Tag Archives: Sociology

Class Notes: “The General”

10 Jul

The Great, "The General"

One. Of. My. Favorite. Movies. Ever.

Counting gun powder-in the canon...

There, I said it. I am notorious for never picking just one movie as a favorite film. There are oh-so many!

But you can mark this one down as an ageless classic. It is just that good.

“The General” is the story about a young man, Johnnie Gray, in love with two different entities, his train and his girlfriend. The Civil War rolls through to turn his life upside down when he is rejected by the enlistment office. Now a social outcast, he loses the love of his girl and of his town; all he has left is the love of his train. But, the War takes that too, when Northern spies hijack his General in an attempt to foil the oncoming Confederate army. Things get even more complicated, when Johnnie discovers the spies have not only taken his train but his ex-love as well. It’s a train race to end all train races as the love of machine, women, and country must succeed!

Excited yet?

Why so sad, Stone Face?

Great, because Buster Keaton never shows it. It’s a silent comedy, but instead of the over-acted comic antics of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, audiences got Buster Keaton’s stoic face. He never over reacts, he almost just accepts what is going around him and deals with it. The Great Stone Face never smiled, not once, during his entire movie career. It’s particularly hilarious now, when overacting is the usual response of present-day comedies.

Shock and awe-it's still what brings in the crowds today...

This movie is monumental in a number of ways. It’s the most expensive comedy of the silent era, with the most expensive scene ever shot for a silent film. It’s the climax of the great train race finishes with a dive into the river. According to imdb.com, the scene cost about $42,000  and the extras were not informed of what was going on. Surprise! The train actually remained there until WWII when it was reused for scrap metal.

Another note for the movie was how large the scale is, and keep in mind, this was an independent film maker doing his own script. Entire armies, cities, and railroad tracks were constructed and made to look as if they were straight out of 1862. National guardsmen provided the man power and a lot of the ammunition that’s thrown about the Oregon countryside. Yes, being that this is Hollywood, they filmed it in a place that wasn’t where the story is supposed to be. However, Oregon was the closest Buster and his crew could find that had a lot of the old rail ways from that era still intact, not to mention plenty of space to reconstruct an antebellum village.

Did I mention he was serious about his comedy? Take this exerpt from a documentary on the comedian. How many directors tell you to film until they say “cut” or are killed?

Love, or something like it.

My only sour point of this review is unfortunately, Johnnie’s girlfriend. Annabelle is the stereotypical female role: damsel in distress, the daddy’s girl, the clueless housewife. I understand it’s for comic effect, like the scene when Annabelle throws out a log intended for the train’s engine because it has a gaping hole in the middle. In its place, she finds a stick and throws that into the fire. You can see illogical situation and its ensuing couple frustration as she becomes more of a hindrance than a help to Johnnie’s escape. I am taking this course in the context of sociology, so gender roles are one of the cornerstones we look at in a movie. It’s offensive that she is merely reduced to the role of the “dumb blond.” But I do not think this is Buster’s fault entirely. Prior to “The General,” all of the female leads in Buster’s films were calm, cool, and collected. They were not ditsy, but could follow what Buster was attempting as a solution to the problems they faced. I don’t recall them being hindrances, but rather as obstacles, as some women originally reject his romantic appeals.  Women were something Buster had to both respect and understand. Perhaps he was trying out a different approach to his comedies, but I can’t love this movie as much as I loved “Steamboat Bill” or “Sherlock, Jr.” It’s just not the same.


On a final note, this movie also marked the end of a promising independent director. As expensive as everything was, audience didn’t get it. Some detested that the protagonist was a Southerner and others, mainly film critics of the time, did not like that there was so much seriousness and suspense in the comedy. It was a great financial flop, one that Buster never quite recuperated from. A few smaller budget films after, he decided to sign a contract with MGM Studios against the advice from friends and coworkers (Charlie Chaplin was even said to have called him and pleaded with him not to go through with the deal). He did so, thinking this would secure funding for his future projects without much frustration. He was sadly mistaken. MGM pulled him from behind the camera, threw out his scripts, and reduced him to a bit player in awful (I mean, what-the-hell-is-this awful) comedies. His stardom faded, and MGM reduced him to writing gags for the Marx brothers. Stripped of control over his work, Buster turned to drinking and toiled in obscurity for years. It was not until the New Wave critics like Godard and Truffaut rediscovered his work and brought back his movies to film festivals. Towards the end of his life, in between acting in awful comedies, Buster would find work in ensemble pieces like “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Around the World in 60 Days.” He finally received the much delayed honor of respected filmmaker after the screening of the rediscovered “The General” at the Venice Film Festival. When the picture ended, the crowd stood and gave the longest applause ever in the Festival’s history. Respect for the Great Stone Face had come at last.

Thanks to Dr. Macro for the gorgeous stills.

And for the one-off opportunity, I can share this film with you-in its entirety. Enjoy, don’t be afraid to let me know what you think about it. (May I suggest turning off the sound on this version, unless you find the better, Carl Davis scored one for the film-most of the versions out on the internet will be filled with music that does not suit the film. This version starts with “Pomp and Circumstance,” your graduation song. Ya, feel free to slap on any other music at that point…) Side note: this version is also MUCH slower than usual, as it’s played at the incorrect film speed. Silent movies were filmed by hand, with the average frame rate per second was 18-21. TV in the US is braodcast at about 29 frames per second. Some technitians slow down the film in order to make it appear less jittery than if played at the TV speed. This is why I recommend watching movies live…

Avoid the Sepia version that’s online, there’s a good ten minutes missing from the start of the film.

Here’s the link to another version, thankfully with better sound but with a loss of film quality. So, if you want to get fancy, play the score from here while watching the other version

An article just recently published on Keaton’s legacy, namely his stunts in the movie, “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” Keaton famously did ALL of his own stunts, save one in the movie “College.”



Class Notes: “Birth of a Nation”

2 Jul

So I know it’s summer. It’s grogeous out, I’m in one of the busiest cities in the world. But, ya know what I miss?

NOT being in school.

It’s summer, and I’m still in class.

Thankfully, first semester of summer class have passed (and I will never forgive the computer science professor who gave me a “B+” off of a 89.9, curse you!). The second slew of classes have just started, and you, dear reader, will benefit from it. Without having to attend the lectures nor write the papers, I will discuss my Film and Society class. A Sociology class, but one that speaks to two of my loves: social constructs and film history. Let the paper writing commence!

It's the stuff of nightmares.

Our first film was none other than the very beautifully shot, loathsome piece of historical bullshit, “Birth of a Nation.” Part imagined history, part love story, 110% racist. They just don’t make ’em like they used to.

Thank the Lord they don’t. Talk about the most awkward 3 hours and then some I had to sit through for a movie. Any movie, let alone a silent film, which for those who haven’t sat through “The Cheat”, “Broken Blossoms”, “The Sheik”, etc., are some of the most racist films in history. And they were wildly popular (with “Birth of a Nation” becoming the highest grossing silent film).  Cinema techniques pioneered by the talented Mr. Griffth can not even begin to make up for the blatant charicatures and offensive stereotypes of the black characters in the “story.” I place the quotation marks on “story” because it is a thinly veiled argument for the superiority of the white man who, according to the “story”, is the only one who can restore polite society and order to this country. Excuse me, while I grab the bucket-this film should make everyone sick to their stomachs.

As a modern movie-goer, it was difficult to see how this movie was so popular across the country. Partially because of the controversy and boycotts surrounding it, curious movie patrons ended checking it out, but crowds were said to have enjoyed it. People whooped and hollered at the arrival of the Klan in the nick of time to save the white family from certain death. Meanwhile, I’m horrified at one point during the climax of the battle, a father prepares to murder his daughter next to her fiance in order to “protect” her from the incoming battalion of black men. Um…

A painful still from "Birth of a Nation."

Yet that’s not even the worst of it. Incredibly, all “leading” black actors (maids, mulattoes, and traitors) are actually white actors and actresses in blackface. There’s an affair hinted between a crooked politician and his mulatto maid (who gets off when he “talks powerfully”). She manipulates him into making “bad decisions” like appointing another mulatto to be his apprentice for the senate. Basically, the writer said that mixed race individuals were not to be trusted. Who is this asshole and how the hell did he get to screen this trash at the White House? Oh, being best friends with Woodrow Wilson helps, I guess.

Even West Point lent a helping hand by providing the correct Civil War strategies and the artillery. This is unfortunately one of the only historical accuracies in the entire film. However, D.W. Griffith succeeded in not only creating film history, but for a long time rewriting American history. Historical scholars had to remount assessments on the Reconstruction Period in order to check the information the movie portrayed as a “true account” of the time.

Now, while I hated, detested, and loathed every minute of this film, I do not think every negative of it should be burned or that it should be banned. It’s the first time in film many editing techniques are used, but aside from that, I do not believe we should erase a portion of our country’s tumultuous times from the early twentieth century. It was horrible, it pitted people against their neighbors and spurned a thousand debates. However, burning Mein Kampf or destroying this film does not benefit society. We learn from the mistakes of our past. By depriving generations of the hard learned lessons of the outcomes of apartheid, holocaust, segregation, and genocide we do nothing but allow those cursed doors to be reopened by the ignorant.

I do not believe that “Birth of a Nation” should not be viewed in any setting that is not an academic. It is not entertainment; that appeal should have died the day it was released. But it should remain a lesson, a testament not only to the cruelties of man, but also to the manipulative abilities that historical writers can wield. Outside of an academic setting, the ideas can not be discussed and the hurt emotions from the audience would be neglected. It is a painful lesson to watch, told from viewpoint of the men who benefited from the Jim Crow laws. Unapologetic, the film is both a masterpiece and curse to cinema history. The world’s first blockbuster is also one of the worst lies ever told about the human race. Good and bad are delineated by the color of one’s skin, and the attempt to equalize the groups leads to death and war. Never have I ever sat through so much torture in a film, for it was not the blood and guts of a horror film but the damages done by regular people to each other. You tear up not from the “redemption” from the coming of the Klan but from the injustice done to the portrayal of the so-called villains. Little lies in this movie are strung together to form a horrific portrait of a America that did and did not exist.