I’m ashamed to say that for a long time and despite countless opportunities, I haven’t done nearly enough to support Flatpack, Birmingham’s annual film festival whose reputation grows every single year. It generates tremendous excitement about and interest in the artform that means the most to me, in the city that means the most to me, but I let it roll on by without fanfare. It’s smartly programmed, creatively curated and enthusiastically promoted, and although the main event takes place throughout the city in March, it hosts events all year round – events such as the simple and fabulous double bill I took in on Saturday afternoon of Buster Keaton’s silent classics Sherlock, Jr. and Cops, with a live piano accompaniment from Cyrus Gabrysch.
The setup was simple. Above us, the screen. To the left, a piano. In front, a performance area that commanded the audience’s initial attention, setting the mood with an appropriately wordless comedic skit about a diva who needed everything to be just so before she could possibly entertain the idea of actually singing her song. It was charming and sweet, involving both the pianist and several members of the audience, and made the event feel that little bit more special and considered.
And as for the films?
Cops and Sherlock, Jr. are both films with which I was previously familiar – indeed, I’d nominate Buster Keaton as my favourite comedian from the days of silent cinema. This is no backlash against the sentimentality of Charlie Chaplin, which I’m rather fond of, but a love of Keaton’s attitude, which is a unique joy. It’s that deadpan face. He’s constantly halfway between having planned everything ahead of time and improvising rapidly. Between knowing precisely what he’s doing and doing things for literally no reason. Between manipulating everybody around him and not having a clue what’s going on. His face gives away neither his motivations nor his reactions. It makes for big laughs when he simply has no emotional response to chaos – he can be dodging traffic, being chased by assailants, or even unwittingly stealing the contents of someone’s home with the owner’s equally unwitting help, and it has no effect on him. He just keeps the chaos going.
And then there’s the visual attitude and wit to his work, which is unparalleled. It’s fashionable, of course, to declare that modern cinema can’t hold a candle to the vintage stuff… but in this case, it’s really true. Everything is geared towards the visual joke in Keaton’s films. Take Sherlock, Jr., in which Keaton, as a detective-in-training, learns that an ability of the successful sleuth is that of close shadowing of a suspect:
A still image is funny enough – in motion it’s hysterical, the close choreography of the actors making for an absurd and lively set-piece. Keaton’s work is full of visual wit like this that is still so rare to see. In Cops, Keaton’s activities descend, as they so often do, into a lot of running around being chased, in this case by literally thousands of police officers. His chases are always incredibly fast and involve quick responses to rapidly-changing circumstances, and offer the opportunity to perform a series of rapid-fire jokes, but I’m not even bringing them up for that reason. I mention them because few other comedies that have articulated the comic imagery of Tiny Little Person Being Manic In Very Wide Shot readily spring to mind…
… but we can see it in South Park, when Cartman frantically runs around the children’s restaurant Casa Bonita in an attempt to have as much fun as he possibly can before being arrested.
It’s silly, energetic and timeless. And almost nobody’s doing it.
It’s unfair to watch only the absolute cream of the crop from ninety years ago and compare it to everything that’s out today, because that will necessarily include all of today’s rubbish. And you can identify directors attempting to produce the kind of jokes that Keaton perfected, combining acting, editing, composition and camera movement to generate clear visual comedy, and succeeding to boot. I’d put Edgar Wright’s name forward – and I can’t make the case for him any better than Tony Zhou already has – along with Quentin Tarantino and Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, among others. Even at its best, though, and while offering something quite different, their work rarely feels as beautifully simple as the classic comedy to which it owes a debt. Sitting among an eager audience, listening to a neatly-matched piano accompaniment, watching Buster Keaton pull stunts, run around, build tension and produce the unexpected time and time again makes one wonder what prevents his kind of comedy from reigning supreme today.
Maybe there’s no good answer. Maybe it’s a bad question. Maybe we should just be grateful that so many films from that era survive, and that organisations such as Flatpack are interested in continuing to screen them. But as I laughed at the gags and marvelled at the inventiveness on show, the fact that this was almost a century old, and unlike and more enjoyable than most things I’d seen recently niggled at me. What from today will be watched a century from now?
I agree, it is a very unfair thing to say. But it’s how I felt. Don’t worry, I’ll soon be back telling you about how apes with machine guns riding horses is the best thing since Orson Welles whispered “Rosebud”.