Tag Archives: buster keaton

Avuncularity, Delayed: Throne of Blood (1957), The Boat & The Goat (1921)

5 Mar

throne blood 1A couple of days before Christmas (as I said, I’ve been quite busy) the Aforementioned Nephews were given a choice of several semi-randomly selected movies, and they leapt at Throne of Blood (which was generally agreed to be a much better title than Spider’s Web Castle) when they discovered it was a) another samurai movie that was b) based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Now, neither has read or seen Macbeth and I didn’t ask why this interested them for the clear reason that one’s nephews asking to watch Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is what they call a Gift Horse. Its teeth looked fine from my vantage.

They were fairly mentally focused, as always, despite the constant physical fidgeting and the occasional and entirely legitimate questions about this and that throughout (usually Japanese military hierarchy/armor, some of which I could clear up and some of which I told them was wild guessing). It’s much easier to answer that sort of question when the movie is either silent or not in English. We can all stare at the screen and still discuss. Handy, that.

throne of blood ghostIt was so nice to watch this with a virgin audience that also knew nothing of Macbeth beyond a general awareness that it involves murder, witches and sleep-washing. No one knew beans about any walking forest, but they figured it out ahead of time, which made them feel particularly sharp. The ghost in the forest was, as it was when I first saw this, the source of immediate giggles followed by a seriously unsettled feeling. “What is that thing? Wait…what is that thing?” And after another moment of pride – “I KNEW it would end with the song again!” – the now-12-year-old asked, “So…when do the beginning and end parts happen again? Is that, like, now or…when?” A terrific question, I thought.

My only fear is that now when they finally see a production of Macbeth, no matter how good it is, the Thane’s death won’t be anywhere near as exciting as Mifune perforated by arrows. And yes, afterwards we told the story of that day on the set, which for them made it even better.

busterbw2That one is pretty heavy, though, so we finished our evening with some more Buster Keaton. The Boat was chosen first because the word “Damfino” had been discussed at our last Keaton viewing and that gag still packs the necessary gigglepunch for a 12- and a 13-year-old. The question remains: “Is it worth my limited disposable income to buy them memberships that they may be official Damfinos?”

There’s little story here to worry about, just gag after gag. For these boys, the funnel-in-the-floor moment was when they truly lost their shit. Why that? Why then? Who can say? But it was. The running bit with the world’s sturdiest pancakes wore them down as well.

They’re also still at the age where no matter what we watch there’s a moment of “that’s not real” or “that could never happen” which they just HAVE to vocalize. They really can not help it. Even when they’re enjoying themselves, “that’s fake” has to be said aloud – it’s comforting for some reason I don’t remember (but shared). My response is usually, “But the talking dragon (or whatever) isn’t a problem for you?”

I say this only because it’s Keaton alone that doesn’t inspire this. In The Boat, the collapsible masts and the uphill/downhill sailing nonsense is, even for them, so far gone, so over the cartoon-logic boundary, that he breaks them immediately of that habit. It’s fun to watch.

BusterwantedThen, The Goat, which I’ve seen more than other Keaton shorts for no particular reason. The weeping moments for them in this were the fur stole mustache and the whole elevator chase, but I have to mention the early moment where, delicately extricating himself from the presence of a cop, Buster puts on his coat around a pole and is trapped. This was met with no laugh of any kind but instead a wonder-laden “That’s funny!” as if a laugh would not be enough. Some genius of gag construction was recognized – or maybe just the idea that gags are a constructible thing, not just an event but a crafted moment dawned on them. As before, such fun to watch, these dawnings of the sun over Marblehead, as they say in Boston.

buster pole

DVR Alert: Keaton, Chaplin & Lloyd on TCM primetime 9/9

9 Sep

chaplin-portadaIn conjunction with the second episode of The Story of Film: an Odyssey,  TCM has loaded it’s schedule 8:00 p.m. into the wee hours with much of the best of the Holy Silent Clown Trinity, beginning with Keaton (One Week, Three Ages & The General), then Chaplin (City Lights & The Kid) and winding up with Lloyd (Never Weaken & Safety Last!).

I hope this bodes well for the loss of the sense of dour gravity that the first episode emphasized. While striving to maintain my Thumper’s Father policy, I have to say that there was an overall sense of debunking rather than one of enlightening. Even when the information is the same, the attitude makes a difference.

And more importantly, I hope we’ll spend some time appreciating Comedy Itself this week. This sort of thing generally leans into glorifying the Epic/Emotional more than the serious business of laughter.

Birthday and Sherlock, Jr. (1924)

5 Sep

And what does one do when one is me, it was one’s birthday, and one had the morning free until about 3:00 p.m.?

After some quality time with the morning’s musical instrument of choice, it turns out one watches the Kino blu-ray of Sherlock, Jr., once without the commentary and once with.

I can’t decide which image felt more like Forty Years Old to me – this one:

Keaton. Sherlock Jr. bike sit frontor this one:

sherlock-jr-5…but it’s in there somewhere.

These discs are just beautiful, and I’ve been digesting them slowly as I’ve had the time. I hesitate to write a whole megillah about Sherlock, Jr. because we’ll be visiting the nephews, 11 and 13, later this month and they’ve decided independently (in a proud avuncular moment) that they really want to see some movies that feature some combination of the following: detectives; murder; black & white, in particular The Maltese Falcon.

Now clearly something comic has to be in there somewhere, so I’m bringing A Shot in the Dark (which, based on the success of The Great Race should do nicely) and this one (which, based on the success of The General and various shorts, should do even better).

(For the record, later in the evening, the Torchy Blaneity continued with The Adventurous Blonde. I would have watched Playtime, the movie that reminds me how glorious it is to be alive, but there were dinner plans, and it is better to be with people. It was a happy birthday.)

Off to roll the bottoms of my trousers.

Seven Chances (1925)

11 Jun
Seven Chances (1925)

A clown in his natural habitat: solitude.

You will, I hope allow me to wax rhapsodic.

I’m always happiest with silents like Seven Chances (to be shown on TCM late, late Thursday, June 13 at 4:30 a.m.) in their dearth of intertitles. The job is done in the camera; not just the effects (ah! the dissolve with the car!), but the telling of the tale and the building of each gag. I’ve heard people speak of Keaton as a master of “composition” of shots, which is a lovely cinematic term and all, but it’s about the gag, which is, I think, vital to remember. He’s not a painter – he’s an engineer. He’s a liner-up of dominoes, then a displayer of domino configurations, and most of all, a flicker of dominoes. (I reserve that phrase for the title of my novel, by the way: A Flicker of Dominoes.)

I think it’s important not to treat Keaton as a traditional artist, but as an instinctual master. Not that he was without an unfathomable amount of craft, but that he seemed to employ it (when he talked about it) with very little traditional terminology. One more damn thing to admire him for. The utter lack of preciousness but still total commitment to his work.

The lawyer is Snitz Edwards (whom I think of as Putty Nose from The Public Enemy). The Wife and I decided that his name sounds rather like the sort of thing a mother might yell at a wayward child in lieu of “Nosey Parker” or “Pinky Lee” or the whatever your mother might have used as circumstances dictated. “Alright, there, Snitz Edwards – where’s the fire?”

While we’re talking about people who aren’t Buster…sigh. Let’s talk about the character called only The Hired Man…or, I don’t know. Maybe let’s not. We know how this is going to go; any aficionado of classic film has to deal with this sort of thing. Of Its Time, etc. It still makes me cringe, but the pleasures are worth cringing through for me. Rather than a) pretending it isn’t happening or b) reiterating needlessly, I highly recommend Black Like You by John Strausbaugh.

Somewhat more than seven

Somewhat more than seven.

I am a fan of women. My closest friends are and always have been women, my favorite relatives are women; I even married one. But I once made the mistake of walking blithely into a packed Filene’s Basement on the day when the previous season’s wedding gowns were put on sale. I felt every neck snap toward me as I entered – I’m pretty sure a few dresses were being purchased on spec – and I have to tell you…I felt what can only by described as Fear. And the famous would-be-brides chase brings that back for me. And all comedy requires a bit of Fear, no?

The bride chase, though, is something to see and love, not discuss – though it’s worth mentioning that for 7 million 1925 dollars, one can hardly blame the bridal posse for its tenacity, locust-like though it be. But let’s talk about those boulders. Man. Those boulders. I know intellectually how it was achieved. The information is out there. But it’s so…I mean, they look like papier-mâché boulders. And yet their motion is impossible, like a W.C. Fields pool shot exponentially increased in scale. It’s so beautiful.

I’m not sure if TCM shows the introductory Technicolor sequence when it airs this – it’s on the Kino blu-ray – but it’s worth seeking out if they don’t.


26 Apr
The Seventh Seal (1957)

(a la Frank “The Guy From ‘Jack Benny'” Nelson) Yeeeeeeesss?

I’ve got one for you…

Late Sun. 4/28 on TCM:

12:15 a.m. Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

1:30 a.m. The Paleface (1922)

2:15 a.m. The Seventh Seal (1957)

4:00 a.m. Love & Death (1975)

*Yes, I know. There are four, not three. But Paleface is a short. Leave me alone.

So, see, I know the joke is already here – Seventh Seal is the magnificent contextual setup for the punchline release of Love and Death (a favorite of my preferred Goofy-Age Woody Allen). But I have the foreknowledge that one of the loveliest in-cinema laughs I was ever a part of was at a showing of Seventh Seal at the Brattle in Boston years ago.

(I’m sure no one there remembers me – around the turn of the century, I used to call ahead and get them to put M&Ms in the soda fridge for me so I could have them with the hot popcorn. Good times.)

Anyhow, in comes the Reaper, who (which?) after standing there for a moment in front of von Sydow, announces himself in his Eeyore-ish Norse way: “I am Death.” Which seemed so patently obvious and deadpan that the audience, as one, let out this belting snort. Not mockery, now. It was funny that night. And it made the whole movie so much fun without making it anything it wasn’t (I’d argue it improved it, in fact). I mean, Death does pull out a handsaw at one point: the movie is not without humor. Can we not assume there’s more than we thought?

Thinking about it now, I realize that was a big moment for me – I’ve done script adaptations of a handful of classics since that time and in each I’ve looked for opportunities to mine for comedy instead of superimpose it. It’s trickier than it sounds, and something I wish happened more often; not to say that I’m successful, but I don’t know that it’s even a goal for most.

So I’m arguing that Buster Keaton is a perfect lead-in to put one in the right frame of mind for Bergman’s famed Arty Death Movie. After all, what is most good comedy but intriguingly heroic ways to deal with the threat of some form of Death? (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Moliere’s Don Juan, and Steamboat Bill, Jr. certainly fit that description.)

I’m not saying stay up ‘til all hours. This is why Nature gives us DVR. But watch these three together and let them seep into each other. That’s all I ask.

Post Script: I had the opportunity to see The Paleface here in Louisville a few weeks ago with live accompaniment by Bourbon Baroque. No point. Just bragging.