Tuesday, November 18, 2008

All Good Things Are Good Again

There's a new DVD edition of Buster Keaton's amazing The General. Slate's Gary Giddins likey:

Kino initially released a DVD of The General in 1999, which looks like every other version I've seen in theaters or at home—the focus is soft, and the tinted film stock is faded, scratched, and jumpy. The new edition, part of a two-disc set (most of the extras concern the historical basis for the story), is pristine, sharply focused, stable, and gorgeous.

Gorgeous is important, because The General is a peephole into history and by any definition an uncannily beautiful film. Indeed, for a first-time viewer, I would emphasize the beauty over the comedy. Many people are disappointed when they first see The General because they have heard that it is one of the funniest movies ever made. It isn't. Keaton made many films that are tours de force of hilarity, including Sherlock Jr., The Navigator, and Seven Chances (all available from Kino). The General is something else, a historical parody set during the Civil War.
I've always thought of it as a kind of anti-romantic answer to The Birth of a Nation myself. I really like Giddins's second take:
Keaton's best films function as a loving record of American town life, with its shops and picket fences and leisure pursuits, set against a splendor of mountains, gulches, rivers, and fields. Using Cottage Grove, Ore., as his main location, Keaton preserved two eras: the Civil War, re-created with daunting attention to detail, and 1926, as passers-by in Cottage Grove would have seen it—the costumes were of the 19th century, but the buildings and natural surroundings were little changed. Other Civil War films, not least The Great Locomotive Race, Walt Disney's dramatic 1956 telling of the same story (from the perspective of the Union raiders), invariably look like Hollywood pageants. Keaton's authenticity and comedic understatement make The General a surprisingly modern experience. The storytelling and the gags are free of sentimentality and knockabout clich├ęs. The four-minute battle scene is simply one of the most gripping, and occasionally hilarious, ever filmed.
The Slate article has some pretty good clips, too.

No comments: