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.