Buster Keaton’s “The General”

For the second straight year, my wife and I attended “Silence is Golden“,  sponsored by The Roxy Theater and the Riversdale Improvement District, in collaboration with the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra.

Each year, a silent movie is chosen for projection on the Roxy’s big screen, with musicians from the Saskatoon Symphony playing an accompanying score.  The series was inaugurated with the February, 2010 showing of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”—attending that event was one of the high points of my life as a film fan and cineaste. Thus, I was looking forward to having the opportunity to see “The General“, ol’ Stoneface’s masterpiece, the way it was meant to be seen.  This time we took along our son Sam, a budding film-maker, and I think I’m speaking for all of us if, when describing the evening, I use the word “sublime”.

Other than the fact that I was nursing a hellacious cold, the night couldn’t have been better.  The 35mm print was in terrific shape, the crowd receptive, the musicians in fine form.  Someone even came up with the bright idea of inviting Rick Friend, a musician from Los Angeles who specializes in composing and performing silent film scores, to join the bill as “guest artist” and that truly was the icing on the cake.  Mr. Friend’s score was note perfect and watching him play along on piano, clearly enjoying himself, was a treat.

And what can one say of the film itself?  It’s majestic, still hilariously funny and marvelously entertaining after 84 years.  There’s laughter, spectacle, eye-popping shots and death-defying stunts…and the finale of the film is a recreation of an epic Civil War battle fought near Chattanooga (actually shot in Oregon) involving hundreds of extras, a train wreck, collapsing bridge, bursting dam, cannons blazing, explosions…

Talking with Sherron and Sam after the show, we all agreed “The General” seems like a remarkably contemporary film, the editing and pacing and cinematography of the highest order.  Keaton’s face may not reveal as much as some of his comic peers but his eyes speak whole volumes.  His comic timing is beyond reproach and he also emotes brilliantly, creating pathos or sympathy (or peals of laughter) with a mere glance.

Kudos to Randy Pshebylo, Executive Director of the Riversdale Improvement District, conductor Brian Unverricht and his marvelous musicians, Mr. Friend; all contributed to a special, special evening.  But my gratitude, as well, goes out to Tom Hutchinson, who saved the Roxy Theater from demolition and sank a significant amount of capital into its renovation, restoring it to its former glory and preserving a heritage building for future generations.  Without Mr. Hutchinson’s largesse there wouldn’t be a Roxy or events like  “Silence is Golden”, so a tip of the hat to him.

I’m told next year’s edition is already in the works and when asked afterward if I had any thoughts as to what film might be a good candidate, I found myself reeling off some of the golden oldies I would love to see up there on the big screen:  Abel Gance’s “Napoleon”, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Vampyr”, D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance”, F.W. Murnau’s “The Last Laugh” or “Faust”.  Sherron suggested that “Silence is Golden” doesn’t have to consist of one movie, it could be composed of a number of silent “shorts”, old Chaplin, Arbuckle, Keaton efforts set to music.  Why not?

I guess the main thing is to continue building on the success of the first two events, growing an audience base to the extent that, who knows, maybe some day this won’t be an annual event but a monthly showing of the best films of the silent era.  An opportunity to see some of the finest movies from the early days of cinema in a setting that speaks intimately of bygone days.

Imagine that…

About Cliff Burns

I'm a literary writer, specializing in slipstream/ alternative/surreal/science fiction. My influences include Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, David Cronenberg, Rene Magritte, any artist who defies convention and busts open genres, attacking the status quo.
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2 Responses to Buster Keaton’s “The General”

  1. Mike McCoy says:

    A great description of the event. I had doubts that anything could top Metropolis last year, but The General was so different, so funny, and so involving, that there turned out to be no worries. The orchestra was at its best (especially on Saturday evening) and Rick Friend was a treat to have. I do hope we can attract him again. Thanks for blogging about the event. The one area that could be improved on is community awareness of the event and the resulting audience numbers. We have identified some key areas to address, but if anyone has thoughts about this this, the SSO would love to hear them. Thanks again.

    • Cliff Burns says:

      My family and I drove in from out of town (75 minutes away) to see the show. Dunno about community awareness and audience numbers, but as far as I could tell the Saturday night show was almost full—the great attendance and enthusiastic reception the show received (even at $30 a ticket) shows that there is a substantial number of serious film fans in Saskatoon who are anxious to see classic cinema. Perhaps, like me, they’ve come to loathe the godawful comic book movies and tedious rom-coms that seem to be the favorite fare of Hollywood’s preferred demographic (14-24 dingbats who spend too much time at their gaming consoles).

      Thanks for the note, Mike—we’ll see you next year.

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