Tuesday, August 30, 2011

That's Typing Tuesday # 17: My Introduction To Buster Keaton

"That's Typing" Tuesday, in which I share unpolished, unpublished writings from my vast store of unpolished, unpublished writings. On Tuesdays.

I don't know how you first became acquainted with Buster Keaton, arguably the greatest film comedian of all time, but my introduction came from the unlikeliest of sources, a book about the Beatles. In The Beatles in Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night: A Complete Pictorial Record of the Movie, editor J. Philip di Franco interviewed director Richard Lester and asked him the following question:

"How and why do you cut, cross cut, jump cut or shoot a particular scene this way or that. What theory do you use to make films?"

To which Lester responded, quite candidly:

"Well, I think all those things are valid, but you lose the kind of cutting that normally exists. The focus puller has lost focus because he has gone the wrong way with the handle, or the opening and the end of the shot are excellent, and the middle is blurred so you lose it, and you have to piece it where you couldn't see who is in it.

"That is the first kind of editing for me. If you want to go into it, I will show you shot by shot, list by list, of where you are saving a catastrophe by editing. For example, in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Buster Keaton was picked for a role in which he does what he usually does, which is be physical. He arrived dying, in the last stages of an incurable disease and we find that he can walk, but certainly not run. Therefore we have to find a double for Buster Keaton. When you have a shot where he is supposed to be coming along, he does a bit of action, bumps into a tree and falls down, you end up using eight cuts because Buster can't run that distance. So you have to have a shot to establish that it is Buster, then the long shot for the double, then another shot to remind everybody that is Buster, then another long shot, etc. ..., a close-up for him when he says his lines. All that is totally wrong in terms of one's principles, one's hopes, one's feelings toward the scene, but that is what you do. That is number two. I am afraid that I must stick everything that you said down at the end at number three."

Now when I first read that, when I was, I'm guessing, seventeen, I didn't know Buster Keaton from Diane Keaton (or for that matter, Buster Olney, the ESPN sports analyst who was to become a buddy of mine in college—Katherine says "hey," Buster), and it was a long time before I finally saw a Buster Keaton movie, but that story always stuck with me.

Strange knowing the unbearably sad ending of the story before I ever knew its beginning, but there you have it.

Anyway, for reasons I don't understand, I found myself regaling Katie-Bar-The-Door with that yarn this morning, and then I realized that thanks to the efforts of my little brother, who rescued the Beatles book from the trash pile at my mother's house during one move or another, I could share it with you, verbatim.

Now you have a glimpse into what it must be like to be married to a film buff with a pack rat's memory and a penchant for obscure anecdotes. Lucky you.


Yvette said...

Great story, M.M. I only have a vague memory of the film version of FUNNY THING HAPPENED...but I do remember Keaton was a surprise casting choice and it worked very well, regardless the machinations behind the scenes.

Did he pass away at the end of filming? I'm not sure I know the story.

(I actually saw the show on Broadway and it worked much better on the stage than on film. Zero Mostel, live, was an Occasion.)

At any rate, we film buffs are hard to live with no matter what. We remember all sorts of bits and pieces from films and shows and whatnot - bits and pieces that are likely to spill out of us at the most inappropriate times.

Life is a gigantic movie set. :)

mister muleboy said...

Zero Mostel, live, was an Occasion.

Yvette, you are some lucky. Live must have been some treat.

But have no misapprehensions: Zero was an Occasion anywhere, anytime. Film, photo on the web, anecdote

just amazing

Mythical Monkey said...

Did he pass away at the end of filming? I'm not sure I know the story.

I looked it up just to be sure. Filming wrapped in November 1965, Keaton died on February 1, 1966 and the film was released in October of that year. It was Keaton's last movie. He was 70.

Mythical Monkey said...

Zero was an Occasion anywhere, anytime.

You know, maybe my favorite Zero Mostel performances is in The Front, in which he is not only funny but poignant as well. Aside from some voice work on The Electric Company and in Watership Down, it was his last film.

Maggie said...

I hate to compare Chaplin with Keaton, but, I will. I felt Keaton pain, his sorrow. Every emotion was felt. I never feel that with Chaplin.

Anyway, Keaton is a true master.