Part of the Series The Silent Artists
Last month I unearthed an old college notebook from the one film class I ever took. The first 13 pages of lecture notes were almost exclusively about Buster Keaton. Clearly the professor had a yen for The Great Stoneface. But there was something more telling in the way he introduced Keaton to our class, as reflected in my first page of notes:
Chaplin = heavily sentimental, full of pathos
Keaton = more reposed, rigid in the face of adversity, no time wasted from scene to scene
And so it went for 13 pages: the Art of Keaton in all its deadpan kinetic glory. As far as The Little Tramp, arguably the most recognizable icon in movie history, that one line was all my professor had to say. Because this class wasn’t about movies, with its easy sentiments and superficial indulgences. It was about the art of cinema, a distinction my professor was quick to make in the face of so many undergraduates clearly expecting to coast through a gut course watching movies in class. Cinematography, mise en scene, editing: these were the building blocks of film art, all on full display in Keaton’s work, thus making him a supreme cinematic artist, so we were told. It would be years before I even bothered to watch a Chaplin film.
When I did come back to Chaplin, it was something of a mild shock to discover how much there was to his films beyond the sentimental pathos my professor disdained. In fact, one could argue that the pathos was exactly what enabled Chaplin’s art to flourish, in how he crafted each scene around an emotional effect with painstakingly precise staging, graced by an elegance of gesture, arriving at its own perfection. While the timing in his films is inarguably more relaxed than Keaton’s, it’s not “wasted,” but rendered in just the right amount of time for a moment to yield its feeling. Where for Keaton space is a hurtling function of time, for Chaplin time is experienced as a kind of space, like watching a blossoming flower expand its petals in a moment that keeps opening itself to us. (Anyone who’s seen the last scene of City Lights knows what I’m talking about).
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I now look back on my film class experience as emblematic of the sentiments that have dominated modern film studies, with its emphasis on distilling a “pure” concept of cinema as the study of motion, exemplified by filmmakers like Keaton at the expense of those like Chaplin. This is but one aspect of a Keaton vs. Chaplin debate that has gone on for decades, a debate that some would say is needless, either because both are equally worthy of our admiration or because one is clearly superior. What I also learned from those Keaton lectures is that you can’t take the valuations of these legendary artists for granted, because there may be another insight that may transform your perspective. That can only be a good thing, because if we do take these artists for granted, they risk stagnating in our collective memory.
So that’s why we are hosting the umpteenth internet debate to determine who’s the best comic artist of the silent era: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd. I know I haven’t mentioned Lloyd until now, but he’s far from being an afterthought, as the case made on his behalf will prove. The hope is that each argument will offer new eyes to see the work of all three afresh. Happy reading, and may the best argument on behalf of these best men win.
Additionally, Roger Ebert has written assessments of all three artists in his Great Movies column:
Kevin B. Lee is Editor of Keyframe on Fandor. Follow him on Twitter.
* Top image found at The Incredible Suit, where blogger Neil Alcock made his own personal ranking of the three comic kings .