the general: a perfect match

alex ferguson

The General

The General

You’ve got to enjoy this one. Before the movie starts, the outrageously accomplished Eye of Newt ensemble warms up the crowd with a jazz improvisation that foreshadows some of the tactics it will use to underscore Buster Keaton’s classic film The General. Stephen Smulovitz (violin and saw) and percussionist Pepe Danza start off with a weirdly haunting violin–mouth-harp duet that pulls at the heart while relaxing the body. Paul Plimley then layers in a piano ‘score’ that echoes the movie’s original soundtrack while maintaining a contemporary feel. Plimley, Danza and Paul Blaney (double bass) will drive us through the emotional peaks and valleys of Keaton’s epic slapstick journey, with Brad Muirhead’s trombone and Smulovitz’s saw adding comic inflection. The trombone, and the violin and saw (which sounds a lot like a theremin, actually) will also create dissonance, colouring the film’s original moods with a palette of exquisitely darker tones.

The pre-show improvisation has the effect of activating our imaginations and surreptitiously encouraging our vocal participation with the movie. This was a surprise to me — I hadn’t expected people to cheer and clap at Keaton’s antics. I’m used to movie patrons who are well behaved. But if the film has suffered any lack of impact since its 1927 debut, Eye of Newt and the enthusiasm of an all-ages crowd restored its immediacy. Keaton’s inventive choreography and physical daring prompted cascades of laughter, squeals of delight and more than a few gasps.

In the film’s American Civil War setting, Johnnie Gray (Keaton) is a Confederate train engineer who has but two loves: his engine “The General,” and Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). Annabelle is a patriot, so when Johnnie is rejected by the army he falls out of favour with her. She tells Johnnie not to show his face again until he’s in uniform. Johnnie redeems himself by diverting a Yankee attack almost single handedly, and by rescuing Annabelle (who was inadvertently kidnapped by a guerrilla unit).

There are plenty of heart-stopping train stunts and enough tumbling feats of daring to keep our eyes popping and our necks craning. Eye of Newt matches Keaton stunt for stunt. The musicians catch every pratfall and every double take. They have an arsenal of well-timed responses to the shifting moods of this surprisingly layered film. The General is given an infusion of new blood by Eye of Newt, just as Johnnie is redeemed when his commanding officer gives him a new uniform. Keaton was at the top of his game when he made The General, almost in a class by himself. It’s fitting that for this engagement he has been paired with five players whose powers inhabit the stratosphere of musical invention and ability.

30 January 2008