Buster Keaton, King of slapstick, stuntman avant la lettre, renowned for his stoic appearance, but most of all a contemporary man.
Bouncing black T-Fords slightly accelerated shoving right past the lead character, falling apart dramatically, or being in just the right place at exactly the right time to escape from the filth. Back in the days of silent movies slapstick artists like Joseph Francis ‘Buster’ Keaton know exactly how to apply the modernities of their time in making their movies. Where others, like Charlie Chaplin, use the ‘modern times’ to approach the raunchy edges of society in a more philosophic way, Keaton and his Vaudeville background manages to do his nickname honor. Trains a coming, endless pursuits and collapsing buildings, the stunts Keaton keeps coming up with are constantly mocking the growing mobility of the ‘modern’ human being.
In the world of Vaudeville ‘bustering’ is the noble art of falling, tumbling over, in a way what would become slapstick in silent movies. Buster Keaton didn’t steal his nickname whatsoever. As the eldest son of a Vaudeville couple he becomes the star of the show at a very young age, when he, much to the horror of the onlookers, is being tossed into the audience by his father. His ability to avert falls and hits make sure he usually doesn’t even bruise. His stoic glance during all these shenanigans are an instant hit with the public and wil remain one of his major selling points for the duration of his lasting career. Like his ability to roll with the punches does not only help him with his many stunts, but does keep him on his feet in daily life as well.
The scene in which Keaton’s character tries to haul an entire house across the railroad on the back of his humble T-Ford in time to escape from the incoming train smashing everything he owns to pieces is legendary. The gimmick being the misplaced trust in modern engineering, in the supercooled panic and, there it is again, the physical and mental resilience of the main character. It isn’t the only time transport and housing is a subject in one of his movies. There is being moved, traveled and built at a hundred miles an hour, but the scenes in which the stoic Keaton time after time manages to escape the dangers of raging traffic, hangs from running boards to elope his pursuers or simply looses his wheels under the load of his entire mortal coil, that sticks with our generation of classic car enthousiasts.
It is the unlimited trust of his characters in an uncertain future. In an ever changing world Keaton flawlessly manages to hit the soft spots. His slightly out of this world characters being the catalyst that makes us think even now. About individuality, locations and timing. People, things and developments. In the silent world of Keaton’s movies the disintegration of certainties was depicted quite literally with breaking wheels and collapsing houses. In our times we appear to be thrown back to empty argumentation and improper discussions. Somehow the silence of 100 years ago does seem appealing once again.
Marc GF Zaan