Every great Buster Keaton film is an inventory of gags, a treatise on the neglected science of gagology. The more one studies a film such as Seven Chances, the more one's normal deductive-interpretative processes get turned around. It's as if the literal content of a gag – its characters, its situation, its action – always arose second in Keaton's mind. What came first (one feels) was the abstract shape of the gag, some brilliant idea about space or framing or timing or a body in a particular relation to an object. This is one very good reason why Keaton's comedies today seem altogether more surreal, modern and cinematic than Charlie Chaplin's.
Every kind of gag gets tried and worked out in Seven Chances. Somewhere it is written that a basic principle of the gag is metaphor: our laughter arises from the sudden mental superimposition of a suggested object and its function over the object we are seeing (in Woody Allen's Bananas, 1971, for instance, Jews carrying large horizontal crucifixes start fighting over the last available parking space). In an oft-quoted moment of Seven Chances, Buster waits calmly downstairs as a woman above-frame reads the marriage proposal he has thrown her way; after a few beats, the letter rains down on his head in fragments, and he suddenly turns and fluffs up his collar, as if in poetic response to both the snow that this paper now resembles, and the big chill he has just experienced.
Despite occasional lyrical flights of this sort, Keaton's gags are often more strictly mechanical in the way they engineer laughter from an interplay of time, space and physicality. This film's opening sequence looks forward to the gag-constructions of Tashlin and Warner Bros. cartoonists: within an identical frontal frame, with characters always in the same position and going through the same actions, Keaton indicates the passing time through changes in seasonal weather – and the progressive sizes of a dog. (In perfect symmetry, the elements of this set-up return for the film's final joke.)" A later sequence involving Buster's attempt to read the time takes us from an inaugural moment of him losing his watch, through an escalating series of watches (on a woman's leg, on a sign outside a watch shop, in the shop window, and then hundreds inside the shop), only to close down hilariously on another single watch – the shop owner's, which doesn't work. A more compact mode of gag is provided by the famous camera angle of the inside of a church – with Buster asleep in the front pew, invisible to the hundreds of grotesque women who utterly fill the space behind him. (This is really all that remains of the film in its woeful Chris O'Donnell remake, The Bachelor, 1999.)
Just as the perfectly chiselled and nailed-down mise en scène of Keaton's cinema inspired one of the seminal texts of late 1960s film theory (Jean-Pierre Oudart's "La Suture") (1), the serene nuttiness of his gag concepts buoyed the hearts of the Surrealists who were his contemporaries. It is not hard to see what the Surrealists would have admired in Seven Chances: the plot's irrational fixation on the number seven (seven chances to be married on his twenty seventh birthday by seven o'clock); the eerily beautiful, Man Ray-style close-ups of female hands writing; and above all the wondrous gags that make complete nonsense of any fixed human identity – as in the sequence where the white, all-American, adult women that Buster presumes he is about to ensnare in marriage turn out to be (respectively) a little girl, Jewish, black and male.
Keaton's best and most extended gag-sequences are always dynamic, transformative. The physical world seems to unshaping and reshaping itself before your eyes, according to some charged, serendipitous law of desire. In the chase sequence that climaxes Seven Chances, Buster is for a long time pursued by an enormous pack of vengeful women. This part of the sequence plays out according to familiar gagological principles of acceleration and deceleration, spatial disappearance and re-appearance, hiding and surprise. At a certain point, Buster loses the women, but then he is gripped by something that looks like a very modern sort of paranoia: he imagines that everything in the material world is also now after him. And then (phase 3 of the sequence) he trips on a few rocks, and suddenly the world is in fact after him, in the form of an enormous avalanche.
How on earth did Keaton dream up this progression? (Not in one go, as it happens: after a poor test screening Keaton, inspired by the audience laughter prompted by his tripping, went back and created the avalanche 'topper'.) What came first: a feeling about women or paranoia or nature, or the determination to have something (anything) fly through the frame, filling and emptying it according to a splendid (silent) musical rhythm and build-up? Long before the scientific theories of chaos, with its model shapes and patterns, Keaton was the cinematic poet of abstract catastrophe, a deranged mathematician at work and at play in what J.G. Ballard called "the limitless geometry of the cinema screen". (2)
MORE Keaton: The General
© Adrian Martin January 1997
1. Translated as "Cinema and Suture", Screen, Winter 1977-78, pp. 35-47. The original is from a 1969 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma. back
2. "What I Believe", Re/Search: J.G. Ballard, 1984, p. 177. back