Saturday, August 25, 2007

Buster Keaton

To me the greatest of the early silent film comedians is Buster Keaton. Yes, Chaplin is brilliant and Lloyd is terrific, but Keaton gets to me in a way the others don't. One reason for this, I think, is his on screen persona. His character was always caught up in the events around him with absolutely no control. The train leaves without him, his mother-in-law moves in to his house, he single handedly has to save the Union in the Civil War. He rarely gets the girl. The Simpsons writers knew what they were doing when they replaced Keaton's star on The Hollywood walk of Fame with Troy McClure's. It is a classic Keaton move.

Another reason I appreciate Keaton so much is how he understood the medium of film perhaps better than others. The is a story, true or not I do not know, that when he first met Fatty Arbuckle he asked to take a camera home. Keaton took the camera to his hotel dismantled it reassembled it. The next day he came to Arbuckle's set and asked for work as a cameraman as was hired. This tells me Keaton really wanted to understand the tools he had to work with and how to use them to his comedic advantage.

Many of my favorite Keaton moments involve filmmaking. In The Cameraman Keaton plays a news reel cameraman down on his luck- chasing fire trucks on their way BACK to the station and the like. In Sherlock Jr. he is a projectionist who dreams about being in films. His dream life is better than his real life.

Like most geniuses Keaton was a risk taker. He put himself in harms way by doing his own stunts. He cracked his skull once falling from a water tower onto a railroad track (it makes the cut if the film). He could have been killed by the house blowing over scene where the open window falls around him, but he did these gags because he knew the audience would identify with his character.

My favorite Keaton gag is from My Wife's Relations. He is given a portable house to build by his in-laws. And, much like me, he cannot hammer two boards together. The resulting house is a mess of bizarre angles. When it comes time to move the house, the car towing the house gets stopped as the house is on the train tracks. A train approaches, Keaton gets out and pushes with all his might and gets the house across the tracks just as the train passes. Whew! Beat, Beat. A train from the other direction comes and destroys the house. It's great bit of visual comedy done no justice here.


Thursday, August 23, 2007

Selling Funny

For a lot of reasons- none that make any sense to me- advertising agencies are loath to sell commercials using humor. Jim and I have directed some mildly humorous spots that perhaps generate a grin or a smile, but nothing (intentionally at least) that is laugh out loud funny. The first and only person who comes to mind as a truly funny TV commercial director is Joe Sedelmaier.

You will know Sedelmaier (one of those people who is almost always referred to by his last name only) from the Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” commercial and the Federal Express fast talker, but his best work came in the 1970s. His commercial for Southern Airlines- where he shows us the difference between first class and coach (steerage)- is a terrific example of short form filmmaking. Was it an affective piece of television advertising? I don’t know- anyone fly Southern lately?

You can identify Sedelmaier commercials very quickly. He uses wide angle lenses, real, often strange looking people as actors- Clara Peller was no actress- and very simple sets. He was famous for stopping people on the street and taking a Polaroid of them. He was equally famous for being tough on his crew-he yelled, he had a temper, he kicked clients off his own sets (he yelled at me once in 1987) and is generally a horse’s ass.

It’s important to place his work in context. Pre-Sedelmaier here is a typical TV commercial: to the sounds of Sprach Zarathustra (the main theme from 2001) in slow motion comes Kraft Thousand Island Dressing pouring onto iceberg lettuce. Da- Da- Da- Da- Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum….Introducing new Kraft 1000 Island dressing! After Sedelmaier- a whole new language for selling.

Thanks Joe, you horse’s ass.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Places You'll Go

When we were shooting the making of The Collector documentary a couple of weeks ago Jim and I were chatting with Pete Biaggi the cinematographer. Pete casually commented that one of the best things about this business is that you never know what you are going to do next and where you are going to be. (Pete is perhaps best known as being the cinematographer on the first Project Greenlight film for HBO but has done lots of other work including Robert Altman's last two films.)

As filmmakers we have been given the opportunity to go places and see things from a perspective that would be impossible if not for this job. In the last couple of years we have climbed 300 feet in the air and shot on the gold-plated dome of the capitol of Nebraska. We commandeered Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners, and had run of the place. We witnessed the re-building of TWA Flight 800, which exploded off of Long Island in 1996, and were one of perhaps 50 people permitted in wreckage. (Not all of these experiences are "fun." You could really feel the presence of the lives that were lost in the accident.)

My point is that besides the title of a Dr. Seuss book and the theme for so many bad commencement speeches, the places you'll go is a very apt description of what one can expect if they throw themselves whole heartedly into this business. You cannot be timid or you will go nowhere. You must dive in and see where the experience takes you.


Monday, August 20, 2007


Thirty years ago last Saturday, the 18th, Groucho Marx died.

I have been a fan of the Marx Brothers and Groucho in particular for as long as I can remember. I don't know if there are any comic actors today who can do what he did so well. He could double as both a straight man and the funny guy. He could be his own straight man as well with a pause or a leer or an eye roll, followed by a zinger. Could anyone do more just by raising his eyebrows?

The classic Marx Brothers' films- Animal Crackers, Duck Soup, Horse Feathers, A Night at the Opera- all feature a level of anarchy that you don't see in today's comedies. In each of those films the brothers lampoon science, government, universities and "high" art and through their antics show us the hypocrisy of those institutions and the people who run them.

Regular readers know I think cinema is first a visual medium, the pictures tell the story. But there are only two purely visual (and classic moments) I can think of in their films. The first is Groucho and Harpo in pajamas and night caps aping each other in the mirror- a gag copied with Harpo on I Love Lucy. The second (and repeated often) is everyone piling into a small room and when the door opens they come tumbling out from A Night at the Opera.

But in Marx Brothers' films it's really the dialog that is the important thing. So despite all of their genius I don't think film was the ideal medium for them, oddly I feel the frame was too limiting for them- they needed to burst out of the screen. It was when Groucho hosted "You Bet Your Life" on television that audiences really got to see Groucho at his best.

There has been enough of my words, I am going to end with Groucho doing his thing, from Horse Feathers the lyrics to his song, "Whatever It Is."


I don't know what they have to say,
it makes no difference anyway -
whatever it is, I'm against it!
No matter what it is or who commenced it,
I'm against it!

Your proposition may be good,
but let's have one thing understood -
whatever it is, I'm against it!
And even when you've changed it or condensed it,
I'm against it!

I'm opposed to it.
On general principles I'm opposed to it.

For months before my son was born,
I used to yell from night to morn -
"Whatever it is, I'm against it!"
And I've kept yelling since I first commenced it,
"I'm against it!"