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Introduction DEPENDING UPON which criticism one reads, the films of Buster Keaton reveal either: a knockabout comedian from vaudeville who successfully adapted his act to silent films; an unintentional surrealist; or one of the earliest and finest directors of classical Hollywood cinema. Surrealist critics refuse to see Keaton as merely a vaudeville entertainer. Classical critics focus so completely on the structure of his plots and the geometric progression of his stories that they slight other attributes of his work. And those who view Keaton primarily as a vaudevillian tend to concentrate on recounting his most humorous gags and explaining how they work. For these critics, plot is a pretext for the ingenuity of Keaton's gags. Of these three lines of criticism, the view of Keaton as an exemplar of classical Hollywood cinema is most widely accepted. Several film textbooks use Our Hospitality (1923) and The General (1927) to discuss causality and linear narrative in classical cinema.1 In one of the most widely read books of criticism on Keaton, Keaton: The Silent Features Close-Up, Daniel Moews uses narrative structure as the central criterion for judging the relative quality of Keaton's films. By this standard, Moews rates The General as Keaton's strongest feature film and criticizes College (1927) as his weakest effort. Yet Luis Buñuel, widely regarded as the most successful surrealist filmmaker, praised College shortly after its release, singling out the film's simplicity ("beautiful as a bathroom, vital as a Hispano"), Keaton's work with objects, and his avoidance of sentimentality: "With Buster Keaton the expression is as modest as that of a bottle for example: although around the round, clear circuit of his pupils dances his aseptic soul. But the bottle and the face of Buster have their viewpoints in infinity."2 Buñuel's evaluation of College testifies to his application of a vastly different set of aesthetic criteria, one which values attributes other than narrative structure. Each line of criticism can be seen as a different "lens" through which the critic views Keaton's films. Like a camera lens, each of these critical lenses emphasizes different qualities, shaping the critic's perception of the films. 4 I N T R O D U C T I O N Each lens distorts the subject matter in different ways, magnifying some attributes and diminishing others. The disparities among the lines of criti­ cism can be recognized, then, as different ways of seeing, rather than as simple differences of opinion.3 Although the critics differ in their evalua­ tions of Keaton's films, most consciously or unconsciously apply one of the three "lenses" as their dominant criterion for interpreting Keaton's work. Isolating the qualities of each lens allows us to examine Keaton's films with specificity; looking beyond the closely knit parameters of classical Holly­ wood cinema in particular encourages us to investigate the interaction among its elements and those of vaudeville in Keaton's films. By integrating these views of Keaton's films, I seek to arrive at a more complete under­ standing of his work, one that uncovers the interaction between the forma­ tive influences on his work (vaudeville and Hollywood), as well as the affin­ ities he shared with his contemporaries from the 1920s, the surrealists. The Lens of Classical Hollywood Cinema In The Classical Hollywood Cinema, Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson ad­ vance a dynamic theory of the emergence of classical Hollywood cinema from its origins in 1907 through its development to 1960. They endeavor to reveal the stylistic parameters within which classical Hollywood cinema has been, and to a great extent continues to be, produced. I will use their criteria to uncover the assumptions inherent in Keaton criticism from the classical point of view Once 1 have laid out these assumptions, elements of classical Hollywood cinema in Keaton's films can be examined not merely for their function within the classical Hollywood style, but for their relationship to other elements—such as Keaton's visual gags and imagery—highlighted by the lenses of vaudeville and surrealism. Classical Hollywood cinema is based first and foremost on the principle of narrative causality Narrative causality is, to use formalist terminology, the dominant: "the focusing component. . . which guarantees the integrity of the structure."4 Bordwell notes that classical Hollywood cinema carries over, with some changes, the formula of the well-made play from nine­ teenth-century theater: "The conventions of the well-made play—strong opening exposition, battles of wits, thrusts and counter...


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