Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Comedy General

Now let's travel back in time to 1927. Wow, 80 years, that's quite a leap. But that makes Buster Keaton's The General even more brilliant. It's been that long, and it still seems fresh. Buster Keaton is one of the greatest auteurs in the history of cinema. The General is generally (ha ha) considered his masterpiece. That might be true. I haven't seen all of them. I don't think it's my favorite, though. Nonetheless, it's fantastic, and it's certainly one of the most important American films ever.

It's a Civil War story, epic in its scope and attention to period detail. Keaton, stone-faced as usual, plays a southern railroad engineer. His beloved train's name? The General. Not what I expected the title to mean at all when I heard it was about war. He tries to enlist, because his girlfriend Annabelle (Marion Mack) really wants him to, but he gets denied. Secretly, the enlisting authorities say he'll be more valuable as an engineer. But they don't tell him that. If they did, it wouldn't be as funny. He just thinks he's physically incompetent. So when his train gets hijacked by Union soldiers, he seizes the opportunity to be heroic by following them. So, it's just him against a bunch of soldiers, although they don't realize they're just being followed by one guy for a long time. Stupid Union soldiers. :)

Anyway, most of the film takes place on the train. And it's a real train, which makes his stunts that much more dangerous and mind-blowing. It's one of the most intricately choreographed chase scenes in film history, and keep in mind that almost the entire film is a chase. What I love so much about Keaton's films (this one included) is the way he portrays women. They're not these annoying, weak, damsels in distress. They fight it out right along with him and get just as dirty. Sometimes, they even save him. It's pretty awesome.

What you see with Buster Keaton is the real deal. He was involved with every aspect of the filmmaking process. The General is just one perfect example of his genius. I love Harold Lloyd, and I like Chaplin, but I think Keaton is the best comedian, well, ever. And he does more than just falling down or enduring physical abuse for the sake of a laugh. He's a great actor, too. His stone face is deceptive. There's a lot of nuance and depth there. He shines equally bright in the quietest, smallest moments as he does in the huge, death-defying stunts. I'm so glad I finally discovered him. Now I know what I had been missing for so long.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

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