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Gateway To Geekery: Buster Keaton

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Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: Buster Keaton

Why it’s daunting: For some people, silent movies will always be a forbidding proposition, although the elaborate gags of Keaton and his contemporaries have aged much better than their dramatic counterparts. And, of course, Keaton’s movies are in black and white, that terrifying monochrome precursor to the dappled palette of CSI: Miami. In other words, there’s really nothing daunting about Keaton’s oeuvre, unless you hate fun. And kittens.


Possible gateway: The General

Why: It’s a perennial contender for the greatest film ever made, for starters. Set during the U.S. Civil War—with Keaton’s hero, interestingly enough, on the side of the South—the movie hones Keaton’s art to its finest point, essentially extending the elaborate chase sequences that justly made him famous over the length of an entire film. The premise is simplicity itself: Civilian engineer Johnny Gray (Keaton) gets his chance to aid the Rebel army when his beloved locomotive, the General, is hijacked by Union spies planning a covert attack on the Southern army. But the grace with which Keaton and his co-director, Clyde Bruckman, stage the ongoing pursuit is nothing short of astonishing. In long single shots—the visual equivalent of Keaton’s celebrated deadpan—the scenes play out in perfectly timed detail across miles of railroad track: Keaton lights the fuse on a mobile cannon, only to clumsily uncouple it and watch the muzzle swing right at him. Then he’s saved by a sudden bend in the track, which allows the unmanned cannon to fire at his Union quarry. The movie is full of such large-scale spectacle, including a shot in which a locomotive pushes out onto a flaming wooden bridge that promptly collapses, spilling train and all into the river below. Although its classic status is now unquestioned, the costly film was a financial disaster for Keaton, and helped push him toward signing an ill-fated contract with MGM.


Next steps: Steamboat Bill, Jr. and Sherlock Jr. contain beautifully orchestrated gags that are every bit The General’s equal. The latter film, in which Keaton plays a daydreaming projectionist who inserts himself into the world of the screen, is replete with jaw-dropping match cuts that allow Keaton to walk seamlessly from one film into the next, often without so much as a visible cut. You may be too busy gaping to remember to laugh, but that will come in time.

Where not to start: Skip The Cameraman and Spite Marriage, the relatively lackluster sound films Keaton made under his MGM contract. While debates about the relative merits of Keaton’s films and Charlie Chaplin’s serve little use, there’s no question Chaplin was the wiser businessman, retaining the rights to his films and never falling under a studio’s sway. Keaton, sadly, was cut off in his prime; although he directed steadily for another decade, the films were never the same. In Sunset Blvd., he turns up as one of the “waxworks,” just another faded star put out to pasture in a company town.