But if I had to pick one, surely Buster Keaton's 'The Cameraman' (1928) would be on the short list. It's a terrific comedy with Keaton in top form. But it's also the film that reintroduced me to silent film about 10 years ago now, and as such holds a special place for me.
I had gotten into silent film as a kid and collected titles in Super 8 during the 1970s. Back then, the best day of the month was when my Blackhawk film catalog arrived in the mail! But as high school turned to college and film turned to video and adolescence turned into semi-adulthood, my attention shifted elsewhere, though my interest never completely disappeared.
It was only in the year 2000, when I attended the Kansas Silent Film Festival on a whim, that I got reconnected with silent film in a big way. And it was Keaton's 'The Cameraman' that did the trick.
The film, with live accompaniment from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, was the Saturday morning feature that day. And as the screening progressed, I became increasingly aware of the sense of wonder and possibility in silent film that I think I had always felt in a vague sort of way. There was something about it. But there it was right before me: Buster using the medium to reinvent reality in surprising and beguiling and hilarious ways.
And there's a shot in particular near the end of 'The Cameraman' (I don't want to spoil it for you) — one that involves a camera being cranked — that really triggers infinity for me. It's such a wonderful moment in which a simple dolly back to change our point of view also changes our perspective on everything we've seen up until then.
It was moving to me to see reality become so plastic and moldable so as to reflect Buster's own particular sense of how life works. At the time, it said so much to me about the power of creativity to make sense of a senseless world, or at least to celebrate that senselessness by finding patterns that no one had thought of before.
At the time, I wanted to write a book set in the silent film era—still plan to, actually. And this silent film accompaniment thing was a direct outgrowth of the rekindling of my interest. Would it have happened the same way with any other film? I'm not sure.
I do know 'The Cameraman' was really the perfect film for me to see at that time. I can't think of any other that would have had the same effect, and I'm grateful for that.
So come join me for 'The Cameraman' on Thursday, Aug. 9 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H. The full press release is below...
TUESDAY, JULY 24, 2012 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • firstname.lastname@example.org
Buster Keaton's 'Cameraman' at Flying Monkey on Thursday, Aug. 9Classic silent film comedy to be screened with live music; latest in theatre's monthly series
PLYMOUTH, N.H.—He never smiled on camera, earning him the nickname of "the Great Stone Face." But Buster Keaton's comedies rocked Hollywood's silent era with laughter throughout the 1920s. Acclaimed for their originality and clever visual gags, and admired for their realistic stories and authentic location shots, Keaton's films remain popular crowd-pleasers today.
See for yourself with a screening of 'The Cameraman' (1928), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Thursday, Aug. 9 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. The program, the latest in the Flying Monkey's monthly silent film series, will be accompanied by live music performed by New Hampshire composer Jeff Rapsis. General admission is $10 per person.
'The Cameraman' tells the story of a young man (Keaton) who tries to impress the girl of his dreams (Marceline Day) by working as a freelance newsreel cameraman. His efforts result in spectacular failure, but then a lucky break gives him an unexpected chance to make his mark. Can he parlay the scoop of the year into a secure job and successful romance?
In 'The Cameraman,' Keaton creates comedy that plays with the very nature of film and reality. The film contains several classic sequences often cited as among Keaton's best, including a scene where Keaton and a large man both struggle to change into swimsuits in a tiny dressing room. The scene, which runs several minutes long, was filmed in one take.
Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands as one of the silent screen's three great clowns. Many critics regard Keaton as the best of all; Roger Ebert wrote in 2002 that "in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, (Keaton) worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies." But while making films, Keaton never thought he was an artist, but an entertainer trying to use the then-new art of motion pictures to tell stories and create laughter.
As a performer, Keaton was uniquely suited to the demands of silent comedy. Born in 1895, he made his stage debut as a toddler, joining his family's knockabout vaudeville act and learning to take falls and do acrobatic stunts at an early age. He spent his entire childhood and adolescence on stage, attending school for exactly one day.
An entirely intuitive artist, Keaton entered films in 1917 and was quickly fascinated. After apprenticing with popular comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Keaton went on to set up his own studio in 1920, making short comedies that established him as a one of the era's leading talents. A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions ranging from sadness to surprise. In an era with no special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents meant he performed all his own stunts.
All those talents are on display in 'The Cameraman,' which was selected in 2005 for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
The Flying Monkey's monthly silent film series aims to honor the recently renovated venue's historic roots as a local moviehouse.
Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician, said the Keaton features were not made to be shown on television or viewed on home entertainment centers. In reviving them, the Flying Monkey aims to show silent film as they were meant to be seen—in high quality prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.
"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who improvises accompaniment as a film is screened. "Recreate those conditions, and the classics of early Hollywood leap back to life in ways that can still move audiences today. They all featured great stories with compelling characters and universal appeal, so it's no surprise that they hold up and we still respond to them."
Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.
‘The Cameraman’ will be shown on Thursday, Aug. 9 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. Admission is $10 per person. For more info, call (603) 536-2551 or visit www.flyingmonkeynh.com. For more info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.
Upcoming silent film screenings at the Flying Monkey include:
• Thursday, Sept. 20, 6:30 p.m.: 'Pandora's Box' (1929). The rise and inevitable fall of an amoral but naive young woman whose eroticism inspires lust and violence in those around her. Scorching silent drama starring the incomparable Louise Brooks in what many consider her finest role ever.
• Thursday, Oct. 11, 6:30 p.m.: 'Dr. Jack' (1922). A sparking comedy starring Harold Lloyd as a country doctor with unorthodox methods that get results! But now comes his toughest case yet: a poor little rich girl (Mildred Davis), bed-ridden with a mysterious condition. Harold's cure is sure to make you smile!
• Wednesday, Oct. 24, 6:30 p.m. 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925). Special Halloween screening! Long before Andrew Lloyd Webber created the hit musical, this silent film adaptation starring Lon Chaney helped put 'Phantom' in the pantheon of horror and romance. One of the all-time great silent films.