Sorry I'm late to this review - schedules been a bit messed up this week due to my awesome wife and awesome brother appearing in awesome productions of The Vagina Monologues and Jekyll & Hyde respectively (he was Jekyll). Next week's (this week's) movie will be delayed a few days and we'll be back on schedule by next weekend.
So... I'm having an uncomfortable relationship with this movie. The General was a terrible flop on release in '27, arguably leading directly to the collapse of Buster Keaton's career, and then a few decades later began to earn a new reputation as one of the greatest films ever made. This sort of reversal happens from time to time (it appears to be happening now to Blade Runner), and generally I find in these cases that the truth lies in some complicated place in the middle. That's certainly the case here. I can see, intellectually, what latter-day fans see in it. I can see where it's new; before-its-time; subversive; upending the sentimentality of Chaplin. I can certainly appreciate its precision, and the incredible blood, sweat, and tears that must have gone into such an undertaking. I can see all that, on an intellectual level. But in my gut... I'm not feeling it.
I'll start with Keaton's deadpan humor. I loved it... in theory. Yet I didn't laugh at it much. It was usually a smile of appreciation because I could see what he was going for, mixed with frustration that the joke didn't quite hit its mark. Often this was a problem of timing or presentation. At one point there is some business with an errant boxcar that he's trying to get rid of. The payoff is a deadpan double-take that is brilliant in design and perfectly performed, but undercut somewhat by the buildup. The problem is that there are some complicated mechanics going on in the joke, and other things to worry about, and of course I didn't know at the time that it was a joke so I didn't know to pay attention. So he'd just finished the double-take when it clicked in my mind what he was reacting to. And I laughed, because it was a clever and unexpected choice. But I didn't laugh enough, because I was thinking about it too much; piecing the sequence of events together in my mind. What's that? Am I horrible for suggesting the joke wasn't that funny because it required an intelligent audience who is paying attention? That's not really what I mean, of course - it wasn't too complicated, just too slowly presented maybe. But the bottom line is that it came across like when somebody has to explain a joke to you. It didn't matter that I was explaining it to myself, it still took the edge off the humor. I was laughing... about it, but not really at it. And slowness was a consistent problem. The film is not tightly edited, and each gag is given plenty of time to cool off before the next one. Momentum is a large part of comedy (that's why they have warm-up acts for live audience shows like The Daily Show), and The General just couldn't keep any, even when it was otherwise working for me.
More serious problems arose from what I perceived as dissonances of character and tone. Who is Johnny Gray anyway? (Well, he's Keaton's character for one - maybe I should have summarized this stuff first...) His deadpan and repressed demeanor suggest an intelligent man, if lonely. And some jokes rely on his cleverness and professional knowledge. But a few others rely on his being incredibly unobservant or even flat out stupid. His myriad stunts on the train display great physical dexterity, sometimes in a way that suggests the character is dexterous (clearing two planks for the price of one from a moving train? Wow!), but usually just the opposite - using his dexterity to play a complete klutz. What are we supposed to believe about Gray? For all Keaton's supposed perfectionism, it didn't seem to me he has the character completely figured out. He seems to be whatever the joke requires him to be. And what's worse is that the whole movie is like that. It's set during a war, the stunts and the action are intense, and the humor ranges from subtle character observations to extremely silly slapstick. Near the end a gag with a broken sword gets its punchline in the form of an enemy soldier stabbed through the back. Ha ha? At least the girl is consistent - she's pretty much annoyingly stupid all the way through. In many ways I am reminded of a Will Ferrell comedy. I don't really like Ferrell, mostly because instead of giving us earnest characters who get into comedic situations through no fault of their own, he gives us characters he knows perfectly well are completely despicable buffoons, and asks us to laugh right at them. Which I guess a lot of people do, but mostly I just feel awkward and uncomfortable. That happens a lot in The General. Another pratfall! HAHA! Everybody just got soaking wet! Again! HAHA! Look at the stupid woman forget the instructions he just gave her! HAHA! There are contexts in which this kind of thing is funny, but this ain't it. I want to like and care about these characters, because that's what will drive the intensity of the action (the whole movie is one big chase scene), but Keaton laughs at too much, and I can't connect.
Finally, while I hate to disparage the stunts in this movie - that must be some sort of sacrilege - they just didn't dazzle me as I hoped. I mean, again intellectualizing it, I can see how incredible they were to choreograph and perform, and how dangerous. This movie takes place on real, live moving trains. No cutaways, and no stuntmen. You can't overstate how incredible the action in this movie is on a technical level. But beyond that, it still has to work comically, and dramatically. If the stunts were jokes, the comedian would be building them up, expanding on them, doubling back to tie into an earlier joke. You know, setups and payoffs and all that. In an earlier film, Keaton has a great stunt with a tall ladder leaned on a fence. He climbs up to escape a policeman, until he reaches the top and the ladder tilts over the fence like a seesaw. But there's another cop on the other side, so he goes back. The cops grab for the ladder, and soon several are hanging off each end, changing the balance dramatically as they go. After some back and forths of increasing complexity, Keaton takes advantage of the physics of the situation for a clever escape. That's what I was looking for. Those classic silent-era stunts are whole set-pieces that build and double back on themselves. Logically. Inevitably. That's what makes them so funny. There really isn't anything like that in The General. Most of the stunts are just stunts in the modern sense - guy jumps from one train car to another. Guy takes a pratfall. They're impressive if you're thinking about how they were made in the real world, but if the movie has really grabbed you, you shouldn't be thinking about that, should you? Unfortunately the few exceptions (tossing beams into the fuel car) come late in the film when I was getting especially impatient with the slapstick. Of course, I have to say I'm not sure how fair a criticism this is - again, this was all shot on real, moving trains. Which were not only dangerous, but expensive and hard to work with. These could very well be the best gags that could ever be made under such circumstances. It's a good excuse. But it's still an excuse.
Actually, that suggests one final observation, which may explain much of my disappointment. These days, we would describe these silent movie comedy antics as "cartoony," which is silly because the cartoons we're referring to came after the great silent clowns. We should call cartoons "Keatony." I certainly see more of Keaton than anybody else in the personality of the old Warner cartoons, and I'm sure he was a great inspiration to them. But also perhaps a victim of his own (eventual) success. Gnaw on this: we often blame the advent of sound for killing the careers of the silent clowns. But what else happened in 1928 after The Jazz Singer came out? Among other things, Steamboat Willie. The cartoon shorts from Disney and, later, Warner Bros. took their art and, thanks to the freedom of animation, brought it to a level far beyond the capabilities of live actors. The unreality solves the tonal dissonance, and takes the stunts past "dangerous," past "suicidal," and straight off the cliff. Literally. So I can appreciate Keaton's place in history - just as I can appreciate The War of the Worlds despite the silliness of reading about flying saucers and ray guns from a modern vantage point. But I can't really get into it. It comes across as adorably quaint. I liked The General insofar as I can see how it was an important step in the evolutionary process that eventually brought us "What's Opera, Doc?".
On a side note, we watched this on Blu-ray, and it was definitely worth it. You might not expect it from an 85-year-old movie, but the photography was beyond excellent and benefits strikingly from the HD master. No doubt the film hasn't looked this good in any venue since before you were born.
NEXT WEEK: Err, in a few days, I mean. Sunrise, from director F. W. Murnau.