Sunday, December 20, 2009

Buster Keaton's "One Week"

Now this might be worth 20 minutes of your time: a clever, witty, silent two-reeler made by Buster Keaton in 1920 (he was about 25 at the time) titled "One Week," courtesy of Mark Evanier. Of all the silent film comedians, Keaton is by far my favorite and the one whose work holds up best today, I think. Keaton's masterpiece "The General" (1927) is one of my Top Five favorite films ever, and "Sherlock Jr." is brilliant as well.

A few things that I think make "One Week" great:

As with all Keaton films, special effects are minimal and most stunts are performed by the stars. What you see is what happened: the cars, the house, the trains are all real. I think that gives the viewing experience an authenticity, immediacy, and tension that no computer-generated effects can match. They literally couldn't make 'em like this today.

The young married couple played by Keaton and Sybil Seely is very sweet and feels completely modern to me. I buy their relationship; they're in this mess together. Seely is particularly charming: smart, vivacious, sexy, and an equal partner to Keaton's hapless groom.

The unlucky newlyweds' build-it-yourself home.

Speaking of sexy, there's a famous scene at about the 10-minute mark that is one of the wittiest, most audacious moments of filmmaking ever. Seely is scrubbing up in the bathtub when she drops her soap on the floor. Her dilemma is evident: how will she pick up the soap without exposing herself to the audience? Keaton's solution: an unknown hand (it's not the groom's, he's on the roof at the time) enters the frame to cover the lens while Seely grabs the soap and settles back into the tub. Then, to complete the fourth-wall breaking, she looks directly at the camera and gives us a flirty little giggle. The joke's on us, but we're in on it as well. It's very "meta."
Seely flashing us a saucy smile after retrieving her soap.

In addition, the cartoonist in me loves the bizarre parallel world right out of the classic Warner Bros. cartoons (which wouldn't be around for 20 or 30 more years, remember)--a world where a car jack can lift a house so it can roll on barrels, one burly man can hoist a piano onto his shoulder, and nobody gets killed leaping through second-story doors into thin air.

In 2008, "One Week" was added to the Library of Congress's National Film Registry, marking it as a "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant work to be preserved for all time." I agree. I know silent films aren't everyone's cup of tea, but if you're not one of those people I think this one's a treasure and worth a look.


Namowal (Jennifer Bourne) said...

That was cute. I like the cartoony gags and the fact that his wife took place in a lot of the slapstick.
Most of the humor caught me off guard- sure I knew something would go wrong, but I wasn't sure what, and when it did, it made me laugh.
Thanks for posting this.

P.S. I wonder if this was filmed in Culver City? It looks like it- but I'm biased because I live near there. It could have been filmed in Argentina for all I know.

Brian Fies said...

Namowal, glad you liked it. I did some digging to see what I could find out about the location. Someone actually wrote a book tracking down the modern-day locations of all of Keaton's shoots, but frustratingly I didn't find any excerpts or reviews online that specifically addressed "One Week."

One clue from the movie is a scene in which "C. Ganahl Lumber Co." is seen in the background. That's a real company that had six locations in the L.A. area in 1920 (and still exists). Don't know if Culver City was one of them, but there were film studios there and it's a fair bet. I'm surprised the area would look familiar to you 90 years later but you might be right.

Mike Lynch said...

I was so fortunate to see this short in a packed movie house at a Keaton retrospective. The audience, over 80 years later, roared. Seeing silent movies in an audience is the best way.

I agree, Brian: there is little dust on Keaton's work. It reads completely contemporary.

Namowal (Jennifer Bourne) said...

Speaking of contemporary, anyone who's assembled something from IKEA can identify with the protagonist...

According to this source it was filmed in Los Angeles and Inglewood, neighbors of Culver City.
I was close... sorta...

I guessed the location due to
1. Personal bias (when you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail)
2. A hill in the film that resembles one that rises past Culver's eastern border.
3. The look of other 1920s and 30s films shot there (Hal Roach shorts)

Walter Underwood said...

Thank you for this. Keaton is one of my all-time favorites, and I even took two semesters of History of Film in college.

The "modest" covering of the lens reminds me of a later film scene (maybe in Tom Jones?) where the camera is looking through a keyhole as things get steamy, then a character gets up and hangs a hat on the doorknob, blocking the view.

Is film "sequential art"?

Brian Fies said...

Mike, I'd love to see movies like this with an audience. I bet we'd be surprised how well they still work.

Walter, thanks for commenting! I don't know the keyhole scene, it sounds similiarly clever.

Film is certainly a sequential art. Film and comics have a lot of commonality, and I think a person could learn a lot about how comics work by studying film theory. Much of the language is similar. My sense is that a screenplay and a comics script have almost the same "information density" (that is to say, both are quite lean textually and depend on visuals to convey more meaning than readers/viewers realize). But there are also important differences, as filmmakers and comics creators learn when they try to cross over into each other's realms. That doesn't always go well. It's a good topic for a much longer and more thoughtful post.

Eric Cook said...

I've played live organ accompaniment for two live screenings of Keaton's films: Cops, and The General,
and modern, non-film specialist audiences love them. Last year I played a film festival that included four short films (including Chaplin), we took an audience survey, Keaton one hands down. People, even younger viewers who were watching their first silents laughed loud and hard. We hope to do One Week, next year. Thanks for a really nice and thoughtful review of an excellent little film.

Brian Fies said...

Eric, you're welcome, and thanks for commenting. I especially appreciate your perspective. I'd expect live organ accompaniment to make an enormous difference to a silent film performance. Unfortunately, I've never experienced one. Maybe I'll catch your work someday.

Katrina said...

I saw this film with live organ accompaniment in a public setting and loved it so much I am trying to re-create this event at our family reunion. I agree that it's great to watch with an audience and can be enjoyed by people in different generations.

Brian Fies said...

What a nice idea! Good luck pulling it together for your reunion.

Anonymous said...

I've got to agree once again that there's something about seeing a film like this as it was made to be seen, with an audience. I helped organize a showing of Buster's Cops, The Garage, and One Week at our local library and it got people young and old laughing so hard together. I never get tired of watching this guy do his stuff.


Brian Fies said...

Neat! I'd love to be a part of that audience sometime. Thanks for commenting.