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Busta Mimes' Jokesta's Paradise

It often seems as if we are living in an age of near-infinite distraction; we multitask constantly and rarely focus our attention on one thing at a time. “Put down that stupid phone and look at me when I speak to you!” every parent across the country is saying to offspring of all ages right now (probably).“Wait...wut?” those same offspring are (also probably) answering, meaning parents’ll just have to repeat themselves. Again. {Heavy sigh.}

Is there nothingwe can do to focus ourselves?

My wife and I just finished watching the second seasons of a Belgian mystery series called Professor T., which my wife somehow heard about—I’m not sure how; she told me, but at the time I was busy looking at my iPod and retweeting a hilarious picture of a dog wearing a Christmas sweater and fake antlers! LOL!!! But I was listening to her, really!

Anyroad, both of us got hooked from episode one of season one. Being a subtitled Belgian TV series, Professor T. forces you to drop all else and pay attention to it because its characters speak a language other than English (some combination of Flemish, German, French, and a version of that Ubbi Dubbi language they used to speak on the kids show Zoom, I think), and thus requires you to look at the screen to read the subtitles and do nothing else the whole time, lest you miss an important plot point because you were, say, retweeting a picture of a sweatered dog with antlers, LOL.

For some reason, if I’m watching an English-language TV show or movie, I feel as though I can get away with not giving it my full attention and sneak peeks at my iPod because I can just listen to the dialog, which should be enough to get the gist, right? And let’s face it: That dog photo isn’t going to retweet itself; and the last time I looked, it had been retweeted only 14,000 times...but what if my 12 followers haven’t seen one of those thousands of previous retweets? It’s a chance I can’t take; it’s my job to keep those 12 followers informed re: the latest in fashionable dogwear, even if 11 of them are probably bots.

But the truth is, even when the show or movie is in English, you miss a ton of dialog and, O, I’m gonna say, TWO tons of important character interaction and other visuals when you allow the iPod’s Siren Song to lure your attention away from the TV screen. Yes, it is true that, thanks to modern video recording technology, you can easily go back and rewatch those 5 minutes you missed because you weren’t really paying attention the first time around, but is there anything that more effectively kills the tension of a suspenseful movie than having to interrupt the flow of it to re-watch a scene that your wife is now loudly sighing through because she paid attention the first time and when will you ever learn that if you would just put your stupid iPod down and pay attention you’d have heard the dialog too and that, dear reader, is why I will NOT be sharing that hilarious picture of the antlered dog with her. That’ll teach her.

Know what else is nearly as good as a subtitled foreign show at getting you to focus your full attention on the screen? A silent film. In a silent film, the visuals are it—they are all you have; they arethe story so you can't watch a silent film and simultaneously be looking at funny dogs on your iPod and kid yourself that you’re not really missing anything because you’re “listening”. First of all, you’re not listening. Second: It’s a silent film: There’s not really much to listen to. Third: You are, in fact, missing everything.

Buster Keaton is the gold standard of silent film-era visual, physical comedy. This is not to throw shade at such other luminaries as Chaplin, Lloyd, and Arbuckle. It’s just that the combination of Keaton’s deadpan mug (he was known as The Great Stone Face for good reason) with the frenetic athleticism of his lithe, muscular body (at one point in the Keaton film I will discuss more fully below—The Cameraman—Keaton takes off his shirt and you can clearly see there is not an ounce of fat on his body and, man, is he ever rocking some awesome six-pack abs!) makes for some hilarious contrasts. And it’s not just that Keaton’s visage is impassive; he has what can only be described as resting sad-clown face, a default look of long-suffering melancholy.

When I noticed the Criterion Collection edition of Keaton’s The Cameraman sitting on the New DVDs shelf at the Hopewell Branch library I knew I had to take it out. I had never seen that particular Keaton film, but I remembered having seen, decades ago, Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. (also available on DVD at the library) on the big screen in a double feature with Chaplin’s Modern Times and being amazed at how funny, innovative, and fresh both films were. [Background: As an impecunious grad student in NYC, I discovered that the Thalia movie theater 20 blocks from campus—which qualifies as within walking distance if you’re poor enough—showed double features of classic films for a mere five bucks. I saw many great films there that I would otherwise never have been able to see on a big screen. The Thalia, alas, closed in 1987. For those of you trying to run the figures at home, if you came up with “The author of this post is really old,” then your math is correct. Be sure to show your work.

So I knew I had to check out The Cameraman.

I was not disappointed.

Bear with me as I once again focus on Keaton’s amazing athleticism by highlighting the hilarious physical comedy of the roughly 4-minute sequence of scenes in The Cameraman that begins with Buster awaiting a phone call from his love interest. We see him struggling to break open a “Bank for Dimes” (he’ll need money for that date) and, consequently, accidentally wreaking havoc on his surroundings (this would become a staple of future movie comedies, from the Marx Brothers to The Three Stooges to Abbott and Costello, but no one who came after did it better than Buster Keaton); running down and up numerous flights of stairs, overshooting his floor each way; engaging in face-first pratfalls in which he makes zero effort to break his fall (they had to have hurt!), yet popping right back up onto his feet as though nothing had happened; and finally engaging in an all-out sprint to meet his love who is still jabbering away on the phone with him (or so she thinks), until she hangs up when she realizes he’s no longer on the line. She then turns and is confronted with Buster’s stone-faced corporeal self standing behind her for he has run all the way from the lobby of his own boarding house to the lobby of hers.

As with the whole movie, this series of scenes contains many nice, subtle touches that add to the comedy. In his zeal to get to the phone, Buster accidentally knocks down the landlady, takes the phone receiver in hand and as soon as he hears his love is available for a date, takes off toward the front door, receiver still in hand. Of course, he rips the receiver from the wall and stands there a beat, receiver in hand, then tosses it to the landlady, tips his hat, and bolts for the exit.

This is comic performance—and precision timing—at its best. Mere description doesn’t do it justice. So don’t just take my word for it: Watch the scenes.

The whole film has the same level of quality and, yes, many of the gags may seem old hat now because they were relentlessly plagiarized in later films...shot for shot, in fact, in some cases. And there are a few good reasons for that; one of which is: They are incredibly funny, well-choreographed scenes so why not reuse them? And also, more tragically, Keaton fell out of favor with the suits at MGM (who didn’t understand his genius) and was summarily let go in the early 1930s...only to be hired back as a gag writer for later films by, e.g., the Marx Brothers and Red Skelton. His own films having fallen into obscurity, Keaton had no problem recycling some of his greatest set pieces for the comedies of others. The documentary that accompanies the Criterion edition of The Cameraman includes side-by-sides of Keaton’s version of a gag and the later ones that he enabled others, such as Red Skelton, to do in their films. The “new” takes are virtually identical.

The documentary, So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM, details just how poorly he was understood by the micromanagers at MGM. The chapter of Keaton’s autobiography that is included in the booklet that accompanies the Criterion DVD also makes the case; in fact, the excerpt is titled: “The Worst Mistake of My Life”—that mistake being Keaton’s decision to sign with MGM in 1928. Keaton has kind words for “boy wonder” producer Irving Thalberg, whose “genius” Keaton repeatedly acknowledges; but Thalberg simply would not allow Keaton to follow his usual process of going into his projects with a mere outline of a script and improvising (not, however, the same as merely “winging”) his gags as he thought of them. No one, Keaton claims, laughed longer and harder at the result of this process than Thalberg himself. But the MGM style, rigidly enforced, was to have every detail of a script worked out and written up before filming began. A detail from the documentary that rivals the humor of Keaton’s film itself is the shot of the script in which the scriptwriter throws up his hands and calls one visual gag impossible to describe, as if to say, “Yes, I know you MGM bean-counters want me to describe this, but it just can’t be done, I tells ya!” The Cameraman was Keaton’s first film for MGM and he was able, through a series of unique circumstances, to finagle a way of doing the film his way, using his usual improvisational style, but it would be the last time he would be allowed to do so.

The result of that process, though silent, “speaks” (if you’ll pardon the pun) for itself. The Cameraman is an obvious work of comic genius. And it reminds us that we should put down our iPhones and our iPods for an hour-and-a-half and watch every film, every show, with undivided attention. The rewards for doing so are manifest and manifold.

Selected Keaton DVDs Available at MCLS

Buster Keaton Collection. Three films made by Buster Keaton for MGM. The Cameraman and Spite Marriage are silent films with musical scores. Free and Easy is Keaton's first talkie.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. A college student is forced by his crusty father to learn the ropes of riverboating during a feud between his father and a rival.

College. Ronald fights for the heart of his beloved coed, Mary. Ronald tries his hand as a baseball player, soda jerk, waiter, coxswain, and track star to win her love.

-Tom G. at Hopewell


*Yes, I know “Gangsta’s Paradise is by Coolio, not Busta Rhymes. But I can’t help it: I like puns.

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