Lost in the Movies: The Navigator

The Navigator

It must be difficult for Buster Keaton to play "ineffective" - given how precisely he stages and executes his comedy - but he pulls it off in the first part of The Navigator. As a spoiled dilettante (every family tree has its sap, as an opening title card tells us), Buster is as deadpan as ever but twice as feckless. After proposing to his sweetheart on a whim, he's turned down and, dejected, he exits her house to find his car waiting for him. Morose, he informs the chauffeur that he would rather walk home. Cut to a wide shot of the car outside the house doing a U-turn while Buster walks...about ten feet to his own house, which is across the street. Apparently this is quite an exertion for the young man.

Of course, before long he'll be challenged somewhat more extensively. Through circumstances too convoluted and baroque to reveal here, he and his sweetheart are trapped - unbeknownst to each other - on a ship which was set adrift at sea. Initially, they can't even cook a meal for themselves (watching Buster struggle with a can opener, eventually resorting to an axe, is hilarious) but after several weeks adrift, they've got the hang of things. Not only have they set up Rube Goldberg contraptions to take care of their dietary needs, but they don deep-sea diving suits to battle swordfish and octopi, and vigorously fight off the most relentless tribe of cannibals I've ever seen. (Are two rather scrawny individuals really worth that much trouble? The cannibals probably burned off all the calories they would have gained by eating the two - and given their numbers they'd be getting pretty meager portions!)

One thing that sets Keaton's work apart from that of his peers is the creative use of space. His set pieces are not just pratfalls or visual gags; they often rely on the staging, framing, and use of the whole screen to make their point. Before the boy and girl realize the other one is on the ship, they are combing the decks, walking up and down stairs, across the different levels, back and forth. Their movement is perfectly choreographed so that they are always on the verge of being within eyesight of one another, yet they're always slightly offset: for example, Buster will be on the top level going down the stairs while his girl is on the middle level going up. One will cross left to right on the top, the other right to left below, and then up/down the stairs again, just missing each other.

And when the hordes of cannibals attack, the screen is filled with extras and a large-scale ship (which really seems to be adrift at sea) which set an epic tone, within which excitement competes with laughter. As I noted in my review of Our Hospitality, to the extent he controlled his films' visual tones (despite the various co-directors), Buster Keaton had an imaginative eye and evocative sense for detail and scale which could have put him on par with Griffith and Ford, had he chosen to make adventure films or historical epics. In a sense he did make these, but always in a comedic context. The ability to do two things at once in terms of the big picture has its correlative in the rapid-fire gags which employ a visual sleight of hand: one thing happened on one side of the screen, impacting what almost immediately occurs on the other. With a juggler's eye Keaton keeps our eye roving around the frame to catch whatever he's about to accomplish.

Finally, at the end of The Navigator, with just about every recourse against the cannibals having been used up, a deus ex machina arrives not from the sky, but from down below: a submarine rises from the depths, none too soon. On board, after all his heroism, derring-do, and learnt responsibility, Buster immediately goofs. Surprised by a kiss from his beloved, he stumbles onto the steering lever and the submarine somersaults beneath the waves, sending everyone reeling. Buster looks up sheepishly at the seamen and it's clear that, back in civilization, he's hapless once again. Of course, we know the truth. Buster the actor and Keaton the filmmaker are as controlled as a pro can be, and the ineffective character can't fool us. You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still...um, never mind.

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