Narrative 10.3 (2002) 307-325
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Short-circuiting the Dialectic:
Narrative and Slapstick in the Cinema of Buster Keaton
Halfway into Buster Keaton's second two-reeler film, One Week, an extended gag develops as Keaton's character attempts to install the chimney on his house's roof while his wife takes a bath. The crosscutting between two separate spaces establishes the components of the gag that will eventually intersect in the gag's penultimate moment. Numerous incidental and isolated gags occur while the extended gag is being articulated. Keaton cannot transport the chimney up the ladder to the roof except by wearing it on his head—he becomes literally a blockhead and somewhat phallic to boot—which causes him to lose his balance and fall. Keaton's wife drops the soap on the floor and cannot retrieve it except by exposing herself to the camera. She motions to the camera, directing a hand to cover the lens until she is safely back in the bath. On the roof, Keaton now wears the chimney as a skirt (his sartorial extravaganzas contrast with his wife's nakedness) and slides down the eaves, his legs catching the chimney hole and permitting him to insert the object appropriately. But carried by the momentum of his action, Keaton slips through the chimney and lands in the bathtub in the room below. The coital image that seems to be propelling this gag is, however, ultimately unfulfilled. Keaton does not land atop his wife as we might expect because she has elusively taken refuge in the shower recess, where she stands modestly clad in the curtain. As she scolds Keaton, he escapes through a doorway—unfortunately one that leads nowhere—and he ends up for the umpteenth time on the ground below, a puff of dust dramatizing his fall.
This extended gag contributes to the development of the film's narrative to the extent that Keaton has successfully completed the task of inserting the chimney in its appropriate place, but there is clearly much more to the sequence than this. [End Page 307]
Buster Keaton began starring in films in 1917 when he left the vaudeville stage to join the studio of Roscoe ("Fatty") Arbuckle. Working as a performer with Arbuckle, Keaton adapted his theatrical comedy for the cinematic medium. From the moment he stepped into Arbuckle's studio, his fascination with the mechanics of cinematography and the technical possibilities of film was manifest. Indeed, commentators have claimed that Keaton's influence on Arbuckle's filmmaking was apparent very early. Pierre Coursodon, for instance, notes the Keatonesque qualities of The Butcher Boy, the very first film the two made together (2-3). In 1920, Arbuckle's producer, Joe Schenck, bought Keaton his own studio. Between 1920 and 1923 Keaton made 19 short films (two- and three-reelers), and between 1923 and 1929 he directed and starred in 12 feature-length films (five- to eight-reelers).
It is well known that Keaton began making films at a time when the industry was encouraging a transition from short slapstick films to feature-length comedies. Steve Neale and Frank Krutnik argue in Popular Film and Television Comedy that an increasingly critical opposition to slapstick was part and parcel of an ideological drive toward narrative. This, in turn, is accounted for in terms of changes to the economic and institutional bases of cinema that made films entities in their own right (as opposed to simply being part of a program of vaudeville or music hall entertainments), saw them increase in length from one-reeler to feature-length films, and change their patronage from working- to middle-class audiences (109-31). From all accounts, Keaton's films were born in a period when the demand for narrative marked an end to the tradition of pure slapstick exemplified in Mack Sennett's Keystone comedies and a forsaking of a cinema of pure energetics, of gags piled one atop the other, each upping the ante, exponentially increasing the pace, violence, and preposterousness of what had come before. Keaton...