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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

That's entertainment: Buster Keaton's The General

Posted By on 07.11.12 at 01:08 PM

Buster Keaton in The General
  • Buster Keaton in The General
This Thursday at 7 PM, University of Chicago Doc Films will screen The General, Buster Keaton's most famous comedy. In his review for the Reader, Dave Kehr writes, "Buster Keaton may have made more significant films, but The General stands as an almost perfect entertainment." Films like Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator rank among his best and most important work, but The General isn't without its share of intrigue. The stuff that made made Keaton such a visionary performer and director—his fluid merging of physical action with emotional pathos, his "man-on-a-mission" narrative framework—can be found throughout the film. With the General itself, a speeding locomotive that operates as both physical obstacle and metaphor, he also solidified the theme of man versus machine that would come to define him.

The experience of watching The General for the first time is something I'll never forget. It was the first silent film I ever saw, and my expectations weren't all that high. I was wary of anything that wasn't in color, let alone anything without dialogue. My chief concern: that it would be boring. The 85 minutes I spent watching The General were nothing short of revelatory. Not only was the film blisteringly funny, but I suddenly became aware of the idea of bodies in cinematic space, that human forms within a movie frame could function beyond their mere presence, and that they could be a catalyst for theme and aesthetic design.

Today's big-screen entertainments can only aspire to such heights. The barrage of noise and movement that constitute an Avengers or an Amazing Spider-Man reveals little more than their bloated budgets and lofty ad campaigns. If the point is simply spectacle, then The General isn't "an almost perfect" entertainment—it's perfect, because along with entertainment it imparts a certain wisdom.

Today, when someone describes a film as "entertaining," I have a hard time understanding what he means. I usually interpret it to mean something mindless, easy to watch, and easy to forget once it's over. That's not say something like The General is at all difficult to watch—it's the exact opposite. But the film's effortlessness is a product of Keaton's genius, not the simplicity of the film itself. Something nourishing can go down as easily as something sugarcoated. Few films have ever matched The General, and considering the current state of film entertainment, I'm sure there will never be another that comes close.

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