Moving Memories: Variety

By Ian Breakwell


In partnership with the British Film Institute, Vertigo has initiated two residencies to celebrate the National Film and Television Archive, and its work in preserving and reclaiming the visual image. Ian Breakwell and Nick Stewart describe their encounter with this extraordinary record of social and artistic history. Their residencies are supported by East England Arts, Hertfordshire County Council and Anglia TV/First Take Ltd as part of the Year of the Artist scheme.

The father was violent, drunken, verbally and physically abusive. The mother was a dull-witted and acquiescent accomplice. The seven-year-old child’s wide eyes stared out from a deathly white, transfixed face which showed no emotional reaction, whatever he was subjected to. Between the child’s shoulder-blades was fastened a suitcase handle, with which the father picked him up, shook him, swung him round, dropped him face down onto the ground, and hurled him repeatedly against furniture and walls. When the father tired of this he would screw a broom handle into a harness on the boy’s back, plunge him into cold water, and use him as a human mop to clean the floor. Finally the father would fling the limp body of his son into the middle of the crowd of people who had paid money to watch the molestation. The child had been treated in this way, every day, since the age of three.

three-keatons-buster-keaton.jpgThe Three Keatons

This systematic abuse of a living child by treating him as an inanimate object was enacted in 1902 by the Three Keatons: Joe and his wife, and their stone-faced son, Buster, who fifty years later cheerfully explained the rationale behind the choreographed sadism:

If something tickled me and I started to grin, the old man would hiss “Face! Face!” - that meant freeze the puss. The longer I held it, why, if we got a laugh, the blank pan would double it. He kept after me, never let up, and in a few years it was automatic. Then, when I’d step on stage or in front of a camera, I couldn’t smile.

steamboat-bill-junior-buster-keaton.jpgBuster Keaton: Steamboat Bill, Jr. 1928

This draconian apprenticeship, in the most brutal of all vaudeville acts, laid the foundations not only for the hair-raising veracity of Buster Keaton’s stunts in the hilarious shorts he made for Mack Sennett, but also, contrarily, for the quality of somnambulistic beauty which suffuses the great feature films he was later to both star in and direct. In films such as The General, The Navigator, Sherlock Jr., and Our Hospitality, Keaton attained heights of physical comedy never since equalled, uniquely achieved among silent comedians and clowns with an absolute lack of pathos or sentiment.

When you have been raised as a human mop, sentiment and pathos are not part of your emotional vocabulary. Yet Keaton’s best work, though hard and pragmatic in craftsmanship, has a poetic, surreal and uncanny quality which implies, as only the most sublime comedy can, that at its heart is a hidden melancholia.

deadpan-steve-mcqueen.jpgSteve McQueen: Deadpan, 1997

The key to this creative depth is Keaton’s utterly impassive face which, like a Japanese Noh mask, enables the responsive viewer to read into its blankness the whole range of human emotions, so placing imagination at the centre of the relationship between performer and audience.

The most famous routine of the Russian circus clown, Karandesh, involved him physically combining himself with sections of a statue of the Venus de Milo which he had inadvertently broken, in order to avoid detection. But it was Keaton’s genius to combine the face of a statue with a supremely expressive human body, and thus to personify the duality of the inanimate and the animated within himself.

Keaton’s inexhaustible visual invention remains influential today. A recent example was Steve McQueen’s 1999 Turner prize-winning video installation Deadpan, inspired by Keaton’s astonishing stunt in the film Steamboat Bill, Jr. where the whole side of a house falls on the unaware Buster who is miraculously unscathed as the spot he is standing on coincides exactly with an open window in the falling wall.

Keaton came from the alternative theatrical tradition to that of the scripted play: the theatre of variety shows, vaudeville, burlesque, revue, cabaret, pantomime, circus, fairground, tableaux, stage magic and illusion. These popular forms of visual theatre have been an abiding influence on my own work as an artist in all media for many years. This influence is, in different ways, shared by many other artists. It is the rich variety tradition, and its relationship to contemporary visual arts, film, music and performance, which I am exploring during my association with the NFTVA.

Ian Breakwell exhibits at the Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London, and his artworks are in public collections including the Tate. His celebrated Diaries have been published several times, and serialized on television and radio.