Posts Tagged ‘comedy’

buster keaton busThere’s a friendly rivalry – at least in retrospect – between Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.  Who is the greatest silent clown? Is it the sweet and genial Little Tramp, or the great Stoneface, equally small and lithe and seemingly always behind the eight ball? Every time I watch a Chaplin film, I’m convinced that it must be Chaplin.  But today, I think that Keaton has the edge.  Because I finally watched The Cameraman.  

In contrast to his acknowledged masterpiece The General, Keaton’s The Cameraman is a smaller film, less heavy on the sight gags and insane stunts, and far more reliant on the gentle nature of his protagonist as he attempts to impress a pretty girl.  But it’s also a story of art and moviemaking, of what constitutes ‘good’ cinema.  Where Sherlock Jr. gave us cinema as narrative magic, The Cameraman gives us cinema verite.

The plot could be just about any Keaton (or Chaplin) film: the scrappy little fellow meets a girl, is smitten and immediately sets about trying to win her heart.  In this case, the way to do that seems to be to become a newsreel cameraman.  Naturally enough, this sets up all the gags we might expect: Keaton attempts to film a Yankees game, only to arrive at an empty stadium.  Never one to be outdone, he plays the game himself, acting as pitcher, batter, umpire and fielders.  Then he tries to film a Tong war with hilarious results that include the near destruction of his camera and his friendship with a monkey.  There are other sketches too: Keaton attempts to change his clothes in a swimming pool dressing room also occupied by another, much larger fellow – watch that one closely, because old Stoneface actually cracks up several times; he loses his bathing suit and must obtain another one; displaced from a bus with his lady love, the old boy rides on the side instead.  As with all Keaton gags, the physical comedy is meticulously constructed, such that we’re almost bored by the seemingly meaningless set-up.  Then the gag hits and the man’s true genius – all that build up, for a moment of exceptional acrobatic hilarity – comes through.

The Cameraman is much more than the sum of its gags, however.  The love story, often secondary in Keaton’s work, comes forward.  Never have I cheered so heartily for the little guy.  His sweetness, and the girl’s apparent disregard for his qualities, is heartbreaking.  His attempts to win her have a tentative nature, though.  She really isn’t callous, nor does she fail to understand him; she simply is uncertain of what she wants.  It’s a complex narrative, and one that evinces a much deeper contemplation of human relationships than usually seen in silent comedies.

the cameraman 1

Keaton’s musings on his own art also impress.  The cameraman’s failure to produce ‘usable’ newsreel footage at first is complicated by the quality of what he does produce.  Simply by accident he overlaps frames of a battleship and Broadway, spools a swimmer diving backwards, and creates a pandemonium of traffic in spliced together footage.  These are scenes that are not only hilarious; they would be welcome in European arthouse films of the same period.  But that’s not what newsreel is about, and the cameraman finally learns where the demands of his profession lie.  The footage he takes of the Tong war is GOOD; intense, close-up scenes of mob violence and knife fights.  Throughout the film, we watch a director directing himself, then see the footage that he produces.  Few contemporary musings on the nature of the cinema art come so directly, and poignantly, to the point.

What Keaton has done with The Cameraman is to draw a parallel between the different forms of cinema, from camera tricks and manipulation to the ability of movies to present reality.  It is a movie that finally convinces the girl that she was wrong about him.  His native understanding of what constitutes good cinema gets him his job.  The cameraman will never be rewarded with a ticker-tape parade, but as far as Keaton is concerned, he should be.  In the end, it is cinema, in all its forms, that tells the inherent truth.

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Actually, especially Niles.  Ahem.

I did not used to be a big television watcher.  I blame this on my parents cruel denial of cable television from the time I was about six until I was eleven.  By the time we actually got massive numbers of channels, I was not exactly interested in watching TV shows religiously.  There were only a few during my teenage years that I took any interest in: The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, South Park, The Simpsons, Family Guy, Friends.  And Frasier.  I loved Frasier.  And this year, I fell in love with it again.

Don’t ask me why, because I certainly don’t know.  It all began when a good friend of mine had to unexpectedly be taken to the hospital.  In order to distract him from some pretty excruciating kidney pain, Roxy and I began talking about anything we could think of.  We covered music, movies, and literature, and finally settled on television.  Every show we’d ever watched was discussed.  And it became clear that one of the shows we all wildly loved was, in fact, Frasier.

The best shows are the ones that make you happy to watch them, that have actual characters, story arcs, plot structure.  One of the things I always loved about Frasier, back when it was on the air and now, was how kind a show it actually was.  There were no acts of cruelty passed off as humor, no vicious back-stabbing, no jokes for the sake of offense.  The closest they came to being mean was when Daphne gained a lot of weight and fat jokes abounded.  But by that point, we had such affection for the characters, for Daphne herself, that a few bad puns (“It took three Cranes to lift you!”) did not turn the whole show into a mean-spirited farce.

I personally was a huge fan of the Niles/Daphne relationship (as are most people, I’ve come to realize).  Unlike the Ross/Rachel combination on Friends, Niles and Daphne’s romance matured, beginning as a puppy love crush and ending with marriage and children.  It was, in retrospect, an actual ADULT relationship between two adult people.  By the time they finally came to terms with their feelings for each other, poor Niles had had his heart broken several times and Daphne had fallen for him of her own accord.  It was handled with a kindness and, moreover, a seriousness that went far beyond its beginnings as a chance for double entendres.

Frasier opened the way for a combination of incredibly smart humor and excellent, old school physical comedy.  The best episodes are the ones that allow the entire cast to flex their muscles.  And the cast really did make it.  For all intents and purposes, it was a cast of five orbited by a few recurring characters.  The falling off of the last few seasons was mostly a result of lesser writing and too much emphasis on the subsidiary characters (we did not need Daphne’s mother complicating relationships, although I did enjoy Felicity Huffman’s brief stint as Julia).  And there were some weird plot twists: Maris commits a murder, Niles randomly gets a heart condition (a plot arc that ended suddenly and was never spoken of again), etc, etc.  But every great show jumps the shark at some point and, by the end of it, I think that Frasier came back around to what they did best: smart humor, physical comedy and real human emotion.

I’ve seen it written that the end of Frasier marked the end of the sitcom.  Whether that’s a good or bad thing is up for debate, but at least it was a show unembarrassed by its intellectual pretensions, which can sometimes be very difficult to come by.  All I really know is that when I quote it, at least two people laugh.

“She called my show bourgeois.  I said that anything with mass appeal can be called bourgeois.  Then she called my argument bourgeois.  Which I found to be rather jejune.”

No, as a matter of fact, I am not afraid of no ghosts.

I was going to do a review of Thor (big, shiny and sexy, for those who want to know), but then I decided that everything good, bad and indifferent about it has been written.  Go here for a good, comprehensive review by someone far more knowledgable about the Marvel Universe than I.  Instead, I’m going to favor you with one of my continuous obsessions.  One that a lot of people share.

I have a tendency to get really, really excited about certain things.  Books, movies, actors, directors, writers, bands … these usually form the center of my obsessive desires.  I geek out all the time.  But it’s a wide and varied spectrum, untethered by time period or coolness factor.  And there are gradations of obsession.  I was passionate about The Beatles for most of my high school career.  I don’t think there has been a time since I first saw Notorious when Alfred Hitchcock was not my favorite director.  Hunter S. Thompson has been a great hero since college.  And then there’s Ghostbusters.

You know Ghostbusters.  EVERYONE knows Ghostbusters.  It came out two years before I was even born.  When I was a child, I mashed the two Ghostbusters movies together into one gigantic Ghostbusting memory that undoubtedly involved the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man fighting the Statue of Liberty in the Hudson River.  Egon Spengler was one of the first crushes I ever had.  Yeah, that’s right, THIS guy:

I think it was the hair and the glasses and the whole brainiac thing.  Also, being a faculty brat and continuous student, I have a thing for slightly weird academics.  I still think he’s pretty damned sexy, but that’s another post.  I watched the Ghostbusters cartoon, wholly confused by the fact that Egon seemed to be wearing Cool Whip on his head and Peter sounded like Garfield.  I had an outfit, made up of khaki pants and an army jacket that I stole from my mother.  I pinned poorly drawn decals of ghosts to the sleeves.  I WAS a Ghostbuster, dammit!

In the years that followed, my passion for this greatest of American comedies waned.  I turned to other, more esoteric interests.  I became a cinephile and book nerd and looked down my nose at such common things as popular comedies.  Then, one day, I went to Montreal with my parents for a film conference.  And the first Ghostbusters happened to be playing on television.

That was when my little five or six or seven year old self began running around, crying to be let out.  I felt suddenly ecstatic, like someone told me the Easter Bunny was real.  In the days, weeks and months that followed, I basically relived all my childhood.  I wrote a paper for my horror/sci-fi class at NYU on comic apocalyptic imagery in the first film.  I rewatched both films numerous times.  I began watching the TV series again.  While I did not go so far as to, say, build a proton pack or buy a jumpsuit, I definitely did my best to completely geek out.

Ghostbusters for me was not just a really cool movie.  When I was a child, I was frightened of ghosts.  Still am, to tell the truth.  And what Ghostbusters did was prove to me that ghosts were scary, yeah, but they were also funny, ridiculous, something to laugh it.  And when they were scary, well, there were always those guys dressed like exterminators who would show up and stop them.  For me now, Ghostbusters represents New York, home, and the exceptional power of the comic to transcend terror.  In less than a week, I’m going to get a tattoo on my shoulder of the Ghostbusters logo.  It might be a little trite, a little straightforward, but it actually means something to me.  It means that, in the end, laughter will win.  Or maybe it just means that I was born in the 80s.  One or the other.