Saturday, August 14, 2010

Sweet Sound, Sour Echo

Buster Keaton in One Week.

Although he is as light on his feet as an acrobat, despite his impeccable vaudeville chops, poor Buster Keaton suffers from one serious case of technical perplexity. It just so happens the world has become a super technical place!

Packaged and simple-to-use, the fresh modern age, out of its container, ever-so slightly, ever-so inexorably is grinding against Buster Keaton. The ominous proof of this is the punchline for the bully's share of these physical comedy skits, accomplished via sight gags, impressively athletic stunts, elaborate theme-park-like mechanized sets, some intersession of a semi-truant villain and the piling excruciation of minor misunderstandings (i.e. reading a wrong lot number previous to building one's house).

The title of this post comes from a quote that begins One Week: "The Wedding Bells have such a sweet sound but such a sour echo." Intended to situate the viewer in the comfortable conventions of domestic comedy, nevertheless, the sentence tips off a second anxiety, an ill-ease recurring through each of the films balletic mini-epics. That useful things created by humans (i.e. technology, here, bells) initiate unintended bi-products into the world, demonic echoes of themselves, perverse and lethal uses. The Eden to be destroyed by the Demon-within is one dear to the founding myth of picture-postcard North-Americana: a house for all, and the pursuit of happiness.
The disorderly, dangerous reverse-world of a world of technical wonders and utilitarian plenty is trying to do our hero in. Oddly, the vendetta appears to be personally directed, conjuring up the specter of fate (the characters he shares his world with appear only ever harassed by the same unfortunate species of event insofar as they come into contact with him). He matches extreme cunning and athletic prowess against: not much, a car ride, a do-it-yourself stater home project, the number systems on new lots, a train crossing.

Despite our heroes most exaggerated efforts, the grinding, whipping whoop-ass of the vindictive machine wins the day, day after day, seemingly growing hazardous on an exceptionally steep learning curve.

On-the-surface plot trials of petty domestic frustrations with a new wife, or the occasional run in with his rival suitor are comparatively minor struggles. The villain is no more than a stock type. The new wife, powder-pale, ever-so engaging with her raccoon eyes, often the instigator of charming poetic revelries both of camera man and Mr. Keaton, ultimately suffers Mr. Keaton's same fate. The modern world is a bad dream wherein the greatest athlete-clown in town risks his hide even crossing a road, hammering a nail.

This film is remarkably consistent in this. Despite its apparent lightness in tone, the world-view is very dark. Buster Keaton plays straight man to a drastic foil: the daemon of accelerated technological fatalism. If that sounds very dramatic, the more human-scale insight (placing Buster Keaton in a typically modern milieux) is that the effects of technology are as much irreversible as they are universally applied: Once they are with us, they are with us.

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