Friday, January 08, 2016

The Sound of Buster Keaton

If you’re looking for a movie this weekend, why not try something a little older? Like, really old. Like, a silent film. Because the fun thing about silent films is that they needn’t be silent, and the choice of how they should come to audible life is entirely up to you.

Many silent films on DVD come with a few options for the soundtrack, usually something closer to the organ music you might have heard in the 20s but then sometimes something a bit more unusual. But why limit yourself to the DVD menu? If you can bring down the volume on your TV then you can bring up the volume on something else. Here are some ideas for killing two birds with one stone: watching a great movie, listening to some great music.

Buster Keaton’s 1924 comedy Sherlock, Jr. is a movie about movies. In it, Buster, a young projectionist, falls asleep on the job and dreams he can literally step into the films he screens. The movie, while hilarious, is also downright experimental. Try pairing this with something equally searching, say a Thelonious Monk album. You’ll notice that there are moments when the music and the picture synthesize into something whole, new, and unexpected, as if those moments had always been planned. At other times the music and the picture will drift apart, allowing your attention to follow one or the other.

College (1927) gives Keaton the perfect vehicle for his athleticism: he plays a young man attempting to become an athlete. Given all the scenes of long-jumping and pole-vaulting, some more muscular music might fit, like a selection of rockabilly tunes. They would capture the movie’s teenage longing and soda-fountain awkwardness, and also perfectly underscore that great scene at the end when the young man flings himself about the room, unleashing the full force of his hidden athleticism when rescuing his one true love.

This last idea is a bit of a cheat, but if you’re up for it, try watching Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) silently, that is, without any pre-planned soundtrack at all. It will definitely be awkward at first, just staring at the screen, but everything in this movie is so perfectly timed you will start to pick up on the rhythm of the film itself. The film, without music, will offer the effect of listening to music. Also, you’ll start to notice all the sounds that are already around you. Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a film largely about the rain and wind. Watch it on a stormy night and the elements outside your window will collaborate with Buster Keaton.

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