Monday, September 14, 2020

Next: Two silent film programs that look at movies themselves. First up: Keaton's 'Sherlock Jr.' and 'Cameraman' on Sat., 9/20 in Wilton, N.H.

Original promotional art for Buster Keaton's 'The Cameraman' (1928).

In Kurt Vonnegut's novel 'Slaughterhouse Five,' there's a British officer who's been in a German prison camp since the very start of World War II. His survival routine included looking in a mirror each morning to frankly evaluate his appearance, posture, and bearing.

Wow! If I had a survival routine, it wouldn't involve looking in a mirror, as that would almost certainly rob me of my will to live. 

But holding up a mirror can be a good thing, despite unexpected results — especially when it's someone like Buster Keaton holding up a mirror to the then-new medium of motion pictures. 

And it's also a good thing when an artist such as Dziga Vertov holds up mirror to life in the then-new Soviet Union, using the art of cinema to create a reflection of life itself.

Movies from both filmmakers are on the silent film calendar in the next couple of weeks. On Sunday, Sept. 20, I'll accompany a double-feature of Keaton's 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) and 'The Cameraman' (1928), a pair of films with stories rooted in the movie business.

The screening is at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. 

And on Wednesday, Sept. 30, I'll do music for a screening of Vertov's 'Man With A Movie Camera' (1929), a head-spinning slice-of-life documentary with no traditional narrative or story itself, unless you count the story of life itself, which I believe was Vertov's subject. 

The screening is at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H. More details are on the "Upcoming Screenings" page, and I'll get the press release into a later post. 

For now, the focus (another movie term!) is on Buster, who plays with motion picture reality in both films we're running on Sunday, Sept. 20. 

As with all of Buster's films, the main goal was laughter. Keaton's style of comedy, however, led him to naturally to explore the strange new world of the motion picture, which he does in both 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) and 'The Cameraman' (1928).

While many people marvel at the technical wizardry that enabled Keaton to put some eye-popping special effects into 'Sherlock Jr.,' I think 'The Cameraman' shows equal ingenuity in another way: in its story construction.

In 'The Cameraman,' Keaton creates a simple tale of a would-be newsreel cameraman that allows all manner of commentary (and laughter) about the business he's in. 

Example: a producer watches exciting newsreel footage of a dramatic event (not knowing that it was captured by an organ grinder's monkey), and shouts "That's the best camera work I've seen in years!" 

Knowing the truth of the matter, we laugh at the producer's assessment. But by holding up a mirror to the motion picture business, in 'The Cameraman' Keaton creates an insider's fun-house that transcends laughter and triggers infinity again and again. 

Hope you'll join us! Here's the press release with more info and all the details.

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Buster Keaton in 'The Cameraman' (1928).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Buster Keaton double feature at Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, Sept. 20

Silent film comedy classics return to the big screen with live musical accompaniment; venue following procedures to be Covid-19 compliant

WILTON, 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.

See for yourself with a screening of 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) and 'The Cameraman' (1928), two of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Sunday, Sept. 20 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.

The screening, the latest in the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series, will feature live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based composer who specializes in creating music for silent films.

Admission is free; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to help defray expenses.

The Town Hall Theatre is observing procedures to comply with all state and CDC public health guidelines, including reduced seating capacity. For complete information about safety protocols, visit

In 'Sherlock Jr.,' Buster plays a small-town movie projectionist who dreams of working as a detective. But then Buster's romantic rival frames him for stealing a watch from his girlfriend's father.

Fortunately, the situation mirrors the plot of the movie currently playing at Buster's theater. Inspired by the movie, can Buster find the real thief and win back his girl?

'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 fail spectacularly, but then a lucky break gives him an unexpected chance to make his mark. Can Buster parlay the scoop of the year into a secure job and successful romance?

Both films focus on exploring the potentials of the motion picture, then a brand-new medium.

In 'The Cameraman,' Keaton uses the movie business itself to create comedy that plays with the nature of film and reality.

Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands as one of the three great clowns of the silent screen. Many critics regard Keaton as the most timeless; 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."

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.

A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions ranging from sadness to surprise. In an era when movies had few special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents enabled him to perform all his own stunts.

All those talents are on display in 'Sherlock Jr.' and '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."

"These films are audience favorites, and people continue to be surprised at how engrossing and exhilarating they can be when shown as they were intended: in a theater, and with live music," said Rapsis, who accompanies more than 100 screenings each year at venues around the nation and abroad.

Rapsis, who lives in Bedford, N.H., improvises live scores for silent films using a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra.

"It's kind of a high wire act," Rapsis said. "But for me, the energy of live performance is an essential part of the silent film experience."

'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) and 'The Cameraman' (1928) will be shown with live music on Sunday, Sept. 20 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free; a donation of $10 per person is suggested. For more information, call (603) 654-3456 of visit

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