johnlink ranks THE GENERAL (1926)

In many ways, this is the sort of film which defines why I do these rankings in the first place. I love to write about film, and this blog is a way to ensure I do. Yes, I write about NATIONAL TREASURE or SHREK 2 because I watched it, and I want to get my thoughts down. But I don’t run to my computer to do it, if you catch my drift. But something like Buster Keaton’s THE GENERAL? Or INCEPTION (I’d link to it, but don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t seen it)? or a small movie like PRIMER? Those things really keep my fire burning. I have a degree in Film Studies, but I’m also the guy who just wrote an article on RESIDENT EVIL a couple of weeks ago. I’m not the pretentious suit in the corner reminding you to mix a shot of Ozu between your meal of Michael Bay and desert of Rob Reiner. The bottom line here is I like movies, and I am non-discriminating when it comes to year, language, or color of a film’s skin. I mean, that FRIDAY THE 13th remake I watched a couple months ago is shit no matter how you try and shape it. And on the other end of the spectrum, Keaton’s THE GENERAL is a classic, no matter how old you are, or how many silent movies you’ve seen.

I watched THE GENERAL (1926) on 7.25.20. It was my second viewing of the film, though the first had a much weaker score. Usually, I link the trailer here, but the full movie is available (legally) here.

There is some sentiment out there that you have to be a Keaton guy or a Chaplin guy. This concept is predicated on the fact that the former is the great stoneface, and the latter is one of the the great expressive comedians. The whole idea of that is absurd. It’s like saying that, when looking back three decades ago, we’d have to choose between Bill Murray or Jim Belushi because one was stoic and the other more animated. I like Chaplin and Keaton, though I admit to having seen quite a bit more Chaplin over the years.

The GENERAL is, simply, great comedy. It is more rewarding on a second viewing, and I imagine my next will grow that experience further. Good comedy, one hopes, entertains throughout while also connecting to some greater theme. For Keaton, it is the theme of love causing a man do extraordinary things, that love trumps the nature of one’s career, or the emblem on one’s uniform.

The GENERAL is, also, a great film. When considering the era Keaton is working in, the level of stunt work and detail is astounding. Complex and dangerous stunts are not done with the benefit of special effects, but necessitate timing and grace. Stuntwork alone does not make for good film, of course. The composition of shots tells a precise story while allowing events to unfold with a simple logic. Consider, for example, the cannon which points straight at Keaton as he tries to avoid its impending blast. The action unfolds without fanfare, the cannon firing at the exact moment the train turns, so that its original target is still fired upon.

The acting in this film is as good as it gets in silent comedy. One thing Keaton always had great success with was the undersell. He never appears disinterested, merely unsurprised. Joy and grief both can be seen, they just don’t look very different from one another. Maybe there’s a bit of the Kuleshov effect to be seen in all of that. We see what we choose to see in his stoic face. But there is no doubt that his reaction evokes an emotional response.

The writing can’t be compared to scripts of today, of course, due to its silent nature. When looking at the script of a silent film, one considers more the elegance of plot. To me, the opening scenes and the train sequences are perfect. The nighttime scene meanders slightly, as does the conclusion. We came for the train, and the train is where we get our best stuff.

More than anything, I’m glad I revisited THE GENERAL. It’s nice to be reminded how simple comedy can be and still be so complexly effective.


FILM: 7; MOVIE: 9; ACTING: 8; WRITING: 7; BONUS: 1 (What is this?)

The bonus point, here, is for the choreography of stunts Keaton so amazingly has on display.



~ by johnlink00 on July 27, 2010.

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