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Sign, in which the villain finishes a banana (a callback from an earlier gag involving a dim-witted cop whose gun has been replaced by a piece of produce), then drops the peel on the sidewalk, waiting for Buster to come around the corner.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:

The band leader has a sneaky feeling for the hat check girl

A piece of trivia for Sunday morning: 2014 is the 100th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin in film.

His first appearance as the Tramp, 1914

Like everything else in the last century, the film industry has progressed by leaps and bounds in 100 years. Crazy to think that back then, cameramen had to constantly crank their cameras and editors literally edited film with scissors and tape. Watching some of these early movies, 1914 really does seem like a whole different world, where cars and electricity were a luxury, and films were accompanied by live music because records weren’t even a regular thing.

Because I couldn’t go to the Chaplin Centennial in SF yesterday, I celebrated instead by watching some of Charlie’s very first movies, which luckily are on YouTube in abundance because they’re all public domain. [Important to note: these were before Chaplin started writing/directing his own films, so by default they are super silly, what with the slapstick and Keystone Kops and all.]

Making A Living – this was Charlie’s first starring role, in which he plays swindler instead of the Tramp. It’s pretty ridiculous, but there are some cool shots of early LA!

Kid Auto Races At Venice – the first movie where Charlie appeared as the Tramp. It almost seems like an extended screen test…no real plot to it (basically just the Tramp being attracted to the camera) but funny nonetheless.

Tango Tangles – I just love this one, because it features adorable little Charlie without the mustache and baggy clothes. Also starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. This was the best quality I could find on YouTube, although the title cards are poorly re-written. My favorite part is definitely the coat-flailing fight scene from 8:15 to the end. I’m almost positive that the term “kick your ass” comes straight from these silent movies, in which there was a lot of literal ass-kicking.

In all, Charlie starred in something like 25 movies in 1914, which is a lot even considering how short they were. Maybe if I keep up my blogging I can use this year to do some more in-depth posts about Charlie’s movies, year by year. It’s cool to see how they went from slapstick to motion picture.

Got to run now…but I’ve got some more posts queued up so hopefully I’ll be back soon!

How to spend a Friday night, according to me

First of all, let me point out that it’s shameful I’ve lived in San Francisco for over a year and hadn’t been to the Castro Theater before tonight. What an amazing venue!! So beautiful and wonderfully old-timey; I can’t wait to go back.

Interior of the Castro

The theater was built in 1922 at the height of the silent movie era, so it was fitting that my first visit was to watch a silent movie, complete with live orchestra (btw, this was part of the SF Silent Film Festival, which I’m SO HAPPY exists).

My college roommate Olivia is also a fan of most things old and vintage (and Alex was interested without me even having to convince him), so I was in good company. The movie was “The Patsy,” a lighthearted comedy (with some realtalk moments) that – if anything – made me realize how awesome of a comedienne Marion Davies was. The highlight was her mimicking famous actresses of the day (Mae Murray, Lillian Gish, and Pola Negri), which must’ve been even more hilarious at the time the film premiered:

The last one was golden. We all lol’d, which brings me to the point I wanted to make… 
I think everyone’s first silent movie experience should be in a proper theater, with a good audience. Not to say silent movies aren’t watchable at home (I watch them at home, alone, more than is probably healthy), but it’s just so much better when there’s a huge screen, live music, and a genuine crowd reaction for support. Dare I say it feels almost as if you’ve been transported back in time, to an era when motion pictures were novel and Hollywood was more glamour than grit. 
To conclude, I know this kind of stuff isn’t everyone’s bag, but those who are interested really should seek out silent film showings in local theaters. It’s an awesome experience and especially cool to think that many of these movies are coming up on 100 years old. Crazy. 

Watch this video!

I watched The Artist last week (incidentally on the same night it won a bunch of Golden Globes), and absolutely loved it. I loved the unique use of sound in the film, and the way it was shot (B&W, intentional “film” blemishes, traditional 1.33:1 ratio), the lovely actors and actresses, and just the whole idea in general. Bravo to all involved!

So anyway, that got me back into old movies, and after watching lots of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire clips, I was reminded of this incredible video of the Nicolas Brothers that my friend Shweta showed me:

Those splits!! Like Shweta said, “I’m surprised they could still have kids after that!”

Can you dig it? I knew that you could.

Last night Alex and I saw Metropolis at the Royal down on Santa Monica. It was pretty fantastic, especially on the big screen. Sometimes I forget how wonderfully artistic – and dramatic – silent movies can be. In case you are unfamiliar, Metropolis is a 1927 sci-fi movie about a futuristic city run by workers (“the hands”) and inhabited by the planners (“the mind”). Eventually the workers begin to be convinced that they are living unjustly, and things start getting crazy.

The movie was just recently restored with 30 minutes of extra footage thought to have been lost, making it just over 2 and a half hours long. It was also one of the most expensive film productions of all time, and had over 37,000 extras. All I can say is: epic.

fool’s gold

My most recent Netflix movie was The Gold Rush (Disc 2, to be exact). It’s the only Charlie Chaplin film I hadn’t seen and I’m not sure why; a lot of people say it’s their favorite.


Awwwwww. I loved it! There are two versions of the film, one is the original 1925 silent movie, and the other is the re-released 1942 version, with Charlie’s own score and narration. Even though his music is a hundred times better than the original, everyone seems to hate the narration. I’ve only watched part of it and I have to agree. Nothing against Charlie’s cute, often-melodramatic English accent, but it’s not a silent movie when there’s talking!! Besides, the “capslock rage” title cards were one of my favorite parts of the original, haha.

Another interesting tidbit: the ending was altered in the 1942 version. Below is the original, where Charlie kisses the leading lady Georgia Hale. Apparently there was a lot of drama between the two of them in real life, and he later omitted the scene out of spite and/or embarrassment.

Anyway, point of this post: if you ever watch The Gold Rush, watch the SILENT version. It’s way better. The end.