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From Vaudeville to Surrealism SiNCE THE 1920s, surrealist film­ makers and artists have contended that Keaton's films share aesthetic and thematic concerns with surrealist art of the 1920s and 1930s and paid trib­ ute to him in their work and lives. Keaton's surrealism was achieved with­ out effort or intention; his films exemplify what the surrealists refer to as "involuntary surrealism."1 They saw involuntary surrealism in the films of many of Keaton's silent-comedy contemporaries—Charlie Chaplin, Harry Langdon, Larry Semon, and Mack Sennett—as well as those of sound-film comedians such as the Marx Brothers. Each of these comedians appealed to the surrealists for different reasons. Most of the surrealists shared political sympathies with Chaplin and respected him for championing the poor and underprivileged;2 they were divided, however, on the artistic merits of his films. Dalí disapproved of Chaplin's films on the ground that he tried too hard for laughter and instead favored the films of Keaton, Mack Sennett, and the Marx Brothers for their "concrete irrationality."3 As Hammond explains, Dalí admired these films for their "gratuitous and imaginative use of objects and bodies."4 The surrealists' attraction to the films of Keaton, Sennett, Langdon, Semon, and the Marx Brothers stems from the shared means and aims of comedy (particularly slapstick comedy) and surrealism. J. H. Matthews as­ serts that the surrealists valued comedy for its ability to break the bonds of logic and social decorum: "The comic film impresses [the surrealist] as much more than an amusing movie when it liberates impulses capable of changing life's pattern, nullifying controls exercised in the everyday world by reasonable conjecture."5 On the surface, Keaton's films may not seem in keeping with the surrealists' interest in comedy. His films frequently close F R O M V A U D E V I L L E T O S U R R E A L I S M 113 on a positive note that appears to reinforce the traditional norms of society.6 Each of his eleven independent silent features ends with Buster winning the hand of the woman he loves, including Go West (although the "woman" in this film is quite literally a cow). I argue, however, that Keaton's surrealism is not contained in the line of his narratives or the norms tentatively rein­ forced by his films' conclusions, but rather in the gags, stunts, and chases that disrupt the narratives. The logic of the narratives never completely de­ fuses the potent illogic contained in the gag sequences, for although Buster may marry and be invited into society at the end of each film, he still retains his special, illogical way of looking at the world. Unlike Harold Lloyd's character, Buster will never be completely comfortable in mainstream soci­ ety; he remains an outsider. The progress of Buster as a character is not merely a question of his ma­ turing in order to fit into society, as Moews suggests,7 but rather a matter of his learning how to adapt his illogical way of thinking to a world that is revealed as inherently illogical itself. Keaton frequently exposes the irra­ tional lurking beneath the surface of rational society. As Perez observes, "While on earth, he tried his best to do as earthlings do, and thereby made us aware of the peculiar systems by which we rule our lives."8 Keaton's humor frequently calls into question the rational basis for society's rules of behavior, as in Seven Chances (1925) when the conventions of courtship are obliterated by the mad chase of brides and boulders. As Keaton expands the scope of his gags in the final sequences of his films, the physical world takes on an irrational life of its own, as policemen self-destruct (Cops), houses spin and fly (One Week and Steamboat Bill, Jr.), and bulls take over cities (Go West). Buster may never quite fit in with society, but in the climactic, nearly apocalyptic conclusions of his films, he finds his niche amidst the chaos of the physical world. The Surrealists Claim Keaton The surrealists' regard for Keaton took many forms: criticism; screenings of portions of his films; and poetry and dramatic writing based on his work. They span from the criticism of Robert Desnos, which began in 1924, to Robert Benayoun's critical and pictorial tribute, The Look of Buster Keaton (1982).9 The 1920s were the period of greatest surrealist interest in the silent...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780691188461
MARC Record
OCLC
1132227819
Launched on MUSE
2020-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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