Buster Keaton, existentialist…

In his films Buster Keaton is often like Camus’s Sisyphus – he will keep pushing that boulder up the hill no matter how many times it rolls back down. 

Buster Keaton in The General (image courtesy

I find myself caught out short this week. I had planned to review Scott Archer Jones’s book The Big Wheel, but events (read work stuff) have conspired to keep me from finishing (I’m about 2/3 through and will review next Thursday). That explained, I have found myself scrambling for a topic to write about.

Enter Buster.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve re-watched my collection of Keaton films (I have all the significant features except The Cameraman as well as a considerable collection of the short films), in the meantime making my way through Jean-Paul Sartre’s autobiography The Words.  The similarities of Sartre’s and Keaton’s weltenschauungs were underscored for me yet again, so it seems apropos to say a few words about Buster Keaton, Existentialist. 

Much is made among cinema historians, film critics, and general Internet know-it-alls of the differences between Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. These discussions generally focus on Keaton’s stoicism v. Chaplin’s sentimentality, and aren’t particularly helpful because as with all arguments about which great is greater, they end up devolving into yammering in favor of one or the other based upon the writer’s taste. If one watches Chaplin’s films, one sees that Chaplin was a genius; when one watches Keaton’s films, one sees that Keaton was a genius. Neither quantitative nor qualitative arguments resolve the issue. Ms. Stein’s famous observation comes to mind, albeit in paraphrase: a genius is a genius is a genius.

It’s more useful, possibly to look beyond those basic differences in personal style (Chaplin is always asking us to love him, hence the sentiment; Keaton is simply showing us how to survive, hence the stone faced determination) toward the philosophical underpinnings of these great artists’ cinematic achievements. Chaplin is a Marxist socialist, and the Tramp in his numerous incarnations (the alcoholic workman in Payday, the “cop” on dope in Easy Street) serves as a foil for Chaplin’s social commentaries on the plight of the proletariat. These are great films, of course, and Chaplin makes us laugh as he makes us think, but his underlying philosophy is decidedly political and the films are as much indictments of capitalism’s excesses and abuses as slapstick comedies. Here’s one of Charlie’s most social-critical statements:

Keaton is not interested in profound political critiques. Films like One Week and Cops give us instead the Stone Face doing his best in the face of constant change and challenge. In One Week newlywed Buster and his bride attempt to build a prefab home given them by her parents. In spite of naivete and misread directions, Buster and bride persevere and get the house built – after a fashion. It’s only after they’ve built it that disaster strikes. They learn they’ve built their house on the wrong lot and must move it. A comedy of errors ensues ending with a brilliant sequence in which the towed house gets stuck on a railroad track – with a train approaching. The train passes harmlessly by – but as Buster and bride hug each other in congratulations, a train from the opposite direction destroys their house. In the film’s last shot he places a “For Sale” sign on the wreckage and he and bride go forth to make their way through life, undeterred by the disaster and determined to persevere. To put the matter in Sartrean terms, between being and nothingness, Buster chooses being. Here’s the film:

Keaton can seem political at times. Copsfor example, can be read as a Kafkaesque vision of mistaken identity and police persecution. But it’s not. It is, in a sense, the “other choice” of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.  Cops may be explained as follows: 1) Buster loves Girl; 2) Girl tells Buster he must make good to win her; 3) Buster tries to make good, but through a series of missteps manages to get himself into trouble with the police; 4) Buster eludes (one might say triumphs over) the police only to have Girl reject him; 5) Faced with life without the Girl, Buster chooses nothingness. If One Week is an expression of the courageously hopeful response to an existential crisis, Cops is an expression of the opposite kind of response to the crisis. Since life without her would be meaningless, Buster chooses to give himself up to the police, ensuring his end. In a famous visual, the last shot is “The End” carved on a tombstone topped with Buster’s trademark porkpie hat. Cops contains some of Buster’s most brilliant sight gags and is well worth a look – many looks, actually:

Keaton himself would be first to tell us that he’s no Existentialist – he would say his Stone Face is simply a guy trying to muddle through. But in his films Keaton is often like Camus’s Sisyphus – he will keep pushing that boulder up the hill no matter how many times it rolls back down.

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