Tag Archives: Buster Keaton

“The Sounds of Silents” at Coolidge Corner

5 Sep

Not an optical illusion.

I love Coolidge Corner. So much so, I decided to move closer to it. It saves time for commuting and spends my entertainment allowance faster. It makes sense.

But one reason I love this theater so damn much, is the fact they still screen silent films. That’s kinda ballsy in an age filled with 3D glasses and CGI for almost every movie released. Pish-posh, let’s go back to simpler times. Times where the audience got to participate in the interpretation of a movie and the only sound that was heard in theaters was the sounds of music.

The beauty of a live silent film is that it’s alive. The music shakes your seat, the images are a good two stories tall in your face, the actors’ overact like its no one’s show business. Now that’s entertainment.

I was fortunate enough to save a ticket for the kick off event of the series, a screening of the re-released “Metropolis”. Let’s just say, I’ve seen the film about twice before seeing it with the found footage and the live accompaniment, and I was practically jumping into the aisle out of anxiety because it stirred up so much emotion. Though I was privy to what happens, it felt like it was a movie I never watched before. Greatness.

The Tampa Theatre

The Tampa Theatre

So it is with bated breath, I await the arrival of “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” later this month. One of my favorite comedians in one of his masterpieces. I can’t wait to share the experience. But, Coolidge is throwing in a different twist to the standard tinkling piano in the corner of an old theater. They are bringing in a guitarist to accompany the antics of Buster Keaton, who I think is wacky enough already. In fact my first live silent film was back in the historic Tampa Theatre. It was the late, great Rosa Rio at the helm of a Mighty Wurlitzer Organ playing along with the slapstick comedy onscreen. I remember bouncing out of my seat often, bobbing to the pace of the music and Keaton’s almost musical timing. The screening even came with a preshow, as is tradition for big screenings in the Tampa Theatre; a sing-a-long of “My Funny Valentine,” just in time for the holiday.

I look forward to the quirky fun live silent movies can offer. No two screenings are alike, and it makes each time you go is akin to seeing the movie anew. If only more movies could feel that fresh. They just don’t make ’em like they used to.

The next two screenings in the series are “Sunrise” on December 2nd and “IT” on May 2nd. Mark your calendars. To buy tickets to the three remaining silent films of the season, check out the program listing.

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Class Notes: “The General”

10 Jul

The Great, "The General"

One. Of. My. Favorite. Movies. Ever.

Counting gun powder-in the canon...

There, I said it. I am notorious for never picking just one movie as a favorite film. There are oh-so many!

But you can mark this one down as an ageless classic. It is just that good.

“The General” is the story about a young man, Johnnie Gray, in love with two different entities, his train and his girlfriend. The Civil War rolls through to turn his life upside down when he is rejected by the enlistment office. Now a social outcast, he loses the love of his girl and of his town; all he has left is the love of his train. But, the War takes that too, when Northern spies hijack his General in an attempt to foil the oncoming Confederate army. Things get even more complicated, when Johnnie discovers the spies have not only taken his train but his ex-love as well. It’s a train race to end all train races as the love of machine, women, and country must succeed!

Excited yet?

Why so sad, Stone Face?

Great, because Buster Keaton never shows it. It’s a silent comedy, but instead of the over-acted comic antics of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, audiences got Buster Keaton’s stoic face. He never over reacts, he almost just accepts what is going around him and deals with it. The Great Stone Face never smiled, not once, during his entire movie career. It’s particularly hilarious now, when overacting is the usual response of present-day comedies.

Shock and awe-it's still what brings in the crowds today...

This movie is monumental in a number of ways. It’s the most expensive comedy of the silent era, with the most expensive scene ever shot for a silent film. It’s the climax of the great train race finishes with a dive into the river. According to imdb.com, the scene cost about $42,000  and the extras were not informed of what was going on. Surprise! The train actually remained there until WWII when it was reused for scrap metal.

Another note for the movie was how large the scale is, and keep in mind, this was an independent film maker doing his own script. Entire armies, cities, and railroad tracks were constructed and made to look as if they were straight out of 1862. National guardsmen provided the man power and a lot of the ammunition that’s thrown about the Oregon countryside. Yes, being that this is Hollywood, they filmed it in a place that wasn’t where the story is supposed to be. However, Oregon was the closest Buster and his crew could find that had a lot of the old rail ways from that era still intact, not to mention plenty of space to reconstruct an antebellum village.

Did I mention he was serious about his comedy? Take this exerpt from a documentary on the comedian. How many directors tell you to film until they say “cut” or are killed?

Love, or something like it.

My only sour point of this review is unfortunately, Johnnie’s girlfriend. Annabelle is the stereotypical female role: damsel in distress, the daddy’s girl, the clueless housewife. I understand it’s for comic effect, like the scene when Annabelle throws out a log intended for the train’s engine because it has a gaping hole in the middle. In its place, she finds a stick and throws that into the fire. You can see illogical situation and its ensuing couple frustration as she becomes more of a hindrance than a help to Johnnie’s escape. I am taking this course in the context of sociology, so gender roles are one of the cornerstones we look at in a movie. It’s offensive that she is merely reduced to the role of the “dumb blond.” But I do not think this is Buster’s fault entirely. Prior to “The General,” all of the female leads in Buster’s films were calm, cool, and collected. They were not ditsy, but could follow what Buster was attempting as a solution to the problems they faced. I don’t recall them being hindrances, but rather as obstacles, as some women originally reject his romantic appeals.  Women were something Buster had to both respect and understand. Perhaps he was trying out a different approach to his comedies, but I can’t love this movie as much as I loved “Steamboat Bill” or “Sherlock, Jr.” It’s just not the same.

Whoops

On a final note, this movie also marked the end of a promising independent director. As expensive as everything was, audience didn’t get it. Some detested that the protagonist was a Southerner and others, mainly film critics of the time, did not like that there was so much seriousness and suspense in the comedy. It was a great financial flop, one that Buster never quite recuperated from. A few smaller budget films after, he decided to sign a contract with MGM Studios against the advice from friends and coworkers (Charlie Chaplin was even said to have called him and pleaded with him not to go through with the deal). He did so, thinking this would secure funding for his future projects without much frustration. He was sadly mistaken. MGM pulled him from behind the camera, threw out his scripts, and reduced him to a bit player in awful (I mean, what-the-hell-is-this awful) comedies. His stardom faded, and MGM reduced him to writing gags for the Marx brothers. Stripped of control over his work, Buster turned to drinking and toiled in obscurity for years. It was not until the New Wave critics like Godard and Truffaut rediscovered his work and brought back his movies to film festivals. Towards the end of his life, in between acting in awful comedies, Buster would find work in ensemble pieces like “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Around the World in 60 Days.” He finally received the much delayed honor of respected filmmaker after the screening of the rediscovered “The General” at the Venice Film Festival. When the picture ended, the crowd stood and gave the longest applause ever in the Festival’s history. Respect for the Great Stone Face had come at last.

Thanks to Dr. Macro for the gorgeous stills.

And for the one-off opportunity, I can share this film with you-in its entirety. Enjoy, don’t be afraid to let me know what you think about it. (May I suggest turning off the sound on this version, unless you find the better, Carl Davis scored one for the film-most of the versions out on the internet will be filled with music that does not suit the film. This version starts with “Pomp and Circumstance,” your graduation song. Ya, feel free to slap on any other music at that point…) Side note: this version is also MUCH slower than usual, as it’s played at the incorrect film speed. Silent movies were filmed by hand, with the average frame rate per second was 18-21. TV in the US is braodcast at about 29 frames per second. Some technitians slow down the film in order to make it appear less jittery than if played at the TV speed. This is why I recommend watching movies live…

Avoid the Sepia version that’s online, there’s a good ten minutes missing from the start of the film.

Here’s the link to another version, thankfully with better sound but with a loss of film quality. So, if you want to get fancy, play the score from here while watching the other version

An article just recently published on Keaton’s legacy, namely his stunts in the movie, “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” Keaton famously did ALL of his own stunts, save one in the movie “College.”

Proof: