Buster Keaton’s The General Rolls Into Town

03/18/2010 10:37 AM |

Buster Keaton in The General

“Life,” according to Jean Cocteau, “is a horizontal fall.” Buster Keaton who made his name (literally) with a preternatural susceptibility to the force of gravity might have said the same for movies, and there remains no more sublime a manifestation of Keaton’s cinema of momentum than his precipitous and precise 1926 joyride, The General.

Inspired by the true story of a Civil War hijacking, The General gave Buster the opportunity to build an entire film around the most indomitable people-mover in his career-long fascination with all things motile. Trains were frequent Keaton co-stars and he deftly exploited their attunement with motion picture in mobilizing the visible world. Aboard The General’s eponymous iron horse Keaton conducted his greatest locomotive symphony, turning a breakneck railroad chase into a breathless pas de deux.

The General is not Keaton at his most ingeniously avant-garde (The Playhouse, Sherlock Jr., One Week), or acrobatically superhuman (Cops, Our Hospitality, The Electric House). Nor does it contain the director’s best piece of filmmaking—Hollywood, before or since, has not produced such an otherworldly, impossibly perfect 10 minutes of footage as Steamboat Bill Jr.’s climatic cyclone. The General is, however, Keaton at his most refined, rhythmical, and relentless—in a word, Keaton at his most inscrutable.

Indeed the most impressive thing about the film may be how it denies ever appearing impressive. So seamless is its serpentine procession, so frictionless its kinesis, that The General’s needle-threading timing, fluid compositional elegance, and Byzantine orchestration never announce themselves as incredible, only inevitable, inexorable.

Relegated to an office as a “consultant” decades after MGM co-opted his studio and contract, unceremoniously canceling his career, Keaton was known to construct elaborate Rube Goldberg contraptions from anything handy. The General is just such a creature of causality, each shot propelling the next, every action a consequence, every setup already a gag—a cinematic perpetual motion machine culminating in one of the most audacious acts of destruction in movies. Keaton’s transition from vaudeville to Hollywood shifted his specialty from physical comedy to the comedy of physics.

Possessing an intuitive understanding of the medium—he taught himself the camera by dismantling one and putting it back together—Keaton is often cited as the first to shoot comedy at the frame rate of standard projection rather than undercranking for accelerated zaniness. He wove programmatically plastic montage, while excavating endless nuance from deep space and unbroken slow-burn takes.

He shot in forests and deserts, arrayed multiple exposures, brought cameras underwater and—to stunning effect in The General—fastened them to speeding trains. It’s in these shots where Keaton—precariously perched amid a streaming, self-swallowing mise en scene of unfurling horizons, bypassed battlefields, and oncoming calamities—reveals his singular genius: never trampishly roiling up the world, but instead gracefully allowing it to befall him.

The General plays today and tomorrow in the An Auteurist History of Film series at at MoMA, and on Saturday and Sunday in the Essential Cinema series at at Anthology Film Archives.