Friday, July 13, 2012

The Accessable Man & Life Changing Event that is Buster Keaton

Its no big secret that Buster Keaton is my newest obsession. I don't wish to hide it. The only thing I'm sheepish about is using my blog about British television to express it.

However, the other night I saw a wonderful BBC documentary from 2006, "Silent Clowns," hosted by Paul Merton. Nice. A link I can hang my hat on.

This program does not just beautifully highlight Keaton's career and comedy, but speaks to the joy of silent film as an art form. Watching it, I began to see that silent film is significantly more cross-cultural an experience than movies made since the advent of sound. Silent movies, especially silent comedies, speak a universal visual language.

Because his work has the capacity for such broad popular appeal, Keaton belongs to all of us. Notably, at a time when his career was hitting the skids in America, Keaton kept working in Europe and Mexico. Late in his career he enjoyed a resurgence of fame and was treated like a returning hero during stage performances in France. And the discovery and restoration of his films is also a global story -- one that stretches from L.A. to Czechoslovakia.

While reading everything I can about the man who fascinates me as much for his life story as for his brilliance, I find that certain themes begin to emerge. Commentators (such as Paul Merton, Richard Lewis, Edward McPherson, author of "Tempest in a Flat Hat") all want to talk about the circumstances under which they first encountered Buster. Like remembering where we were when the Twin Towers were hit, personal stories abound with respect to Keaton. Exposure to him seems to be a life changing moment for many people.

This wonderful clip is Richard Lewis' tribute to Keaton

Part of the reason Keaton makes such a big impact is not just that he is so talented, but that he is so unexpected. Modern people, in our self-importance, can hardly believe that films of this era could have been so well made and that anyone back then could have been so acrobatic, so surreal and so smart a comedian.

Beyond the theme of simply wanting to share our first encounters with the man lies a common desire to find links between him and ourselves. You often hear commentators speaking of the ways in which Buster influenced us or in which we are "like" him.  People want somehow to recognize a bit of themselves in what we so value in him.

That desire to find ourselves in Keaton touches on a theme I've expressed in my blog before: that of reality fantasy. Keaton is an everyman. We experience him as one of us. We feel like him and we want to be like him, and best of all, we somehow believe that we could. He is fundamentally accessible.

These feelings are remarkable given that he was not a regular guy at all. Keaton was extraordinarily beautiful. Although he was not generally filmed with an eye toward glamor, he had the most phenomenal look - full lips, enormous expressive eyes, high cheekbones, and thick dark hair -- yet somehow he isn't seen as a sex symbol. When people talk about his face they call it the "great stone face" and speak of its impassivity. He often portrayed down on his luck guys on the edge of wimpiness, yet he was supremely in control. He had a beautiful physique with which he could do astonishing feats of skill that most of us couldn't even dream of... or  imagine.

But he could.  He could dream it -imagine it -do it and film it, with nuance.

And despite his awesomeness, despite his extraordinary talent and skill -- he still, somehow, never feels out of reach to us. His genius is in allowing us all to share the emboldening effect of his movies.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Here's one you may not have heard of: Spy

Somewhere across the Atlantic a talented group of people is preparing to air the second season of a show that is obscure, strange and hard to find anything out about. Its likely to always remain strange but please, I hope, is on the road to the big time.

The show is "Spy," a deliciously smart and funny concoction, the brainchild of a really clever guy called Simeon Goulden who describes his idea for the show as follows: "well I think its about a nasty child and his single father. And I think the father maybe joins MI-5 by mistake."

The primer:
Tim Eliot is the main character, played by Darren Boyd. He is damn funny, dry and bumbling, yet with underlying intelligence and normalcy that makes you root for him in the crazy mixed-up life he's found himself in. Marcus his extremely irritating son. Marcus is supposed to be irritating, so I shouldn't find fault with him for that reason.

The high-tech spy stuff is a source of humor, such as when Tim enters headquarters and the recognition security doors never know who he is (mistaking him for women or inanimate objects) but letting him in anyway.

The spy boss, deliciously played by Robert Lyndsay (an ever-so-slight parody of Harry Pearce from Spooks?) is a hard-drinking, slightly out of touch man, in love with his power, a bit insane and generally inappropriate. He also is completely taken with Tim, though TIm disagrees with everything he says.

The rest of the cast is fabulously comedic and the writing top-notch, so that lines like these are not just funny but delivered with perfect timing:

Tim, trying to impress his coworker by acting very cool and walking in a cool way.
"Have you soiled yourself?"
"No. That's how men walk."
"Incontinent men, maybe."

Exchange between TIm and his co-worker Caitlyn upon whom he has a slight crush, when he finds himself at her place in a sketching class:
"Its a funny thing. When you were talking earlier about there being some nudity, I - I thought you meant . . ."
"Naked!? Get out a here What bit of what I said made you think that!"
"...uh, the words."

I can't wait for more like this. Though I'm sure I'll have to. I don't know when (nor if) the episodes will show up on Hulu. But I can tell you that last year's 6 episodes are all there for free and should be watched by lovers of great comedy. For those lucky enough to live somewhere that British shows are accessible in real time, you could watch the return of Spy tomorrow night (Friday the 13th. You don't think they did that on purpose do you?)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Anita, Andie and June Cleaver

Watching a melodrama parody from 1940 entitled "The Villain Still Pursued Her," I was struck with the beauty of the lead actress, Anita Louise. She was gorgeous in just the way that a modern audience was sure to appreciate. She had a look that struck me as reminiscent of someone I 'knew' well.

It was her mouth.

She had a lovely high cheeckboned sort of overbite that I could picture on someone . . . I knew I'd seen that unique mouth before. But where...

It took awhile, but then I knew it: Andie MacDowell! OK, I'm not saying they are lookalikes, but they do have the same "type" of mouth. I know it because I've always admired it on Andie. Its focused on the upper lip and upper teeth and seems to lead directly in to high, pronounced cheeckbones. Its the kind of look that makes her seem like she is always on the verge of saying the letter "F".

But then, the most interesting thing happened.

We've been watching "Leave it to Beaver" at our house lately. The show was playing this afternoon and I was noticing Barbara Billingsly, who played June Cleaver. Actually there are several things I've been noticing about June Cleaver that I missed the first time around. First, that she is very very thin; second that she is very very tall, and also that she is actually quite funny. But today I noticed something new: she has that mouth!

Maybe not quite as pronounced as Andie, but its there.