Great Movies #1: The General


So, I’ve decided to review some classic movies à la Roger Ebert. I’m going to do it from memory, not to be a show-off but because I value this kind of reflection very dearly. Of course my opinions may change and my recollections may be warped by time. But just think how grand it will be the next time I watch them, how closely and truly I’ll experience them. While on the topic, I remember the first time I watched a movie backwards (chapter-wise) – Shooter with Marky Mark Wahlberg. Since then I’ve double-watched (odd chapters and then even) with The Holiday and listened to several movies without the images. Like being blind it enhances your attention I find. Highly recommended activities. Let us begin…

The General

Buster Keaton. A contender for the greatest filmmaker of all time. Very pretentious of me to say but whatever. The 1920’s. Acting in and directing a bunch of original movies. They have been influential (Jackie Chan’s a big fan) but moreso stand as timeless classics. Untouchable. This was the first one I watched of his and at first I wasn’t completely sure. But I smiled the whole time. In subsequent viewings I laughed louder and harder. The more you realise how one-of-a-kind he was, the more impressive it all is.

So, apparantly he got the nickname Buster from Harry Houdini. He used to do comedy shows with his family and get thrown around on stage a lot as a kid. Never got hurt. He found that he got a bigger laugh if he simply gave a plain expression. He’s sometimes referred to as the great stone-face. Well, it works. He never lets up. His movies have so much more detail and finesse and exquisite, effortless timing and yet he doesn’t play for laughs. Like the great artworks that aim for some statuesque, cold truth, he never gives into expectations. He builds his great set-pieces and never accepts recognition. Constantly working, earning every moment and never giving into an easy laugh. Like someone you play a staring contest against but they always win.

His characters aren’t dumb but are often oblivious. In this one, his motivation is simple and universal. There’s his train (called The General) and there’s a lady. His stunts appear so spontaneous and natural. I personally find reality so funny. As silly as the voice-overs can be, Funniest Home Videos can be hilarious. He uses this kind of natural humour very well. The way things can go wrong. The dawning realisation of someone who was looking the other way a moment ago. Like Prokofiev, he could do other kinds of comedy but nobody could do what he could do. Like he’d dare you not to laugh and gradually put himself in more and more ridiculous circumstances. I’ve never seen him laugh. Absolute commitment to his craft. As physically talented as Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. Hayden Christensen wasn’t that popular as Anakin Skywalker but could Anthony Hopkins do those fight scenes? I just mean acting isn’t all about talking.

This movie’s also famous for being one of the most accurate depictions of the Civil War though that’s not its focus by any means. It adds another dimension. The idea that this loveable, unknown, small person was engaged in an epic little adventure and happened to cross paths with some major historical events. The film isn’t just funny. It’s exciting and engaging as an action movie. Some of the motion and camera moves are unique and memorable. There are too many funny moments that I don’t want to spoil (although nobody’s reading). I guess it doesn’t make sense to sell comedy. You like what you like, I can’t prove it’s funny. But it has so many different elements at high levels that it’s bound to work. Confusion and miscommunication, anticlimaxes, surprises, juxtaposition (of the mundane with the profound). Anyway, I’m really making it sound boring… Another thing is his patience. He never misses because he never shoots. He just paints constantly. It’s all fluid. Every little bit adds something but nothing takes away. You might find it boring but then you must find life boring too.

I especially admire the warmth of the movie. There’s nothing remotely cheap or disagreeable about it. Very innocent, hugely original and energetic and true. I look up to him and dream of being as free and cool as his characters. He doesn’t have the frustrating conventional flaws. He is a victim of circumstance, not cliché. Charlie Chaplin was hilarious and touching. But he did it by acting silly and pulling faces. Keaton did it without even moving. Seriously, I laugh as soon as I see him now because of the established background and anticipation. I see the face. And I get it.

As far as I know, The General isn’t attached to any particular soundtrack but many exist for it. I’d say pick whatever you like, it transcends music and doesn’t need punchlines. Buster was also extremely consistent and quite prolific in a relatively small time mainly in the 20’s. He appears in Limelight (from 1954) alongside Chaplin (which I can’t wait to see someday, their only scene together, like De Niro and Pacino in Heat) and apparently steals the show. Harold Lloyd was another silent genius comedian, also worth checking out.


About karnok

A legendary ninja.
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