The Enduring Appeal of Buster Keaton
Posted by Ryan Sanderson on Thursday, May 21, 2015 at 12:00 AM By Ryan Sanderson / May 21, 2015 Comment
Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery. The following article addresses Keaton's films as a whole and why they play even better today than they did 90 years ago. In college I hosted a weekly movie night. It began humbly, on a small analog TV in my dorm where I would screen personal favorites, classics, and obscurities with no specific rhyme or reason to the selections. Over the next few years, thanks in part to my persistence but thanks even more to the fact that I had nothing better to do, our numbers began to increase. I could only cram so many people onto my handful of chairs, bed, dressers, floor, and desk, so I applied to check out some public space at the school. There was just one problem. As some of you probably know, it is illegal to screen copyrighted films in a public space, even if it’s for a bunch of college students in an end lounge killing time on a Thursday night. I didn’t have the money to eat, much less pay the licensing fees for a public performance of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Our RA was also the sort who checked on these kinds of things, and while I wanted to make room for growth, I didn’t think people would want to watch the movie on my laptop. So I brainstormed a workaround: every single film would be in the public domain. Public domain films are not subject to intellectual property laws and are therefore able to screen in classrooms where we eventually wound up. It was a great fix in theory. The catch was that most films enter the public domain because of their age, and hence a majority of them are also silent. Over time I found a better solution, but for a solid year I was confined to a handful of films that either lacked sound or producers competent enough to renew their copyright. Also over this time the screenings exploded from audiences of ten to fifteen people to more than thirty a night which enabled us to get funding from the school. There were many reasons for this unlikely popularity, but I think the primary one was Buster Keaton. montage of moments that have been feeding commercials and TV reveals for almost a century (here's an excellent article about Keaton's influence on Mad Max: Fury Road). And for this reason his films often feel like they were made yesterday. Just try explaining how his detective comedy Sherlock Jr., for instance, could have possibly been made forty years before the first James Bond film. It’s such a spot-on parody it’s absurd. Keaton didn’t have modern detective stories at his disposal, but he knew what audiences wanted—to be excited, to be affirmed, to see the two lovers get together, to see the underdog win, to feel like they’re one step ahead of the bad guys—and he just made fun of that, ensuring the joke would last forever. Also there’s Keaton’s performance. Unlike his clown contemporaries Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Keaton was so inexpressive he was nicknamed “The Great Stoneface.” He said as a child in vaudeville he noticed that audiences laughed harder when he was thrown across the room and didn’t react at all. I would cringe to make the comparison were it not so apt, but in a way he foreshadows cat videos. Part of what’s amusing is that cats act in revealingly human ways, but their contorted bodies do all the talking while their faces never change for a second. The comparison of Keaton’s body to a cat is pretty accurate as well. The man was one of the best acrobats in the world, and sometimes the appeal in his films is the sheer wonder that his stunts didn’t kill him. In fact, some of them almost did (watch closely on that stunt with the water tank because it actually broke his neck). Many of his best scenes are not replicable today because it would be illegal to try to repeat them. I think one of the things we lost and still very much want in modern movies where everything is possible is the joy of asking, “Wait, how did they do that!?” (or howdy doodat?) Keaton, whose parents were friends with Harry Houdini, frames almost every shot like a magic trick so that the sheer impossibility of his leap from a train or his fall from the top of the building leaves us a little bit in awe. In fact the very things that make Keaton work so well today are probably what prevented him from being popular during his career. He was playing for audiences that hadn’t even learned to look for the things he was trying to distract them with. His films were written and paced for more sophisticated viewers than the ones who still shrunk from trains on screen, and a century of expectations and cynicism later, his efforts have finally paid off. While watching one of his shorts my friend remarked, “Wow, so he just made an Arrested Development-level pun and then did the Inception hallway shot.” I withheld my “I told you so,” as best I could, though I’m not nearly as good as Keaton suppressing a grin. The Boat (about 20 minutes), The Goat (about 20 minutes), and my favorite film of all time, Sherlock Jr. (an insane 45 minutes) The Navigator plays on Saturday, 5/23/2015 at Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery. The film is around an hour long and begins at dusk.
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