Sunday, June 06, 2010
Movie house of memory: The General.
Rabbiting away in the home office last week, I happened to turn on the radio. "Performance Today" was playing on the local NPR outlet. The host announced they would be broadcasting from the Spoleto USA festival, an annual occurrence in Charleston, South Carolina. Missus RR and I have attended this festival on one of our visits to that lovely city; we had a great time. There are many opportunites to see and hear diverse entertainment.We saw an Indonesian shadow puppet show, heard some excellent music, and your correspondent had an upclose and potentially expensive encounter with modern art. We also saw The General, Buster Keaton's 1926 film, which was playing on a big screen at a church, with improvised organ accompaniment.
How appropriate! A film based on a true incident of the Civil War, playing in a town and state that figured highly in that conflict. Charleston holds the record for an American city being shelled, and South Carolina was the first on and last off the secession bandwagon.Politics are still rough and tumble in the Palmetto state. This was not the first time I bumped into Buster. I had seen him in bit parts in Beach Blanket Bingo and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Those were definitely not Keaton films. The General is, and is arguably his masterpiece. The trouble for some is it is not a comedy.
Keaton's comedy was very physical;gags executed with precise timing and blocking.While physical, Keaton played likeable characters; Chaplin's little tramp, on the other hand, could be a mean little man. Never Buster.His most famous stunt occurs in Steamboat Bill, Jr. : he is standing in the street, facing the camera, when the entire front facade of the house he is standing in front of falls over him, with Keaton being saved from death by the precise placement of a window. In The General, while still a very physical performance, there are few laughs.Keaton is an engineer in Georgia whose two loves of his life, his engine and his girlfriend, are taken by Yankee soldiers in a raid. He takes another engine, Texas, if memory serves, and sets out to get them back. Along the way he executes some physical stunts, very dangerous stuff on a moving train, and there are battle scenes where people die. The film did not do well at the box office because the laughs were not there. Because the audiences stayed away and the cost of the film was so high,the studio never let Keaton have the level of control over production he had with this and his earlier films. Keaton, a train buff, was a stickler for detail. When the Texas wrecks, it is really wrecking, folks.
The audience that muggy night was behind Buster all the way as he put one over on the Yankees. They actually hissed at the Yankees once or twice; never heard a live audience hiss before. It was a night where everything clicked into place, like a well planned stunt. The film, the venue, and the accompanist all contributed to create a sort of magic. This rarely happens, and I appreciated being able to participate.