By Tara Judah
The “shared experience” that cinema-goers so often speak of presumes some consensus of experience. And yet, so often I find myself in an auditorium wondering why the atmosphere suggests everyone else is experiencing something entirely different to me. Buster Keaton’s recently restored and beautifully digitally presented Seven Chances (1925) is a chief example.
Keaton’s character, James Shannon, stands to inherit several million dollars. However, there is a condition: he must be married by 7 pm on his 27th birthday, which, narratively, just so happens to be today. He heads straight for Mary Jones (credited as His Girl), the woman he loves, who says yes until he blurts out the urgency and impersonal nature of the proposal. What follows are slapstick comedy routines with Keaton asking many women – each of whom is simply ‘some girl’ – to marry him, with presumed hilarity in tow.
Jokes come at the expense of women; cisgender, transgender, Jewish, black, white, young and old, there’s fat shaming and ageism thrown in, too. Not to mention Shannon’s house servant in blackface.
While it is relevant to consider context – at the time this film was made, jokes at the expense of the aforementioned were par for the course – that doesn’t necessarily make it okay. We cannot and should not erase a history of racism, sexism or any other discrimination, to do so would be to silence a history of oppression. Censorship is not the answer. Still, even though it is important to understand attitudes of the past, not least so that we might stop repeating them, the reception of jokes in the film is worrying.
Reception is tricky because it’s uncontrollable. And the audience laughed and laughed.
In an era of post-truth politics, it’s difficult to know if the contemporary context is simply mimicking the past, or if the audience have decided to put oppression to one side as they enjoy the onscreen entertainment.
I know it is not right for me to want to take away someone else’s experience or enjoyment of these films and yet, at the same time, there I sit, aghast, quite honestly shocked to hear my shared audience howl with laughter at the very idea of Keaton cosying up to a black woman.
What’s most difficult about this experience is knowing that the only power any of us truly has, as viewers, is the option to critique the experience by refusal – the act of walking out. And yet, leaving feels too like a refusal to accept the volatility of the world we live in, to ignore and to pretend that these opinions and oppressions do not exist. And so, I suppose, even if I do not laugh, I must share the experience.
Director: Buster Keaton
Guión: Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, Joseph Mitchell
Fotografía: Elgin Lessley, Byron Houck (B&W)
Reparto: Buster Keaton, Ruth Dwyer, T. Roy Barnes, Snitz Edwards, Frances Raymond, Erwin Connelly, Jules Cowles
Productora: Buster Keaton Productions / Metro-Goldwyn Pictures Corporation
EEUU, 1925, 56 min