The General (1926), dir. Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton

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Screening at Cinema City, with a Q&A with UEA film scholar Peter Kramer

 The General is a film everyone knows. Every time we see a train depart off its intended course, it owes at least something to The General. The General has lodged itself into popular consciousness: yet when it was released, much like Citizen Kane (1941), or The Shawshank Redemption (1994), or Blade Runner (1982), it received mixed reviews, met as a commercial failure. Harold Lloyd remained the most popular silent comedian in the United States; Keaton’s career at United Artists was at an end. But The General underwent reappraisal: Kramer notes that during the last years of Keaton’s life, he witnessed the film’s revival, finally recognised as the masterpiece he believed it to be.

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The film’s imagery has become a part of the popular consciousness

I didn’t laugh at a single gag in The General.

This should perhaps be a problem, but the film remains a sight to behold for its scale. Lloyd may have been just as daring with the spectacle of his films, hanging from a clock above a skyscraper in Safety Last! (1923), or caught between crowds in Speedy (1928), but Keaton shows a true mastery of visual composition and the movement of gags: bridges collapse, dams flood, battles rage amongst trees. The film may be constrained to a railroad (filmed on the Eastern Railway in Oregon), but there is an expansiveness few could achieve; Keaton pays close attention to the geometry of the frame, framing his character as an outsider. We become in awe of the immensity of the landscape as the train cuts across it; Keaton’s framing of the battle scenes, men reduced to mere pinpricks or illuminated in silhouette, can only bring to mind later war epics.

Dziga Vertov avoided using intertitles to profess cinema as a new medium distinct from bourgeois forms, with documentary realism, but Keaton’s sparse reliance (besides brief exposition or dialogue) on the intertitle draws the viewer’s attention to the visual.

As Tony Zhou explains in his video essay Buster Keaton: The Art of the Gag, Keaton, with his roots in vaudeville, kept his focus on what could be achieved in camera, rather than relying on editing techniques or camera effects. The General’s sole visual effect appears in one shot, as Keaton’s protagonist Johnnie peers through a peephole cut into a tablecloth to view the capture of his fiancée Annabelle, superimposed upon the frame.

But my audience seemed split: The General is a funny movie. It’s something to laugh at, enjoy, have a good time with. Enjoy the spectacle – why apply pretentious intellectualism to every frame that passes the eye?

But The General is a film about the American Civil War. A silent comedy telling a historical narrative isn’t uncommon: though Lloyd and Chaplin drew much focus to the present day, films like The Gold Rush (1925) looked back to the 1890s, a period best remembered today as a breakfast cereal. The railroad is a new frontier, the train a symbol of modernity: one of many important inventions of the 19th century that rapidly reshaped life as we knew it in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, creating a new sense of connectedness in a country on the verge of war. Even one of the earliest silent films, The Great Train Robbery (1903), perhaps the first Western, focused on the railroad.

Just as with other comedians who grew out of the silent era, The General draws a duality between modernity and change against established tradition. In Speedy, Lloyd’s protagonist must fight to preserve New York City’s heritage, ensuring the last horse-drawn carriage in Greenwich Village is not dismantled by bully boys or business tycoons, in a city fast adapting to automobiles and the subway; in Modern Times (1936), Chaplin’s Tramp tries to keep up with the mechanical pace of modern industrial life, when all he wants in life is the woman he loves.

But then what about the Civil War? The American Civil War, the bloodiest war in American history, seems to have faded from memory: cinema focuses on different wars, celebrating heroism yet advocating pacifism in Hacksaw Ridge (2016), or reducing Vietnam to a mere backdrop to cinematic franchises for X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) and Kong: Skull Island (2017).

Cinema focuses on the Before through the slave narratives of 12 Years a Slave (2013), or the After, stripping the Western to a set of codes and conventions, celebrating a heroic dualism whilst reinforcing problematic images of Native Americans.

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Perhaps one of the film’s most interesting aspects is its focus on the American Civil War, an era easily presented through problematic portrayals

Where we invoke the American Civil War, it is almost always racial: in Lincoln (2012), Spielberg valorises Lincoln’s efforts to control the House and pass the Emancipation Proclamation. Meanwhile, Free State of Jones (2016) drew most of its attention for its focus on a white saviour narrative.

Silent cinema carries an uneasy heritage. The Birth of a Nation (1915), perhaps the first blockbuster, based on Griffith’s memories of his own father, drew sympathy to Southern slave owners, was met with protests by the NAACP and sparked the resurgence of the KKK. The Civil War may feel an eternity ago, yet cinema began less than two decades after the end of the war; by the 1920s, it remained in living memory. In Speedy, we become acquainted with a group of elderly veterans, recounting their stories of the war in a bar.

It still carries implications today.

The Civil War, as one of the earliest wars to carry a photographic record (alongside the Crimean War), seems the earliest war to carry a degree of cinematic accuracy, creating a moving record of the period impossible at the time, before even World War I, World War II or Vietnam could become truly visual wars through news coverage.

The General seems largely apolitical: the farthest acknowledgement of slavery is through a Cotton Growers Exchange amongst the storefronts in the background of a shot. Chaplin was more political, satirising Hitler’s fascism in The Great Dictator (1940), eventually branding him as un-American. Yet the film’s paradoxical approach to war raises something of interest.

As Kramer emphasised, the film’s title doesn’t refer to Keaton’s character: it refers to his engine. The film draws a duality between deserter and soldier: in the opening scene, Johnnie is rejected at enlistment, displaying an apathetic rage, retorting “if you lose the war, don’t blame me.” Unlike the slave owners, he becomes regarded as a disgrace to the South.

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Johnnie is dissuaded from joining the war at the recruitment office; his role as a train driver is considered too important to sacrifice

Johnnie tries to avoid the war – he’s a train driver, first and foremost, holding onto his existing way of life amidst the chaos of war, yet no longer able to even spend a comfortable night in bed. In one sequence, the train passes by a battlefield emerged out of nowhere; Johnnie is a side character to a historical epic, placed as protagonist. Later, he stands aside from a group of marching soldiers, almost flattened as he tries to cross the road alongside Annabelle.

As the opening intertitle informs us, there are two loves in Johnnie’s life: his fiancée Annabelle, and the General. The film is on the verge of creating a screwball comedy love triangle; Johnnie brings home a framed photograph to Annabelle of him and the train.

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One of Johnnie’s two loves – the General herself

Unavoidably, Johnnie becomes caught up in war: he must facilitate it, carrying soldiers and cargo upon his train. The narrative arc proves Johnnie’s worth as a soldier, unwittingly appointing him as lieutenant in the closing scenes. Johnnie adopts the role of soldier as performance, taking neither side, adopting the uniform of both North and South, creating a patchwork identity. He must rescue his fiancée  from the deliberating North, soldiers who are implicitly rapists, stealing a uniform to escape. He becomes regarded as a Union spy and a saboteur, knocking down power lines, disrupting train tracks. Whether intentionally or not, Johnnie must determine the outcome of the battle on Rock River Bridge; he can’t even swing a lance, yet he must fight – and create chaos.

He adopts his identity wholeheartedly: Johnnie waves the Confederate flag, before swiftly being knocked down. Where today the flag must be removed from South Carolina flagpoles, erased from the bonnet of The Dukes of Hazard (1978-85), or unwittingly worn by Radar in Paper Towns (2015), here it is a symbol of the war. Yet as Johnnie embraces Annabelle, kissing her whilst leading men to battle with his lance, he will never commit fully to this identity.

Yet what of the role of women? The screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s seemed to present men and women in equity and romantic harmony; or, still to this day, women as housewife and sex object. Some female filmmakers, like Alice Guy Blaché, were able to make a living in early cinema, but this was an exception. Annabelle may be Johnnie’s love, and she may be able to drive a train, yet she is regularly excluded from the film’s narrative. She conforms to the trope of the damsel in distress, captured by the North; becoming literally faceless as Johnnie places her in a sack for storing boots, throwing her into a train’s cargo, allowing her body to be crushed and trampled; later, he pelts her with water.

Kramer questions whether she holds more agency than we suspect: Annabelle controls Johnnie’s destiny, wanting him to be an ideal man, pushing him towards being a soldier. Yet these readings should not excuse the fact that the films of the 1920s were largely far from feminist.

But can we really declare The General as one of the greatest films ever made? As the cinematic library has expanded, its ranking in Sight & Sound has declined. The position of films in the popular consciousness is, as ever, in flux. The power of the silent, or indeed of the American Civil War, is always changing.

The General is an essential of silent cinema: but it is not a masterpiece, nor is it even necessarily a comedy as we understand it today. Chaplin and Lloyd may perhaps even be a greater watch. But The General still demands to be seen, if only ever once.

My 2016 in Film

It seems almost customary at this point to slate 2016. But I feel like so many people are taking the message of newspaper headlines, memes and viral videos wholesale, without pausing to reflect on how it was for them.

Yes, 2016 seemed to have tragedy after tragedy. The deaths of not only cultural icons like David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Carrie Fisher, and film directors like Arthur Hiller, Herschell Gordon Lewis and Guy Hamilton, but also people who changed the world: Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro and Vera Rubin. Politically, the world became divided by Brexit and Trumpism, against the backdrop of the assassination of Jo Cox, the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and further ISIS attacks in Europe to shake the world, with Aleppo under siege.

But the world will always have to face new dangers. As time moves on, more icons of the 1960s and 70s will pass on. We have seen the rise of right wing populism before, just in different forms. Yet in my personal life, 2016 has been a pretty good year.

I came to terms with my asexuality. I decided to become vegetarian (and, possibly, on the verge of being vegan). I made more friends than I’ve ever had before, whilst finally settling into a degree I actually like. I helped launch a film society, and watched more films than I’ve ever done so before. I travelled more, from Dublin to Barcelona to Béziers, and my new favourite place in the UK, Brighton. For once, I’m actually feeling pretty comfortable with life.

In terms of culture, 2016 has been a brilliant year: in music, Blackstar and You Want it Darker closed out the decades long careers of David Bowie and Leonard Cohen in a beautiful way. Lemonade and Blond revolutionised not only style, but also how music is distributed. Over in comic books, Paper Girls and Kill or Be Killed told engaging new stories which I love to my very core. As much as one might proclaim the death of cinema, 2016 saw so many strong films, like The Neon DemonI, Daniel Blake and Paterson (although some like Moonlight still await a UK release), that it becomes difficult to keep up. Meanwhile, labels like Criterion and Indicator launched in the UK, bringing more and more films out as the best they’ve ever looked.

Whilst other end of year summaries seek to examine 2016 as a whole, I can’t do so in good conscience. I can strongly advise that you stop everything you’re doing right now and watch Weiner, Baden Baden and Your Name. But I’ve simply not watched enough, still waiting to see releases like Silence and Manchester by the Sea in the coming weeks and days, that my list will never tell the whole story.

Because my film consumption isn’t linear, not based on what new releases are out in the cinema or on Netflix, but shifting between decades, directors and genres. Some I write reviews of – but for some, it might take days for my thoughts to settle in my mind, or I don’t have enough of something unique to say about it to sustain a whole review. So, over the next week or so, I’ll be highlighting some of the best films I watched in 2016 that I might have overlooked before.

The 1920s

The Epic of Everest (1924), dir. J.B.L. Noel

Everest has captured our imaginations more recently with Everest (2015), about the tragic 1996 expedition, but The Epic of Everest should go down as the definitive film about the mountain. Beautifully restored by the BFI in 2013, it charts the 1924 expedition by Mallory and Irvine, who died during the expedition. Although the film conforms to the ethnographic impulses of other films of the period like Nanook of the North (1922), creating a portrait of another culture through the perspective of the other, the film’s illustration of the customs of the Tibetan people are not its main draw.

Instead, the film becomes its most haunting in its presentation of the mountain itself. As Mallory and Irvine go missing, we painfully wait until, if ever, their bodies are found. We become aware of the etherealness of life against an unchanging landscape, in a beautiful red-tinted time-lapse of the mountain. As the best of silent cinema does, the image transcends itself, becoming almost otherworldly. The Epic of Everest has been overlooked for a long time, but it is a fascinating cultural document, preserving a period in history which deserves to be seen.

The 1940s

A Matter of Life and Death (1946), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

It seems easy to dismiss WWII era cinema as pure propaganda. Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel (1941) seems almost alternative universe fantasy, as we see three Nazi officers crossing over the ocean to Newfoundland, hiding amongst the Canadian people and attempting to cross over the American border. It seems equally easy to dismiss WWII cinema as the purview of daytime TV, playing to older audiences who just about have a memory of the war. But Powell and Pressburger were masters of their day, and A Matter of Life and Death is no different.

The end of the Second World War acts as only a backdrop to wider events, as we see a pilot (played by David Niven) split between the afterlife and his miraculous survival, washing up on the English coast. Invoking spiritual and supernatural themes might seem less in vogue nowadays, outside of explicitly Christian cinema by the Kendrick brothers or PureFlix, but stories of afterlives and angels pop up everywhere from Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) to lauded classics like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). But A Matter of Life and Death is more than these things: it’s a love story.

But A Matter of Life and Death deserves technical praise too. Shot largely in three-strip Technicolor, its use of colour is beautiful (and deserves the best quality version available, with an abundance of public domain copies out there), in spite of it clearly being an early and not fully developed use of it. Depicting the afterlife in monochrome might seem like a money saving process (If…. (1968) did similar), yet it lends it an ethereal quality, outside of the more grandiose depictions of Heaven, framed within the scientific universe as another planet far away. The film’s final act might feel like a courtroom drama, but it remains intensely watchable, and in light of Brexit, the discussions around national identity feel highly relevant.

The 1960s

Easy Rider (1969), dir. Dennis Hopper

Contemporary critical responses to Easy Rider seem split between regarding it as a cultural landmark, launching the New American Cinema and turning Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda into iconic names, and by dismissing it as an overextended bore where nothing happens. Born to Be Wild has dug itself into popular culture, used in every single kid’s film trying to be edgy.

Easy Rider is an acid trip of a film where nothing much happens, but that is the beauty of it. We join these three characters on the open road, where their lives are destined to be unpredictable. Like with Jim Morrison’s HWY: An American Pastoral (1969), the American landscape takes on an almost spiritual quality as our protagonists move through it. In the film’s most mesmerising scene, we join our protagonists in their acid trip, edited in what today would probably just be a music video. Alongside its soundtrack, combining music by Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds and Steppenwolf, the film becomes an easy film to just slip through.

 

Faust (1926), dir. F.W. Murnau

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Screening at The Old Rep Theatre, with a new live score composed by Matt Eaton and Gareth Jones, as part of the Flatpack Film Festival in Birmingham

Seeing a a new score performed against a nearly century old film is an indescribably wonderful experience, animating the carnival sensation of life in the town and the elemental forces of the storm, giving the film a new life. It’s a little modern compared to other scores – but it works incredibly well. I could almost feel the music go through me – hopefully I’ll have a similar positive experience when I see John Carpenter play live later in the year.

Faust is a far cry from Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1592), repeated over and over through A-Level English Lit classes. Because Marlowe didn’t have Mephisto mixing cocktails with a woman who would very much like to fuck him. Honestly, I think I prefer Murnau’s rendition of the myth.

Rather than the younger man of Marlowe’s play, ageing for decades before Mephistopheles finally pulls him down to Hell, here Faust is an old man, tempted by Mephisto to reclaim his youth (and by extension a romance with Gretchen.) Marlowe damned Faustus with inevitable eternal damnation, yet Murnau redeems Faust.

Faust never has a sense of the truly irredeemable: Mephisto tricks him, rather than tempting him outright. All Faust wants to do is bring life back to the town he loves in the face of death. He becomes a ‘miracle maker’ in the same vein as Jesus, but is then rejected by society like Frankenstein was when they find he cannot face the cross (because Faust is definitely a vampire.) Gretchen is also ostracised by society, left to freeze to death with her baby, before a group of knights condemn her as a “baby murderer” and burn her to death. Because these are definitely Christian values. Faust seeks power through the wrong means, not entitled to godly powers as a mortal, but he is admirable. He does not want the wenches or the orgies or the crown that Mephisto tempts him with: all he wants is a normal life of good.

The visuals are the other important aspect of this film. Visually stunning, we are entranced within the heavenly battle between an angel and Mephisto; between good and evil. Humanity is reduced to mere ants, able to be wiped out through one storm through the power of Mephisto. The planets become tiny globes. Murnau animates words, coming to life in emphasis. The universal concept, love, stands out, moving towards the screen. Over the mountains, the superimposed Gretchen screams out, to be heard by Faust. Faust and Mephisto float in the air over trees and rivers over to the palaces in Italy – an image that every adaptation of A Christmas Carol (1843) must have taken influence from.

Speedy (1928), dir. Ted Wilde

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American silent cinema isn’t my forte. I’ve seen a couple of Chaplin’s films, but only the hybrid Modern Times (1936) and the sound era The Great Dictator (1940). More than the physical and visual comedy, what appeals to me about the silent era are the extraordinary colour works of Lang, Murnau and Wiene, or the ideologically driven works of Vertov and Eisenstein, which remain as artistic masterpieces to this day. Many of the silent comedies are just like the fairground amusements of Coney Island – an amusement and distraction, holding little artistic value. It’s those sequences on Criterion’s YouTube page (and on its cover) which sold me on the film – but they make up very little of its running time.

Its appeal to the 1920s generation, like a cameo from Babe Ruth, mean very little to me, and probably don’t to the people of today either, besides hardcore baseball fanatics, or academics charting the history of celebrity cameos. I assumed Babe was a glamorous actress until a intertitle introduced him, the next shot depicting him signing for orphaned kids.

I came into this film under a misapprehension – the artwork to Criterion’s release seems to sell the film as a romantic comedy. But the film already establishes Speedy and Jane as an existing unit, with the concern being her Pop – who clearly doesn’t have many years left on him – a more adult concern than a youthful romance. Through the physical comedy of the role (given the lack of sound or spoken dialogue), Lloyd’s character demands a presence that never leaves the film – he abounds personality.

Yet Jane has very little to her – she’s a beautiful woman, in a wonderful outfit, concerned about Pops and shares the odd cute moment with Speedy. This is the extent of her character, as the sole representative of the dominant female character, besides the odd angry old lady who misinterprets Speedy as a sexual predator thanks to a crab in his pocket who pinches bottoms. What I love about Chaplin’s Tramp in Modern Times is the romantic aspect – approaching romance from a more idealised, yet still endearing, perspective of the 1930s, enshrining heteronormativity and the nuclear family.

Let it be said – Speedy is a jerk. He risks lost luggage, trips people up, creates fights between people on the subway for his own personal amusement, runs away from law enforcement, steals horses. He drives so hazardously that rarely do we feel sorry for how much of an accidental fool he is. He’s presented as the hero, yet he’s also a dick.

But the film doesn’t feel as throwaway as I expected – there’s still a general sense of continuity, with a recurring dog (played by King Tut) on Coney Island; when Speedy ruins his jacket with stripes from a wet paint fence, he unwittingly keeps his jacket as is for the remainder of the trip. Later, a policeman warns him he’d give him stripes on his front as well.

As Bruce Goldstein’s documentary on the Blu-ray explores, one of the most important aspects of the film is its production of in NYC, preserving the city in 1927 for future generations. Although large chunks of it were shot in LA or on soundstages, filming in the city itself does not happen often enough. It’s still used sparingly, in Dassin’s The Naked City (1948), or Sidney Lumet’s efforts to establish a greater production base there in the 1960s or 70s, or today, where even Spider-Man films, which almost rely upon the character and the visual aesthetic of the city, too often use substitute cities as opposed to the real location. Shooting in NYC is difficult with crowds and expensive with budgets.

It’s truly a time capsule: the conceit of the film is around the last operated horse drawn carriage; its archnemesis is a gang of roughnecked bully boys (giving me flashbacks to the enemies of Action Comics (1938) and Captain America Comics (1941) in the 1930s and 40s); elderly Civil War veterans join Speedy in their defence of pop’s carriage; inter-connected local communities in Greenwich Village, including a Chinese shopkeeper, advise each other that there might be rain, based on Speedy’s hearsay; fairground rides are far too dangerous to pass muster in the 21st century; old automobiles; going to a tailors to repair broken pants; how hilarious it is that Speedy, out of work, can apply for a job as a taxi driver without a resume, having never learned how to drive, and start the job on the same day – no training required. Today, he may even need a degree to get it. In Goldstein’s documentary, he contrasts the New York of 1927 and 2015. Safe to say, they look like two entirely different cities.

The villain of the film is a tycoon, who wants to create a conglomerate railway, and is stopped by ridiculous clauses (once every 24 hours, really, because I mean who cares about Sundays or sick days). The most heroic thing Speedy does in the film is force Pops out of the business deal, altering the $10,000 business deal to a ridiculous $70k figure. (Until of course he agrees upon a larger deal at the film’s conclusion.) Pops represents the generation of the Civil War (his horse-driven carriage is of historical and social interest, and demands preservation), the film’s premise is the survival of history in the face of modernity. It’s hilarious when we think that today, Pops would be the old, established business, trusted by the local community, bought out by Rupert Murdoch who wants to radically alter how it operates.

Although I won’t commend the cinematography of the entire film, there’s still a pretty great visual aesthetic – the most important aspect of a film entirely reliant (besides the score, which occasionally interjects with sound effects) on the visual.

Seeing Luna Park shot by night is enchanting. The footage of Speedy driving through the city in a madcap way feels exciting – and is entirely authentic. The huge crowds of people, caught in a violent city gang war between baseball players and local people, burning hot irons and baseball bats involved, is a sight to behold. There’s a spectacle to this film, although perhaps not as thrilling or iconic as Lloyd’s clocktower stunt in Safety Last! (1923) – but it never elevates far above that. There’s little romantic charm or endearment to make the film as fun as it could be.