16th April 2017
I think my reading of Buster Keaton in my early twenties was completely wrong. I saw him as aloof. That was a projection on my part. The Keaton character is not aloof: he is unaware, which is something very different. He is always trying to achieve something – to make something work, get a job, atone for a mistake, get a girl. Most of his acts of atonement and ambition are indeed the attempt to get the girl of his dreams. They are utterly sincere: the deadpan expression as a token of his utter dedication and sincerity. But, of course, he is totally disconnected from the world, even as he tries to fix it: he has no powers of forethought or insight, no sense of the ironic or the absurd. He has the deep seriousness, the intense literal-mindedness, of a horse. That is why he is so funny.
The Keaton character is clumsy and awkward and hapless: if he gets out of a scrape, he does it despite himself rather than because of any ability.
But we know, of course, that it takes a gymnast of genius to act this part. When we watch Buster Keaton, we are witnessing brilliance superimposed upon idiocy, resourcefulness upon helplessness, stardom upon obscurity. The fact that MGM made him act the part of the sad, self-pitying clown when his career was at its lowest ebb in the 1930s was unforgivable. The whole grace of the Keaton character is that he does not ask for pity because the disaster that is his existence is normality to him. And so he comes – absurdly, ironically but ineluctably – to represent a human spirit that is indomitable.
It is his inability to understand the world that saves him from being destroyed by it.
The triumph of innocence in the form of complete disconnectedness. This is the polar opposite of tragedy, whose deepest power springs from the fact that the protagonists have full insight into their condition.