Buster festa ARTS
The film is a Fatty Arbuckle two-reeler called The Butcher Boy; the year, 1917. Arbuckle, capering stoutly about behind his shop-counter, is suddenly confronted by a pale young man in a flat hat, very stern and perplexed, and somehow totally stuck down—hat to head and feet to floor—in molasses. It's Buster Keaton's first film appearance: the introduction to a screen career which began, legend and the biographers insist, with a half-hour visit to the studio and Arbuckle's casual invitation to `Do a bit in our next scene.'
' The Butcher Boy turns up in the National Film Theatre's magnificent Buster Keaton season not as an archaic curiosity—which it isn't; one can still laugh even at Fatty lump- ishly disguised as a terrifying schoolgirl—but as part of a sustained object-lesson in the mak- ing of a comedian. Buster in the early films is almost poised, nearly nonchalant—dashing about as a blood-stained surgeon with a chopper, or as a bewigged Roman lady with a slightly unnerving resemblance to Bette Davis. But he gesticulates; in Coney Island he even laughs. The withdrawn, concentrated little figure of the great films, with his total involvement in the task immediately to hand, has still to evolve. Out of the always masterly stage timing (no one could fall better than Buster) develops screen timing: the unbreakable chain of inter- locking movements and the metronomic pre- cision in cutting which makes some Keaton jokes look like triumphs in applied mathe- matics.
Then, unmistakably, it's all there: in a two- reeler called The Boat (1921) which ranks among the really great discoveries of this season. Buster's married, with a practical wife and two small boys who already wear the flat hats, and apparently sleep in them. Innocently, he's building a boat in his small house.-. He hitches the boat to his car to haul it out, and the house collapses very slowly behind it. He organises a ceremonial launching, and the boat runs down the slipway, into the sea, and down and down. The captain sinks with his ship. Everything is reassembled, and the family set sail in this gadget-maker's dream yacht. Storm; disaster, shipwreck. At the end, battered but as ever unconcerned, they wade ashore, lost on a beach at night, homeless, carless and boit- less.
James Agee, in a famous phrase, detected in Keaton's work 'a freezing whisper not of pathos but of melancholia.' The Boat is superbly, ceaselessly comic, in its hero's imperturbably practical and unsurprised reaction to catas- trophe. But one can just hear the freezitig whisper, as Keaton the existential clown wrecks first his security and then his dream.
One of Keaton's rarer qualities as a comedian is his ability to make crystal clear what's going on in- his mind—until the awful in- transigence of objects suddenly sends him beyond reason. Nothing is undertaken purpose- lessly, whether he's trying to bale out a boat with a teacup, or fixing a rakish pair of antlers to a cow's head because she seems unjustly handicapped. The cow turns up in Go West, a feature of enormous if fragile charm whit* finds Keaton as a cowboy,armed with a minia- ture pearl-handled pistol, and a rope ladder to use in mounting his horse. In College he's a bookish student with a passion to become an athlete; in Battling Butler he's a millionaire who goes camping in the wilds with valet, marquee and tiger-skin rug, but can only win the girl by impersonating a champion boxer; in the wildly funny Seven Chances he's pur- sued by a maddened pack of would-be brides; in the best-known films, The General and The Navigator, he's contending single-handed with a locomotive or a luxury liner.
The movies are very self-contained : adjust- ments to the basic Keaton character may seem minimal but are also all-important, depending on whether the object of his devotion is a girl, a cow or a railway engine. He was, simply, a great film-maker, and it is his awareness of the camera, his eye for the absurd and romantic image (on horseback in the middle of a vast, misty oiffield in The Paleface; sitting crouched and melancholy in a freight yard in Go West) that gives his pictures an atmosphere reaching beyond comedy. One is tempted to go into the metaphysics of Keaton comedy, the implica- tions of his resilient loneliness, the allure of that lost, innocent America where the Model Ts bucket along dusty lanes and the railroad runs. unfenced through the centre of town. These, though, are the things you think about when you stop laughing. The essence of Buster remains pure comic style; backed by that craftsman's pride which lets you watch the seemingly impossible jumps and falls in full shot, so that you can be sure he really did them.
Up the Junction (Rialto, 'X'), or back to Battersea with Nell Dunn. Here again, much too soon for comfort after Poor Cow, are the same splatter of Tv-realism, the same pub scents and snatches of tele-commercial lyricism (with swan), and, of course, that inescapable seaside weekend. Peter Collinson's direction is scoarser than Ken Loach's, and his fondness for shoot- ing dialogue scenes in heavy close-up, with the camera just below chin level, lends the simple quip an air of portent. Otherwise, this rowdy discovery of sinful, alluring Battersea, where life is realler and rawer than in hypocritical SW3, is much the same as before, only noisier.
Actually, there is a difference, in the character of the rich heroine (Suzy Kendall) who arrives in the family Rolls to take up work in the chocolate factory, and is at once recognised by everyone she meets (on rather obscure evidence, I should have thought) as being of finer clay than them- selves. Her besotted slumming, which runs to pouts and sniffs whenever her truck-driving boy friend (Dennis Waterman) suggests an evening out across the river, is something even this film can hardly bring itself to take seri- ously. The eccentric girl is given no motive for her passionate notions about the greater truths of life south of the river. It's becoming a recog- nishble condition, however, the Wednesday Play or Tv-documentary syndrome.
In Up the Junction they bawl at each other ' in the street, and trail out to darkest Wimbledon for the abortion; in Valle); of the Dolls (Carlton, 'X') the abortion is talked of but not seen, and the bawling—and ripping-off of an ageing actress's cherished wig—happens in the ladies' cloakroom during a rather grand press reception. The film is at least as absurd as other explora- tions of sinful; alluring Hollywood, and fairly neurotic and morbid as well in its raking up of the record of divorce, drink, drug-taking and incurable disease which assails three Ameri- can girls and their assorted husbands and lovers. But this is really plushy old Hollywood back on the warpath. Mark Robson's direction provides an automatic gear change for every woebegone episode, as Susan Hayward loses her wig, Patty Duke runs amok with her little red pills, and Barbara Parkins heads tearfully back to the New England village where the snow comes (apparently at all seasons of the year) out of the sky. 'Your behaviour is ob- noxious,' says one of the ladies sternly to another. Not exactly obnoxious; idiotic, rather.