My Twitter avatar is Buster Keaton. It’s a screenshot of him, behind bars, from THE GOAT, one of his short films.
People love it. They’ve called it ‘perfect.’ It’s cool to them the way Buster’s bars exactly touch the edges of the frame, as though he’s imprisoned in Twitter’s own digital superstructure. One small, innocent man, peeking out of one window, in a building that has millions of them.
I didn’t think about this when I chose it. I just thought the picture looked funny. But reflecting back on it now, after a couple of years, maybe this little picture sums up why Buster matters so much to me. Not just as a fan of silent films, or as someone who writes about them regularly—but as a modern person, navigating life. Buster is me, or us, in a way the other clowns weren’t.
Almost all of us want to understand how the world works, if only so that we can fit into it better. We want to be happy, comfortable, respected, loved. We want fulfillment, freedom, sex—all the usuals. And the better we ‘get’ our world, particularly the circles in which we want to travel, the easier all this becomes to achieve. I’m not excepting the counter-culture types here either; at heart we all want to succeed on our own terms, and the most alternative person you know still, probably, wants to be part of his or her world. The only people who don’t are hermits—or possibly tramps—and you don’t know many of them.
However, most of us are not fulfilled or successful. And if we are, we’re encouraged not to rest on our laurels—to keep striving. This can be a tense thing, because the world remains big and complicated and we can’t always be sure what we’re striving for, or how reasonable our chances really are. On our bad days, we wonder if we’re good enough; on our worst days, we get metaphysical: wondering if the world is designed to thwart us.
It is a gigantic, amoral, mysterious, multi-geared machine of a world like this that all of Buster Keaton’s characters occupy, and yet, every version of him does his best to work within it. Think of the newlywed in ONE WEEK: a man who dreams of building a house; who owns the parts; who has the instructions for assembly and the mindset to follow them strictly. And he does. And he’s destroyed, because unknown to him, the man his wife turned down has changed the numbers on the crates. The house has all the right pieces, but none in the right order.
And yet he tries and tries to make it right. Just as he tries to please the people he cares about, from the sweet wife in that film to the cruel girlfriends in SPITE MARRIAGE and THE GENERAL. Can you imagine one of Fatty Arbuckle’s louts negotiating the terrain of social graces that Buster must in OUR HOSPITALITY? What about the Tramp? I think the Tramp would sooner get drunk.
The exceptions prove the rule. Buster’s sociopathic gunman in THE FROZEN NORTH is a dream; just like his alpha-male master sleuth in SHERLOCK, JR. In THE NAVIGATOR, Buster’s hero is born into wealth, but it does him no good. All Buster’s little fellows are part of the system, trying to work their way through it. They’re never trying to escape it. That would mean giving up.
Back to the Twitter thing. I was saying (actually, tweeting) to someone just today about how most people on Twitter are trying to promote themselves, one way or another. They have a sense of their own smallness, because they think so much about the world, in its vastness. They also think about how to get bigger, and see Twitter as a tool that can help. They’re convinced it can be done.
That’s a modern philosophy, and it’s a Buster philosophy all the way.
How would the other clowns approach Twitter? Lloyd would tweet regular updates about the weather and his kids’ favorite songs. Langdon wouldn’t get it—he’d try updating from his rotary phone. Arbuckle would spam you. And Chaplin, I think, wouldn’t have an account, though you’d still hear from him somehow. But Buster would be there.
It’s Buster, in spirit and in shared plight, who speaks to us best.
Now, none of this makes him better than the others. For what it’s worth, I give Buster the nod for best silent comedy feature (THE GENERAL), but not for best short (Arbuckle’s CONEY ISLAND and HE DID AND HE DIDN’T transcend even COPS and THE PLAYHOUSE). Nor was Buster the actor, innovator, businessman, or comedy polymath that Chaplin was. But Buster had genius, and his particular brand of it has aged the best.
You know… I don’t call Chaplin, Arbuckle or Lloyd by their first names. Funny thing, that.