"Tragedy is a close-up; comedy, a long shot." - Buster Keaton
This evening a friend of mine and I attended the Balboa Theatre 81st Birthday Bash. During this yearly event they feature special films and performances. This year it was a short and a film by Buster Keaton, a magician who performed three tricks, a woman who sang 20s and 30s songs and a slide show lecture by a film scholar who talked about how Keaton did some of the scenes in the film we saw.
I've heard of Buster Keaton since I was a child, but I had never seen any of his films. When I was in junior high school I saw a documentary about great comedians (with Walter Matthau narrating) and saw a couple of famous scenes Keaton had filmed, but wasn't able to grasp the man's importance at the time.
This evening was the first time I've ever seen a Keaton film. The man was a genius.
We first watched the "The Playhouse" a silent film short made in 1921 and is notable for being a technical tour de force which features Keaton playing most of the roles in the film (including the women in the first half of the film) at the same time through multiple exposures. Also keep in mind that film projectors weren't electric at the time, they were manually turned by a hand crank. In order to set up these multiple exposure scenes, the cameraman had to make sure he was turning the crank at the same speed and having the camera in the right place to make the scenes work.
Oh yeah and the short is hilarious.
After more music and an intermission, we watched "Sherlock Jr."
What can I say about this film to even try to do it justice? First, the stats: a silent film made in 1924, Buster did all of his own stunts in addition to directing duties and it was all filmed in and around Los Angeles.
How good is this film? On a scale from one star to five with five stars being the absolute best, this film gets 75 stars. No lie. This is probably the funniest, one of the most incredible films I have ever seen. I can't remember the last time I laughed this hard. I can't remember screaming with laughter in a movie theater. I can't remember the last time I had to come home from the movie theater and take some hot tea and honey so I can soothe the sore throat I have from laughing so hard.
Buster's stunts are simply astounding. Conceptualizing, rehearsing and setting up these stunts must have taken him forever. Through it all he maintains that famous deadpan look, the Great Stone Face.
But don't read anymore of this post. Get onto Netflix or Blockbuster or your great local DVD rental store right now and get some of Buster's movies: "Sherlock Jr." for sure, but also "Steamboat Bill, Jr." and "The General." I have not seen the latter two, but people assure me that they are amazing. In fact, if you have seen them, please drop me a line in the comments section and let me know what you thought. Try to get restored/remastered versions with a soundtrack. It will add greatly to your viewing experience
Lastly, please watch these films with your kids if you have them. Kids love Keaton and for good reason. It's all brilliant, amazing, good clean fun. Enjoy.