Gerald Mast on Buster Keaton

I’ve done quite a few posts about Chaplin, and it’s time I start giving Buster Keaton more time.   While I find the Chaplin life story absolutely fascinating, I am much more likely to spend my movie viewing time with Keaton.    Here are some selected quotes from Gerald Masts’  The Comic Mind.

Whereas Chaplin’s comic technique centered about his face, hands, and legs, each of which operated as separate entities, with individual limberness and subtlety, the Keaton comic technique centered about the body as a whole, single physical object  that could comport it’s self in space the way no physical object ought to have the right or power to do.  When Keaton takes a fall, his body doesn’t merely fall.  It lifts itself several feet into the air and then hurls itself down to the ground.  When he does a flip, his body doesn’t merely flip.   It leaps into the air tautens itself into planklike stiffness, then tucks in it’s knees and tumbles over itself in mid air.  The body is alternately, indeed simultaneously, both elastic and bone, the most malleable and the most tensile of physical substances.

Unlike Chaplin he consistently caught the perfect performance of a gag in a single take.  He would have to. Such stunts did not bear frequent repetition.

Keaton is not a little guy set against malignant social forces, like Chaplin; he is a little guy set against elemental forces. …

Nature has no will.  Only man has will.  And Keaton’s films consistently reveal the triumph of human will and spirit over natural opponents.  The Keaton comedies are more epic than Chaplin’s because they show man in conflict with traditional epic forces rather than individual men and social attitudes.

Keaton films were outdoor films; Chaplin films were not.  (Even outdoor films such as Sunnyside, The Pilgrim, and The Gold Rush seem claustrophobic – intentionally)  The outdoors gave Keaton space to move  and vast panoramas to contrast with his moving body, that small piece of elastic granite.  Chaplin could generate a world of excitement from a single room ( for example One A.M. ); Keaton needed the world.

Film gave Keaton the freedom the stage never could, which is why his work is the more cinematic of the two.  Film did offer Chaplin the opportunity for close ups.

Little man juxtaposed with big universe – this was the Keaton theme, cinematic principle of  composition, and basis of story construction.  It also influenced the kinds of objects that Keaton chose to play against.  Huge inanimate objects and living opponents were merely a manifestation of the hugeness of nature.  Keaton played against a dinosaur, a waterfall, an ocean liner, a landslide, a herd of cattle, a locomotive, the entire Union  and Confederate armies, a steamboat, a Tong war, a gang of bootleggers, a storm at sea, a tribe of indians, and the entire New York police force.  In most of the films, Keaton began playing against the enormous object and ended up playing with it.  The object that dwarfed him at the film’s beginning became equally an ally that he used to defeat others by the end.

The consistent Keaton motif is the ridiculing of all inhuman definitions of human worth.  To define a man by his uniform, wallet, muscles, or family name is not to define him as a person.  In his denigration of the value of clothes (despite his elegance in wearing them) and surface characteristics as a means of defining a man, Keaton is the opposite of Brecht ( A Man’s a Man ) and, therefore, of Chaplin ( Who’s tramp’s clothes are the tramp).  What Buster accomplishes often has little to do with social and literary cliches about what types of men can accomplish.  The Keaton character consistently shows how much a little, unheroic, unromantic man can do simply by going about his business in his own way, exercising his individual human abilities and will.


The Six Varieties of Physical Comedy

M. Wilson Disher wrote “Clowns and Pantomimes” which was published in 1925. He lays out six varieties of physical comedy. These are:


FALLS. Easily the first one to come to mind. Gravity reminds us we are not special. The more important or serious the person is, the funnier it is when they fall. There are many combinations of people and ways of falling. It’s really about the set up, and also about having a reasonable belief that the person isn’t seriously injured. It’s about making them look foolish.

BLOWS This is the bread and butter of the Three Stooges. It’s also the category that pie fights fall into.

SURPRISE One reason Buster Keaton was considered a great film maker was his ability to set up surprises. You are all set to see one thing, then he gives you another. There are two good surprises in this clip from his short film “One Week.”

KNAVERY is the sneaky stealing of things. The sly trickster is appealing. He is the partner of stupidity. I immediately thought of Harpo Marx.

MIMICRY. You probably noticed the brief moment of mimicry in the previous clip. When someone pretends to be some one or something else, it is funny. Dressing in drag is a form of mimicry. The greater the skill, the greater the comedy. Jim Carrey has great skill and he pushes the exaggeration as far as he can.

STUPIDITY. Here’s the problem with demonstrations of stupidity: The professionals have been pushed out of the market by the amateurs. I’m talking about “fail” videos. Damn if there aren’t lots of cameras trained on lots of stupid people. But we want to see how the professionals act stupid. The comedy of mistakes. It’s about seeing things wrong, being confused, but it’s also seeing things in a different way. The stupid character misinterprets directions and repeatedly makes the same mistake over again. Stan Laurel was one of the great stupid comedians.

Audience feedback

Some people might think that audience testing is something new, something thought up my marketing departments rather than artists. But it’s not. Silent film greats like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin also did testing, and would often sit in theaters to see how audiences reacted. They were accustomed to instant feedback on their work when they were on stage, and learned to live and die by it.

Here is an example. Buster Keaton finished a version of “Seven Chances” and screened it for a test audience. In the film he was being chased downhill by a horde of women in bridal costumes, and he accidentally kicked loose a few small stones that tumbled along next to him. The audience laughed at that. Keaton decided to give them more, so he went back and reshot the sequence, and this is the result:

Animators tend to want to do their work until they like it, then release it upon the world and wait for the appreciation to come rolling in. I suggest you get as many eyes on your work as possible, especially from regular people who don’t know you.

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