Silent movies have been enjoying a revival locally, with frequent offerings from the Chicago Film Society, the Music Box Theatre, and the Gene Siskel Film Center, to name a few. This year the 54th Chicago International Film Festival spotlights Buster Keaton, one of the top comedians and directors of the silent era, with The Great Buster, directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Bogdanovich, 79, began his career as a film critic and a programmer at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which led to forays as an author and actor (he studied with Stella Adler) before he turned to filmmaking. This documentary is his first project for Cohen Media Group, a production and distribution company that also restores classic films; his next will be about Douglas Fairbanks.
In addition to The Great Buster, which he narrates, Bogdanovich can be seen in two other festival entries, the newly-completed The Other Side of the Wind, which was directed by Orson Welles but left unfinished for decades after Welles’s death in 1985, and Morgan Neville’s documentary about the film, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. Recently I spoke over the phone to Bogdanovich about this bonanza (full disclosure: I once worked with him years ago when he was a guest cohost on Roger Ebert’s TV special If We Picked the Winners, on which I served as producer).
Can you remember where and when you first watched a Buster Keaton film? How old were you?
Five or six. My father was about 20 years older than my mother and grew up with silent films. He was about 30 years old when sound came in. He took me in hand to the Museum of Modern Art to see retrospectives of the great American films. That was a big step for me, to learn that the origination of the art of movies was all there, in silent pictures.
Two sequences that stand out in your film are montages: the first is your edit of all the pratfalls for which Keaton was famous, and the second is the succession of sight gags that runs alongside the closing credits. So few comedy directors know how to do gags anymore. Why is that?
All the great actors from the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s were directed by people who grew up watching silent movies. That was the foundation of their art, and you could see it in their work. Keaton set up his gags meticulously and made sure that the camera was always in the right place. As James Agee pointed out in the Life article he wrote in 1949, comparing Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd [and Harry Langdon], Keaton showed no sentimentality on screen-he worked strictly for laughs.
It is also very difficult today to see the great silent comedians’ films the way they were meant to be seen. In the 1920s, exhibitors would often project films at the speed of 20 frames a second-instead of, say, 16 fps, the speed at which they were shot-so that they could squeeze in an extra showing a day. And if the film was shot in 20 fps, it’s very hard to find the right speed to play it back. There was not a universal speed at which films were shot during the silent era [anywhere between 12 to 40 fps, unlike the standard 24 frames per second when sound came in].
Cohen Media Group found the right speed for each film they restored, and spent a lot of money to do so. We got to work with the best versions of Keaton’s movies that we could get.
You don’t tell Keaton’s story chronologically. Instead of going straight through from his birth to his death, you move things around. Why did you?
The big departure was to keep his feature films in, but move them to the back. I didn’t want to close the documentary with a sad story about his death; I wanted an upbeat ending. “Always leave them laughing,” as they say.
Your movie could just as easily be called Why Keaton Matters. In a few words, why does he still matter today?
Comedy is at a low point. The jokes that get the biggest laughs are bathroom humor or someone’s dick getting stuck in a zipper. I just don’t find that funny. But Keaton’s best films are as funny today as they were when they were first released; he was that skilled an actor and director.
How does it feel to watch the completed The Other Side of the Wind, as one of its producers and stars?
It was great to help finish Orson’s picture, which Frank Marshall and I were able to, thanks to Netflix, who gave us carte blanche. I played the second lead in the film; I’m in my 70s now, and it’s pretty bizarre seeing me in my 30s. Who is this guy?, I wonder.
The Great Buster. Fri 10/19, 1 PM and Sun 10/21, 3:15 PM, AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois, 312-683-0121, chicagofilmfestival.com, $8.