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Episode #87: THE GENERAL

  

71 members have voted

  1. 1. Is THE GENERAL Canon worthy?

    • Choo choo!
      64
    • No no!
      7


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Buster Keaton's silent classic is up for Canonization. Devin and Amy talked about it - now it's up to you!

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Don't know how I'm voting yet (probably a yes, don't worry) but here's some Wikipedia articles on what informs the film's views on the Confederacy:

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning_School

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lost_Cause_of_the_Confederacy

 

If you really want to dig into how memory of the Civil War changed and affected American politics, check out Race and Reunion by David W. Blight. You can also watch his entire course on the Civil War and Reconstruction here:

 

(Bonus: I find that Blight's voice is a dead ringer for Harrison Ford.)

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Like Devin, I greatly prefer Sherlock Jr. (can't even say that I LOVED The General) but this needs to be in The Canon. A historical dramedy, and the auteur losing control of his future films after the insanity and bold choices of The General, this film is Canon worthy for its importance and first-ness. Also, I can't really see Hollywood heroizing the Confederacy anymore (which is GOOD), so it should be canonized for representing that time in Hollywood too, right?

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I'd love to see three Keatons in The Canon at least! Sherlock Jr. is an unbelievable work in editing, Steamboat Bill Jr. is an unbelievable work in special effects, and The General is an unbelievable action setpiece. Honestly, as many Keatons as we can agree upon is probably best.

 

Firm yes.

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Yeah. Sherlock, Jr. is the superior achievement, but The General is an honest-to-goodness miracle. It's so full of life, nearly a hundred years later. And there are action films today that don't come close to the level of inventiveness that Keaton has on display here. What's more, I don't think The General could be made today. Keaton is far too involved than actors are allowed to be--unless you're, say, Jackie Chan, and you're already making your own movies anyway. Of course, filmmakers like Chan are hugely influenced by Keaton, and by films like The General.

 

I usually fall more in line with Devin on things, but Amy was totally right. This is so kinetic. I don't even think I checked the time while watching this one, because it's so engrossing. That said, I have felt Devin is a little right about the train stuff. At least the first time around, it does become a bit strained, but it's still so great, and the gags are so awesome that it doesn't even matter. Also, I don't think Keaton is using trick logs. I think he just knew how to make the gag work. Keaton's obviously crazy athletic, and knows how to make far more daring things work with greater authenticity that I can totally believe he really made the beam gag work without any crutches.

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A soft yes.

"Soft" because, honestly, my exposure to silent films, especially the comedic ones (I've seen and love "Noferatu" and "Caligari"), is very limited. Devin alluded that this may not be the best Keaton film, nor movie of this kind, for the Canon but still voted for it; and I'm a "big Canon" person, so I'm fine with it being in there. And I did enjoy how impressed I was by how they pulled off the stunts, especially back in the day.

 

Not much for discussion. One thing, maybe that's been ticking around my head. It is interesting how time has made some icons have more baggage rather than less. The confederacy as the "underdog", it seems so weird to me to separate it from slavery and racism. Not helped by of a lot of modern attempts at revisionist history that do things like try say that the Civil War was primarily about "states rights and personal freedom". (True irony/hypocrisy, arguing that a war over slavery was about maintaining personal freedom.) Honestly, I think one of the things that helps symbols like the confederate flag maintain a degree of heaviness has been the many attempts to redress or be in denial about what those symbols represent.

 

In threads regarding Kevin Smith being a nazi sausage in his new film (quality of said film another subject), I've seen many posts where people are "extremely offended" by his use of nazi symbolism and say it is in "terrible taste" and I've even seen people calling him "antisemitic". Really? I mean, it's Kevin Smith? Talk about him all you want as a questionable film-maker (please), but the guy isn't a nazi. Barely 20 years after WWII Kirk and Spock beam down to the Nazi planet and Hogan's Heroes is a popular Emmy winning TV show. The war was still very fresh in the memory back then, yet something tells me people (honestly, close friends of mine) would probably be up in arms and "offended" if either were to appear on the television today. Possibly more than anyone was back then.

 

I'm rambling a bit, and don't quite have a point. Just random Monday thoughts.

 

[i tried to word this carefully, but, well, also at my job, so apologies in advance if I have to clarify something later that is taken the wrong way or I didn't state something clearly enough. I'm a super lefty and don't support confederacy or nazi, obviously. Removed from that, I'm more attempting to talk about the reaction to symbols when we see them in modern times, so far removed from their original context.]

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Addressing the discussion at the beginning of the episode, what was the first movie that told a Civil War era story favorably disposed towards the Union? The Lost Cause permeated throughout Hollywood, and still does to a certain extent. Pretty much any early movie set in the Civil War or the period around it featured confederate or ex-confederate heroes. Genuine american heroes, like the abolitionist John Brown, were presented as villains (Sante Fe Trail, 1940).

 

To my memory, the first movie that was unambiguously told in favor of the Union and/or the abolitionist cause was Glory (1989), although someone here can assuredly correct me. Okay, sidetrack over.

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I really like Sherlock Jr., but this is Keaton's masterpiece as far as I'm concerned. On first viewings, the pro-Confederacy/glorification of war aspects kinda threw me off, but if can not take those too seriously, this is apparently one of the best films ever made. Big yes!

 

As for Greed, a big problem with doing an episode on it is that it hasn't had a home video release since laserdisc, but catching it on TV or finding it online is about the only way to watch it. On the plus side, you won't have to worry about watching the super long version since it hasn't been known to exist for almost a hundred years. The most complete version available is a bit over two hours long. There is a four hour version, but the extra run time consists of still photos and excerpts from the book, so it's probably only really worth watching as a curiosity. Chances are, the original version will never be seen again.

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Complaining about the train stuff in this movie is a little like complaining that there's too much spaceship stuff in 2001 A Space Odyssey. Keaton's achievement, his tour the force, is precisely how well he sustains the relentless and comprehensive train action.

 

The whole thing about Annabelle shaming Johnnie for not being in uniform is historically accurate in that southern women shamed men into enlisting by appealing to their manhood - and single women would declare that they would only date and marry men who joined the army. If a woman like Annabelle is "a monster" as stated in the podcast, she had plenty of company, and if anything, this scene shows that Keaton did his research. This was pretty typical in past wars. Only ten years before The General was made, during World War I in England, women would hand white feathers to men who were not at the front, in order to disgrace and humiliate them.

 

And the scene is very representative of the economy of narrative characteristic of the silent era, where they had to get the exposition and character motivations done quickly - and often without subtlety - in the titles of "dialogue" scenes. In any case, the scene sets up the gag that made me fall in love with the film, where Keaton sits on the cranks of the locomotive, and when it starts moving he stays there, oblivious, going up and down, enraptured by his own melancholy.

 

I agree with Devin about "Sherlock Jr." but this was an easy yes for me.

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This is an easy yes. Also, while listening to the episode, I noticed that the plot description, i. e. long chase scene in the first half, a short intermezzo and a long chase scene back in the second half, sounds awfully similar to Mad Max: Fuy Road. It seems that we're kind of coming full circle in tirms of the visual language in films.

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This will be a yes for me.

 

I've always been a Chaplin guy when I think of the three most famous slapstick guys, but this is the movie that really got me to undestand Keaton. I was kind of ambivilant to Sherlock, Jr, so I wasn't sure if I was ever going to click with Keaton, but this movie really showed me how great he was. It blended the humor, the slapstick, and the drama perfectly, and despite Devin's complaints about the trains, I thought they were great and seeing a train chase was surprisignly tense and exciting.

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This is one I saw as a child (like 7-8 years old) and liked. I saw it again in my early twenties and still liked. I haven't seen it since (I'm 35 now), but think it deserves to be in the Canon if nothing else but for historical significance. RE: X-Files; YES!!! That IS the best episode they ever did! Or at least my favorite. So stoked to hear Devin throw some love at one of my favorite episodes of television period.

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and btw, I laughed OUT LOUD (at work) when Amy was describing Clyde Bruckman's suicide and Devin said "Baller move."

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Love love love this movie, and also think it's one of the most important early action/drama/comedy/blockbusters. that's why it belongs in the canon -- I want it in there because it's so great.

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I loved it. It was funny and charming and the stunts were clever and impressive. I want this in the canon.

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"It reminded me of why Cat Memes are better than Dog Memes"

 

This is why I listen to the Canon.

 

 

Also, I didn't think it was a masterpiece, but any silent movie of this era that famous, I can't even think of voting down

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A soft yes.

"Soft" because, honestly, my exposure to silent films, especially the comedic ones (I've seen and love "Noferatu" and "Caligari"), is very limited. Devin alluded that this may not be the best Keaton film, nor movie of this kind, for the Canon but still voted for it; and I'm a "big Canon" person, so I'm fine with it being in there. And I did enjoy how impressed I was by how they pulled off the stunts, especially back in the day.

 

I am absolutely on this camp. I suspect I am not qualified to pass judgement, having only see a few Chaplins in the past. That said, I was taken aback by the sheer spectacle of the train sequences, including THAT bridge scene. It felt like expansive film-making, attempting to show on-screen things that people had never seen in reality. For that reason alone, it feels Canon-worthy.

 

Complaining about the train stuff in this movie is a little like complaining that there's too much spaceship stuff in 2001 A Space Odyssey. Keaton's achievement, his tour the force, is precisely how well he sustains the relentless and comprehensive train action.

 

I agree with this as well. To be perfectly honest, I never got on board with the plot whenever they were not on the train. But the sheer physicality and spectacle of the railway scenes had me gripped all along.

 

Incidentally, because the train set-pieces were such triumphs, I never felt that the Union/Confederacy problem became a thing. For a non-American audience (i.e., me) it just felt like two opposing cardboard cut-out armies. I am not trying to be disrespectful in anyway here; it's just that neither of the sides was characterised in enough detail for me to identify either way.

 

So, in short, a soft yes. Mind not blown, but a sense that this film deserves the plaudits and to be remembered as a precursor to the great action-comedy blockbusters of the last 30 years.

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I love this as an early action comedy. Along with Stagecoach, you can see its influence on modern films like Speed and Fury Road. I was bothered by cheering for a confederate the first tie I saw it. Yes the movie doesn't make it political but I think of the confederacy the same way I would about a movie depicting a nazi stopping an allied plot. Not that it takes away from it being a good movie. It's just weird that Hollywood sympathized with the South. It's beyond me.

 

And of course I voted yes. This is the background and lock screen for my iPhone.

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I quite enjoyed the General, especially the parts that take place on the train (unlike Devin). There's just something about the near casual nature of his stunts that is breathtaking. On top of that, I really enjoy the understated humor. What's better than a hero so focused on chopping wood he misses a whole Confederate retreat and Union advance going on behind him?

 

Having also recently seen Go West, I think Keaton's place in the Canon is pretty solid. His subtlety, even indifference, is so markedly different from the rest of silent cinema that it works surprisingly well today.

 

I voted yes.

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I notice somebody has already remarked on this, but watching The General again after many years, I was struck by the structural parallels with Fury Road. Both movies rest on a chase in one direction, followed by a chase back along the same path in the other direction - simple, economical, and yet open to endless possibilities of variation and elaboration. It makes me wonder about the detractors who claim Fury Road is mindless or basic or dumbed-down because of that streamlined frame - would they have said the same thing about The General if they saw it in 1926?

 

For what it's worth, I think Fury Road takes that structure to greater heights. The General is extraordinary for its inventiveness, its technical and logical ingeniousness, but I'm with Devin: it's just not that funny. I admire it for its cleverness, but it just doesn't "take off" for me. Fury Road takes off with all the power of a fighter jet.

 

Still, I voted yes. The General is enough of a great accomplishment that it deserves to be watched and marvelled at forever, even if it's not the silent film we turn to for the most laughs.

 

(And now my first-ever post in this forum is a comment saying a hallowed silent classic is inferior to a Mad Max film. Guess I'm firmly in the heretics' camp.)

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I thought Fury Road was boring actually. Would The General have been as good without Buster Keaton though? I admire the General for innovating the chase scene. U just thought Fury Road lacked any character build-up. It just felt like watching someone play a video game.

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It looks like all the Re-Animator ringers and the PT Anderson fans have moved on to warmer climates.

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