Category Archives: Reading Responses

Buster Keaton: from Vaudeville to the Dirty Sheet

So I forget who said it, obviously, because the brain is an imperfect sieve of imperfect thoughts….

But some important film theorist, be in Bazin or whomever, called the medium of Film the “intersection of the plastic and the rhythmic arts.” This thought has since stuck with me as I try and dissect how exactly it is I came to pursue a career within the filmic discipline.

Well let’s see. I love to paint, draw, write, read, act, sing… etc etc blah blah blah…. and as recite this laundry list of passions I find that, indeed they all comprise different facets of the medium. I have allowed my different passions to combine and expand, and shift, in order to form a new kind of artistic amalgamation within film.

This is to me, the way that Keaton reconciled his entrance onto the silver screen. Film didn’t diminish his talent, it magnified it, allowing him an attention to detail impossible in live performance, and a wider range of routines as a result of expanding narrative and locational possibilities. For Keaton, film was the artistic high dive – higher risk, but a hell of a lot more innovative and impressive if he could pull it off.

During Keaton’s vaudevillian prime, the newly developing medium of film was combating pigeonholing left and right. Critics and viewers alike were quick to define its purpose and parameters, its values and its flaws; its every capability and downfall. The adversity facing the new medium was overwhelming, there seemed to be a cheapness to it for many. If live performances were the local coffee shop, Film was Starbucks, the comodification and mass distribution of sentiment, talent and real experiences. The selling out of an artistic soul for a “nickel a pop.”

And while this purist approach to entertainment is understandable, it’s not loyalty but FEAR that drives the decision to shy away from new forms of artistic expression – be they filmic or otherwise.

Fuller’s “Boundaries of Perception”

“Audience participation,” something most frequently thought reserved for Raffi concerts and midnight screenings of “Rocky Horror,” is a much broader concept than generally imagined.

Archaic thoughts of “active” and “passive” viewing are too heavily contingent on the physicality of of the act of viewership, when there are MANY more facets to audience engagement than mere visceral reactions to the stimulus.

Likewise, the “active” vs “passive” debate relies far too deeply on the notion that participation is simultaneous with viewing, which in today’s internet based society, and even in the film reviews and critiques of yesteryear, is just not so. Participation is ongoing and personal. It can be screamed at the top of your lungs, it can be twittered all over the web, or maybe just marinating subtly in the deep dark depths of your mind… in any case, just because we aren’t running away with the film’s lead doesn’t mean we aren’t participants or active viewers.

I break down participation into three categories.

1) The Intellectual/Emotional

2) The Physical

3) The Communal/Cultural

So the intellectual/emotional is pretty self explanatory, these are the wheels that are turning in your head as you watch a film: your understanding of the plot, your recognition of famous actors, your criticisms with dialog… your disdain for dumb jokes or weird plot twists. Whether you LIKE the movie or not, and how it makes you feel. This experience continues even after the film is over, it effects the rest of your day, maybe even your week. Last of all these filmic interactions become a part of your intellectual encyclopedia, forever ingrained and ready for re-assessment.

The physical is related to your emotional response but specific to visceral reactions emanating from surprise, fear, and sadness/joy. This is your scream or seat jump when the serial killer pops up in the mirror behind the pretty girl taking out her contacts. These are your tears at the end of “Toy Story 3” even though you know your childhood toys can’t feel, and that a team of hardworking  writers and producers are essentially waving cinematic onions in front of you for those damn tears. Physical participation in the film is primarily involuntary and frequently a little embarrassing (as any boy who cried at the end of “The Notebook” will testify); it is a moment where we, or at least our body, forgets that the film is an illusion.

And then last, but certainly not least, comes the communal/cultural participation. While this type of participation often combines elements of the two previously mentioned viewer-active categories, the essential difference is that communal/cultural participation requires the manipulation and evolution of current and previous film experiences by the addition of discourse or shared activity. It may be a Grease sing-a-long at the Hollywood Arclight, or tweeting for a month about what the hell Inception was trying to say. It can be a film class discussion, or a movie date who whispers criticisms of ScarJo’s acting across the darkened theater. Maybe it’s walking out of a horrible film, maybe it’s going to a film you’ve heard is horrible. In any case communal/cultural participation is the imprint of others on your viewing experience, however big or small that imprint may be.

Fuller, Chapter One…

Ah the thrill of the traveling picture show!

What intrigues me most about Fuller’s account of film in the country before the depression is how well integrated into the vaudevillian arts it became, and how this integration was an inherent impulse of the cultural movement. Early film it seems, was initially thought, both by the traveling proprietors and audiences alike, to be better off sandwiched between and supplemented by other forms of art and entertainment than stand-alone. This choice can be dissected in a number of fascinating ways:

1) As a continuation of Vaudeville and Circus like entertainment

2) As a replication/imitation of theater

3) As the foundations of the quest for a perfected, fully sensory cinema

In many ways, the moving picture shows of Harris and Cook and the like incorporate all three concepts of the medium.  The films were short because of technology, yet also due to the fear of the audiences untrained attention spans. By the same token, the films were varied in subject matter because they sought to appeal to the masses,  the very same reason they incorporated song and slide show into their acts –  the only knowledge of a film audience came from other similar audiences, consequently, adapting the tastes of vaudeville audiences and theater goers was valid research and provided at least some semblance of a cultural foundation for the medium.

However, what I find more compelling, is the idea supported by certain film theorists whose names seem to escape me… is that perhaps film has always been searching to become a three dimensional all inclusive sensory experience. If so, this would this explain the inherent desire for painted frames and sound effects, for early musical scores and now 3-D… the quest for a perfect cinema.

Gunning: “The Aesthetic of Astonishment” and the “Cinema of Attractions”

Tom Gunning is stalking me. No, seriously.

I have somehow managed to read “The Aesthetic of Astonishment” and the “Cinema of Attractions” every year I have attended this fine institution of learned-ness. Now this is NOT a bad thing. Far from it, instead, each time I have re-read the aforementioned works, I have furthered my understanding of the evolution of the medium, and conversely the nature of its inherent unchangeable core.

I keep reading Mr. Gunning’s works because not only are they spot on to the specific era he targets, but they are perpetually relevant even within an ever changing and evolving medium.

Reflecting on my most recent encounter with Gunning, I’ve come to the conclusion that we really aren’t all that different from the earliest of audiences. The “big summer blockbuster” is powered by the reliability of spectacle: the explosions, the blood… the sex.We as an audience may be growing perpetually harder to shock and awe, but we still react the same way when the hero gets the girl and they kiss under the fireworks, we still value the grandeur of opulent costumes and convincing makeup and now CGI.We pay an extra four dollars at the movie theater to see things in 3-D, we wait in line dressed as Wizards and Witches for Harry Potter premieres, we shout at Rocky Horror, we watch to feel and to be made to feel.

Yes spectacle may have evolved, but the central core, the feelings of astonishment are there, we just have higher expectations.

Yet conversely, as a side effect of living in a perpetually post-modern society, we find ourselves rediscovering the wonders and spectacles of dated cinema. Perhaps this comes from my niche and narrow film major perspective, but the astonishment of the past is relived by generation after generation… those who know “You’ve Got Mail” or “Billy Madison” to be the norm can frequentl appreciate the spectacle of yesteryear’s “Spartacus” as well.

Just because something becomes briefly outdated doesn’t mean it loses its grandeur forever. After all, isn’t that the appeal of vintage clothes? Recycled theatricality?