Last night I attended the San Francisco International Film Festival silent movie event at the Castro–four Buster Keaton shorts (two of them actually Fatty Arbuckle shorts with Keaton in supporting roles), accompanied by Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs along with guitarist Ava Mendoza.
This is something of a tradition at the Festival–screening silent films with accompaniment by musicians with a strong, local following. Some people come because they love the music, others because they love the movies. The result is a large crowd and a merging of two different fandoms. When it works, it’s great. When it doesn’t, it’s horrible.
Last night’s worked–for the most part.
I’ll take these one by one, in the order they were presented.
Buster Keaton’s second film as star and auteur, and the first one released, is rightly considered a classic. It follows newlyweds as they attempt to build a house from a kit–with very bad results. Highlights include a storm that sends the house spinning on its foundation (during the house-warming party, of course), and the first of Keaton’s many great train gags.
Good Night, Nurse!
This Fatty Arbuckle two-reeler is the only short of the evening I hadn’t seen before. Fatty’s wife sends him to a clinic where his alcoholism will be surgically removed. It’s never explained how. Keaton plays the surgeon. It’s quite funny–especially the drunk sequence at the beginning–but runs out of steam before it’s finished.
The Haunted House
One of Keaton’s less-shown shorts, which is a pity, since in my opinion it’s one of his best. It starts in a bank (Keaton is a teller) then moves to an old house that a gang of counterfeiters have rigged up to look haunted. The glue-and-cash sequence, and the running gag involving a staircase that turns into a slide are both priceless.
When I first posted about last night’s show, I said I hadn’t seen this one before. I was wrong. Set in a restaurant with Fatty cooking and Buster waiting tables, it allows both comedians several chances to perform priceless bits. But like "Good Night, Nurse," it begins to drag near the end.
I’d never heard of Merrill Garbus, tUnE-yArDs, or Ava Mendoza before this event. They’re very good, in their own art rock sort of way.
For the most part, I liked their accompaniment. They added real terror to One Week’s storm sequence, without violating the comedy. Their music enhanced the comedy, and synced very well with it. In a scene in "The Cook" where an on-screen audience applauds, they stopped playing music and applauded.
They had their off-moments. Garbus occasionally sang, which was distracting and added nothing.
But their worst problem was volume. I’m a Who fan and no stranger to loud music. But theirs was so loud I could barely hear the audience laughing. That takes much of the joy out of watching Keaton with an audience.
The Prints (or Lack of Them)
The physical condition of the movies themselves was the biggest disappointment. Of course they came from sources that were scratched and faded, but that’s to be expected from films of this vintage.
The Festival added to the problem by screening them digitally–and they didn’t look to me like high-quality DCP. I would guess that the Keaton shorts were off the Buster Keaton Short Films Collection Blu-ray. Considering the condition of the original film sources, that was acceptable. But the Arbuckles appeared to be off of a DVD. There’s something no way that a DVD can look anything but awful on the Castro’s giant screen.
I know that there’s at least one good, 35mm print of "One Week;" I saw it in 2007–at an SFIFF event. I’m pretty sure that when I saw "The Cook," it was a 35mm print, as well. But that was before I started blogging my movie-going and I’m not sure.
Despite the loud music and bad "prints," it was still an evening worth visiting. Garbus’ sense of humor goes very well with Keaton’s, and Keaton’s goes very well with everything.