Thursday, October 24, 2013

Silents Speak To Us

Yes, they're old, and being old, maybe sometimes out of date. Yes, they're in black and white. And yes, they transcend the medium and present us that rarest gift--pictures of ourselves, past, present, and, if the human race is fortunate, future.

I'm talking about silent movies. I am enamored of them, and particularly those of Buster Keaton, and particularly Steamboat Bill, Jr., which will shall see at the Rosendale Theatre on November 3 at 2 P.M. Keaton is acknowledged now as a genius director, actor, and comedian. His face in repose (and it was almost always in repose) telegraphs volumes. We empathize; we care about whatever character he is bringing us. So much more than a "deadpan comic," Keaton portrays courage, romance, perseverance, and the pursuit of happiness in the most serious way. 

His own courage is legendary. He came from vaudeville, knockabout pratfall comedy, and his physical grace is apparent in every stunt. In his time, movies were made quickly, actors did their own stunts--and they risked their lives for an effect time after time. In Steamboat Bill, Jr., Keaton repeats a sight gag he had created for a short called "One Week." in which he is standing facing the camera and the facade of a house falls on him. It's an impossible effect to describe, and only takes a moment of the movie, but it was so good in "One Week" that it simply had to be preserved and performed a second time, and it was in this movie. The reality is it was one of those times when Keaton could have been killed had his timing been off for a second or if he had been less fleet of foot in hitting his mark.  He actually broke his neck once performing a stunt in a movie, and he had many mishaps throughout his career. He is sheer heaven to watch in a race scene (my own favorite is in Seven Chances, as he is being chased by seven would-be brides and a half-ton boulder, down a steep hill and into a field), or jumping across buildings, or getting himself out of a jam with superhuman agility of body and mind. Though his face remains for the most part almost immobile, he transmits whole stories through those magnificent eyes. You can read his mind.

It is said that the Civil War story The General was his greatest film, and maybe it was, but to me the vitality and invention of his other work defies comparison. I think I've seen most of them, but it's been 40 years since I saw Steamboat Bill, Jr. I'm as excited as a kid to see it again. The Rosendale Sunday Silents series gives us a chance to experience silent cinema with live music, (provided by local favorite Marta Waterman), fresh popcorn, and a room full of friendly neighbors, young and old, waiting to be astonished. 

I hope you'll join us! If you see me, come talk to me about your reaction to this old gem. Beth Wilson, a professor in SUNY New Paltz's film department, will be on hand to answer questions afterward. With enough enthusiastic response, maybe Rosendale's Sunday Silents series will expand and expose more and more people to the special world of classic silent movies.

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