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The General (Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman) 1926 

    Buster Keatonís brand of comedy seems as if it will remain one of the truly timeless things that this medium called movies has managed to produce. Thereís no doubt that heís incomparably funny when heís ďonĒ, and heís rarely more ďonĒ than he is in The General. Set during the American Civil War and loosely based on an actual incident, the film follows Keaton, who plays a Confederate railroad engineer that has a chip on his shoulder since he wasnít allowed to fight as a solider (apparently he's of more value to the South as an engineer than an infantryman). Through its many elaborately constructed comedic bits, the structure of the movie becomes that of a chase flick. Despite that action movie setup, thereís little thatís disappointingly standard about it. Itís not exactly a transcendent experience, since weíre usually aware that itís setting us up for a laugh, but itís so easygoing about its genius that itís impossible to dislike. The stunts here are startlingly orchestrated and perfectly timed, and the filmís considerable budget (the movie actually lost money in its initial release!) is evident onscreen. As the movie lays on a succession of gags that all make us giggle, it becomes apparent to the viewer that theyíre rarely laughing loudly. Things are generally more amusing than flat-out funny, but itís consistently that way, so it never feels as if the gags are misfiring. 

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        Through much of the film, we view Keatonís character in an extreme long shot, giving the impression that the chaotic environment around him dwarfs him. Though there are practical applications of such a style (thereís a lot of visual information to show onscreen, and the long shot is the best way to do it), itís almost as if Keaton was composing for a widescreen format before it existed. The spatial relations here are incredibly complex, and because they cast the protagonist as such a tiny element in the world around him, his triumphs are that much more impressive. He seems somewhat annoyed by the girl he loves, but the man seems to become one with his train as he drives it, starting and stopping its bulk at will, almost giving the impression that he appreciates the bigger space it gives him in the world. Indeed, as he pursues some Union bandits, they fear his train and flee, but turn to attack him once they realize heís its only passenger. This obsession with size and control continues throughout the picture, and the perfectly staged physical comedy seems an extension of it. Though these themes hardly dominate things, they add a bit of context to what is otherwise marvelously frivolous. As a universal bit of entertainment, few films can outdo The General. Its peerless mixture of exciting action and kinetic comedy are one of moviedomís supreme pleasures. 

* * * * Masterpiece

02/03/02 

Jeremy Heilman