Friday, May 07, 2004

The General (with the Alloy Orchestra)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 6 May 2004 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Remis Auditorium (Music for Silent Films)

I'd seen The General before, but not with live accompaniment, and I'd been quite unhappy to miss the Alloy Orchestra's performance of their score at the Somerville Theater back in January. I considered this presentation at the MFA a stroke of luck, especially considering I'm currently working just down the street at Northeastern University.

The General is, after all, one of a very few perfect movies. The only argument one can make against its perfection is that it takes place during the civil war with the Confederate Army being the heroes, but given that the IMDB has it as being based on a memoir, that can't be helped (and I imagine there are parts of the country where this is a point in its favor). Everything else, though, is gold. The General may hold a claim on being the first action comedy, or at least the first great one. After establishing its characters with speed and efficiency in the start (Keaton's Johnny Gray is utterly besotted with both his train and his girl; Marion Mack's Annabelle Lee is strong but playful), the rest of the movie is taken up by a series of of set pieces, the most elaborate ever filmed at the time. The mix of action and physical comedy is still impressive, even before you consider that Keaton and co-director Clyde Bruckman did not have blue screens, computer-generated imagery, or many other effects techniques available to them. If they needed a shot of a cannonball nearly missing Keaton, then Keaton nearly got shot by a cannon. It was that simple.

The action in this movie is a work of incredible precision. Keaton performs various acrobatic stunts in service of the adventure and physical comedy without seeming to show off, always accomplishing exactly what he set out to do, whether it be to give his audience a thrill, a laugh, or both at once. Rather than mug for the camera, he reacts to the strange things around him with understated surprise, confused but willing to overcome new obstacles. OK, he seems to be saying, that rail car that was behind my engine is now in front of it - that's clearly impossible, but the question is how to deal with it. (It's not impossible, of course - it's a perfect demonstration of how an object in motion tends to stay in motion)

The Alloy Orchestra contributes a score that matches the film's energy, as well as filling in the odd sound effect with the proper bit of percussion (the score is included on the Image DVD, for those that cannot make a live performance). The movie features solid acting, great action, physical and deadpan comedy, large set-pieces, and absolutely no wasted runtime. The kids in the audience had as much fun as the long-time silent film buffs; there's nothing not to love.

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