Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A New Way to Enjoy a Book

by Bill Holmes 

I'm currently reading Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat by Edward McPherson.  It's a good book about one of my favorite comedians.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with Buster's work I feel sorry for you.  Buster was a vaudevillian-comedian-actor-director-writer-producer-acrobat-stuntman.  Although Buster's heydays were in the 1920's during the silent movie era, his movies are still funny and the stories classic.

Buster was known for his stone face and pork pie hat as depicted on the book's dust jacket.  He was born in 1895 and by the time he was five years old he was appearing in his parents vaudeville act.  He got into the brand new movie business when he was about 20.  He worked for and with Fatty Arbuckle for a couple of years.  By 1920 he was star-director-actor-producer of his own films.

This is not meant to document the life and times of Buster Keaton, there are plenty of books and websites that can do that.  Suffice it to say that he is a fascinating man with a fascinating story.

The reason I'm writing this is that I found a new way, for me anyway, to enjoy this book.  The book depicts Buster's life in chronological order.  Once the book gets into the movie years, there is a chapter or story about each movie.  The first couple of years of Buster's movie career consists of what were called two reelers.  Mostly comedies that fit on two reels of film and ran about 20 minutes.  These movies, also called shorts, would play before, after or between the feature film(s).  Much like the cartoons that movie theaters showed when I was growing up.  What ever happened to that?  Later he made full length films.

Now here is the good part.  Thanks to the internet and YouTube, I can read a chapter about a movie and then watch it.  It's great to know the movie's background then almost immediately see it.  It's like being there during the filming.  You are privy to the stage and film tricks they used.  The set building, technology and engineering that was invented and believe me, there were many film innovations in the 1920's.  You are tipped off to be on the lookout for little gems in the picture.  What was done in real time, often in-camera effects, and what was edited later (no CGI).  Maybe a quick stunt or camera trick.  Maybe a blooper that got left in the final print that looks planned.  Maybe a serious injury that occurred during a stunt but the players continued the scene.  Maybe an uncredited actor's name or somebody playing a double roll.  Sometimes the book narrative even clears up the plot.  Since most of the movies are silent, the subtitles often don't fill in all the blanks.  I was even able to watch one short with French titles and knew what was going on.

I've done this on a limited basis before.  I've watched clips of Johnny Carson while reading about him and the Tonight Show.  Although many of those clips I saw when they happened so I had a vision in my mind while reading.  Despite what some of you may think, I am not old enough to have seen Buster's movies in a theater during their first run.  This is the first time I have consciously read a chapter and then gone to the tape (I know, it's not tape anymore. That's just an old expression).  It has been fun and made the book and videos more rewarding.  Sure it takes a little longer to get through the book.  It means a 20 or 90 minute break to watch the movie.  This is a way to make an old fashion book more like an eBook with it's embedded links.

Obviously this technique doesn't work for all books.  There are hardly any YouTube clips of the real George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.  No Civil War battle videos.  Caesar and Cleopatra seem to be missing too.   Fiction and novels usually don't have accompanying clips.  Nevertheless, there are plenty of books that have complimentary video on the Internet.  Based on my experience it's worth trying.

Even if you are not a reader, I encourage you to watch a few Buster Keaton movies.  The two reelers are only about 20 minutes long and tell a full story.  The features are over an hour but are classics.  There are many excerpts of the highlights that are even shorter.  For films almost 100 years old I think they hold up very well.  Whether you are a fan or not, you must admit that Buster was a gifted performer and film maker.  He was a founding member of the movie industry.  He made a fortune and lost it.  He soared to great heights, crashed and then came back.

Please excuse me now, I have a few more chapters to read and videos to watch.


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