My year of movies

2020 was a year where many of us sought out small comforts to deal with the weight of the world’s issues, even if our own lives were not as terribly affected as others. If there’s one comfort I returned to time and time again the past year, it was watching movies.

I’ve always been a movie person. I used to love going to the video rental store up the street and using my report card A’s to get free rentals in the summer during middle and high school. I would pick an actor/actress I was into and rent only their movies for a week, and my friends and I were always jumping to see the latest comedies or blockbusters in the theatre. I’ve saved all my ticket stubs starting from age 3. When I was a freshman in college and my dorm was right down the street from the local theatre, I could walk there at 9pm to see a random indie movie just for fun, or after a tough week I’d look forward to immersing myself in a new release to take my mind off my stresses. After I moved back home, I loved catching old classics or obscure films on Turner Classic Movies on a Friday or Saturday night. But the last few years I had fallen away from movie watching. I shifted into less fiction overall, more self-improvement and shorter-form content, mostly podcasts and youtube videos, or the occasional good netflix series, and that was what I needed for a time.

My love of movies was rekindled with a new intensity when I took a History of Motion Pictures class in fall 2019, as I talked about in a previous post. My interest was so reinvigorated that I followed that up with a Foreign Film class this past spring. After the pandemic hit, and once my spring classes wrapped up, I was not ready to slow down my film viewing any time soon. I had also joined a social media platform for cinephiles, Letterboxd, and started rating and reviewing films as well as connecting some family members to the site so we could share our movie viewing activity. It became an addiction, really, but Letterboxd has given me a wonderful outlet amidst everything that has happened this past year. It’s pure hobby, and I’ve never before had a place like it to process and share thoughts after each viewing as well as being able to read other casual viewers’ current opinions of practically any movie ever made that hasn’t been lost to time. It also makes it so easy to discover countless movies you may not otherwise casually hear of, so a neverending watchlist is both a pro and a con. Movies have been on my mind in a big way this year, and I absolutely love to geek out over film history and what makes movies great. (I’m not the only one: according to the NY Times, Letterboxd has seen a big surge of new users and average user activity in the last year.)

In 2020, I watched a grand total of 196 films (undoubtedly the most by far that I’ve ever seen in one year, even though that includes a dozen or so short films), broken down into about 152 first-time watches plus around 44 rewatches of films I’ve seen before. Naturally, after all that I got to reflecting on what watching movies does for me. For sure, the biggest thing is empathy. Reading, watching movies, shows, etc., anything that puts you in a character’s shoes or shows you an experience you may or may not be able to relate to at all, helps with empathy. I’ve never lacked empathy, in fact I often feel like I’ve been blessed or cursed with too much of it, so maybe watching movies helps me to exercise it, to both strengthen it and burn off the excess a bit. This year brought an overwhelming amount of issues to weigh on the mind, and whether or not the film I’m watching has anything to do with a specific present or past issue of interest, I find that watching various stories play out onscreen can be a safe space to subconsciously process feelings, with a little separation from direct personal confrontation. Despite my natural sensitivity, there are still new things that I have never challenged myself on before, new perspectives I have been able to uncover or sit with, and I think I’m an overall better person for it. Sometimes movies can bring realizations to the surface, or surprise you with something that you didn’t expect would trigger a strong emotional response.

So yeah, empathy and letting the emotions flow is a pretty expected answer, but I think it encompasses why people even bother to make movies at all. To share stories, to provide entertainment, escapism, to elicit reactions and contemplation, to give voices and spread messages and perspectives, to bring ideas and worlds to life. Movies are one of the newest art forms, because the technology needed to create motion pictures has only been around for under 200 years. And there are so many creative ways to use the medium, that combine almost every other art form: writing, acting, music, graphic design, costume design, illustration or animation, set design, photography/cinematography, editing, there’s so much that can go into a film. There are so many options out there, movies for any taste, any mood, any language and culture. Plus, if you’re an avid crossword puzzle or Jeopardy! fan like I am (RIP Alex Trebek 🙁 ), knowing about movies helps as there are often movie-related questions or categories. 😉

A possibly unexpected benefit of the way I have approached movie-viewing this year is that I feel like it has helped me to be more present in my life. It sounds a bit backwards, because while movies do require your full attention for a couple hours, they of course transport you out of the present, especially for me since I tend to watch mostly classic movies (1920s to 1960s) which are even further removed from anything current. But what I mean also ties back into the empathy thing, in that I tend to readily connect the movie I’m watching to my present life, whether identifying a character’s experiences with my own, or even finding similarities or references to other movies I’ve watched recently. I find I often accidentally or semi-purposely watch multiple movies in a row that share themes, or a same actor/director, etc. I love the closure of watching a movie compared to watching an ongoing tv series or reading a book, and writing little reviews/journal entries on Letterboxd helps me to process what I’ve seen right away, so that even though I’m watching movies frequently, I am fully sitting with and absorbing each one before moving along to the next.

Letterboxd has sort of taken over my social media habits, and I spend more time on it lately than Instagram or Facebook, which has honestly felt more fulfilling, being able to connect to other people over a shared passion rather than mindless scrolling through stressful and pointless news and opinions. But also, I have noticed that for the first time in years, I have not been as wistful for the past or future as I have tended to be. I’m still a nostalgic person, I’m still a daydreamer, but in the past that wistfulness has taken me out of enjoying the present, so it’s interesting that in a pretty terrible year, I feel like I’m somehow more content than ever to take each day as it comes. Perhaps in effect, watching movies has become my way of concretely participating in a little dose of nostalgia or daydreams while being able to snap out of it after its 1.5 or 2 or 3 hour runtime, and call it a hobby/enjoy an artistic creation in the process. Or maybe I’m delusional. But regardless, movies have helped me through this year, and in a way, watching people make it through all kinds of situations onscreen gives me hope and motivation to make it through whatever life throws at me as well.

Now for a fun my-2020-in-movies review:

Favorite new (to me) movie of the year? The Apartment (1960), 5/5 stars for me! An instant favorite (in my top 4) and I even watched it 2.5 times this year (I didn’t fit in a full rewatch for new year’s, but I couldn’t resist viewing a few of my favorite scenes, including its perfect new year’s eve conclusion, to mark the occasion).

Honorable mentions? Here’s a list of my top 50 favorites of the movies that I saw for the first time this year. Wow, don’t know if I can ever top this many great films in one year. There were still quite a few more enjoyable classics in the 152 new films I watched, but I cut it off at top 50 for brevity’s sake.

Lowest rated movie of the year? Love on a Leash (2011), 1/2 star out of 5 from me. This movie is one of those you have to see to believe (it’s on youtube if you’re really curious). I’m not a harsh critic, but it’s hilariously bad…it’s at least a good time being incredulous about how it came to fruition.

My most-liked Letterboxd review? Letterboxd likes aren’t much to judge by, but it still feels pretty good when a few people acknowledge what you wrote. My most-liked review was for The Lady Vanishes at 6 likes, it’s nothing major but I had a lot of fun with that movie and it evidently came across in my review.

My personal favorite of my reviews? Hard to say, since I’ve written quite a few, and I try not to overthink them. These blog posts go through a lot of revisions, but with my “reviews” (which are meant to be casual on Letterboxd, they’re more “diary entries”) I try to string a few thoughts together the best I can, post it and move on, in order to keep it fun and spontaneous and not a chore. That said, my reviews for some old favorites, like Rear Window, Amélie, Spirited Away, and White Christmas (strangely two of those are from 1954 and two from 2001, just noticed that) are longer and more contemplative/personal than most of my reviews, so those are probably the ones I like the best.

Click here to see my full year in review. I upgraded to Letterboxd Pro with their black friday sale and I’m so glad I did, I love all the stats! I may or may not ever have a movie-watching year this prolific again, who knows.

Bonus: my hottest movie take?: The Wizard of Oz is practically a horror movie. I know it’s supposedly one of the all time great movies but it never impressed me and I certainly don’t find it heartwarming…plus if you read some of the trivia, it sounds like it was not fun behind-the-scenes, with multiple actors suffering from injuries and discomfort related to their makeup and costumes. Lol, sorry if you’re a Wizard of Oz fan, but it’s just one of those classics I’ve always had mixed feelings about.

Alright, I’m sure you’re like “cool it with the links already, not gonna click them all” but my organizing/archiving-obsessed self is loving having a well-designed social media site specifically for movies. I especially love finding others who appreciate classic film (1920s-1960s), and I think more people should try to venture back a few extra decades in their movie-watching…in fact, let me know if you need some convincing and think I may try to write a post sometime about what I love about watching older movies. Please feel free to geek out to me about your favorite movies of any decade or genre (or share film-related hot takes) any time. 🙂

Pairing movies with folklore songs

This is absolutely nothing like the usual post I write, but ever since Taylor Swift released her surprise album folklore I have been so inspired by it, aesthetically, lyrically, and sonically. It’s one of those rare albums that makes you want to create more art inspired by it, and I love that! The perfect quarantine album release.

See, I even made a folklore-inspired wallpaper pattern

I had already made a playlist pairing each folklore song with another song it reminds me of, and as I’ve listened to the album in the car on repeat, the songs started to remind me of movies as well. So I thought it would be fun to do a movie recommendation list (since I’ve been on a major movie-watching kick this year) of films that I have really enjoyed that match the tone or story themes of each song. Like my own buzzfeed-esque listicle. Before we start, here’s the corresponding movie recommendation list and honorable mentions list on IMDb so you can easily check out any movie that piques your interest while you read, and believe me, this was all a labor of love and a couple months in the making.

Plus, I’m very excited to have my cousin Theresa as a guest writer on this article! There were a couple songs I was stuck on that I knew she’d have some great movie picks for, so I asked her if she would like to help me out and she definitely delivered. Thanks Tree! Her picks are noted at the beginning of their descriptions, and be sure to also check her out at healthtreeliving. Now, without further ado…

If you like the 1, try watching La La Land

La La Land (2016) is the perfect film to go with leading track “the 1,” as they share the theme of passionate relationships fated to burn bright for a time, then come to an inevitable end. The classic “one that got away” that will be looked back on fondly despite knowing it wasn’t meant to be. (Theresa and I both love this movie, so consider it doubly recommended if you still haven’t seen it!)

Lyric: In my defense, I have none / For digging up the grave another time / But it would’ve been fun / If you would’ve been the one

Movie Quote:I’m always gonna love you.” “I’m always gonna love you, too.

Honorable Mention: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

If you like cardigan, try watching Splendor in the Grass

I watched Splendor in the Grass (1961) the day after folklore was released, and I couldn’t help but think this movie fit some of the vibes of the album pretty well. The poem that the movie’s title comes from is by William Wordsworth, whom Taylor happens to reference with a play on words in the lyrics of “the lakes” so maybe I’m not far off with this classic recommendation. It’s a film about teenage first love in a culture of repressed emotions that drives the protagonists to heartbreak and mental breakdown.

Lyric: A friend to all is a friend to none / Chase two girls, lose the one / When you are young, they assume you know nothing

Movie Quote: “I saw the way you were looking at her.”

If you like the last great american dynasty, try watching It Happened One Night

Taylor’s storytelling in her lyrics is on point in this album especially. Several of these songs could practically be adapted into movies of their own, especially this one, which is heavily based on the true story of Rebekah Harkness, the previous owner of Taylor’s Holiday House in RI. But after recently rewatching It Happened One Night (1934), I thought it could make a good pairing for this song. Having just eloped with a fortune-hunting aviator, twenty-something heiress Ellie Andrews runs away from her controlling father, intent on traveling to New York to reunite with her new husband. After missing the bus and losing her luggage, however, she finds herself stuck with journalist Peter Warne, who agrees to help her get to New York in exchange for exclusive rights to report her story.

Lyric: And they said / There goes the last great American dynasty / Who knows, if she never showed up, what could’ve been / There goes the most shameless woman this town has ever seen

Movie Quote: “He despises everything about me. He says that I’m spoiled and selfish and pampered and thoroughly insincere.”

If you like exile, try watching Merrily We Go to Hell

I randomly caught Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) on TCM as part of their “Women Make Film” feature series, and it immediately drew me in. The main characters are so sweet together in their private moments, but their relationship begins to deteriorate when one’s alcoholism and discontent drives a wedge between them, leading to desperate, mismatched attempts at communication before things begin to fall apart. Its ending is not all the way happy but not all the way sad, and the plot fits well with the lyrics of this song.

Lyric: I couldn’t turn things around (You never turned things around) / ‘Cause you never gave a warning sign (I gave so many signs)

Movie Quote: “If you love me, you’ll lock that door so that I can’t get out.” “I’m no jailer.”

If you like my tears ricochet, try watching Black Girl

I’m trying to include some lesser-known/unexpected film choices here and the lyrics of “my tears ricochet” reminded me of the main character’s inner dialogue in the film Black Girl (1966). Diouana is a young Senegalese woman who dreams of a better life in France, until she takes the opportunity to work for a French family as a maid/nanny and finds her freedom restricted, her pride wounded, and her spirit wilting in a new country away from her family and friends where she does not feel wanted or respected. The following lyric fits so specifically with the end of the film in my opinion, but I won’t spoil it.

Lyric: I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace / And you’re the hero flying around, saving face

Movie Quote:She’ll not lie to me again. Never will she lie to me again. She wanted to keep me here as her slave.

Honorable Mention: Vertigo, Laura

If you like mirrorball, try watching Clueless

I know older movies aren’t everyone’s favorite thing (why not though? 🙂 ), so I’ll throw in another more modern classic with Clueless (1995). Mirrorball might be my favorite song on folklore, or at least it made the strongest impression on first listen, and Clueless is a movie that makes a pretty endearing impression in my opinion. Plus the dreamy quality of the song just makes me think of throwbacks to ’90s teen movies. Teenager Cher Horowitz seems like she’s got it all figured out, but between trying to be a matchmaker, mentoring the new girl, learning how to drive, negotiating her grades, attempting to impress the new guy, annoying her ex-stepbrother…she realizes she’s been trying so hard at everything that she keeps missing the point, and has to admit to herself that she might actually be clueless.

Lyric: I’ve never been a natural, all I do is try, try, try / I’m still on that trapeze / I’m still trying everything to keep you looking at me

Movie Quote: “She’s a full-on Monet.” “What’s a Monet?” “It’s like the paintings, see? From far away it’s okay, but up close, it’s a big old mess.”

Honorable Mention: Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Circus

If you like seven, try watching My Neighbor Totoro

Seven is such a bittersweet and wholesome song about a childhood friendship. My Neighbor Totoro (1988) is one of the sweetest films about childhood I’ve seen. Two sisters, Satsuki and Mei, move to a new house in the country with their father to be closer to their mother who is convalescing from an illness in a nearby hospital. The girls are eager to explore their new home, and eventually meet the friendly forest spirits that live in the woods near their house, Totoros, who come to the girls’ aid when Mei runs away one afternoon and gets lost.

Lyric: Please picture me in the trees / I hit my peak at seven

Movie Quote: “Well, I’m not sure, but I could’ve sworn that I saw both of the girls up in the treetop, laughing.”

Honorable Mention: When Marnie Was There, A Little Princess

If you like august, try watching 500 Days of Summer

For “august” it was only natural to think of 500 Days of Summer (2009). Both the song and the film recount relationships in which the protagonist is in love and only in hindsight realizes that the object of their affection was never really in love with them in return, only an on-again-off-again fling that they were initiating most of the time. Is that a spoiler? I haven’t watched this film in years but I’m pretty sure its plot trajectory is not exactly a secret, I mean the first line or so of the film is something like, “this is not a love story.”

Lyric: So much for summer love and saying “us” / ‘Cause you weren’t mine to lose

Movie Quote:I just woke up one day and I knew.” “Knew what?” “What I was never sure of with you.

If you like this is me trying, try watching Ordinary People

(THERESA’S PICK:) This is one of my favorite movies, and it pairs so beautifully with one of my favorite Taylor Swift songs. The film follows the life of a boy named Conrad, following his older brother Buck’s death. Conrad struggles with depression and attempts suicide, feeling the weight of guilt about not only his brother, but also not feeling good enough for his family. I love the raw emotions in this movie, you can’t help but put yourself into the family’s shoes because to some extent, we have all felt many of the emotions they are going through. The emotions that come with loss, not feeling understood, not being good enough, or just feeling broken. Be prepared to cry when you watch this movie, but in a very cathartic way.

Lyric: They told me all of my cages were mental / So I got wasted like all my potential / And my words shoot to kill when I’m mad / I have a lot of regrets about that

Movie Quote: “Why did you do it?” “Uh… I don’t know. It was like… falling into a hole. It keeps getting bigger and bigger and you can’t escape. All of a sudden, it’s inside… and you’re the hole. You’re trapped. And it’s all over. Something like that. It’s not really scary… except when you think back on it. ‘Cause you know what you were feeling.”

Honorable Mention: Dead Poets Society

If you like illicit affairs, try watching The Apartment

The Apartment (1960) is one of my top favorites and a natural pick for a song about “illicit affairs.” It concerns a NYC insurance company clerk, Bud Baxter, who begins lending his apartment to the executives for their extramarital affairs when he realizes it could help him climb the corporate ladder. However, things become complicated as his personal life starts to get stepped all over in the process, especially after a particularly eventful Christmas Eve. It may not sound like much, but it’s funny and heartbreaking in equal measures, and while this song isn’t necessarily one of my top favorites, this movie is one I highly recommend.

Lyric: And that’s the thing about illicit affairs / And clandestine meetings and stolen stares / They show their truth one single time / But they lie and they lie and they lie

Movie Quote: “The mirror… it’s broken.” “Yes, I know. I like it that way. Makes me look the way I feel.”

Honorable Mention: The Graduate, Love in the Afternoon

If you like invisible string, try watching Amélie

Invisible string is one of my favorites from folklore, so it’s only natural that it pairs well with my favorite movie, Amélie (2001). Amélie Poulain is a shy young woman who serendipitously discovers a hidden tin full of childhood treasures in her apartment wall and decides to track down its owner. The outcome of her good deed inspires her to devise ways to brighten the lives of all the people she knows, while trying to find the courage to pursue her own happiness when she stumbles upon her potential soulmate and begins to fall in love.

Lyric: And isn’t it just so pretty to think / All along there was some / Invisible string / Tying you to me?

Movie Quote: “When Amélie lacked playmates, Nino had too many. Five miles apart, they both dreamed of having a brother and sister to be with all the time.

Honorable mention: Whisper of the Heart

If you like mad woman, try watching Revolutionary Road

(THERESA’S PICK:) This film shows the viewer the intimacies of a seemingly-normal 1950’s couple. Although from the outside they seem to have their life perfectly planned out, the reality is that they are struggling to cope with the ensuing breakdown of their marriage. April (Kate Winslet) embodies the “mad woman” role by sticking up for her desires of living a more eventful life like they had originally planned. Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) is fine with their “ordinary” life and, given that it is the 1950s, gets the last say. The rest of the film shows how April responds to that, which from the outside, may seem “crazy” or “mad”. I love this film for its realism, and raw emotions that make you feel like you are a fly on the wall of an actual couple’s house in the 1950s.

Lyric: Every time you call me crazy / I get more crazy / What about that? / And when you say I seem angry / I get more angry / And there’s nothin’ like a mad woman / What a shame she went mad

Movie Quote: “If being crazy means living life as if it matters, then I don’t mind being completely insane.”

Honorable Mention: Atonement, Hunger Games: Catching Fire

If you like epiphany, try watching 1917

I know this song is inspired by Taylor’s grandfather’s war experiences with parallels drawn to healthcare workers in the current pandemic, but I can’t help but think Taylor must have also seen the recent film 1917 (2019). This song immediately reminded me of that movie, which was inspired by the director Sam Mendes’ grandfather’s war stories. During WWI, two young British soldiers are ordered to deliver an urgent message to a nearby regiment to call off an attack planned for the next morning, in order to avoid a strategic ambush by the German army. The mission seems futile, and they have very little time to make the dangerous journey.

Lyric: Only twenty minutes to sleep / But you dream of some epiphany / Just one single glimpse of relief / To make some sense of what you’ve seen

Movie Quote:I hoped today would be a good day. Hope is a dangerous thing.

If you like betty, try watching Dogfight

This song has the perfect awkward, naive, and earnest tone of being a teenager and the drama that can come with first love before either person knows what it takes to make a relationship work. There are a lot of great coming of age films that address this type of story, but a particular new favorite of mine is Dogfight (1991). Eddie Birdlace, an 18-year-old about to ship off to Vietnam in 1963, spends his last evening in San Francisco looking for an unattractive girl for a game with his fellow Marines called a “dogfight,” in which the one who finds the ugliest date wins prize money. He winds up with a shy young waitress named Rose, who soon finds out the truth of the situation from another woman at the party. Eddie has already started to realize his mistake in misjudging Rose and resolves to spend the rest of the night trying to make it up to her.

Lyric: The only thing I wanna do / Is make it up to you

Movie Quote: “You and me, against the pricks. Are you with me?”

If you like peace, try watching They Live by Night

Okay, so you know the classic Rebel Without a Cause? Well, They Live by Night (1948) is the debut film from the same director, and while I see the appeal of James Dean’s tragic legacy, I think this one deserves to be just as much of a classic. Its stars feel more like real people than actors, and you can’t help but root for their happiness even though their romance seems doomed from the start due to being on the run from the law. I love the world-weary but earnest hopefulness of both the characters in the movie and the lyrics of this song; “peace” could’ve practically been written based on the plot of this film.

Lyric: I never had the courage of my convictions / As long as danger is near / And it’s just around the corner, darlin’ / ‘Cause it lives in me / No, I could never give you peace

Movie Quote: “Say something happened to me…they can’t pin a thing in this world on you. The only wrong you ever did was to marry me.”

Honorable Mention: The Bourne Identity, Chocolat, Spider-Man 2

If you like hoax, try watching Three Colors: Blue

Another great film/song matchup. I’m sure there’s another Taylor Swift fan out there who has seen more movies than I have and could find five other solid options for every song, but from my own limited repertoire it’s been fun managing to dig up some good films with surprising ease for most of these songs. Three Colors: Blue (1993) is a very poignant film dealing with the main character’s complicated process of grief when she loses her husband and young daughter in a tragic car accident and has to find a way to keep going afterwards, while people from her past keep interrupting her attempts to numb and forget.

Lyric: Stood on the cliffside screaming, ”Give me a reason” / Your faithless love’s the only hoax I believe in / Don’t want no other shade of blue but you / No other sadness in the world would do

Movie Quote: “Now I have only one thing left to do: nothing. I don’t want any belongings, any memories. No friends, no love. Those are all traps.”

If you like the lakes, try watching Moonrise Kingdom or A Room With a View

This one was a little more complicated, as I couldn’t really think of one single film that fit this song as well as some of the others, so I’m offering two equal recommendations (a bonus rec for the bonus track). A Room With a View (1985) is a sentimental movie for me, it’s beautiful and romantic, and takes place partially in England set in the early 1900s so it kind of fits the historic Lake District vibe/inspiration of this song, but is more lighthearted. Moonrise Kingdom on the other hand fits more of the “running away from society together” vibe of the song and shares similar atmospheric beauty, but still doesn’t quite match up in tone, as again it’s a pretty light and funny film, though each have their solemn or melancholy moments. At any rate, these are both great movies well worth watching.

Lyric: Take me to the Lakes where all the poets went to die / I don’t belong and, my beloved, neither do you

Movie Quote: “He doesn’t want you to be real, and to think and to live. He doesn’t love you. But I love you. I want you to have your own thoughts and ideas and feelings, even when I hold you in my arms.” (A Room With a View)

“We’re in love. We just want to be together. What’s wrong with that?” (Moonrise Kingdom)

Feel free to comment with your own suggestions for any of the songs if you thought of any alternates or similar films I should check out! I would love to hear your ideas, and I hope you paid some attention to the honorable mentions we listed, a few of them were pretty close seconds! Did you add any of these films to your watchlist? I definitely added Theresa’s picks to mine…thanks again, Tree. 🙂

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. 🙂