June 23, 2010

The Keaton Shorts: 1921--The Goat

The Goat (Keaton & Mal St. Clair)

The Goat (as in the scapegoat) is one of Buster Keaton’s very best two-reel shorts which ranks right up there with his greatest features in terms of creative genius. It’s also ambitious for a short and its twenty minutes are jam-packed with as many rich comic scenarios as could easily sustain a feature length film. Along with The Playhouse, it’s also one of Keaton’s most visually inventive shorts and marks a key moment of maturation for Keaton the filmmaker. Thematically rich, The Goat prefigures later films like CopsOur Hospitality & The General, and Seven Chances in it use of police, trains, and newspapers, respectively.

The film’s opening scene perfectly sums up Buster’s character and the type of bum luck which dogs him throughout the picture. Keaton approaches the window of a bread line and grabs the loaf proffered to the man in the first position. He snatches back the loaf and gestures for Buster to get in the back of the line. Okay, he does. In medium shot, Buster walks to the back of the line, which stretches down the street. The camera stays put as we witness successive men move up the line and out of shot until there are only two figures in front of Keaton and they haven’t moved. The reason they haven’t moved is that they’re mannequins, a fact Buster doesn’t know.

In a long shot, the camera reveals a much shorter line of five men for the bread and Buster all alone behind the two mannequins.

He is growing impatient. He sits on the storefront ledge, crosses his legs, gets up to confront the bigger fellow, thinks better of it and sits back down. Plucking a pin from his jacket, he pricks the mannequin in the backside and nonchalantly turns away in case of rebuke. Of course there is none. The film cuts back to the bread line and then back to Buster. The manager of the store Buster’s sitting in front comes out, mimes like there might be rain and as Buster is looking the other way, removes the first mannequin into the store. He then comes back out and lifts the second mannequin out and away. Buster is shocked, leans in to follow the strange sight, staggers a bit and turns back around dumbfounded. Realizing there is no line, he races the length of the street to the head of the bread line, behind just one other man. He reaches the window just in time for the station to close for the day. Buster puts his hands in his pockets and walks away.

My second favorite part of the film is a brilliant shot that combines Buster’s love of trains and his fascination with film technique. The scene irises in on a long shot of train far in the distance, the tracks stretching out in front of the camera for what seem like miles. The camera never moves as the train comes closer and closer. It’s indicative of one of the first film ever exhibited by the Lumiere brothers in 1896, The Arrival of a Train, which, legend has it, terrified the audience who thought a train was actually moving toward them so much that people ran screaming from the theater.

As the train reaches mid-screen, it becomes clear there’s a figure on its front. In medium shot, it becomes clear that figure is Buster, sitting on the engine, arms on knees, porkpie hat slightly askew, looking as placidly resigned as ever. The train stops right in front of the camera, Buster now in close-up. The scene cuts. It’s a perfect pause in action of a high-pitched chase picture, one that shows off Buster’s skills as both director and actor.

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