From the very beginning, motion pictures were… magic. Of course, the medium has evolved to become one of the most important means of artistic expression that we’ve ever had– complex, subjective and ever-evolving. But sometimes all we want– indeed, all we need– is a little magic.
Perhaps the magic of cinema is found, in its purest form, in silent comedy. Hardly a definitive statement, but after tonight’s screening of Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre for the TCM Classic Film Festival … I am hard pressed to find anything more magical than in the visual purity of silent comedy. One definition of magic is, in fact, “The exercise of sleight of hand or conjuring for entertainment.” At the ripe age of 10, it was that sleight of hand and truly magical conjuring of delightful laughter, and wrenching tears, in the films of Charlie Chaplin that gave me my first love of silent film, and my undying passion for silent comedy. And the skilled sleight of Buster Keaton’s hand in The Cameraman (indeed, the exceptional skill in most all of his work) fits Merriam-Webster’s definition to a tee. How did he do it? There are books dedicated to the exploration of it. But the result is magic.
Ask the audience at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. A crowd of crisscrossed demographics, truly boggling in their variety. USC film students, venerated film historians (Kevin Brownlow, Leonard Maltin), Hollywood hipsters lured by word of mouth and Midwest purists on pilgrimage. Some of us clapping madly at the The Cameraman’s iconic moments (Keaton riding proudly on a fire-engine) while others’ jaws dropped in awe at witnessing Keaton’s physical fearlessness for the first time. Packed in like sardines, different (quite possibly) in the extreme, yet all with the same knee-jerk reactions of Buster’s seemingly effortless comedic… magic.
I do not mean to imply that silent films are in some way uncomplicated or without depth. Quite the contrary in fact. And it is indeed those delicate complexities and layers of humor and heart that are integral to the magic of silent film.
The live orchestra was a definite feather in Buster’s cap.
Vince Giordiano and his Nighthawks are an east-coast based jazz ensemble that are absolute purists for the music of the ’20s and ’30s. Their music has appeared in period films like Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator and shows like Boardwalk Empire (also Scorsese, hmm…) and what sets them apart is that they do not imitate hot jazz– they are highly fluent in the language of early 20th century music, understand the psychology and sociology of the culture that created it and there fore play it with striking authenticity. It was that authenticity that provided a truly perfect background for Keaton’s film (their set list weaving in period hits like Because My Baby Don’t Mean Maybe, Runnin’ Wild and The Mooche), creating an extra layer of energy that ramped up the audience’s already considerable excitement.
My favorite moment of this weekend’s festival hands down. And one of my favorite experiences to have ever had at the movies period.