The other day I went to see the band Blue Grassy Knoll play a live accompaniment to Buster Keaton’s The General.
A silent movie isn’t the kind of thing I’d normally go to, but my dad had bought tickets ages ago and then discovered he couldn’t make it. Anyway… I wouldn’t say I was reluctant to go, but I certainly wasn’t dead keen either.
I’m normally too cowardly to do reviews, but the actual show was absolutely farking amazing – as are Blue Grassy Knoll. The production was one of the most enjoyable, vibrant things I’ve seen in ages. Do anything you can to get along if you get the chance.
But, in addition to just being fantastic, The General really made me think about plot and narrative structure.*
The plot to The General isn’t complex, but I was amazed by how elegantly Keaton manages to set the scene, establish the stakes and then ruthlessly run (!) his characters around after them. There are only a couple of hundred words of dialogue max (presented on intertitles) but it still all comes together and just works.
As a writer whose plots (and world building efforts) sometimes stray needlessly close to being convoluted, watching the movie was a really enlightening insight into how you can generate an enormous amount of action and conflict, with only a few very deft little touches of characterisation, motivation and back-story. Keaton is also careful to burden his characters with clear and often painfully incompatible desires (His love for her and his love for his train. Her love for him and her love for family and therefore the Confederacy). I was reminded of the saying by de Saint-Exupery (wanker alert) “Perfection is attained, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
I’m not saying all plots must be simple. But, I do think The General is a brilliant example of what you can do with a simple and driven plot.
Check the film out to see what I mean (though it isn’t the same without Blue Grassy Knoll!):
If you’re still a doubter of Keaton’s ability to set up a perfectly self contained little narrative world, I refer you to this discussion I had with my little brother as we were walking out.
Me: “What did you think, mate?”
Him: “Yeah, awesome. You?’
Me: “Loved it.”
Him, after a long pause: “Was there a civil war in America?”
Oh. And while we’re chatting about needlessly complex things, go check out my latest post on my other blog.
* This was the first silent movie I’d ever seen, so if you are an aficionado just roll your eyes and bear with me.