With everything that continues to go on in our world, and the accompanying confusion surrounding it – the mass movements, which I always find a bit scary, the inability to distinguish between who’s wise, who’s venal and who’s just incompetent, who’s idealistic, who’s just after power, who’s young and foolish, who’s old and foolish, and who’s just old, what’s on my mind right now is not a pretty picture. And I don’t want to be there.
“Sometimes you just have to go to the movies,” said Sabina, in Thornton Wilder’s. The Skin of Our Teeth which was written in the midst of another apocalypse, and so on Saturday night I went to the movies. And it helped. I recommend it. Brecht liked going to the movies too. It has been said that he loved Bogart and Chaplin and Buster Keaton and that the mythical Chicago of his plays came right out of Warner Brothers.
Saturday also happened to be Buster Keaton’s 125th birthday. A hundred and twenty-five. It’s hard to believe that so many people who were alive and active and in the early years of middle age in my life could be that old. Why I just turned around yesterday, and I was twenty-one.
In honor of the occasion of Keaton’s birthday, Turner Classic Movies showed an evening of his greatest films, and I sat down to see The General all the way through, start to finish, for the first time. I got up feeling a bit better and even more important, with the realization of how much BB owed to BK.
What an amazing movie The General is, right up there with the best of Chaplin. And aside from being richly entertained, I was also richly rewarded. I learned something very important about how Brecht plays work.
There are many creative riddles that need to be solved in order to bring the hidden and elusive treasures of a great play to life. The structures are complicated puzzles, the rewards for putting the pieces in the proper fit and order, as rewarding as solving a Rubik’s cube. Mother Courage is such a play, and you find yourself sitting in front of its text for endless hours trying to figure out “how to get those two little red squares out of a line of perfect white ones and on to where they belong.”
And so, on Saturday night, I went to the movies trying to reorder the cubes of the world and the play. Where this led me was to the amazing realization that The General is a Brechtian film in its structure and delights, and offers a practical means for unlocking and making use of the Brechtian Rubik’s Cube, what Brecht called the alienation effect, (in German: Verfrémdungseffekt, translated literally “to make the familiar strange.”
If all this sounds a bit too academic, obscure, or just too confusedly German, I understand. After all, German is a language that seems to take delight in breaking verbs apart, positioning them in sentences in which the first half of the verb is positioned as the second word in the sentence, and the second half of said verb gets bumped to the end of the sentence.
Verfrémdungseffekt (Say it with me, slowly: Ver frém dungs effekt). It’s an unfunny word that in reality is all about comedy. And Buster Keaton, in The General, offers up the master class. while also those less interested in lessons in German comedy construction, with one of the greatest of all the great silent comedies. Funny in any non-language. The “V” Effect, like so much of great comedy, is all about shifting gears to change our reaction to what we have just seen. Buster puts it to use in the first few moments of the film.
He is on his way to pay a call on his sweetheart Ann but is rejected because he is too valuable in his job as a railroad engineer, but is not told that’s the reason. On leaving, he hurries to Annabelle’s where he runs into Annabelle’s father and brother, who beckon to him to join them in the enlistment line, he walks away from them in shame, but his actions give them the impression that he does not want to enlist. Annabelle informs Johnnie that she will not speak to him again until he is in uniform. A forlorn and broken-hearted Buster walks down her front porch steps and executes the Verfrémdungseffekt gear shift-a full out pratfall on the last step. a radical shift in tone. The mood of the scene, and our reaction to it, changes dramatically. We’re suddenly in a different movie – out of the romance film and into the world of slapstick. What did Keaton do? He made “the familiar” strange. The continuity of the film has been broken, one episode (the farewell rejection) has been cut into two episodes in two different styles that, positioned next to each other in this way, still manage to “talk” to each other from their different perspectives to give us a new and fuller picture of the character and the event. The perfectly executed Verfrémdungseffekt.
And Mother Courage is lousy with such little events like this. It is an almost programmatic illustration of this alternative kind of dialectical theatre, because its power derives precisely from the relationship between the material, the technique and the function, the ‘gesture’, the ‘interruption’, and the ‘stimulation’.
It keeps jumping around on you. Like the world is doing around us right now. And I find that when I can keep rolling with our world’s absurdities, which right now seem to keep interrupting and changing the tone every five minutes. It’s a lot funnier than I think, but then with just as much rapidity our world and the play take us to a third-place that has more tragedy going on in it than anything I have seen outside of the nightly news on television.
And sometimes all this makes me feel just a bit like Sabina when she says.
“Every now and then I’ve got to go to the movies. I mean my nerves can’t stand it. But if you have any ideas about improving the crazy world, I’m really with you. I really am. Because it’s …it’s…Good night.’
But it doesn’t end there.
And Mother Courage, speaking from her own play replies, “Hope I can pull this cart all right by myself.” She straps on her harness. “I’ll be all right.”