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Buster Keaton's "The General" (1927) - an appreciation

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#1 of 6 OFFLINE   Josh Steinberg

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Posted June 02 2011 - 05:40 PM

I grew up watching older films, whether in battered VHS copies rented from my local video store in the days before Blockbuster, or seen late night on PBS or local stations like WPIX in New York.  I discovered so many things I loved, so many things that wound up being defining moments of my childhood, whether it was "A Night At The Opera" (Marx Brothers), "It's A Gift" (W.C. Fields), "King Kong", "All Quiet On The Western Front", "Citizen Kane" and too many others to list.  I loved films of all types, color or black and white, CinemaScope epics or Academy ratio classics, American made or foreign.  But the one category that I was never able to get into back then were "silent films". Now that I'm older, I can understand why.  To begin with, "silent film" is used to lump together every film made before the sound-era, regardless of genre, under one umbrella.  That wasn't fair to begin with, and probably didn't do much to help my sense of adventure.  But far worse was the fact that many were transferred to video at incorrect speeds, with music piped in ranging from generic and bland to wildly inappropriate.  I understood intellectually that there were great silent films and that to see one on a big screen as it was meant to be seen was an experience almost nothing like watching a battered public domain print of something with a cheesy synthesizer on a small television.  In college, as better home video versions were starting to become available, my perspective on silent film changed somewhat - I started to get it, and the truly great films of that era started to move me as they were meant to.  But I knew I wasn't getting the full experience of it.  Even seeing the restored "Metropolis" at the Ziegfeld wasn't as magical as I would have hoped (going on Saturday night and finding that there were only, at best, a dozen people scattered in the huge theater didn't help matters any). This past week I was invited to attend a screening of Buster Keaton's "The General" at the Film Forum in NYC.  I'm pretty sure I had seen it before, probably either in college or in the dorm one night, but my memory of it was vague - something about the Civil War and trains, and meant to be humorous as opposed to deadly serious.  But that's about the extent of my memory of it.  I was interested to go but I can't say that I was truly excited.  I knew I should have been, and don't get me wrong, I was looking forward to going -- but I didn't have that sense of excitement or anticipation I'd have if you told me next week I could see "How The West Was Won" in Cinerama, or the excitement I get leading up to a 70mm showing of "2001: A Space Odyssey". Then, quite unexpectedly (or maybe I should have totally expected it), something magic happened.  It had been announced ahead of time that the film would be shown with live musical accompaniment, but reading that in a brochure is something quite different from being in the room.  I waited in line, as did everyone else, as the screening room was being prepared for the show.  I started noticing the line forming, extending out the door, and going down the street, filled with one of the most diverse crowds ever, all ages, all genders, every variation on size, shape and color you could imagine in a crowd of people.  Finally, the doors to the theater were open, and we were let in.  People filed in, took seats, and I got my preferred seat - so all was well in the world.  After all the patrons had been admitted, the manager came in to see if there were any empty seats left (there were a few scattered) so that perhaps a few of the many people on the standby line could be let in - people sitting helpfully identified where there were unfilled seats, and soon a few more people were packed in.  There was literally not an empty seat in the house, and a couple people stood against the walls.  Finally, the lights went down.  A print that looked close to pristine began to fill the screen.  And then, a musician I can now only describe as genius, started playing at the piano - Mr. Steve Sterner, who, in a nice touch, was actually wearing a hat identical to Buster's for the entire performance.  It's one thing to see a silent film on DVD, even with a good score.  It's another thing to be there. For about 75 minutes, I was in a different world.  I laughed.  I laughed so hard I cried.  I was completely caught up in the rhythm of the film - even though parts of it were vaguely familiar, it all seemed brand new.  It felt like I had stepped back in time, to another era.  Music, live music, filled the room, perfectly matching the action onscreen.  The crowd was alive, and the whole experience felt alive.  Whether it was one of the simplest gag (such as Buster gracefully shooing the kids following him out the door so that he could be with the girl of his dreams) or the biggest set-piece (any of the many, many moments of absolute genius on the train), each moment resonated and beautifully flowed into the next.  And when it finally ended, the bad guys having been stifled, Buster getting both the promotion into the army that he wanted and the girl that he dreamed of, with one last brilliant sight gag showing him blindly saluting his fellow marching soldiers as he at last got to kiss the girl, everyone cheered.  And not even one of those cool but almost perfunctory cheers that you get at a midnight premiere of an anticipated new movie, but a full out cheer you'd hear after a brilliant show on Broadway or a rock concert. It was the experience of a lifetime. For anyone in the NYC area, every Monday from now through August, the Film Forum will be showing a different Buster Keaton classic, each film with live music from Steve Sterner.  Each will be paired with with a short from earlier in Buster's career, with live music provided by Ben Model for those shorts.  If you've never seen a silent film with live music, if you've never seen a Buster Keaton film or never appreciated either Buster or silents before, and you're able to, you absolutely owe it to yourself to go.  (Buy tickets in advance - it WILL sell out.)  This is the kind of treat that one can spend years dreaming of without getting a chance to see. And now I get it.  I get why so many film scholars consider Keaton at least equal to, if not better, than Charlie Chaplin.  I get why people would go to see silent films back when they were new, and what the experience must have been like.  I get why these films on tape with prerecorded music didn't make the impact on me that they should have.  I get it.  Today, a lot of our focus here, not wrongly, is on the home theater experience, on unprecedented leaps in technology, the amazing quality one can get at home and the near endless supply of films available at the touch of a button.  And with how, in general, the theatrical experience has declined as badly as it has, it's easy to see why making the perfect screening room at home holds such an appeal.  But this was something special, a look back into a time passed.  It wasn't the usual crowd of revival cinema-goers; parents and grandparents brought their children, friends brought other friends, some people came alone - but when the lights went down and the movie started, we were all one in the same - people watching a movie, as in 1927, stepping aboard for the ride of a lifetime.

#2 of 6 OFFLINE   Jack Briggs

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Posted June 03 2011 - 08:29 AM

Josh, this is an excellent post. Too bad it won't draw much comment, since it's not X-men-related and Home Theater Forum is shrinking.

By the way, have you ever screened Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin? Here is a classic that, without even a live orchestra in the theater, will mesmerize with its superb storytelling and even more so with its dramatic editing (montage, apparently, got its start in the film). Indeed, when the film is screened, one gets so caught up in it that it can be forgotten that it's a "silent" film. Same with The General, though, of course, it's a much different film.

Never scoff at the power of cinema.

#3 of 6 OFFLINE   Josh Steinberg

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Posted June 03 2011 - 04:35 PM

I have indeed seen Potemkin, but only on video/DVD.  Film Forum had a screening of a restored print last year I think (not with live music, but a recorded score on the print) and I think I was out of town when that happened; I was sad to have missed it.  But I agree, it's an incredibly powerful film, one that just sucks you in. I find with any film, if it's good, I almost instantly forget whatever it is that might have made it seem "different" beforehand - a few minutes into a B&W movie, I don't notice that it's B&W anymore.  Once I get used to reading subtitles after a few minutes, I forget I'm reading and it feels as natural to me as hearing something in English.  The same with silent film.  The visual element of "The General" was so completely effective that I soon forgot that I couldn't hear the sound of the train, for instance.  "Nosferatu", which I first saw late night on PBS when I was probably eleven or twelve, absolutely terrified me in the most wonderful way. The best ones never lose their power. (While not wanting to get off on too much of a tangent here, all of these wonderful varieties of movies, all of these variations and different experiences - I went to film school and wasn't taught one single thing about any of it.  I came in knowing more about film and film history than my peers, and left the same way.  Sure, they taught us about silent film as if it was some kind of academic textbook thing, a mere stepping stone on the way to making The Matrix or something like that, completely ignoring the power, importance, and enduring relevance of these kinds of films.  If I was in charge of planning a curriculum, I would make it a requirement that students see a silent film the way they were originally presented instead of showing a cruddy public domain VHS tape.  I went into film school thinking, this is all I was able to find on my own, and surely everyone else here must have grown up the same way, and here's my chance to learn and experience how these things were made; unfortunately, I ended up in classes where the professors talked about The Matrix--not a bad film, but not an all-time great in my opinion, and at any rate, something everyone had already seen--and yet the majority of students had never seen Citizen Kane.  My self-taught cinema appreciation as a child and teenager I thought was a great starting point; I was dismayed to discover that it was further along than the ending point of most of my classmates and professors.) By the way - Mr. Briggs, I've been a fan of your posts ever since I joined here, and I truly appreciate the kind words you've had to share.  (As "The General" is on Blu-ray, and the "Movies" section seems to be more about current releases, I wonder if I just erred in where I posted it.  It's a tough call - where do you put notes on something that's been on video for a long time but that you just saw in a theater?)

#4 of 6 OFFLINE   montrealfilmguy


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Posted June 04 2011 - 04:41 PM

 A couple of years ago, part of the Montreal festival des films du monde,there was a few silent movie nights presented outside in a park,on a fairly large screen.Attendance was probably in the few hundreds,and every seat was also filled with many people from all walks of life.Much to my dismay,there would be no musical accompaniment as it would have been a very complex setup, i figure. But halfwat through as i glanced at my dad next to me wiping his tears and the crowd,it struck me that we were actually doing something that people were doing BEFORE there was musical accompaniment. We were "listening " to an actual silent movie. I bought a small book which contains a very thorough analysis of The general,and it contains a bit of info which brings a smile to my face every time i see the scene. As Marion Mack's Annabelle Lee walks away leaving Buster in a state of sorrow,Buster sits on one of the wheel spokes (?) someone in IMDB says its called a crossbar ),and the train slowly starts moving. The effect you get is the train is "consoling " Buster by rocking him like a child. Snif.

#5 of 6 OFFLINE   Josh Steinberg

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Posted June 04 2011 - 05:55 PM

Ben, that's a fantastic scene - the visual is fantastic, and conveys so many things about the character.  The visual language of the whole film is so rich, and that's maybe one of the very best examples of it.  Not only do you get the effect of Buster being "consoled" by the train, but it really says something about how despondent he is in that moment that he doesn't even notice what's going around him.  What's great is that while the gag is funny to look at and does get a laugh from the audience, Buster's character is playing the scene straight - nowadays so much physical comedy comes with the actors almost winking at the audience, practically screaming "AND NOW I'M GOING TO DO SOMETHING FUNNY", but Buster was content to come up with a great scenario, put the character in the right place, and let the laughs come on their own without hitting the audience over the head. (Some people think that the invention of sound on film really set cinema back a few years, because by the end of the silent era, the filmmakers had learned all sorts of wonderful tricks and did some really amazing experimental stuff, really playing around with moving the camera and with different editing styles - and then suddenly they had to use these giant, immovable sound cameras and some of the craftsmanship went away until they figured out how to make sound recording less obtrusive.) What I'm curious about -- and I don't think any history book could give a complete answer to this -- is how many films from the silent era were shown without some kind of accompaniment, be it a full orchestra, an organ player, a piano player or something else.  I'm sure there must have been some theaters that couldn't afford to have a guy on staff full time, etc., etc.  "Silent film" is kind of a misnomer because from the earliest days of film being projected, most places had something playing to go with the movie.  (Some of the later silent films even were shipped to theaters with printed musical scores that an accompanist to use - it's cool to think that film scores written for specifically for a film in consultation with the filmmaker were done before there was recorded sound on film.) I didn't mention this in my post, but before the main feature, they showed Buster's short "The Blacksmith" and the music was done by a different fellow by the name of Ben Model.  The differences between the two styles were really interesting, because Mr. Model does not score the films ahead of time, while Mr. Sterner only will play to movies for which he's written a score in advance.  And my understanding is that that's kinda how it was in the old days, where some of the people who played music with the films were following the action and making it up as they went along (or improvising based on repeated viewings of the film), while others stuck closely to a prepared script.  It was really cool to hear both styles in one night.

#6 of 6 OFFLINE   Brian Borst

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Posted June 08 2011 - 04:51 AM

Posts like these really either make me appreciate a film even more, or make me want to revisit it again. Since I've only seen The General once, and don't own it yet on Blu-ray, I'll have to go for the latter. The problem I often have with watching movies I know are acclaimed, is that I either love them immediately, or need to watch it several times before I fully understand and love it. Sunrise, to stick with silent movies, was a movie I immediately loved, everything seemed right about it. The General was one that, while I really admired the craftsmanship behind it, didn't really think was funny a lot of the time. Now, I also thought that too much was going on many times, and maybe that's just what bothered me. Or maybe it was the fact that I was watching it by myself, which often can be disastrous for comedies. In any case, the silent movies I've seen (not too many, unfortunately) I all really liked so I'll buy both The General and Buster Keaton's other movies on Blu-ray eventually.
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