May 23, 1928 [Steamboat Bill, Jr.]

Almost twenty years later, Buster Keaton is still a saphead--except on a steamboat he endangers only river traffic, not the stock market. Still, he remains phenomenally out-of-place (that mustache is not so much a nod to Chaplin as it is a sideways exclamation point)--and so determined that only love can prevent total catastrophe--although one could argue that love is as much to blame as his own foppishness. I leave such ruminations to the unmarried and the unwise; let us lay all blame not on the lady but Keaton’s hard and empty head.

The only act of Nature the film could produce to match Keaton’s epic fool is a hurricane--not the first time strong winds have buffeted screen clowns, but here alarmingly convincing; and Keaton is all but bested--all but to be sure, since not even the strongest wind blows hard enough to topple the Stone Face. He’s the third little pig’s house, impenetrable--but somehow innocent of the necessary hubris one would assume necessary to stand up to hurricanes--or wolves. (That brick-house pig always seemed a bit smug to me.) No, Keaton remains simply there, more stoic than stern, his true-love passions final as a driven spike, firm and matter-of-fact. I admire his temerity--but more so his solemn eyes, staring down all foes like a midday sun--not bright, though: simply unwavering, cloudless and clear. Even at the moment when the house falls upon him--reminding me of the Lumières Démolition d'un mur--except without the magic rescue of the film being run backwards--Keaton is spared merely by an open window and his own immobility. A hero for the slight and the slender--with iron in reserve, as anemic as he may at first seem.

(I glance at the mixed metaphors above, and wince. But Keaton is “metaphysical,” like a John Donne poem, the dominant conceit of his existence so contorted it twists like a (playful) snake in my hand. All I can do is spout contradictions at his elusive, rubber-reinforced frame.)

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