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This book unearths the mechanics of silent comedy and illuminates Buster Keaton's work as relevant to twenty-first century society. Noel Carroll does this through careful analysis of the iconography of The General, which explores the structure of the gags and is underpinned by compelling theories about what makes Keaton's comedy work. The book is at once a triumph of cinematic analysis and a celebration of an all but lost form of comedy.
Carroll's central line of argument is that The General is best understood by viewing Keaton as an engineer: someone who is constantly engaged with, and reveals to his audience, the physical processes of the environment and a man's interactions with it. Keaton's gags, he argues, centre on a theme of 'bodily intelligence', where we laugh at the character's successes and failures in adapting to the causal processes and possibilities of the world around him. This has two basic forms in The General, which are the representation of the world on film, such as Keaton's abundant attention to detail in showing the viewer how events occur as causal processes, and the character's ways of coping with the physical world, in which problem-solving exercises provide the humor. These two forms of representation and coping with the world underlie all of Carroll's analysis.
The Introduction sets the scene by explaining the theoretical approach in two ways. Firstly, Carroll acknowledges the implicit reliance on phenomenology, which is evident in his characterization of Keaton as an engineer. However, this is only an undercurrent, which is not discussed and which may not be evident to non-philosophers, but nonetheless provides an illuminating backdrop against which to view the argument. Secondly, he explains his emphasis on iconography, rather than narrative, as a rejection of the 'allegorical' or 'literary' approach to film analysis. That is, The General is analyzed in terms of the way the comedy arises out of Keaton's movements and his use of shooting, editing and composition, which Carroll argues is the best way to grasp the abiding theme of physicality.
Chapter 1 employs this method to explicate the theme of The General. Carroll argues that attention to the narrative drama might lead us to think the theme is the transcendent power of love, but this does not square with the visual structure of the film. He demonstrates that the theme is bodily intelligence through analysis of the closing scene when the Keaton character finally learns to kiss his girl and salute his comrades simultaneously, where the dominant theme is bodily adaptability rather than the power of love (p. 22-24). This visual approach, as opposed to the narrative alternative, gets to the heart of exactly what makes Keaton funny and is Carroll's consistent approach throughout. There is no doubt that Carroll's iconographic analysis here and elsewhere is precise and well-versed, but occasionally he multiples examples beyond necessity, which sometimes overemphasizes the point and diminishes the magic of Keaton's comedy (p. 35).
Chapter 2 follows in this vain to explain how the visual style of The General embodies the theme of bodily intelligence. Carroll notes how Keaton uses editing to display step by step causal processes and the long shot to show the audience complete accounts of how things happen. Here is an excellent example of Carroll's attention to detail in the way that he explores the opening of the film and imagines other compositions Keaton could have used to convey the story (p. 88). A very careful analysis of Keaton's use of the longshot and the diagonal composition enables Carroll to argue that the style of The General aims to show the audience exactly how events occur (p. 76-96). He then ties this in with the theme of bodily intelligence, arguing that Keaton's physical comedy requires a purely physical analysis. Carroll shows himself to be knowledgeable in both the technical and historical aspects of cinema, which only adds weight to his arguments. This is furthered in Chapter 3, where Carroll compares Keaton's achievement of these thematic and stylistic features to a particular film by each of Chaplin, Lloyd and Langdon. However, it feels as if this comparative analysis, although expertly marshaled on Carroll's part, is only compelling if the reader is familiar with the films in question, as we are provided with no argument for why this choice of examples is not arbitrary or a straw man argument.
All of this ties together the theme of bodily intelligence and the style of visual intelligibility through careful analysis of the structure of The General. In an Appendix, Carroll explains his lack of attention to narrative as a result of his wish to keep the analysis purely iconographical. Here he offers a brief analysis of the narrative of The General in which he makes the illuminating argument that comedy is centrally derived from an incongruity between the audiences' expectations and what actually unfolds on the screen. This is the beginnings of a theory of comedy which can be seen in Carroll's current philosophical work.
Comedy Incarnate will appeal to film theorists who are interested in this style of analysis, and it will also appeal to Buster Keaton fans who wish for a deeper understanding of the comedy that so delights them. More generally, the book will find an audience in those who are interested in theories of comedy. The writing is sometimes quite technical, since Carroll relies a great deal on deep cinematic analysis, but this is unproblematic for the most part because of his use of clear examples. As such, the book is able to reach out to anyone with an interest in understanding silent cinema since it does not require any background theoretical knowledge.
Aside from the obvious passion which Carroll has for Keaton and his mastery of precise analysis, Comedy Incarnate has a major virtue for those who are not philosophically inclined, but simply interested in cinema. The book offers an explanation of why Keaton is as relevant and interesting today as he has ever been. Carroll sets the imagery of the railroad worker in the context of 1920s America where manual labor was being replaced by a service, sales and clerical work culture and argues that Keaton here aims to celebrate the lost physical engagement with the world. This, Carroll notes, chimes with contemporary viewers more than ever and offers audiences a way of relating to The General. Thus Comedy Incarnate is at once a careful piece of film analysis and a celebration of a timeless film that will renew readers' interest in both film theory and silent comedy.
© 2009 Daniel Barnes
Daniel Barnes has recently completed a PhD in aesthetics at the University of Nottingham, UK and is currently searching for employment as a philosopher. He is currently writing a series of papers on the philosophy of architecture and researching a book on the debate about interpretations of a painting of shoes by van Gogh.