Last night, I went to see a Buster Keaton movie, ably accompanied by his musical partner for the evening: Neil Brand.
It was an early Christmas treat for me – and it was terrific in that quiet, enjoyable way of being served a delicious meal, where every course is a delight, but the chef isn’t in the room, waving his hands and being dramatic about it.
Right at the start, Neil introduced us to the public face of the actor – but explained that actually there were quite a few Busters in his own lifetime – and that the relaxed way he is represented in this photo (featured at the top of this post) belies the fact that Buster treated life as something to be attacked with energy.
As the first clip began to roll on the screen, Neil naturally began to play the piano alongside – no big dramatic announcement – it just happened, and was a beautiful, natural segue.
The “Silent Movies” of course weren’t silent when viewed – there would be a pianist, or organist playing – or if it was a posh cinema for the release of a major new film, perhaps sometimes a small orchestra. The film itself had “titles” where a piece of card with words on it would appear on the screen, interrupting the moving picture – to let us know what was being said.
The first half of the night was introducing Buster the man and some delightful clips of his short films (the one in which he’s changing into swimming togs in a cubicle together with a large, hectoring man, where there is barely space for one skinny man is a particular joy). It’s viewable on Youtube, but with an unsubtle organ accompaniment which I personally don’t enjoy so much as live piano accompaniment.
The full-length film being shown last night in the second half of the evening was “Steamboat Bill, Jnr“. This is a classic – it is THE one where he stands, stone-faced, and the front of a house topples over him – his body going through an upstairs window. It was a genuinely dangerous part of the movie.
This particular film was what began Neil Brand on his accompanist career – it was the first film he played music to. He’s now able to play along with the film without having a musical score on the piano. In fact, he teaches other people to accompany silent movies – and gives the same advice as to us the viewers – “Just hang with the main character – hang out with Buster Keaton.” And then we simply spent the next hour with an ingenious, charming clown who made us laugh, gasp and watch in wonder.
Although I’m a Buster Keaton fan, have read Paul Merton’s books “Silent Clowns” (which features Keaton, among others) and though our family have a DVD of “The General” and watched it many times – this presentation by Neil Brand still had fresh joys to offer.
So – keep an eye out for silent movies with live accompaniment at your local independent cinema – they’re becoming more frequent. And if Neil Brand is making a presentation – do go out and see it, even if it’s -5 degrees at the bus stop on the way home! (which it was, last night). It will be worth it. Here’s a taster introduction by the man himself.