Tim Lanza (Cohen Film Collection) and Cecilia Cenciarelli (Cineteca di Bologna)
Music composed and directed by Timothy Brock, performed by the orchestra of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna
Promoted by Mobil 1 – BluVanti
Sherlock Jr. marked the beginning of a heated debate about a pervasive surrealism in Buster Keaton’s works, which engaged filmmakers, philosophers and playwrights to these days.
In 1924, when the film was released, René Clair suggested that the film could be a model for “surrealist spectators” comparable to the one supplied for the theatre by Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author.
Keaton’s use of dream as well as graphic-match montage – something he was very proud of to the end of his days – was hailed as revolutionary by the likes of Antonin Artaud and Robert Aron, who, in his 1929 essay Films de révolte stressed how Keaton’s surrealism was “superior” than Man Ray’s or Luis Buñuel’s, in that Keaton had been able to achieve expressive freedom while observing the rules of narrative filmmaking. Buñuel was himself a devotee of Keaton’s lack of sentimentality, of his transformative work with objects and use of dreams and programmed his films at the Cineclub Español in Madrid starting from the beginning of 1930.
In the 1960s, following the re-release of Keaton’s films, a new critical assessment of Keaton’s surrealist qualities took place, and while Greek filmmaker Ado Kyrou described Sherlock Jr. as “one of the most beautiful dreams in the history of cinema”, it was surrealist critic, playwright and filmmaker Robert Benayoun who probably went further than any other critic in drawing parallels between the work of Keaton and the surrealists. In the two articles he published for “Positif” in 1966, Benayoun suggests some of the aesthetic concerns that Keaton shares with the work of surrealist visual artists such as René Magritte and Salvador Dalí, the films of Luis Buñuel, as well as the paintings and sculptures of Marcel Duchamp, Giorgio de Chirico and Francis Picabia. Benayoun contends that Keaton is unconsciously linked with these artists by his fascination with the mechanical and his imperturbable balance between “the serious and the ludicrous”.
When interviewed, Keaton of course protested that he was “just trying to get laughs”, but as Walter Kerr argues, this does not make him a less brilliant analyst of film, especially when it comes to Sherlock Jr.: “in his dazzling film-within-a-film he illustrates basic theories of continuity and cutting more vividly and with greater precision than theorists themselves have ever been able to do. But the analysis is not in Keaton’s head. It is in the film, he worked only with the thing itself, creating what amounts to theory out of his body, his camera, his fingers, a pair of scissors”.
Scoring For Buster Keaton
Writing for Keaton is unique. In my 20 years of writing orchestral scores for silent film, somehow what comes out in my writing for him is both personal and potentially chaotic. And in Sherlock Jr., Keaton’s display of genius and acrobatic melancholy provided no exception.
As this is my fourth Keaton film I have composed for, I have learned a couple things. For instance one must understate the situation in a big way. As much as a composer wants to be funny too, he cannot, for it simply kills the image in the classic case of ‘too many cooks’. Instead, the music should have, at least on the surface, the appearance of simplicity with the occasional outburst of complexity and force. Certainly the latter comes to the forefront in the motor-bike chase sequence, as the tempo hastens to a pace of nearly un-playable proportions.
Cleverness is not enough when writing for Keaton, one also must know how to simply laugh, really hard. However, with one sequence in particular, I could not shake my incessant giggles spewing forth each time I viewed it. Only after dozens of passes was I able to pull myself together enough in order to write for it objectively. It takes a clear head to write for comedy, a head I clearly do not always want to have, instead sometimes just wanting to enjoy myself in the spectacle. The story has it that Dmitrij Sostakovic – who has also been an extraordinary composer for silent film – was once, as a cinema pianist in 1926, found laughing so hard during a Chaplin film, that he simply stopped playing and was fired by the theatre manager.
Mind you, there is not much of this score that is not intricately, and delicately worked out, in both its structure and timing. Despite the forces of nearly 50 musicians, I wanted the score to be streamline and fluid. For my part as a conductor, I have once again painted myself into a tightly synchronised corner. In order for the score to be at its most effective I have a ¼ second margin of flexibility in synchronization, and in some scenes, less.
Cast and Credits
Scen.: Jean Havez, Joseph Mitchell, Clyde Bruckman. F.: Elgin Lessley, Byron Houck. Scgf.: Fred Gabourie. Int.: Buster Keaton (il proiezionista / Sherlock Jr.), Kathryn McGuire (la ragazza), Joe Keaton (il padre della ragazza / uomo sullo schermo), Erwin Connelly (il tuttofare / il maggiordomo), Ward Crane (il ladro). Prod.: Joseph M. Schenck per Buster Keaton Production. DCP. D.: 45’. Bn.
One Week is arguably Buster Keaton’s first masterpiece and one of the finest short films ever made. After a mere fifteen comedies made in tandem with Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle between 1917 and 1920, Keaton’s visual style, refined sense of comic as well as his extraordinary inventiveness and acting instinct, seem to have burgeoned to perfection. “To sit through dozens and dozens of short comedies of the period and then to come upon One Week – wrote a critic – is to see the one thing no man ever sees: a garden at the moment of blooming”. In discussing the up-curve of Buster Keaton’s career, many have argued that unlike Chaplin, Keaton did not fight for his artistic freedom, and had Joseph Schenck not signed Fatty Arbuckle up for a comedy series to be distributed by Paramount, Keaton might have never obtained his own production unit, the Buster Keaton Comedies.
However, Keaton’s understanding of the film medium and innovative talent must have been apparent at that point. Metro Pictures Corporation began advertising the September 1st release of One Week – as part of a series of films to come out eight weeks apart – in leading film industry trade journals such as “Motion Picture News” or “Moving Picture World”. Additionally, the volume of advertisement produced for One Week in studio system and fan periodicals like “Photoplay”, “Motion Picture” or “Picture Play”, clearly shows that Metro Pictures was aiming high. Keaton was advertised as ‘the serious fun maker’ with great box-office value and ‘an innovative comedian’: “here is the comedy sensation of the year, introducing a new stellar comedian who is going to reach the peaks of filmmaking. He has packed his first two-reel subject with a bundle of brand new ‘gags’ that will set your patrons laughing until (if they wear ‘em) their false teeth will drop out and their waist-bands will ‘shimmy’”.
In New York One Week opened in all major Broadway theatres, for two of them the complete program survives: at the Strand, the evening opened with Amilcare Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours and featured Lionel Barrymore in The Devil’s Garden by Kenneth Webb; while at the Rivoli, the program included Maurice Tourneur and Clarence Brown’s The Great Redeemer, along with Liszt’ Les Preludes, Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole and the “very well known ballad” The Little Gray Home in the West performed by a soprano, a tenor and a singing quartet. The evening closed with an organ performance.
Cast and Credits
Scen.: Buster Keaton, Eddie Cline. F.: Elgin Lessley. Int.: Buster Keaton (lo sposo), Sybil Seely (la sposa), Joe Roberts (il facchino). Prod.: Joseph M. Schenck per Comique Film Corporation DCP. D.: 25’. Bn.