Monday, June 14, 2010

Monday Film Class: Buster and Charlie, Charlie and Buster

I full intended to re-watch and subsequently discuss Last Year at Marienbad, but unfortunately it is still sitting on the television. This week I haven't watched any movies though I have watched almost the entire second season of Party Down with my husband. Hopefully I will be back on track next weekend.

My recommendations for this week go back to the silent era. By watching silent films you can really learn everything you need to know about filmmaking. All of our visual cinematic language was truly created from about 1895-1927. It's often said, and I agree, that sound stunted the growth of cinema as an art form and if silent films extended their heydays by a decade the visual language of film would be exceedingly strong. Silent films are often even harder for students than foreign films. I can attest to this, when I was in college my film history class was a two semester sequence and the entire first semester was 1895-1927. We watched all the films on silent speed with no musical accompaniment. In reality silent films where not silent at all they always had at least a piano player and at times an orchestra. During the semester I thought it was torturous, but once you become accustomed to viewing silent films they are easier to digest and are very enjoyable.

The best place to start to ease your way into the silents is with the comics. Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin are not only funny, but also superior filmmakers. They are also both extremely different. Buster Keaton does almost unbelievable stunts particularly considering this was before any safety measures. He also uses a lot of trick photography and symmetrical composition. His films are well planned out. Keaton is the master of the deadpan and relies more on the structure of his films than an emotional punch. Often Keaton is challenged by seemingly unbeatable odds; it's not one cop, but hundreds.

Chaplin, on the other hand, packs on emotional wallop. I don't think there is any film made before or after that matches the emotion at the end of The Kid. A while back there was a Bank of America Commercial (or some similar company) that used just the end of the film when Chaplin is racing across the city roofs to rescue his adopted child and I was tearing up. I didn't even have to see little Jackie Coogan. In his work Chaplin relies heavily on his supporting actors and would burn through magazines of film allowing for improvisation. He did not really script out his stories at length. He is most famous for developing the character of the "little tramp." The sweet, lovable, down on his luck clown has become iconic.

Pretty much any film you can pick up directed by one of these masters will be an experience. Be sure that they directed the film and are not simply featured. For Keaton I highly recommend Cops, Sherlock Jr., The General, and Steamboat Bill, Jr. For Chaplin: The Immigrant, The Kid, The Gold Rush, Modern Times and City Lights.  These are not exhaustive lists by any means, but I don't want to overwhelm anyone with silents. In my experience most students are wary of the silents, but Chaplin and Keaton helps to reduce their fears. Often students prefer one or the other and become very defensive of their chosen director. It is always a good class for me when a student who was vehemently opposed to watching silent films at the beginning of the semester sits in class arguing for Buster Keaton's composition and visual impact with another student who prefers the emotion of Chaplin.

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