Silent Films and Me


Real rambly.

I’ve now seen three or four Buster Keaton movies, a lot of “Birth of a Nation” and the beginning of “Nosferatu,” and I think I’m ready to declare Keaton as the clear winner. First, his films weren’t overtly racist. Second, it almost seems like the other silent films are just filled with action-stopping dialog. Instead of telling the story visually — which is what I most admire from the Keaton films — they just have a movie where you read the dialog. It’s not a film rising above speech. It’s just filled with reading. What the hell fun is that?

And while we’re on it, the hype of how racist “Birth of a Nation” is? Dead on. It is REALLY racist. I could only scan around, because it was pretty boring otherwise, but the worst stuff I saw were lots of black-face (which always looks weird, but looks insane when it’s a white man surrounded by legitimately black men) and the general storyline. It is truly to be seen to be believed, but I’ll spoil it by saying that the sheet-wearing “Heroes” manage to “save” the South by lining outside of the black neighborhood, guns drawn, and intimidate the newly-freed slaves into not voting in government elections. Yikes.

What I may be responding to most in the Keaton films (which, for the record, are — to date — “The General,” “Steamboat Bill, Jr.,” “Sherlock Jr.” and… I swear there was another, but now I can’t remember) is that maybe the storytelling innovations displayed in these films were adopted by more modern movie makers than those of Murnau and Griffiths. The introduction of Keaton to his love interest in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” is so elegant I can’t stop picturing it. Set in a barber’s chair to have his mustache shaved, young William is spun around while his barber finishes up. As William looks down, disappointed, the chair opposite him also gets spun around, and sitting there — now facing William — is the girl he’s loved for years. She, too, looks down, until movie kismet demands them to raise their eyes and find each other. Magic. For a grope of films filled with incredible stunts and camera tricks, this simple movie tells everything you need without actually “telling” anything.

Another plus for Keaton’s films is the musical score, which I guess I shouldn’t hold against the others, because in many cases there really wasn’t a movie score. Just a copy of the music sent to the movie house piano player. But in any case, the score attached to the Keaton films feels to me like what it would have sounded like circa 1925. The score for “Nosferatu” sounds like Casio auto play, sometimes going contrary to the emotion of the filmed scene (it’s peppy when the actress on camera cries, etc.).

I’m going to keep watching, as it’s fascinating to see the time difference so clearly marked while finding some clear similarities.


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