Buster Keaton and the Puzzle of Love

Despite the notable lack of Chaplinesque romantic flourishes, Buster Keaton has a sophisticated approach to romantic love in his films. Love in Keaton’s films is a mutual recognition and admiration for the physical and mental competence necessary to deal with an absurd, cruel, or indifferent social and physical environment and an agreement to face the world together. There are two ways in which this claim might seem surprising to someone familiar with Keaton’s films. Keaton’s famously stoic persona seems to be at odds with the very idea that there is an expression of romantic love in the films. How could someone so un-expressive express romantic love? There is simply not enough there to be interpreted. Additionally, the topic of love seems to be the wrong approach to take toward Keaton, the master of the gag. His films are original and interesting and funny because of their visual wit, not because of their thematic value. Watching his films for themes is to miss what is valuable about them. In answering these objections, I will set the stage for my argument that Keaton’s narratives assume the viewer recognizes the Buster character is in love while withholding many of the traditional emotional signifiers of that love. The narrative cannot proceed without this assumption and many of the gags don’t work without recognizing Buster’s motivation. Through careful attention to the resolution of the stories within the films, we can begin to recognize the surprising, sophisticated approach to romantic love that the films contain.

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