Today I watched The General starring the fabulous Buster Keaton. #18 on the 2007 list. (It didn’t make the 1998 list, which is a crime!)
I’d never heard of this one myself before I sat down to watch it. I picked it mostly because it was short and streaming instantly on Netflix. 😀
But now I’ve seen it, I’m really glad I did pick it.
The General is a silent film, something I’ve not watched too many of. I can probably count on one hand the number of silent films I’ve seen, in fact. (And now I think of it, at least one of those was The Jazz Singer which, despite being the first “talkie” still has the aesthetics AND the dialogue cards of a silent film. “Wait, so you mean when we have characters actually talking we don’t need to flash the dialogue on the screen afterwards…nah, wait a minute, that can’t be right!”)
Here is ye ol’ plot summary for The General, quoted from imdb: “When Union spies steal an engineer’s beloved locomotive, he pursues it single-handedly and straight through enemy lines.” Also, you know, his girlfriend’s on the train when they steal it. But that’s not an important plot point at all. Nope.
All in all, The General is a charming and very well-constructed movie . The plot does start with not one but TWO Big Misunderstanding which is not my favorite trope. (If your plot can be resolved by having two people talk to each other then it is not a real conflict, and you’re going to have people in the audience grinding their teeth. Namely me.) In this case, if the recruiting officer had told Johnnie why he wouldn’t enlist him, and if Johnnie had explained to his lady love’s family why he wouldn’t get in the recruiting line with them then we would have had no movie. And there are no good reasons why either character doesn’t take two seconds to do this, to talk. I cut the film a little slack because hey, this was 1926 and the dawn of the movies. But still–lazy storytelling. Step it up, Buster. Come on.
The pacing also got to me a bit. I did pause this movie to do other things. The first half didn’t hold my attention as well as say, The Avengers does. What can I say, I am of the quick-cut, MTV, multi-tasker generation.
But the ending, man, that was incredible it just streams by like, well, like a locomotive! ;P The chase scenes in this are as good as any modern action scenes I’ve seen. For real.
The humor in this is also wonderful. So many little moments that are fantastic. Like when he’s sitting on the locomotive wheel arm…thingy (that’s totally a legit technical term.) and the train starts to go. Or when he tricks the two little boys into leaving his girlfriend’s house by grabbing his hat then shutting the door on them. I think every physical comedian ever in movies has stolen from Buster Keaton.
And I can see why, the man is just fascinating to watch. He has this incredible face–all eyes and nose with this raw-boned vulnerability. (I have a pet theory that TV stars are attractive but MOVIE stars are interesting looking. A TV star tends to be almost obscenely good-looking, a movie star usually has something unusual or interesting about their face. F’r instance: compare Chris Pine with his HUGE eyes and BIG lips to Jensen Ackles with his perfectly proportioned face. Think about it…)
I was also impressed with how little dialogue you need to get the story across. In this film, we get so much from facial expressions, interactions, reactions. I could probably watch this without the dialogue cards and I doubt I’d miss much. I think that’s something I need to work on in my own script. Movies are a visual medium so I need to really hone the images. (I know, I know: Duh, Beth.) Keaton’s face is just marvelously expressive, I’d go so far as to say he’s as good as any actor today at facial expressions.
(Funny side note about the dialogue cards, at one point I skimmed my eyes across one, doing a lazy read and I thought I saw “the army now fucking you.” Blinking in shock, I reread it: “the army now facing you.” Ah, the unknown perils of silent movies!)
Another thing this movie does really well is set-ups and payoffs. People always talk about Back to the Future and how everything set up in that film “pays out”. That’s “writer speak” for (the classic example) if you show a gun on the mantelpiece in Act 1 then someone needs to fire it in Act 3; if your whole movie is about trains chasing each other back and forth across the country you better by God have a train wreck. (And The General has a fabulous one, let me tell you.)
This movie is just like BTTF, everything and I mean EVERYTHING pays off. It usually pays off two or three times, in fact. Which is something screenwriter Bill Martell talks about in his books: ideally, you want a payoff in the now and payoff later. In this film, there’s a bit with a water tower where the bad guys drive away and leave a water tower streaming. Buster drives his train underneath it after them and gets soaked. That’s the now payoff. Later, in the end, we have a reversal and Buster is the one who drives away and the bad guys are the ones who get soaked. Two payoffs for the price of one. And this film is full of that.
I’m really surprised how much I enjoyed this (that seems to be my running theme so far in this project. Note to self: be more open minded about movies). But I’m also shocked (though I probably shouldn’t be) how many lessons I can take away for modern cinema from this movie which is almost 90 years old.
What did I learn from this movie? What didn’t I learn? The visual stuff. The payoffs. The action scenes. I think any screenwriter would do well to study this film to look for tips.
Can I see why this movie has become a classic? Absolutely. Many films have since stolen from this movie because it did so much right. It’s got the perfect mix of a great lead, a clever story, great visuals, humor. It deserves it’s place on the Top 100.
Favorite part(s)? It’s all really, really funny so it’s hard to say. The water tower scene was the one time I laughed out loud. I enjoyed that the female lead took some initiative and laid a trap for the bad guys all on her own. The whole train chase at the end between Buster and the Union soldiers was sublime. I did love the final image with him passionately kissing the girl while he salutes every damn soldier in camp. Great way to end the film.
Overall Rating: **** (I really liked it)
For tomorrow: I haven’t decided yet. I do need to get some of my own writing done. I might skip a day if I can’t get everything done in time.