Not for the first time, not for the last. Mr Keaton showing how it's done.
Monday, November 11, 2013
Buster Keaton’s Go West was on TV last night, and I think you probably know that I have a minor Keaton obsessive, minor not in its intensity but in the sense that I know what true obsession is like, and I’m sure there are many far, far more obsessed than me. The image above claims to be from the movie, but I suspect it's a publicity shot rather than a still. It is, in any case, just wonderful.
Go West strikes me as an infinitely clever and infinitely subversive film. It subverts the very notion of “going west,” and it especially subverts that familiar, cloying Chaplinesque sentimentality. Yes, Keaton plays a deeply sad and sympathetic character named Friendless (there’s a reference to D.W. Griffiths’ Intolerance there), and he does eventually find love, but it’s not with a woman, it’s with a cow.
Buster Keaton was one of the most physically supple and eloquent men ever to walk in front of a movie camera, and there’s a scene quite early in the movie where he decides he needs to become a cowboy, so of course he has to get the walk right, and in a scene that doesn’t last more than a couple of minutes he adopts the gait of a “genuine” and (within the fiction of the movie) utterly bconvincing westerner. Of course, this being a comedy, he also falls over in the process.
At the end of the movie he dresses up as a devil – we’re told his costume is bright red, though since the movie is in black and white we have to take this for granted. The notion is that steers will follow anything that’s red, and the idea is that he’ll become a kind of Pied Piper, leading a stampede of cattle through the streets of Los Angeles. Movie history has it that the scene never quite worked, that he couldn’t actually get the cattle to stampede and follow him, and some scenes had to be speeded up or shot on a back lot. This is a shame, but of course, even Keaton’s misfires seem pretty wonderful to some of us.
I can’t help wondering whether Keaton’s devil costume was some kind of precursor of Where The Wild Things Are, but I dunno. Dave Eggers could probably tell us.
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
You know, as I wander the world, and indeed my own neighborhood, I see a surprising number of “professional” dog walkers on the streets, ambling along awkwardly with a handful of not especially happy-looking dogs. I even see flyers stapled to trees and telegraph poles from people offering their dog walking services. I guess there must be a market, and I suspect a really good dog walker is hard to find.
And in fact I find something not quite right about this. I mean sure, I can see that if you’re very old or feeble or sick it might be permissible to get somebody else to walk your dog for you, but otherwise it seems to me it’s something you really ought to do yourself. Nobody put a gun to you head and forced you to have a dog, so now that you’ve got it, do your duty, and abase yourself by picking up the poop while you do it. Here is a picture by Hunter S. Thompson, from the 1960s, titled, “Sandy Walking with Agar” – I’m guessing she’s not a professional dog walker and I’m guessing this was in the days when people got much less upset about dog poop. And like you, I can only guess what’s happened to the poor dog’s ears.
Somehow I can’t imagine that Victoria Beckham walks her own dogs, much less picks up their poop, but it does make for a good photo op, thus:
Thursday, July 22, 2010
I was recently in San Francisco, a walker’s town, though only for those who like a bit of intense aerobic exercise as they plough up the killingly steep inclines. I’m not sure I enjoy it exactly but I tell myself it must be doing me good. And of course once you get the lay of the land you do become able to find routes that leave out the worst of the ascents. I'm better than I used to be, but I still find I'm the only person pounding up streets that everybody else is walking down.
One way you can tell San Francisco is a real walking town is because the pedestrians don’t obey the traffic signals. People cross the street any time they can, regardless of whether or not there’s a signal telling them they’re allowed to. I don’t think it’s that San Franciscans take delight in being scofflaws: they’re just using commonsense: walkers are supposed to have plenty of that.
In LA we’re a far more obedient bunch. If the don’t walk sign appears we stand and wait right there on the sidewalk even if there’s no car anywhere in sight. Of course this is partly because we know that LA cops like to hand out tickets for jaywalking but it seems to be more than that. I think Angelinos obey the lights because the lights are part of the traffic system and they know traffic is all powerful, and must come first in LA. This isn’t because we love the system, it’s because we fear it intensely. If we step out of line we’ll be crushed.
Anyway, in San Francisco I walked in the footsteps of Buster Keaton. Thanks to a wonderful book by John Bengtson, called Silent Echoes, this is surprisingly easy to do. It’s even easier in LA, but probably more of that later. Bengtson has done some amazing detective work to track down exactly where Keaton shot his movies, not least that scene in The Navigator (op cit) where Keaton thinks a walk will do him good. The street he walks across, it turns out, is Divisadero, between Pacific and Broadway, in Pacific Heights a very ritzy area, then and now, still full of mansions, though much more tightly packed than in Keaton’s day, and there are some wonderful apartment blocks too.
I walked most of the length of Pacific, which is like the spine of San Francisco, a long thin, rising line, with the land running away steeply on both sides, so that if you look down the side streets you have gorgeous panoramic views of the city in both directions.
But Keaton didn’t show any of this. Because the crossing of Divisadero at that point is a sort of flattened peak, and because of low camera angles, the mansions in the movie appear completely isolated with nothing around them beside. Below is a still - you'll need to click on it to see it properly. This gives the scene a storybook, stage set feel which is appropriate to the story. But what an act of self-denial on Keaton’s part, not to show those fabulous views. It only made me love the man even more.
The mansion that Keaton’s character lived in is gone now, but the house he crossed to and walked back from, his fiancée’s mansion, is very much still there and major renovations were being done, as they were to quite a few of the houses in the area. I happened to be walking there at the very time Mexico were playing France in the World Cup, and Spanish commentary blared from every construction site. Not a bit of work was being done anywhere. Who could blame them? Mexico won 2-0.
Friday, May 21, 2010
A recently published book, Beckett: Photographs by François-Marie Banier, had its origins in 1978 when the photographer happened to be on vacation in Tangier and saw Samuel Beckett, the great dramatic poet of angst and stasis, walking along in shorts and sandals, carrying a shoulder bag and heading for the beach.
At first it seems that Banier more or less stalked Beckett, like a paparazzo, but somewhere along the line they became friends, and the book also contains photographs from the late 1980s of Beckett in Paris, in which Beckett is more complicit.
Those beach pictures do seem genuinely startling. We want to imagine Beckett, like his characters, in some small dark room, suffering for his art, or perhaps just suffering, certainly not going on vacation and sunning himself. And, of course, this is pathetically naïve of us. Many of those pictures confirm, what I suppose we always knew really, that even the greatest, most unworldly writers, spend part of their lives doing the same perfectly ordinary, mundane things as the rest of us.
In the end, however, I don’t think Banier completely demystifies Beckett. In pictures like the one above, Beckett shows, or at least the photographer reveals, that sometimes when he walks he does a pretty good job of looking like an authentic Beckettian figure.
And if Beckett looks a little tense and tentative in his walking, well perhaps he’s remembering the night in Paris in 1938 when he was walking with a group of friends and was approached by a pimp, offering his services. Beckett declined, in some insulting way it seems, since the pimp was so incensed he stabbed Beckett in the chest, perforated a lung and very nearly killing him. The pimp, called Prudent, went briefly to jail, but Beckett didn’t press charges, and by some accounts he later turned the events of that night into a comic anecdote.
James Knowlson, author of the Beckett biography Damned to Fame, recounts that well over 30 years later, he and Beckett were walking in the street near the old people’s home where Beckett was then living, when a man with a camera leapt out and took a couple of photographs of him. Beckett reacted as though he’d been stabbed.
Of course we don’t look to Beckett’s writing for tales of vigorous hiking and wanderlust and yet, poet of stasis as he may be, a couple of Beckettian walking moments spring immediately to mind. A late work for the stage called Quad I and II (above) consists largely of synchronized walking, performed by hooded, robed figures who create patterns as they move rapidly around a square, illuminated space.
Another occurs in Film, in which the protagonist, played by Buster Keaton, scuttles (I think that’s the right word, it’s rapid and shambling but it’s definitely a walk rather than a run) alongside what seems to be the longest, highest, most featureless wall in all of New York City. It was demolished shortly after the movie was made.
Keaton, rather proudly, used to claim that he never understood what the movie was about; then again he never asked. But it hardly matters. Given his onscreen persona: stone-faced but far from inexpressive, suffering, stoical, much abused, he was a “natural” Beckett hero.
In his own movies Keaton does plenty of walking that might well be thought of as Beckettian – “you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.” But my favorite bit of Keaton walking occurs at the start of The Navigator. Here’s Keaton’s own description of it, from a 1958 interview with George C Pratt, ‘The opening gag … is one of the most stolen gags that ever was done on the screen. I think I knew at one time of twenty-seven times it had been done by other companies. With us, the gag was to establish the fact that I was so helpless, that I went to call on the girl, and I came down and got in my car with a chauffeur and a footman. The footman wrapped a blanket wound my knees – a big, open Pierce-Arrow Phaeton – and drove across the street. That’s all. I got out to call on the girl. I asked the girl if she’d marry me and she said, “No,” and I come back down (to the car). The guy opened the door in the car for me, and I said, “No, I think the walk will do me good.” So I walked across the street with the car followin’ me, makin’ a U-turn.’
Keaton was an extraordinary physical actor, fascinated by what the body can do, and passionately interested in making it do all kinds of things it was never meant to. He was also intensely engaged with the relationship between bodies and machines, cars, boats and of course the locomotive in The General.
The picture above shows Keaton walking along a railroad track, and this being Keaton, and the movie being a comedy, we know that a train is about to come along. The picture below shows Harry Dean Stanton in Wim Wenders’ movie Paris Texas, and because this is a serious, glum, Germanic movie we equally know that a train won’t be coming along. I assume Wenders is well aware of the similarity of the two images.
I suppose one of the problems most of us have with real life is that we’re never quite sure whether we’re in a Buster Keaton comedy, a Wim Wenders existential road movie or, for that matter, a piece of Sam Beckett philosophical minimalism. We walk along not quite knowing where we’re heading, nor what, if anything, is about to hit us, but when something does, whether it’s a train, a bout of Germanic weltschmerz, or the realization that our mothers gave birth astride a grave, well, which ever movie we're in, it really doesn't come as much of a surprise.