A Note on Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton: Silent Film, Comic Gestures, and Fate

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In Jean-Claude Carriere’s book, The Secret Language of Film he points out how films were “born silent” and continue to “love silence.” But he makes a major distinction. He argues that, in its beginnings, silent film “wildly gesticulated.” But “over the past sixty years” since its inception, we have something different; namely, the “present inscrutability of faces.” Carriere argues that, today, the face and the gesture are much more sophisticated and meaningful than they ever were:

Nowadays, simply from the demeanor or expression of particular actors, we pick up a clear message, depending on our mood of the moment, on the day, on the theater we happen to be in, or in the spectators around us…But we also glean nothing specific, noting identifiable, nothing definable. A new bend in the road can be suddenly revealed by a glance or a shrug, a bend of which we can say nothing, for it is something we have no words for, and yet we sense that it contains something meaningful. (31)

This reading of gesture in film suggests that the gesture, by way of film, is enigmatic and mysterious. A single gesture can change everything in a film and, at the same time, one may have “no words for” it. The problem with this kind of reading is that it leans toward a reading of gesture that has no interest in the comedic. To be sure, all of the examples that Carriere brings to illustrate this – drawn from Bergman, Bunuel, and Kurosowa (amongst others) – are not comedic. The silence that surrounds the gestures of these characters is profound.

In contrast to this kind of reading, I would like to suggest that comedic gesture, the kind we find in silent films by Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton is not simply “wildly gesticulated.” To be sure, in my last blog entry on Siegfried Kracauer’s reading of American comic films in Germany, I pointed out how Kracauer believed that comic gesture, which we find in films by Lloyd and Keaton, presented a major challenge to the German habits of viewing and their ideology. As I noted, the gestures in these films emulated freedom and chance:

Whether or not they indulged in slapstick, they invariably exposed their hero to all kinds of pitfalls and dangers, so that he depended upon one lucky accident after another to escape.   When he crossed the railroad, a train would approach, threatening to crush him, and only in the last very moment would his life be spared as the train switched over to a track hitherto invisible. The hero – a sweet, rather helpless individual who would never harm anyone – pulled through in a world governed by chance.

In contrast, in Germany the reigning ideology was more interested in fate (even its humor was oriented toward fate):

That such comedy founded on chance and a naïve desire for happiness should prove inaccessible to the Germans arises form their traditional ideology, which tends to discredit the notion of luck in favor of that of fate.

This suggests that Lloyd and Keaton, in contrast to “the Germans,” are not “wildly gesticulating” in their films.

As one can see in these clips, the unexpected happens. Fate can be reversed in the turn of a hat. This brings us closer to the belief that, in the midst of chance happenings, the little man may get lucky and things can change for the better if he maintains his faith in the triumph of the goodness and happiness.

The silence that surrounds Lloyd’s gestures is not enigmatic in the same way it is in Bergman or Kuriosawa because the gestures we see in their films focus more on fate than on comedy. The enigmas we see deal more with death, failure, and misperception rather than with the possibility of hope. Perhaps these kinds of films – and the gestures they evoke, in all their complexity – speak more to Carriere because, ultimately, he is more interested in the meaning of gesture than its ethical impact on the viewer who relates his or her body to a situation that may lead to success or failure, happiness or sorrow. It is in these simple gestures that Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer saw revolutionary potential since they opened up a sphere of freedom rather than of fate and myth.   The fixation on gesture-as-mystery, however, risks falling in to this trap.

In his essay “Fate and Character,” Walter Benjamin associates character with freedom and fate with myth: “where there is character there will, with certainty, not be fate, and in the area of character there will, with certainty, not be fate.” Moreover, character is “placed in the ethical, fate in a religious context.” Benjamin sees character in relation to comedy and argues that “there is no relation of fate to innocence.” Rather, we find that in comedy. Innocence, writes Benjamin, relates to “good fortune” and “happiness.” And what makes the deeds of the “comic character” interesting is that they are simple. In comedy, “complication becomes simplicity, fate freedom.” This all comes through character which is all about…gesture.

Fortunately, the gestures of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, or Charlie Chaplin teach us that comedic movements can take us into a different relationship with the world, our tenuous place in it, and the possibility of happiness.   And they do this by being framed in silence.

In this 1921 film, “The Goat,” Keaton can’t apply for a job because he’s waiting behind manikins; but when he figures this out it’s too late. He can’t apply. He finds a horseshow, a sign of good luck; but before he gets to it, somebody else finds it and gets the good luck. He desperately looks for it, finds it, but when he throws it backwards, it is hits a cop. Now he’s on the run.

This goes on and on. But so does his search for good luck and a lucky break. He is what Hannah Arendt, in her reading of Charlie Chaplin in the “Jew as Pariah,” called “the suspect.”   In the midst of all this, he saves a woman from an altercation with a man who accidentally trips on a dog leash. However, as we see later in the film, he imagines that he is wanted for killing the man (he left him in the street because he was being chased by the police).   He runs into a man who falls into paint and comes out of a room near him; he mistakes him for a ghost. But then he sees that a photo was accidentally taken of him which, ultimately, was supposed to be of a real criminal.

He is a (scape)goat; he is innocent. But this is not tragic or fatal as it is in many a passion play. Keaton is not like Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. His innocence is not laughed at and slowly destroyed as it is in that novel. It is not, as Benjamin said of fate or as Carrierre would say of film, complicated. Rather, each of Keaton’s comic gestures evince a simple, free, and vital relationship with accidents. Informing each of his comic and erratic gestures is a search for a situation that will, finally, be good. But, contrary to Carriere, they are not “wild gesticulations.” Each gesticulation is intimately related to the possibility of good luck and a better world. There is nothing enigmatic or mysterious about these gestures…framed in silence. In these films, we see how a simple gesture…in the right situation…can change everything. There’s nothing complex or enigmatic about that.

Simplicity of character is something Yiddish writers of the schlemiel, which emerged out of Eastern Europe, knew very well. If read against what we see in these early silent films, we can better understand how the schlemiels we find in the novels or short stories of Yiddish writers like Sholom Aleichem or I.B. Singer find a safe haven in America. Since they live in a world of chance, narrowly avert disaster, and, still remain innocent and happy, Motl and Gimpel have a lot in common with Keaton, Lloyd, and Chaplin. Walter Benjamin was right on this account: where there is freedom (America) there can be no fate. And where there is freedom, there must be comedy. And contrary to Carriere, the gestures of these characters are not “wild” and lacking enigmatic depth; they are the best challenge we have to fate and mythology.

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And what “The Goat” film teaches us is that the image of Buster Keaton behind bars, the image of his fate, is the false one. Fate is narrowly averted by the simple genius of comedy and comic gesture.

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