[Photo Credit: Ron Galella]
In the winter of 1997 I was in L.A. on a job. I invited a woman to see a Buster Keaton movie at a place called Old Town Music Hall. She stood me up, but I went anyway and had one of the greatest nights of my life. I recently visited L.A. and went back to see another Buster movie at the Music Hall. Good to know such a place exists, you know?
[Photo Credit: Ambitus Orchestra]
Hey, there’s a new mayor. If you’ve read too much about it you might feel like our man Buster here.
Writing in the New York Times, here’s Oliver Sacks on the Joy of Old Age:
Eighty! I can hardly believe it. I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize it is almost over. My mother was the 16th of 18 children; I was the youngest of her four sons, and almost the youngest of the vast cousinhood on her side of the family. I was always the youngest boy in my class at high school. I have retained this feeling of being the youngest, even though now I am almost the oldest person I know.
I thought I would die at 41, when I had a bad fall and broke a leg while mountaineering alone. I splinted the leg as best I could and started to lever myself down the mountain, clumsily, with my arms. In the long hours that followed, I was assailed by memories, both good and bad. Most were in a mode of gratitude — gratitude for what I had been given by others, gratitude, too, that I had been able to give something back. “Awakenings” had been published the previous year.
At nearly 80, with a scattering of medical and surgical problems, none disabling, I feel glad to be alive — “I’m glad I’m not dead!” sometimes bursts out of me when the weather is perfect. (This is in contrast to a story I heard from a friend who, walking with Samuel Beckett in Paris on a perfect spring morning, said to him, “Doesn’t a day like this make you glad to be alive?” to which Beckett answered, “I wouldn’t go as far as that.”) I am grateful that I have experienced many things — some wonderful, some horrible — and that I have been able to write a dozen books, to receive innumerable letters from friends, colleagues and readers, and to enjoy what Nathaniel Hawthorne called “an intercourse with the world.”
“The tendency among spoilsport sportswriters is to make it all so so elegiac and bittersweet—to like us to see our own lives (easier for men, of course) in these [minor leaguers’] prospects; to make it all a gooey-nostalgic allegory for trying and failing while still young, an emblem for rum life lived well instead of just being an emblem for itself—is baloney and I’m not wrong about it. Believe me, I don’t see myself in those boys’ lives. They’re not my vicars, and I don’t fantasize—at least not about them. I go to the game to quit thinking about my life, to sit and stare at a pleasant field I know on which is played a game I also know by players whose lives, wives, drug and betting habits, childhood tragedies, and religious infatuations I don’t know and don’t want to. I’m just there to watch, to be pleased, maybe even thrilled, but not, God help me, to take moral instruction.”
Richard Ford, “A Minors Affair” [excerpt] (Harper’s, September 1992)
Thanks to the excellent site, It’s a Long Season, for the picture of Buster and the quote.
Need a pick-me-up?
Charlie Chaplin’s bum is at the mercy of a cruel world. Keaton, with his impassive face and a hat flat as a pancake, is a stoic. He confronts one setback after another with serenity worthy of a Buddhist monk. In one short film, “The Goat” (1921) he’s standing on the sidewalk behind two tailor’s dummies, under the impression that they are at the end of a bread line. When he discovers his mistake, he moves on quietly.
Keaton’s movies were a big success in Europe since his type of comedy doesn’t need a translation. I first saw one of his shorts in occupied Belgrade during the Second World War. I liked him instantly. His films are full of remarkable acrobatic stunts. Keaton started out in vaudeville when he was four years old working with his parents, whose comedy act included a lot of roughhousing; he was thrown by his father across the stage and sometimes even at the hecklers in the audience.
Ah, Buster. My hero.
Here’s James Agee on our man Buster:
Very early in [Keaton's] movie career friends asked him why he never smiled on the screen. He didn’t realize he didn’t. He had got the dead-pan habit in variety; on the screen he had merely been so hard at work it had never occurred to him there was anything to smile about. Now he tried it just once and never again. He was by his whole style and nature so much the most deeply “silent” of the silent comedians that even a smile was as deafeningly out of key as a yell. In a way his pictures are like a transcendent juggling act in which it seems that the whole universe is in exquisite flying motion and the one point of repose is the juggler’s effortless, uninterested face.
Keaton’s face ranked almost with Lincoln’s as an early American archetype; it was haunting, handsome, almost beautiful, yet it was irreducibly funny; he improved matters by topping it off with a deadly horizontal hat, as flat and thin as a phonograph record. One can never forget Keaton wearing it, standing erect at the prow as his little boat is being launched. The boat goes grandly down the skids and, just as grandly, straight on to the bottom. Keaton never budges. The last you see of him, the water lifts the hat off the stoic head and it floats away.
…Much of the charm and edge of Keaton’s comedy, however, lay in the subtle leverages of expression he could work against his nominal dead pan. Trapped in the side-wheel of a ferryboat, saving himself from drowning only by walking, then desperately running, inside the accelerating wheel like a squirrel in a cage, his only real concern was, obviously, to keep his hat on. Confronted by Love, he was not as deadpan as he was cracked up to be, either; there was an odd, abrupt motion of his head which suggested a horse nipping after a sugar lump.
Keaton worked strictly for laughs, but his work came from so far inside a curious and original spirit that he achieved a great deal besides, especially in his feature-length comedies. (For plain hard laughter his nineteen short comedies — the negatives of which have been lost — were even better.) He was the only major comedian who kept sentiment almost entirely out of his work, and he brought pure physical comedy to its greatest heights. Beneath his lack of emotion he was also uninsistently sardonic; deep below that, giving a disturbing tension and grandeur to the foolishness, for those who sensed it, there was in his comedy a freezing whisper not of pathos but of melancholia. With the humor, the craftsmanship and the action there was often, besides, a fine, still and sometimes dreamlike beauty. Much of his Civil War picture The General is within hailing distance of Mathew Brady. And there is a ghostly, unforgettable moment in The Navigator when, on a deserted, softly rolling ship, all the pale doors along a deck swing open as one behind Keaton and, as one, slam shut, in a hair-raising illusion of noise.
Perhaps because “dry’ comedy is so much more rare and odd than “dry” wit, there are people who never much cared for Keaton. Those who do cannot care mildly.
Oh, yeah. And Buster loved baseball too.
What do I know from tonight’s games? I don’t know dick, frankly, because The Wife was watching “Dancing with the Stars.” But I followed along on the computer, at least to check the scores, and saw some of the video highlights. What I learned was that Russell Martin was thrown out of the game while behind the plate for arguing balls and strikes. I know that the Yankees caught two runners stealing in one play and that Desmond Jennings made a spectacular catch in left field. Oh, and I learned that aside from Robinson Cano’s two hits, including a first inning home run, James Shield had his way with the Yanks. He lasted until two outs in the ninth, walked Eric Chavez and our old chum Kyle Farmaduke got the final out.
Final Score: Rays 5, Yanks 2.
I also know that Josh Beckett spit the bit, giving up six runs–an inside the park home run was the icing on the gravy–and now the Sox and Rays are tied for the wild card with two games left in the season.
Fat men can dance. In honor of David Ortiz, who busted a move last night after hitting a home run, here is the great Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (featuring our man Buster):
When I was sixteen the Regency Theater on the Upper West Side ran a Buster Keaton-Charlie Chaplin-Woody Allen revival for a few months. That was my introduction to Buster and it was love at first sight. I adore Chaplin too but Buster speaks to me in a more direct, personal way.
There’s a wonderful article on Buster by Jana Prikryl in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books. If you are not familiar with Buster, this here is a fine introduction:
More than fifty years have passed since critics rediscovered Buster Keaton and pronounced him the most “modern” silent film clown, a title he hasn’t shaken since. In his own day he was certainly famous but never commanded the wealth or popularity of Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd, and he suffered most when talkies arrived. It may be that later stars like Cary Grant and Paul Newman and Harrison Ford have made us more susceptible to Keaton’s model of offhand stoicism than his own audiences were. Seeking for his ghost is a fruitless business, though; for one thing, film comedy today has swung back toward the sappy, blatant slapstick that Keaton disdained. There’s some “irony” in what Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler do, but it’s irony that clamors to win the identification of the supposedly browbeaten everyman in every audience. Keaton took your average everyman and showed how majestically alone he was.
Very early in his movie career friends asked him why he never smiled on the screen. He didn’t he realzie he didn’t. He had got the dead-pan habit in variety; on the screen he had merely been so hard at work it had never occured to him there was anything to smile about. Now he tried it just once and never again. He was by his whole style and nature so much the most “silent” of the silent comedians that even a smile was as deafeningly out of key as a yell. In a way his pictures are like a transcendent juggling act in which it seems that the whole universe is in exquisite flying motion and the one point of repose is the juggler’s effortless, uninterested face.
Starting tonight, the Film Forum is hosting The Best of Buster Keaton. They will be showing a Buster movie, along with a couple of two-reelers, every Monday for the rest of the summer. Tonight gives Buster’s first feature for MGM–and arguably, his last good movie: “The Cameraman.” It’s worth seeing on the big screen for many reasons (the pool scene), not the least of which is this gorgeous sequence filmed at the original Yankee Stadium.
It ain’t that bad, chum. Cliff’s got the preview.
Never mind the pity party:
Let’s Go Yank-ees!
So no bad news is good news for Phil Hughes. Here’s Ben Shipgel in the Times:
All of Hughes’s tests Monday came back negative for circulatory and vascular problems, the Yankees said. The development deepens the mystery regarding Hughes’s lack of arm strength but spreads a feeling of relief that thoracic outlet syndrome is not the cause.
“I’m not sure if he has that, what they have to do and how long you don’t have him if that’s what he has,” Manager Joe Girardi said. “It makes me feel better.”
Hughes traveled to St. Louis to meet with Dr. Robert William Thompson, a renowned vascular surgeon, to confirm or to rule out that he had thoracic outlet syndrome.
Now he will return on Tuesday to New York, despite having a locker set up for him in the visiting clubhouse, to rehabilitate his shoulder as the Yankees redouble their efforts to discover why it feels numb when he pitches.
Curious. Very curious.