Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Go West

1925, US, directed by Buster Keaton

Brilliant stuff. Keaton's character is frequently mystified by the vicissitudes of technology but the joke here is he's equally confused when faced with more traditional challenges -- riding a horse, milking a cow, and so forth. The milking scene is one of my favourites in all of Keaton's work, absurd and filled with tiny details, like the repeated attempts to offer the cow a three-legged stool as Keaton's character labours under the misapprehension that the object is for the cow's comfort rather than his own, or the almost casual manner in which he flicks at the unfortunate animal's udder in the hopes that she will supply her milk.

Along the way, of course, he does acquire a certain competence -- he mixes his shaving cream with a few drops of expertly-extracted milk -- and even gets the upper hand over a card sharp, at least for a time. In that, his character surely influenced some famously beleagured cartoon characters like Tom the cat, almost always the loser except for those exquisitely pleasurable moments when he finally gets something to go his way. The long sequence late on when he leads hundreds of cattle through the streets of Los Angeles echoes the bridal stampede of Seven Chances, released earlier the same year, making said maidens even more animalistic in retrospect, and increasing the sense that Keaton's character regarded the women with fear more than anything else.

Even in the midst of the chaos, though, there are calm moments, none more striking than the brief sequence when Keaton stops to watch a young black man demonstrate his dance steps; his audience has disappeared as the cattle race down a nearby street but the man keeps moving, enjoying his own skill and absorbed in the moment before he finally realizes there's a problem. 

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States