2018 Film Essays

Permanent Shadows: Rosalind Byrne in Buster Keaton’s ‘Seven Chances’

I’m at a party, smoking in the garden and someone’s just said the word “star.” Now, there’s a garbled conversation going on between a number of slightly inebriated people about the word “star” meaning a famous person, versus its definition as a gas giant in space, and whether or not these two words are linked etymologically. The partygoers all seem to be getting on just fine without me, so I don’t need to contribute, which is useful because I’ve fallen into my own related reverie about Rosalind Byrne. “Who?” you might ask — Rosalind Byrne, forgotten bit part actress from the 20s. “Who” you might ask. Well, I’ll explain, but be prepared for the fact that this topic is large for me: it includes a lot of paradoxical elements to do with gender, politics and psychology, yet also encroaches on some of the more abstract, poetic qualities of cinema. First, though, we need to talk more about stars.

Whether you’re talking about people or hydrogen giants, when you look at a star, you’re looking back in time. Starting with the gas giants: light travels at approximately 300,000 kilometres a second, so when you look at the night sky, you’re looking at light which left a given star X amount of time ago. For example: the closest star to the Earth is (surprise surprise) the Sun, but it’s about 150 million kilometres away, so when you look at the Sun, you’re looking at the Sun as it was eight minutes and 20 seconds ago, more or less. That’s how long it takes the light from the Sun to get to us. When you look at any of the other stars, you’re looking further into the past. The very nearest stars (excluding the Sun) are emitting light that has taken over four years to reach our eyes. If those stars exploded tomorrow, no one would know about it for four years. And those are just the closest ones. Most of the stars visible from Earth are emitting light that has been travelling for thousands and thousands of years. It’s a literal connection to the past. When you look at the stars, you’re seeing into the past. Travelling in time.

And when you watch a film, you’re also travelling back into the past, but in a different way. Films are never-changing objects. They are recordings of objects made visible thanks to light that shone in the past, and the life they exude when you watch them is breathed into them from light emitted from a projector, or screen. When you watch a film, you’re seeing “old” light, carried by “new” light. You’re looking back at a perfectly preserved moment from the past, one that has nothing to say about any of the intervening years, one that is incapable of ever knowing what “tomorrow” looks like. Instead, it effortlessly shows you what “then” was like, and what people who existed “then” looked like. It is a time capsule. A perfect pearl. A beautiful, eternal object. And what I’m doing today is taking you back to when I first encountered the eternal yet forgotten Rosalind Byrne.

This moment happens in 2008: I’m watching the 1925 Buster Keaton film Seven Chances for the first time. I’m only 83 years late to the party, but who’s counting? I’m doing this because I’m writing an essay on Keaton and, because I’m a nut, I’ve decided to watch 28 of his films before writing my first word. Yes, most of them are shorts, but I still feel a little like Fitzcarraldo.

For those who haven’t seen Seven Chances, here’s the plot:

Seven Chances sees Keaton receive an inheritance of $7 million from his grandfather, with one proviso: he must be married by 7:00 pm on his 27th birthday — that same day. Now although Keaton’s character in the film does have a sweetheart, the prospect of him actually marrying the person he loves goes temporarily south due to a miscommunication which leaves him in a huge bind — get married today to someone he doesn’t love, or wave goodbye to his inheritance? Keaton’s business partner pushes him into pursuing the former: their business is in dire straits and needs the cash to stay afloat, and he has a plan. The business partner takes Keaton to a country club, points out seven different women, writes their names down and tells him that these are the seven chances Keaton has. Of course, this doesn’t work at all, and Keaton ends up frantically proposing to every woman he meets. Hilarity ensues. It’s a fantastic film, less discussed than other Keaton films, but arguably one of his best, and features a number of extremely memorable set pieces, particularly in the third act.

Now, because a lot of this film rotates around the presence of women that Keaton can propose to, I became hyper-aware of two very distinct types that the film was presenting:

  • Women of Leisure
  • Women Who Work

Keaton’s journey to find a wife initially only focuses on the first group — women of leisure. These are the “seven chances” at the country club: comfortable, well-dressed, relaxed, unfettered women. They make their own choices, and in this story, they choose to say “no” to Keaton, one after another.

Conversely, the women who work are also free to say “no” to Keaton (although it takes him a while to actually start seeing them — more on this later), but there’s something quite striking about how they are presented. The women who work are penned in, enclosed. Not metaphorically, but quite literally. They work inside a box of some description. Don’t believe me? Head to 00:04:06, 00:07:54, 00:20:29 and 00:24:37 (these are timecodes for the PAL DVD of the film issued by Network). You’ll see a secretary, another secretary, a hat check girl and an operator, respectively. All of them are shown as enclosed in one way or another: using walls, fences, counters and arches. There is no visual freedom of movement for these women. They are trapped. Restricted. Better to be a woman of leisure, right?

Well, maybe not. Because the women of leisure — who may be visually unrestricted and also lack free range of movement — are also in boxes. Keaton’s sweetheart, arguably the most important female character in the film, spends the entire running time “trapped” in and around the domestic surroundings of her home. Even when she realises that Keaton does love her — that she needs to marry him today, as urgency rears its head like a hurricane — she does not move. Instead, she sends someone else to deliver a message to Keaton, someone to play the agent of action that she cannot.

Additionally, the women at the country club don’t move either. They stay within the confines of whatever setting they’re originally found in, most of them do not move at all. The only female character who does move from one space to another, from inside to outside, turns out to be a child that Keaton mistakenly believes is a woman. And perhaps she has this free range of movement precisely because she’s not a “woman.” Because she’s irrelevant. Incidentally, that’s also a scene that probably wouldn’t make the cut if the film were remade today.

The point remains — all of these women are hemmed in by bars both visible and invisible. All of these women are in boxes.

Now, my essay on Keaton had nothing to do with gender, but as the film went on, this became more and more difficult to ignore. And, as I mentioned earlier, it really came to a head with the introduction of a character played by Byrne that ended up changing everything for me. But I’m going to deviate for a little before finally arriving at her, because I want to talk a little more about the box, and why it might exist. I should add that I don’t believe I’m providing answers here, I’m not the fount of all knowledge — this is just one possible interpretation.  Feel free to disagree.

I should also add that I do not believe any of the above elements are unique to Seven Chances. They are present in pretty much all cinema ever, and that’s what encouraged me to look at this in more detail — to question why the box exists in cinema. Female characters are restricted, they lack free range of movement, they often function more as some kind of lever in the larger machine that is the plot of the film. But women make up over 50% of the population of the planet. It seems weird to me that their narratives, along with the roles they play and the movements they’re allowed to make, would be so small, so marginalized, so reductive. There’s a vast number of reasons that might be behind this, but one that keeps coming back to me time and time again is this: biology. And here’s why:

The choices that female characters make — the goals they have, the things they desire — are often difficult to extrapolate from biological imperatives. And what I mean by this is that it feels like there’s a subtextual drive for them to achieve a partnership with another person (be it marriage or simply a coupling), or to have children, to be a mother, wife or daughter. Hell, simply to be female. It feels like these subtextual elements are greater than their need to achieve autonomy of self, to reach self-actualisation. Almost as though their gender dictates the kind of stories they can live, the agency (or lack of) that they have. Sometimes people will disagree with me by presenting female characters who deviate from this pattern (for example, Twister [Jan de Bont, 1996]), but even then this is often undercut by an emphasis on the female protagonist’s connection to a male character (usually their father, usually dead) as a motivation for their behaviour, reminding viewers of their role as a daughter, as female.

Male characters don’t have this problem. The narratives they are involved in are rarely to do with their biology. Male characters have a free range of movement and a variety of options presented to them that female characters can only dream of. Yes, men are often in a narrative where they are a husband, father or son, but their final position, their goal, is usually related to an internal struggle that they need to resolve. To right an injustice, or to learn who they are; not as a man, per se, but as a person. Yes, Citizen Kane’s Charles Foster Kane is a son, has children and a wife (or two), but his story is not about these things — his story is about his own hubris. It’s about Charles Foster Kane.

Now, I don’t know if these restrictions are in place because of a biological imperative, or rather because of our societal attitudes towards biological imperatives (e.g. How we tell young female family members that they “look pretty” but would never say that to young male family members, etc, etc, etc.), but it’s arguable that the general trend above might also suggest that female characters are concerned (or created to be concerned) with the base of Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs (physiological and safety needs; love and belonging). Whereas male characters are concerned with the pinnacle (the aforementioned self-actualisation), female characters are looking to build a foundation, a base, to surround themselves with security, family, love — male characters want to understand who the women  are. And they’ll go anywhere and do anything to achieve it. This is where the experience of watching Seven Chances left me, and this is how the majority of cinema sits with me to this day.

I should add that the reason all of this sticks in my craw quite so much is because it simply doesn’t represent the women in my life, who all seem to have just as much anxiety, self-reflection and interest in who they are as people as anyone else. We all do. And yet, for one reason or another, we have created a narratological form of semiotics that says something quite different. And, like Louis Pasteur discovering microbes, I suddenly found myself seeing this subtextual cinematic language everywhere, all the time. I became obsessed. Every film I watched reinforced this idea, and not only that, each film added to the argument by introducing new concepts, such as female characters as”‘levers” — doing nothing other than controlling the path or tempo of the male journey; as “apples” — objects of desire to be plucked when the time is right; as “vases” — fragile and in need of protection; as “jewels” — untouchable objects to be revered and treasured. It also controls how directors film these characters, the types of interior staging, the clothes they wear, the words they say. Everything. It left me feeling like cinema is covered in germs, things that can’t be seen.  And even if you point it out and make the bars of the cage visible, nobody seems to care. It is the (fetid) water that we swim in.

So, can any form of hope grow from this? Part of me likes to think that it can. Later this year, the perfume house État libre d’Orange will be releasing a new scent called Les Fleurs du Dechét, the English name being I Am Trash — a scent that looks for beauty in decay. Pre-release details are sketchy at present, but it’s being described as using rotten fruit and earthworms as a starting point for something wonderful. And it’s concepts like this, when we have the opportunity to find a gemstone in the ashes, that I came here to talk about. Because despite the presence of dysphemistic subtextual message about female narratives, I saw something extraordinary on that day in 2008 when I watched Seven Chances. And that something was Rosalind Byrne’s paradoxically fascinating appearance, and the chills it gave me, which echo to this day.

It’s at the 00:20:29 mark that Keaton cuts to a shot featuring Byrne. She plays the hat check girl mentioned earlier. She has no character name, she is only seen in three brief scenes, she has no freedom of movement.  But her presence in the film provides insight into ideas around cinema — looking and being looked at — that are pivotal for me.

By the 20-minute mark, Keaton has become quite desperate to find someone to accept his proposal. His quest starts out with him being coy, bashful, ashamed even, but now he’s hurling himself into things. And when he walks over to the hat check desk, he does not even look at Byrne. She, on the other hand, is seen by the viewer, and sees Keaton in a way that hasn’t happened prior to this point and won’t happen again afterwards. It starts when Keaton puts his hat on the counter, simply because he’s taking it off — he doesn’t even notice that he’s standing by a hat check counter. Byrne (who is facing away from Keaton to begin with) sees the hat and now comes to life: she picks it up, tickets it and then her gaze draws her into Keaton’s narrative. He’s writing a note to one of the women of leisure that he’s about to propose to and, completely unseen by Keaton, Byrne leans in and reads the card. Then the audience reads the card, through her eyes. Her gaze becomes the audience’s gaze. She then watches (with a look of confusion) as he flings the card up to a lady sitting high above, and then stares, disinterestedly, as a gentle flurry of paper (the note, now torn to shreds) comes floating down onto him like a flurry of snow. Keaton turns up his collar as though he were cold, reinforcing the wintery symbolism, and walks away. All without even a glance at Byrne. I can’t explain the impact this moment (and her subsequent scenes, both utilizing the same shot to keep her and Keaton in the frame together at all times) had on me.

First off: why didn’t Keaton see her? Is she invisible because he has bigger things on his mind? Because she’s a woman who works and (at this point) isn’t on his proposal radar? Does she never get her own close up because the space between her and Keaton (the eyeline matches and mismatches) is necessary? Maybe. Regardless, she is looked at, by an audience, by me, and her gaze becomes the audience’s gaze, my gaze, as she reads the note, understands Keaton’s dilemma. Just by looking. It’s not easy to untangle Byrne from the group of people silently sitting in the dark watching a screen, to untangle her from me watching her.

The second Byrne scene takes place after the last of the seven names on the list has been struck through. That plan is now over, and the business partner has a new scheme — find a woman, any woman — and the field has now been opened for Keaton to start proposing to every single woman he sees, as soon as he sees them, which is exactly what he does for the rest of the film. With one exception: Byrne, in this second scene. Keaton goes back to the hat check desk to retrieve his hat, which Byrne will only hand over after he’s tipped her. He brings out the money, puts it on the counter and gets his hat back, only to spy another woman of leisure on the opposite side of the room, and make an immediate bee line for her, leaving his hat and a visibly frustrated (only to the audience, not to Keaton) Byrne behind. But why did Keaton not propose to Byrne? In the first scene they shared, Keaton did not look at her once. This second scene features two brief glances at her from Keaton, but purely on the basis of her role as woman-who-works, as a hat check girl. It’s almost as though he doesn’t register her as female at all. Now, we’ve already seen Keaton propose to another woman-who-works (the operator), so it can’t be this. Perhaps the reason he interacts with her perfunctorily in this scene is for the audience to ask itself the question: “Why are you not proposing to her?”

The third scene is the eventual retrieval of Keaton’s hat, and it’s the last time that Byrne appears. It’s also the only scene in the entire film in which there is equal comic sparring between Keaton and one of his many female co-stars. Here’s how it goes: Byrne keeps her hand on the hat. Keaton places the coin on the counter. The two items are pushed forward, hands and eyes at the ready, neither party willing to release until they are convinced that this exchange will go through. It’s a sweet, funny moment of a palpable tense connection between two characters. And it’s only after this moment when Keaton has his hat, and Byrne has her tip, when Byrne’s role as woman-who-works has finally become irrelevant, that Keaton seems to “wake up” and to look at her with new eyes, to lean in and open his mouth to propose — only for her to shake her head before he can even get a word out.

All of this might seem insignificant, but for me, there’s subtextual gold in these moments with Byrne. In an effort to untangle exactly what Byrne brings to the film, I’ve broken it into three elements — using an “X but “’ structure, namely that Byrne is:

  • Seen but Unseen
  • Inconsequential but Pivotal
  • Ephemeral but Permanent

Seen but Unseen:

Keaton does not look at Byrne once in the first scene they share, but the audience does. Perhaps it is the fact that Keaton doesn’t notice her that encourages this, or perhaps it’s Byrne’s “look” (striking, glamorous) that draws a gaze to her. Either way, not only is she there to be looked at, but the audience then “sees” through her eyes. The audience’s gaze becomes inextricably linked to that of a character who arguably has no agency, but the film itself provides her with agency. The audience looks at someone that Keaton does not, sees things that he is unaware are being seen — privy to a moment that he misses. Moments like this, which feature objects to be looked at and shared gazes, are not accidental in cinema.

Inconsequential but Pivotal:

Byrne’s appearance in the film has no bearing on the story. You could remove her from the film entirely and the machinery of the plot would function perfectly well. Her role is of little significance. So, why is she there? Because she plants a seed in the mind of an audience. Her immobile, unseen presence introduces the concept that drives the second act: find a woman, any woman. And it plants this seed before the narrative of the film shifts into this gear. She may seem unnecessary, but her presence allows an audience to be one step ahead of both the film’s protagonist and plot.

Ephemeral but Permanent:

This is the one that sucker punched me. Byrne’s name is not in the credits for the film. Go look her up and you’ll find little information on her. She is a complete footnote in the history of cinema. And yet she shares the screen in three scenes with one of the most famous stars of silent cinema. Not only that, but she even gets to spar with Keaton, on equal footing, for a brief, shining moment. Seven Chances will exist long after I’m dead. The image ofByrne as she was in 1925 has been permanently recorded, never changing. When I look at her on the screen, I’m looking into the past, but unlike the light from the stars, her light will remain constant, for as long as these recordings exist. And that is powerfully humbling.

These three paradoxical elements have become key areas as to what cinema means to me in general. Put simply, Rosalind Byrne changed how I think about cinema. Yes, film is largely about fiction, but in the recording of these fictions, there is an accidental reveal that says so much about who we are and what we think. When we go over old photos of friends and loved ones, the narrative of the time in which those images were captured is often forgotten, replaced by other elements that seemed unimportant at the time, but which now mean everything. For example, what mattered then was what was happening, a celebration, a gathering, etc. But what matters now is the look in the eyes of someone whose story is finished, and the knowledge that the questions you have about those images can never be answered. What was going on behind those eyes, what could they have been thinking, or feeling?

Back to that party I was at, but now you’re there, too: you creep to the back of the garden and find the entrance to a stone building. The door is ajar, and you steal your way inside. You’re in a room with a low ceiling. The bare stone walls are wet with moisture. Perhaps it’s a mausoleum of some kind. You’re not sure. The entire space is filled with candles, and the candles closest to you burn prouder and brighter than any others. But the room is deceptively large. As you walk towards the back, shielding your eyes from the glare, you find other candles, smaller, with gentle and flickering flames. Some of these candles are about to go out. Their light will never shine again. And then you realise two things: first, that the light from these smaller candles is travelling over vast distances of time, and second, these lights will only continue to burn for as long as they are looked at. Turn away, and they’re gone.

Ben Woodiwiss (@BenWoodiwiss) is a writer-director who lives and works in London, UK. He’s written and given talks on film for a number of publications and organisations and his first feature film, ‘Benny Loves Killing,’ is now available on Amazon. He also works on his own film review site, looking at a more philosophical and personal connection to cinema, and drinks a lot of coffee.