback via repeat showings of his old films and his appearances on television, where he profitably spent his later years. (Chaplin and the like felt television was beneath them; Keaton just treated it as a kind of return to the old days of vaudeville.)

A tough little man (both physically and emotionally), he had the misfortune to marry the wrong woman - she treated him like dirt within a couple of years of marriage, though was never averse to his money.  He also made the mistake of believing that the big studios were where he should go to further his career.   The studios thought that movies should be churned out at the rate of one a week, and couldn't deal with his much more creative approach to filmmaking.  (When he and his team felt drained of new ideas, they'd go and play baseball for a couple of days, and come back refreshed and ready to move forward.)

Keaton had some tough times, but he was a survivor.   And I think his movies will survive as long, if not longer than Chaplin's.  The latter's sentimentality (which is almost Dickensian in tone) tends to reduce our sympathy towards them these days.  Keaton was never a sentimentalist; he might be chasing the girl but if he didn't get her it didn't always matter, and sometimes she turned out to be tougher than he was, and he no longer wanted her.  His films were about comedy, not romance.  Romance was merely a hook to hang the humour on.  And what humour: Keaton was a master of stunt  comedy, and was willing to risk his neck (and did, frequently) to get a joke on screen.  Chaplin, by contrast, worked on a much smaller scale.

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