Actions Louder Than Words Watching Buster Keaton with my daughter

The swift decline of comedy now, emphasized by the loud and the farcical on Broadway, is the result of a panicky attempt to yell down the demons of life and fear, instead of fighting them with angels.
—James Thurber, in a letter, July 7, 1959

Connecticut could become the first state to curb loud movies. … The legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee is considering [a] bill, which would prevent theaters from showing a film or preview that exceeded 85 decibels.
The Associated Press, March 9, 2014


Movie poster for Buster Keaton's "Cops"Is that how we banish demons these days—with noise? Why all the yelling? Buster Keaton looks up, then down, then up—and sprints off, quick and quiet as a mouse. And my three-year-old daughter nearly laughs herself off the couch.

Cops, released in 1922, is a quintessential two-reel comedy from the silent clown Buster Keaton, who wrote, directed, edited, and starred in the 18-minute film, which pushes the exponential limits of comedy: If one cop chasing Buster gets a laugh, what about two, four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two, sixty-four—does slapstick ever plateau?

Here’s the particular gag: A burly policeman thinks he is locked Buster in a trunk, but when he lifts the trunk, the bottom comes off, allowing Buster to crawl out. He stands and meets the gaze of the cop. Together, they look at the bottom of the trunk (still flat on the ground), then back at each other—then Buster takes off.

It gets my daughter every time.

•   •   •

In comedy, a “double take” is a kind of visual stutter, or correction. The first reading of the situation is not sufficient (hey, is that one of the goons chasing me?), so you look away (what happened with that trunk?)—then look again (yikes, that’s him all right!). It is a kind of re-reading. Everything happens in that moment of delay—the mind puzzles, theories are born. The gap between seeing and understanding is deceptive and deep. Buster and the cop stare at the impossible trunk, a lull in the hilarity. The chase must resume, but for an instant they have become the eye of the storm. They are united—in thought.

•   •   •

Ten years after writing a book about Buster Keaton, I find myself watching a lot of his films with my daughter. While my wife and I try to be good parents of the latest generation—and attempt to limit all forms of “screen time” (phone, television, tablet)—there come occasions when we reach for that indispensable parental narcotic and turn on the TV.

Cops was my daughter’s first movie. She was homesick. I have a photo of her, a little over two years old, sitting entranced on the floor. I read the title cards to her (“Get some cops to protect our policemen!”), but they weren’t essential. She giggled when Buster pulled out a pillow and took a nap while driving a horse and an impossibly piled-high cart. She loved the bit when Buster rigged up a telephone so he could talk to the horse—even though there was no way she recognized that hand-cranked contraption as a phone. (Still—a horse wearing headphones!) She laughed at the police officers who kept falling down. She loved the business with the bottomless trunk. But most of all, she was taken with the chase—those hundreds of cops hounding Buster. At one point, when it seems he might be caught, he dives through someone’s legs—which remains her opening move, to this day, when she wants to “play Buster Keaton.”

•   •   •

Of course Buster’s moment with the trunk is not a classic double take. For one, it lacks the signature syncopated rhythm (initial glance, slow turn away, head whips back: ba-da-BUM). A double take is not really Keaton’s style—too flashy, too obvious for such an understated fellow, whose signature deadpan earned him the nickname The Great Stone Face.

My daughter still does not fully grasp the ending … but how am I to explain not only death, but a death that is funny? How do you whistle in the graveyard with someone who does not yet know to be afraid?

Instead, Keaton might engage in “the blink” or, more pointedly, “the slow blink.” And here an episode from his 1926 masterpiece, The General, comes to mind. The film features dueling locomotives—a pas de deux on rails—and when a boxcar that had been blocking Buster’s engine seemingly disappears (there one moment, gone the next—derailed by a wooden beam when Buster wasn’t looking), Buster—ever the master of the small gesture—turns his head and registers his confusion and surprise with a single leisurely flick of his lids. Eyes open. Eyes closed. Eyes open. The internal is made perfectly visible. The gesture practically yells.

•   •   •

Perhaps I should have seen the infatuation coming. My daughter’s first real literary laugh was a pratfall in a picture book. Curious George stands on the railing of a ship and flaps his arms like a seagull. The little monkey wants to fly. The narrative unfolds swiftly; you hardly need the words: Oh, what happened! First this—George leaps off the rail and stretches his arms, momentarily gloriously horizontal, soaring with three smiling gulls—and then this! George, now inverted, has plopped headfirst (mouth agape) into the ocean, to the delight of some fish. Between the two pictures, falls the crux of the gag—gravity. We read that book countless times when my daughter was little, but one day when we got to that sequence the light just went on—she let out a happy bark. I jumped, startled, as she doubled in mirth. Setup—punch line. Pure pleasure. The experience was repeated nearly every time we read the book. Eventually, she did not need me at all. She could flip the pages and study the pictures—alone, in silence—reducing herself to giggles at will.

•   •   •

The Kuleshov Effect is said to have been discovered by Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov in the 1920s. Accounts of the experiment vary, but Kuleshov supposedly intercut footage of a famous actor, Ivan Mozzhukhin, looking impassively into the camera with shots of a bowl of soup, a child in a coffin, and a beautiful woman. Audiences are said to have raved about Mozzhukhin’s ability to express hunger, loss, and lust—depending on what image was shown. Kuleshov’s brilliance was to use the same neutral footage of the actor, and the experiment has been held up as stark proof of the power of editing, of the amount of work the mind is willing to do to make meaning. Viewers suture the story together; their need for narrative is ingrained. Provide the pictures and they will do the rest.

Of course, comedy can come from upsetting that narrative, tripping up the mental process. The poet Anne Carson writes, “Aristotle says that metaphor causes the mind to experience itself / in the act of making a mistake.” So does a good gag.

Cops is full of visual puns, or “sight gags.” The film opens with a title card reading “Love laughs at locksmiths.” We see Buster behind bars, pleading with his girl. The old heart-wrenching prison visit. The conversation doesn’t seem to be going well: she shakes his hand and walks off; he collapses against the bars. The following (wider) shot reveals that Buster isn’t in jail—he’s outside the gate to her house. (We were fooled!) His girl turns to deliver an ultimatum: “I won’t marry you until you become a big businessman.” And so it is another kind of prison he is in. For us, what a pleasurable mistake!

Naturally, not all the jokes in Cops are sight gags. Under Buster’s hand, objects transform themselves, achieving their pure comic potential—a tall ladder leaning against a fence first becomes a seesaw, then a catapult. There are geometric jokes; Buster is the master of the Euclidian escape: with two streams of cops converging on him diagonally, Buster coolly steps into a door, the cops pass each other, and he steps out again, safe. (He also often hides in the background, overlooked by both viewer and cops, making comedic use of the camera’s deep space.) The film also employs situational comedy—the chase is all one horrible misunderstanding (Buster is framed for disrupting a police parade—he is trying to make good!). And then there are the physical stunts—a breathtaking collection of bone-breaking pratfalls, a visual ballet starring one plucky hero trying to stay just one step ahead.

•   •   •

In silent film, certain movements and gestures might be repeated or exaggerated for “readability,” and while Keaton does not go in for the ham-handed acting of some of his peers—his signature is a kind of wry understatement (no weepy, Chaplin-esque close-ups here)—he does teach the audience how to look. (Emerge from the trunk, look down at the miracle, look up at the cop, look down again at your impossible luck, look once more at that hopeless dolt—now scram.) The world is an unfathomable mess, love an impossible thrill. Everything crashes and collides. There is always another cop on your tail. Keep your chin up—do not miss a thing. Above all, keep moving.

That said, not all of the gags in Cops translate to a three-year-old. My daughter still does not fully grasp the ending: Buster, spurned by his girl, surrenders himself to the rabid corps, whom he has trapped in the police station. Unlocking the doors, he is lifted up and swallowed by the horde. Then comes the dark coda: the words “The End” engraved below Buster’s porkpie hat, which rests on a tombstone. They killed him! It is a brilliant, devastating kicker—the logic of the chase pushed to absurd ends—but how am I to explain not only death, but a death that is funny? How do you whistle in the graveyard with someone who doesn’t yet know to be afraid?

For now, for my daughter, the iconography is not in place—the tombstone does not ring a bell. She recognizes it as a Halloween decoration, but she can’t read the words, and so we laugh at Buster’s silly hat and gloss over the rest. At last, Buster joins his friends! They flip his heels over his head! Life is such a funny thing!

•   •   •

Keaton was a blockbuster star, but his career came crashing down with the advent of sound. In 1928, he left his independent movie studio and signed a contract with MGM for a staggering $3,000 a week. The economics of the business were changing—“talkies” were on the horizon—and Keaton couldn’t afford to finance his own shop. Thus he was chewed up by a studio system that was wholly at odds with his freewheeling working method. Meanwhile, he suffered from alcoholism, lack of artistic control, chronic infidelity, a marriage in ruin.

•   •   •

An important caveat—of course “silent” films were never truly silent but meant to be accompanied by music (a violin, a piano, even a full orchestra). Some theaters, thanks to sophisticated organs, boasted sound effects. But the actors didn’t speak; they navigated the world without noise. The sounds of their struggle were missing, at best dubbed in the theater or, more often, simply left to the imagination.

•   •   •

After signing with MGM, Keaton was walloped with a sinister confluence of factors (professional disappointment, personal unhappiness)—and, for a time, he was knocked down and stayed down. (In 10 years, he would command just $100 a week.) His screen persona changed once the pictures began talking. The funny inner workings of that dogged and impassive little clown suddenly had to express themselves in words—particularly in those noisy, early days of the all-singing, all-dancing, all-talking studio spectacle. Keaton’s charming dignity disappeared. He became like the rest of us, just chattering away.

But he also became more singularly himself, which was another part of the problem. I remember the first time I heard Buster talk. It was in a 1937 short. He walked onscreen; he whistled, then he spoke. I had seen his silent films countless times; I knew him. But his voice was shocking—too deep, too gravelly, not at all what I had imagined. And whose voice had I given the silent comedian? Naturally, my own. And that is the point—the strength of silence, its intrusive resonance. We rush to fill it—with imagination, with ourselves. I had met Buster halfway; he had been in my head as surely as I had been in his. And that interior work was no small part of the pleasure.

•   •   •

In his heyday, Keaton was immediately eclipsed by the Marx Brothers, whose verbal pyrotechnics seem leveled directly at his stony silence. How could he have gotten a word in edgewise?

More often these days, my daughter opts to watch Dora over Buster. Meanwhile, her grandmother recently took her to see her first Disney theatrical release, Frozen. It was a sing-along version, and she went with her cousins. Enough of the experience has stayed with her that she asks us to play the leads, Elsa and Anna. To my daughter’s frustration, my wife and I don’t know the rules to this game, and yet I find myself in no rush to see the movie, though it has captivated many of our friends.

Am I wallowing in nostalgia? Sentimentalizing childhood? Prizing innocence over wit? Being an anti-Disney, anti-spectacle humbug? After all, Frozen is a 3-D computer-animated musical fairy tale—how can Buster compete? I can’t force his films on my daughter, and—who knows?—she might come back to them one day. But am I right to be a bit sad? Is there something about these early quiet and intimate encounters with comedy? Are these first laughs somehow more joyous? I don’t know. But I do think they might be epochal, signaling one’s arrival into a kingdom—of real magic and meaning—that you only get to greet once.

•   •   •

Keaton’s downfall coincided with a seismic shift in comedy—from slapstick to screwball, from dizzy stunts to rapid-fire repartee. I am not saying Buster could not have adapted to the new medium and taste—he was a shrewd virtuoso whose career spanned vaudeville, silent film, talkies, Technicolor, beach movies, and live television. Surely, if he had been professionally and personally content, he would have worked out something brilliant. And eventually he did manage to pull himself out of the tailspin. He found happiness in his third wife, he got sober, and he kept working (he did commercials, B-movies, a Beckett film, an episode of This is Your Life, an episode of TheTwilight Zone). In 1965, months before he died, he quipped, “I work more than Doris Day.” (To get the joke, one must know that Day was at the time and remains the number one female box office attraction of all time.)

But in his heyday, Keaton was immediately eclipsed by the Marx Brothers, whose verbal pyrotechnics seem leveled directly at his stony silence. How could he have gotten a word in edgewise? Then again, years later, he would write jokes for the Marx Brothers, who recycled many of his bits. Maybe they aren’t so at odds, after all. Maybe next time my daughter is sick, I will dig up Duck Soup or A Night at the Opera. We will turn up the volume and laugh down the demons, let ourselves be bowled over by Groucho’s machine-gun, cockeyed wit. We will have a fine time. From another room, my wife will joke, “Hey you two, settle down in there!” And part of me will miss our old silent routine.