The first memory I have of Buster Keaton is watching his short film “COPS” at my grandparent’s house. At the time, if I recollect correctly, I was around four and I was enraptured by the images I had witnessed. This not only steered my love for film, but also would garner my passion for the arts.
At first glance, we see the opening image of a barred Keaton, pleading to a lover, a painting of itself, reminiscent of the “Sad Clown” painting. We find that he is merely behind a gate, but this subtle imagery has its comedic sense. This was the image that would stay with me for times on end. There were moments in my teenage years where I had trouble recalling past memories. For the longest time I could think back to this image, but could not remember from where I saw it. Finally, due to curiosity and search skills, I found the silent film online archive with a streamed video of “COPS.” I was in awe, wonder, amazement, and also, sadness in the recollection of my memories that came from watching the film again. Watching the scenes of Keaton being chased by an endless stream of cops brought images of crashing waves of water on me, as if the image itself was explaining the tumultuous hold I felt society had on me. It was as if Keaton was expressing himself as the lone observer, the archetypical “Me” role that we relate to through vicarious works such as film. The cops, merely the societal pressures that surround us from an early age. We can take a look at the film as a thin layer of comedic value of dealing with the law in pure “victim of circumstances” situations, but for some reason it spoke to me on a deeper level than that.
In essence, “COPS” is a film to emulate the inner workings of someone’s subconscious as it deals the weight of the conscious reality. The reality being the social structure that we, humans, culminate. Now, I know what some might be saying right now, a deep philosophical rendering of just “COPS?” Yes. There are philosophical elements to every artist, regardless of the medium. I express this arguing concept because the images that are presented in “COPS” are symbolic to one’s own subconscious, the human element, that one special…condition that we seem to have trouble articulating.
The role of apathy is adjacent with this role of pressure. Keaton distributes this apathy well, and it is a symbol of the adverse effect of a pressured society. When a human is faced with circumstances beyond their control or understanding, a sense of apathy distributes throughout. This has to happen, as it is a way of dealing with the stress that comes with. The “stone face” Keaton was remembered for, is a culmination of this said apathy, and I wholly argue it is a deeply presented image to illuminate the faults in our reality.
Keaton was not a simple actor. The man was a pure film genius, able to manipulate the many angles and tricks of the camera, even though the camera tricks weren’t revolutionary, the act of Keaton taking the human role to the extent of highest realism was refreshing and new and ultimately, groundbreaking. Similar acts were being presented (Harold Lloyd) but for some reason, Keaton’s “stone face” was something that I related to and found myself loving any moment that face encountered in everyday natural life.
To close this little endeavor, I must conclude by discussing the impact of silent film. For me, “COPS” was my introduction to the glorious celluloid life of silent film. For me, this is the heyday of films. These sets were astonishing, the stunts were all realistic, and they never had to rely on computers to fill in images they could not create themselves. This left a great level of imagination and ingenuity to be played with and Keaton is a prime example of this fact. It is because of silent films and the way that they are made that I love film to this day. I am still waiting for a new wave film to take me back to the same feelings the silent era gives me. Needless to say, this may not come true. We live in a time where arts are ever changing and due to the tumultuous love affair the arts have with technology, I am hoping that down the line someone creates something along the same works as “COPS.”
Finally, I must bid a solemn sad salute to Mr. Keaton. Because of his works, I would go on to find more silent gems from more genius’ of the age. However, it all started with “stone face.” It’s kind of funny how life works. We travel through each year, chipping away at our identity in hopes of discovering it before our candle burns out. When you are gripped with that fear of not knowing, you begin to pay attention to every little detail around you. Looking back on it, I start to think, “what an impact small things have on your moldings.” For me, silent film was an aspect that molded me to who I am today. Then I start to really think about things, like if this is such an impact on me, what impacted Keaton to make these films, to act this way, to become who he became? These are now part of those unanswerable questions that will forever drive my passions. I consider it a final gift from any artist. To salute a man who had an impact greater than words can express, I feel that this article is somewhat unjustified in describing the feelings that I have or others may have when viewing the works of Buster Keaton; I only know now, that they will be watched by my children and grandchildren to come, in part, due to my sense of wanting my lineage to be like me, but also to remember one of the greatest artists whom has ever graced the human race.
“I always want the audience to out-guess me, and then I double-cross them…” -Buster Keaton