What’s Old Is New Again: The Silent Film Awakening by matthew c. hoffman

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Last night the Park Ridge Public Library registered the biggest turnout thus far for Legends of Laughter with 75+ patrons– and we are only three weeks into the film festival. A near capacity crowd for two silent movies! By an odd coincidence– and it is a coincidence– yesterday, March 24, was  Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s 124th birthday. Before the first feature, I played “The Garage” (1920), which featured Keaton and his mentor, Fatty Arbuckle. It was with Arbuckle that Keaton learned to tell stories with a camera.

Like the week before, the response was wonderful for both Sherlock, Jr. (1924) and The Navigator (1924). I can’t stress enough how important it is for people to see these films with an audience. The films do come alive in a way they cannot on your TV. Both films received the  expected reactions at all the right places, such as Buster’s motorcycle chase in Sherlock, Jr, and his underwater scene in The Navigator to repair the ship. What a terrific moment… In my talk between films I made a point to quote Buster’s story of how this sequence was shot in Lake Tahoe. I’d rather not repeat material in the blog that I’ve already discussed in my presentations, so if anyone would like to read of how this sequence was filmed, check out Kevin Brownlow’s version of it in The Parade’s Gone By.

Even though what I’m doing is only a facsimile of the theatrical experience, it still beats home viewing, and it’s light years ahead of watching it on a computer or on some hand-held device. Despite our more modest venue, people are able to rediscover a genius at work. I’m playing films that I love, and I’m explaining why I think they still work. People are catching on, and they are getting excited about what they are seeing. These films may be almost 90 years old, but you wouldn’t know it listening to the laughter when Keaton is fighting off the island cannibals in The Navigator.

This looks to be a scene Buster chopped from Sherlock, Jr.

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Like deep-sea divers, attendees to the series are plunging down into the depths of cinema history. A lot of people are afraid to explore what’s down there, generations old. They’re immediately put off by their perceptions of things missing– as though these elements are somehow needed; they have been trained to accept certain things (sound, color) as absolutely essential. “It’s in black and white? I can’t watch that!” But those who are content staying onboard are not the people who are supporting Legends of Laughter. Seventy-five plus people took the plunge, and they are being rewarded by the film treasures they are finding down there in history. They are seeing the wonderful–sometimes strange– things that make Buster Keaton the unique icon that he is in American history.

One of those things about Keaton that is so special is the authenticity behind the work. That really was Keaton doing his stunts, such as riding on the handlebars of the motorcycle in Sherlock, Jr. In his silent film career, it was as though Keaton had an unwritten contract with his audience, and he never cheated them. Actors today, by contrast, are prima donnas when it comes to physical work. But Keaton was doing this dangerous work himself because he took the art form seriously enough to risk his life– time and again. He respected the intelligence of his audience and knew if he faked something with a stunt double– or a cut in the editing room– his audience would know it. With rare exceptions—such as the pole-vault he couldn’t do in the film College—Buster Keaton followed-through with the stunt, and people knew it was him performing it. As an aside, those who know the Keaton story know that Sherlock Jr. is the film in which he fractured his neck. It came during the scene in which he’s on top of the train and he pulls down on the chain of an overhead water spout. The water knocked him down and he hit the back of his head on the railroad track.  Keaton was serious about being funny.

So I am thrilled that people are coming out and rediscovering these films. One patron commented to me afterward that he thought it was a shame they don’t make films like this anymore. No, they don’t. They can’t. Comic invention has been replaced by vulgar stand-up. But as long as we do programs like this, the traditions of silent cinema will live. One of my recurring themes is the importance of spreading this to the next generation. It was encouraging to see younger faces in attendance, like a 16 year old seeing his first silent movie and responding with even more laughter than that of the parent who brought him.

It’s important that we not only come out and watch the films but that we absorb them into our lives. By that I mean, we actively promote the legacy of Keaton and we raise our own standards as to the films we see from now on. Anyone can buy “The Art of Buster Keaton” on dvd and keep it on their shelf to collect dust while they feel cultured for owning it. But we are not that crowd. The goal is to never forget the high standards we see in these films. It must be shared. Our enthusiasm must be active.

All the other entertainments today– the things that keep some from coming to the series– pale by comparison. Stop with the ephemera of television. Put away the iPads and video games and all the toys, and open up your mind to pure cinema. This is how filmmakers used to make films. Keaton’s were some of the most inventive in screen comedy. Watching them inspires us to expect more of filmmakers today. The films of Buster Keaton still have a lot to tell us about the universe around us– a sometimes chaotic universe. Like his projectionist character in our first film, we can be inspired by what we see on the screen.

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A metaphor for life itself, we are in a dark place in the theatre– our world away from the real world. But there is that radiant light that pours out from the screen. That is the impact of the silent clowns. That ability to uplift and make us laugh and dream bigger… Nowhere would I rather be. Yes, Robert Osborne was in town that same night at the Music Box, and it would’ve been nice to meet Mr. TCM, but aside from that, in all honesty, I’d rather be watching Sherlock, Jr. than Seven Brides For Seven Brothers.

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