Monday, September 10, 2007

Steamboat Buster


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This coming Wednesday, the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, one of the very best venues on Frisco Bay to view silent films with live musical accompaniment, will screen a pair of Buster Keaton features with Christian Elliot performing at the Wurlitzer organ: Steamboat Bill, Jr. and the Navigator. Though it was filmed partially in this city, and is reputedly among his most crowd-pleasing films, I've never seen the Navigator. I've been saving it for just such an opportunity to be pleased by it among an appreciative crowd in a theatre like the Stanford.

Steamboat Bill Jr. I have seen, on video years ago as I was first acquainting myself with Keaton's work. I count it among my favorites and am really looking forward to finally seeing it in 35mm. In the meantime, I thought I'd contribute to Thom Ryan's current Slapstick Blog-A-Thon by taking a closer look at one particular gag from the film, one of the most renowned gags Keaton (or anyone) ever performed. Though calling it a gag may be inaccurate, as it's really more nerve-wracking than funny. In fact, Lincoln Spector says it's "probably the most thrilling and dangerous stunt ever performed by a major star." If you've seen Steamboat Bill, Jr. before, you already know what gag/stunt I'm talking about. If you haven't, and you want to remain oblivious to one of the film's most breathtaking surprises, you'd better not continue reading this entry.

The concept of Steamboat Bill, Jr. was generated by frequent Charlie Chaplin collaborator Charles Reisner, who then co-directed the film with Keaton. Reisner is in fact the only director in the film's credits, as Keaton often relinquished official credit for the films he directed. This was the final film he made with the independence accorded during his longtime professional relationship with his brother-in-law and producer Joseph Schenck, before signing up with MGM in a move that many claim led to Keaton's artistic and creative downfall. As Sherlock, Jr. had taken its title from the fictional detective Keaton's character wanted to emulate, so too was Steamboat Bill, Jr. named for a character best known from a popular song. I'm not going to recount the film's plot. For my current purposes, it's merely important to know that at one point in the film Keaton's character Willie finds himself in bed, with the walls and roof over his head torn off and blown away by a cyclone. The winds carry his four-legged craft down the street, in an image somewhat reminiscent of Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend or another Winsor McCay fantasy.

Soon the bed has been pushed in front of a large wooden house. Keaton has, as is his wont in any weather, fallen. This time, out of the bed and onto his head. The front wall of the house has been separated from the rest of the building, revealing a gaping crack and a terrified man on the top floor of the house. This bearded fellow jumps out of an open window, his fall softened by the bed sitting in the street below, and the would-be steamboat captain underneath it. The man runs away, and the bed is picked up by the wind and follows. No sooner has a rather battered and dazed Willie slowly stood up and staggered forward a few steps, than all two tons of the house's façade has crashed down all around him, the actor only saved from being crushed because of the open window he was perfectly placed underneath. The stunt, more than anything else he ever shot, emphasizes that aspect of the Buster Keaton screen persona which depends on an unwitting collaboration with fate or the forces of nature for his survival. And though Keaton-as-Willie survives through dumb luck, Keaton-as-actor's luck was not dumb; he knew what he was getting into. He had practiced a far less dangerous version of the gag using lighter walls in previous films Back Stage and One Week. He confidently, meticulously planned out the mechanics of the falling wall, giving himself only a few inches of clearance. Had there been the slightest glitch in the execution, Keaton would have been "Steamrolled Bill," and he knew it.

I heard about this sequence before I saw it. The way I was told, Keaton, who joked about suicide relatively frequently in his films (in Hard Luck and Daydreams, for example), was suicidal on the day of the stunt's filming. Several sources claim that just the day before, Keaton had been unexpectedly informed by Schenck that this would be their last film together. While crew members looked away, and even Reisner abandoned the set to pray in his tent, Keaton felt so despondent about his uncertain professional future that he was perfectly willing to risk, or perhaps even court, death. I haven't done the research to be sure if this version of events is the true one; it holds a ring of plausibility, but it may also be making more of a late-in-life quote from Keaton, "I was mad at the time, or I would never have done the thing," than was intended.

Whether or not the real turmoil inside Keaton during this stunt outmatched the simulated turmoil of the cyclone created by Keaton's production team, the result was iconic. Robert Knopf writes:
By showing the wall fall in one shot, Keaton emphasized his own performance: his ability to calculate and execute this stunt as well as his bravery (some would say his foolishness) in performing it himself.
The face-on, unbroken long-shot view is somehow reminiscent of the theatre, or at least it is until the moment of collapse. But again, "unbroken" may be a somewhat inaccurate descriptor. Though the camera holds its view of the entire house from before the moment its façade begins to tumble, until after it has landed, the impact of the shot is augmented by the shots preceding it. Though my research has been far from exhaustive, I have yet to find an analysis of this stunt that discusses the shots directly leading up to the death-defying one. Let me try a little, with screencaps.

Six shots prior, in the final profile view that puts the cracking façade and Buster in the same frame, we can clearly see the distance between the wall and the actor's position on the street. (He's under the bed.)

The next five shots do not contradict this geography, and the last of these is a full shot that ends with Keaton taking a few steps forward and away from the house. He still doesn't seem far enough from the building to escape being flattened should it fall.

But the next edit is a deceptive one. It's difficult to perceive this, even when analyzing the shots on DVD, but in the iconic wall-tumbling shot, Keaton is standing further from the house than he was just prior to the cut. He must be, or else he would be crushed.

I strongly suspect that even if we aren't anticipating the collapse, we on perhaps a less-than-conscious level assimilate this spatial discrepancy, and factor it into our horrified reaction of seeing the façade begin to come down, and our commensurate relief when our hero is spared by the open window. It makes the effect all the more impressive, and it exploits a dimension of the motion picture medium that, apart from certain observations by Rudolf Arnheim in his seminal Film as Art, I do not often encounter when reading film criticism: the control a filmmaker has over the perception of relative distances between objects in the frame, due to the nature of transposing three-dimensional space onto a flat surface.

A thrilling stunt like this one remains exciting to watch again and again. I'm not so sure a modern-day computer-generated effect can have the same kind of staying power, but that's a subject for another post sometime. It's no coincidence that successful silent-era comedians specialized in them. Chaplin would upon occasion perform a dangerous stunt, perhaps most memorably the Circus's high-wire scene in which he is beset by capuchin monkeys. And if there's any stunt sequence more breathtaking and iconic than Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr. heart-stopper, it's surely Harold Lloyd climbing a department store and dangling from a giant clock in Safety Last (which, Frisco Bay audiences take note, is opening a week-long classic film series at the Piedmont Theatre in Oakland on September 28th.)

But here's a legitimate question about some of these stunts that provoke more gasps than laughter: is it slapstick? Is it perhaps beyond slapstick? Our host of this Blog-a-Thon has proposed that the key to slapstick is that, though violence may be "unexpected, socially unacceptable [and] exaggerated for effect" it must be "staged so that we know that no one has sustained permanent injury." How does it work in gag situations in which there is threat of violence, but the violence is averted? Is slapstick funny because of schadenfreude? If so, are gags in which the victim escapes injury or humiliation as funny as those where he or she apparently (thanks to the illusion of film) doesn't?

What do you think?