BUSTER KEATON, IN MEMORIAM
He has left the world without ever being quite in it. Only saints and a few classic madmen have put forth a comparable power to suggest that this place where we all catch trains so deftly is yet not wholly the place for which we were made. He displayed no consternation, he uttered no protest (what does protest avail?): he gave his energies wholly to not being destroyed by a universe as implacable as an ice pack, as pervasive as Newton’s three laws, as scrupulous as a grandfather clock. Denizens of that universe (and billions inhabit it expertly) would point out to one another that Keaton never smiled: as though it were not a serious business, to keep from being destroyed, really to triumph, never to know you have triumphed.
For it was against the nature of things that he was pitted, and you can never gloat over that adversary; you can only keep moving, only succeed in not being deprived of your mobility; that is your triumph, mobility. Chaplin’s adversaries, by contrast, were great static beefy malevolence, pig-eyed and generally bewhiskered, blocking off the way between Chaplin and his simple desire: a meal, a girl. Knocked on the head innumerable times, they did not succumb, but when they fell, as they did eventually always fall, it was of their own weight. The law of gravity was Chaplin’s principal ally. It was Keaton’s nemesis.
Thus something could have been done about the world that so discommoded Chaplin, though he was not the man to do it. A Guaranteed Annual Income would have helped enormously; so would the extermination of greedy villains. (He did manage, from picture to picture, to pick off a few.) Meanwhile he had his pathos, and his dignity. Keaton’s universe was irremediable, and he disdained pathos.
Keaton was the acrobat, engaging the nature of things in kinetic dialogue. Chaplin was the dancer, according to the nature of things with his little two-step a wryly lyrical comment. Bested (pending better times) he could shuffle off: toward the sunset, toward a lonely night, even in one film toward the guillotine. The rhythm of that walk, in Monsieur Verdoux, expressed Chaplin’s opinion of a town that leaves men of feeling only the sunset of consolation. But Keaton had no opinion to express. Are opinions in order on the Precession of the Equinoxes? Or the fact that one’s eyes are not in the back of one’s head?
For since his eyes were in the front of his head, he had no means of knowing that the motorcycle on whose handles he was riding had lost its driver; whereupon – let James Agee tell it: “Keaton whips through city traffic, breaks up a tug-of-war, gets a shoveful of dirt in the face from each of a long line of Rockette-timed ditch-diggers, approaches a log at high speed, which is hinged open by dynamite precisely soon enough to let him through and, hitting an obstruction, leaves the handlebars like an arrow leaving the bow, whams through the window of a shack in which the heroine is about to be violated, and hits the heavy feet-first, knocking him through the opposite wall. The whole sequence is as clean in motion as the trajectory of a bullet.”
He had commenced the scene by doubling for the fallen driver, who was played by a man who did not know how to fall. He continued it without guy wires and process shots: “I simply trained myself to steer a motorcycle sitting on the handlebars. It was difficult to keep my balance, and I had a few good falls.” In that disdain for doubles, we detect the continuum of his art: he had erected acrobatic skill into something more than a professional resource and higher than a philosophy of life: into a metaphysic. Man, that blank face implies, is not proper to this world, yet somehow manages. His center of gravity – which you could locate from instant to instant by producing to their point of intersection the flailing arms and yielding spine – was very nearly a metaphor for something – a gemlike flame, perhaps, like a pilot light – which it was unthinkable one could lose.
And brute intact survival, in acrobatic duet with forces there could be no question of besting, was the hidden theme of the screen art of the twenties, as remarkable an art, as nearly anonymous, and as nearly lost to reconstruction, as is the theater of the Jacobeans. Then, comedy was the realistic art, which went into the streets; the serious pictures of that era are today madly unreal, whereas Keaton, Langdon, Lloyd, and Chaplin engaged an actual world.
That world had commenced to organize itself, after the Renaissance, on the understanding that everyone would eventually receive back, from his consent to be organized, far more than he had surrendered. By 1850, it had at last become clear that the Renaissance was not going to pay off at all, though it had delivered as belated installments a couple of revolutions. Whole populations, it was equally clear, were absorbed into systems, unreachable, so that sociology had to be invented to study them, and Newton’s implacabilities had become the readiest metaphor of their behavior. Keaton’s love for his cow, in one picture, or for his locomotive, in another, was a love transferred from girls diminished to abstraction by inexplicable rituals of courtship, through which alone they are accessible. The locomotive’s rituals he could master. Everything human had receded into inviolable nature, rolled round by earth’s diurnal force, a nature moreover likely to discharge itself, earthquake-like, in battalions of soldiers, maelstroms of traffic, cities-ful of cops.
It was never one cop, it was hundreds: the cop as Natural Force. Nor did popped buttons or jammed drawers, the small change of lesser comedians, inconvenience him: rather, stampeding buffalo, avalanches, shipwrecks, entire systems shattering round him. He was never shattered because he was never quite of their world: a visitor, not a native. (The very date of his birth disputed.) More than one French critic has compared him to Poe, and one of them has quoted in his honor the line Mallarmé incised as though on Poe’s tomb, “Calme bloc ici-bas chu d’un désastre obscur,” observing that it could have been written for him.
As though dropped to this earth from some obscure cataclysm, he coped with this earth’s systems as he could. The ferocious requirements of his scripts could not hurt him; even departures from them could not hurt him. Running along the top of a freight train, he discovered a preference for a train moving in the opposite direction, and seized on a dangling cord to swing himself across. But the cord operated a waterspout, and not only did the water drench him as he swang, but its pressure hurled him onto the tracks, which was not according to script. Being an accomplished acrobat, he survived the fall, and remembered it years later over some X rays; that must have been, he reflected, the time he broke his neck.
(National Review, 22 February 1966. Reprinted in Mazes: Essays. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1989, pp. 300-303)
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