One thing you'll notice about my list is that there's a fair amount of comedy on it. I know awards shows don't spend a lot of love of comedy, and critics in general treat it as a lesser genre. But great film comedy is a science, and it's one I love to analyze.
And if you're going to talk about comedy and formula, you have to go back to the silent masters, where so much of what is still in practice first began. And for me, any discussion of silent comedy has to start with the great Buster Keaton.
One of the first film geek conversations I ever had with Harry Knowles was Keaton vs. Chaplin. He's a Chaplin man, through-and-through, and I'm not surprised. It's the sentiment, which I think is absolutely part of Chaplin's style, and something he was great at. Me? I'm in the bag for Keaton's particular brand of straight-faced downtrodden. Several of his films go well beyond good comedy into pure film art, but most of his filmography is made up of simple sturdy programmers, simple set-ups with room to riff built in.
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"College" is a great example of that. The film opens at a high school graduation. Ronald (Keaton) is an egghead, the class valedectorian who delivers a commencement speech on why athletics are evil. His maybe-girlfriend Mary says she won't even consider being with him until he takes an interest in athletics and admits he's wrong. So when they get to college, that's exactly what he does, trying his hand at one sport after another until he can find something that fits him. Throw in a typical jerk jock who also wants Mary's favor, and you've got a film whose DNA can be traced through every slobs vs. snobs comedy ever made.
Keaton's smart to make Ronald a bit of a blowhard at the start of the film. That way, when the character gets knocked down as hard as he does, it's funny and it's teaching him humility. By the end of the film, Ronald's unlocked his inner Olympian, and when he confronts the jock, it's like Neo fighting Agent Smith at the end of the first "Matrix." Suddenly, everything clicks. He can do it all. There's a payoff to an earlier pole vault sequence that's just stand-up-and-clap great. It's a film that starts slow but builds to a huge finish.
When you see how badly his attempts at employment go, you can't help but flinch at one transition to a sign in a window advertising, "Colored Waiter Wanted." And, sure enough, there's a blackface sequence that follows, but it's a joke about the very notion of blackface, and the end of the sequence, after he loses half of the makeup without realizing it, expresses all the outrage required. It's part of a running subplot about Ronald needing to work his way through school. Each of the jobs offers a different comic set-up, just as each sport he tries offers a whole series of gag opportunities. A baseball game. A track and field meet. The simplicity of the way each set piece is established and then embellished in these films is what impresses me. Quick idea, then it's like everyone steps back to let Buster get to work. And he does. He brings some flourish, some idea to every scene in the film.
When I say it's "an education" in the headline, it's not just a cheap pun. Keaton was one of the first movie stars to really understand the camera as something more than an audience stand-in while shooting a stage show. There's a gag here where he's grabbed by a mob of jocks who drop him into a blanket and then start tossing him into the air. He grabs an umbrella from a window and opens it, and everything drops into slow-motion each time he falls with the umbrella open, like he's floating. It's a crude joke by today's technical standards, but it's like a Michel Gondry style bit of whimsy. Keaton played to the camera but also made it complicit in his jokes. "College" may not be the best film he made or the most significant, but it's a beautiful primer on just how much juice he could wring from even the simplest concept.
"College" is available on DVD from Kino International.
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