Breaking the silence

Hi, it’s been a while! I hadn’t missed more than a single month since I started this blog, and here I am casually waltzing in after two full months of no posts with little to no explanation. Well, I did wind up renewing my domain, but I transferred my website to a different host as my hosting rates were going up and I like to keep it professional around here while paying as little as possible. Unfortunately, doing the behind-the-scenes legwork of backing things up and transferring bundles of code ended up having a few hiccups, and didn’t go as smoothly as I was hoping. I couldn’t quite make it work to get everything transferred with the photos intact and re-uploaded/hosted at the new domain, so it kind of made me feel like I shouldn’t post anything new until I sorted that out, in case I had to clear it all out and re-import the site.

Long story short, I haven’t had the spare time or motivation to redo anything from the ground up, so I decided I will just manually re-upload all the media that goes with each post since I really don’t have that many to contend with, and might as well take the chance to start fresh since I’ll be at this new host for a while. So here I am, breaking the silence with a spontaneous post, once again ignoring all the half-finished ones in my drafts. I’ve been keeping busy the last few months so while I hope to get back to posting more on the blog, and restore the pictures that go with the old posts, for the moment I’ve been more active on Instagram, but that’s generally the case regardless.

What really made me want to pop in with a post today, oddly enough, is that today would be silent comedy film legend Buster Keaton’s 124th birthday. I’ve been having a blast this semester taking a History of Motion Pictures class to fulfill one of my last gen ed requirements, and little did I know within the first week of the semester, while still covering the silent era, I would see a film that would change my life (at least in some small way) when we viewed “Sherlock Jr.” (1924) during our second day of class.

I love movies and history and I’m generally at least aware of most of the legendary notable films and stars, even dating back to the early years of motion pictures, so it surprised me that I had never really seen anything of Buster Keaton, though I was vaguely familiar with his name and have seen at least bits and pieces from his contemporaries Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. I had no real expectations other than to sit back and enjoy watching films for credit, I’m always up for a good movie and I trusted my reputable film-critic professor to have some interesting choices to show us throughout the semester. But as the events of this movie unfolded, I was completely blown away for the first time in a long time, and probably for the first time truly by a silent-era film, as all the previous ones I’d seen had been mostly just amusing, or inventive within their contexts in relatively primitive ways.

But Keaton, it was soon apparent to me, wasn’t just inventive for his time. He needs no qualifiers. His originality was immediately recognizable and immediately impressive, in almost every way, from the plot, to the visual concepts that played out perfectly, and the seemingly effortless and highly daring stunts that could probably kill a less skilled executor. If there’s one thing about early movies, it’s that you can tell pretty easily when something is faked, so I could tell pretty quickly that Keaton’s no fake. I was never really a big fan of slapstick, but the amazingly clever and perfectly timed sight gags in Sherlock Jr. showed me that there is definite ingenuity behind the best physical comedy that goes way beyond falling down and pie-throwing, though Keaton can do both of those things with true artistry as well. I grew up in the performing arts in a community where I’ve known some talented people with rare skills of physicality and bodily control that wouldn’t be out of place in a circus, so I’m certainly able to recognize extraordinary physical skill when I see it. Keaton started so young with his acrobatic falls and stunts that it was second-nature to him, and he knew his capabilities so well that when watching him you can’t help but trust him to make it out of every absurd situation he sets up, with panache.

If you’ll indulge me, I must just take this opportunity (on my own blog, I know, I can say whatever I like) to rave about this one-in-a-million actor who was born almost exactly 100 years before me and yet seems to have a truly timeless quality about him, like he was dropped into history at the beginning of the 20th century to invent all the tropes we now take for granted in modern film, and to do them all better than anyone who would follow. Because at the core of it, Keaton represents a lot more than just an actor, director, comedian, or stuntman. He represents true mastery of a craft, wring-it-dry development and usage of talents, and downright fearlessness, or if not that, then real confidence in his abilities from years of experience. To put him in a very oversimplified nutshell, Keaton figured out what he was good at as a toddler and honed that craft, following it wherever it took him, for his whole life. He basically worked non-stop from age 3 (joining his parents’ vaudeville act) until almost the day he died at age 70, and the whole time he was doing what he loved. If that’s not a perfect example of a life lived to the fullest, I don’t know what is.

I’ve almost finished reading Keaton’s autobiography, found archived in its entirety online along with many of his films, which makes for easy gratification when someone like me discovers him and immediately wants to absorb everything I can about his life and work (I’m not alone, as there seem to be plenty of Keaton fans young and old even, or especially, in this internet age). One thing that I love as I read his innumerable stories from his 60+ years in the business of entertainment (seriously, this guy has hilarious and amazing stories involving seemingly every major early Hollywood figure, in addition to other performers like Harry Houdini and Anna Pavlova, I guess it was a pretty small world at the time) is that he never dwells too much, never over-analyzes, never glosses over the harder times he lived through, just acknowledges all of it with gratitude, not taking anything too personally. He seems to have had both an outlook of wonder at the experiences he was able to live, tempered with an easy acceptance of it all, as if it went exactly as it should’ve without him needing to think of anything but to keep doing the only thing he knew, finding ways to make people laugh.

In addition, his playful conversational tone reads like a lost Salinger novella, which is just delightful to me as you know I’m a big fan of Salinger, especially his Glass family characters. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Buster Keaton, his siblings Jingles and Louise and his vaudevillian parents Joe and Myra weren’t somehow partial inspiration for the Glass family’s ex-vaudevillians Les and Bessie and their children of various talents and interesting nicknames (Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, Walt and Waker, Zooey and Franny). It’s fun just to imagine a connection there between two things I admire, but Salinger and Keaton certainly at least share a proven distaste for anything “phony.”

So there you go, give me a long couple weeks of midterm assignments, tests, and presentations, and two months off from writing on my blog, and I come back with a fresh obsession to eulogize with the enthusiasm of an energetic puppy. I try not to get overly caught up in the whole “finding purpose” thing because I know my purpose, anyone’s purpose, is just to simply live my dang life the best I can, but it sure is inspiring to find examples of people who just seem to have been made for something in particular, and to see how that level of talent and mastery reaches through generations. At any rate, it helped to get some thoughts out of my head, business as usual, and if you ask me, Buster Keaton isn’t just any old actor to idolize, he’s a first-rate example of a true innovator with a tireless work ethic and no affectations, and I’m very happy that he was born 124 years ago today so that he could grow up just in time to get into the then-still-new medium of motion pictures and make delightful history without pretense, for people like me to find joy in his creations a century later.

I’ll end with links to two of Buster Keaton’s shorts that are some of my favorites of the ones I’ve seen so far (which is a lot of them). This version just recently posted was colorized using artificial intelligence which turned out pretty cool and feels almost modern compared to watching in black and white: The Goat (1921) (the surreal elevator gags at the end are great)

And one I just watched the other day that my parents enjoyed immensely as well, seasonally appropriate for October: The Haunted House (also 1921) (this one’s a little heavier on the gags, Keaton’s two-reeler short films all seem to have more to see on each viewing as you could blink and miss a clever joke the first time)

I hope maybe I can convert another few 21st century Buster Keaton fans, or at least give you something fun to watch if you have 20 minutes to kill. Happy Birthday to a screen legend who deserves the recognition. Ironically, it is also apparently “world smile day,” and Mr. Keaton was well-known as the Great Stone Face who never smiled in his films. 🙂

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