Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Kris and Adam Discuss AFI’s Top 100: City Lights

Kris Jenson, with whom I've had the best discussions of my life, is an old friend of mine from Boston. We had been talking about the American Film Institute's Top 100 when he got a job at Dig Boston, writing about just that. Instead of letting the conversation end just because he's a big, fancy writer now, I'm going to write responses to his articles. I can't keep up with his movie watching, so I'm only responding to the ones I've seen.

Finally, time to cut the bullshit. I lumped as much praise on "Modern Times" as I will ever give a Chaplin film and now it's time to just go negative. The biggest problem with "City Lights" is that it was made by Charlie Chaplin, and not Buster Keaton. Sure, Chaplin was bigger at the time, but if we're talking about 100 examples of classic cinema, the discussion becomes about how to today's audiences, Chaplin moves are boring, cheesy, melo-dramatic, and lame. On the other hand, Keaton's movies reach a level of brilliance that transcends all time. If you have the patience to watch a silent film, Keaton should be your first stop. You'll be hooked.

Okay, real fast, some praise for "City Lights". I love the opening shot. I even emulated it in a student film. The boxing scene is really fun to watch. It would have been better as a self-contained short, though. The rest of the movie is just over-wrought. I can't even explain how little I care about the tramp or his blind love. I vaguely remember falling asleep while watching it. Oh right, this paragraph was supposed to be praise. Oh, thought of one. The movie becomes a lot more fun if you say, "City Lights" like the City Wok guy from "South Park." Shitty Lights, indeed.

Back to Keaton. The strength of silent movies is their ability to tell a story without dialogue. The masters of the craft were the ones able to bring a distinctive visual style to their work. Buster Keaton pulled of physical feats no human should be able to do. He gave of himself for film. In "Sherlock, Jr." he famously landed on train tracks neck first, broke his neck, stood up, and ran into the background. Let me be clear. He did not run off screen. He broke his fucking neck, then ran straight back long enough that the shot could hold and slowly fade out. This kind of impressive schtick came straight out of Vaudeville, and no one captured it on screen better than Keaton. He pushed the boundaries of what the medium could do.

It is impossible for there to be another Keaton. The best we can get now are internet videos, in short bursts, with no story. Students of Parkour and Freerunning are just training to do what Buster Keaton got paid to make movies doing. Keaton allowed himself to be wrecked for his art. Nowadays, no movie studio would allow a star to put himself in that much danger. The insurance would be astronomical.

Don't just think these were the action movie of their time. Keaton tapped into a Depression-era feeling of absurdity and hopelessness, but his stone-faced resilience allowed everyone to laugh at even the most desperate of situations. That face is what separates Keaton from Chaplin. Chaplin mugs at the camera as though he demands the audience feel his pain, damn it. I'll give him some credit, as he was inventing a whole new style of acting for movies, but watching Chaplin now just comes across so shallow. You know he's sad because, look, his face is so sad.  His movement is balletic and his emotions come across the same. It's just so opera-y.

That's fine, but considering the style of movie making has moved so far away from that overwrought crap and into more heightened realism, it's amazing to me Keaton doesn't get more credit. His emotionless face made him the calm center in a crazy world. The audience latches onto him immediately, not because we're forced to but because he's just naturally our conduit. As much as Brando, De Niro, and Streep get credit for their more out there emotional moments, they're considered the best film actors of all time because of that natural serenity. They are not AC-TORs in a MOOOOVIE; they're just people on screen.

Keaton taught comedians and actors for nearly a century what it means to be on screen. His films are a study in the pushing the boundaries of simple filmmaking and the fundamentals of film acting. I could watch "The Goat" and "Sherlock, Jr" over and over again. The chase at the end of "Seven Chances" is one of the boldest pieces of filmmaking ever. Thank God, "The General" made it onto the updated AFI List, but it's a shame he's still over-shadowed by 3 fucking Chaplin films.

Seriously, fuck Chaplin. Fuck him so hard.

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