Monday, August 25, 2008

The Great Movies: "The General"

The General
Buster Keaton, 1926.

The General must have been a hella exciting movie in 1926. With sound, it would still be pretty exciting today. It consists of two incredibly elaborate train chases, bookended and divided by some very modest plot material. Since there's not much of a story line, the biggest problem of silent film -- that dialog is incredibly cumbersome -- is simply avoided. And even without a soundtrack, the photography of the train chases is pretty amazing. The many stunts, some of them rather jaw-dropping in their daring, were clearly performed in an era of more relaxed standards of liability. It is far from obvious how many of the shots of the moving trains were even filmed, given the technology of the day. There are a gazillion extras, costumed and choreographed to a tee. It is a astonishing feat of filmmaking.

But is it entertaining? Well, somewhat. As much as it could be, perhaps.

A silent movie just lacks the immersive quality of the talkies. The action is visually dazzling, but without the screeches, roaring, shots, and shouts, it's not really very engaging. There is comic relief in The General, but since dialog is not really an option, it's almost all in the form of broad visual gags (there is, however, a fine instance of irony in the late going, but it's the best moment in the movie and I don't want to give it away). It is certainly the most entertaining silent movie I've ever seen (beating out Battleship Potemkin by quite a ways, and Broken Blossoms by a country mile), but that's not really saying much. Once you've had synchronized sound with your motion pictures, it's really, really hard to go back.

Another possible problem with the entertainment value, depending on how much you worry about such things, is that the movie wants you to root for the Confederate States of America against the corrupt and devious soldiers of the United States. Now, I understand that many ordinary folks in the South fought in the army of the CSA with noble intentions and commendable bravery. And, I understand that national reconciliation was a bit more of a live issue when The General was filmed than it is today. Yet, if you wanted to identify a single country that has ever embodied the worst of the human species, the CSA -- the explicit purpose of which was to protect and perpetuate the human rights atrocities of its ruling class -- would have to be on your short list. So even watching The General as a historical artifact, I personally find its sentimental take on the gentility of the Confederate Army a little hard to stomach.

Plot: For reasons having to do with the Civil War and luv, a man chases one train with another train for a long long ways. Then, for similar reasons, he drives a different train back to where he started, while being chased by other trains. Out of an hour and a half of screen time, a full hour is train chases. The best part of the movie? The train chases.

Visuals: Rather amazing, really. People are running around all over the trains while they are in motion, shooting at each other, throwing stuff onto the tracks, blowing things up, fighting with other people on the train, etc., and you always have a coherent idea of what's going on. Filming so many stunts, many of them quite daring, on and from a moving train, must have been a pretty amazing experience. I'm glad I wasn't the film's underwriter.

Dialog: It's a silent movie.

Prognosis: If you watch just one silent movie this year, this is the one to watch! But... why would you?


Anonymous said...

Filmed in your beloved Oregon you know.

Anonymous said...

"..identify a single country that has ever embodied the worst of the human species.."

Far be it from me to defend the Confederacy or its principles but your short list must be a very long list.

Without thinking too much:

1. Every other slaveholding country in history.
2. Stalin's USSR.
3. Hitler's Germany
4. Pol Pot's Cambodia
5. Leopold's Congo
6. Pick your contemporary African slaughter.
7. Arguably, George Bush's present day United States.

I dunno. Maybe I think too much.

Michael5000 said...

@Bill: I DIDN'T know. I'll be damned.

1. I think there's room for a moral distinction between countries that experienced, or allowed, or even traded in the practice of slavery, and which essentially existed for the purpose of slavery.

2, 3, 4, 5. Would certainly make my short list. Those are some of the heavy hitters in the genre.

6. Not really fair. African countries are a case of random boundaries and alien institutions being dumped on a population during a process of unbridled economic exploitation. Let's give 'em another 50 years before they enter the critique pool.

7. Jeez. Well, arguing such shows a commendable wish for improvement in the national standard of behavior. Hard for me to see how anybody who had read a lick of history would really sustain such an argument, though. We may or may not be a good country, but our evils are pretty bush league in the scheme of things. Pun, believe it or not, not intended.

Anonymous said...

1. I don't see how there is.

6. This sounds paternalistic to me and since your statement quoted makes no such distinction, irrelevent.

7. My suggestion is not that the modern U.S. belongs on a list with Hitler and Stalin. I just think that equating the CSA with the most heinous countries in history shows the lack of history licking.
Any high school debate team member could make an argument that the evils of the U.S. or many other modern countries are as bad or worse.

In any event I don't like silent films either. In fact, I wish you would have used the same method for films as you used for your Great Books project.

Michael5000 said...

@Bill: I guess when I made my original comment, I was thinking about the raisons d'etre of countries. From that point of view, it really is unfair to critique African countries, simply because their inhabitants never chose for them to become countries; countryhood was imposed on them from without. And, from that point of view, the CSA had one of the worst reasons for being of any country, ever.

But, if you don't buy the moral distinction between a country that allowed slavery and a country that existed in order to allow slavery, then we probably won't see eye to eye on the above. Which is fine.

I don't know about any high school debate team member making an argument that the evils of the modern U.S. are as bad as American plantation slavery and the cynical sacrifice of the Southern working and middle class in an attempt to preserve it. It would take a pretty talented high school debater to get me to buy that.

With the Reading List, I actively wanted to construct a list. The Great Movies list, on the other hand, pretty much fell into my lap. And, as much as I don't care for some of these movies, I feel like I understand film and social history a little better for having seen them.

When I finish the movie list, if this enterprise still has any momentum at all, I might do another experiment in democratic list construction. It will be the big blogging event of 2010!