Thursday, July 21, 2011


The first public screening of a film took place in 1895, when the Lumiere brothers hired a basement on the Rue des Capucines in Paris to show La Sortie des Ouvriers de l'Usine Lumiere. That was the same year that Buster Keaton was born in Piqua, Kansas. Three years later, as Keatons parents were performing their Vaudeville routine on stage in a theater in Kansas, the door burst open with a hysterical man screaming "Cyclone! Cyclone! Hit for cover!"
At that moment, Buster was sitting in his nightgown in the dusty middle of unpaved Main Street some four blocks away… Just as his parents were scrambling in the front door, the vast vacuum of the tornado’s eye had sucked him bodily right out of the second-story window. Before Joe and Myra were halfway up the stairs, their son was sailing high over trees and houses, too amazed to be afraid, and then coasting down a slow-relaxing ramp of air to land gently in the very centre of an empty street.
Perhaps this was the very genesis of the genius of Keaton. He grew up on stage with his parents, learning how to take the knocks, be flung about as a prop, all of the physical skills that he fearlessly learned to exploit as he grew as a performer and most important, to never smile, to never blink an eye, the dead pan face. The ultimate face of the most fascinating man on the planet, the mask of the tragic clown.
Keaton, as he matured became one of the most innovative and memorable film artists in history. His work as a brilliantly unique comic actor is unquestioned, but as a director, he is ranked as one of the top 7 in the history of Cinema. In our world of special effects and computer stunts, his artistry is manically heroic to the point of sheer insanity. A gag was worth it if he survived a carefully plotted house falling on him, a real canon on a railroad car with trajectories that plotted out on paper, but in real life? Well the gag worked, he was still alive and never cracked a smile.
Beckett and Keaton in 1964
In the year 1949, Keaton made a short called, The Lovable Cheat about a man who waits endlessly for the return of his partner, who was called interestingly enough, Godot. The connection with Samuel Beckett seems so natural. The tragic stoic clown. The ultimate human prop as a the perfect medium for the existential craft of Beckett. It is almost tragic in itself that it wasn't until a year before Keaton died that Beckett approached him to act in his 1964 short silent experimental movie, Film.
In Film, the camera follows Keaton through the streets from behind so that the audience never sees his face. People in front gasp in horror as they catch sight of him. The character eventually reaches the apartment where he lives and goes inside. He shoos his cat and dog from the room and covers up the goldfish bowl. The camera finally traps Keaton into looking into the lens and two points of view are revealed: Keaton’s look of sheer anguish (at being seen) and the camera’s (transformed into Keaton’s alter ego) look of intent curiosity. Asked what Film is about, Beckett said:
“It’s about a man trying to escape from perception of all kinds — from all perceivers — even divine perceivers… But he can’t escape from self-perception. It is an idea from Bishop Berkeley, the Irish philosopher and idealist, ‘To be is to be perceived’. The man who desires to cease to be must cease to be perceived. If being is being perceived, to cease being is to cease to be perceived.”
The first European screening of Film took place at the 1965 Venice Film Festival. At 75 years old Keaton received a standing ovation and was visibly moved. Fighting back tears he told a correspondent, “This is the first time I’ve been invited to a film festival, but I hope it won’t be the last.” Sadly, it was. Plaudite, amici, comedia finita est.


dog gone said...

I love movies from the silent era; many of them are visually stunning, the music (especially the modern music written for them) can be amazing, and the story telling can be excellent.

I was unaware of the Buster Keaton tornado story; the apparently true story of him living for years without being clearly aware he had a broken neck injury from a stunt gone wrong, an injury which could have killed him, was strange enough.

Wow, Microdot, another interest we have in common.

microdot said...

Frankly, I think that The General by Keaton is one of the greatest films ever made. I watch it at least once a year and always see something I hadn't seen before.
No one ever made or will ever make films like Keatons.
Our Hospitality is so good, the eye for historical detail.
The General is like seeing Matthew Brady tintypes come to life.
I published a gif a few weeks ago of Keaton attempting a leap from one roof top to another. He misses and crashes into the brick wall of the building and falls. He got seriously hurt, but when he saw the footage, he thought it was so great that he wrote an entire comedic sequence around it.

He was the first film director and technician to attempt multiple frame exposures...check out the film, The Playhouse. He was doing things to solve problems he invented that wouldn't be attempted until experimental film makers tried to use the techniques years later.

Heroic in so many ways, but as he said to Jack Warner in the 40's..."You destroyed my genius."