After being a wee bit of a negative nelly in my last blog post, I'd like to be more positive this time around. That's right, dear readers, I can, in fact, display encouragement. That's basically the point of most everything I write, even the stuff that spews bile and viscera. My criticisms aim to help us - please note the first person pronoun - improve our art through thought and serious, reflective discussion, two things sorely lacking in life. I intend to write another post soon that focuses on several microcinema films that I genuinely enjoy, analyzing what I think they do correctly so that they don't bore and irritate their audience to tears. I promise not to use any examples of films I've personally been involved in, but I may use works created by people I'm acquainted with. Who needs objectivity when you've exploring subjective art, after all?
For now, however, I'd like to herald an older example of filmmaking done extremely well. It's not microcinema, but it is something very simple yet stunning, a trait we should all aim for in our own work. It is a very short sequence that shocked me, which was not something I was expecting to feel while watching an 80-year-old light comedy.
It was in a Buster Keaton film, College. If you are not familiar with Keaton's work, you are a sad, sad person. In my opinion, he was the best of the silent comedians (though, yes, Chaplin's melodrama can leave you staggered and wrung out - in a good way, of course). College is a relatively straightforward film, even by his standards: Keaton plays a bookish young man who loses his high school girlfriend when he denounces sports as a waste of time. She wants him to man up, so he follows her to the titular institution and tries out a range of physical activities to win her back from a lunkheaded lothario. I don't think I'm really spoiling anything when I tell you that at the end SURPRISE! he earns her affections once again.
Normal silent comedy plot material wrapped up in Keaton's superb physical comedy and hijinks. It's what happens after he wins back the girl that sets the film apart. (Alright, there is also a sequence of Keaton in blackface that will raise eyebrows. I don't want to condemn it as racist in a kneejerk, "Anything that makes me uncomfortable is bad!" reaction - the joke of the scene is ultimately on Keaton's character, after all - but it's still bound to inspire awkward coughing and "We don't use words like that anymore, Grandpa" thoughts.)
At the end, Keaton and his girl stride triumphantly into a church. There's a dissolve and then we see them walking back out, happily married. That's where most films end. But College continues. It dissolves again and we see them several years on. She's knitting, he's smoking and reading the newspaper, and they're flanked by three children. Another dissolve, and then we see them as elderly people, he with his pipe, her beside him, both looking slightly dotty. And then a final dissolve to two tombstones side by side. Only then does "THE END" appear onscreen and the film fades out.
"Keaton, you brilliant fuck!" I wanted to shout, but settled for a laudatory "Holy shit." It takes a lot of sand to cap your light romantic comedy off with a chilling reminder of the inevitability of family routine, decline, and death. The film basically says "And nothing else of interest ever happened to these people for the rest of their lives. These events were the highlight of their existence, after which it was all downhill. Have a nice day!"
No doubt the ending has inspired reams of essays by film students and philosophers. Me? I can't help but view it as a sort of "up yours" gesture to closure. At the moment, Hard Boiled Productions (now on Facebook!) is prepping a couple of short scripts for production, one of which has an ambiguous ending. We were discussing whether to alter it in some way to provide a little more semblance of a definite ending - a simple line, a look, a gesture - that will feel more like an appropriate conclusion. While thinking about this, I watched College, and so the sequence felt like a response to the demand to know more. Keaton could have been providing an answer to those audience members who want to know "But what happened next?" You really want to know? They grew old and died. Happy now?
The sequence is also a reminder and an inspiration to those of us still making films today. It tells us that yes, we can do something new and unique and groundbreaking and just plain different without a massive budget, without heaps of new technology, without whipping up complex formats and designs in the editing bay. Using only the most basic of film building blocks, College leaves us with our jaws on the floor. Ingenuity triumphs once again.