Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Motion Studies: The Navigator (1924)

It is morning on an empty ship called The Navigator. Keaton runs across the poopdeck of the ship, left to right; simultaneously, the girl who rejected him, played by Kathryn McGuire, races across the lower deck, right to left. They move like choreographed ants. Both have glimpsed each other, and both are in pursuit. Keaton runs up the steps to the upper deck, right to left; McGuire runs across the poop-deck left to right. Keaton sees nothing on the upper deck and runs down the opposite set of stairs from that which McGuire races up, and they trade places once more, scurrying in opposite directions. They repeat this fruitless race moving downwards; finally, when McGuire is back on the lower deck, she takes initiative and ducks in to the open doorway on the left. Keaton races across the upper deck at this time, still intent on finding her; but then he looks around, realizing that some pattern has been broken.

Patterns. There is no other filmmaker who used patterns of motion more honestly and consistently than Buster Keaton. In The General, patterns of motion moving from left to right with Keaton are the norm for the first twenty minutes when he is in his hometown; but when he gets on the train, moves out in to the wild country and goes in pursuit of another train, his rightward motion is disrupted, and the direction the train is travelling in—either north or south—dictates most of the motion within the frame from then on. The Navigator is not quite as precise in its construction, but certain playful shots like the one in question are nonetheless crucial to all the motion that will follow in the film. Keaton and McGuire’s wild cross-frame scurrying indicates that the rest of their journey will be a confused, directionless race; after all, their ship has drifted out to sea and neither of them know how to man it properly. On an abstract level, their’ cross-frame scurrying shows that their relationship will be an elusive one, involving Keaton in constant pursuit of the girl of his dreams, and neither managing to simply go the same way as the other. Only as the film goes on, do their motions gradually become less of a wild pursuit pattern, and develop in to more of a moving-and-working-in-tandem pattern. The title The Navigator is both an apt and ironic title. But Keaton himself was a master navigator, one who could communicate the basics of a story entirely through clear and relentless motion. In The Navigator, the result is a literally moving love story.