“The General is the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest civil war film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made.
– Orson Welles
As my first month in Ghent draws to a close, I’ve been left with quite a bit to reflect on. I can certainly appreciate the forward momentum of my research on Belgian cinema, a diminishing number of daily cultural faux pas, and the growing network of street food vendor’s I’ve cultivated that includes a ranking of the best kebabs, falafels, french fries, and Korean, Tibetan, and Chinese cuisines. The next major step in my assimilation is to buy a bike, but I haven’t worked up the nerve for that just yet. More than anything else though it is the eclectic nature of Ghent’s vibrant film culture that has helped make me truly feel at home here. Between living a block down the road from the Kineapolis Gent which will also be the home to the Flanders International Film Festival next month, and the numerous film clubs that located around the city, I can safely say that Ghent has the highest population density of film fanatics of any place I’ve lived in.
I was recently invited to join is the UGent affiliated organization, Film Plateau. The club was founded by Etienne Vermeersch in 1997. It should be noted that UGent has perhaps one of the earliest ties to the invention of cinema, through its ties with alumnus Joseph Plateau (1801-1883), the inventor of the phénakisticope.
The primary aim of Film Plateau is bring into a community setting the same series of institutional questions that are often raised in film courses. The program often includes festival hits that were not picked up by the traditional distributors in Belgium, as well as classics and cult films, documentaries and animated films, audiovisual experiments and short films. Located in the cozy Kask Cinema, an affiliate of Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten (KASK) or the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, the first film selected to kick off the 2016-17 season was Buster Keaton’s classic silent comedy The General (1926). After a dinner where myself and fellow CIMS members took part in the eternal Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd debate, we moved to a reception to celebrate the start of the new film season. As further motivation for me to improve on my Dutch, I was briefly introduced at the reception, where several of the anecdotes I’ve shared with Film Plateau members were retold for students attending the event. It was certainly a strange feeling to be the topic of conversation in front of large group of people and not completely know what’s being said. In this case as with most encounters I’ve come across like this so far, I fell into the typical foreigner response of smiling and nodding without really knowing what’s going on.
The most enjoyable aspect of Kask’s screening of The General without question was the brilliant musical accompaniment on piano by Tom Van der Schueren. I’ve seen The General several times but never with a live musical performance. This is truly where the magic of silent cinema comes to life. Keaton’s long underappreciated masterpiece was the Mad Max: Fury Road of the 1920s, yet unlike George Miller’s masterful chase film which was immediately met with near universal critical and box-office acclaim, the film that can arguably be considered Keaton’s apogee, was heartrendingly ahead of its time. With a final budget of $750,000, at the time it was one of the most expensive comedies ever made. The fact that the film recouped less than 2/3s of its budget, is often labeled as the primary cause for Keaton’s eventual indentured servitude to MGM and which in turn lead to a chain of events that led to a long decline in Keaton’s once brilliant career.
When Keaton shot the climatic train wreck scene in the conifer forest near Cottage Grove. OR, the town declared a local holiday so that everyone could watch the spectacle. Between three and four thousand local residents showed up, including 500 extras from the Oregon National Guard. They all dressed up in Union uniforms and were filmed going left-to-right before changing into Confederate uniforms and being filmed going right-to-left. Keaton used six camera for the scene, which began four hours late and required several lengthy trial runs. The shot cost $42,000, which is the most expensive single shot in silent film history. The production company left the wreckage of The Texas in the river bed after the scene was filmed. The wrecked locomotive became a minor tourist attraction for nearly twenty years, until it was salvaged in 1944-45 for scrap during World War II.
The critics were even less kind to the film than audiences were. Variety reported of a theater in which it played,
“after four weeks of record business with Flesh and the Devil, looks as though it were virtually going to starve to death this week.”
The New York Times describes The General as being,
“far from funny and it is a flop. The production itself is singularly well mounted, but the fun is not exactly plentiful. This is by no means so good as Mr. Keaton’s previous efforts.”
The Los Angeles Times reported that the picture is:
“neither straight comedy nor is it altogether thrilling drama. The picture drags terribly with a long and tiresome chase of one engine by another.”
It would take decades for the film’s reputation to be reevaluated. Much like how Welles’ Citizen Kane flew under the radar during its initial theatrical run (mostly due to the blackout campaign conducted by William Randolph Hearst’s media empire), but was rediscovered and firmly embraced generations of filmmakers, Keaton’s late career reckoning would later vindicate him.
In an interview from 1963 Keaton had this to say about The General,
“I was more proud of that picture than any I ever made. Because I took an actual happening out of the…history books, and I told the story in detail too.”
Renowned film historian and silent film preservationist David Robinson argues the case that,
“every shot has the authenticity and the unassumingly correct composition of a Matthew Brady Civil War photograph.”
In 1989, The General was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It made it into the registry in the first year it was enacted, along with The Best Years of Our Lives, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind, Singin’ in the Rain, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Sunset Boulevard, and The Wizard of Oz.
Much like my cinemagoing encounter at the Sphinx earlier this month, I was again was amazed at size of the standing room only crowd and level of audience engagement I witnessed at Kask Cinema. Several of the students who I spoke with at the reception shared that this was their first time ever watching a feature-length silent film. Despite it being ninety years since The General first graced the screen, the gags, characterizations, the film’s breakneck pacing, enhanced further by an inspired improvised live piano performance, created a fun and engaging experience for film fans from all backgrounds. I spent my walk home reflecting on the important role organizations such as Film Plateau have in the field of film studies. Despite its brilliance, the critical and financial failure of The General in the 1920s, could very well of caused this masterpiece to have ultimately been lost along with nearly 75% of all other silent films. Yet through the passion and commitment of filmmakers and film scholars alike, Keaton’s work has been preserved for future generations. Moreover the screening events held at venues like Kask, which are innately designed to introduce new generations to great films, will certainly ensure that the legacy of The General will continue to endure for decades – and possibly centuries – to come.