It was only in the 1920s that “talkies” became the popular film currency, eclipsing more than two decades of silent film. Prior to “talkies,” cinema was an entirely visual experience, and a monochrome one at that. And I had no idea how pure film could be – and how cluttered the modern cinema-going experience actually is – until recently, when I saw Buster Keaton’s majestic film Seven Chances.
One of the perks of working in an editorial capacity with a magazine is that from time to time you get cool stuff for free. Since this occurrence is decidedly atypical in my punk rock (aka Kowloon) upbringing, you can imagine the restraint it takes not to giggle boyishly and thrust a fist or two in the air when it actually happens. And giggle and thrust (see previous sentence) I did when I received two complimentary tickets to Seven Chances a few weeks ago.
Much to my chagrin, I must confess that prior to this screening I had never seen a Buster Keaton film. Of course I had heard about him, often in the same breath as Charlie Chaplin. Incidentally, watching The Great Dictator at the Herzliya Cinematheque in Israel was the best cinema experience I have had in the last decade – so I was relishing the chance to see a Chaplin contemporary on the silver screen. I’m really only using words like “relishing” to cover up the air of shame I feel due to the fact that my only Keaton movie experiences involve Diane or Michael Keaton (my preference being the former’s reprised roles in various Woody Allen’s).
Friday evening, I met my father at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club (that’s just how we roll) for a pre-film curry (that’s actually how we roll) and to imbibe my favorite FCC libation – the gunner. I know it’s the correspondent’s club and all, but gruesome photographs of Vietnam War atrocities still strike me as unusual choices for dining room art. But what do I know? After a lovely meal, we hopped into a taxi and headed to the Arts Centre in Wan Chai, where the lovely red-hued Agnès B. Cinema is housed.
Things were looking good, especially when I heard that fellow collective member and college snow-tackling target Grace was going to make an appearance. There were no trailers and pin-drop silence was the sole accompaniment to the opening credits. It was at this moment that I was struck by the incredible realization that what I was seeing was 86 years old; the eyes of the public first beheld the film in 1925.
Seven Chances is essentially a love story between James Shannon (played by Keaton) and his girl (played by Ruth Dwyer). Throughout the ebb and flow of the seasons, Shannon’s singular longing is to reveal his love for his girl. Things go a bit haywire when one day he is told that his grandfather has left him an inheritance of a cool seven million, his for the taking provided that he gets married by 7pm that very day. And so the comedic premise is set into motion, with Shannon first asking for his girl’s hand, being rejected, and subsequently trying all manner of things (including taking out an advert in a newspaper) to get someone, anyone, to marry him. After all, you’d be bonkers not to act similarly if seven million was at stake (I hereby reveal the driving motivation behind my own decision to wed).
There are three things which struck me most throughout the duration of the film. The first was sheer delight. I have never laughed so hard in a theater in my life. And it was the uncontrollable, irrepressible kind too (the kind I felt as a kid watching The Gods Must Be Crazy and Mr. Bean). I doubt I was alone in this sensation; due to the absence of film dialogue and music, one of the most enchanting and magical parts of the evening was hearing the sound of everyone’s laughter billowing through the theater.
Another noteworthy element was the brilliance of Buster Keaton’s physical comedy. I don’t think I’m qualified to make any grand statements about whether he is the best (as in better than Chaplin) since I’ve only seen one of his films, but his slapstick precision and dexterity is nothing short of astounding. Rumor has it that Keaton fell down some stairs at the ripe age of six months, only to emerge unscathed. Harry Houdini was for some reason on the scene, was apparently impressed, and consequently gave him the name “Buster” for all his trouble. Keaton does a lot more than fall down a flight of stairs in Seven Chances and the film’s ending sequence is a an eloquent testimony to the depth of his gift. With such an impeccable physical performance, there is really no need for aural accoutrement. The fact that films today rely so heavily on various forms of sexual innuendo and toilet humor to generate laughs makes it obvious that we don’t have even remotely as gifted a comedic actor as Keaton (Woody Allen and Peter Sellers are crude approximations at best).
Finally, watching this silent wonder distilled something of the purity of cinema for me. Without dialogue and especially without the emotional training wheels of a soundtrack, I was all the more attentive to every expression, gesture, and movement. I actually watched. There was a very direct connection between what I saw and what I felt – refreshingly unfiltered by theatrical manipulation or “hey-this-is-especially-important-so-feel-something” moments. More importantly, there was such a current of vitality pulsing through the film that I entirely forgot that it was silent.
This soundless vitality is perhaps the reason for Seven Chances’ longevity. 86 years on, it still has the capacity to make audiences buckle with laughter. While I don’t pretend to understand exactly why this the case – some things are better left mysterious anyway – there’s something very comforting about the notion that human beings across time and culture find similar things funny. So, here’s to you Buster, for giving us plenty of chances to marvel at your physical comedy and to enjoy a truly unadulterated form of timeless cinema.
4 thoughts on “Silence is Golden with Buster Keaton”
OMG, if Seven Chances is the only Buster Keaton film you’ve seen, get with it buddy and watch all of his silent work! Seven Chances isn’t even his best work. When the film was first made Buster thought it was a bomb until he accidently stumbled, setting a few small rocks loose rolling after him as he ran down the hill. He thought it was funny and all of a sudden he got the brilliant idea of hundreds of boulders, huge to small, following him as he ran like the wind. He once said that scene saved the movie.
You should not only watch his genius at play, (The General is considered a masterpiece) you should also read his biography. It was fascinating to say the least. He took many risks during his silent days. From letting a 2000 pound structure fall around his motionless body to the breaking of his neck, which by the way, he did not know he broke until 10 years after.
Trust me, if one of his mediocre movies (Seven Chances) gets your attention this much, you’ll only thank me later for this heads up email. Buster Keaton was the best.
A huge fan of the Great Stone Face,
Thanks for the tips Debbie! I had heard about the “accident” which inspired the boulder scene. The General is next on my list and his biography sounds fascinating, though if there’s even more wonder to behold, I might not be able to handle it.
Great post! Did you see Scorsese’s “Hugo” yet? An epic, big budget 3D talkie – but it’s a beautiful love letter to film history and to the old, simple ways of making movies. It’s worth checking out – especially considering this post. And in the meantime, I’m going to go check out Buster Keaton’s movies – because, ashamed as I am to admit it, I haven’t seen ANY.
Hey Ceej I haven’t seen Hugo yet – it’s not out yet in HK. I’ll check it out on your recommendation though!