On the Rails

The Great Stone Face in the Great White North.

On October 4th, 1896, Joseph Frank Keaton entered the world in a clangorous railroad town called Piqua, Kansas. Sixty-eight autumns later, as the legendary silent screen comedian he had become, Buster Keaton crossed Canada on a mechanized railway handcart for the making of The Railrodder, a 1965 National Film Board production promoting the scenic splendour of our country. Less than a year later, the Great Stone Face, as he was nicknamed due to his stoic on-screen expression, was dead.

Rarely is a life so neatly and perfectly framed. That Buster Keaton—whose most celebrated film, The General (1926), involves the theft of a Confederate locomotive during the American Civil War—should enter and exit the world to the clatter of trains is a poignant and artistic structure worthy of the man’s own directorial genius. Ironic, too, given that Keaton’s name—along with those of Chaplin, Lloyd, Fairbanks, Pickford, and so many others—is synonymous with silence, that golden and increasingly rare commodity.

But it is the silencing of that silent culture that intrigues me, the vanishing of one rich world and the emergence of another that might be less rich, less human, less moving, for this is perhaps what we are experiencing now in our “age of ubiquitous computing,” as Adam Greenfield describes it, an age where the line between the real and virtual worlds becomes increasingly blurred.

I know something about this vanishing myself, having spent the first thirty years of my life actively involved in a vital industry that has all but disappeared (commercial salmon fishing) and the last seventeen years labouring as a writer in a culture with ever-diminishing patience for the apparently complex devices of metaphor, symbolism, and extensive character development, a culture intent on exchanging physical interactions for digitized ones. In fact, it’s my growing sense of frustration with contemporary life’s pace, attention span, and attitude towards reality that has drawn me into Keaton’s dramatic spiral circa the late nineteen-twenties, when sound changed the movies forever, when he lost artistic control over his projects, and when he began a thirty year slide into alcoholism and obsolescence that almost made his story a classic tragedy instead of a classic comedy.

But it is wonder and joy, as much as frustration, that focuses my weary forty-seven-year-old gaze on Keaton when, in the final scene of The Railrodder, he arrives at the shores of Boundary Bay, in White Rock, British Columbia, climbs off the railway handcar and, hands behind his back, gazes out at the Pacific. Much of the past 115 years since Keaton’s birth have condensed into the figure of that lonely old man at the edge of the sea, and his own mortality. So much of our modern sense of what constitutes entertainment, art, and meaning washes up against those legendary flat shoes and lifts the brim of that iconic porkpie hat. But what haunts me is that a few miles down the highway, in Ladner, British Columbia, that same October in 1964, I lay in my crib, eight months old, pre-language, pre-walking, but already forgetting the mysterious art of the first silences and the first rhythms that we are all destined to forget.

It is, in the grand scheme of “brushes with fame,” a small matter. And yet small matters are the origin of creativity. Would Keaton, for example, even have made The General if he’d not been born in a railroad town? Would I be fascinated with Keaton and silence if I had not, at the age of five, watched with avid delight several of his short films projected onto the side of a neighbour’s house one summer evening as the familiar musk of salmon washed over the town and the larger-than-life black-and-white figures on the clapboard moved with all the rippling, disorienting speed of the sockeye seeking to escape my father’s net?

A small matter. Like silent film, railroads, and poetry.

And already I can see Keaton turning away from the ocean, and the close-up reveals the iconic, unsmiling expression on his face, which is not stone or unchanging, but alive with stoic incredulity at the fate of humans in the hands of the Fates. For Buster Keaton experienced the death of two vibrant cultures: vaudeville and the silent cinema.

In the first case, he was an incredibly gifted young man in his early twenties who realized that the movies were set to replace vaudeville as the dominant form of popular entertainment. In 1917, he took a large pay cut to leave the stage and team up with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle to begin making two-reel comedies in which bags of flour hit people square in the face and the logic of the perfect gag ruled the day.

In the second case, a mere decade later, after he had made all of the films on which his reputation is based, the advent of “the talkies” demoted Keaton to a contract player in the Hollywood studio system and effectively wiped out all opportunities for his genius to flourish. By 1933, still famous but now hopelessly drunk and miserable, he was not prepared for change. For the next twenty years, until a widely-read James Agee article celebrating the silent screen comedians appeared in Life magazine, Buster Keaton disappeared from the public consciousness. When he re-emerged, his stoic face much-wrinkled, worn with the decades of heavy drinking and smoking, he took whatever work was offered to him, appearing in hundreds of television shows and a string of “pajama” movies such as Beach Blanket Bingo and How To Stuff A Wild Bikini. Imagine Laurence Olivier making a cameo appearance in an Adam Sandler movie and you’ll have a sense of the sadness involved.

But Keaton, who never considered himself an artist, and who distrusted all intellectual efforts to deem him one, was delighted to have the work; he was old, and he had been neglected a long time. To dress up as a cigar-store Indian and say “How” to teenagers in bikinis was perfectly fine by him; he was not a pretentious man in any way, and often resented high praise for his silent films, dismissing it as all that “genius bullshit.” But still, his work through the fifties and early sixties was sad; he was one of America’s greatest film directors, yet for nearly three decades he directed nothing.

Then Canada came calling. To be precise, a young director working for the National Film Board named Gerald Potterton came calling. He wanted Keaton to cross Canada by mechanized railway handcart and he wanted him to play himself, as in the glory days, with silence and the artistry of expression and physical movement, with gags. And he wouldn’t be dressed as a cigar-store Indian this time. Nor would there be any girls in bikinis. This was Canada in 1964, still a land known for dramatic and even imposing natural grandeur, not a wannabe sophisticated urban playground seemingly anxious to leave its rural past and hokey history behind. This was a Canada built by the railroad. Under the hum of the steel on the rails you could hear Don Messer’s violin, you could hear Tommy Douglas fighting for Medicare, you could hear people talk about national dreams without sneering or chuckling, but you could also hear the machinery destroying the very land Potterton and the NFB were setting out to celebrate.

At first, Keaton resisted Canada’s call. In July, 1964, when Potterton visited him in New York and asked if he’d be interested in appearing in the Canada travelogue film, Keaton, according to biographer Marion Meade, experienced a rapid change of heart. Keaton looked at the kid director and rolled his eyes. “Sounds crazy,” he said. Suddenly a racket down on Central Park South sent him clomping to the window. He pulled it up and stuck his head out. “Quiet!” he bawled at Manhattan. Then he closed the window and turned back to Potterton. “I’ll do it. When do we start?” He never could resist trains.

The Railrodder began shooting in Halifax on September 5th. The weather was already cool, and everyone involved in the film shuddered to think what the conditions would be like once they hit the Rockies. But Keaton was in his element. A documentary on the filming of The Railrodder, made at the same time and narrated by the legendary NFB filmmaker Donald Brittain, revealed Keaton as a moody, shy, sometimes petulant man, but one whose personality exploded into life whenever he discussed the delicious mechanics of a gag. His voice might have been gravelly from decades of chain-smoking, his iconic face  flaccid with the ravages of time and alcohol, but the creative spark that took him to the heights of movie stardom in the nineteen-twenties remained.

So did the physical courage and stamina. From the beginning of his screen life, Keaton always performed his own stunts, including the breathtaking 1928 scene in Steamboat Bill Jr. when a whole house-front collapses on him and he escapes because he’s standing exactly where the frame of an open second-storey window passes over him. An inch to either side and he never would have been around to visit Canada at all in the autumn of 1964.

But there he is, emerging fully-clothed from the cold Atlantic (his character, in London, had read a newspaper headline, “See Canada Now,” jumped off a bridge and swum over); there he is, finding the abandoned railway handcar on the tracks, climbing aboard, and rapidly heading west; and there he is again, on a 200-foot-high trestle bridge with a giant fold-out map wrapped around him, covering his face, as the handcar zips ever onward. That last gag caused some turmoil between the star and his young director. Potterton thought the stunt was far too dangerous and ordered a safer scene. Keaton demurred and shot the scene Potterton’s way, but the documentary records his frustration afterwards. “I generally know what I’m doing,” he says. “That’s not dangerous. It’s child’s play, for the love of Mike.”

The next day, Potterton reshot the scene the way Keaton wanted it. The map on the trestle bridge is one of the comic highlights of The Railrodder, along with the scene of Keaton having a formal tea complete with fine china (all miraculously stored in a box on the handcar). In essence, Keaton co-directed and co-wrote the film; Potterton himself admitted as much. “Let’s face it,” said the man who would go on to be one of the main animators of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, “he was Buster Keaton, and who the hell was I to tell him what to do?”

Across Canada the crew travelled, over the Prairies and through the Rockies, along the banks of the Fraser, finally arriving at White Rock. The five-week journey had been a comfortable one, accomplished in style on a private railroad car with sleeping compartments and a lounge in which Keaton and his wife—obsessive bridge players—could take rubbers and chain-smoke to their hearts’ content. The travellers even had their own chef and steward. Keaton thoroughly enjoyed the trip.

At one point in the documentary (which itself is a black-and-white tribute to a vanished Canada) the citizens of Rivers, Manitoba gave Keaton the key to their city. A painfully shy man who loathed public appearances, especially when he was the centre of attention, Keaton was nonetheless moved nearly to tears by the gesture. A kilted band had piped him and his wife into the ceremony (O Canada of the kilts and Manitoba mayors handing out keys!), and even this quaint homage humbled the great comedian. The emotion on his famously-stoic face is deeply moving to witness now. He had lived large for a long time, and his life, like The Railrodder, was approaching its terminus. The blend of the comic and tragic, the blend that defines our lives, is writ clearly on the private Keaton’s face as he blinks at the citizens of Rivers, and writ with even greater clarity on the screen Keaton’s back as he stands on the shores of Boundary Bay and gazes westward.

I want to read so much into that old man’s stance. We’re now in the midst of another great technological transition. The world is being rapidly digitized. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide spend endless hours playing virtual reality computer games. Google tracks everyone’s private lives for commercial, and no doubt political, purposes. E-books are replacing material books, and the reading culture of the past several centuries is, like vaudeville and wild salmon and the Amazon rainforest, doomed to extinction, gone the way of nationhood and manners and other quaint rejects from a time when public figures at least paid lip-service to values other than money-making and counting. And here, now, I want to read my own five-decade journey from childhood’s enthusiasm to middle age’s cynicism into Buster Keaton’s lonely figure on a shore only a few miles from my hometown. I want to see him turn, tears on his face, and tell me that it’s all futile but that I have to make the best of a bad situation. “Get a Facebook page, kid,” he might growl. “For the love of Mike, buy one of them iPhones with apps, or at least a laptop computer. You’re doomed if you don’t.” I want to hear him admit that change is painful and that it defines us.

But I can’t. To do so would be to dishonour the wonderful comedian who never for a moment accepted that any aspect of his life had been tragic. As his biographer Meade puts it, “he dealt with the pain of the past by ignoring it.” Indeed, he always felt sorry for his fellow stars of the silent screen, those elderly, moaning nostalgics who never heard a Beatles song. When television first appeared, Keaton liked to tease Charlie Chaplin about his elitist disdain for the new medium. Stoic and bravely engaged with the fates to the end, Buster Keaton wanted only one thing: to make people laugh. The Railrodder is a charming coda to a life spent in pursuit of that goal. That it is also a heartbreaking song to the inevitability of change and its consequent losses is entirely my problem. For The Railrodder does not end with Buster Keaton staring at the Pacific. It ends with a fully-clothed oriental man emerging from the bay, a man dressed in a Keaton-like outfit who, on reaching the tracks, finds the railway handcart reversed and who begins his own silent eastward journey across Canada.

And Keaton? When he discovers that his ride is gone, the Great Stone Face simply begins walking the tracks back in the direction he had come. Such an unrelenting adjustment to fate is the reason we continue to love and celebrate the man’s films. For this reason, I cannot dishonour him. I can do only the opposite. Unwired and unrepentant, I sit in my biological frame and write in longhand the stories and poems that I hope will transcend the limitations of my private self, trust to the old connections between the single imagination and the collective heart, look down the rails at my own and my country’s past, and, like Keaton, walk, stone-faced and off-camera, into the future.


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