07 August 2009

Three Ages (1923)

d. & Edward F. Cline & Buster Keaton / USA / 63 mins.

Although considered to be Buster Keaton's first feature film, Three Ages is really no more than three short films about love during various eras of human civilization cut and woven together. Keaton admitted as much, too. Willing to perform outrageous stunts in front of the camera, behind it he was a rather shrewd and cautious businessman. If feature-length Keaton turned out to be a failure or unpopular with audiences, his thinking was that he could return to Three Ages, tear it down, and reassemble the pieces into three short films.

This fact does not diminish the overall enjoyment of Three Ages, which manages to build good will during its running time by coalescing into a tongue-in-cheek parody of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance — a film that billed itself as "love through the ages." For Keaton, the eras are the Stone Age, the age of the Roman Empire, and contemporary 1920s America; the relative constants are that Keaton plays his poker-faced paradigmatic character in each epoch, trying to win the affection of a young woman (Margaret Leahy, in all three) and butting heads with another suitor (Wallace Beery, in all three) and the girl's father (Joe Roberts, a crossover from Keaton's short films).

The Stone Age and Roman Empire segments both provide lighthearted entertainment, spoofing contemporary attitudes about love and society, particularly our technology, which always seems to fascinate Keaton. He sends up golf, parking spaces, automobiles, meteorology, gambling, and bicycles, which all tend to amount to nothing but throwaway gags. Although the Stone Age segment is imminently forgettable, the Roman scenes do contain a bit of wicked creativity on Keaton's part. In one gag he succeeds during a chariot race despite a freak snowfall when he attaches skis to the bottom of his chariot and forgoes the horses for sled dogs; in another, parodying the biblical tale of Daniel, he is thrown into a lion's den where he and the big cat become friendly after he volunteers a manicure. It is silly more than anything else (the lion is so patently fake and immobile you don't expect any harm or threat), but it's not without a certain charm.

Of the three, it is actually the modern era segment that proves superior. It is the closest in theme and style to the shorts Keaton and Cline had been making the preceding three years, and if it had been released on its own as a short, it would probably rank among Keaton's best from that period. The jokes in this section are far superior, including his participation in a football game that pre-dates Harold Lloyd's famous football game in The Freshman (it also provides more laughs than the sequence in that film as well). As one might expect, Keaton's size and fear factor heavily into the humor of the football sequence, but he also utilizes camera placement and spatial fields to create certain effects, such as distancing himself from the other players and allowing the unsteadiness following a particularly tough tackle to play out across the field. In another scene, he pulls the audience along as a phone booth that holds his character is picked up, moved out of a building, and onto the back of a pickup truck. In the best Keaton sequences, the mise-en-scène has been calibrated carefully and there is a tangible sense of objects, and although the camera doesn't move to reflect any wooziness or dread during the moving of the phone booth, the film nonetheless evokes such a response from the audience and by taking his time, Keaton winds up for a great punch-line.

After all, comedy, if it is anything, is part art and part science. While it was evident in his independently-produced short films that Keaton already had the dynamics of comedy under firm control, there's a particular scene near the end of Three Ages that I think demonstrates his mastery quite well. As with his shorts, the film is a balance of action and inaction, of measuring the situation for the right response — subdued, proportional, or overdone— and of targeting his performance to fit the particular space captured on film. Keaton does not merely attempt to circumnavigate our expectations, but to slice through them like a tornado-blown needle. In the scene I speak of, Keaton is being chased and is making his way across rooftops when he reaches a gap between buildings that is too wide to jump. From the moment he begins (in his performance) to process the distance between the rooftops and whether he could actually make such a jump to the actual moment he jumps, exactly seventeen seconds elapse. Such an amount of time feels rather insignificant, but the scene is performed in one unbroken take and is loaded with the suspense of what he will do coupled with the tension already felt in the pursuit. We are able to watch him as he (and we) are invited to solve the dilemma. Naturally, he being Buster Keaton and we being silent comedy spectators, there is an expectation that he will jump, and he does; there is also an expectation on our parts that the jump will not be perfect, but we are heretofore left guessing how exactly it will culminate.

What happens is ultimately beyond expectation. He jumps, but he misses the building, falls through a few awnings, grabs onto a gutter pipe which becomes unmoored and swings him down, sending him through a window, across the floor of firemen's quarters and to the firehouse pole, where he then falls through and lands abruptly onto the ground-level floor. This sequence is sharply edited with multiple cuts (but still not too many; Keaton always wanted the audience to know it was him on screen). Without missing a beat, he stands up, now as dazed as we, and sits down on the back of a fire engine bumper. The beat now is infinitesimally longer than the time between his landing and his move toward the fire engine, but it is nonetheless discernible, enough time for us comprehend what has happened. We are given just enough time before the fire engine, supposedly on this whole time, suddenly leaves the firehouse garage. That sequence — the film's most remarkable action sequence — is exactly twelve seconds, or five whole seconds shorter than the essential inaction that preceded. It is a crucial cinematic move for the comedian's part, and it is wondrous to see how deft Keaton at blending the art of his performance with the science of his editing to achieve the maximum comedic and disorienting effect.

Keaton always contended that such artistry was never at the front of his mind while he was making films. Fair enough. I'll take him at his humble word and say that perhaps what he was doing was not explicitly conscious. But there is little doubt in my mind that he was the sort of person who could naturally feel the pulse of an audience and had an internal timing mechanism that was virtually peerless. Because he wore all hats during production — actor, director, producer, writer, stunt coordinator, etc. — he was able to incorporate that timing into all facets of the film. The scene I described is one of countless moments in Keaton's work where a viewer can marvel at how well the viewing experience synchronizes with the film's creation, even more than eighty years later. And while Three Ages as a film in its totality is not among Keaton's best, what would have been the short film reflecting modern age romance certainly is. The other two, while not great, are at least fun and complement the overall intention.


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