Last night, I came home tired and cold, less than cheered by having to leave work in the dark. I arrived home unable to shake off some tiresome problems at work. I was not in the mood to work on my novel, despite that ever-looming deadline. The well of imagination was empty. I needed to decompress.
Much to my delight, I found Buster Keaton’s silent films playing on a cable channel, and, boy, did they help mitigate a bad day at work. Even better, they helped the well fill once more. One of the films was STEAMBOAT BILL JR, considered by many to be Keaton’s masterpiece. It’s certainly a wonderfully done movie. I’ve seen it before, and yet I stayed up until midnight to watch the whole thing again — mainly because I needed to laugh, but more importantly because it refreshed me. It’s just so good on a number of levels.
You can always watch it just for the silly, pratfall comedy. You can watch it for the stunts — made all the more amazing because Keaton performed them himself and didn’t use a double. And STEAMBOAT BILL JR has some doozies. Remember that the stunts are real; no CGI effects here, folks. You may watch it for that marvelous deadpan style of acting that was Keaton’s trademark. But although I appreciate all of those elements, what I like best is the story.
His films have simple plots, and usually a limited number of characters. I understand that was because most of his stories were put together through improvisation rather than fully developed, written scripts. Doesn’t matter! Keaton understood story. His timing in letting them unfold is impeccable. He knows when to make you laugh, when to catch your attention with some unpredictable visual pun, when to make you feel sad or indignant on his character’s behalf, when to tug at your heartstrings, when to make you cheer. And he always plays an earnest little ordinary guy, one who loves, who’s honest, who tries. In STEAMBOAT BILL JR there’s a segment where Junior is trying to help his father escape jail. Now the audience knows that Dad is innocent and doesn’t deserve to be in that cell. And here’s Junior, trying to give him an enormous loaf of bread that so obviously has a saw in it. His earnest good intentions and love for his father are written all over him, yet he’s so innocent and naive that we can’t help but feel sorry for him.
It’s good to treat ourselves to simplicity now and then. In our hectic, high-pressure world, where everything grows increasing complex and black and white fades too frequently to gray, we need the basic emotions of laughter, astonishment, wonder, and poignancy so that we don’t lose touch with who we are down at the foundation, down where we’re planted.