Buster Keaton lights up with a bomb in “Cops.”

by Hugh Gilmore

Karl Marx famously wrote that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, later as farce. Some events this week convinced me that both tragedy and farce are in the eye of the beholder. Labeling something as comedy doesn’t make it funny to its victims.

This past week of terrible, terrible news began with the Boston Marathon bombings. Such a shocking and gruesome event. I hadn’t been on the computer most of the day nor heard a radio or TV. When I did go online late in the afternoon, my sudden encounter with the headlines and images describing the story was stunning. Graphic pictures of shocked, frightened and maimed people seemed embedded in every news article. I tried just glimpsing but wound up gaping. I wasn’t able to take more than a few minutes of exposure before I switched websites.

Boston? I wondered. Why Boston? If this was an anti-American act, there are so many other cities with much more iconic American targets. And why civilians? Were they what nowadays is called “collateral damage” when a strategic or symbolic target is attacked? Were the perpetrators madmen or terrorists? As did most Americans, I went to bed that night dazed, confused and anxious.

Throughout the day on Tuesday, news poured in. Two bombs. Near the finish line. Three dead. Over a hundred injured. Later news: The bombs had perhaps been left in two backpacks. And filled with bits of metal meant to fly out and maim. Limbs lost. Heroes emerged. And images, images, images.

Life down here in Philadelphia carried on. Our hearts were with the people of Boston – in fact, with our fellow Americans everywhere. But what was there to do but carry on and wait and hope for answers and perhaps the capture of the villains?

Our family went ahead and did what we had scheduled ourselves to do, silly as it sounds after this build-up – we went to the Ambler Theater’s Buster Keaton festival. I don’t really have to justify that; I think most Americans were seeking some relief after two horrible days. From this kind of randomized terroristic act, there seems no real escape. Every day in America is a risky day. We’re all learning to look down the alley before we start to walk through it. Or better yet, avoid walking into alleys. Even though we also know that the bombers or the AK-47 hobbyists may be waiting on Main Street itself.

The Ambler Theater sponsored a very nice program last Tuesday night that included four Buster Keaton short films accompanied by a three-piece band calling itself “The Not So Silent Cinema Project.” Brendan Cooney, a Philadelphia musician with Boston roots created the project. He’s accompanied by Andy Bergman on Clarinet and Kyle Tuttle on banjo. The music had been carefully and creatively scored to fit both the actions and the moods of the films. A pleasant and quite creative evening.

Except: The second Buster Keaton movie was called “Cops.” It was released in 1922. About a third of the way into the film we see a policemen’s parade, with hundreds of marching patrolmen. Buster is hiding from the law under a parade stand. The city officials are shown at the review stand. Then we see Buster again, still hiding. In the next shot, a sudden close-up reveals an archetypical anarchist lighting one of those bowling ball-shaped comic bombs with a long fuse. He throws the lit bomb over the wall. It lands next to Buster. Buster uses the fuse to light his cigarette and then casually tosses the bomb away. It lands in the reviewing stand. It blows up. Everyone runs away, scattering in panic. Comedic panic.

That is, no severed limbs. No bloody, shrieking bystanders. No dead bodies. In comedies, even ones made today, bombs make people grab their butts as though they sat on something hot. Or make them fly up in the air and come down again to the sound of a kazoo before running away. Woooo-up.

At the movie theater I felt my stomach turn. I felt like being angry at the three musicians or the Ambler Theater. But they couldn’t have known. Mercifully, the action changed, the bomb scene ended and we’d moved on. An awkward moment and definitely not a funny one.

That particular bomb thrower, who looked kind of shady and ethnic, was probably modeled on the anarchist bombings that happened in the U.S. in 1919 by the followers of Luigi Galleini. In that case at least 36 dynamite bombs were mailed to government officials. The Galleinists followed that episode up on June 2 by exploding bombs in eight different American cities, targeting public figures.

The anarchist bombings of 1919 were not the only such bombings in American history, but they’re a useful illustration of the fact that by 1922 “the anarchist” had become a stock comic character in film. A funny figure unless you don’t have distance from him. Not so funny for all the people of the world who’ve had bombs aimed at them this year. Same with comic drunk drivers for those of us who’ve lost a loved one to their “funny” way of handling a vehicle.

The Buster Keaton-with-live-music program is really excellent. It will play art house theaters in six more cities, including Doylestown and New York. The tour will conclude in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If they don’t modify the program by then, however, I don’t think the people of Cambridge are ready to have their recent history seen as comedy.

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