Posted by David Kalat on October 8, 2011
One of the sad things about being a classic movie buff is the closed nature of so much of the experience. Fritz Lang ain’t gonna make any more movies, Alfred Hitchcock is all done and gone, Charlie Chaplin has left the building.
Now, every once in a while, some old once-lost fragment gets dug out of the archives and brought back to public consciousness. Fritz Lang may be dead but–almost ninety years after it was made–his METROPOLIS can be refurbished and given new dimensions. Alfred Hitchcock can’t make movies any more but the discovery of bits of THE WHITE SHADOW can be uncovered in New Zealand. Charlie Chaplin isn’t around to share it with us, but a previously unrecorded appearance by him in THE THIEF CATCHER can draw huge crowds of gawkers and journalists.
Still, there is no question that none of these experiences comes close to the thrill of the experiences that drew us in as fans in the first place. METROPOLIS isn’t new, it’s just longer. THE WHITE SHADOW will not slake a thirst created by REAR WINDOW. THE THIEF CATCHER is mildly amusing at best.
What if I were to tell you that there is a cache of movies that you have never seen before and most likely never even heard of, that can stand alongside the best of Buster Keaton’s work? A selection of short films and features that share none of that diminished expectations that dog his later work–we’re not talking PASSIONATE PLUMBER here, but entire treasure box full of movies to take their place with THE GENERAL and STEAMBOAT BILL JR.
I am not kidding.
I am, however, lying a little. Well, “lying” is a tad extreme–but I am misrepresenting this stuff if I gave you the impression they are actually movies by Buster Keaton. They are not. They just might as well be.
To be more accurate, I should say I’m referring to a selection of short films and features that can be described as what you’d get if Jacques Tati directed Buster Keaton.
My friend Uli Ruedel, who turned me on to this stuff in the first place, objects to my characterizing them in this way. He insists that Pierre Etaix is an enormous comic talent and cinematic auteur who deserves to be appreciated on his own terms, not reduced to a Tati-meets-Keaton mashup stereotype.
Uli is absolutely right on this count, but let’s face it–y’all haven’t heard of Etaix before, and I doubt you’ve seen a single frame of his work, so talking about him on his own merits is premature. If we’re going to have a conversation about an unfamiliar artist, we need to frame it in terms we can all agree upon.
You will have the opportunity to dig into the career of Etaix soon enough. Criterion is preparing a box set through its Eclipse label, due out in 2012, collecting the key works of the man. For those who can’t wait, the French DVD box set is arguably the most loveably packaged and sumptuous box set of all time. The French set provides no English language options, but for most of the films this poses no serious impediment.
I’ve mentioned Etaix in this blog before–he came up in my Tati post a while back. Etaix was Tati’s collaborator on MON ONCLE, and served as an advisor and confidante around that general time in Tati’s career. Exactly what parts of MON ONCLE are to be attributed to Etaix or to Tati are the stuff of academic debates–let’s just say that Etaix and Tati were on a similar wavelength.
Tati often invoked Buster Keaton as his inspiration. When he accepted the Oscar for MON ONCLE, Tati asked the Academy to help set up a meeting with Keaton. This meeting took place, an awkward encounter if there ever was one.
Keaton could never quite wrap his head around what Tati was up to, and never fully understood why the press kept making comparisons between Tati’s comedies and his own.
In his biography of Tati, David Bellos reports that Tati had a plan to purchase the rights to Keaton’s silent shorts and retrofit them with new soundtracks–adding music and sound effects, but not dialogue, to make them more accessible for modern audiences.
This idea was somewhat in line with Keaton’s own ideas about how the style of silent comedy should function in the sound era. He often said in interviews that he had no objection to dialogue, he just rankled at dialogue for dialogue’s sake. Keaton told interviewers that a film ought to have the necessary talking appropriate to establish the story, but be willing to settle into silence as well.
That’s what he said. In practice, he added one more wrinkle–he himself stayed mum.
That is, in later films, post-MGM, when Keaton started to have the necessary creative input into what was happening, he would appear in sound films and TV shows as a virtual mute, a true silent comedy refugee in the talkie era.
Etaix approaches his films with both notions–he uses dialogue sparingly, and almost never put it in his own mouth. Let us also note that Etaix looks a lot like Buster–and he plays his part with the same deadpan stone face, the same rigid body language, the same obsession to detail.
I’ll get to the shorts in a moment, but let’s start with Etaix’s first three features–the most Keatony of his feature work. It starts with THE SUITOR, the best Buster Keaton film Buster Keaton never made. Etaix plays a dotty professor, not far removed from Keaton’s character in SPEAK EASILY. And just as the professor in SPEAK EASILY turns on a dime to switch from being a cloistered academic to being a lusty go-getter, as if personality changes could be effected by flicking a switch, Etaix’s character decides that all this astonomy stuff is fine as far as it goes, but he wants the company of a woman. So, he reorients himself from star-gazer to skirt-chaser overnight, maintaining the same singular obsessive mentality.
His pursuit of a girlfriend brings to mind Keaton’s girl hunt in SEVEN CHANCES, and even recreates (and revises) Keaton’s famous “getting a drunk woman into bed” routine:
THE SUITOR is a truly extraordinary film, and if you ever despaired that silent comedy could not thrive in the sound era, it’s a refreshing rebuke.
YO-YO was Etiax’s follow-up, and it’s a doozy. In some ways, YO-YO plays in the same sandbox as THE ILLUSIONIST, the film Tati had considered making with Etaix around the time of MON ONCLE, ultimately made after Tati’s death. But THE ILLUSIONIST is a somber and elegiac look at the lost art form of the traveling circus, an art form rendered obsolete by pop culture’s and technology’s advances. Etaix, miraculously working in an obsolete art form supposedly left behind by pop culture, sees things differently–and makes a film of greater uplift.
YO-YO is epic.
It starts in the early twentieth century–and these early scenes are rendered in silent movie style, with intertitles, but the rest of the soundtrack includes naturalistic sound effects. The effect is disorienting, and continually draws attention to the fact that when characters speak we cannot hear their voices. This is what Tati’s proposed updates to Keaton’s shorts would have been like, and I’m not sure it works.
At this point in the film, Etaix plays a wealthy man who might as well be THE NAVIGATOR‘s Rollo Treadway’s identical twin.
He is an isolated and lonely man, and when the circus blows into town he hires it for a personal command performance. As it happens, the stunt horseback rider of the big top show is the lost love of his life, and she has a child, his child. (Don’tcha think that’s a Keatonish flat hat the kid has on in the clip below?)
The onset of the Great Depression provides him with the necessary excuse to uproot his ascetic life and go on the road with the circus, reunited with his love and his son.
The film then jumps forward to when that boy is a grown man, also played by Etaix. He has become the world-famous clown Yo-Yo.
There is a sly moment when Etaix acknowledges the fact that the press had taken to calling him the French Buster Keaton–
This is more than just a one-off sight gag. It informs the infrastructure of the entire film. YO-YO is a fictionalized version of the Buster Keaton story–every bit as true and every bit as fictionalized as the official BUSTER KEATON STORY starring Donald O’Connor. It is the story of a child raised by show-business parents, who became an international comedy star more or less by accident, by being a child on stage. He has a career trajectory that catapults him past that of his parents, from whom he becomes somewhat estranged. His career is interrupted by military service, his style of comedy is at odds with the advancing tastes of mid-century popular culture, he gets into conflict with the commercial impulses of his backers, he perseveres without ever finding true happiness. It is bittersweet stuff, and for any Keaton-o-phile, familiar narrative beats.
AS LONG AS YOU’RE HEALTHY is the last of his truly Keatonish films. (THE GREAT LOVE is more dialogue driven–I must confess I had to give up halfway through because I don’t understand a word of French and decided to wait for the Criterion edition to try again.) But AS LONG AS YOU’RE HEALTHY has moments of comic inspiration that require no words.
It is a collage of vignettes, not unlike MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE, intended to make cutting satirical points about modern life. As such it is the most Tati-esque of the features, and would make a fine double feature with PLAYTIME. Since this blog is focused on the Keaton connection, however, let me extract this clip from AS LONG AS YOU’RE HEALTHY to see if it reminds you of, say, THE BALLOONATIC (and is that another flat hat I see?):
Of the short films collected in the DVD set (and the contents of the French box and the forthcoming Criterion/Eclipse collection are expected to be identical), one is a sequence that had been filmed for AS LONG AS YOU’RE HEATHLY but jettisoned from the final cut. The other two are shorts that were created as shorts, and were Etaix’s first forays into filmmaking, prior to THE SUITOR. Of these shorts, HAPPY ANNIVERSARY is easily the best. It won an Academy Award in 1962 for best short subject and there’s no question it deserved it.
But I’m not going to run a clip of that here. Why spoil it for you? Instead I want to run this clip from his first short, THE BREAKUP, to illustrate two points I wanted to make. The first is one I already touched on–the use of sound. The sound effects in THE BREAKUP are really aggressive, and Etaix’s use of oversized sound effects would remain a feature of his filmmaking style even though he toned it down significantly after this film. This notion of exaggerated sound is one he shared with Tati–both men gleefully violated sound mixing conventions for comic effect.
The other thing to think about while watching this clip is Etaix’s physicality. He never performs the kind of extreme stuntwork that people associate with Keaton–he wasn’t that kind of acrobat. But he was a clown, in the original sense (“clown” is a word much maligned and ridiculed in American society these days. I use the term warily. Don’t hold it against Etaix, please). His precise control of his body was essential to his comedy, and this clip nicely reveals that. Just imagine how much time and effort must have been spent choosing the right viscosity of ink, the right thickness of paper, to make this joke work. And then, having chosen the right props, the intense focus Etaix had to have to make something so intentional and choreographed appear so accidental.
(By the way, the set up for this scene: jilted by his lover, Etaix tries to write a suicide note.)
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