Some people don’t like black-and-white films. Others hate subtitles. I feel both kinds of people are missing out and should give such cinematic variations a better chance. I also know, though, there’s no accounting for taste and that everyone doesn’t have to like what I like.
Silent films fall into the same category. I fear some people got it into their heads, way back, that silents are primitive, inferior steps on the way toward our contemporary sophisticated art form. (You know, like Fast and Furious, Part 6.) The same people may have a “progress” orientation to other arts, assuming that modern plays and books are better than older, primitive ones. This is nutty and misguided to me. Just as older, even ancient writers are as “good” as current ones (though not necessarily better), so too can old movies be as artful, interesting, profound, and/or funny as modern ones. Maybe those jerky, black-and-white TV versions of old silents ruined them for many viewers.
Some may feel, then, that Buster Keaton comedies are old-fashioned, herky-jerky slapstick. But, in my opinion, Buster Keaton was a genius. He was an awesome acrobat and stuntman–all those “tricks” are real. He’s really jumping between moving cars and dangling from rooftops and taking dangerous falls; he had the broken bones and long-standing injuries to prove it. He’s also smart and witty.
In a short film I saw last week, for example, someone drops a banana peel on the sidewalk, just as Buster is being pursued by the authorities. The first couple passersby do not slip on it, and you think, “Oh, clever. We have to wait for awhile for someone’s pratfall.” Then more and more people run by, but nobody slips on the banana peel. It’s a throwaway gag, but effective and funny, and sophisticated in its way.
Perhaps my favorite moment in last week’s program was at the beginning of the first short film, The High Sign. Buster swipes a newspaper from somebody’s pocket and sits down to read the want ads. He unfolds the newspaper, once and then twice, contending with the large piece of newsprint outdoors in the breeze–a familiar experience to most of us. Then, absurdly, he unfolds the paper again and again, ending up with a giant sheet of paper bigger than he is, tangling around him in the wind, while he flails at it to escape, ripping it to shreds in the process. It’s just a tiny, brilliant bit of business.
These are mere moments amid manic pursuits, myriad sight gags, and even touching scenes. There’s plenty more in this weekend’s offering of four Keaton shorts at the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque, Thursday at 5:45 pm and Friday at 7:15 pm. The whole program lasts only 83 minutes.