After recently watching some Keaton (The Cameraman--a long time coming) on DVD, I was prepared to do some research and investigate Keaton as the reluctant poet of modernity, but realized while watching the Harold Lloyd vehicle Number, Pleace (directed by Hal Roach/Fred C. Newymeyer) that really that's an unfair title to hoist onto Buster, because (a) it's too vague and doesn't do his genius justice, and (b) Keaton's brilliant reaction to modernity is still just one reaction to it.
Number, Please follows the travails of Lloyd as he tries to woo a sweetheart at a theme park (Coney Island?), where he's ill-fitted to a world of Merry-Go-Rounds and telephones and has a string of exasperating encounters with the manifestations of a busy, technologically unfamiliar, world. That's right, it's basically a Keaton scenario, and was no doubt formally invented before either Lloyd or Keaton became stars!
What distinguishes Keaton is necessarily more specific, more localized ... it has to do with his face and body and their singular sharpness, the direct pose of Keaton's stare (large eyes directed fearfully and sometimes defiantly at those competitors in the frame). It has to do, also, with the faculty of imagination. Film comedy, no less so silent film comedy, is of course very conversant with fantasies of its inept heroes; in The Cameraman Keaton captures the philosophical resonance of this sort of fantasy when his character mimes a game of baseball in an empty Yankee stadium. I want to one day be able to pinpoint why that is profoundly moving (in its distinctive way) in addition to being funny, whereas my imagining of Chaplin or Lloyd doing it would come out to be something very different indeed.
The fantasies of childhood pop culture take on their own moving resonance when one revisits them later in life. I recently subjected/treated myself to revisitations of two big films for me from the Eighties: The Dark Crystal (Jim Henson and Frank Oz, 1982) and The NeverEnding Story (Wolfgang Petersen, 1984). In both cases the act of watching the films proved simultaneously disappointing and exhilirating. Disappointing because I thought that, overall, neither of them worked well 'as films,' though I surely wanted them to do so. (Some images in The Dark Crystal were fascinating, and I loved the pacing. I still think there's something bizarre and transfixing about the cataclysmic climax of The NeverEnding Story.) Exhilirating because I wasn't necessarily expecting them to work, and one can simply go into these works as if reacquainting oneself with a comfortable environment. I am no more able to understand the distinct appeal of certain 'blocks' of information in these (and other) films that appealed to me when I was a kid: the moment in which Bastian (Barrett Oliver) takes a single bite of sandwich in Story and then puts it away; the throwaway line where the girl in Dark Crystal tells the hero that he doesn't have wings ("Of course not ... you're a boy") that always seemed to vivid and pronounced when I watched it in grade school.
The power of the clear uniqueness of a film-moment found its way crashing home in my (looooong-awaited) first Garrel film, Les Baisers de secours (1989). It contains, among many beautiful things, a moment of quick, apparently aleatory magic (deeply akin to Kiarostami) in which a mother and son walk by the street, the mother pointing out pigeons to the little boy. "It won't fly," he says, and after a beat, a pigeon directly behind him shoots up into flight. This could have been achieved in post-production, using non-synch sound, but the unexpected impact of the moment is the same.
I chose to pass up the one playing at BAM tonight, for a number of reasons, but I hope to see the rest of the films in the series.