Wednesday, September 23, 2009

West is West

One of the funniest scenes in Buster Keaton's Go West (1925, directed by Buster Keaton) finds Keaton on the wrong end of the gun held by a man he has just caught cheating at cards. The man says "SMILE when you say that." So Keaton attempts to smile. He has to use his fingers to turn up the corners of his mouth. That's The Great Stone Face for you.

The genius of Keaton, on full display in this movie, is that he's an existential everyman. He is Sisyphus with his rock, pushing it eternally up hill only to have it roll back over him so he has to start again from the bottom. Keaton's films are rarely about romance. They're often about work--Keaton usually has a job to do in his films, and, suited to the work or not, he does it. Go West finds him trying to be a cowboy. Mostly, he fails, but in the end he succeeds through sheer determination.

There's more sentiment in this film than is usual for Keaton--he forms a bond with a cow named "Brown Eyes"--but I wonder if the sentiment in this film is a poke at Chaplin. I wouldn't put it past him. Plus, it gives Keaton a means of completely deflating whatever romance might creep into the movie. There's a girl, as it so happens, but she loses out to the cow.

A lot of silent comedies end with a set-piece designed to set the audience's jaw to hanging open, and this one is no different. Keaton finds himself solely responsible for herding a thousand head of cattle to the stockyards through downtown Los Angeles. How he does this is one of the film's cleverest surprises.

I saw this at my local art house, accompanied by The Rats and People Orchestra. They wrote and performed the score live. It was a pretty terrific score, and seeing this movie with an audience was fantastic. I watch a lot of movies on video out of practical necessity, but it's no substitute for the communal experience of a good theater audience. This is especially true when it comes to seeing comedies.

They prefaced Go West with one of Keaton's two-reelers, "The High Sign" (1921), in which he falls afoul of the Blinking Buzzards, a dastardly gang of extortionists. The end of this movie is almost like watching a live-action Looney Tunes short. It's all kinds of insane, and all kinds of hilarious. But don't take my word for it. You can see it on YouTube:

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