THE POSSIBILITIES WITHIN SILENCE: A HEIDEGGERIAN LOOK
AT THE ONTOLOGY OF BUSTER KEATON
John F. OLeary
B.A., Metropolitan State College of Denver, 1998
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Humanities
This thesis for the Master of Humanities
John F. OLeary
has been approved
OLeary, John F. (M.H.)
The Possibilities within Silence: A Heideggerian Look at the Ontology of Buster
Thesis directed by Professor Susan Linville
The ontology of Buster Keaton has both astonished and perplexed film scholars
since his films first appeared in the 1920s. Critics universally hailed Keaton as a
charismatic performer, but the thematic message of his films has continually
inspired a wide range of philosophical debate. While the narrative drives of
Keatons films are quite literary, meaning they are driven by a series of causal
events, the content of his films often subverts the rational linearity of his plots.
For this reason, Keatons overall ontology presents a paradoxical mixture of
rational and irrational elements. In order to establish Keatons overall ontological
vision, I explore seven of his films. These include the following: The Boat, The
Navigator, Cops, The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr., Sherlock Jr., and The
Playhouse. In order to contextualize Keatons fundamental ontology, I turn to the
philosophy of Martin Heidegger. Heidegger claims that ontology is the central
subject of the discipline of philosophy. Ontology is concerned with the nature of
Being, and both Heidegger and Keaton explore the question of what it means to
be in a world whose ontological structure is partially defined by an irrational
dimension. My primary claim is that Keatons ontology intuitively echoes the
ontology that Heidegger outlined in his seminal masterpiece Being and Time. In
Being and Time, Heidegger coined the term Dasein, which refers to that being
which is conscious of its own existence. In this study, I compare Keatons
treatment of his protagonist to Heideggers conception of Dasein. Because
Keaton explores strikingly similar ontological issues from film to film, a thematic
question inevitably arises: if a single ontological vision structures all of Keatons
independent films, how can that vision be characterized? The philosophical
paradigm that Heidegger outlines in Being and Time offers a potent answer to this
question. Specifically, Heideggers claims about the structure of Dasein
effectively contextualize the irrational aspects of Keatons ontological vision, as
well as Keatons overall ontological vision.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the^andida^sdiesis^J^
recommend its publication.
Dad, Diana, and Adrian
Just for being there.
I am most grateful to Professor Susan Linville for her generous support and for
her inspired guidance throughout this project. I am also grateful to Professor Mark
Tanzer for his support and patience. I also wish to thank Professor Laura Cuetara
for valuable contributions to this project.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Heideggers 10 Terms.........................11
2. THE BOAT AND THE NAVIGATOR: DASEIN AND BEING...16
3. COPS AND THE GENERAL: DASEIN AND THE THEY......48
4. STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. AND SHERLOCK, JR.:
AUTHENTIC DASEIN AND INAUTHENTIC DASEIN..........82
5. THE PLAYHOUSE: PORTRAIT OF TRIUMPHANT DASEIN...110
/ see the speculation of Heidegger exemplified or explained in the countenance of
Buster Keaton. Stanley Cavell
Some people believe that everything in life happens for a reason. Others claim
that the ultimate answers to profound, philosophical questions can never be known.
Buster Keaton is both of these people in one being. How can this be so? As a
director, Keaton is an irrationalist; as an actor, Buster is a rationalist. Keaton (the
director) designs fictive worlds that consistently resist the logic of rational claims.
Conversely, Buster (the actor) embraces the Platonic notion that the world is an
expression of a broader, rational formula. In this study, I will explore these two
contrasting ontologies, in order to demonstrate how Keatons independent films
express a unified ontological vision, one that is grounded in a fundamental
What is ontology? The Encarta dictionary defines ontology as the most general
branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature of being (ontology 1264). All
films, either implicitly or explicitly, posit a view on the nature of being. As both an
actor and a director, Buster Keaton presents a complex view of ontology, one that
deals with themes of human identity and the irrational element of human existence.
Despite the fact that Keaton directed his films in the 1920s, an era that can seem
remote from the 21st century, they remain ontologically compelling. Why do Keatons
films continue to generate such a wide range of philosophical questions?
In his autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick, Keaton provides a clue.
He writes, I was always puzzled later on when people spoke of the similarities in the
characters Charlie [Chaplin] and I played in movies. There was, to me, a basic
difference from the start: Charlies tramp was a bum with a bum's philosophy.
Lovable as he was he would steal if he got the chance. My little fellow was a
workingman and honest (126). Keaton further elaborates when he says that if his
little man wanted a suit, he would never steal to get it. Instead he would start trying
to figure out how he could earn extra money to pay for it (Keaton 126).
These two quotes point towards a central concern in Keatons overall vision: his
conscious commitment to explore the subject of ontology. This is not to say that
Keaton thought or conceived of his films in conventional philosophical terms, but
rather that philosophical considerations are implicit in all of his independent films.
One could argue that the above quotes from Keatons autobiography imply an ethical
priority and not an ontological priority. I would disagree. Although there is an
ethical strain to Keatons little man, I believe that Keaton prioritized ontological
concerns over ethical concerns when he conceived of his screen persona (Keaton
The passage from the above quote that indicates Keatons ontological priority can
be gleaned in a single sentence. Keaton notes that his little man, when faced with a
problem, like the desire to buy to buy a suit but not having the money to buy it,
would start trying to figure out how he could earn extra money to pay for it (126).
These seven wordswould start trying to figure out howindicate the ontological
essence of the Keaton protagonist; they indicate his will to invent. The typical
Keaton protagonist must invent those solutions that will allow him to achieve an
authentic self. In Keatons overall ontological vision, authenticity must be earned. I
would summarize the essence of Keatons screen persona as follows: Keaton (the
director) prioritizes the honest, self-made man with the ontological emphasis on self-
Is Keatons appraisal of his screen persona or his little fellowas he puts ittoo
simplistic? What about the wide range of characters that Buster portrays? The
typical Keaton protagonist inevitably tries to move towards the ontological ideal of
the honest, self-made man, despite his ontological state at the start of a film. For
example, even Keatons spoiled weaklings, as Tom Dardis describes them in Buster
Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn t Lie Down, are typically transformed by the end of
Keatons films into self-made men who eventually attempt to engineer their own
In order to achieve their goals, these spoiled weaklings (seen in Steamboat Bill, Jr.
and The Navigator, for example) must initiate and pursue inventive choices that
enable them to achieve a greater level of ontological authenticity. No matter what
character Keaton created in his independent films, that particular character could only
achieve his very specific goalsand by implication, a more authentic selfthrough
hard work, an inventive will, and a direct confrontation with the questions of human
existence. Without these ontological qualities, self-realization becomes problematic in
all of Keatons independent films.
Keatons overall ontology is paradoxical. Keaton explores the rational
possibilities of a protagonist whose existence unfolds in an irrational world. This
paradoxical arrangement lends Keatons films a surprisingly modern tone. Indeed,
Keaton notes that in regards to his later films for MGM, he felt that he shouldnt
have been put into anything that was a farce. Because I dont work that way. Life is
too serious to do farce comedy (qtd. in Dardis 199). Keatons ontological outlook
requires a more sophisticated ontology than the ontology of a farce typically allows.
Many critics point to the thoughtfulness of Keatons film, often suggesting that an
underlying, intuitive philosophy is at work in his films. I believe this is the case. In
his autobiography, Keaton notes that I think I have had the happiest and luckiest of
lives. Maybe this because I never expected as much as I got. What I expected was
hard knocks (280). In his films Keaton explores the complexity of life, while
simultaneously sustaining an absurd or comic tone towards its discomforting
unpredictability. It is as if Keaton could laugh and think at the same time without
compromising either activity.
I mentioned earlier that philosophical concerns are implicit in Keatons film. I
believe that these philosophical concerns are primarily ontological concerns. Unlike
Chaplin, Keaton was totally uninterested in politics. The critic Tom Gunning, in an
essay titled Buster Keaton, or the Work of Comedy in the Age of Mechanical
Reproduction, notes that while Chaplins social concerns could be too legible,
Keaton never possessed such a recognizable political profile (73). But unlike
politics or economics, ontology is an essential subject for any professional comedian.
Comedy demands an ontological perspective from a comedian. Andrew Horton
asserts this claim in his introduction to Buster Keatons Sherlock Jr., when he notes
that Overall, we can consider the comic spirit to be a particular perspective on life
rather than simply a genre of theater, literature, cinema, or speech (11). I believe the
perspective that Horton describes is, at its core, an ontological perspective.
So how can Keatons intuitive philosophyhis ontological outlookbest be
understood? Keaton is an irrationalist who explores the possibility of achieving
rational possibilities in an irrational world. Keatons uses this paradoxical,
ontological vision to comment on issues related to ones social identity, as well as the
challenge of achieving an authentic self. Keaton links self-achievement and
ontological authenticity in ways that are surprisingly complex and consistent. He
measures human authenticity in terms of its metaphysical proximity to the ontological
ideal of the honest, self-made man that he describes in his autobiography. However,
Keatons little fellow is perpetually embedded in an ontological negotiation with the
larger, irrationality of life. On this point, Keaton is unwilling to compromise.
For this reason, Keaton (the director) can be considered in philosophical terms as
an irrationalist. Conversely, Buster (the actor) can be considered a rationalist. The
ambiguity of Keatons ontology can be framed as an aesthetic dissonance that is
defined by these two philosophical perspectives. The pleasure of Keatons film often
emerges from watching the creative interplay between these two perspectives. (For
reasons of clarity in this essay, when I use the world Keaton, I am referring to the
director. When I use the word Buster, I am referring to the actor.)
As I mentioned at the start of this essay philosophicallyKeaton is two people
in one being. Keaton is a rationalist in the mode of his screen persona and he is an
irrationalist in the mode of his direction. Since film is a directors medium, I will
yield to the director vision: Keatons independent films ultimately depict an overall
ontology that is foundationally irrational. Without rational foundations, is a coherent
philosophy even possible?
In The Comic Mind, Gerald Mast notes that Keaton raised the serious and
disturbing question of whether any virtuous human action is possible in a world
where both love and honor are reduced to nonsense (136). These serious and
disturbing questions arise because Keatons philosophy equally privileges both the
coherence and the incoherence of human existence (Mast 136). However, within
Keatons ontological view, there is room for the possibility of rational human ideals.
Keatons films are often ontologically problematic, but they are never nihilistic.
In the feature films, the Keaton protagonist struggles to achieve the ontological
ideal of the honest, self-made man. In the short films, Keaton focuses more on the
irrational ontology of the social and the physical environment than on Dasein.
Ultimately, both the feature films and the short films express a single ontology. How
can this ontology best be understood? Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher,
provides some salient concepts that are useful to consider, as we address Keatons
perplexing and entertaining ontological perspective.
At first glance, the intellectual marriage of Martin Heidegger and Buster Keaton
may seem incongruous. However, upon closer inspection, one discovers some
striking similarities. These two men were bom four years apart; Keaton was bom in
1895, while Heidegger was bom in 1899. Both addressed the question of human
ontology and both came of age in Western, industrialized cultures that were marked
by enormous cultural and technological changes. Heidegger was primarily concerned
with the Being question: What does it mean to be and how can that be known?
Keaton was also primarily concerned with the Being question, but with one qualifier:
what does it mean to befunny, and how can that be known?
Both men rose to the peak of their professions at early ages. Heidegger received
his full professorship at age 29. As Rudi Blesh notes in his book, Keaton, Hollywood
rewarded Keaton for his creative output and financial success with complete artistic
independence at the age of 25 (136). Both men were enormously influential in their
respective fields. Heidegger influenced such diverse philosophers as Jean-Paul Sartre
and Jacques Derrida, while Keaton influenced such diverse film makers as Woody
Allen and Jackie Chan. Both Keaton and Heidegger were fully committed to a view
of life that was grounded in a foundational irrationality. Despite their very different
backgrounds, (Keaton completed less than one day of formal education over his entire
lifespan, while Heidegger completed a PhD), they shared a singular interest in the
same subject: the nature of being.
Most importantly, I believe that Heideggerian thought offers a useful paradigm,
one that can contextualize Keatons overall ontology in a manner that is unified and
complete. In Being and Time Heideggerian outlines a detailed ontology that
specifically addresses the ontological questions that Keaton raises in his independent
films. I believe that Heideggers philosophy provides an ontological lens that can
enable one to translate Keatons visual language into a philosophical paradigm that
can illuminate Keatons original ontology.
Often, Keaton scholars are divided between those who privilege Keatons
narrative skills and those who privilege his gags. Each offers only a partial view of
Keatons films; therefore, each is incomplete. Robert Knopf in his book The Theatre
and Cinema of Buster Keaton notes how these two schools of thought, or what he
calls lenses, view Keatons work incompletely (11). According to Knopf, the
classical Hollywood lens and the vaudeville lens are the two primary critical lenses
that have interpreted Keaton work (11). The classical Hollywood lens, which Knopf
describes as inherently reductive, privileges narrative causality over disruptive gags
(7). Often the feature films, with their linear plots and absence of cartoon gags, are
cited as examples of Classical Hollywood cinema. The General, for example, has
been generally praised on the basis of its symmetry and for its integration of gags into
the narrative (Knopf 5).
Conversely, the vaudeville lens emphasizes the structural elements of vaudeville
co-existing with the narrative in Keatons films (Knopf 11). J.P. Lebel recognizes
Keatons uses of gags as the fundamental structural element in his film (qtd. in
Knopf 12). In Lebels view, gags structure Keatons independent films (qtd. in Knopf
12). Knopf uses this claim to find fault with Keatons film The High Sign, when he
notes that in a reversal of current theories about the relationship between gags and
narrative, the narrative disrupts the gags (49). Conversely, Knopf praises Keatons
film One Week because the gag structure takes the place of narrative structure (46).
Typically, in critical discussions about Keatons films, either the classical Hollywood
lens or the vaudeville lens is privileged. They are rarely synthesized.
Under the vaudeville lens, the gags tend to take on an autonomous value. The
result is that the spell-binding spectacle of Busters performance often negates the
thematic issues that are implicit in the films. Lebel evokes this problem when he
states that The gag is the form that Keatons attitude takes in regard to the world
(qtd. in Knopf 12). But what of Keatons overall ontological concerns? What about
the ontological ideal that Keaton outlined in his autobiography? And finally, what
about the thematic concerns of the feature films, which often highlight the
transformation of the protagonist in a manner that is ontologically specific? Lebels
claim effectively speaks to the short films; however, it loses credibility when one
examines the ontological transformation of Keatons protagonists in such feature
films as The Navigator, The General, and Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Knopf provides an insightful description of these two distinct views when he
claims that the Hollywood lens embraces a macroscopic view, while the vaudeville
lens embraces a microscopic view (12). But once Keatons films are demarcated in
this manner, the suggestion is that one set of assumptions is driving the feature films,
while a different set of assumptions is driving the shorts. The problem is that both
lenses minimize a major portion of Keatons work. The classical lens favors the
linear causality of the feature films, while the vaudeville lends favors the vaudevillian
aesthetics of the short films.
My claim is that Keatons feature films and his short films illustrate a single
ontological perspective. This perspective mirrors, by and large, the ontological
framework that Martin Heidegger outlined in his seminal masterpiece, Being and
Time. Both Keaton and Heidegger frame the rational pursuit of authentic, ontological
ends within the larger context of an irrational world. Keaton uses a triangular dialect
in order to explore his irrationalist ontology. By triangular dialect, I mean that
Keaton equally privileges three ontological concepts within his dramatic structure: a
rational protagonist, a rigid, social context, and an irrational world.
Keatons triangular dialectic mirrors Heideggers primary conception of the
individual, self-conscious person, or what Heidegger calls Dasein. In Being and
Time, Heidegger claims that Daseins authenticity emerges from a triangular dialectic
between Dasein, the they, and Being (121). In this essay, I will explore how Keatons
overall ontology specifically evokes Heideggers fundamental conception of Dasein.
By using a Heideggerian ontology to illuminate Keatons overall ontology, I hope to
illuminate the ontology that structures all of Keatons independent films.
Before I begin my discussion of Keatons films, I will briefly summarize the
following 10 Heideggerian concepts: Dasein, Being, the phenomenological approach,
resoluteness, the they, the they-self, thrownness, the nothing, the call-of-conscience,
and authenticity. I have also included an appendix at the end of this study that
explains each Heideggerian concept in greater detail.
Heideggers 10 Terms
In Being and Time, Heidegger refers to the term Dasein as consciousness of
ones existence. Dasein knows that it exists and it is therefore confronted by the
question of its existence (Heidegger 10). Heidegger coins the term Dasein in order to
separate it from such terms as subjectivity and consciousness, which arrive with
Cartesian assumptions that Heidegger rejected. In Eclipse of the Self, Michael
Zimmerman notes that Dasein, literally translated, means to be here, and more
figuratively, in Heideggers terms, it means to be the clearing in which beings can be
manifest (xxx). Heidegger claims that Dasein can be best understood as potential;
that is, Dasein exists in terms of its possibility (10). In other words, Dasein can
both be itself and not be itself; therefore Dasein is defined by a structural, ontological
tension that it navigates, as it struggles to achieve its own authentic possibility.
In Being and Time, Heidegger defines Being as the ground of all existence, or
as the structuring force of all existence (5). Being is an irrational force that Dasein
can only partially comprehend. Daseins ideal, ontological end would culminate in
the full comprehension of Being. While Dasein can move toward this end, it can
never achieve this end. Consequently, Heidegger claims Being is defined by a
persistent ambiguity, since some aspect of Being is always inaccessible to Dasein.
Heidegger arrives at his definition of Dasein and Being through the
phenomenological approach. This approach prioritizes immediate experience over
all pre-supposed theories about immediate experience.
One of Daseins important, ontological aspects is resoluteness, a quality defined
by Charles Guignon in his essay Authenticity, Moral Values, and Psychotherapy as
a decisive dedication for what we want to accomplish for our lives (229).
Resoluteness is necessary for Dasein, as it moves along a temporal continuum in
order to achieve its authenticity.
In Being and Time, Heidegger notes that Dasein first discovers itself within a
world of others, a world pre-constituted by social, cultural, and linguistic norms.
Heidegger refers to this otherness as the they, and in Being and Time, he describes
Daseins union with the they as a case where One belongs to the others oneself
(118). Within Daseins union with the they, Dasein embodies a they-self, which can
also be described as a social self. The they-self is inauthentic because it is a social
self that negates Daseins authentic possibility. The they-self is part of the
ontological structure of Dasein, and should not be considered as a subjective
expression of a personal neurosis.
Thrownness is an important structural attribute of Dasein. In Being and Time
Heidegger writes that Dasein exists as thrown, brought into its there not of its own
accord (262). Dasein exists in the throw because it arrives in the world already pre-
constituted on a cultural, temporal, and linguistic level, a world whose ontological
structure pre-exists Daseins arrival. Dasein has no phenomenological opportunity to
constitute the foundational, ontological attributes of the world it will inhabit;
thrownness points to this phenomenological fact.
In terms of a foundational orientation, Heidegger is an irrationalist. Being, the
structuring force of all existence, is shrouded in mystery for Heidegger, as
Dorothea Frede remarked in her essay The Question of being: Heideggers project
(66). Heideggers term, the nothing refers to that part of Beings structure that is
alien to Dasein. In Basic Writings, Heidegger describes the nothing as a force that is
essentially repelling (103). The nothing is that ontological element of Being that
Dasein can neither fully understand nor fully constitute. According to Heidegger, the
nothing is an attribute of Daseins everyday existence.
The call-of-conscience occurs in Dasein at the moment when Dasein hears a
summons to separate itself from the they in order to achieve its own authenticity. In
Being and Time, Heidegger writes that Conscience speaks solely and constantly in
the mode of silence (274). In the world of Keatons silent films, this becomes a
pertinent concept. The Keaton protagonist typically experiences the call-of-
conscience at the moment he recognizes his love for a woman. According to
Heidegger, the call-of-conscience enables Dasein to confront and possibly commit to
its own authenticity. Without the call, Daseins ontological authenticity remains
We can synthesize all of these terms and summarize Heideggerian authenticity as
follows: After responding to the call of conscience, Dasein separates from the they
and moves towards the rational possibility of its own authentic achievement, a
possibility that always takes place within a world that is always partially structured by
Beings irrationality. Dasein can never fully achieve itself, though it can move
towards its own ontological authenticity in a way that is bound by time and a
phenomenological context. In other words, Dasein can potentially achieve its
authenticity, but only incompletely and only within a temporal context. Therefore,
Daseins authenticity must be achieved and then re-achieved along temporal lines,
which is why resoluteness is a primordial element of authentic Dasein.
In terms of how this philosophical outlook relates to the films of Buster Keaton,
my primary claim is that Keaton is an irrationalist, one whose ontological outlook
intuitively echoes the primary claims of Martin Heidegger. Keaton sustains a
Heideggerian tone of rich, ontological ambiguity in all of his independent films.
Keaton resists the inauthentic allure of a rational ontology or a sentimental outlook.
Keaton noted that he learned in a hurry that we couldnt make a feature-length
picture the way we had done the two-reelers; we couldnt use impossible gags like the
kind of things that happen to cartoon characters... We had to tell a logical story that
an audience would accept (qtd. in Dardis 103). The nature of this logic is
something is something worthy of exploration.
THE BOAT AND THE NAVIGATOR: DASEIN AND BEING
The Boat is Buster Keatons most cogent portrait of the irrationality of Being. The
plot revolves around a family of four, who encounter a storm while out at sea in a
boat. Keaton minimizes the ontology of the they in The Boat, and instead frames the
conflict in this film as a struggle between the rational aspirations of Dasein and the
irrationality of Being. Keaton intuitively translates Being into the violent, visual
imagery of the dominant storm and Dasein into the characterization of the husband.
However, The Boat is not as simple as its plot might suggest. The simple tale of a
family and a boat ride becomes a philosophical meditation on mankinds grit, naivete,
and powerlessness in the face of lifes daunting incomprehensibility.
In an essay titled, Notes on the Sight Gag, Carroll notes that a switch image is
given to the audience under one interpretation, which is subverted with the addition of
subsequent information (33). Keaton uses a switch image gag to gain the attention
of his audience at the start of The Boat (Carroll 33). In the opening scene Buster
struggles to remain upright in the cabin of a boat (The Damfino) that violently rocks
back and forth. The mise-en scene suggests that the boat is immersed in a storm and
that Buster is alone. Keaton then cuts to an exterior long shot that shows Busters
boat in a garage. We also see that a young boy, who has been pulling a rope
connected to the boat, has been causing the boats rocking movement. Keaton
playfully shifts the tone from tragic to comic in this switch image gag. This type of
gag evokes the incomprehension of the audience, and it also evokes the theme of
incomprehension that infuses The Boat.
Keaton further develops his theme of incomprehension when he frames the
ontology of the boat in paradoxical terms. In the opening sequence, Keaton equates
the boat with destruction and uncertainty even before the boat encounters the water.
As Tom Dardis notes in his discussion about the opening sequence of The Boat, The
Damfino advances impressively as Busters entire house is leveled to the
ground...The launching of the boat is equally doomed, for Buster backs his car off
the pier and into the water; the christening bottle does not break as it should but
instead leaves a noticeable dent in the hull (92). These comic incidents frame the
boat as an object that is ontologically unstable; it possesses the potential for
disruption and destruction simply because it exists.
The shifts in tone are quite extreme and quite remarkable in The Boat. While
Keaton initially mocks the possibility of Buster being alone on a boat that is lost at
sea, (in the opening, switch image gag), this is the exact scenario that eventually
ensues! Over the narrative arc of the film Keaton deconstructs the boat, so that its
ontology moves from one of ironic danger to one of realistic danger. (One might joke
that Keaton uses a hammer and a storm to perform this act of deconstruction!)
In the last third of the film, Keaton details the manner in which the storm
obliterates the boat. The boats inability to withstand the storms assault highlights
the boats negative ontological quality. However, Keaton frames the boats ontology
in a dualistic manner; it is both positive and negative. What example does Keaton
provide to illustrate the boats positive, ontological potential? Once at sea and freed
from the confines of the dock, Buster demonstrates a few moments of impressive
navigational skills that illustrate the boats positive ontological quality.
As The Damfino glides on the horizon, moving left to right, it approaches a
narrow passageway beneath a bridge. Buster confidently lowers a lever that drops the
masts and flagged canopy to the floor of the deck. At the next narrow passageway,
Buster is momentarily distracted, but he repeats the same skillful task. As a third
narrow passageway approaches, Buster is distracted by another task, so he fails to
pull the lever in time. The bridge crashes into the masts and the flagged canopy.
They fall, hit Buster, and knock him into the water. Buster swims after the boat and
boards it. The sequence ends with an intertitle that reads ten seconds later. The
next shot show us the boat in perfect condition!
In this comically effective sequence, Buster expresses his inventive will, an
ontological quality that Keaton prized in his screen persona (Keaton 126). Keaton
emphasized in his autobiography that his protagonist, when faced with a problem,
would start trying to figure out how... (126). In other words, he would invent a
way to solve a problem when no obvious solution to the problem was apparent. This
will to invent is a crucial attribute of Keatons ontological ideal. Buster navigates the
surrounding, physical elements with precision, skill, and intelligence until the
moment his concentration fails him! Before he is booted off the boat, Buster
constitutes the boat with an authentic intelligence, and he thereby constitutes the
boats positive, ontological attributes.
In this sequence, Buster realizes his own rational, authentic potential within the
context of shifting, environmental variables, a fact which Keaton highlights with an
extended long shot from the side of the moving boat. This long shot contrasts the
effortless motion of the boat with the dangerous stillness of the bridge. In this
sequence, Keaton creates a fluid vision of authentic Dasein, as Buster pilots the boat
through two, narrow passageways. It is, in other words, a very Heideggerian portrait
of authentic Dasein up to that moment when Buster is booted from the boat! The
moments preceding Busters ejection from the boat playfully capture how Dasein can
inventively constitute multiple variables within a shifting landscape. Notably,
Busters rational solutions only briefly work.
But brevity marks the moments of ontological authenticity in The Boat. Both
Heidegger and Keaton view the pursuit of human potential as problematic and
contingent. Mark Tanzer notes in Heidegger: Decisionism and Quietism: In fact, the
early Heidegger equates Dasein with freedom; as Heidegger tells us, Being-in-the-
world is...nothing other than freedom (24). However, the problematic nature of
human potential arises because this freedom is always potentially linked to the
irrational ontology of Being. The problem is, as Tanzer notes, that Beingin the
form of the storm, for exampleis radically other than Dasein (48). Thus, Buster's
few moments of self-achievement are strikingly contrasted by the later sequences
where Busters effort to constitute the boat in the midst of the storm leads to a series
of self-negating disasters.
Not all critics acknowledge the paradoxical ontology of the boat. Gabriella
Oldham describes the boat in Keatons Silent Shorts as Busters nemesis, a kind of
monster in the mode of Frankenstein (147). Oldham notes that in her assessment of
the relationship between Buster and the boat, Buster=Dr.Frankenstein,
Machine=Monster (148). I disagree with Oldhams claim that Buster is somehow
responsible for the unstable ontology of the boat. The boat possesses paradoxical
ontological qualities, but it is not a monster. Like the train in The General, the boat
represents the protagonists own authentic, but contingent, potential. Keaton frames
the boat in paradoxical terms because it possesses both positive and negative
ontological attributes. Its ontology is paradoxical, but not demonic. Ontologically-
speaking, the monster in The Boat is not the boat, but the storm, which clearly
surpasses the boat in status, intensity, and strength. The storm literally devours the
boat in the final moments of the film. The Boat implicitly raises two questions: Who
created the storm? Who is Dr. Frakenstorm?
Keatons portrait of the boat as both a symbol of power and rationality, as well as
a symbol of powerlessness and irrationality can be difficult to grasp. It seems like
such an obvious contradiction. One way to frame this thematic tension is to view it as
a philosophical debate between Keatonthe directorand Busterthe actor.
Keaton is an irrationalist, a being who is committed to a view of the world where the
structuring force of all existence is irrational. While Buster (in his portrayal of the
husband in The Boat) portrays a character who is committed to a rationalist ontology,
one where tools and machines enable one to achieve goals along a cause-and-effect-
continuum. The delight of The Boat emerges from the interplay between these two
This arrangement is akin to a scientific experiment, one where a scientist explores
a rational thesis under experimental conditions. Keaton throws Buster under the
microscope of his own vivid imagination, in order to explore that metaphysical place
where rationality and irrationality interface. By the ending of The Boat, Keaton (the
director) clearly triumphs over Buster (the actor), and this should come as no surprise,
since film is a directors medium. Keaton, via the storm, buries the boat at sea and
takes the family to the very edge of their own mortality. Instead of a vision of a
world ruled by rational boundaries, Keaton creates a vision of a world where the
structuring force of existence (Being) is explicitly revealed.
Oldham comments on this paradoxical dissonance between Keaton (the director)
and Buster (the actor): Oldham writes that after the initial, failed launch of the boat,
Busters determination in the next intertitle is clear: THERES MORE THAN ONE
WAY TO LAUNCH A BOAT. However, Keatons commentary is a bit tongue-in-
cheek because he knows (as director, he has arranged) that Busters goal is destined
to be foiled (148). Interestingly, Oldham fails to explore this intriguing paradox.
She underestimates the purposeful way that Keaton blends comic tones with astute
observations about the irrationality of the larger, fictive world of The Boat.
For example, Oldham notes that the theme of destruction...is vital to Busters
survival, although the reason for destruction is not always convincing (148).
Oldham implies that Keatons handling of the storm is somehow incomplete. I
disagree with her suggestion. As an irrationalist, Keatons failure to frame the storm
in logical terms is consistent. Keaton cannot rationally explain the cause of the storm,
while simultaneously remaining thematically coherent, given his irrationalist
ontology. Thus, Keaton offers no such explanation. Keaton fails to explain the
phenomenon of the storm, not because of an oversight, but because the ontological
essence of the storm is irrational and is therefore resistant to reason.
Instead of categorizing the ontology of the storm in rational terms, Keaton chooses
to document Busters experience of the storm in order to comment on the larger
irrationality of life. Keaton privileges a depiction of direct experience over a rationale
about direct experience. And while a film is not a direct experience, but rather the
aesthetic re-creation of experience, one still feels that Keaton frames the storm as if
were a first-time event in his characters lives. In The Boat Keaton attempts to get as
close to direct experience as the medium of film will allow.
The ending of The Boat strongly supports the claim that direct experience is
riddled with ontological questions. Questions linger in the films final moments, just
as the dense, heavy fog lingers and paints the films landscape in a dark, murky
ambiguity. Why do storms exist in the first place? What causes a storm? In fact,
these are two very different questions. The former speaks to the question of a
foundational ontology, while the latter speaks to a physical and atmospheric context.
A religious person might observe a storm from a distance and claim that it expresses
the wrath of God. A scientist might view the same storm as an expression of the
complicated issue of global warming. Both of these schools of thoughts are grounded
in a rational ontology; the former uses religious texts to justify their claim, while the
latter uses scientific data to justify their claim. Both paradigms assume a
Keatons treatment of the storm in The Boat and particularly the ending of the
film, which is shrouded in a cogent, mysterious quality, evokes a view of human
existence as one that is ontologically contingent on unknowable forces. The Boat
demonstrates Keatons full commitment to an irrationalist perspective. Keatons
ontological perspective moves beyond both science and religion and into an
irrationalist ontology. I believe the surrealist Luis Bunuel had this perspective in
mind when he described Keaton as the great specialist against all sentimental
infection (qtd. in Dale 64).
While the boat works as an extension of the protagonists rational ontology, the
storm works as an extension of Beings foundational irrationality. I world argue that
the storm is the antagonist in The Boat, and it must therefore be considered as a
character with a specific, ontological quality. In other films, like Cops, The
Playhouse, and Sherlock Jr., Keaton extends his fundamental ontology into the social
dimension, but The Boat has no social antagonist. The nameless, nasty, and
inscrutable storm serves as the antagonist in The Boat, or what Northrop Frye, in his
book Anatomy of Criticism, has characterized as an obstructing character (163).
In a discussion about character types in comedies, Northrop Frye describes these
obstructing characters as characters who try to prevent the protagonist from achieving
his desired ends (163). Keaton often provides obstructing characters in his films, but
sometimes, (as in The Navigator and The Boat), he transposes something non-human
(the ship in The Navigator, the storm in The Boat) into an obstructing character.
When Keaton uses an object or a natural phenomenon to obstruct his protagonist, he
evokes the ontological quality of the obstructing characters. Because objects and
natural phenomenon are devoid of a social context, their ontological attributes
become magnified under this narrative arrangement.
For this reason, The Boat evoke Keatons foundational irrationality in a persuasive
manner that cannot be easily dismissed. For example, when the irrational, obstructing
character takes on a social dimension, as in Cops, one can then discuss the irrational
ontology within a political or social context. One could discuss Cops as a portrait of
a police state, which I will do later in this essay. But when the irrationality is framed
within the context of an object or a natural phenomenon, it cannot be easily
contextualized. Consequently, the lack of a social context invites a metaphorical
questions: Who made the storm? Where did it come from? Why is it so irrational?
Some people may find this type of ambiguity inappropriate for a comic film. For
this reason, Keatons films baffle some people, who find his irrational ontology too
cynical to like and his imagery too strange to understand. Certainly, the ending of
The Boat is unusually dark in tone, especially for a film in the comic genre. Another
way to interpret Keatons paradoxical tones in The Boat is to give Keaton credit for
anticipating a comic, sub-genre: the dark comedy. The Boat stands out as one of the
earliest and finest examples of this sub-genre, which attempts to speak (in a comic or
ironic voice) to the darker aspects of human existence.
Having spent some time on the darker dimensions of The Boat, I would now like
to explore some of its comic dimensions in which the tone is more mixed. Keaton is
self-reflective in The Boat, he draws attention to his own comic persona, and he also
references experiences from his youth. The Boat is infused with visual nods to
Keatons comic persona and the unique perspective that that persona evokes. While
discussing The Boat, Robert Knopf notes:
Busters family is comprised of his wife and two children; both children sport
Porkpie hats identical to his. This type of multiple-image gag directly
appropriates the basic gag of The Three Keatons: an entire family in matching
costumes. The only differences are that Buster has taken over the role of the
father and the gag is entrenched in the entire film (57).
The two porkpie hats on both children suggests an affectionate reference to Busters
early days as child performer, but Busters treatment of the children takes on a
complex tone that moves beyond mere affection. Oldham refers to Busters
suitcase-treatment of Junior 1, referring to the way Buster handles his son like
baggage (152). After rescuing his son, Buster carries Junior 1 like a piece of luggage,
and then he lowers his son down to the cabin. His wife spanks Junior 1 several times
and then ushers him into the closet with a broom. These behaviors may be somewhat
innocent, given the social norms of the times, but the parents treatment of the boy
(especially Busters suitcase-treatment) plays like a stylized performance choice that
evokes an attitude of indifference. The tone is dark, since the boy appears frozen in a
posture of utter helplessness, as Buster relocates him from the deck to the cabin.
Two other interactions between Buster and his son are worthy of exploration. The
first incident occurs when Buster and Junior 1 are on the deck of the Damfino. Buster
accidentally places a smokestack on his son. Buster is oblivious to his sons
predicament. After Buster places the smokestack on his Junior 1, Keaton cuts to a
shot of his son, who is suddenly encased in a tunnel of darkness. The mise-en-scene
reveals the son and the interior of the smokestack. The tone is dark and
claustrophobic. The small boy looks upward and shrieks; he is terrified. Buster
mistakes the shriek for a whistle that is attached to the outside of the smokestack. His
son shrieks again. Buster taps the smokestack, as if he were searching for a pulse or
for some proof of life. Buster then presses his ear against the side of the smokestack,
as if he were trying to hear a heartbeat. Buster looks baffled and perplexed; his
behavior is both strange and logically motivated.
The imagery of the mise-en-scene is one that reverberates with a sense of
existential darkness. The image of the boy encased in darkness foreshadows the
darkness that later encases Buster in the storm. Although this scene is comic, (since
the audience knows the boy is safe), it also helps to establish the dark tone that
Keaton nurtures throughout the film. In this visual continuum, one can follow the
progression of Keatons philosophical thought, as he moves from the darkness that
envelops the son in the smokestack to the darkness that envelops the father in the
storm. As Alan Dale notes in Comedy is a Man in Trouble, Keaton uses imagery in
such a specific manner that You can see his ideas expand (67). Keatons
philosophical claims often emerge from his skillful treatment of visual motifs.
The second incident that concerns Busters treatment of his son is a continuation
of the first incident. Buster attempts to extract Junior 1 from the smokestack and he
accidentally dumps Junior 1 into the river. Buster is surprisingly reluctant to rescue
his son. He tosses a lifejacket into the water, and it sinks into the bottom of the river
like an anchor. Buster starts to jump into the river, but he pauses, in order to test the
temperature of the water! Finally, he stumbles awkwardly into the river and rescues
his son, but only after struggling with his own intentions. Later in the film, Buster
does everything in his power to save his family, so the implication that he might be an
indifferent or cowardly father turns out to be false. However, this scene plants a
thematic seed: a drowning family member. At the end of The Boat, Keaton explores
this same scenario in much darker tones.
Who can help Buster in the midst of his crisis? In the middle of the storm, Buster
sends an S.O.S. to the dispatcher. The dispatcher asks: Who is it? Buster responds
Damfino. The dispatcher replies: neither do I. This intertitle serves as a pun that
highlights the double-meaning of the boats name. The pun works well and it
achieves its intended comic effect. But Keaton also uses this scene to not only
complete a verbal pun, but to dispose of the possibility that Buster might receive
outside help. When the dispatcher cuts the line, it is clear that Buster and his family
are isolated. Only Buster can save his family from an obstructing character that
Keaton defines in irrational terms.
The storm in The Boat is an irrational presence that structures the last third of the
film. As I have demonstrated, Keaton foreshadows the arrival of the storm with his
specific, existential imagery and with his overall, cynical tone. When the storm
finally arrives, Keaton shifts the tone and portrays Busters interactions with the
storm in a slapstick manner. Buster goes on the deck of the Damfino with a candle, as
he first attempts to comprehend the storm. The issue quickly shifts from
comprehending the storm to keeping the candle lit! Buster returns with an umbrella,
which is quickly blown out to sea. Buster then struggles to straighten out a long, thin
telescope, which becomes a visual gag with phallic overtones. Buster uses the limp
telescope to parody his own powerlessness in the face of the storm.
In the cabin below, Keaton sustains the slapstick tone to parody Busters attempt
to apply rational solutions to the problems imposed by an irrational storm. Buster
nails his feet to the ground in order to help him remain still. Buster drill a hole in the
floor of the cabin to help drain the rising levels of water. Put kindly, this is somewhat
counterproductive! Buster tries to use a painting as a stopper, which also fails to
work. Keaton then cuts to a long shot that shows us this scene from the outside of the
boat. We see the boat spinning like a top on a pavement of water. These images
occur quickly, one-after-the other, and the tempo of the editing adds to the overall
comic effect. That comic effect emerges from the creative interplay between Keaton
(the irrationalist) and Buster (the rationalist).
But when Buster takes his family up to the deck of the boat, the stakes are raised
and the tone shifts yet again. The irrational ontology of objects begins to take on a
tragic tone. For example, when the Damfino sinks, a bathtub becomes both a bathtub
and a lifeboat, one that can barely hold four human beings. While in the tub/lifeboat,
Busters son asks his father for a drink. Buster uses his hat, which is suddenly both a
hat and a cup. When the young boy innocently pulls out the stopper from the tub and
drops it into the sea, the family starts to fanatically shovel the water in the tub/lifeboat
back into the sea. Buster uses his cap as a ladle and its effectiveness is nil. There is
something nightmarish about this imagery. The prospect of four innocent people,
including two young children, drowning in a sea of darkness is hardly the material of
a conventional comedy!
The familys efforts to keep the tub/lifeboat above water are clearly doomed. As it
begins to sink, the four family members hold each other and close their eyes as they
prepare to die. The tub/lifeboat sinks and Buster stands up, his feet suddenly and
surprisingly planted on the firm terrain that is hidden beneath the darkness of the
water. Buster and his family walk off into the darkness. His wife asks, Where are
we? Buster scratches his head ands says, Damfino. The pun resolves the sequence
beautifully. It also shifts the tone from the tragic back to the comic.
However, the nightmarish quality of the sequence remains alarming. Buster and
his family have escaped death due to nothing else but sheer luck. The irrationality of
Being (in the incarnation of the storm) has somehow granted them another day, but
for no known reason. Or, more to the point, the storm is completely indifferent to the
question of the familys fate. In this closing sequence, Keaton highlights the view
that all human existence hangs by a thread, and that thread can be swept up in a storm
at any point in time. The fact that the family survives due to the accidental discovery
of what they could never have known illustrates a paradox of human survival.
Keaton playfully and philosophically evokes the question: How did the human race
ever make it this far? The boats name provides Keatons comic and cynical answer:
While The Boat examines Being in its totality through the metaphorical imagery of
the storm and the husbands effort to constitute that storm, The Navigator focuses on
one aspect of Being: the nothing. According to Heidegger, the ontology of Being is
fundamentally irrational. But it is important to note that in Heideggers overall
paradigm, Being is defined by an ontological duality. As Tanzer notes:
Daseins understanding of Being, then, is a mode of making-possible in which
Dasein is neither purely active nor purely passive. Rather, the relationship
between Dasein, who understand the Being of beings, and the beings that this
understanding makes possible is such that the Dasein-dependence of beings,
and correlative activity of Dasein, is compatible with the Dasein-independence
of beings, and the correlative passivity of Dasein (48).
Tanzer notes how one aspect of Being appears accessible to Dasein, while another
aspect of Being remains inaccessible to Dasein. Daseins relationship to Being is
driven by context and use; it is not a relationship that is purely passive or purely
active. The duality of Beings ontological structure can be described thusly: it is part
Dasein-independent and part Dasein-dependent.
For example, if I drive to the airport, I can constitute a car so that it transports me
to the airport. If a storm were to suddenly occur and I needed a place of warmth, I
can pull off to the side of the road and constitute the car as a space of rest and
warmth. But if I get a flat tire and if my cell phone dies and if my spare tire is also
flat, I cannot constitute the car in such a way that it becomes a flying object that takes
me to the airport. Therefore, the context of the temporal situation determines whether
my relationship to the car is one of active constitution or one of passive resignation.
Heideggers claim is that in all situations, some aspect of Being (but not every aspect
of Being) remains forever inaccessible to Dasein. This claim justifies Heideggers
overall ontology of irrationalism.
That aspect of Begin that is inaccessible to Dasein is something that Heidegger
calls in Basic Writings the nothing (97). In Basic Writings, Heidegger defined the
nothing as the negation of the totality of beings; it is non-being pure and simple
(97). The nothing is not a mere temporary void or temporary absence; rather, it
claims an ontological status all its own. It is part of the ontological structure of Being
and not an accident of circumstances. And what is Daseins reaction to the nothing?
In Basic Writings, Heidegger notes that for Dasein, an ontological state of
anxiety marks its encounter with the nothing (101). Because the nothing maintains
a perpetual indifference towards Dasein, Dasein predictably responds with a feeling
of anxiety in the face of this indifference. Heidegger later notes that With the
fundamental mood of anxiety we have arrived at that occurrence in human existence
in which the nothing is revealed and from which it must be interrogated (101). The
Navigator works as a visual interrogation of the dialectic between two Daseins
(Buster and the girl) and the nothing, which is metaphorically represented by the ship.
The Navigator is both an object and the antagonist in this film. It also embodies
the ontological attributes of the nothing. The ship dramatically functions as a
character or as an antagonistic force; it assumes a characterization that is both subtle
and constant. We first see the ship at night. Rollo (Buster Keaton) walks on the deck
with his luggage and boarding ticket and a few official papers. After one brief,
dramatic beat the wind blows all of Rollos official papers into the vast darkness of
the sea, which colors the background of the mise-en-scene. Unfazed, Rollo enters a
room and attempts to turn on a lamp; it does not work.
What does Keaton establish in these two brief moments? By stripping Rollo of his
official papers, Keaton takes away his social identity, or what Heidegger refers to as
the they-self. Earlier scenes indicate that wealth and status are Rollos primary
ontological values. His inauthenticity is established when he proposes marriage to a
rich neighbor, who seems shocked by the question, a reaction which implies a certain
shallowness to their relationship. Rollos inauthenticity is further indicated by an
intertitle that reads: Rollo was living proof that every family must have its sap.
Removed from the comforting and negating ontology of the they as he sleeps on the
ship, Rollo is ontologically on his own in ways that he does not yet fully comprehend.
The camera now cuts to the spies who have abducted the night watchman. They
ask him Is anybody on board? The intertitle reads Nobody, an ironic response
given that Rollo is still on the boat. This single word (nobody) signifies Rollos
enmeshment in the negating ontology of the ship. As part of the plot contrivance,
(Keaton provides no information on the moral virtues of the dueling castes of spies),
the spies abduct the ship-owner. Consequently, the ship-owners daughter boards the
Navigator in order to find her father. The spies cut the ropes that anchor the boat to
the shore and the deed is done; the ship is adrift with only the young couple on board.
Multiple questions are quickly raised: How will the isolation affect these two
characters? How will they meet? How will they survive on the ship? Will they
survive on the ship?
Keaton cuts to the next morning. The mise-en-scene shows us The Navigator, as it
rests perfectly centered on the horizon, an image of pure tranquility that can only be
viewed in ironic terms given the events of the previous night. Where one expects to
find innocence and repose, one instead anticipates strangeness and danger. Even the
ships name is telling. The Navigator suggests an object that has been designed for
action and exploration; its stillness on the horizon seems like a violation of its
primary purpose, which is movement or navigation. But the navigation of what? The
seas? Or the dynamics of the couples relationship? Keaton weaves these two
questions into a single image. The Navigator looms on the horizon as an instrument
of both physical and ontological exploration. Keaton destabilizes the ships ontology,
so that he can expand its ontological implications.
Keaton often takes an image typically associated with one quality and then
destabilizes that image so that it becomes associated with a different ontological
quality. Typically, this is a movement from ontological certainty to ontological
uncertainty. The image of a still boat on a peaceful horizon is ubiquitous; in other
words, it is a visual cliche designed to comfort. But this is not the case with this
particular image of a still ship on this particular peaceful horizon. The ontological
tension that ensues is rich in Heideggerian overtones because Keaton integrates the
alienating ontology of the ship into the uncertain ontology of the young couple.
The intriguing ontology of the ship demonstrates the fact that Keaton wanted to
challenge his audience. He wanted to be funny, but funny in a certain way. Indeed,
Keaton proclaimed in one interview that I always tried to challenge the imagination
of my audience. I always challenged them to outguess me and then Id double-cross
them (qtd. in Terkel 37). Inanimate objects like the ship resonate with an ontological
presence due to the very specific way that Keaton frames them. Objects, like the ship
in The Navigator and the boat in The Boat, emerge as ambiguous sources of potential
comfort or potential disaster. As Tom Dardis notes, Keatons unique imagination
produced a world suffused with extraordinary pessimism, combined with a genuine
delight in the comic possibilities of that same world (92).
Eventually, the two potential lovers must meet in order to serve the narrative
demands of a feature-length film. How does that happen? Before they meet, Keaton
shows the two characters on the ship just missing each other in a dazzling
choreography that is absurdly delightful and also intellectually tantalizing. Why do
they miss each other with such elegant precision? Is this a kind of absurd dance to
the music of non-being? Is it a metaphor of something darker? Is it both of these
things at once? (Rollo is chasing a woman he has previously proposed to; she has
rejected him, which adds a subtle emotional resonance to this sequence.)
The sequence where the young couple finally mange to meet is clearly one of
Keatons most inventive and comically satisfying sequences. Keaton directs the
topography of their disconnection from multiple angles: from behind Rollo, from in
front of Rollo, from behind the ship-owners daughter, from in front of the ship-
owners daughter, from the top of a deck looking down, from the bottom of a deck
looking up. We then see them both in an extended, long shot that shows the two
characters running up stairs that connect three horizontal levels of the ship. There is a
compulsion and frenzy to their movements that ironically accomplishes very little; in
fact, the extremity of their efforts negates the very thing they are trying to
accomplish! Their movement seems linked to a mutually shared, rational plan that is
not working. The comedy in this sequence emerges from the clash between two
opposing ontologies: the urgent, rational ontology of the young couple and the rigid,
irrational ontology of the ship.
Henri Bergson, a French Philosopher, has discussed the relationship between
rigidity and comedy. Bergson famously commented on the subject of comedy in an
essay titled Laughter. Bergson notes, rigidity is the comic and laughter is the
corrective (74). Bergson frames his point within a social context, noting that there is
a certain rigidity of body, mind, and character that society would like to get rid of.
(74). Bergsons notion that the comic serves as a corrective for the rigid can be
applied on the ontological level as well as the social level, as this chase sequence
The Navigator exemplifies Heideggers notion of the nothing with its rigid posture
of ontological indifference. Keaton quickly establishes the ships ontological rigidity
in this opening sequence. The ship is absolutely indifferent to the couples need to
connect. The laughter peaks when we see the ontological rigidity of the ship finally
defeated; the couple eventually do meet. Importantly, the ships rigidity is only
momentarily defeated; it continues to be a source of comic frustration for both Rollo
and the ship makers daughter throughout the film. Keaton raises the issue of the
ships negating ontology throughout The Navigator, and he never resolves this issue
with any type of comforting or rational explanation.
Keaton directs this sequence brilliantly. His use of the long shot encourages the
audience to consider the actions of these two desperate lovers as part of a unified
vision, and not as a series of fragmentary actions. The chase scene is undoubtedly
delightful and funny. It also raises several philosophical questions. Why does all
their frenzied activity negate the intentions of these two characters? Why is it that the
harder they try, the worse it gets? Why does the world often work against us rather
than with us? Keaton offers no direct explanation, but he clearly relishes designing a
scenario in which philosophical questions are viscerally implied.
Heidegger once observed that philosophy can be possessed most purely in the
form of a persistent question (qtd. in Vollman 2). Keaton seems to agree that a
persistent question possesses more ontological authenticity (and more comic
potential) than a persistent answer. The philosophical questions implied in the mise-
en-scene of the above chase sequence do not distract from the comic appeal of this
sequence. Instead, the implied, philosophical questions add a thematic depth to the
humor. The chase sequence in The Navigator is not just funny in the manner of the
Keystone Cops; instead, it is funny and thoughtful because it is driven by an
underlying ontological structure.
In this chase sequence, the audience witnesses in clear, visual terms the way the
indifference of the nothing can negate the intentions of Dasein. Rollo and the ship-
owners daughter are two beings lost in a maze they cannot perceive. What force
holds them back from perceiving the absurdity of the situation? Is it their lack of
reflection or the indifference of the ship? Clearly, both the ship and the characters
lack of reflection serve to co-create the ontological futility that drives the scene. The
frantic, perfectly syncopated, and anxiously accelerated speed of the two running
characters serves as an expression of their anxiety as they encounter the nothing.
They are simultaneously running from the nothing and towards the nothing, and this
only heightens the absurdity of their desperation.
Running is typically an expression of anxiety in Keatons films, and anxiety,
according to Heidegger in Basic Writings, is proof that one is in the midst of an
encounter with the nothing (101). Both characters accelerated running adds a feeling
of accelerated anxiety to their frenzied behaviors. For Rollo and the ship-owners
daughter, accelerated running can be directly equated with accelerated anxiety, which
makes sense, given the ships indifference. The fact that the harder they try the more
easily they fail, only adds to the ambiguous theme of the film. In fact, it is only when
they give up the effort to connect, that they are able to meet. So hope arrives at last in
the form of human resignation. They cease running, find each other accidentally, and
the sequence is concluded.
This chase scene is dominated by action, but another way that Keaton establishes
the ontology of the ship is through imagery. Later in the film, Rollo hears a song
whose lyrics are displayed on the intertitle. Tellingly, the lock on a door accidentally
turns on the phonograph that plays the record. Is the ship trying to scare the young
couple? Probably not, since the swaying of the ship perfectly explains the physics of
the action. The song begins with the lyrics Many brave hearts are asleep in the
deep and then ends with a single word: Beware. Frightened by the song, Rollo
runs up to the deck of the ship. Keaton frames the long corridor of the empty,
swaying ship, which is now imbued by the fog of night, at a slightly askew angle.
There is a sense of vertigo that emerges from the mise-en-scene, a sense that Rollo is
in the presence of something strange and nameless.
The imagery is absurd and comic, but it also defined by a dark spookiness and a
feeling of existential danger. We see a dozen doors on one side of a lengthy corridor
open and close in a synchronized manner. The audience can see them, but initially,
Rollo cannot see them. The doors are closed each time he turns around. Eventually,
Rollo turns around and sees them open. The eerie, mechanical movements of the
doors, each one a near-perfect reflection of the one closest to it, suggest the illusion of
a funhouse where one sees multiple images of the same person in a row of mirrors.
Of course, these are door and not mirrors, so they imagery is somewhat surreal.
Keaton raises several persistent questions with this stark and challenging imagery.
Why do the doors look exactly alike? Why do they move with such eerie precision?
Why do they seem to be trying to convey something and why is that message so
unclear? The dreamy, mechanical motions of the doors suggest an ontological
indifference, one which evokes the Heideggerian notion of the nothing. Like the last
images of The Boat, this scene has a nightmarish quality that simultaneously evokes
fear and thought. This curious imagery, taken in its totality, works as a dark
metaphor of the nothing in the night.
Keaton uses stunning camera work to highlight the persistent, ontological
ambiguity that drives this film. For example, he makes an interesting directional
choice that highlights the moment when Rollo seems to first grasp the ontology of the
nothing. After Rollo realizes that the lifeboat cannot be used to rescue the ship-
owners daughter, he rolls down a ladder that reaches into the water below, where she
struggles to keep her head above water. Rollo dives into the water and swims to her.
Rollo rescues her and then tries to carry her up the ladder. While in his arms, she
faints. Rollo catches her as she falls across his arm. He looks at her and then the
camera switches from a straight-on, water level shot to a crane shot. Rollo looks
upward to the top of the ladder from the bottom of the ladder, and for a full beat he is
simultaneously looking upward toward the sky and directly at the audience. This
creates an odd effect, as if the audience has been air-lifted into the shot.
Keaton creates a jarring, existential feeling of ungroundedness with this
directorial choice. It feels both impersonal and personal at the same time. Rollo
looks up and the expression of his face (so perfectly played by Buster) is one of terror
and shock; it is the shock of recognition. The unusual camera angle pulls the audience
into that moment when Rollo first gains consciousness of the existence of the nothing.
With this camera work, Keaton links Rollos response to the perspective of the
viewing audience, who have abruptly been reminded of their own presence with an
uncanny crane shot. Keaton creates a strange feeling of intimacy between the
audience and the actor. For one long beat, they share the same aesthetic space, and in
that space is the disturbing and shared acknowledgement of the nothing.
Keaton destabilizes the assumed ontological boundaries between performance and
audience, a style of performance that he experienced and developed in his vaudeville
days. Here, he uses the technique of direct address to highlight a poignant moment of
philosophical insight, as opposed to a purely comic moment. It is a daring choice and
it works exceedingly well.
Steven Seidman describes this technique of direct address in an essay titled
Performance, Enunciation, and Self-Reference in Hollywood Comedian Comedy
(19). Seidman notes that the essence of the comedians cultural iconicity stemmed
from the way he had established close contact with audiences in other show business
forms. In film the clearest manifestation of direct contact was the acknowledgment of
the audience through devices such as looking and bowing at the camera (19).
Seidman traces this technique back to vaudeville, the place and time where Keaton
learned his craft (24). Seidman notes that in vaudeville, the success of performers
was dependent on first establishing a direct rapport with audiences (22). He later
notes, While the success of the actor or actress in nineteenth-century theatre was
predicated on the performers becoming a he or she, the performers success in
vaudeville was contingent on presenting the I, exhibiting the self in such a way as to
induce an immediate response (Seidman 24).
What is interesting to note is how Keaton chose a poignant moment in The
Navigator to exhibit what Seidman terms as his I. Keaton directly reminds the
audience of his presence in a moment that is ripe with emotional desperation and
philosophical implications. Keaton chooses, not a slapstick moment, but a moment of
danger that Rollo must transcend in order to survive. It is an unusual to moment
highlight, especially for a comedian! Sequences such as this, where a particular
ontological quality is highlighted in a vivid and personal manner, enable this
sequence to rise above a melodramatic parody and into the realm of an artistic and
It is as if in the middle of a conventional damsel-in-distress scene, Keaton pauses
the action in order to address the audience directly. The aesthetic distance between
performer and audience vanishes, and we are reminded of the presence of the man in
the medium. Buster is entrenched in a moment that reveals his vulnerability, self-
awareness, and courage. All of this is conveyed without words. Keaton frames
Busters growing self-awareness in a way that feels psychologically rich. As Roger
Ebert notes in The Great Movies, Keaton seems like a modern visitor to the world of
the silent clown (189).
The image of Rollo carrying his beloved up a lengthy, narrow ladder that hangs
along the side of The Navigator, a ladder he chose to use for a specific purpose (the
rescue of his beloved), is a concise and perfectly apt image of Heideggerian
resoluteness. Keaton frames Rollos attempt to achieve his authentic goal (the rescue
of the ship-owners daughter) as a difficult possibility, one that moves along a
temporal, step-by-step plane. He succeeds and because of his actions, Rollo can now
be viewed as a character with some degree of character, and not merely as a spoiled
weakling (Dardis 133). Through sheer will and unwavering determination, Rollo
has navigated towards the Keaton ideal of an honest, self-made man who solves his
problems by confronting them directly. Rollo invents a solution within a temporal
context that demonstrates his resoluteness and his growing, ontological authenticity.
Keaton continues to manifest the ontological ideal of the self-made man
throughout The Navigator. We see it when Rollo tries to comfort his beloved by
making a bed for her in the middle of a storm. We also see it in the way that Rollo
and the ship-makers daughter conquer their domestic challenges. After watching the
couple fail to brew coffee, boil eggs, and open a can, we read an intertitle at the mid-
point of the film that states: weeks later-still drifting. Apparently weeks of drifting
at sea have positively impacted the young couples effort to master domestic
responsibilities. Suddenly the coffee is brilliant, the eggs are boiled to perfection, and
Buster is able to open a can of food with a machine that is one-part bicycle and one-
This funny sequence optimistically affirms the human potential to realize greater
human potential. It philosophically contrasts the opening chase sequence, where
Keaton wrapped the human potential to realize greater potential in cynicism and
futility. These apparently contradictory scenes are not contradictory all. Keaton
simply conveys the duality of Dasein, as it struggles within the duality of Being.
Keatons willingness to frame that struggle in ambiguous terms suggests a mature
ontology, one that Heidegger would have certainly embraced.
But once the ship is in need of repair, Rollos transformation from spoiled
weakling to self-made man is comically accelerated. Rollo carries his own tools to
the ocean floor. Once at the bottom of the ocean floor, he can only depend on himself
to repair the ship. He uses a lobster fin to cut a wire. He posts a sign that reads: men
at work. Given the narrative dynamics of the film, Rollo must repair the ship on his
own or it will remain broken. His bravery and innovation are both admirable and
comic. Keaton shows us Rollo in the act of pursuing and realizing his potential with
imagery that is comically startling and thematically specific.
Conversely, Rollos early scenes, where he attempts to woo the ship-owners
daughter conventionally (with flowers and a brusque proposal of marriage), end in
disaster. Here, Keaton establishes the character of the spoiled weakling (Dardis
133). In the world of the flowers, the mansion, and the butler, (in other words, in the
world of the they), Rollo is ontologically blurry. He appears to be somewhat absent
and he fails to achieve his goals. Keaton depicts Rollo as a passive being, a person
who moves more like a mannequin than a man. In these scenes of failed courtship,
Keaton frames Rollos ontology as one that is constituted by the they. Enmeshed in
this absorbing and conforming ontology, Rollo remains ontologically inauthentic.
Later, when Rollo walks out of the ocean and is mistaken by the cannibals for a
deity, Keaton comically conveys an absurd personification of Being: Rollo in a diving
suit that looks three sizes too big! Rollo plays up the part by threatening the
cannibals with absurd arm movements. Rollos effect on the cannibals is
momentarily absolute and completely absurd. Rollo is all-powerful and utterly
inauthentic! Later, on the ship, while attempting to remove himself from the diving
suit that is now nearly drowning him, Rollo uses his knife to cut across the suit in the
area of the abdomen. The fact that the water breaks, when combined with rotund
largeness of the suits belly, suggests an image of birth. Rollo seems to be
performing a kind of a self-induced, cosmic cesarean section! Keaton uses this visual
imagery to mock Rollos doomed attempt to extract himself from the perils of his
situation, or in Heideggers term, the dangerous irrationality of Being. The joke is
that once he is extracted from the suit, Rollo finds himself right back where he
started: on the deck of a ship with his beloved and with no clear plan of escape. Rollo
has been reborn into the same exact predicament!
When one examines Rollos transformation from an ontologically indistinguished
character to an ontologically distinguished character, one can conclude that Rollos
movement towards his own ontological authenticity is triggered by the ships
indifference. Rollos transformation is bom of both necessity and choice. Rollo
needs the obstacles imposed by The Navigator (or in Heideggers term, the nothing),
in order to understand the possibility and necessity of his own potential freedom. As
Heidegger notes in his book Basic Writings, Without the original revelation of the
nothing, no selfhood and no freedom (103). Keatons visually imagery and narrative
drive supports Heideggers claim about the symbiotic relationship between the
nothing and the potential of Dasein. Keaton links Rollos transformation to the
indifferent ontology of the ship, just as Heidegger links Daseins transformation to
the indifference of the nothing.
In the area of romance, Rollo must woo his love interest unconventionally in order
to be successful, thus demonstrating his need to separate from the they. Being rich
and pampered is a liability, or at best, a neutral factor in Rollos effort to achieve his
authentic self and the affections of the ship-makers daughter. Keaton frames Rollos
final and successful achievement of love in a way that defines love as an extension of
Daseins authenticity. By the films end there is an ontological richness to Rollo that
makes him more deserving of love. However, Keaton refuses to present the
achievement of either romantic love or an authentic self in sentimental terms; both
must be earned.
Rollos transformation anchors Keaton to an anti-sentimentalist position, a
position which further strengthens the ontological authenticity that infuses The
Navigator. Lebel notes in Valorous Love, that Rollo must surpass himself (179).
In fact, Rollo does surpass himself; he completes an ontological movement from the
passive to the active. He moves from the ontology of a spoiled weakling and
towards the ontological ideal of the honest and self-made man (Dardis 133 Keaton
126). In the Heideggerian paradigm, that movement equates to Daseins movement
toward its own temporally bound and context-bound authenticity.
The threat of the cannibals also contributes to the overall theme of The Navigator,
which is the fragile contingency of human identity, given the cannibalistic threat of
the they and the foundational irrational of Being. Once Rollo and the ship-owners
daughter are rescued, Keaton constitutes the submarine in unstable terms. There is an
ontological anarchy within its confined and swaying space. The final image of the
two lovers holding each other with a tender determination feels emotionally authentic,
but not necessarily comforting. They have been momentarily saved, but the ontology
of the submarine offers only a slight reprieve from the ontology of the ship. The
young couple can rest. They have a captain and crew to assist them, but there is still
much water to navigate.
COPS AND THE GENERAL: DASEIN AND THE THEY
In The Man Who Wouldnt Lie Down, Tom Dardis describes Cops as a film where
nothing is what it seems to be (90). Cops explores Daseins inability to achieve an
authentic self, by highlighting the oppressive power of the they ontology. Keaton
visually equates the they to the comic imagery of masses of anonymous cops. Almost
every character in Cops turns out to be a cop. The mayor, the mayors daughter, the
family who are moving, and the anarchist are important exceptions. However,
because the protagonist (who I will refer to as Buster) accidentally robs another
character who turns out to be a cop, and because the father of the moving family turns
out to be a cop, and because of the hundreds of anonymous cops who flood the film,
Cops conveys an unsettling feeling of ontological occupation. Keaton extends this
ontology to an extreme degree, and the result is a comic masterpiece that depicts
Daseins existence within an unnamed police state.
The beginning of Cops suggests a love story. However, I must note that Keatons
conception of the element of romance in Cops is a very superficial conception.
Typically, Keaton uses the girl or the love interest in his films primarily as a plot
device. Often, her subjectivity is not an issue that Keaton either acknowledges or
explores. However, like almost every generality about Keatons independent films,
this one has some exceptions.
For example, the girl (Kathryn McGuire) in Sherlock Jr. turns out to be more
authentic than the projectionist. Keaton highlights her subjectivity and her will to
invent. Also the girl (Kathryn McGuire) in The Navigator actively solves difficult
problems throughout that film. She is essentially the co-star of The Navigator.
(Keaton assigns her no name, so I will use she in this analysis.) In The Navigator
she is athletic, smart, tough, and an active agent in many important scenes. Keaton
certainly privileges Rollos agency over her agency; however, she is much more than
a plot device. She is an equal partner to Rollo and often seems smarter than Rollo.
On the ontological level, Keaton assigns the girl an important value. She triggers
in the typical Keaton protagonist something that Heidegger terms in Being and Time
the call of conscience or the call (255). Heidegger claims that The call is precisely
something that we ourselves have neither planned nor prepared for nor willingly
brought about (254). Heidegger also claims that the call is lacking any kind of
utterance. It does not even come to words, and yet it is not at all obscure and
indefinite. Conscience speaks solely and constantly in the mode of silence (252). It
seems like silent film might be the ideal art form for a character to hear the call of
Heidegger also notes that the call alerts Dasein to its own possibility (256).
Within Heideggers paradigm, the call is a pre-requisite for Daseins authentic self-
achievement, and Keaton often uses the girl to trigger the call of conscience in his
protagonists. However, Keatons films are more about the pursuit of the possibilities
that the call triggers, than they are about the source of the call. Keaton explores the
ambiguity of the process that the call initiates. Notably, the rational authenticity of
the goal that the call triggers is one of the few ontological certainties in Keatons
In terms of female subjectivity and agency, Keatons views are mostly
insubstantial. (Two important exceptions are The Navigator and Sherlock Jr.)
However, on the ontological level, Keaton values women and links their presence to
the call-of-conscience in his male protagonist, which triggers the possibility of his
ontological authenticity. One can argue that this is a highly patriarchal value and one
would indeed be correct. Furthermore, there is only one Keaton independent film
where a man triggers the call-of-conscience in a woman and that film is Sherlock Jr.
And even in Sherlock Jr., the woman is a supporting character, and her ontology,
though somewhat complex, is never explored by Keaton with the same rigor and
humor that he uses to explore the ontology of his male protagonist in Sherlock Jr.
While it is clear that the subjectivity of Keatons female characters is generally
absent, or else they exist merely as plot devices in Keatons independent films, I
would give Keaton some credit for assigning woman an important ontological value
in relation to the male protagonist. I would also give him some credit for creating a
few roles for woman where their agency, athleticism, and integrity are apparent. This
may seem meager by todays standards, but Keaton engaged the question of female
ontology more thoroughly than many of the comic film-makers of his era.
But clearly, Cops is about something other than romance. Cops begins with the
image of Buster in prison and it ends with an image of his tombstone, indicating the
cynical tone that Keaton sustains throughout the film. The bars turn out to be part of
the front gate that belong to the mayors daughter, whom Buster is trying to woo.
Like Keatons opening in The Boat, Cops begins with a switch image gag that has
comic and thematic overtones (Carroll 33). Keaton's opening, (with its ironic
depiction of prison bars), foreshadows the metaphysical prison that Buster gradually
discovers throughout the action of Cops. Triggering the call as Heidegger termed
it, the mayors daughters tells Buster that she wants him to be a big business man
before she will marry him (255). Buster ventures into society to seek his fortune, to
achieve his beloved, and to thereby achieve his authentic self.
Things quickly take a negative turn. In the ensuing scene Buster accidentally robs
a man who turns out to be a cop. A con artist then deceives Buster, by selling Buster
furniture that belongs to a family who are moving. Buster unknowingly purchases the
familys items, and he then purchases a wagon pulled by a white horse to transport
those items. Buster drives the wagon into a parade of cops. When an anarchist throws
a smoke-bomb into his wagon, Buster picks up the bomb, casually lights his cigarette,
and then tosses the bomb on the street. The crowd goes berserk. Since Busters
intentions are misconstrued, (what is random and innocent is redefined as political
and purposeful), a chase scene ensues that ends with Buster being trapped in a police
Buster steps out of the station in a cop suit. The mayor's daughter sees him and
she rejects him. The film ends with the image of Busters trademark porkpie hat on
the top of a tombstone. The tombstone signals Busters death, but we can infer from
Cops that the negating presence of the they is the primary force that has defeated
Buster and not death. The tombstone merely punctuates this fact. The tombstone
stands upright, a kind of symbolic scorecard that officially declares the final victory
of the they ontology over authentic Dasein. This ending image is one of Keatons
most thoughtful and ironic images. Like The Boat, Cops can be classified in the
comic sub genre of a black comedy.
Robert Knopf equates the behavior of the cops with a machine (63). Knopf
notes that Busters cops operate as one gigantic machine, chasing him en masse
(63). Several scenes support this claim. Keatons first image of the parading cops
uses a long shot to show 10 rows of cops (each containing about 40-50 cops), as they
march down a wide, empty street. The impersonal precision of their movements
feels mechanical and suggests the actions of a well-oiled machine with a single
purpose. The imagery of this highly-ordered behavior evokes the vision of an
unnamed police state. Later, as Buster sits in a car using his tie as a mustache in order
to disguise his identity, dozens of cops emerge from a long row of cars like angry
bees from a row of beehives. In this scene, Keaton links the cops to machinery in the
form of the cars.
However, Knopfs analysis feels incomplete because it describes the cops in a way
that suggests they are an autonomous entity. In fact, the cops are predominantly
human beings who exist as an extension of a human and cultural organization. The
cops can be more fully understood as an extension of a social and political order that
has ontological and political implications. In other words, their power and status is
derived from certain political institutions and not from a mechanical source. The
cops only seem like machines; in fact, they are human. In relation to Dasein, the cops
are always an obstacle, particularly in relation to Daseins effort to achieve an
If the cops were machines or robots, their behavior would be easier to understand,
but the fact that they are human beings complicates their mechanized ontology.
Thematically, the cops represent authority without authenticity. Rather than a
machine gone bad, they represent a culture gone bad, one where a rigid ontology (the
they) is privileged to a near absolute degree. The cops incarnate the they ontology as
described by Heidegger; they are pre-constituted, inauthentic, and negating in their
relationship to Dasein.
One particular sequence eloquently encapsulates the hostility and conflict between
Buster and the cops. Here, the demands of classical Hollywood cinema are perfectly
fused with the innovation of vaudeville gags. Buster climbs on a painters ladder that
is suspended like a see-saw on a fence, in order to escape from the cops who are
chasing him. Before he can get to the other side of the ladder, he is quickly
surrounded by cops on both sides. Buster moves from end to end, while
simultaneously balancing the ladder in a horizontal manner, so that it remains at an
angle that could conceivably prevent the cops from reaching him. Keaton depicts
Busters struggle for his personal freedom in purely visual terms that also serve the
narrative demands of the film. This struggle takes place in a precarious state where
Buster is parenthetically surround by the ontology of the they. This gag is one of
Keatons finest gags. It is unexpected, innovative, funny, and ripe with philosophical
Noel Carroll describes this type of gag as the mimed metaphor (33). With the
mimed metaphor, the audience is invited through the prompting gesticulation of the
mime to consider objects under alternative interpretations (Carroll 32). Buster
reincorporates one object with multiple uses. In the sequence above, the ladder is
reconstituted twice. First Buster reconstitutes it as a seesaw and then he reconstitutes
it as a catapult (Carroll 32). By doing so, Keaton highlights the inventive will of his
protagonist, but he also contextualizes that will within a socially oppressive society.
The ontology of the cops integrates two Heideggerian concepts: the they and the
foundational irrationality of Being. Keaton intuitively fuses these two elements into
one single characterization: the cops. As a metaphorical incarnation of the they, the
cops operate as an obvious reminder of societys tendency to both categorize and
police its citizens with other trained citizens, who operate in a collective and
regimented manner. But the irrational aspect of the copswhat Heidegger terms
Beingis also a crucial attribute of their ontological structure. Keaton frames the
behavior of the cops in a frenzied manner. The irrationality of the cops can be
observed not in their response to Busters bomb toss, but in the degree of their
response to Busters bomb toss. The cops exude a pack mentality in their single-
minded and predatory pursuit of Buster.
At the end of Cops, Keaton films hundreds of cops furiously ramming their bodies
through the shadowy doorway that leads to the police station. Their number and their
urgency suggest an image of predatory behavior; it is as if they have collectively
gleaned that the time for the kill has arrived. When Buster steps out of the police
station in a cop's uniform, it is a jarring image, one that suggests a loss of self in the
face of an imposed conformity. In a metaphorical sense, Busters authentic
possibility has been murdered by a single-minded mob.
An alternate reading might focus on Buster as a trickster figure who eludes the
police by taking on a disguise and by locking his pursuers in the police station with a
stolen key. Even in this reading, Buster is only somewhat liberated from his
predicament. Although physically free, Buster remains ontologically removed from
his authentic goal of a business career, as well as the approval of the girl that he
wishes to marry. In fact, once she sees him in the police uniform, she clearly rejects
him. Even as a trickster figure, Buster is trapped in a disguise that alters his being
and makes him less, and not more, authentic.
Outside the police station, Buster sees his beloved. Buster still believes love is
possible, even though he is now an anonymous cop and not the self-made man he set
out to be. However, as I mentioned, the majors daughter clearly rejects him. Buster
is both dismayed and defeated and her rejection of him punctuates this fact. Unlike
the ending of The Boat, the ending of Cops contains only a minor level of ambiguity.
Society has imposed an ontology on Buster, and in the process, it has negated his
authentic possibility. Once Buster enters the parade and assumes an ontological status
that is equal to that of the cops, his fate is sealed. Like Heidegger, Keaton frames the
relationship between an authentic individual and the larger society in antagonistic
The six minute cop chase, which is nearly one-third of the film, conveys the
feeling that Buster is trapped in an ontological storm. The cops are like an
ontological storm that threatens Busters very existence, just as the storm in
Steamboat Bill, Jr. threatens Bill Jr.s very existence. For example, right before the
cops chase Buster into the police station, Keaton films the cops chasing Buster from
three directions on the same street. Keaton films the cops as they chase Buster from
the top of the screen to the bottom of the screen, from left to right, and from the
bottom to top. Keaton highlights the ubiquitous presence of the cops. Tellingly,
there is no physical space or clearing in the world of Cops where Buster can separate
himself from the they for any sustained period of time.
Also, there is no scene, sequence, or intertitle that conveys the possibility of a cop
chasing or capturing the anarchist, (the man who initially threw the bomb), because
this type of outcome would only be possible in a world grounded in rationality. Cops
is not such a world. The cops blind commitment to capture the wrong man
demonstrates their moral and intellectual blindness. One could argue that Buster did
throw the bomb into the parade and that he thought nothing of it, which may be
another, more innocent version of intellectual blindness. This is a valid observation.
Ultimately, two incompatible types of ontologies collide in Cops. The ontology of
the cops (who do not ever understand that Buster is innocent) collides with the
ontology of Buster (who does not initially understand that the cops are dangerous).
What results from this ontological collision is nothing less than a comic disaster.
Keaton uses a variety of sight gags in Cops. Noel Carroll describes one type of
sight gag in his essay Notes on the Sight Gag as The mutual interference or
interpenetration of two (or more) series of events (or scenarios) (28). When Keaton
drives his deaf horse and his wagon through an official parade populated by hundreds
of policeman, the incongruity of these two events serves as a good example of
Carrolls term. I like the word interpenetration because it captures a sense of social
and ontological boundaries being crossed. Keaton shows us a world where,
momentarily, the status of a single individual and the status of a public parade are
equal. His cynical film also suggests that for unknowable reasons, this ontological
equality cannot be sustained.
When Buster first veers into the parade, he looks somewhat astonished, but he
quickly accepts his situation. He tips his hat twice to the audience in the stands and
holds the reins of his wagon with one hand, a gesture that suggests his prowess as a
wagon-driver. This is a very funny moment because the incongruity of the event is
heightened by Busters inability to comprehend that incongruity. Buster clearly
enjoys being in the parade! We laugh at his at his innocent incomprehension of what
has transpired, and yet Keatons ending suggests that this type of innocence is
dangerous, as it leaves Buster vulnerable to the darker dimensions of the surrounding
In all of his independent films, Keaton links the achievement of his protagonists
authentic self to a challenge that can only be solved through action and a direct
encounter with the surrounding social and physical environment. This protagonists
movement towards authenticity is consistently a movement outward. Consequently,
Keaton thematically unifies the self and world, just as Heidegger unified them in his
definition of Dasein. In Cops, Keaton raises an important philosophical question:
What can Dasein do or how should Dasein be when the surrounding social forces are
fundamentally irrational? Keatons cynical conclusion offers no possible answer to
In Cops, the irrationality of Being extends into the imagery of the masses of cops,
whose collective determination overpowers Busters individual determination. The
cops represent the irrational apex of the they ontology, which Keaton explores with a
variety of gags and in his ending, where a mob of cops (with a stamp-of-approval
from the powers that be) devours Busters authentic potential. When Buster joins the
cops he gains a uniform, but his authenticity is negated. Keaton punctuates this point
when the mayors daughter rejects Buster despite his uniform. After she rejects him,
Buster re-enters the police station and passively accepts his fate. One feels at the
conclusion of Cops a kind of cosmic hopelessness, which Keaton refuses to frame in
sentimental terms. Cops, through a comedy, tells the story of a life that was never
allowed to happen. It is a portrait of negated Dasein, as it sinks into the ontological
quicksand of the they ontology.
As in Cops, Keaton explores the ontology of the they in The General. Recent
critics and scholars have responded to The General in a very positive manner; many
claim it is Keatons greatest film. For example, Roger Ebert included it in his book,
The Great Movies (190). In a HBO interview, Keaton also identified The General as
his favorite film out of the ones he directed (Buster Keaton). He explained his
feelings about The General with his usual candor and insight: I guess I was more
proud of that picture than any picture I ever made because I took an actual happening
out of the civil warout of the history bookand I told it in detail too (Buster
Keaton). Indeed, transformed by the historical roots of the story, Keaton achieves a
remarkable level of historical authenticity in The General. But on an ontological
level, what is this film about?
The General tells the story of an engineer named Johnnie Grey (Buster Keaton),
who pursue his own authentic potential within an ambiguous social context. The
dramatic structure of this film reveals an ontological structure that mirrors
Heideggers conception of Dasein. Like all of Keatons protagonists, Johnnie
struggles against the negating impact of they ontology. In The General, the they
metaphorically equate to the Southern military bureaucracy. Johnnie also struggles
against the irrational physics of the battlefield, which metaphorically equates to the
irrationality of Being. And finally, Johnnie struggles against himself, which
metaphorically equates to Heideggers notion of Dasein. Can Johnnie achieve his
authentic potential within the ontological parameters of the military bureaucracy?
This dramatic question drives The General.
Gerald Mast notes that the most serious element in Keatons films is the assertion
of human potential, which in turn implies the imaginative potential of the Keaton
mind (139). Human potential is certainly one of the primary issues that Keaton
explores in The General. Keaton views the subject of human potential as one that is
defined by perpetual struggle. Keatons independent films continually express an
ontology where life being grounded in an irrational structureresists logic, and
where societyin the form of the they resists the input of authentic individuals.
Both Heidegger and Keaton define human potential in contingent, rather than
absolute terms. How does Keaton establish this contingency in The Generali
Before examining this question, I will first summarize the overall plot. The
General is set in the American Civil War during the time of 1861. Buster Keaton and
Clyde Bruckman adapted the script from a book by Bill Pittenger, titled The Great
Locomotive Chase. After a comic and perceptive opening sequence where Johnnie is
rejected by Annabelle, the plot explodes like a roman candle. Northern spies steal
The General and use it to destroy bridges and communication lines. Through sheer
chance Johnnies beloved, Annabelle, boards the train seconds before the spies steal
it. Johnnie chases The General (with Annabelle on board) on a bike, a push-cart, and
eventually on another train called The Texas. When the Northern soldiers discover
that Johnnie is alone on the train, Johnnie abandons The Texas and escapes into
Once there, he discovers a house where Northern spies are holding Annabelle
hostage. Johnnie rescues her and together they eventually retrieve The General from
the Northern spies. Johnnie and Annabelle escape from the pursuit of the Northern
soldiers, who are chasing them in The Texas. Johnnie and Annabelle succeed in
warning the Southern troops about an impending surprise attack. After the Northern
spies are defeated, the Southern army promotes Johnnie to the rank of lieutenant.
Annabelle then declares her love for him. She has witnessed his courage under fire
and Johnnie has a uniform to prove it!
I would now like to spend a few moments discussing Keatons initial depiction of
Johnnie, so that I can discuss Johnnies overall character arc. In the first scene
Keaton presents Johnnie as the proud engineer of The General. Johnnie brings his
train into the station with pride and love. Johnnie steps off the train and cautions an
assistant to be on time, as he points to his watch in a commanding manner. Johnnie
shakes hands with two children; he oils the wheels of The General. In these early
scenes Keaton creates a protagonist who appears to have already achieved Keatons
ontological ideal of the honest, self-made man.
And yet, there is something about this opening sequence that frames Johnnie
ontology in a rigid tone, one that suggests that Johnnie may be more of a company
man than a self-made man. The opening mise-en-scene of the film (a long shot of
The General) captures the train in a manner that is impersonal. The image of a train
racing across the landscape evokes societys commitment to economic and
technological progress. It evokes nothing about a particular individual.
The second images shows Johnnie diligently cleaning the dust of the windowsill of
the moving train. The third image is the trains moniker: The General. As the train
pulls into the station, Johnnie steps down from it and onto the pavement. There is a
by-the-book quality to those early gestures, the ones where Johnnie cautions a co-
worker not to be late and where he oils the wheels of the train. Johnnies loyalties are
to his job and to his social position. Keaton associates Johnnies overall, ontological
presence with social values: a sense of cleanliness, a sense of timeliness, and a
devotion to professional details.
In this opening scene Keaton establishes Johnnie as a classic company man, or
in Heideggerian terms, Johnnie exists as an extension of the they ontology. There is
no element of curiosity or uncertainty to this opening scene. Things are exactly what
they appear to be, which is unusual in a Keaton film. After Johnnie waves to the
passing crowd, who all seem to recognize and regard him affectionately, the next
intertitle tells us that there were two loves in his life. His train and-. Keaton cuts to
a photo of Annabelle. The film now identifies a second love in Johnnies life. Keaton
links the train and Annabelle as the two primary elements of Johnnies self-concept.
Johnnie will directly or indirect pursue the train or Annabelle for the remainder of the
film. In fact, after waving to the crowd, Johnnie immediately visits Annabelle at her
Within moments of his arrival, Annabelles brother announces that the civil war
has been declared and therefore soldiers are needed. Johnnie attempts to enlist, but
the army rejects his application. They believe that he is more valuable to the South as
an engineer than as a soldier. They never explain their reasoning to Johnnie. Johnnie
explains to Annabelle that he tried to enlist, but she does not believe him. Annabelle
tells Johnnie that I dont want to speak to you again until you are in uniform.
In response, Johnnie walks over to a still train. He sits on a bar that connects two
wheels of the train. As the train pulls out of the station, Johnnie is pulled away too.
The spinning wheels of the train move Johnnie up and down in a circular motion that
conveys in visual terms the alienation and isolation that seem frozen on his face.
Keaton has a marvelous gift for projecting his protagonists inner ontology outward
onto the surrounding environment. At times, the ontology of the character and the
ontology of his environment interface in ways that are visually uncanny and yet
completely authentic. This is one of those times!
What does Keaton accomplish in this opening sequence? Keaton frames Johnnies
initial ontology within the confines of a company man, one who believes in
timeliness and loyalty to his job. Once the military rejects Johnnies application,
Keaton metaphorically evicts Johnnie from the ontology of the they. When the army
rejects him, Johnnie is denied access to the social identity of a solider. By evicting
Johnnie from the they ontology, Keaton forces Johnnie to confront his existence with
only his own inner resources to guide him.
I would describe the moment when the army rejects Johnnie as the inciting
incident, (a screenwriting term which denotes that unexpected event that forces a
character to change), that triggers the ontological transformation of Johnnie Grey. It
echoes the inciting situation that Keaton used in The Navigator. In The Navigator,
Keaton metaphorically evicts Rollo from the they in that instance when Rollo boards
the ship at night, and the wind blows all of his official papers into the darkness of the
sea. Rollo initially incarnates the attributes of a country club existence, rather than
the existence of a company man, but the point is the same. Keaton removes both
Rollo and Johnnie from the they ontology in order to force these character to confront
themselves, so that they can develop their ontological authenticity.
In this eloquent opening sequence, Keaton dramatically sets up The General, by
establishing certain, specific ontological credentials, ones that symbolize Johnnies
membership in the they ontology. Keaton then destroys the relevance and usefulness
of those credentials (when the military denies Johnnies effort to enlist), so that, in
effect, Keaton throws Johnnie into the ambiguous void of his own possibility. This
expert plot reversal allows Keaton to explore the issue of ontological authenticity
within an individual context, so that he can then contrast that ontology with the
ontology of the they. I will give examples of both of these later on in my discussion
of the battle scenes.
In The General, Keaton offers a complex treatment of the they ontology. In
relation to Johnnie, the they ontology is either the problem or the solution or both at
once. This dilemma describes the primary conflict of The General, and it is an
ontological conflict. Although Keaton portrays the Civil War in an authentic and
visually arresting manner, historical accuracy is not his central concern. When
Johnnies gains his uniform at the end of The General, it reads more like an
ontological victory for Johnnie than a military victory for the south.
The General is not about the issue of slavery, the virtue of Southern traditions, or
the cause of the Souths defeat. The essential ontological conflictthe one between
authentic Dasein (Johnnie) and the they (the military bureaucracy)usurps the larger
historical conflict between the North and South. Although Keaton successfully
conveys the authenticity of the era, by the way he documents such details as the
costumes, the buildings, the trains, and all other manner of detail throughout The
General, his primary concern is an ontological concern.
Johnnie Grays effort to balance his own ontological expectations of himself with
the ontological expectations of the they drives The General. Indeed, according to
Heidegger, the they is an attribute of Dasein that Dasein must continually overcome.
Heidegger claims in Being and Time that the they is not outside Dasein, but part of
Daseins own ontological structure (121). As Guignon notes:
From the outset, Dasein draws its possibilities for self-understanding and
action from the way things are interpreted by the they. On the other hand,
the involvement in public forms of life can have a pernicious effect. It
threatens to level all decision to the lowest common denominator of what is
acceptable and well adjusted (226).
Keaton raises the following philosophical question in his treatment of the they in The
General: To what degree can Johnnie achieve his authentic self while still affirming
the values of the they? Johnnie is committed to the rational claim that he can achieve
his authentic self, and simultaneously affirm the values of the they. Conversely,
Keaton is fully committed to showing us the absurdity of Johnnies claim!
While language tends to imply that these ontological attributes are logical and
autonomous, experience paints a different picture. Where does ones authenticity
begin and where does the ontological boundary of the they end? Is that space
metaphysical or cultural or both? Is it always shifting? These are difficult questions
that each individual must consider. Heidegger felt that authentic self was somehow
dispersed into the they, and Dasein needed to unconceal it (qtd. in Zimmerman 44).
Heidegger notes that:
The Self of everyday Dasein is the they-self, which we distinguish from the
authentic Self-that is, from the Self which has been taken hold of in its own
way.. .As they-self, Dasein has been dispersed into the they and must first
find itself (qtd. in Zimmerman 46).
In terms of The General, Heideggers notion that Daseins authentic potential is
dispersed in the they raises some challenging questions. How can Johnnie recognize
his authentic self? If Johnnie has been ontologically dispersed into the military and
the military refuses to allow him to enlist, how can he achieve his authentic potential?
In visual terms, how many uniforms must Johnnie wear before he can authentically
be? By what means can Johnnie move towards his own authentic potential?
The trainone of Johnnies true lovessuggests a possible means to the
authentic end that Johnnie seeks. The General metaphorically represents both
Johnnies being and his potential to be more authentic. In Heideggerian terms, The
General represents Dassin's authentic possibility, which Heidegger claims is always a
contingent possibility. The rational ontology of the company man, which Keaton
establishes in the early moments of The General, represents an a type of ontology that
is not relevant to the problems that Johnnie must face after the military rejects him.
I would now like to examine how Johnnie uses The General to pursue his own
dispersed potential, which is both a part of him and also always slightly ahead of him.
Johnnies relationship to The General is one of creative tension: the train can be either
an obstacle or an ally, depending on circumstances. According to Heidegger, this
tension is not unique to Johnnie, but instead represents the fundamental, ontological
structure of Dasein (170). In Being and Time, Heidegger claims that Dasein always
understands itself in terms of its existence, in terms of its possibility to be itself or not
be itself (10).
Heideggers important claim is that Dasein is defined by a structural duality.
According to Heidegger, Dasein is partly being and partly the potential to be;
therefore, Dasein is both itself and not itself. Translated into Heideggerian terms, The
General serves as a metaphor for Johnnie ontological movement toward that which he
wishes to be, but has not yet become. Based on the overall ontology of The General,
Keaton intuitively embraces Heideggers notion that Dasein is structurally divided on
the ontological level.
If one accepts that ones potential is dispersed into the they and into the social
environment, then ones conception of authenticity fundamentally changes. The
pursuit of authenticity is now both an inward and outward movement. Reflection
alone is not enough. Heideggers notion of authenticity in Being and Time reflects
this claim. Heidegger describes Dasein thusly: But ontologically, being toward
ones ownmost potentiality-for-being means that Dasein is always already ahead of
itself in its being (192). Heidegger claims that Dasein, on the ontological level, is
always already ahead of itself (192). This notion of Dasein as a dualistic entity that,
in its authentic mode, is both the chaser and the thing being chased, directly points
toward the relationship that Keaton creates between Johnnie and The General.
For example, there are two scenes in The General where the train takes off on its
own and Johnnie must literally chase it. But even more than that, it is important to
note thatearly in the filmJohnnie must chase The General on foot, bike, and train
in order to rescue it from the possession of the enemy, which, on the ontological
level, is essentially anyone wearing a uniform. These images, where Johnnie chases
The General in numerous modes of movement, show how Johnnies potential
metaphorically symbolized by his beloved trainis dispersed. Consequently,
Johnnie must chase The General and catch it or else he will remain removed from his
The visual imagery, the action, and the interplay between Johnnie and the General
mirror the underlying structure of Dasein, as Heidegger depicted it in Being and Time
(311). With his usual flair for dramatic conciseness, Heidegger describes Daseins
structure thusly: The being that we ourselves always are is ontological farthest from
us (311). The distance between the being that one is and the being that one wishes
to be necessitates the action of a chase. Tellingly, according to Heidegger, this
distance is both a topographical and a metaphysical distance.
Keaton explores the train and its relationship to Johnnies ontology throughout The
General. Keaton thematically links Johnnies expression of his manhood, his identity
as a soldier, and his ability to win the affections of Annabelle to Johnnies ability to
retrieve and pilot The General. Johnnies ability to care for The General suggests a
larger capacity to care and care is an important, ontological quality in Heideggers
overall conception of Dasein. Heidegger writes, Dasein, ontologically understood, is
care (53). Later, he writes, the being of Dasein itself is to be made visible by care
(53). Heidegger discusses the concept of care extensively in Being and Time. He
claims that care or taking care is a primary attribute of Dasein, and he later
describes the manifestations of Dasein where care is not prevalent as a deficient
mode of being (53).
Johnnies capacity to care motivates him to attempt to retrieve The General even
without the knowledge that Annabelle is on the train, and even without the knowledge
of the impending northern attack. In his capacity to care, to risk his life, to invent the
solutions he needs in order to secure both the train and Annabelle, Johnnie moves
towards the ontological ideal of the self-made man that Keaton privileges in his
screen persona (126). However, Keaton frames that movement as one that is
enmeshed in the antagonist ontology of the they. Keaton contrasts Johnnies capacity
to care with the theys capacity for indifference. According to Keatons ontological
vision in The General, these two ontologies co-exist within a symbiotic, ontological
relationship that can never be fully resolved.
To summarize my argument so far, Keaton initially establishes Johnnies ontology
as one that is they-bound. Rejected by the army, Keaton forces Johnnie to confront
the possibility of his own authentic existence outside the confines of the they.
Johnnie embraces the challenge, as almost all of Keatons protagonists embrace the
challenge. Johnnie pursues his own potential, which is ever-ahead of Johnnie. By
virtue of his capacity to care, Johnnie invents the solutions he needs, so that he can
achieve his own ontological authenticity in a time-bound and space-bound context.
Furthermore, two Heideggerian concepts speak to the Keatons ontology in The
General. These two concepts (Dasein as ahead of itself and Dasein as care) define the
strong ontological bond between Johnnie and The General. The General is somehow
part of Johnnie and yet separate from him as well, which is the very nature of human
potential. Potential is that part of ourselves which we have not yet achieved; notably,
this reads as a paradoxical statement. If potential is part of us, how could we not have
yet achieved it? Potential is thus defined by an ontological duality; it is both present
in us and absent from us, a conception that both Keaton (in The General) and
Heidegger (in Being and Time) share.
I would now like to compare Keatons methodology to Heideggers methodology.
Why is it important to note that Keaton chose to adapt a historical event for a comic,
silent film? I believe this choice links him to Heidegger, since Heidegger prioritized
the phenomenological approach, or what Charles Guignon termed historical
embeddedness in his essay History and Commitment in the Early Heidegger (234).
Since Keaton adapts a historical incident, one can claim that he is generally
concerned with the topic of history and the issue of historical authenticity. Even
though, as I argued earlier, Keaton prioritizes ontological concerns over historical
concerns, this is not to say that Keatons historical concerns are a moot point. Rather,
I am claiming that Keaton privileges the ontological over the historical.
However, it is important to note that Keaton clearly values the subject of history.
Keaton links the historical and the ontological in The General, just as Heidegger links
experience and authentic Dasein in Being and Time. Both Keaton and Heidegger
reference experience to support broader claims about experience. When Keaton told a
crew member to make it so authentic it hurts, in reference to his historical accuracy,
he reveals a commitment to accurately represent experience, which was also
Heideggers conscious intention in Being and Time (Buster Keaton).
Both Heidegger and Keaton viewed ontological authenticity in a highly complex
and specific manner. In regards to Heidegger, Charles Guignon writes in an essay
titled Authenticity, Moral Values, and Psychotherapy that:
What is distinctive about authentic existence is the way it takes over the
historical embeddedness. Where inauthentic Dasein just drifts along with the
latest trends, authentic Dasein remembers its rootedness in the wider
unfolding of its culture, and it experiences its life as indebted to the larger
drama of a shared history (234).
What distinguishes The General is the way that the larger drama of a shared history
is framed within the very personal story of Johnnie Gray (Guignon 234). In other
words Keaton frames The General within an ontological struggle to realize human
potential, and not as a simplistic, epic battle between good and evil.
I would now like to explore how Keaton frames the irrationality of Being in The
General. The battlefield sequences in The General visually convey the irrationality
of Being that so fascinated both Keaton and Heidegger. Even though one-half of the
film (43 minutes) deals with Johnnie on a moving train (either The General or The
Texas), there is a strong sense of the world surrounding that moving train. Keaton
provides various shots of fleeting landscapes that juxtapose a relative degree of
movement with a relative degree of stillness. Gilberto Perez, in his essay, From the
Material Ghost, examines Keatons effort to explore landscape and environment.
Perez writes that Keaton is one of the few directors who truly engages an
environment and makes us aware that the screen can hardly encompass the
dimensions of the actual place (593).
The inability of the screen image to contain the vastness of the physical landscape
suggests that Being exists in a way that the medium of film can only partially capture.
For example, Keaton directs a beautiful sequence in the middle of the film that
highlights the vast landscape surrounding the train and, by implication, the
irrationality of Being. In one minute and nine seconds, Keaton makes ten cuts, which
average out to one every seven seconds. The sequence begins with an intertitle that
states, The Southern army facing Chattanooga is ordered to retreat. The sequence
ends with this Johnnie looking directly into the camera. Within this sequence, the
following ten cuts occur at an average pace of one every seven seconds.
A Southern general directs his army to retreat; a Northern general orders his
soldiers to attack; a crane shot shows Johnnie stacking wood on The General, as it
surges through the landscape, moving forward from the bottom of the screen to the
top of the screen; Southern soldiers retreat, moving from a left-to-right direction;
Johnnie is chopping wood again in the foreground as The General moves from right-
to-left. In the background of this same shot, hundreds of Southern soldiers are shown
retreating on horse and wagons, moving from left-to-right; we see a frontal view of
the Southern soldiers as they retreat or march (ironically) directly into the camera; we
see Johnnie chopping wood as The General moves from right-to-left; and again, we
see Johnnie chopping wood on The General as it moves from right-to-left, as we
simultaneously see the Southern Soldiers retreat from left-to-right; we see Northern
soldiers poised to attack; we see Johnnie chop wood from a crane shot as The General
moves forward from the bottom of the screen to the top of screen. And finally, we
see Johnnie sitting on a stool in The General, his elbow on his knee, his head on his
wrist, and his facea frozen mask that reflects utter incomprehensionstares
directly into the camera.
What can be said about such directorial inventiveness? Carroll coined
the term visible intelligibility, in an article titled, Buster Keaton The General, and
Visible Intelligibility, where he discusses Keatons ability to illuminate the
complex physical processes that structure the events in the mise-en-scene (133).
Carroll describes visible intelligibility as a case where one comprehends an event at
a glance in terms of the interaction of the relevant causal processes (133). I believe
that this visible intelligibility can be extended to the ontological level. Keaton
defines the irrationality of Being as the casual process of the battlefield sequence.
This is a troubling causal process, since it cannot be defined in rational terms.
However, it is a causal process just the same.
In the battlefield sequence, Johnnie is suspended between two armies on a train
that is itself in motion. This sequence communicates a vision of a world in perpetual
motion, a world with no center, a world defined by contingent possibility rather than a
rational absolute. This sequence depicts how the foundational irrationality of Being
can dominate Daseins pursuit of its own rational potential. In this sequence, Johnnie
is clearly overmatched and Keaton vividly highlights his underdog status. Keaton
conveys the contingency of Johnnies pursuit of his potential, by contextualizing that
pursuit within the vivid, chaotic imagery of the battlefield. This imagery clearly
articulates the foundational irrationality of Being.
The sequence is ontologically complex. It captures authentic Dasein, irrational
Being, and the indistinguished (the they) in a mere sixty-nine seconds! Keatons
direction and editing define the physics of the battlefield as an irrational dynamic that
occurs within an unframable space. In the mise-en-scene of the shot that shows both
The General and the retreating soldiers, billowing smoke from the train merges with
the drifting clouds of gunpowder that encircle the retreating, Southern soldiers. The
smoky air, the panic in the horses, the waves upon waves of soldiers, the wagons that
swerve and stumble, all highlight the authentic irrationality that structures the action.
There is a dark harmony to this sequence that raises more question than it answers.
Three ontological strains are visible in this sequence: Daseins pursuit of its own
authentic possibility (Johnnie on the train), Beings foundational irrationality (the
chaos of the battlefield) and the ontological indistinctness of the they (the soldiers.).
Taken in its totality, this sequence successfully conveys a holistic, ontological vision
of the human condition. This sequence evokes Beings foundational irrationality,
even as Dasein attempts to navigate it with a rational end in mind. In both Keatons
and Heidegger ontology, these two ontological elementsBeing and Daseincan
not be separated from each other; they are intrinsically linked.
Johnnie eventually retrieves his stolen train and he alerts the Southern army about
the impending attack. Johnnie joins them on the battlefield, but even as allies, the
they remains a constant thorn in Johnnies side. Towards the end of the movie, when
Johnnie joins the Southern soldiers in the battlefield, Keaton portrays Johnnie as a
rube. Johnnies authentic, masculine powers remain dormant in the presence of the
virile Southern commander, who looks like the very caricature of Southern chivalry
with his well-groomed, white mustache and his long, steely sword.
As the battle rages around him (mostly off-screen or absent from the mise-en-
scene) Johnnie tries to mirror the movements of the southern commander, but the
handle on his sword malfunctions and his blade falls to the ground. This happens
four times! There is some obvious, phallic imagery in these scenes, but mostly they
show Johnnie transformed into a character who is ontologically inauthentic. The
ontological authority that Johnnie has achieved during the first hour of the film
disappears in these battle scenes. The Southern commander looms over Johnnie like
Hamlets ghost. In fact, they both appear to be ontologically inauthentic but in
different ways. The commander is rigid and indistinguished like the they, while
Johnnie personifies inauthentic Dasein.
Certainly, Keaton is parodying the caricature of masculinity that the commander
(in the ontology of the they mode) represents. On the overall thematic level, Keaton
contrasts an inauthentic vision of masculinity in the form of the southern commander
with an authentic vision of masculinity, which can be described as the earlier scenes,
when Johnnie authentically and courageously retrieved The General and when he
saved Annabelle. Keatons choice to present Johnnie as a rube in the Southern
commanders presence works as a larger commentary on the philosophical absurdity
of war. However, ontologically speaking, it also reads as an example of the innate
tendency of the they to negate authentic Dasein.
Yet, once he is removed from the rigidity and ontological limitations of the they,
Johnnie blooms as a character. He seems like two different people, and in a way, he
is. He is the self-defined, powerful, and determined man on the train, and he is also
the other-defined, weak, incompetent man on the battlefield. In the midst of the they,
Johnnie is ontologically falling as Heidegger phrased it in Being and Time (175).
In other words, Johnnie is falling away from himself and into the they. His
authenticity has been displaced. As Heidegger notes in Being and Time:
The they is everywhere, but in such a way that it has always already stolen
away when Dasein presses for a decision. However, because the they presents
every judgment and decision as its own, it takes the responsibility of Dasein
away from it (119).
Johnnie becomes ontologically absent in the presence of the they; instead of asserting
his courage and skills, he merely parodies the man who piloted The General and
saved the life of Annabelle.
Keatons insightful critique of the they can also be gleaned in his motif of
uniforms. Johnnie changes uniforms often in The General. At first he is dressed as
an engineer with a tie and suspenders but no uniform. Later, Johnnie wears a
Northern uniform in order to pose as a Northern solider, so he can rescue Annabelle.
After being shot at by a Southern soldier (who mistakes him as a Northern soldier),
Johnnie changes into a Southern uniform that he finds on The General. This uniform
does not belong to Johnnie, a fact which he admits at the end of the film, when he
finally receives his own uniform and the ranking of Lieutenant.
The fact that Johnnie forgets exactly what uniform he is wearing, just as he is on
the brink of retrieving his beloved train, rescuing his beloved Annabelle, and
contacting the Southern command base about the impending, Northern attack, speaks
volumes about the ontology of uniforms. How much can they help authentic Dasein?
And yet, uniforms remain important to Johnnie. Johnnie needs a uniform in order to
see Annabelle again and possibly win her love. Because of the ambiguous manner in
which Keaton defines them, uniforms operate as a paradoxical motif in The General.
Keaton uses uniforms to both confirm and critique the ontology of the they.
Often, there is lack of ontological distinction to the person, besides Johnnie, who
wears a uniform. This lack of ontological distinction can be observed in the Northern
soldiers in the scene where Johnnie loads Annabelle, disguised in a sack, onto The
General, a train that he hopes to recover with Annabelles help. Johnnie moves from
a hideout in the woods and joins a line of Northern soldiers who are loading grain
onto The General. Johnnie simply joins the line and nobody notices him. (The other
men are carrying grain in sacks that resembles Johnnies sack with Annabelle in it.)
There is a strange and anonymous, assembly-line look to the movements of the
Northern soldiers. Their blank faces and robotic movements evoke the they mode of
Earlier in the film, Keaton comically highlights the empty, negating ontology of
uniforms in a funny sequence where the Northern soldiers try to chase Johnnie, but
are obstructed by a twisted train track. For several minutes, eleven men in uniforms
stare at the track and seem to grumble; they do nothing. Keaton cuts back and forth
from this scene to other scenes, and each time he returns to this scene, the track
remains broken. Finally, a man in a white shirt and a cap (a civilian engineer wearing
no uniform) fixes the broken track with a single blow of a large hammer. This
sequence is a comic commentary on the impotence of bureaucracy and it works quite
well. With one gesturethe skillful blow of a hammerthis anonymous, inventive
character evokes the privileged ontology of Keatons honest, self-made man (Keaton
Zimmerman writes in regards to authentic Dasein: We inhabit overlapping
worlds (48). By this, he means that the they is not outside Dasein, but a
constitutional attribute that is intrinsic to Dasein. Initially and ongoingly, Dasein
exists in the realm of the they. Keatons final image in The General strongly suggests
this ontological structure. Initially, Johnnie has his right arm around Annabelle, but
because he must salute the few soldiers who pass by, he is unable to kiss her.
Eventually, Johnnie switches from Annabelles left side to her right side, and because
of this choice, he can salute the passing soldiers (who are now walking by him in
mass) with his right arm, even while he embraces Annabelle with his left arm. Given
this inventive solution, Johnnie is finally free to kiss Annabelle, which has been his
authentic goal throughout the film. Even as he achieves his authentic goal, Johnnie
remains visually and ontologically divided by Keatons very comical imagery.
This final image, (where Johnnie both salutes the troops and kisses Annabelle),
conveys with a stunning precision Daseins specific, ontological structure that
Heidegger outlines in Being and Time. Just as Heidegger claims that Dasein exists at
once in two places, Keaton shows us a mise-en-scene in the films concluding scene
that visually connotes this philosophical claim. Johnnie ontologically exists at a point
where two worlds interface. Keatons provocative thematic statement in The General
can be gleaned from the way that Keaton sustains Johnnies ontological duality, even
as Johnnie successfully achieves his authentic self. Even at his best moment, where
both his train and his beloved have been secured, Johnnie remains perched within a
liminal space, one where two antagonistic, ontological worlds interface. Like
Heideggers notion of Dasein, Johnnie is complete and divided at once.
STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. AND SHERLOCK, JR.:
AUTHENTIC DASEIN AND INAUTHENTIC DASEIN
In Being and Time Heidegger notes that Self and World belong together in one
entity, Dasein. Self and world are not two entities, like subject and object, or I and
thou; rather, self and world are the basic determination of Dasein itself... (qtd. in
Haugeland 35). In Steamboat Bill, Jr. Keaton integrates self and world in order to
create a portrait of authentic Dasein. Except for a surreal storm sequence, Steamboat
Bill, Jr. is Keatons least ironic film. Instead of an ironic tone, Keaton uses a playful
tone to tell a realistic, coming-of-age-story, one that links Daseins ontological
transformation to a profound experience of lifes absurd dimension. (I will elaborate
on this point in my discussion of the cyclone sequence.)
Before I begin to discuss the film in detail, let me first summarize the plot.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. tells the story of Bill Jr. (Buster Keaton) who visits his father
(Ernest Torrence) after graduating from college in Boston. His fatherBill Sr.
pilots a boat and is a gruff, working-class man. Bill Sr. is immediately disappointed in
his son, who he has not seen in over twenty years. Bill Sr. tries to change his sons
appearance; he encourages him to fight with his fists; he forbids him to date a local
girl (Marion Byron); and finally, he rejects him outright and asks him to go back to
On his way to the station, Bill Jr. notices that his father has been arrested for
assaulting a business rival (Tom McGuire). Bill Jr. tries to help his father escape
from prison, but he is knocked unconscious by a sheriff. While Bill Jr. is in the
hospital, a cyclone hits the town, and Bill Jr. is swept up in the cyclone in what is
certainly one of Keatons most dynamic sequences. Bill Jr. survives the experience
and then rescues his father from the jailhouse, which, due to the storm, is floating
down the river! Bill Jr. also rescues his fathers rival and his girlfriend. In the last
scene, everyone is safe and Bill Jr. is free to marry the woman he loves. By the end
of this film, Bill Jr. has moved toward (but not completely achieved) Keatons
ontological ideal of the honest, self-made man.
As a protagonist, Bill Jr. suggests the ontological portrait of a spoiled weakling,
as described by Tom Dardis (133). Buster portrays Bill Jr. as dandy; we see Bill Jr.
dressed in colorful clothing with a tiny ukulele and a pencil mustache. When Bill Sr.
spots his son for the first time, Keaton directs the scene in a way where the audience
sees two conflicting interpretations of the same situation. Carroll defines this type of
gag as The mutual interference or interpenetration of two (or more) series of events
(Carroll 28). According to Carroll, this type of sight gag occurs when two events
interpenetrate each other in such a way that two interpretations of what is going on
are comprehensible (28).
In this sight gag, Bill Jr. leaves his suitcase on the walkway outside a building and
continues to look for his father. Bill Jr. walks a few feet and then turns a comer. He
walks a few feet again, and then he inadvertently awakens a baby in a carriage. In
order to soothe the crying baby, Bill Jr. plays his ukulele and prances back and forth.
In the background, Bill Sr. and his first mate (Tom Lewis) hover about Bill Jr.s
luggage. From their perspective, they cannot see the baby; they only see Bill Jr.
prancing back and forth as he plays his ukulele, while wearing a stripped suit and a
bow tie. From Bill Sr.s perspective, Bill Jr. is dancing for no reason at all. From the
audiences perspective, the song and dance are logically motivated, since Keaton uses
a long shot to capture the action. In the mise-en-scene, Bill Jr. and the baby occupy
the foreground and Bill Sr. and his first mate occupy the background.
Bill Sr. reads the name tag of the suitcase that sits at his feet. He sees the name,
Bill Canfield Jr. His face contorts into a gnarled expression of disgust. We see Bill
Jr. dance and prance for a few short beats. Bill Sr. turns to his first mate and the
intertitle reads: If you say what youre thinking, Ill strangle you. Bill Sr.s
reaction is clearly homophobic. This homophobia motivates Bill Sr. to try to change
his sons behavior. It also represents a particularly ugly manifestation of the they
ontology. As Mansback notes in, Beyond Subjectivism: Heidegger on Language and
the Human Being, the they ontology explains human existence without
differentiating between individuals; it interprets existence uniformly (47). Bill Sr.s
homophobic attitude reveals the fathers immersion in the they ontology, and it also
negates Bill Jr.s authentic possibility.
The comedy in this scene arises from the extremity of Bill Sr.s response. The
crying baby is the heart of the gag. Because the audience understand that the babys
crying motivates Bill Jr.s behavior, the notion that Bill Jr. is a homosexual makes no
sense. Keaton frames Bills Sr.s homophobic attitude as an ontology that is more
comically extreme than Bill Jr.s song and dance! This type of gag highlights a
particular kind of comedy: the comedy of incomprehension. In Heideggerian terms, it
also highlights the intellectual limits of the they ontology. The they ontology is
forever blind to the authentic possibilities of Dasein.
In these early scenes, Keaton creates a character (Bill Jr.) who is ontologically
indistinguished. The they ontology emerges in the homophobia of the Bill Sr., but it
also manifests itself in the vague ontology of Bill Jr. Bill Jr.s ontology is displaced
into a broader ontology that I would describe as one of upper-class privilege. Bill
Jr.s ontological vagueness also suggests that he has faced little adversity in life;
therefore, he is ontologically adrift. Keaton initially frames the dramatic question of
Steamboat Bill, Jr. thusly: Will Bill Sr.s homophobic ontology define Bill Jr., or will
Bill Jr.s waffling, dandyish ontology persevere? The answer is neither; instead, a
third, authentic, ontological possibility emerges in the third act of the film. In the
films third act, Bill Jr. achieves a remarkable level of ontological authenticity, one
which transcends both his fathers homophobia and his own passive ontology.
But before Keaton arrives at the third act, he continues to explore the negating
ontology of the they. Keaton offers a subtle suggestion about Bill Jr.s commitment
to his own individuality in a comically effective hat-buying sequence. Bill Sr.
disapproves of the beret worn by his son and so he takes him to a hat store. Bill Sr.
throws the hat of his son onto the floor, as the salesman gathers other hats. Bill Jr.
retrieves his own hat (a beret) and puts it in his pocket while his fathers back is
turned. It is a very small moment, but like many small moments in Keatons films, it
later takes on philosophical implications.
In regards to this scene, Robert Knopf notes how, the humor derives from a
combination of the mechanical way in which Buster tries on the hats and the inherent
conflict between Busters self-image and the image of him held by his father (97).
The conflict is an oedipal conflict over competing definitions of masculine
authenticity; however, it is also an ontological conflict about the proper way to be in
the world. It is also a power struggle, which in Heideggerian terms would read: Does
Dasein or the they define Daseins mode of being in the world?
Keaton comically frames this scene in a way that evokes issues related to social
conformity and oedipal tension, but he also parodies the seriousness of the scene by
drawing attention to its contrived element. Bill Jr.s willingness to try on each hat is
somewhat tongue-in-cheek, since we know he has his own hat in his pocket. Also,
when the salesman places Busters famous porkpie hat on Bill Jr.s head, Bill Jr.
removes it quickly in a moment of exaggerated panic. Keaton uses the porkpie hat to
playfully reference his own screen persona. The result is a playful jab at the
seriousness of the proceedings, via techniques that Seidman called enunciation and
Triggered by the comedians awareness of the of the spectators presence,
enunciation reveals the narrative as a contrivance (29). Keatons use of the porkpie
hat serves as an excellent example of enunciation, as defined by Seidman. The
moment of enunciation highlights the inventive will of Keatonthe directorand it
therefore evokes Keatons ontology of authenticity, (the one which privileges the
inventive will), by playfully referencing the creative will that exists beyond the
narrative confines of the film. In terms of Keatons overall ontological vision,
enunciation fits in quite well.
Besides the performance aspect of this sequence, Keatons direction also playfully
tugs at the contrived elements of the narrative. In this hat-buying sequence, Keaton
shows Bill Jr., staring into a mirror with a medium shot from behind him. Keaton
then shows Bill Jr. staring into the camera, which is now playing the part of the
mirror in the scene. Keaton constitutes the directors camera as a prop in the scene.
Bill Jr. stares directly into the camera as he tries on each hat. Keaton incorporates this
mode of direct address into the entire hat-buying scene.
However, this directorial choice is not simply an example of direct address, such
as the one that Woody Allen used in Annie Hall. Instead, because Keaton constitutes
the camera as a mirror within the scene, issues related to what Freud would call
projection are raised. Bill Sr. and the salesman are projecting possibilities onto not
only Bill Jr., but the audience as well. Keaton playfully frames the ubiquitous nature
of the they ontology, by extending it from Bill Sr. to the audience.
Because of this directorial choice, Bill Jr. is constituted by three sources as he tries
on thirteen hats: his father, the salesman, and the audience. Bill Jr.s struggle for
authenticity is played across his face. Buster plays these emotions with a playful,
non-verbal precision that is a joy to behold. Emotions move like subtle waves across
his still face. With a nuanced effort, Buster emotes a response to each hat that is place
on his head by someone else. His emotional responses are playfully exaggerated.
Buster emotes contempt, surprise, pride, dismay, shock, excitement, sarcasm,
boredom, vanity, and even a twang of mock despair. Keatons direction playfully
takes the audience into the epicenter of Bill Jr.s ontological dissonance.
After Bill Jr. has tried on thirteen hats, his father buys one for him. They walk out
the door and the wind blows the new hat into the water. As if it were the most natural
thing in the world, Bill Jr. takes his beret out of his pocket and places it on his head.
His father turns and sees the beret and he is utterly stunned, since he did not see the
wind blow the new hat into the water. We laugh at the sight of Bill Sr.s shocked
expression, and we also laugh at the futility of Bill Sr.s failed attempt to control his
son. In Keatons films the comedy is twofold: there is the gag and then there is the
ontological commentary within the gag. Or, as Rudi Blesh notes about Keatons
distinct, comic style: Keaton made you laugh, then think (qtd. in Horton 20).
Later, Marion encourages Bill Jr. to dress in a striking captains outfit, a
suggestion that Bill Jr. passively accepts. We see Bill Jr. wearing this outfit on the
deck of the Stonewall Jackson. His gait is a portrait of pure, comic, ontological
inauthenticity! Bill Jr. hits his head on tight, stairwell ceiling; he bumps his head on
two steel cables; he then slips and almost falls off the boat. What is funny is how
simple these act should be and yet how complicated they have suddenly become. Bill
Jr. is not trying to do anything difficult; he is simply trying to be on the boat. The
captains suit makes that a near impossible task. Again, Keaton reveals the
inauthenticity of the they ontology through his treatment of uniforms, just as he did in
Bergson describes this type of comedy as one that results from inversion (121).
Bergson defines this term thusly: Picture to yourself certain characters in certain
situations: if you reverse the situation and invert the roles, you obtain a comic scene
(121). In this sequence Keaton addresses the following question: What would happen
if the least qualified man to be captain of a boat were to become captain of a boat?
Keatons detailed pratfalls and looks of utter disbelief convey a sense of absurd
authority. Keaton uses the comic style of inversion to highlight the ontological
inauthenticity of his protagonist (Bergson 121). The humor is derived from Bill Jr.s
passive embrace of an ontological status that he has not earned; in the jargon of
fashion industry, it is an ontology that does not fit!
I like how Bergson uses the word roles to describe inversion. John Haugeland
notes that Daseins abiding self-understandingcasting itself into rolesis the
essential continuity that is presupposed by accountability (39). For Dasein to
understand itself and thus achieve a degree of authenticity, a certain inventive
playfulness or role-playing is required. Otherwise, Dasein remains mired in the they
In Keatons independent films, role-playing is a consistent motif. Daydreams, The
Playhouse, and Sherlock Jr., provide three good examples of this motif. Bill Jr. takes
on several roles in Steamboat Bill Jr., just as he wears several outfits. He begins the
movie in the role of the pampered college boy from Boston, a character who is
immersed in the they ontology of class privilege. Later, he plays the role of ships
captain to impress his beloved; the role comically overwhelms him. When he plays
the role of father-pleasing son, he struggles to decide what hat to wear! Ultimately, to
be free and achieve the authentic ends that he desires, Bill Jr. must invent the role that
he needs. In fact, this is exactly what happens in act three of Steamboat Bill, Jr. We
recognize Bill Jr.s role in act three as an authentic role because it is a role we have
never seen before in the film!
Keaton uses sequences such as the one where Bill Jr. wears the captains uniform,
to highlight the difference between playing an imposed role and playing a chosen
role. Given the foundational irrationality of Being, role-playing in and of itself is no
guarantee of authenticity. A certain level of ontological authenticity must be realized
before a role enables one to move towards a richer degree of ontological
authenticity. Keaton defines ontological freedom with a dualistic framework; it can
lead to authentic possibility and it can lead to inauthentic disaster. Dasein takes on
the role in order to find out; there is no other way of knowing. And in those instances
when the role is too much (such as Bill Jr. in the role as captain) Keaton comically
highlights the incongruity between the role and the character playing the role. The
result is often quite comic.
As Ive indicated, Steamboat Bill, Jr. offers an ontological portrait of authentic
Dasein. One wonders; how does Bill Jr. move from a dandy to the credible, honest,
self-made man of a comic action film? Let us look at the obstacles that he manages
to navigate as he achieves his authentic potential. The first obstacle is the ontology of
the they. It exists in two forms; the oedipal ontology of a controlling father, and the
romantic ontology of potential beloved. Ontologically-speaking, Bill Jr. is perched
between two inauthentic, ontological possibilities: the captains uniform, which he
has not earned and is not qualified to wear, and his fathers working-class clothes,
which represent a blue-collar ontology that merely baffles him. In terms of
authenticity, neither option works for Bill Jr.
Eventually, the role of ships captain and the role of father-pleasing son fade away
and Bill Jr. must finally face himself. Bill Jr.s ontological authenticity emerges fully
at the end of Steamboat Bill, Jr. Because the character arc of Bill Jr. is so wide (he
moves from a spoiled weakling to a convincing action hero) there is a sense of
existential affirmation in the final moments of Steamboat Bill, Jr. How does Keaton
contextualize Bill Jr.s ontological transformation? Keaton thematically links Bill
Jr.s ability to successfully achieve his own authentic potential with his inability to
conquer Being, which is stunningly represented by the cyclone in the storm sequence.
After attempting to rescue his father from prison, Bill Jr. is hit on the head with a
gun by an angry sheriff. The sheriffs men take him to the hospital to recover from
the blow to his head. Bill Jr. wakes up in a storm that Rudi Blesh describes in Keaton
as surely one of the most fantastic dithyrambs of disaster ever committed to film
(286). I find this sequence particularly brilliant because it exemplifies in the most
surreal and stunning terms the incomprehension of Being that so fascinates Keaton.
I would now like to examine the cyclone sequence in some detail. Bill Jr., (in a
way that parallels Dasein), wakes up to a set of circumstances that precede him.
Although Bill Jr. has neither caused nor constituted the storm, it will impact his
actions for the entire sequence. Heideggers notion of thrownness, one that he
discusses in Being and Time, applies to this sequence, since Bill Jr. is both physically
and ontologically in a state of what Heidegger terms in Being and Time the throw
(301). While watching the storm sequence, one feels like one is witnessing
something that is both authentically personal and authentically impersonal. The
former points to the specific, authentic resoluteness of Dasein (Bill Jr.), while the
latter points to the immense, irrationality of Being in the form of the cyclone.
The storm destabilizes all beings without any ontological prejudice. All
elementshuman beings and physical objectsexist within the storms swirling,
destructive power. The storm tears down and tears apart the physical structures of
society; they simply vanish. Bill flees his hospital bed and attempts to escape the
storm. The hospital walls collapse; homes collapse; the library collapses; later, the
theatre walls collapse. Places associated with reflection, healing, and safety are
rendered as non-existent entities in this sequence. Bill Jr. awakens to a world where a
rational, ontological foundation is impossible. The equivocal situation, as
described by Bergson, is absent from this sequence (123). The audience knows the
same amount of information about the cyclone as Bill Jr. does: nothing!
Gerald Mast notes that The Keaton body is a single object, indeed a small one, in
space. The element surrounding Keaton is not societya social role, definition, or
assumptionas in Chaplin's films, but nature itselftrees, forest, oceans, the vast
plains, cyclones, fire rivers (129). The Keaton protagonist is often in conflict with
something natural and not man-made, something that can be described as an
ontological structure that is impossible to fully understand, something that Heidegger
defines as Being. In Steamboat Bill, Jr. Keaton equates the ontology of the storm to
the larger ontology of life, by extending the sequence and by including so many
evocative details from his own past, such as the theatre. Keatons commitment to
portray the storm as an irrational force is uncompromising and utterly unsentimental.
Keaton also equates the ontology of the cyclone to the ontology of Being by the
way he clearly demonstrates that Bill Jr. is no match for the cyclone. Bill Jr.
momentarily attempts to resists the directional push of the storm by jumping into it.
The cyclone easily pushes him back to where he started. For one second Bill Jr. leans
into the storm and is suspended in space like a shirt that hangs on an unseen
clothesline. Bill Jr. cannot advance against the strength of the storm, so he rides the
storm as if were some mad, magnificent horse with no clear destination in mind and
only raw power to guide it.
Knopf notes how Keaton draws on his environment as the source of gags, the
gags become inseparable from the environment (123). By interfacing the gags so
forcefully with the environment, Keaton equates the absurd ontology of the gags with
the absurd ontology of Being. One way to read the cyclone sequence is to view it as a
depiction of a world where Heideggers concept of the nothing completely takes
over the ontology of Being. If the world were a fully alien place, everyday would
feel like the cyclone sequence in Steamboat Bill, Jr. Nothing would make sense;
objects would seem alien, and they would absolutely resist Daseins effort to
constitute them. From moment-to-moment nothing would be certain and nothing
would be possible.
But this is obviously not the case, as our day-to-day experience tells us. Some
things work quite well; for example, coffee makers work well and cars often do
exactly what they were designed to do. Dasein can achieve some level of authenticity