Wednesday, January 16, 2013

GradSkool: The Subversive Power of Slapstick in Keaton's Seven Chances

One thing I hope to do with this blog is address the alarming lack of content that has been a pervasive problem since I started graduate school last semester. To make up for it, I'm going to be giving excerpts from papers I wrote while in graduate school last semester. Please note that these posts have a different tone than my normal blogging, but hopefully you'll get something out of them. Here is something I wrote on Buster Keaton's Seven Chances. 

The key moment in Seven Chances is thus the previously mentioned procession of the brides, in which the film moves from what had been mostly genteel comedy into pure farce. This deep focus shot is the moment in which the sexual forces driving the film completely are turned on their head.[1] In the first half, the women are objects toward a goal—their names appear on a list, but their actual personalities and characterizations are unimportant. Keaton subverts this instead turning himself into the object of desire, but this because of his money than his own personality—he becomes a means to an end than an actual end. As Mowes notes about this shot, “Railing, arch, enclosures, and held within them a stationary figure who passively waiting, but now a man rather than a woman—all the elements proclaim that a great reversal has come.”[2] The slapstick that will follow is thus more than just a transition of comedy but a subversive commentary on class and capitalism by reversing the form of comedy. For Jimmy, the object in the first half is not marriage but money, disdained in the genteel comedy, and in the second half not money but marriage (to Mary), a tradition upheld by genteel comedy. But this is the opposite for the universe he inhabits in the two sections of the film. When the citizens of the town are made aware that there is money involved, chaos ensues so much that it seems the entire community is warped into a slapstick tradition. Before this moment, it appeared that this town was a model of genteel traditions and social upstanding, but the capital greed suddenly changes everything, sending bride after bride from all shapes, sizes, and classes. The humor loses all tradition of narrative-driven realism in favor of “lowering” these once genteel characters into the humor of the working class by exposing the genteel women’s true desire. [3]  

What follows then, includes truly some of Keaton’s most pure slapstick gags. More than Keaton’s other feature films, the second half strictly coheres to the principles of the slapstick chase, with almost any other narrative elements completely eliminated. Knopf writes, “The majority of the remainder of the film is made up of a chase so vast—on such a large physical and spatial scale and so greatly exceeding the narrative requirements—that it nearly consumes the narrative altogether.”[4] As Jimmy learns that Mary has accepted his proposal, he must flee from the hoards of women and make it back to her home. At this point, one must wonder had Keaton seen the Edwin S. Porter comedy How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personal Columns (1904), which has striking similarities to this second half. However, it remains a structural similarity only—Keaton’s gags are more elaborate and simply more fantastical than anything Porter even came close to. The brides are not a dozen but in the hundreds, and the chase includes multiple vehicles, swarms of bees, giant cranes, and most famously, an avalanche of boulders. The boulders are perhaps the complete perfection of the slapstick comedy—where Keaton was once originally running from women with motivations, they are replaced by concrete, unstoppable objects of chaos, as they solely act as spectacle. As Mowes notes, “They become the perfect visual symbols of pure, idolized comic threat…an ultimate symbol of all the evasions and runnings and bare survivals of all comic heroes.[5] And that is not even to speak of where exactly this gigantic hill is even in relation to the film’s central narrative space it originally set up—the film almost enters a dreamscape logic in order to reach the film’s apex of pure slapstick, moving as far away from the film’s initial humor as possible.

[1]Mowes notes that the shot is the 216th out of 424 shots, almost exactly in the middle of the film. Mowes, Keaton, 142.
[2]Ibid., 143.
[3]Mowes makes an argument regarding the gender reversals at play here as well. Ibid., 154-155.
[4]Knopf, The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton, 94.
[5]Mowes, Keaton, 150.

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