Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Films of Buster Keaton: The Railrodder & Film (Both 1965)

The Railrodder (1965)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Gerald Potterton & John Spotton.
Written by: Buster Keaton & Gerald Potterton.
Starring: Buster Keaton (The Man).

The year before Keaton’s death came The Railrodder – which was the first film since 1951 that he did any – credited or uncredited – directing work on. It is a short film – 25 minutes – and made for the National Film Board of Canada. I think it’s fair to say that Keaton and Canada are the co-stars of the film – as there is at least as much – if not more – of the beautiful Canadian wilderness as there is of Keaton in the film. The film doesn’t really reach the level of genius of Keaton’s best work – nor is it really anything all that different that he had done before. Yet, it’s worth seeing for several reasons – the most important of which is that it’s a fun little film in its own right. But also because it shows that Keaton, even at the age of 70, still had it. It’s yet another little film, that while not great, makes you realize that Keaton could have still been making great films right up until the end.

In the film, Keaton starts out in England, reading a newspaper when he sees an ad touting the majesty of Canada and encouraging people to take a tour. Keaton thinks is a grand idea, and immediately jumps into the water. We next see him walking out of the ocean at the other side – apparently walking underwater from England to Canada. The bulk of the film has Keaton on a railway speeder – by himself – going from one end of Canada to the other.

Ironically, although there are many beautiful shots of Canada throughout the movie – as Keaton passes through the Rocky Mountains and other beautiful landscapes – he doesn’t seem to much notice what’s going on around him. He sits on his speeder reading the paper, or trying to get some sleep as the beauty moves all around him. He ends up on the other end of Canada – another Ocean – and he finally gets off his speeder and marvels at the beautiful view. Then, of course, someone else takes his speeder – and Keaton starts the long, lonely trek back across the country.

No one is going to mistake The Railrodder as one of Keaton’s masterpieces. It is an amusing film from start to finish – with Keaton doing some classic sight gags, as well as renewing his love of trains – that we saw so often in his 1920s films.

Yet I also think The Railrodder deserves to be more than just a footnote on Keaton’s career – as many seem to see it. It is the last film he directed (although, officially, he didn’t receive credit) – and it is certainly in line with his best films in that it sees the world in the same way, and touches upon some of his passions. It’s also the last time we get to see Keaton in full silent comedy star mode – and we should all be greatful for a film that shows that even in the last year of his life, Keaton was able to do some great physical comedy. So no, The Railrodder is not a masterpiece – but it’s a damn fine film – and a must for Keaton buffs.

Film (1965)
Directed by: Alan Schneider.   
Written by: Samuel Beckett.
Starring: Buster Keaton (The Man).

1965’s Film – a 17 minute short film written by Samuel Becket (and who the credited director, Alan Schneider says was really the director as well) is the only film as part of this series that Buster Keaton didn’t have a hand in directing. It’s such an interesting film though, that I had to include it – if for no other reason than to have as an excuse to write about it. The film is one of the last of Keaton’s career – and it shows what a gifted physical performer he was right until the end of his life. Making his performance all the more remarkable is that until the closing minutes of the film we never see Keaton’s face. The camera remains behind him – leading some to call the film an extended chase sequence with the camera following Keaton. This is true for the first part of the movie – with Keaton edging along the street, looking nervously around, and trying to escape from whoever or whatever is following him. The camera seems to be an entity unto itself – and when it catches other – and there are three other actors in the film briefly in the opening shots – in its gaze, they are stricken with a horrible look on their face. What have they seen – or what is being done to them.

The bulk of the film however takes place in a small, rundown apartment. Keaton enters, and locks the door – still trying to keep whatever is following him out, but he’s unsuccessful. There is a dog and a cat in the room – and he tries – comically – to get them both out the door, but as soon as he gets one out, the other runs back in. There’s a picture on a wall – a drawing of a man with huge eyes – that Keaton rips up. He holds an envelope – one of those that close by wrapping string around two circles that look like eyes in the film. He’s paranoid – he doesn’t want anyone or anything looking at him. But why?

The film is a strange one, and not altogether successful. While there has been a lot of complicated critical theory written about the film – some of it quite pretentious, but then the film itself is at least somewhat pretentious – I think Keaton himself summed the movie up best saying "a man may keep away from everybody but he can't get away from himself." That is the film in a nutshell – Keaton plays a man who is trying to shut everything out, but in the end he cannot. He spends time in a rocking chair, eventually opening that envelope, to see pictures of himself at various stages of his life – eventually ripping them up. He is a man alone, trying to destroy everything about himself. But he cannot ultimately hide.

Does the movie work? Kind of. Keaton is brilliant in the film in his final silent film performance. He was old and dying, and the yet he still moves undeniably like Keaton. He holds the screen, even while his back is turned to it for almost the entire running time. By the time we finally see his face, it’s somewhat shocking. This is the Keaton we know but older, more beat up and weathered – more melancholy than we’ve ever seen him before.

The camera work is quite good. In Becket’s original screenplay he identifies the two characters as E – for Eye (the camera) and O – for Object – Keaton. The camera is in almost constant motion, moving along behind Keaton, keeping his distance, as if it’s trying to hide – not wanting Keaton to see that he is being observed.

The idea behind the movie is good, but I do wonder about the execution. Becket – who never wrote a film before or after this one – called the film an “interesting failure”. I wonder if he had continued to write for film if he would have come up with something better – perhaps a little more subtle, a little less ponderous.

The film works because of Keaton and the camerawork, and it is certainly an interesting, and somewhat ambitious film. I won’t argue with Andrew Sarris who called the title “the most pretentious in film history” – but I think there’s a lot of value in the film. It isn’t a masterpiece, and perhaps it is little more than the interesting failure that Becket described it as. But damn if it isn’t interesting.

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