by John Bengston
(Santa Monica Press)
Buster Keaton's typical American life--born into poverty; rich and famous by 27; forgotten, alcoholic, and alone by 40--has long been held up as evidence for the defense in the ongoing case against the demise of the silent cinema. Even more so than Chaplin, Keaton's defining artistry was bound to the very elemental silence of the medium. Moreover, his justly famous process (Out of ideas? Let's play ball!) could only have come from silence. With sound, there are too many points to make, too many opinions to hear. For as much as he defined the fledgling art of cinema, he could not abide to have it talk back to him. And anyway, dreams are silent. Keaton understood that.
In a stunning new book, Silent Echoes, historian John Bengston gives us an unprecedented look into the inner workings of Keaton's artistry. Equal parts professional biography, history lesson, and detective work, Silent Echoes deconstructs Keaton's films in and around Los Angeles in the '10s and '20s. Using archival maps and photographs, obsessively tracking down houses that still stand alongside others that don't, triangulating both physical markers and historical facts, Bengston pinpoints the precise locations of some of Keaton's most famous sequences to situate the great artist's work not only physically in the land- scape of Los Angeles, but also temporally in the landscapes of both cinematic and American history. The cumulative effect is of waking into a dream, of being fully transported to a different time, therein to simply sit and observe, to try and find the answers to a few simple, cartographic mysteries.
But even more than the answers the book presents, Silent Echoes is precious for the byproduct it leaves behind. On the evidence of Bengston's conclusions, one may intuit Keaton's working attitudes and feel almost party to his unique and graceful style. Most telling is Bengston's summation of the physical locations of so many of Keaton's best scenes. Fully 31 of the most memorable sequences in the Keaton canon were shot within one block of his studios, underscoring the tenor of Keaton's style by demonstrating the truth of his inspiration: The truest art is found simply wherever the truest artist happens to be standing. JAMIE HOOK
THE SECRET PARTS OF FORTUNE
by Ron Rosenbaum
Ron Rosenbaum's name first rose above the white noise of magazine bylines for me when his column in The New York Observer, the "Edgy Enthusiast," was recommended by an edgy enthusiast I know. But he's been in the first rank of so-called literary journalists for years, and his new book, The Secret Parts of Fortune, combines a score of his Observer columns with the best of his magazine features since the early 1970s.
Rosenbaum's specialty as a reporter is the underground cultures of conspiracy theorists, unaccredited (or discredited) scholars, cure- all quacks, and hucksters. He's a "buff buff," in his own words, obsessively tracking the obsessives. He's smart and fascinating, although he's too frantic ever to tap as deeply into the unsettling spinal hum of the culture as, say, Joan Didion or William Finnegan can.
Instead, his genius is his enthusiasm, which is why his column, conceived of as "all praise, all the time," was a stroke of brilliance. He has the kind of goofy, smart enthusiasm that demands in the middle of an article (on Robin Leach, of all people) that you go out and read Wallace Shawn's appendix to his play Aunt Dan and Lemon before going any further, because it's flat out the best thing written on New York in the '80s. He's constantly grabbing your lapel and telling you that you have to read (or hear, or see) something he loves. What more could you ask from a critic (or a friend)? TOM NISSLEY
LOST AND FOUND
LAUGHTER: AN ESSAY ON THE MEANING OF THE COMIC
by Henri Bergson
Translated from the French by Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell
(Green Integer Press) $11.50
Aristotle wrote his Poetics to explain the nuts and bolts of tragic theater. His work on comedy, however, was lost to the ages. Since Aristotle, various writers have stepped in to explore the enigmatic character of comedy. What is laughter? Why and for what? Does laughter signal subversive, unrestrained freedom, or does it fuel our most conservative and regressive tendencies? Does it offer strangers a welcoming embrace or a pie in the face?
In its lovely small-book format, Green Integer has reprinted a 100-year-old essay by the famous vitalist Henri Bergson to weigh in on the question of the nature of laughter. The essay--originally appearing in French in 1899--treats laughter dispassionately, scientifically, and philosophically. It is difficult and tiresome, though of course the standard it begs is not one of literary style but speculative science. In this case, Bergson meshes together theories of demonic possession and sympathetic magic with the nascent spirit of modernism.
At our own millennium, such spirits seem close once again. Questions of identity formation in the bourgeois arts are everyday fare. What does the comic signal about who we are and how we might get to where we'd like to be? What is the social function of laughter? Does laughter aim at knowledge, or does it break apart sense-making? Bergson's answers to these and other questions join the amalgamated tradition of philosophy and art, anthropology and psychology: Charlie Chaplin meets Sigmund Freud at a tribal drumming session. GREGG MILLER