Posts Tagged 'Buster Keaton'

Silent Education

Recently, my friend Tyler Smith, co-host of the great film podcast “Battleship Pretension,” organized a silent comedy night, and I realized just how limited my viewing had been. I’d seen “The General” and “Modern Times,” as well as Buster Keaton’s “7 Chances” and an assortment of his short films. I’d seen “The Great Dictator,” which is Chaplin, but not silent (though it retains much silent comedy). I knew of Harold Lloyd, but hadn’t seen any of his films.
It can be difficult to motivate people to watch silent films, comedy or otherwise; even for film lovers, the task can seem daunting. With a group night organized around the idea, it’s both easier to be motivated and more enjoyable for initial viewings. Comedy is better in a crowd.
One of THE most classic silent comedy images of all time.
One of THE most classic silent comedy images of all time.
Our schedule was set. We began with Harold Lloyd’s “The Freshman,” moved on to Keaton’s “Sherlock, Jr.,” then Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush,” and finished (the next day) with Keaton’s “7 Chances,” upon my request. It’s these three men, though– Lloyd, Keaton, Chaplin– who are the three, nearly undisputed kings of silent comedy. Within the trio, the most popular was Chaplin, but all three have plenty of supporters and among film lovers, the debate is sure to be endless, though this piece will contribute its two cents as well.
The Tramp
The Tramp
What is indisputable is that all three had distinct, amazing talent and timing. These are great comic actors. They were contemporaries, just as today we have numerous comedic troupes, of sorts, in Judd Apatow and David Wain and Jody Hill and Edgar Wright and Todd Phillips, and all of their unique comedic sensibilities. And while there are great physical moments in each of those writer/directors’ films, their weapon of choice is their great dialogue, which is not the strength of any of the silents. The closest thing to silent comedy I’ve seen in the past few years– and this was noted when it came out, even– is Pixar’s “Wall*E,” with its beautiful, wordless opening sequence and the way Wall*E himself had to communicate multitudes in limited, subtle facial expressions.

There is a clear hierarchy, though, for the silent trio. Lloyd is on the bottom, which is not at all to suggest that he is bad. There is a recurring gag in “The Freshman,” in which he does a little dance each time he meets someone new (check it out below), and the gag is so silly and disarming, it never wears itself out. Lloyd is at the bottom simply because he does the least. He acts, where both Keaton and Chaplin also write and direct their films. It shows. Lloyd is very funny, but his comedy does not seem quite is organic as the other two, in the way it seems to flow effortlessly from them. Chaplin is the next tier. Bound to his romantic whimsy and his little mustache, Chaplin’s comedy is more about sweetness than all-out hilarity. This is not a criticism, especially if you are looking for a kind-hearted comedy. He excels at using a singular setting for endless comedic opportunities.
The Great Stoneface
The Great Stoneface
But there can be only one king, and it is Buster Keaton. Where he leaves the rest behind is in his construction of a comedic sequence. In the underrated “7 Chances,” which, I am told he didn’t really want to make, the film builds for about 30 minutes with small bits of comedy in the midst of the plot. But then, all at once, the elements he’s set in motion combine and explode and he is propelled headlong into a non-stop, 20+ minute comedic action set-piece, which culminates with him running down the side of a mountain as hundreds of boulders come hurtling after him, as he tries to escape an angry mob of women, all dressed as brides. The camera cranes high above him, showing the full measure of the situation, and it stays on him longer than you’d ever expect. He operates on a scale so far beyond anything I’ve seen from Chaplin or Lloyd. In “Sherlock, Jr.” (made the year before) he combines that great physical aspect with his love of cinema (see clip below, beginning around the 1-minute mark or so). Consider what he is doing, first visually: the way the shot is composed as a frame within a frame so that we assume we’re seeing a regular shot of a movie theater. Then, he confounds our expectations of a movie screen and editing and continuity. Look how long that shot is used and how often. Keaton, in this sequence, combines technical, visual, and comedic elements to create something that awes us as much as it amuses us. “Sherlock Jr.” contains, essentially, a film within a film, except that the film-within-the-film is as long as the rest of the film. Keaton is the best because he is the best storyteller. He takes chances, he understands tone, he incorporates the movies themselves as an element in the fun, and he’s just the most original of the bunch.
If you have not sat down and watched the films of these guys (as I had not, as at some point, all film lovers had not), treat yourself to a healthy dose of all three. You may agree with me, you may not, but regardless, these films are made with such pleasure, and they are pleasing in a way that few things are anymore.

German Silence Experiment

Pray you... Remember the Porter!

Pray you... Remember the Porter!

Even as an avid movie-watcher, there are blind spots in my viewing history. Among them, German Expressionism. Most of the big ones are silent films, and this spring I was an extra in a friend’s attempt at recreating the style via Greenscreen. So, it got me thinking, and good friend Tyler had a group of us over the other night for a trilogy of German director F.W. Murnau. The three films on the docket – “Nosferatu,” “The Last Laugh,” and “Sunrise.” We only got through the first two, which was fine because I’d recently seen “Sunrise.”

The films were all made between 1922 and 1927 and what fascinated me was how different they are. There is the horror movie, the character study, and the melodrama, respectively. I was expecting a much more cohesive thematic pathway through the films. Film was in its infancy, and there were simply things you couldn’t do. But what I found as we discussed the films was that Murnau was able to use his distinct visual style in three very different ways.

It’s nice to be surprised by movies. Sometimes movies like these feel like a chore; something you have to watch in order to get a sense of a film as an evolving art form, but that doesn’t really do anything for you emotionally or intellectually. After being left a little cold by “Nosferatu” I thought maybe that’s what this night would be. But then “The Last Laugh” began and it completely blew me away. It has some of the most dynamic camera movement I’ve ever seen in a silent film. I can’t say for sure, but this is one of cinema’s earliest character studies. The movie has such a sense not only of its main character, a Porter at an upscale hotel, but also for the many communities he inhabits. I didn’t know they made movies purely about behavior in 1925. In contrast to “Nosferatu,” which was all static, unmoving shots, this one is often on the move. It tracks along with The Porter as he walks through the courtyard behind his apartment building, interacting with everyone he meets. Murnau often shoots through windows or doors or some sort of obstruction, as if trying to remain unseen and impartial. We see The Porter at work, and the upper-class moving about. We see him with people in the working class, with children, at his daughter’s wedding reception. And along with observing the community, the film is also about how those people view The Porter.

Murnau_LastLaugh_2Emil Jannings plays The Porter as a man whose value comes through his job, and the film traces his disintegration (and then his redemption) as he goes from being a confident, well-respected man to a demeaned employee, to a joke to everyone he meets. Jannings is remarkably subtle for the time and even includes a different master gestus for each stage of his character’s journey.

Keaton_Seven_Chances_1925bI shouldn’t really be surprised. The movie was made in 1925, which is the same year the great silent comedy “Seven Chances” came out. What is remarkable to me as both a writer and a filmmaker is the way both “Seven Chances” and “The Last Laugh” remain brilliant examples of character-driven storytelling. Both use numerous tracking shots to follow their main character through a sea of people. Both also pull back to a grand scale and show a world of behavior. Most films today don’t even do that. They have no sense of the movement of the world their characters inhabit. Finally, both choose to rely purely on the visual strength of the storytelling, in the way that “Seven Chances” uses dialogue cards (to show what the actors have been saying) very sparingly and “The Last Laugh” doesn’t use them at all. They aren’t needed. Every important piece of information is communicated. The rest is behavior.

The more I watch silent films, the more I desperately want to make one. There is a simultaneous challenge and freedom to the notion. To have to tell a story visually and sustain it. For most young writers, an interest in film begins with an interest in dialogue. That’s how it was for me. I’ve been able to write dialogue for a long time, and it can become a crutch. It is the easiest way to overwrite something. Some writers never progress past that point (like this guy). Other writers decide to challenge themselves (like this cat). It’s a lesson I’m constantly learning. The last thing I wrote recently was 22 pages of non-stop dialogue. It’s only okay. I’m very happy with the dialogue, but the thing is a little one-sided. It’s not writing that is going to make me a better filmmaker, if that makes any sense.

Compare that to something like “Delicious Breakfast Cereal,” which, while not great by any standards, contains less dialogue and was a very useful experiment for how to tell a story specifically with a camera. The trick is, of course, to combine the two. To know when it’s time for dialogue and when to let character action take over, and how to make them swim along side each other for a while and not fight.


It Has Come to This

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