Will Jennings

Buster Keaton: Anarchitect

March 27, 2019

 

Steamboat Bill, Jr. Dir. Charles Reisner. Perf. Buster Keaton, Ernest Torrance. United Artists, 1928.

 

It wasn’t a great day for the three-year-old Buster. Curious at the rotating machinery of a mangle as it squeezed water out of his family’s clothes, he wandered from his Kansas boardinghouse room and stuck a finger in, to see what happened. It did, as advertised, draw moisture, though in his case it was in a flood of tears that failed to resolve until after the doctor had to rush in to amputate his finger from the last joint.

He returned to bed, crying, and after waking up a second time, he pottered back into the yard. Catching sight of a beguiling peach up in a tree, he decided the best means to bring it within reach would be by throwing a brick at it. Which he did. The brick came hurtling back at him —without the peach—, splitting his head open.

For the second time that day, the doctor was brought in to stitch him up, and Buster was sent back to sleep until he was awoken, yet again —as if through fairytale logic— by a swirling noise banging against the window. Clambering out of bed, he went to investigate, cracked the window open, and was suddenly sucked out of his room by a cyclone. He was eventually deposited a block away from home, where he was rescued by a man who took him to the shelter of a cellar.

It is possible his unexpected extraction from the sanctity of his bedroom sowed the seeds of Buster’s personal mistrust towards the surface solidity of the built form; an understanding that, however permanent, controlled and purposeful the architecture of the home was, it was always fraught with a potential for the accidental and the absurd. Here was a boy, after all, who had taken his very name from a problematic interaction with domestic architecture: at six months old, he had been picked up by a family friend after tumbling to the bottom of a staircase, mercifully unscathed. “My, what a buster!”, his retriever said to Joe Keaton as he returned his son to him, and the name stuck, a suitable moniker for someone who would forge a legendary career by falling, crashing, making ‘mistakes’ and collapsing —but always recovering— over a period that straddled the shifting of mass entertainment from vaudeville to burgeoning film industry.

The Electric House. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox. First National Pictures, 1922.

 

Among the great and early slapstick actors, Chaplin has attracted the most critical notice, not least from Adorno, Benjamin and Kracauer. This is in part due to how the Tramp character draws attention to social relationships, inequality and the politics of place. Keaton, in contrast, can be read as an artist interested in spatial rather than social relationships. His is an ordinary character moving through ordinary settings, who in so doing finds himself caught up in extraordinary circumstances, situations and manners of embodying space.

As he migrated from vaudeville stage to movie set, Keaton realised the comedy itself did not need changing, though the opportunities afforded by the camera could extend the world in which the spatial interplay he had developed since childhood took place.

“…the greatest thing to me about picturemaking was the way it automatically did away with the physical limitations of the theatre. On the stage, even one as immense as the New York Hippodrome stage, one could only show so much. The camera had no such limitations. The whole world was its stage. If you wanted cities, deserts, the Atlantic Ocean, Persia, or the Rocky Mountains for your scenery and background, you merely took your camera to them.” [1]

Keaton’s comedy derives largely from the positioning —and constant, unexpected repositioning— of his body in space, and in architectural space particularly. [2] Unlike other slapstick performers who relished in the close-up and detailed attention to the protagonist, Keaton frequently directed the camera to film with a wide far-shot that could contain the whole of a building’s facade or urban span within the frame. Proud of always carrying out his own (often extremely dangerous) stunts, this enabled him to show the audience that his actions were performed in real-time —and real-place— rather than simply being tricks of the camera or editing process. It also allowed him to visually explore the many ways in which his body could engage with the urban form.

Neighbors. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Keaton. Metro Pictures, 1920.

 

“In abstracting the human body and making its alienation readable, Chaplin joins Kafka and other figures in which Benjamin discerned a return of the allegorical mode in modernity -except that Chaplin’s appeal combines melancholy with the force of involuntary collective laughter.” [3]

When Chaplin is cited in critical theory, it is in the context of considering his character’s relationship with technology and machinery as a metaphor for the ongoing struggle of the individual in the face of an increasingly mechanised world. The most famous example of this is the factory scene in Modern Times (1936) where, failing to keep up with the oppressive demands of the Fordist manufacturing plant he works in, Chaplin is literally pulled into the machinery, his body compressed and pulled around cogwheels.

Day Dreams. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Renée Adorée, Edward F. Cline. First National Pictures, 1922.

 

When Keaton used machines in his set pieces, though, he tended to recur to the machinery of travel. This permitted him to delve into movement and speed in the landscape, even as his vehicles lost control or simply whisked the hapless protagonist into the next difficult situation. Boats, cars and trains feature like leitmotifs across his work as speed and distance become central to his celebrated chase sequences.

Every time, this machinery of movement takes him to and from another architectural enclave and, despite some of his most acclaimed films —such as Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) and The General (1926)— focusing on his exchange with transportation, the rest of this piece will be spent looking at how Keaton used the built form in his craft.

THE INTERIOR

The Scarecrow. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Joe Keaton. Metro Pictures, 1920.

 

In an interview, Keaton said that if he hadn’t been taken along the entertainment path by his parents, he may have fancied becoming a civil engineer [4]; something legible in early films, which time and again contain bizarrely engineered mechanical systems. In The Scarecrow (1920), Keaton and his companion live together in a tiny, single-room abode (“All the rooms in this house are in one room!”, reads the intertitle), with a number of devices built into the fabric of the building that transform its single space into a multi-purpose one.

These include: a bathtub that revolves after its use to become soft seating, while draining the water externally into a duckpond; dinner condiments and drinks hanging from strings which are manually operated to serve the two diners; and a bed that elevates into a vertical position against the wall to reveal an upright piano on its underside. Keaton had constructed real-world equivalents to the drawings of Rube Goldberg —the hugely popular American cartoonist not dissimilar to Britain’s Heath Robinson— who designed unlikely and convoluted contraptions to carry out seemingly simple and quotidian tasks.

To Keaton’s mind, this baroque engineering could be taken to any object —whether it be to give it functions outside of its programmed use, or to combine it with other things to produce a new arrangement for domestic space. In hybridising a record player with an oven, or a fridge with a bookcase, Keaton was riffing with the emerging machine age and its developing consumer market for home appliances. It’s no wonder he was frequently cited as a reference for Dada and Surrealist artists —there is a direct line to be drawn between his flat reading of objects, Duchamp’s readymades and concept of the infamince, or Dalí’s conjoining of a telephone and lobster.

The Scarecrow. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Joe Keaton. Metro Pictures, 1920.

 

Keaton took this mechanisation of the everyday one step further in The Electric House (1922), where a mix-up in diplomas finds the newly-trained botanist Keaton tasked with modernising a client’s house under the misapprehension that he studied electrical engineering: “I need an engineer to electrify my house”. His well-meaning character sets out to convert his client’s home into one saturated with modernity and automation. A staircase becomes an escalator at the flick of a switch, automatic sliding doors are installed, the bathtub is attached to rails to take it to the bedside, and dining-room panelling cantilevers down to the table to reveal a model train connecting through to the kitchen.

The Electric House. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox. First National Pictures, 1922.

 

The actual engineer, realising he missed an important commission, sabotages the electrics, and the residential machinery then appears to fight back against its occupants. Sliding doors become comedic guillotines, a space-saving bed —designed to fold into the wall— traps a resting woman, and the staircase escalator speeds up so that anybody trying to use it finds themselves deposited into the swimming pool through an upstairs window.

The Electric House. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox. First National Pictures, 1922.

 

Siegfried Kracauer suggested that Keaton’s humanness was based on his inability to be at peace with a mechanised world, his unsmiling deadpan showing sadness at the futility of remaining human while not becoming a cog in a larger system the inanimate components of which were beginning to behave as if they too:

“…held important positions and developed preferences of their own. More often than not they were filled with a certain malice towards anything human… Among the scheming objects those devised for our comfort were in fact particularly vicious. Instead of serving man, these progressive gadgets turned out to be on the best of terms with the very elements they were supposed to harness. They conspired against their masters; instead of making us independent of the whims of matter, they actually were the first shock troops of unconquered nature and inflicted upon us defeat after defeat.” [5]

This is really only half the story, though. Keaton made objects serve his own ends more often than not; so much so that his character’s “electrification” of the aforesaid house was quite successful, up until the point that it was sabotaged.

The Scarecrow. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Joe Keaton. Metro Pictures, 1920.

 

Similarly, the domestic Rube Goldberg-machine he had created for The Scarecrow worked seamlessly, a perfect marriage of body and object in time. This appropriation of the homebound readymade that elevated it into a thing of unexpected function is a surreal puncturing of the domestic sphere. A room that was only meant as background set-dressing suddenly seethes with potential, unveiling the possibility that that everything else onscreen might be bristling with an energy that could, at any moment, rupture the appearance of order and polite domesticity.

In My Wife’s Relations (1922), a confused judge accidentally marries Keaton to an abusive woman with an abusive family. In the ensuing action, the protagonist escapes up a staircase chased by two of his in-laws before dropping to the floor, wrapping himself in the carpet and cascading to the bottom —as if again a toddler— unbalancing the chasing pair and rolling himself up at once. The most mundane domestic object, a rug, is here activated as an instrument of chaos.

My Wife’s Relations. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Wallace Beery, Monte Collins. First National Pictures, 1922.

 

Throughout his film career, which ranged from short comedies working for Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (1917-20) through to Samuel Beckett’s experimental work Film (1965) and his final performance in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), Keaton was known for his “great stone face”. As his body battled against relentless misfortune, torrential weather, calamitous events and unexpected drama which bounced between the real and surreal, his face remained stoic. It was this constancy of expression, a wide-eyed blankness somewhere between disappointment, hope, confusion and complete, unearthly understanding, that enabled audiences to not just identify with his ordeals, but to sympathetically project themselves into his vacant character.

Just as with his transformation of the domestic object into a field of possibility, so also his persona was that of an everyman in which the audience could situate their own existence and experiences for the duration of the film. Unremarkably attired and, with every haywire escapade beginning from a simple act that any viewer could carry out at any given time —queueing for bread, trying to contact a lover, playing a round of golf, gazing through a window— they could see in him the thousandfold unfortunate possibilities that could, seemingly, strike their own daily lives but for the will of God.

Cops. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Edward F. Cline. First National Pictures, 1922.

 

But Keaton also deployed the city’s broader urban form and architectural exteriors through a deadpan aesthetic. The urban landscape in which he places his external action sequences is nondescript, made up of Los Angeles facades that could be read as being in any town across the country, on any street that any audience might have been familiar with —nowhere and anywhere at once. In Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen’s documentary exploring the city’s depiction in film, his voice-over states:

“When its streets and buildings appeared in movies, they were just anonymous backdrops… The varied terrain and eclectic architecture allowed Los Angeles and its environs to play almost any place. Lake Arrowhead, seventy-eight miles from downtown Los Angeles, could play Switzerland, and Calabasas in the San Fernando Valley could play the valley of Ling in China after M-G-M excavated some rice paddies. More often than not, Los Angeles played some other city.”

Just as Keaton capitalised on the unremarkable condition of interior domestic space, he also exploited urban space and everyday street objects. Though most of his external shots were filmed in especially constructed sets in his Hollywood studio block and the streets near it, he frequently took his camera off around the city and its surrounding landscapes when the immediate streets were not suitable. [6]

In 1928, when under contract to MGM —one he regretted signing due to his lack of autonomy and agency— Keaton was tasked with filming The Cameraman in New York. It had a plot contrived by over twenty writers and used recognisable parts of the Big Apple and its buildings. But every time he set up his camera to film, he was crowded out by a mass of spectators, ruining the filming opportunity. In light of this, he simply threw away the script and started shooting in less busy and more anonymous city spaces in his own way, which responded to the spaces he discovered as they came.

The Cameraman. Dir. Edward Sedgwick. Perf. Buster Keaton, Marceline Day, Harold Goodwin. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1928.

 

Whatever shots were not complete in New York he finished in LA which, in the 1920s, offered no shortage of prosaic streets and humdrum architecture. Large tracts of land, empty since the 1880s, were now being aggressively marketed by real estate agents [7]. The decentralised city had been gradually growing in size since the late 19th century, but the arrival of industry and employment in the twenties would see population more than double to 1.2 million, while still being diverse enough —in terms of locations and scale— to provide filmmakers with a gamut of built environments, from village to high rise.

A revolutionary construction method in the slowly-developing plains was the prefabricated home, which could be picked from a catalogue, adapted to a bespoke style and constructed on any site, or simply delivered in crates for self-builders. Popular all across the country, it would have been a regular sight in Los Angeles to see Sears [8] or Pacific City [9] catalogue homes emerge from a pile of timber, and when Keaton saw Home Made (1919), the Ford Motor Company’s documentary showing how a self-build prefab house could be raised in a week, he set out to make a parody of the process.

One Week. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Sybil Seeley, Joe Roberts. Comique Film Corporation, 1920.

 

In One Week (1920), Keaton and his new wife are given a self-build house and plot of land by his uncle: “To give this house a snappy appearance put it up according to the numbers on the boxes”, state the Portable House Co. instructions. Unbeknown to the couple, a former suitor of the bride’s rearranged the numbers of the timber packages and, over the course of the week, Keaton struggles to assemble them into a home, resulting in something more like a travelling fairground house-of-horrors than the intended finished product.

An ill-fitting roof, a front door on the first floor and windows set at jaunty angles explode both the modern system-build logic and the domestic order of the up-and-coming LA real-estate aesthetic. Upon “completion”, Keaton and his wife invite friends over for a housewarming party, only for a storm to whip up the house and send it spinning in a vortex, reminding us of the precarity and surfaceness of the modern world. The resultant grotesque is a parody of the Ford documentary, but also of the American dream and its architectural embodiment. [10]

One Week. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Sybil Seeley, Joe Roberts. Comique Film Corporation, 1920.

 

In The Chaplin Machine (2016), Owen Hatherley observed that prefab homes can be “placed essentially wherever one wants, or wherever there is a piece of land one can afford, not needing to follow any street lines or enclosed by any class-based systems” [11]. This is evident at the end of One Week, when Keaton realises that not only had construction not gone according to plan, but that it was sited on the wrong plot. He attempts to haul the house to the correct location, strapping it behind his car to shift it across the railway tracks to its proper place. The newlyweds never once seem put out by the disastrous form the house is taking, and perhaps in this portability, Keaton is looking back at his own childhood of short-term boardinghouse stays as his family toured the country with their vaudeville roughhouse act. He may have wondered what it would have been like to have a single home, however ramshackle, to take with them wherever they went.

The High Sign. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Bartine Burkett, Charles Dorety. Metro Pictures, 1921.

 

In addition to reorganising architectural form, Keaton disrupted the expected usage of architectural elements. Walls become doorways, floors were made malleable, balustrades turned into slides and architectural function as a whole became fundamentally unreliable. The High Sign (1921) culminates in a chase scene around four rooms of a house which is ingeniously filmed as a cutaway showing all four spaces in a single frame. Keaton had transformed the walls and floors to allow for passage between rooms without using a single door, permitting this cyclical chase. Steven Jacobs suggests this is akin to the characters “not inhabiting a house but rather an architectural drawing” [12], and what Keaton accomplishes here is not just setting up a(another) Rube Goldberg machine in a house, but making the house a Rube Goldberg machine unto itself.

THE THRESHOLD

Steamboat Bill, Jr. Dir. Charles Reisner. Perf. Buster Keaton, Ernest Torrance. United Artists, 1928.

 

Just as Walter Benjamin coined the phrase “now a landscape, now a room” when considering the breakdown of the private/public division, so Keaton seemed to take an interest in dissolving its boundaries. He took pleasure, for example, in disturbing the viewer’s comfort in knowing where the action happened. A scene that has so far taken place inside a single room is abruptly extruded once the protagonist takes the drama outside, or an expansive chase scene in the street is relocated suddenly to a cosy room when the protagonist leaps through a window.

At one point in One Week, Keaton opens the bathroom door to step out into the corridor, only to find himself falling outside from the first floor. This is a prime example of the surprising way the artist exploited the boundary between inside and out, and another manner of distorting the domestic order by turning something as pedestrian as a door into an active object that transgresses expectations. [13]

One Week. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Sybil Seeley, Joe Roberts. Comique Film Corporation, 1920.

 

In his autobiography, Keaton wrote of the many times the boardinghouses his family stayed in had burnt down, sometimes with them narrowly escaping from the flames. It happened enough times that his father created a system of keeping all their clothes and belongings in a sheet, ready to bundle up and throw out of a window when the next fire struck. In his films, windows are also regularly preferred to doors as a means of access and egress, especially when the audience least expects it, keeping his viewers in a state of restlessness, farcical shock and awe.

Neighbors. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Keaton. Metro Pictures, 1920.

 

However often an audience sees an open window in the frame, it still comes as a shock when Keaton casts his body through it and takes the action outside. In The Goat (1921), we see how the protagonist is blocked from escaping through the door. The window being there as a potential means of egress, he confounds both his assailant and his audience by finding another exit—through the transom.

The Goat. Dir. Buster Keaton/Malcolm St. Clair. Perf. Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Malcolm St. Clair. Metro Pictures, 1921.

 

This knowing disregard for the spatial conventions of the architecture where the action takes place is as essential to Keaton’s slapstick as his impervious face. In Sherlock Jr. (1924) a top-hatted Keaton makes his escape through what seems to be a safe which, once open, leaves the viewer slackjawed by presenting him with a wide urban streetscape —tram and all— where one might have anticipated a smaller, more intimate space.

Sherlock Jr. Dir. Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Joe Keaton. Metro-Goldwyn Pictures, 1924.

 

These cuts into the fabric of reality revealing the adjacencies and distance between the urban and the urbane, can be read against Gaston Bachelard’s comment in the Poetics of Space: “Outside and inside form a dialectic of division, the obvious geometry of which blinds us as soon as we bring it into play in metaphorical domains.”

One Week. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Sybil Seeley, Joe Roberts. Comique Film Corporation, 1920.

 

The work of anarchitect Gordon Matta-Clark is worth considering in relation to Keaton’s keenness for breaking new thresholds in seemingly solid architectural divisions, and the social and spatial questioning that arose from creating such schisms. In the 1970s, Matta-Clark took a chainsaw to unused architecture. He used it to slice through the centre of a house or to reconfigure axonometric sightlines through the floors and walls of post-industrial remains. His was a direct and physical engagement with architecture that reflects Keaton’s earlier reading of form.

One Week. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Sybil Seeley, Joe Roberts. Comique Film Corporation, 1920.

 

Jessamyn Fiore, a curator and the daughter of Matta-Clark’s widow, describes these actions as demonstrating “a possibility for change —change that can be made by any individual— and so by sharing this stage, or creating a stage which is the everyday, he focuses that potentiality for empowered change, for action by anyone/everyone.” [14]

THE EXTERIOR

Steamboat Bill, Jr. Dir. Charles Reisner. Perf. Buster Keaton, Ernest Torrance. United Artists, 1928.

 

As a child, a neighbour told Keaton of an annoyance he had. Picnickers and visitors to the nearby lakes were making use of his personal outhouse and, despite him putting up signs saying “Private” and “Beware! Giant Bulldog at Large!” people continued to use it as a public convenience. Young Keaton had an architectural response to this. He cut the four walls of the outhouse into separate panels, splitting the roof of it in two and, by way of a long, buried pipe, extended a cable from the dismantled structure to the window of the neighbour’s kitchen. Every time a stranger decided to use his outhouse, a tug of the cable collapsed the whole thing, the trespasser suddenly jerked from privacy to be showcased as a squatter to anyone in the vicinity. [15]

The General. Dir. Clyde Bruckman/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Marion Mack. United Artists, 1926.

 

The famous scene in The General where a bridge collapses under the weight of a train that crashes into the river below was also the most expensive single scene ever shot in silent cinema, at an exorbitant $42,000. The shock produced by something seemingly so sturdy, safe and sound becoming a collapsed heap or a pile of splinters is a frequently recurring slapstick trope: as shown at the head of this article, great winds in Steamboat Bill Jr. rip the facade from an entire corner block to reveal the rooms inside; in The Boat (1921), the house caves-in when the protagonist tries to extract a boat he built in his basement; in The Blacksmith (1922), a car is broken into its component parts.

The Boat. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Sybil Seeley. First National Pictures, 1921.

 

The removal of the domestic skin and, with it, of the thin division between private and public, inside and out, secure and exposed, reminds us of the time young Keaton was sucked from his boardinghouse window by the tornado. Now a room, now a landscape.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. Dir. Charles Reisner. Perf. Buster Keaton, Ernest Torrance. United Artists, 1928.

 

It has been observed that Keaton’s comedy is rooted in the “near-miss” [16], the moment where he narrowly avoids being flattened by a train, or rocks or, most famously and repeatedly —as artist Steve McQueen demonstrated in Deadpan (1997)—, the entire facade of a house with an open upstairs window ever-so-fortuitously dropping just around his standing body.

Keaton instinctively sticks out his arm and grabs a passing vehicle which hoists him to safety or, sitting on the handlebars of an unmanned motorbike, cuts across a railway line just before a train steams past. In their essay on Frankfurt Slapstick, Steven Jacobs and Hilde D’Haeyere state these “numerous last-minute rescues have nothing to do with divine intervention or melodramatic coincidence; they are merely the result of chance.” [17]

Being, however, unable to see him as anything other than incredibly resourceful when it comes to reading the spatial situation in manners that confound his chasers (and watchers), I’d like to be more charitable with Keaton’s character. His evasions may be “last-minute” rescues, but they could also be understood as his being completely at one with his built environment, which he reads like a chessboard, intricately planning how to game it across time and space.

Day Dreams. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Renée Adorée, Edward F. Cline. First National Pictures, 1922.

 

In Day Dreams (1922), Keaton spies a ladder and climbs it in escape of two truncheon-wielding policemen, only to re-emerge unexpectedly from a first floor window and descend onto the pavement on a weighted pulley, leaving the cops stranded (and framed by) the window. This is more than just chance: Keaton is actively reading the city and its elements as an open playground, regardless of how innocuous these same features may seem to the audience.

We have a switching between the interior, albeit one not seen by the audience, and the exterior —through an unconventional threshold— coupled with a quick-witted use of urban infrastructure to shake pursuers. It is as if Keaton were deploying his unorthodox approach to engineering on an urban scale. Downpipes, water spouts, window frames, awnings, walls, scaffolding, manholes —all are subject to his navigation. Everything is an affordance to his movement.

Lost footage from My Wife’s Relations. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Wallace Beery, Monte Collins. First National Pictures, 1922.

 

Between 1976-77, the swimming pools of LA dried up. In their hollow forms, skateboarders saw a series of ramps and slopes which reminded them of the Pacific’s waves, and they turned them into spaces for entirely novel functions. The skating subculture maintained this DIY attitude into the nineties, using urban space and architecture as experimental platforms for movement and play.

The street-skater has to read the city differently than any other user, putting his wit, intuition, spatial logic and just-in-time mentality to work in the re-coding of the urban form and its obstacles. The emerging popularity of parkour, or free-running, over the last two decades also has its roots in this “just-in-time” approach to being in architectural space, with its constant rescue of the body from imminent falling, missing or obstruction.

Neighbors. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Keaton. Metro Pictures, 1920.

 

There is another way to read the near-miss, and that’s by seeing it as a just-in-time moment that focuses more on who has the intuition and resourcefulness to pull himself up by the bootstraps, than on the force behind the automated action or the object of the near-miss. In this way, we can take the agency of Keaton’s dramas back from the mechanisation of Adorno, Kracauer and Hatherley, and draw attention back to the miraculous human ability to contrive new opportunities when there is only one pre-ordained outcome in sight.

Three Ages. Dir. Buster Keaton/Edward F. Cline. Perf. Buster Keaton, Margaret Leahy, Wallace Beery. Metro Pictures, 1923.

 

The intelligent, adaptive use of urban, internal and external architectures by Keaton the film-character and Keaton the film-maker is no better illustrated than in a scene from Three Ages (1923), a satire on D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). The original plan for a scene was to have him leap across a void between rooftops, but his jump fell too short and his fingertips slipped from the ledge, so that he fell onto the landing mat below.

Instead of retaking the shot, though, he simply weaved-in a new sequence to the narrative, recording three more shots which tracked his descent down two more floors by way of a drainpipe to then go through an open window, slide across the floor to a fireman’s pole and land directly on the back of a firetruck as it pulls out into the street.

 

Three Ages. Dir. Buster Keaton/Edward F. Cline. Perf. Buster Keaton, Margaret Leahy, Wallace Beery. Metro Pictures, 1923.

 

As with all familiar dramaturgical trajectories, the near-miss can be turned for comic effect. In moving his house to the correct plot in One Week, Keaton gets it stuck on the railway line. Reminiscent of the Lumière’s L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896), we see a train heading right towards the camera and the house, which appears to be stranded in its path.

One Week. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Sybil Seeley, Joe Roberts. Comique Film Corporation, 1920.

 

With the audience expecting a cataclysmic collision, Keaton operated a near-miss with the train shooting past the house and narrowly avoiding it, then cutting to the relieved couple. With sublime comic timing, the camera then cuts back to the house as a train in the other direction ploughs right through it. The audience gets their fix of near-miss and architectural annihilation.

One Week. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Sybil Seeley, Joe Roberts. Comique Film Corporation, 1920.

 

THE END

One Week. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Sybil Seeley, Joe Roberts. Comique Film Corporation, 1920.

 

Outside of the cinematic, Keaton’s domestic architecture was less chaotic, even as it still retained some playful aspects. He rarely occupied any of his Los Angeles homes for long, buying and reselling properties constantly in a seeming attempt to find a place that might appease his energetic spirit. His most glamorous home was The Italian Villa, a mansion he had built in Beverly Hills with five bedrooms plus a three bedroom apartment for staff, in three-and-a-half acres of land which included a dramatic, landscaped staircase that descended to a swimming pool; a retractable movie screen and a trout-stocked, motorised stream that could be turned on-and-off at the flick of a switch.

“I took a lot of pratfalls to build that dump”, Keaton said; but it was a place he loved and lovingly conceived, putting Fred Gabourie, the technical director in charge of all his stunt mechanics and sets, in charge of co-designing it. Later owned by Carey Grant, James and Pamela Mason and Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, interior and exterior shots of it can be seen in the first half of Keaton’s 1931 talkie Parlor, Bedroom and Bath.

Parlor, Bedroom and Bath. Dir. Edward Sedgwick. Perf. Buster Keaton, Charlotte Greenwood, Reginald Denny. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1931.

 

One of his later homes, however, recalls one we already encountered in this exploration of Keaton’s relationship with architecture. By 1932, divorced and heavily hitting with the bottle, Keaton caught the Depression-era quick-sale of a Pullman bus which had been converted into a motor home with drawing rooms, deck, galley and beds for eight, originally built for the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. He spent $10,000 on it, then proceeded to drive it around California’s mountains and lakes with a coterie of friends dressed in nautical costumes borrowed from MGM. He spent a while living in it on Harold Lloyd’s driveway before parking it up in MGM’s studios and turning it into a relentless party bus which became a second home to writers and actors. [18]

He called this travelling abode his Land Yacht, much as Raymond Roussel had called his 1920s mobile home, and there is a sense that Keaton had discovered a kind of architecture he was finally at ease with.

One Week. Dir. Edward F. Cline/Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Sybil Seeley, Joe Roberts. Comique Film Corporation, 1920.

 

His relationship to architecture is a fascinating lens through which to view his work in film. It offered him, and his body, ingenious outlets and experiences, while retaining an air of frail unreliability. It may or may not root back to his childhood experiences of travelling from town to town, being sucked through windows, tumbling down stairs and watching boardinghouses turn into bonfires.

There may also be something in his playful understanding of place that we can take into how we experience our own homes and everyday city: to look at objects and materials anew, in ways that reconsider their formulated functions and spatial orders; to engage our cities with a puckish spirit and a cunning eye, rather than take it at face value and treat it as a mere frame to uneventful lives.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. Dir. Charles Reisner. Perf. Buster Keaton, Ernest Torrance. United Artists, 1928.

 

 


[1] Keaton, Buster. My Wonderful World of Slapstick. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1967, p.93.

[2] Clayton, Alex. The Body in Hollywood Slapstick. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. 2007, pp. 46-66.

[3] Hansen, Miriam. Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012, p. 47.

[4] Keaton, ibidem, p. 24.

[5] Kracauer, Siegfried. “Silent Film Comedy”. In von Moltke, Johannes & Kristy Rawson, eds. Siegfried Kracauer’s American Writings: Essays on Film and Popular Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012, p. 214.

[6] For a comprehensive photo-analysis study of Keaton’s use of locations in Los Angeles and beyond, see: Bengtson, John. Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood through the Films of Buster Keaton. Santa Monica, Calif.: Santa Monica Press, 1999.

[7] Boone, Christopher G. “Real Estate Promotion and the Shaping of Los Angeles”. In Cities, Vol. 15, No. 3, 1988 pp. 155–163.

[8] www.searsarchives.com/homes

[9] www.oldhouseweb.com/architecture-and-design/californias-kit-homes-part-i.shtml

[10] Suau, Cristian. Visionary Prefab in the Modern Age: Deconstructing Keaton’s Films. Docomomo 44, 2011, pp. 81-85.

[11] Hatherley, Owen. The Chaplin Machine: Slapstick, Fordism and the Communist Avant-Garde. London: Pluto Press, 2016, p.103

[12] Jacobs, Steven. “Slapstick Homes: Architecture in Slapstick Cinema and the Avant-Garde”. In The Journal of Architecture, 23:20, 2018, pp. 225-248.

[13] Aronson, Arnold. “Their Exits and Their Entrances: Getting a Handle on Doors”. In New Theatre Quarterly, 20, 2004, pp. 331-340

[14] Bessa, Antonio. “An Interview with Jessamyn Fiore”. In Bessa, Antonio & Jessamyn Fiore, eds. Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017, p.138

[15] Keaton, ibid, p. 42

[16] O’Huie Jr., William. “Buster Keaton and the Near-Miss Gag”. In Journal of Film and Video, Volume 69, Number 4, Winter 2017, pp. 18-27

[17] Jacobs, Steven & Hilde D’Haeyere. “Frankfurter Slapstick: Benjamin, Kracauer, and Adorno on American Screen Comedy”. In October 160, Spring, 2017, pp. 30-50

[18] Meade, Marion. Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase. London: Bloomsbury, 1995, p. 211

Will Jennings is a London-based visual artist and writer with particular interest in the built environment and how it relates to wider culture, histories, politics and social concerns. He has just completed “Reading the Neoliberal City”, a Research Masters in Architecture, at the University of East London. Jennings was a critic and opponent of the now-cancelled Garden Bridge development (www.abridgetoofar.co.uk) and can be found on Twitter @willjennings80