Moments from a mini Buster marathon

Ok, so there’s a one-second part of The Electric House that is one of my favorite Buster Keaton visuals of all time. The scene: Buster’s sitting on the kitchen floor, perplexed about his malfunctioning “smart house”, when the robotic dishwasher starts flinging dinnerware across the room. He notices a plate flying overhead and gets up to see what’s going on. As he stands, a plate hits him in the back of the head and shatters, and when he turns around, another hits him square in the face, shattering perfectly, knocking him off his feet. That split second is the bit I love: the way his head takes the impact and his feet lift off the ground—it’s the kind of move that only seems possible in cartoons, but at the same time it’s so wonderfully graceful and real. It’s the very last shot before a hard cut to the next scene (in which he’s inexplicably running in place on a spinning dining room table), but it’s such a perfect example of Buster’s physical comedy and timing.

The scene, extracted from the full movie on YouTube:

We got to see that ^ moment and about a hundred other exquisite Buster pratfalls at the Castro Theater yesterday as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. They were showing three Buster shorts: The High Sign, The Electric House, and The Goat (the theme was “Buster’s Mechanized Mayhem”). I relish seeing silent movies in the theater with live music, but I especially love watching slapstick, which gives you permission to laugh out loud with 500 other people in a dark theater, the silliness of the gags compounding on top of each other, getting funnier and funnier.

A couple other favorite moments:

The banana peel “gag” in The High Sign, in which the villain finishes a banana (a callback from an earlier gag involving a dim-witted cop whose gun has been replaced by a piece of produce), then drops the peel on the sidewalk, waiting for Buster to come around the corner. If you’re like me, watching this scene, there’s a split second where you wonder if this one of the first ever banana peel slips, a novel concept before it became one of the most familiar gags in slapstick. You prepare yourself to laugh, thinking about the 1921 audiences who may have been seeing it for the first time on screen, or at least seeing Buster trip on a banana peel for the first time, trying to put yourself in their shoes. Then Buster rounds the corner and STEPS DIRECTLY ONTO BANANA PEEL, keeps walking, and flashes the “high sign” while looking stealthily at the camera. I’ve seen this scene before and I was STILL caught off guard. The moment everyone in the theater realized we got fooled and erupted into laughter was when I actually did feel transported back in time, right back in the shoes of the 1921 audience. He gottem back then, and got us again 101 years later.

(Alex’s favorite gag from The High Sign was the never-ending newspaper, which I love for its near-obsolescence. It made me wonder what kinds of gags Buster could make out of smartphones, smart homes, self-driving cars, etc. He’d have a field day!)

I hadn’t seen The Goat before (more like The GOAT, amirite?) so one of my favorite parts was when Buster escaped from the cops on a train. The image of the train pulling up with Buster sitting deadpan on the pilot is iconic, and I never knew where it was from! The whole theater cheered and clapped at that point, which made my heart swell. Buster standing up and lighting his cigarette on the boiler (yes, I most definitely had to google “parts of a locomotive” for this paragraph) was the icing on the cake. Timeless, effortless swagger.

My favorite of the three was definitely The High Sign, but all had excellent moments. The Castro Theater is enormous and magnificent—plenty of room for an accompanying live band (or in this case, a pianist)—and the perfect setting for watching silent films. We sat near an exit door, and halfway through The Goat I could hear the rain pelting down outside, which made the whole affair seem even more unifying for some reason. The movies were an escape back in the early 1920s (a slideshow before the screening told us as much: everyone was looking for an excuse to laugh after a world war and global pandemic), and they were an escape yesterday too: from the rain, work, the pandemic, the world. Sometimes I feel like there aren’t enough words for my Buster love (appropriate, given his medium), so I always just let the gags do the talking.

The Art of the Gag

It’s Buster’s birthday, and this was on the front page of Reddit tonight. I’ve never been so quick to subscribe to a YouTube channel after watching a video (well, except maybe this time).

I love the choice of clips mixed with the audio interviews with Buster (he’s from Kansas, can you tell?). I’m a huge believer that physical comedy, when done right, is a legit form of art. No one proves it better than Buster.

The guy who made this has done a lot of other really interesting videos about filmmaking, with topics ranging from the Coen Brothers’ use of wide lenses to temp music to “Bayhem.” A lot of the stuff I post on here is very specific to my interests, but man, I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t enjoy this guy’s stuff. 10/10 would binge-watch again.

The General: Fury Road

First of all, I’m super late to the game, but Mad Max: Fury Road = BIG OL’ THUMBS UP. Fiery dystopian car chases and an inexplicable flamethrowing guitar? I can’t believe it took me this long to see it.

Actually, the perceived violence/intensity of Mad Max is what kept me from watching it in theaters, because I’m a huge scaredy cat when it comes to that stuff. But while watching it at home (with my parents), I quickly realized that the point of the movie isn’t to overwhelm with gore or violence. Instead, it overwhelms in a totally different way, with ridiculous action and punk rock characters and nonstop visual eye candy.

I mean, honestly. Tell me you don’t want to see this.

On a related note, a while back I saw a very cool video of Buster Keaton’s The General set to the music of Mad Max: Fury Road. (Quick reminder: I <3 Buster Keaton, so needless to say, I geeked out really hard at this video.) It’s actually really interesting to draw comparisons between the two. Mad Max is not unlike a silent film, with its minimal dialogue and reliance on physical spectacle. Both films center around extended chases (one in tricked-out war vehicles and the other in Civil War-era locomotives) and crazy stunts, although George Miller’s production has the luxury of CGI whereas The General (made in 1926) is 100% raw Buster.

Check out the video below; it’s one of the more awesome things I’ve seen this year:

How to be a detective

Sherlock Jr. was the first Buster Keaton film I ever saw (shoutout to Professor Kuntz’s History of American Motion Picture class, 2008!), but it was grossly overshadowed by The Kid, which we watched in the same session. I became a hopeless Chaplin fanatic after that, and it took a while for me to get as obsessed about Buster.

tumblr_mntsy4zgLd1rkn3x5o1_1280But recently I re-watched Sherlock Jr. and fell super in love with it. There are so many wonderfully clever scenes, like Buster becoming part of a movie, demonstrating some sweet billiards moves, and this wacky motorcycle chase scene.

While we’re on the topic, I feel like it’s worth noting the constant struggle to find silent movie clips with acceptable music…there are lots of videos with weird experimental scores that I imagine being uploaded for beginners’ composition classes. Either that or videos with corny organ music and goofy sound effects. I’m not a fan of the music in the motorcycle scene linked above, even though it seems to be one of the most frequently used “soundtracks” for Sherlock Jr. I actually rather liked this version with the Can Can…and not just because the title says “good music,” haha. It makes the scene more epic (if not slightly Looney Toon-esque), especially when he finally realizes there’s no one on the bike. Side note: how did cars work back then? Did you not need a key? Could you just jump into any old car and turn it on?

Anyway, point of this post is, I’m back to loving Buster again. I’m re-reading his autobiography and spent an entire morning crafting a fangirly Pinterest board. There’s still so many of his short films I haven’t seen (“two-reelers,” if you’re in the know) and luckily/dangerously for me, they’re almost all on YouTube.

I’ll leave you with this mind-blowing fan video, chock full of awesome stunts:

Happy Festivus! (one day late)

I was planning to post this on actual Festivus, but I got distracted in the best way possible (getting together with old friends and playing Super Smash Bros.). In any case, it’s less of a holiday post and more of an end-of-the-year-lollapalooza sort of thing. I started out with just the odds & ends but somehow this turned into an actual project that involved me reviewing all my blog posts from this year, because it’s Christmas Festivus break and there is time for these things.

So without further ado, here’s my Favorites of 2014 post, i.e. a rambly recap of stuff I blogged about in 2014, with probably too many links.


Nikki’s Favorites of 2014

Favorite Concert: It was an *excellent* year for shows. I got to see three of my very favorites: Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, and Tom Petty, plus was introduced to Deerhoof, Mac DeMarco, and awesome local band James Rabbit. I saw OK Go for a 7th and 8th time, the Mountain Goats for a second, and The Spencer Owen Timeshare for an umpteenth (I added some photos!). But I think my favorite show, even with the obnoxious drunk couple next to us, was Kishi Bashi. It was so much fun and I’m super stoked he’s coming back to play at the Palace of Fine Arts next month!

Favorite New Album: My favorite for purely personal reasons (plus the fact that “I Won’t Let You Down” is my jam) was Hungry Ghosts. OK Go foreverrrrrrrr.

Favorite Rockstar Tweet: Probably Ringo and his gratuitous use of emojis.

Favorite Book: So like everything on here, I’m subject to extreme bias, and also I didn’t read that many books that actually came out in 2014. I did really love I’ll Give You the Sun (YA), but Wolf In White Van was both my most anticipated and most enjoyed.

Favorite Movie: Boyhood. For a disgustingly sentimental person like me, there’s no other choice.

Favorite Obsession: Queeeeeeen! Music videos in drag, songs about space, Roger Taylor’s face, etc. It was bound to happen. (I wonder if I’ll ever stop being such a fangirl…I sure hope not.)

Oh yeah, and those resolutions? I like to think they were pretty successful. The big accomplishment was redoing this blog and moving it over to WordPress, which I’m still very happy about. And I definitely listened to more records, thanks to spurts of record-hunting with Alex and the addition of biweekly game nights at our apartment (listening to Vangelis while playing Wiz War is super legit). The last resolution was to read more, which I have been (I joined a book club at work!). But I have to admit, I’m only still halfway through that Beatles biography, hahah. For 2015: finish that Beatles biography!!

A few more odds & ends:

  • Joe Cocker: we lost a great voice in rock and blues the other day. :( If watching a waterfront performance with my dad from a kayak in the San Diego Bay counts, Joe Cocker was my first concert. I used to listen to his Beatles covers on record and imitate his spastic way of singing. Mandatory video link: “Con un poco de ayuda de mis amigos” :)
  • I get weirdly into watching chick flicks when I’m at home for the holidays (probably in the same way Alex always watches classic action movies while I’m away). This week I’ve already watched Love Actually and You’ve Got Mail, and next on the list is Hannah and her Sisters…although you probably wouldn’t classify that one as a chick flick.
  • I also tend to rekindle my silent movie love when I have lots of spare time alone. This year, it’s Buster all the way. I’ve been watching YouTube videos like a fiend. I don’t think I’ve ever fully expressed how much of a dreamboat I think Buster Keaton is, so I will leave you with this, a montage of The Great Stone Face set to “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer:

autobiography reviews

…Just what you wanted to see, I’m sure. Haha. I’ve definitely gotten back into reading for fun lately (by “lately” I mean the last year or so, and by “fun” I mean instead of schoolwork), but when I look at the books I’ve read since then I realize they were almost all autobiographies. What can I say – I love reading about people’s lives, haha. It’s like I said in some earlier post, regular researchy biographies bore me, but I am fascinated by almost any autobiography. I love the idea of someone telling you their own story. Without ever having met them, it’s the closest you can get to knowing the true person, through their memories and reflections.

Some of the autobiographies I read were rather silly and the result of my obsessions at the time (for example, I not only read Charlie Chaplin’s autobio but also those of his son and second wife, haha). I’ll spare you all the details and instead just pick a few to mention. So if you’re ever interested in reading about any of these people, here are some short reviews with little to no credibility:

Wonderful Tonight – Pattie Boyd. Haven’t you always wanted to hear about the infamous George-Eric-Pattie love triangle? …Ok if not, maybe you won’t want to read this book, haha. Nevertheless, it’s a great account of the swinging 60s and two of the greatest guitarists to ever live. Separate entry about this book here.

I’m A Believer: My Life of Monkees, Music, & Madness – Micky Dolenz. This wasn’t so much an autobiography as a collection of memoirs and hilarious anecdotes (my favorite being when Mike punches the wall). There were some great stories about growing up in show biz and partying in the 60s. Short and simple, yet very entertaining.

John – Cynthia Lennon. As the title suggests, this is Cynthia’s account of her life with John Lennon. Not gonna lie, it’s a pretty depressing read. You can tell they loved each other in the beginning, but most of the book is just about how John was a bad father and how Cynthia obviously doesn’t like Yoko. It’ll make you dislike all three of them, haha.

My Autobiography – Charles Chaplin. This was a pretty dang long book, but I couldn’t put it down. It takes you from the streets of London to the high life in Hollywood to retirement in Switzerland and everywhere in between. It’s funny and almost unnatural that Charlie speaks so verbosely when you’re used to seeing his silent tramp character. Lots of cool stories about dinners with Einstein and Rachmaninoff, parties at the Hearst place, meeting Ghandi, etc. Really interesting!

My Wonderful World of Slapstick – Buster Keaton. Compared to Charlie Chaplin’s book, this one was much more colloquial and down-to-earth, which was nice. It was just as if Buster was your (supercool) grandpa telling you his story. It was very insightful, giving both honest and entertaining accounts of early Hollywood. It made me realize how much I love Buster Keaton as a person; he was so humble and never took his fame for granted.

Sunshine and Shadow – Mary Pickford. This was a nice read, but nothing too memorable. My favorite parts were when she talked about Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin and how they would “run around Pickfair like 10-year-olds”. Mary gives the impression of being kind of snooty, but also very aware of Hollywood life and the whole business side of it, which I definitely respect her for.

Harpo Speaks! – Harpo Marx. Autobiographies are a really good indication of one’s personality, and this book taught me that Harpo Marx was one of the sweetest, kindest, and funniest men to ever live. I didn’t know anything about him prior to reading this, but became a faithful fan thereafter. I even wrote a long entry about it here. Highly highly recommended!

On the to-read list: Bob Hope, Marion Davies, Lucille Ball (for a second time), and Bill Clinton. Oh yes.

This summer I’ve been reading books about New York (A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Bonfire of the Vanities, Forever) to get more excited about my NY trip. It’s working! More reviews to come soon someday…

This is me not studying

You know that Top 5 ___ thing on Facebook? I was getting so annoyed by people posting those and having them show up on my news feed, but then I did one and found myself addicted to them. Some of the ones I did include Top 5 Album Covers, Top 5 Cereal Brands, and Top 5 Stadiums/Arenas, but this one’s the most picture worthy:

Top 5 Celebrity Crushes

George Harrison

Gregory Peck

Buster Keaton

Gene Kelly

Charles “Buddy” Rogers

I know, all five of my celebrity crushes are dead. :( There’s just no one comparable these days!

I also really wanted to include:

Charlie Chaplin


Mike Nesmith

but I couldn’t find their pictures when I searched. Apparently no one on Facebook agrees with me!! :P

Hollywood in the 1910s and 20s

Excerpts from Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton’s autobiographies:

Thomas Ince gave barbeques and dances at his studio, which was in the wilds of northern Santa Monica, facing the Pacific Ocean. What wondrous nights – youth and beauty dancing to plaintive music on an open-air stage, with the soft sound of waves pounding on the nearby shore.
– Charlie Chaplin

I sometimes wonder if the world will ever seem as carefree and exciting a place as it did to us in Hollywood during 1919 and the early twenties. We were all young, the air in southern California was like wine. Our business was also young and growing like nothing ever seen before.
– Buster Keaton

How amazing to have lived then, when everything was changing so quickly. Records and movies and were still novelties; it seems like everything they did was totally embraced by eager audiences. The concept of the “celebrity” had never existed before that, and suddenly Hollywood was the world’s quintessence of glamour and movie stars. I wish I could’ve seen LA before it became the urban, smoggy metropolis it is today.

Also, I am amazed at how involved these guys were in making their movies. They basically did it all; wrote the story, picked the cast and location, directed the picture, and starred in it. From Buster’s autobiography:

In those free-and-easy days we all had fun making comedies….We directed our own pictures, making up our own gags as we went along, saw the rushes, supervised the cutting, went to the sneak previews…In the silent days we could try anything at all, and did. We were not supervised by business executives who lacked a sense of humor. We were the ones who decided what should go into a script to make the audience laugh. All our bosses asked of us was that our pictures make fortunes, and our pictures did.

And a video of Charlie describing his studio as it was in the late 1910s:

Can you tell I’m fascinated by this stuff? Haha. Random note: I pass the old Chaplin Studio every time I go to the train station! Yay!