Saturday, August 06, 2011

Edward McPherson – ‘Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat’

‘This book is a fan’s notes’, we are told. It aims to ‘avoid the pitfall of the Stone Face’ which has claimed other biographers, who ‘get bogged down in a sort of psychoanalytical quagmire – marking with relish each absent father that appears in his work, each instance of paternal abuse.’ Marion Meade appears to be the main target of this criticism – just look at the outrage her 1995 biography has attracted on Amazon. Whether or not Cut to the Chase deserves this kicking (I remember really enjoying it), Tempest in a Flat Hat runs in the opposite direction, away from scandal and psychological analysis. It has a light touch, and a firm grasp of what it is that makes Keaton great, but its refusal to contemplate any kind of dark side to his childhood is a little frustrating. The Three Keatons were a vaudeville act, consisting of Buster and his parents Joe and Myra, and he was ‘The Little Boy Who Couldn’t Be Damaged’. A high kick from Joe once left him unconscious for 18 hours, aged eight, so that wasn’t entirely true. But mostly, it seems to have been:
The Keatons were playing to a packed Syracuse house when Myra’s saxophone solo aroused the ire of a particularly vociferous critic. Joe immediately hoisted Buster by the handle under his overcoat and threw him – feet-first – at the heckler, breaking three of the offender’s ribs and smashing two of the adjacent man’s front teeth. Buster, naturally, was just fine.
Not the kind of thing which would amuse Social Services, but a good anecdote, nonetheless. And given the extent to which Keaton would draw on vaudeville slapstick for his films, it seems reasonable to conclude that McPherson has a point: ‘what boy doesn’t enjoy playing rough?’

The abuse angle isn’t purely a modern one. At the time, the Keatons worked hard to avoid the Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Children, who attended performances in New York to ensure that the law was being followed (no children under seven were allowed on stage; none under sixteen were to actually perform). They succeeded for an amazing nine years, beginning when Buster was five (rounded up to seven in publicity). Joe’s argument ‘that what Buster did didn’t really constitute a performance – he was merely a prop being thrown about’, seems calculated to inflame their ire. It wasn’t true – an instance is given of Buster knocking Joe unconscious in turn, with a broom handle. Then, in 1907, they got caught out, and were banned from performing in New York for two years. They could still work in other states, but it meant exile from the big time. After this, they relaxed in the off-season at Bluffton Actors’ Colony, formed by Joe and others in 1908, described as ‘vaudeville’s bucolic playground, a vibrant fellowship of the performative spirit that lasted the span of a summer, and it was one of Buster’s favourite places in the world’. Here something seemed to click, and Buster began to perpetrate elaborately witty practical jokes, such as throwing pots, pans, then himself and his siblings from the porch onto an unseen sand hill in order to alarm people passing by on the lake, or:
Buster’s pièce de résistance was Ed Gray’s hilltop outhouse. The facility was being strained to the limits of its capacity by uninvited visitors too prim to do their business in the woods and too rude to knock and ask permission. So Buster dismantled the wooden structure and attached spring hinges to each of the four walls. He split the roof down the middle, nailing the halves to opposite walls. He then buried a pipe under the outhouse. What appeared to be a clothesline emerged from one end of the pipe and stretched to Ed Gray’s kitchen window; underwear and shirts hung on the line. It was an inspired setup. When someone was bold enough to make himself at home in the outhouse, all Gray had to do was tug on the line and the roof and four walls fell outward, revealing the interloper, in all of his enthroned glory, to the town below.
This is typical of the kind of technical gag which was to populate his films, and it took place years before he got near a movie camera.

Once the films start, there are excellent pieces on many of them, but the book falls into the trap of recounting film-after-film, and the momentum becomes a bit staid. The ’20s are jam-packed, as you’d expect, the ’30s are awful (Buster drifts into alcoholism, a casualty of the sound era and of MGM’s production line), and the ’40s to the ’60s are skipped over much too quickly. The reasons are understandable, but I think McPherson takes this business of not getting bogged down too far – he accentuates the positive, which means writing mostly about the ’20s, and ignoring the decades during which Buster was bogged down. His attitude to this fall, from star to jobbing comic, was nearly always impressive. Aside from the bleak years of the mid ’30s, he always worked, as a gag writer for MGM, in short films (never a patch on his ’20s work, but often amusing), in television. He didn’t complain, he just got on with the here and now, which wasn’t common amongst faded silent stars: ‘he said talking to his peers – many of whom had never heard the Beatles – made him sad’. It’s a sad story – but not tragic, exactly. It reflects badly on the times, rather than on Buster, that his enormous talent was allowed to go to waste for so long. He didn’t die unappreciated – there was a resurgence of interest in his silent films from the ’50s onwards, which he allowed himself to say was ‘great, but it’s all thirty years too late’.

And what was all the fuss about? Here is an extended quote from the wonderfully enthusiastic chapter on Sherlock, Jr., which says it all:
Most aspects of the film could support a chapter of their own: the Chinese-box structure (Buster has wrapped a movie within a dream within a movie), the mixed bag of camera and stage tricks, the seductive, uneasy tilt-a-whirl of movement. Sherlock, Jr. is a true masterpiece, which again, for all my protesting, has to be seen to be believed. I have never watched it – including the time at a hip downtown Manhattan theater – without hearing someone gasp. It is that kind of movie. (Those who have seen it before are marked by their erratic murmurs – to them are left quieter idiosyncratic pleasures. Like the odd way Ward Crane buffs the tops of his shoes by rubbing them against the back of his calves before entering the girl’s house – the sort of strange, authentic, and inexplicably coalescing detail that reaffirms your suspicion that you’re in the presence of workaday greatness.) Take, as another instance of offhand merit, Keaton and McGuire’s sheepish courting. Sitting in a loveseat, each makes aborted feints for the other’s hand; when Kathryn suddenly slaps her palm down on the bench, Buster grabs it with equal ferocity – they both jump, the look on their faces priceless: they are at heart determined to hold hands and terrified by that determination. It is a twelve-second primer on romance, how it is wonderful, stilted, and arrives in fearful bursts. Like the very first title says, Sherlock, Jr. is a story about being able to do two things at once: move and entertain, dream and wake, negotiate between our real and our better selves – how we are all, in the end, projectionists and detectives. That art inflects life and vice versa is not a new statement, but a celebration of that fact perhaps bears repeating. Sherlock, Jr. is a testament to the imaginative impulse, the creative wish – the amount of ourselves that we put into the movies, and what the movies give back to us. For when the lights come up and we’re shoved rudely back into our misfit selves, we find we’re a little better off. Our ghostly flights sustain us. And then it’s time to kiss the girl.

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