Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Our Hospitality

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Our Hospitality

Ever deadpan, Buster Keaton shakes the hand of the imposing figure who, moments earlier, was ready to kill him. Most Keaton films focus on the plucky, athletic little man's battles with his environment and in a sense, Our Hospitality is no different: Keaton's increasingly dangerous and often death-defying stunts include straddling train cars, riding rapids without a boat, falling from a cliff face into the water far below (while tied by rope to another man), and hanging from a log which is halfway over a giant waterfall. Yet at its heart, this 1923 classic pits Keaton not against the elements, but against society, or at least a bizarre offshoot which heightens society's propensity for both violence and manners to an absurd degree. Keaton plays a Southern boy come home, the last of his clan marked for death in a family feud of which he had no prior knowledge. To make matters worse, he's fallen in love with the daughter of his enemy brood. Only the hospitality of her kin, who refuse to shoot a guest in their own home, keeps him alive...as long as he doesn't walk out their front door.


Our Hospitality places Keaton in early 19th century America, replete with details that feel authentic even if slightly exaggerated (then again maybe they're not; he was known to fret endlessly over the smallest historical accuracies of his restaging). An early title card informs us that we are about to view 42nd Street & Broadway, circa 1830: cut to an empty field with a couple dirt paths and a shack at the crossroads. Ever had a dream where you know you're in a certain place, only to wake up realizing that place looked completely different in sleep than it does in real life? That's the effect Keaton's locations achieve in their weird semi-recognition. He also milks a lot of humor from the scenario. At one point he is stopped by a policeman to let two horse carts drive by on the dirt road, into the barren distance. They pass, Keaton walks off, and the policeman turns to a friend and remarks how dangerous this crossroads is becoming.

Soon Keaton is heading back to his childhood home to reclaim the house his father left behind (remembering only his life in New York, he pictures a Southern plantation - upon seeing the dilapidated cabin which is his true birthright we return to that vision in his head to see the imaginary estate dynamited). His transport is an extremely primitive train and there is both a childlike charm and rich invention in the ensuing adventures: the carts are easily separated (soon the engine is running behind the caboose), passage through a very narrow tunnel leaves soot on all the passengers sitting in the open-air carriages, and when a donkey blocks their path, the conductor gets out and moves the track instead of the animal.

It's during this journey that Keaton meets and falls for a pretty passenger and there's touching affection as she rests her head on his shoulder and he struggles to maintain his calm - without ever losing his stone-faced expression. It is only after he's arrived for dinner that he discovers his hosts want to kill him and he contrives reasons to stay within their walls. A step or two outside leads to gunfire, just as quickly replaced by polite bows once the brother and father follow Keaton indoors again. When it seems he's been jilted, Keaton flees in his new girlfriend's wardrobe and is chased through the woods and mountains of the Blue Ridge.

The movie is not as tightly wound as The General or as endlessly inventive as Keaton's work in Sherlock, Jr. and Steamboat Bill, Jr. It spends a lot of time on exposition - but a sometimes overlooked quality of Keaton's work is its evocative, beautiful texture and even early scenes that set up the rest of the story have a potent beauty. In Our Hospitality he has recreated - or reinvented - antebellum Americana and you can practically smell the pines and hear the rattling of carriage wheels on the dusty paths. One of the most memorable sequences is the opening shootout; it's staged at night, outside a log cabin with snow flurries whirling in the windows and the shots are fired in darkness between bursts of lightning. Though Keaton justifiably mined his comic gifts in his silent-era masterpieces, he could easily have fashioned romantic epics of American history, because he has the pictorial, spatial sense of a John Ford or D.W. Griffith (his great films have various co-directors, but their kinetic sense of action within realistic locations remains consistent).

Instead he fused this rare gift for historical recreation with an even rarer comedic genius, battling the natural world and constantly struggling to survive inside the beautiful vistas. I love Ford and Griffith, but what Keaton offers is valuable in its own distinct way. He gives Americans our own history and then hurls himself into the images, the heightened everyman inserted into yesterday's tableaux. There is always the potential for a removed distance when viewing historical pageant, a mythmaking which obscures the rough-and-tumble rites of nationhood; Keaton's hijinks never let us forget those qualities and he redeems our history from the obscurity of passing time and overwrought nostalgia. Keaton's onscreen worlds are at once yesterday and today, and his cinema is eternal.


3 comments:

T.S. said...

Stellar review of a Keaton classic... the percentage of his output that can be described as great is remarkable when you compare him as an actor/director to other actor/directors. I remember showing my wife, then my girlfriend, the scene toward the end with Keaton hanging from the rope and swinging back and forth across the waterfall. Her reaction was, "So what? It's a movie stunt." :(

MovieMan0283 said...

Have you read any Keaton biographies? I'd love to know how far his direction of the films extended, since he usually had a co-director and (if I'm not mistaken) sometimes was not credited as director at all.

T.S. said...

I haven't read any Keaton biographies, unfortunately, but I'm putting Silent Clowns by Walter Kerr on my holiday wish-list. In writing about Chaplin and preparing posts for Keaton, I keep seeing references to that book and hear it is essential for any film junkie.