• Buster Keaton in The General

This Thursday at 7 PM, University of Chicago Doc Films will screen The General, Buster Keaton’s most famous comedy. In his review for the Reader, Dave Kehr writes, “Buster Keaton may have made more significant films, but The General stands as an almost perfect entertainment.” Films like Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator rank among his best and most important work, but The General isn’t without its share of intrigue. The stuff that made made Keaton such a visionary performer and director—his fluid merging of physical action with emotional pathos, his “man-on-a-mission” narrative framework—can be found throughout the film. With the General itself, a speeding locomotive that operates as both physical obstacle and metaphor, he also solidified the theme of man versus machine that would come to define him.

The experience of watching The General for the first time is something I’ll never forget. It was the first silent film I ever saw, and my expectations weren’t all that high. I was wary of anything that wasn’t in color, let alone anything without dialogue. My chief concern: that it would be boring. The 85 minutes I spent watching The General were nothing short of revelatory. Not only was the film blisteringly funny, but I suddenly became aware of the idea of bodies in cinematic space, that human forms within a movie frame could function beyond their mere presence, and that they could be a catalyst for theme and aesthetic design.