Buster Keaton was born 118 years ago today. Earlier this year, the Siren was asked by The Baffler to write about the 14-disc Kino Blu-Ray set of Keaton's films. The Baffler is an excellent magazine of arts and criticism, published three times a year out of Cambridge, Mass., and the Siren is proud to be appearing in its pages. You can subscribe here. As of today, Keaton's birthday, the Siren's complete essay is online and can be read at The Baffler's website. What follows is an excerpt.
Spending so much time with Buster, getting reacquainted with his genius and spirit, has been an extraordinary thing. The Siren admits now that when she says she loves Buster Keaton, she doesn't really mean it metaphorically.
The most iconic Keaton stance, according to Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns, shows Buster in thought: body tilted straight forward about forty-five degrees, one hand acting as a visor while he scopes out what’s ahead. True indeed, but there’s another essential posture, the head-scratch, also deployed when data must be assessed and decisions made.
That gesture reaches apotheosis in Seven Chances (1925), which has Buster as a financial hotshot whose firm’s in hot water. He discovers that if he marries by 7 p.m. that very day, he’ll inherit $7 million that will keep him out of prison. (Wall Street denizens who fear prison also appear in The Saphead. This plot point has dated more than anything else in the set.) Buster’s overhelpful friend has put an ad in the paper, resulting in hundreds of women in improvised veils showing up at the chapel. When Buster leaves in a panic, they gallop after him, their flying veils making them look uncannily like extras from DeMille’s silent version of The Ten Commandments. This vengeful Biblical horde chases Buster down a hill, where he dislodges some rocks, and then some more.
And so, faced with an army of would-be brides charging at him from one direction and a quarry’s worth of giant rocks rolling downhill from another, Buster stops for a moment, and his hand starts scratching his scalp. This sort of lady-or-the-boulder choice cannot be made on the fly.