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  • Buster Keaton and Modern European Drama. An American Filmmaker Anticipating Aesthetic Multiplicity

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Produktart: Buch
Verlag: Diplomica Verlag
Erscheinungsdatum: 11.2022
AuflagenNr.: 1
Seiten: 64
Sprache: Englisch
Einband: Paperback


As one of the most ingenious artists of the silent film era, Buster Keaton stands out for his legendary comedies. While drawing on vaudeville traditions, he also knew how to exploit techniques the new medium film offered to create – visually surprising – comic situations, many of which became an unforgettable part of film history. Transferring and adapting his theatrical skills to the screen, he invented a whole new repertoire of aesthetic devices. Numerous elements of his approach to the art of mise-en-scène would turn up again, albeit in modified and more radical forms, in dramatic theories and plays of playwrights such as Bertolt Brecht, Luigi Pirandello, Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, and Antonin Artaud. This study looks at how Buster Keaton anticipated an aesthetic multiplicity that would come to shape dramatic concepts, the art of representation, and the language of performance in modern European theatre.


Textprobe: Kapitel 2.1. Discontinuity through the multiplicity of narratives and their presentation: As Walter Benjamin explains in Versuche über Brecht, European theatre in the twentieth century evolved into ‘episches Theater’, epic theatre, with the stage becoming a so-called ‘Ausstellungsraum’, that is an exhibition space where the act of representation is literally made visible and every spectator is an observer with their own special interests. Buster Keaton, of course, never chose such a radical approach. At times, though, he does allow the audience to focus on the act of storytelling rather than the story itself. He achieves this effect primarily by interspersing the plot with gags and twists that are more essential for the story than logical smoothness. One device to underline the act of telling a story consists in presenting it in various versions. In The Three Ages (1923), Buster Keaton’s first feature-length comedy and a parody of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, the same story is told three times (with the same actors). The first version takes place in the Stone Age, the second one in the Roman Age, and the third one in the 1920s. Every plot is divided into sequences, with each sequence being presented separately in the respective period of time. By choosing this method of representation, Keaton draws the spectator’s attention away from the storyline. As Robert Knopf observes, ‘[s]ince the story and outcome remain essentially the same in each era, the focus shifts from what will happen to how it will happen, emphasizing the variety of ways Keaton performs similar gags from era to era’. The spectator is invited to consciously watch the artist’s techniques of storytelling just as the artist consciously uses them. Through their respective awareness of the act of representation, both the artist and the spectator gain their own distance in relation to the story. With regard to Keaton, this awareness is essentially vital as his art originated from improvisation. An idea, a prop, or even just a gag were enough to spark off an entire comedy. This technique stemmed from the vaudeville tradition where the audience followed the action onstage without being led to focus on how it was being presented. In The Three Ages, by contrast, it is precisely Keaton’s meta-artistic approach to presenting the plot that defines and emphasizes the variation of his comic ideas – and vice versa. By playing with exclusively filmic devices, Keaton equally makes the spectator recognize the possibilities for destroying the illusory character of film itself that are inherent in the art of filmmaking. Long before the camera became the centre of action and attention in The Cameraman, he had already used it as an explicit tool in some of his early films. In those works, he considered and treated the camera not only as a recording device but also as a technical instrument that enabled him to establish a relationship between himself – the artist – and the audience. Walter Kerr claims that it was Keaton who ‘[…] called attention to the camera’s presence as a barrier’, thus making the spectator become aware of their position. The camera is there, the artist is free to play with it. Although Keaton prefers long shots in order to create a distinctive effect (a phenomenon discussed later in this study), there are moments in his films when the camera – and with it the spectator – is literally at the character’s heels. In these instances, the comic hero and the spectator share the same experience, most often that of surprise. The entire chase sequence in Cops (1922) is built on this principle. Each time the main character, Buster, has managed to delude the policemen and is shown in an empty space, the perspective changes, with the house walls on either side of the street forming the natural frame of the image. Only after a fraction of time does the entire apparatus of men come running around the corner and thus into view for Buster as well as the spectator. With the action initially being hidden from the protagonist’s and the spectator’s eyes, they both experience a feeling of surprise. Yet, its effect on them is entirely different. While the hero realizes that for him the consequences are serious, the spectator’s reaction is laughter. This prevents the audience from identifying with the character’s situation and the filmic reality at large. Another scene where the presence of the camera – and the power in the hands of the artist to play with it – is highlighted occurs in the short film One Week (1920). While the wife of Keaton’s character is taking a bath, the soap falls onto the floor. In order to allow her to reach it and to remain undisturbed by the audience’s view in this delicate moment, a hand covers the lens. Preventing the spectator from watching the action that still continues makes them aware of their position as observer. It is a silent comment that, precisely by interrupting the process of watching without halting the actual continuity of the action, provokes the spectator’s detachment from the events unfolding onscreen. In disrupting the continuity of the story line by relying on purely cinematic devices, Keaton achieves an effect comparable to the Verfremdungseffekt as advocated by Bertolt Brecht. In this context, though, it is important to understand how the comic in the works of both artists is defined through their respective use of meta-artistic means. Keaton employs meta-filmic devices to literally stage his vaudeville stunts. Through this kind of mise-en-scène, he creates the basically comic nature of his silent films without dismissing the occasionally serious note. Brecht, for his part, draws on meta-theatrical devices to underline his plays’ often sarcastic criticism of contemporary political and social circumstances, allowing only for an underlying – mostly bitter – comic.

Über den Autor

Esther Reginbogin was born in 1975 in Gera, Germany. She studied English, French and Comparative Literature at the University of East Anglia in Norwich and the Université Stendhal in Grenoble. She completed her Master of Arts in Drama and Theatre Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. After her studies, she spent a year in Italy where she worked as a German language teacher. During that time, she began to work as a freelance translator. In recent years, she has mostly translated non-fiction texts and screenplays from English and French into German. She has now turned her attention to becoming an author. Her focus lies on the history of theatre and cinema in France, Great Britain and the United States between the beginning of the twentieth century and the 1960s, and especially on character actors from these countries and that time and their respective styles of acting.

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