A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Go West (Buster Keaton, 1925)

TCM ran this Keaton feature with a two-reeler from 1917, Coney Island, directed by Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, in which Keaton plays a secondary role to Arbuckle. The remarkable thing about the earlier film is that Keaton hasn't found his stone-faced persona yet: He smiles and mugs in ways that we don't expect from him. Adapting the deadpan became, along with the porkpie hat, Keaton's trademark as a film comedian, and it's even alluded to in a scene in which Keaton's character, known only as Friendless, plays poker with a guy who cheats. When Friendless calls him on drawing from the bottom of the deck, the guy pulls out the familiar line from The Virginian: "Smile when you say that." Incapable of smiling, Friendless attempts the expression by poking up the corners of his mouth with two fingers. It all goes to show that when it came to expressiveness, Keaton was a master of body language, able to communicate love or diffidence or fear with the very angle of his stance. No one ever did a pratfall better than Keaton, once he discovered that the trick is to keep your legs stiff when you land on your butt. Go West is one of the lesser Keaton features, not quite in the league of The Navigator (1924) or Seven Chances (1925) or the sublime The General (1926). The gags are plentiful but they're not set up quite as well as in those pictures, or as elaborate as the ones in Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) and The Cameraman (1928). When the focus goes away from Keaton, as it does in the scenes in which he leads a cattle drive through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, causing much havoc, the film gets a little scattered. Keaton is at his best when he sets up a simple gag, as when he repeatedly arrives late for dinner with the other ranchhands, who get up and leave the table once he sits down, so that eventually he rushes in, sits down first, gobbles his dinner, and then gets up and leave the moment they sit down. This is the one in which Friendless finally finds a friend: a cow named Brown Eyes -- an outcast like himself because she refuses to give milk. Rescued from the slaughterhouse, Brown Eyes climbs into an automobile with Friendless and, seated beside him, rides away. Arbuckle, incidentally, has a bit part in drag in Go West, as a woman in the department store invaded by the cattle.