Against the Current: Some Final Thoughts by matthew c. hoffman

“It struck me that I was witnessing a dead art, a wholly defunct genre that would never be practiced again. And yet, for all the changes that had occurred since then, their work was as fresh and invigorating as it had been when it was first shown. That was because they had understood the language they were speaking. They had invented a syntax of the eye, a grammar of pure kinesis, and except for the costumes and the cars and the quaint furniture in the background, none of it could possibly grow old. It was thought translated into action, human will expressing itself through the human body, and therefore it was for all time. Most silent comedies hardly even bothered to tell stories. They were like poems, like the renderings of dreams, like some intricate choreography of the spirit.” ~ Paul Auster, The Book of Illusions

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“What kinds of parts do you play?”

“Uh, heroes.”

~Harold Lloyd, Movie Crazy

The screen has gone up. The lights have gone out. Our banner has fallen to the floor. The Legends series is now over. But for three months, residents of Park Ridge got their heroes. They came in the comic personas of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. Thirteen of the fourteen films we played were silent, and yet, we averaged 75 patrons. Buster Keaton was our attendance winner at the library:

Keaton: 323

Lloyd: 314

Chaplin: 273

In addition, 318 people attended our screening of Harold Lloyd’s Speedy in 35mm at the historic Pickwick Theatre on April 10, 2011. Of the three comic actors, Lloyd received the most positive response. He was a big surprise to many people who had never even heard of him before.

The most rewarding aspect of this series for me was not so much the numbers as the demographics. Several high school and college students attended, seeing their first silent movies. Guys even brought their dates to Speedy. There were younger kids who came with their grandparents, but most importantly, everyone seemed to enjoy and appreciate the program. It was wonderful to see so many age groups come out and make the sacrifice of leaving their homes. Even if they had seen the films before, they still came out and supported us.

Too many people are trained by television and have grown accustomed to its limited format. But the films I’ve shown were never intended to be transmitted through a 12-inch screen. We know that these films were designed to be seen on a large screen. Chaplin’s sensibilities especially were always theatrical, so watching one of his films on a computer– much less an iPad– is a disservice to the film as well as to the person watching it. Though our meeting room is not an actual theatre– and the films are digitally projected– it is still a facsimile of the theatrical experience.

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Just as important as the venue is the need to see these comedies with a large audience. There was consistent laughter and applause during the course of our event. The full impact of a scene or comic moment can only be judged by the collective response. Some of the films played even better than I expected, such as Movie Crazy, and this experience would not have been possible if people had been watching the films alone at home. They would’ve only shortchanged themselves on what the film offers. Unlike my previous programs, I wanted to be in that meeting room every moment to see what they were laughing at. I was charting the responses on my own “Lafograph.”

In his book Keaton, author Rudi Blesh writes about the restoration of Buster’s films shortly before his death, “It is a timely restoration, with the public tiring of stand-up, one-line comedy and sick comedians, and turning back eagerly to the visual gag and the timeless silent art of the mime.” That was written in 1965, and yet those words are just as true today when our cineplexes are filled with stand-up comics. There’s little visual humor or physical comedy. It’s all about jokes and visual unpleasantry and excess. It’s low comedy, and it’s weak.

There’s no question that the most discriminating audiences in Park Ridge are the ones who supported our Classic Film Series. They deserve better than mainstream fare and pop culture ephemera. They don’t want their intelligence insulted. They don’t want mean-spiritedness in their comedy. So they came to the first floor meeting room every Thursday night; they were not in the lobby checking out Jackass 3, Dinner With Schmucks, The Dilemma, or Meet the Fockers. All that is fast food entertainment designed to be consumed on demand and then forgotten just as quickly. The RedBox outside your Walgreens is no different than a snack vending machine. (Working in Circulation at the library, I’m paid to be an entertainment facilitator. I just have to bite my tongue when patrons ask me if “hot” dvds like Burlesque and No Strings Attached are good movies.) But as the program host of the film series, I have a voice. Why be outspoken at all? Answer: Too many parents telling their kids, “Oh, you wouldn’t like that; it’s in black and white.” Too many teenagers checking out Gossip Girl with no knowledge of anything made before 2000.

Commercial films today are geared to viewers with short attention spans. Films are loud with quick edits.  Kids are being weaned on Transformers and not Buster Keaton. As a result of this dumbing-down, a society has lost its viewing patience. Most people can’t sit and make the effort to get involved in a black and white silent movie or allow a gag sequence in it to develop. Everything has to be immediate and now. Attention is instead directed towards graphic novels and videogames and comic book movies in 3-D. This is how a generation expresses itself, so who has time to read intertitles in silent movies?

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We do. The Classic Film (Lecture) Series of Park Ridge veers off the beaten track. “The Chaplin Room” was our refuge. We’re not part of that crowd out there. But everyone is invited to join our crowd. And we won’t even make you give us the secret “high sign” to get in. Leave your perceptions of old movies at the door and you will be surprised by the discovery. That’s what our programs are about: discovery. We may even turn you off that other stuff. Our film programs are a community service and they are needed in Park Ridge. I want to see it continue to grow, and we need your help to do that.

Of the three programs I have done for the Park Ridge Public Library, Legends of Laughter has been my favorite. These films are absolutely amazing. Not all “classic” films deserve that status– so many kids roll their eyes at the mention of the word and imagine some old black and white film their grandparents liked. But these films speak to their generation as well.  Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton all had universal themes– themes we can relate to. Chaplin’s loneliness or Lloyd’s optimism or Keaton’s stoicism are all qualities that resonate today. And they each offered a style of acting or a method of filmmaking that is refreshing. Nothing compares to it. It is true that silent film itself is a dead art, a lost world from another time. But it is our cinema heritage, and it must be passed down– a heritage of physical comedy and the lost art of the gag.

Chaplin’s art of pantomime could fascinate an audience even with the absence of props. No one could build a whole scene out of the smallest of actions better than Chaplin. Buster Keaton’s innovative use of a camera challenged the medium and the audience. He did his own stunts without relying on trickery. Today they can do anything in a computer, but see what he could visualize without one. Harold Lloyd’s flawless comedies are filled with a warm beauty that uplifts. His acting gets overlooked, but few actors could convey thinking as well as he could. He was someone just like us, and his normalcy helped him create what could very well be the first romantic comedies. The legends make us laugh, but they make us feel good about life. When life beats us down, there are characters like the Little Tramp who get up, dust themselves off and keep on going down the road. No matter how beaten down we might feel inside on some days, these films inspire us in ways few others can. Only the most hardened of cynics can resist the joy the great clowns bring us.

People were surprised by how well-constructed these films are, so shouldn’t we expose younger people to their magic silence? Few people have seen films like The Kid Brother or Steamboat Bill, Jr., and that’s a shame because it’s classic Americana. Why can’t we make these films available to kids instead of the newest animated feature no parent really wants to sit through? There are no Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd films available in our Children’s Department. As for the adult section, we own a copy of Yogi Bear (!) but there is not one Harold Lloyd film available in the collection (as of this writing).

Oliver Hardy summed it up well in a 1950 interview when he was asked if there was still interest in the old-time slapstick comedy: “I think that there’s more interest but there’s so little of it done. I think that people want to laugh now but they don’t have the things to laugh at.”

For three months, we gave people things to laugh at… And now it’s time to say goodnight.

Fade-out.

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