Buster Keaton is the 99%
In the holy trinity of silent clowns, I’m firmly on Team Keaton. Charlie Chaplin moves me, sometimes to tears (cheap or otherwise), with his pathos and kinetic beauty. Harold Lloyd makes me laugh, heartily and out-loud, with his plucky, can-do spirit. But it’s Buster Keaton, the great Stone Face, that inspires me to get out of bed every morning and try to make my way in the world. And if I’m not successful on a Tuesday, it’s Buster who demonstrates that it’s not only not foolish to try again on Wednesday but that it’s courageous and necessary. I’ve spent a lot of time this past month thinking of Buster Keaton and trying to quantify what he means to me – not just the ways in which he is special as a silent film-maker or just a film-maker, but what he actually means in my daily life.
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, I worked for a lunatic. I don’t say this to be cute, nor do I exaggerate. This lunatic, president and CEO of the company I worked for, was not eccentric. He was not quirky. He was not a “difficult personality.” He was bat shit crazy. Instead of the standard reasons business decisons are usually made – like, oh say, making profit – he made business decisions solely to placate his own damaged ego. One day, after a particularly trying interaction with this nut-job, I sat down at my desk and, like a lightning bolt, it hit me, “I’m being rational in an inherently irrational situation. This probably isn’t going to work.”
The ghost of Buster Keaton haunted that lightning bolt. Before then, I probably would have said Chaplin was tops among the silent clowns. But in that one moment, I realized we’re all being rational in an inherently irrational situation, everyday, and Buster Keaton had been telling me that all along. The universe is a big, cold, chaotic place that operates on its own rules. It has no intention of publishing those rules for all of us to read. Rather, we’re left to find a thread and slowly unravel it along a very personal train of logic. If we end up with our sweaters in a pile of yarn around our ankles, well, “Oops! Time to knit a new sweater.”
Buster Keaton’s film persona is always that man unraveling that sweater. He is a small man in a big world, with a single minded focus on doing what is correct at a point in time. Unfortunately, for Buster, as for all of us, the right path is often murky, even when it appears to be clear. Take “One Week,” for example. Buster is going to build a house from a kit, and he has precise instructions based on clearly labelled pieces. Easy peasy, right? Wrong. For unknowable and unforeseen circumstances, in this case the jealousy of his wife’s ex, Buster’s parts are mislabeled and his instruction manual is rendered less than useless. He dutifully follows directions, to the letter, and ends up with a skewed and uninhabitable house.
Sometimes, when watching Buster, you want to shout, “No! Stop!” Can’t he see that his house isn’t right? Can’t he see that his instruction manual is full of typos? Can’t he see that this is not going to work? But of course, when we are Buster’s audience, we have the privilege of omniscience. We get to know the rules that he is not privy to. We are aware than a wrench is in the works. In our real lives, we are denied this privilege. Handy Hank has relabeled our pieces, and we’re just little people doing the best we can in the circumstances given. We hope against hope that the structure will be habitable in the end.
Everything about Buster Keaton, professionally and personally, illustrates the fundamental absurdities of existence. “The General,” now widely considered a work of silent film genius, destroyed his career. By costing too much and generating too little profit, “The General” robbed Keaton of control of his productions, effectively extinguishing his ability to be what we need him to be. And what is “The General”? It’s a long chase scene set on static railroad tracks, where the pursuee can never shake the pursuer. That is until the pursuee becomes the purser. At this point in the train (ha-ha) of logic my mind is so fundamentally blown I have a headache, and yet… “Yes, yes. That’s exactly right,” I say.
Yes, Buster Keaton illustrates our grain-of-sand on an infinite beach place in the universe. But should we despair? Buster never does. Buster’s character demonstrates to us, time and again, that nobility lies not in the succeeding, but in the trying. Remaining calm in the face of chaos, keeping your wits in the face of absurdity, selecting a logical path based on the facts in evidence – that’s dignity. Though you may fail, though you may not possess all of the facts, searching for that thread of logic and following it to it’s natural conclusion, is how you try. It’s how you live, it’s how you learn to navigate your world, and it is its own reason.
I’ve been thinking about Buster a lot this month. Not only has October 2011 been a lively celebration of Buster Keaton’s life and work, it’s been an escalation in the anger and discontent of millions of people world-wide. While I’ve been thinking about Buster, I’ve also been thinking about those brave enough to Occupy Wall Street in cities around the globe, those courageous enough to publicly proclaim they are the 99%, and the ways in which these complaints are my own. Some in that movement have adopted Chaplin’s speech from The Great Dictator as a kind of rallying cry. I say screw that noise. It’s beautiful, but empty, rhetoric. Like a lightning bolt, I realize Buster Keaton is the 99%. And we’re all the 99%, as is that well meaning, lonely man clutching a defunct instructional manual and wondering why his house is a lopsided mess.
I, of course, don’t mean to be so heavy. But when I think of what Buster Keaton means to me, I pick up a tiny thread of logic and follow it to an ultimately profound conclusion. There is much about Buster Keaton and his films that is light and fun. For me personally, there’s a thing he does that involves flying from inside to outside, usually through a window, bum first. It makes me laugh, and I mean really, really laugh every time. But Keaton is more to me than a good time and a chuckle. Buster is deeply meaningful to me. Keaton takes on the universe and gives no quarter and I can think of few better ways to tackle my own life. Me and Buster – we’ll throw it against the wall and see what sticks.
For more Buster Keaton related posts, be sure to visit Project Keaton, a fabulous project sponsored by The Kitty Packard Pictorial to honor and celebrate Buster’s 116th birthday.