July 11, 2010

The Keaton Shorts: 1923--The Love Nest & Conclusion

Onto greener pastures. Keaton's final silent two-reeler has the distinction of being the only one he's credited with writing and directing alone. Previously, he had been credited with a co-director (Eddie Cline, usually) and the writing credits were generally ignored. His collaborators have admitted almost all the work was Buster's but Keaton wasn't interested in self-promoting title cards, satirizing the practice in The Playhouse. The reasoning for this credit change is unknown (at least, to me--anyone with enlightening info, please share!). I suspect it was an attempt by Joe Schenck and Lou Anger to buff up the Keaton rep in anticipation of the release of his first full-length feature, Three Ages, which Buster was shooting concurrently with his last two short films. Perhaps The Powers That Be sensed the public's playful contempt for the egomaniac auteur (a la Ince) shifting to admiration; the success of Chaplin's The Kid in 1921 and The Pilgrim a month before The Love Nest surely helped the writer-director-comedian distinction gain prominence. Whatever the reason, The Love Nest remains the only silent short in which Buster Keaton receives written and directed by credits. 

The story is classic Buster Keaton. Opening with typically understated dour wit, the title card reads: "The story of a man who lost his interest in women and everything else." Rebuffed by his fiance, Buster decides to sail around the world on his boat, the Cupid. He informs his fiance in a letter, the envelope for which is moistened by his own tears. Buster grows a mopey, post-romance beard (generous greasepaint) and stares listlessly at nothingness, pondering no doubt the mysteries of the universe, like how stars are created and why women are such bitches. The Keaton deadpan is utilized to its utmost here: sullen nihilism in a flat hat. 

Drifting languorously, Cupid encounters The Love Boat, a whaler helmed by Joe Roberts as a homicidal sea captain with a penchant for tossing his crew members into the deep for the slightest provocations. You've gotta love these seethingly ironic ship's names. Having just tossed away another sailor, Joe makes Buster his new steward. Buster, however, isn't much of a cabin boy. (He takes the call for all hands on deck literally and soaks the captain with dirty water.) When caught admiring Roberts' rifle, he turns around, walks straight down a gangplank and into the ocean. We see a puff of smoke emerge from the waterline. Buster walks back up, fish in hand! He's parlayed certain death into dinner for the crew. Not much of a sailor, but one hell of an improvisor. 

When Capt. Joe gets tossed overboard (Buster's fault), Buster takes the opportunity to anoint himself the new captain. Big mistake. Roberts promptly climbs back aboard and in his ensuing rage, the rest of the crew jumps ship. Buster is left alone on the vessel with the angriest mariner on the high seas. 

Night falls. Buster sneaks back onto the ship (having slept on the gangplank) and plans his revenge. He picks up an ax and hacks a gaping hole in the ship's hull. Buster waits for the sink to ship so that the water is level with the deck and the life boat, the Little Love Nest, floats to sea easily. Having effectively drowned Joe Roberts, Buster rows into the silent ocean night a free man.

The final sequence in the film is a virtuoso piece of filmmaking, cementing Keaton's status as a premier director as well as star. Buster moors himself to a large buoy, which, unbeknownst to him, is a naval target board. In trying to kill a fish, Buster shoots a hole in his boat (something his little fellow seems to be doing constantly), and must now take up residence on top of the target board. Facing away from the camera, Buster doesn't know the navy is just off screen, testing their powerful new gunships. In spyglass point of view, we get the practice montage. Fire...one! Another spyglass POV. Fire...two! Buster is on target number three. The way Keaton divvies out information, delaying the audience's expectations, taking the time to cut back from the naval commander to the target to the ships and back to the target, speaks to his maturity as a legitimate filmmaker. A frequent Keaton motto was to make every scene so true, it hurt. Kill 'em with accuracy, and it makes the humor truer, funnier. Such is the case here.

The naval commander calls out, 'Fire...three!' Cut to Buster, fishing innocently. A thundering splash to his left. They missed! Seeing only the resultant ripples, Buster casts his line over yonder (must be a big fish). Climbing on top of the target, again we get the spyglass POV, this time with a Buster-shaped figure on top. Fire--explosion! The Buster-shaped body goes flying. 

Cut to Buster, singed and battered, flying through the clouds, ascending to Heaven. Well, he's dead but at least it's a happy ending. Ah, but no. Buster's trajectory reverses and he begins to descend back to...well, erm, Hell. Or so it seemed. The film fades in to Buster, re-bearded, frantically flapping his arms, back on the Cupid. It appears it's all been a dream! 

But even so, it's hardly good news. Buster's out of water and hard tack. Hopelessly lost. Adrift. Alone. Clutching a photo of his dearly beloved ex-fiance, he crawls out to the prow to die. Just then, from off screen left, a woman swims by. In wide shot, we see that Buster's still tied to the dock. He's never even left! Grief-stricken, delirious, and more than a little daft, Buster has imagined the entire adventure--except the part about being ditched by his fiance. That part is still painfully real. 

The way the film ends, in a quick succession of reversals, is something Buster Keaton loved to do, to make the audience think one thing would happen and then go in a completely diametrical direction. The entire nautical section of the film is composed with such authenticity with footage of the whale, the naval carrier, the harpoon sequence and some very convincing looking sailor extras, so as to hoodwink the viewer into believability. In the entire film, land is nowhere to be seen. Although cast and crew were most probably anchored in a harbor somewhere, the effect is of total oceanic isolation. Coupled with Buster's convincing despair, we're never in doubt of the events unfolding before us. Although I wouldn't put The Love Nest in the most esteemed level of Keaton shorts, it's certainly an admirable second-tier entry, displaying Buster's interest in maritime mischief and his ability as a filmmaker to capture action in a docu-realist style. 

In our next installment, we finally (finally!) reach the features. Buster the caveman, the Roman, and the Jazz Age hero--Three Ages, next time!

No comments:

Post a Comment