Sunday, November 09, 2008

Buster Keaton: Go West Young Man

We saw Buster Keaton’s Go West at the Pacific Film Archive, and the movie was not only funny, but a surprising existential commentary on our capitalist life of supposed progress and survival that rings true today.

Buster Keaton, who plays the character Friendless, turns the convention of the lone, stoic Western hero on its head—remarkably before the advent of the genre of Westerns in Hollywood (Go West was made in 1925). It’s as if Keaton is already poking fun at the likes of Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin through his farcical follies.

Although Friendless possesses the traditional characteristics of the solitary man seeking fortune and self in the brutal West, he does so with a tiny, feminine gun that’s a wonderful recurring metaphor throughout the film. He can never find the gun in his six-shooter holster, so he has to tie a string to it to pull it out. Finding it isn’t really the problem, however; the gun is powerless to do harm in such a hard, brutish world, just as Friendless in incapable of exerting himself in any effective way.

He’s a man who would do no one any harm, a simple trait that defines his beauty and all of the comedy that befalls him—knocking him down relentlessly, in fact.

He tries his hand at bronco-busting, cattle wrangling, and dairy farming, eventually forming a bond with a cow named "Brown Eyes," who is an oddball among the cows and ostracized from the herd just as Friendless is. They form a touching bond, following each other around and helping each other in their gentle yet absurd ways. Friendless even tries to disguise Brown Eyes as a deer to save her from the slaughterhouse, but no one is tricked by the horns tied to her head.

Keaton tries to buy Brown Eyes from the hard-hearted rancher to save her from the slaughterhouse, but even his life savings come up short. Still, he ends up leading the herd of cattle through Los Angeles in what must certainly have established the chase scene in movies because he knows the rancher will be ruined if the cows don’t make it to the stockyards.

The scene in Los Angeles echoes a previous scene in New York, where Friendless tried to go before heading west. In New York, he’s unable to even walk down the sidewalk because so many people are walking in such a harried and hurried manner, like the white water rapids of a river, knocking him backward onto the rocks. The scene is hilarious, with people literally walking over Keaton as he squirms onto the street for refuge from the stampeding masses—only to be bumped by an oncoming car that also neglects to observe his existence.

You might say the movie is about stampedes, and our inability to avoid them. Interestingly, the cows and bulls seem even more sensitive and observant than the human stampede in this film--we are the mindless beasts! People are doomed in their march toward prosperity because they can’t see anything but their pocketbooks, and when they see an easy mark like Friendless, they take advantage of him as a predator kills its prey.

In the end, however, the rancher recognizes that he’d be nothing without Friendless. It’s the human bond, decency in the face of adversity, that proves most valuable. Friendless gets in the rancher’s car with Brown Eyes, both of them sitting comically in the back seat, hopefully off to a happy ending, but we can't trust that they'll be safe for long.

The wonderful thing about a Buster Keaton movie is the idea that haplessness is a trait that’s a treasure. His characters don’t possess guile, strength, or smarts, which make them victims in this world, but they do possess a strange yet unwavering sense of how one should live—in pursuit of the most rudimentary pleasures, without malice, trusting in a cow that’s a loyal friend of all things.

Friendship and loyalty matter after all--if only to save us from the slaughterhouses that await us.

Check out this montage from Go West accompanied by Tex Ritter:

Also, here's the first ten minutes of the movie:

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