Buster Keaton is known for his stunt work and acrobatic athleticism as much as he is for his perpetual deadpan. Many comedians used their bodies in their craft but actors like Buster and Harold Lloyd took this physicality to another level, often risking (and sustaining) injury as a result. For the iconic scene in Steamboat Bill, Jr. where the facade of a house collapses around the film’s oblivious protagonist, many crewmembers had to look away or leave; the possibility that the star could be crushed if his position within the small window had been miscalculated by mere inches was very real.
Buster learned very early in life how potentially dangerous stunts could up the ante on a gag or be the basis for the gag itself, and he used this knowledge to great advantage throughout his independent film career. He was more than willing to go beyond run-of-the-mill pratfalls as long as he was sure that the audience would laugh.
He insists, for example, that his characteristic use of long master shots—ones that record an entire scene from a single camera angle—is the result of laziness, not conscious technique. “I don’t have the patience or the concentration to shoot hours of us talking in a two-shot, and then your single and my single and from over your shoulder and over my shoulder. I like to do as many pages as I can in one take.”
“In 1978, as I applied to study film at the University of Illinois, my father vehemently objected. He quoted me a statistic: ‘Every year, 50,000 performers compete for 200 available roles on Broadway.’ Against his advice, I boarded a flight to the U.S. This strained our relationship. In the two decades following, we exchanged less than a hundred phrases in conversation.
Some years later, when I graduated film school, I came to comprehend my father’s concern. It was nearly unheard of for a Chinese newcomer to make it in the American film industry. Beginning in 1983, I struggled through six years of agonizing, hopeless uncertainty. Much of the time, I was helping film crews with their equipment or working as editor’s assistant, among other miscellaneous duties. My most painful experience involved shopping a screenplay at more than thirty different production companies, and being met with harsh rejection each time.
That year, I turned 30. There’s an old Chinese saying: ‘At 30, one stands firm.’ Yet, I couldn’t even support myself. What could I do? Keep waiting, or give up my movie-making dream? My wife gave me invaluable support.
My wife was my college classmate. She was a biology major, and after graduation, went to work for a small pharmaceutical research lab. Her income was terribly modest. At the time, we already had our elder son, Haan, to raise. To appease my own feelings of guilt, I took on all housework – cooking, cleaning, taking care of our son – in addition to reading, reviewing films and writing scripts. Every evening after preparing dinner, I would sit on the front steps with Haan, telling him stories as we waited for his mother – the heroic huntress – to come home with our sustenance (income).
This kind of life felt rather undignified for a man. At one point, my in-laws gave their daughter (my wife) a sum of money, intended as start-up capital for me to open a Chinese restaurant – hoping that a business would help support my family. But my wife refused the money. When I found out about this exchange, I stayed up several nights and finally decided: This dream of mine is not meant to be. I must face reality.
Afterward (and with a heavy heart), I enrolled in a computer course at a nearby community college. At a time when employment trumped all other considerations, it seemed that only a knowledge of computers could quickly make me employable. For the days that followed, I descended into malaise. My wife, noticing my unusual demeanor, discovered a schedule of classes tucked in my bag. She made no comment that night.
The next morning, right before she got in her car to head off to work, my wife turned back and – standing there on our front steps – said, ‘Ang, don’t forget your dream.’
And that dream of mine – drowned by demands of reality – came back to life. As my wife drove off, I took the class schedule out of my bag and slowly, deliberately tore it to pieces. And tossed it in the trash.
Sometime after, I obtained funding for my screenplay, and began to shoot my own films. And after that, a few of my films started to win international awards. Recalling earlier times, my wife confessed, ‘I’ve always believed that you only need one gift. Your gift is making films. There are so many people studying computers already, they don’t need an Ang Lee to do that. If you want that golden statue, you have to commit to the dream.’
And today, I’ve finally won that golden statue. I think my own perseverance and my wife’s immeasurable sacrifice have finally met their reward. And I am now more assured than ever before: I must continue making films.
You see, I have this never-ending dream.”
(Following Ang Lee’s second Best Directing win at the Academy Awards last night, this beautiful essay resurfaced. Here is my translation of Ang Lee’s words, written in 2006 (post-Oscar win). Please credit the translation to Irene Shih (and to this blog), thank you!)
February 20, 1925 – November 20, 2006
“I watched Bob shoot a scene and he had a big wide smile on his face—and as the scene went on and on and on and the actors strayed from the script and got better and better, he turned and said, ‘This is the way. Good disintegration.’ […] From his work, I began to realize that I didn’t need any of the things I’d learned in the ‘How to Make Movies Book’. There didn’t have to be lessons or a moral to the story; things could drift in and out and stories could ramble and be more effective in glimpsing moments of truth rather than going for the touchdown. They could be long, they could be musicals without people singing, and they could be dirty and smart at the same time. Beginnings, middles and ends could all flow delicately together in any order, and weren’t even needed to be a great film. Things could just happen without explanation or too much fanfare, and the results would take care of themselves. This has been Bob’s great contribution: it doesn’t have to be spelled out. If it’s there and an audience wants to take something, they are free to. And we are lucky audiences because of it. Bob lets his mind wander and allows us to enjoy it. He’s nice to us because he’s good to his instinct. It’s hard to find heroes in Bob’s movies. Most of his characters are just folks trying to move along without too much fuss. Bob’s films taught me to trust that the most interesting thing—the only interesting thing on screen—is the people.” — Paul Thomas Anderson
Anderson’s personal approach to composition has implications in the editing room, too. “Wes likes to center-frame the actors, and he often covers dialog scenes with swish-pans rather than cutting,” says Yeoman. “There are also many long dolly shots. He designs the shots so that each part of the story is encapsulated in that one shot. When you shoot like that, there’s not really a place for a cut, though at times he can slip one in on the swish pan. As a result, he almost never cuts shots out of the movie. Everything is very carefully designed, so there really isn’t a tremendous amount of coverage. Pretty much everything that we shoot gets used.”
Stuff that Keaton did in movies 60-odd years ago is shocking, so brilliant. He did stunts without wires and head spins that - and man, I know, because I’ve tried to do them again and again - cannot be done by a human being. Unless you’re Keaton. Or, maybe, a 12-year-old Russian gymnast. —Johnny Depp
I cut my finger. That’s tragedy. A man walks into an open sewer and dies. That’s comedy.