Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton

I wrote a little about this 154-page monograph by Robert Knopf a few weeks back when discussing Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr. Now that I have finished it, I am even more impressed. In the context of creating a new critical framework for Keaton's work, Knopf has laid out what is for me a very useful and valid method for assessing what is sometimes called "Cinema of Spectacle."

Simply put, not every filmmaker makes storytelling his or her be-all and end-all. Nonetheless, critical consensus has coalesced around this concept and I find that every cockamamie writer and director (and even actor and photographer and costume designer) asserts in every single interview that their first priority is to be a "storyteller." It seems no one wants to be an entertainer anymore. Well, I know in fact this is hogwash. This is just ambitious journeymen sucking up to the current Hollywood critical fashion and not a serious manifesto of intent.

Do you seriously care whatever the heck it is James Bond is trying to get from the bad guys, or prevent them from doing? No, you want to see what kind of a cool chase they're going to have, how attractive the women are (this is a school-oriented blog, so I will maintain some decorum) and just how big the explosions will be when they destroy the evil super-villain's secret hideout. (Note--where do these villains get these super-loyal mercenaries who are willing to fight to the death to stop James Bond? If I was working for a paycheck for Dr. No or Blofeld or whoever and I just heard James Bond had entered the building, I would be out of there pronto!)

And a movie that has a car smashing into the side of helicopter and Bruce Willis "surfing" on a nuclear missile is not all about the storytelling. And how about those ever-popular slasher and other horror films? You knew the story walking in. What you want to know is--how good will the scares be?

The structure Knopf cites is that of the vaudeville show, a series of variety acts of all types and descriptions, between 8 and 12 per show, starting from the mildly amusing to the tear-down-the-house finish. Instead of a single rising arc arranged in a three act structure, a dozen little arcs distributed more or less regularly over the evening's entertainment.

So I will no longer suffer placidly through those entertainers who claim to be "storytellers." There is no "story" in having two poodles doing back flips on the top of a platform balanced on a pole resting on your chin, while you play the banjo and the bass drum. Hereinafter, when I see vaudeville, I am going to call out, "Story schmory--this is vaudeville!" I invite you to do the same.

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