Thursday evening was wild — we’d booked seats for Buster Keaton’s OUR HOSPITALITY at the historic Cameo Cinema (as featured in Chomet’s THE ILLUSIONIST) at 7, and then belatedly found out that, after initially being rejected, we had, after all, been granted free tickets (as part of a promotion for Grolsch beer and Little White Lies magazine) free tickets to see SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD, at 8. Depending on projection speed, OUR HOSPITALITY is about an hour and ten minutes long. It looked dicey.
Fortunately, I realized that both films were playing in the same auditorium, so unless they intended to project the first ten minutes of SCOTT P on top of the last ten minutes of OUR HOSPITALITY, it looked like we were OK. And while, yes, I agree that would have been interesting, I’m glad they adopted the more traditional one-film-at-a-time approach.
Neil Brand on the piano — live! Fully amplified, and making a dramatic racket to simulate the onscreen thunderstorm in Scene One. I’ve seen solo piano accompaniments before, but none as effective as this at the serious bits. I once saw NOSFERATU with a pianist who made it seem funny and quaint with his tinkly counterpoint, and wondered whether a single instrument could do justice to a more serious tale. Now I’m itching to hear Brand’s take on Murnau.
This was ideal musical treatment, melodic at times, percussive at others, standing in for absent sound effects but in a discreet and elegant way. With the Edinburgh Festival raging outside, the audience wasn’t as big as I’d have liked, but the laughter still resounded at these eighty-year-old gags. Fortunately, despite the film’s deep south setting, Keaton eschews the racial caricaturing endemic to films of the time, so there’s nothing to greatly embarrass amid the pleasure. A joke about domestic violence (Buster intervenes to protect a battered wife, and she furiously drives him off with heavy blows, before proudly surrendering to her husband’s brutality once more) is certainly non-PC, but contains an uncomfortable kernel of psychological veracity.
I hadn’t actually seen a 35mm projection of this, Keaton’s second feature as (co-)director. My first big-screen viewing of SHERLOCK JNR had allowed me to appreciate the fine ensemble playing more (on TV, Keaton completely dominates). Since everyone save Keaton and a couple of locomotive workers (one played by Joe Keaton, Buster’s dad, athletically kicking hats off tall men’s heads — a trick that once rendered Buster unconscious) is played straight here, that wasn’t the revelation this time, although I appreciated Natalie Talmadge (Keaton’s real-life wife) a little more.
What came over were the production design details, like the little brushes affixed to the front of the train (a working copy of Stephenson’s Rocket) to clear small obstacles from the track, which incidentally is also Henry Fonda’s job description in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. What was also noticeable was the storytelling style, which isn’t as refined as it would later become. While it’s fascinating to see Keaton shoot the melodramatic opening in a serious manner, he hasn’t quite reached the minimalist perfection of his coverage of THE GENERAL. Richard Lester said of that film, “You can’t take a single thing from it.” Every shot is absolutely essential to the scene it’s in, and every scene essential to the plot. This theoretically means that if a single shot hadn’t worked, the film would be fatally flawed… based on this assessment, THE GENERAL may be one of the very few objectively perfect films, in terms of construction at least.
OUR HOSPITALITY doesn’t aim for such economy and precision. When Natalie is introduced, her dog, who has no narrative function whatsoever, gets a length closeup. When Buster goes for a ride on his bike, there are numerous shots of him running along astride it. The later Keaton would have settle for one. But these “flaws” are so charming they can hardly be objected to. They merely characterise the film as a more loose and rough-edged production than the “so real it hurts” detail of THE GENERAL.