This is the fourth in a series of posts about films being screened in the first ever Herts Jazz FILM Festival (HJFF), which takes place on 16-18 September and 2 October in Welwyn Garden City. The festival showcases compelling films that all have a distinctly jazz flavour. Timed to complement the Herts Jazz Club’s well-established and prestigious annual Herts Jazz Festival, the HJFF will bring you silent film with live jazz accompaniment, rarely-seen documentaries, and a performance by a superstar jazz quartet celebrating one of the UK’s greatest jazz pianists, Stan Tracey.
The stunning new restorations of Buster Keaton’s short films, which have been released as part of the Masters of Cinema series, provide a great excuse to binge watch the master at work and also to observe the development of Keaton’s craft.
The first moment he ever appeared on film, in ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle’s THE BUTCHER BOY, he was already a natural, in complete control of his physical performance. He brought a freshness and fertile imagination to all the films he worked on with Arbuckle.
However, it is when he begins to make his own films that Buster’s real genius emerges. Jeffrey Vance, in the booklet which accompanies the Masters of Cinema box-set, says about ONE WEEK, the first of Keaton’s short films to be released, that it…
…takes a dramatic leap in story construction, cinema technique, and comic invention from the films he made with Arbuckle.
Keaton’s creativity flourished within seemingly opposing factors: structure and spontaneity. Keaton is quoted in the Masters of Cinema booklet as saying…
Even when making my two-reelers I worked on the theory that the story was always of first importance.
Unlike the Arbuckle slapstick fests, where story was almost incidental, Keaton saw the importance of using narrative and character in making films which were funnier and more substantial. However, the ideas flowed only when this structure allowed for a great deal of improvisation. Keaton again…
When a big studio today has got their schedules laid out, and those people are called and everything, you go in there and shoot, regardless. You can’t improvise, as we did then. Why, we’d change every other minute. We never knew what we were running into. When we ran into something good, we stuck with it. That’s the great handicap today – no flexibility.
The freedom of improvisation within the confines of form is, of course, at the heart of most jazz. The chord structure is equivalent to story and character and helps shape and inspire the player’s creativity in finding new ways of telling that story. It is why I am very excited to be able to bring the two art forms together in the Herts Jazz FILM Festival when the superb jazz pianist David Newton will accompany two Buster Keaton shorts – the already mentioned ONE WEEK as well as NEIGHBORS. Here is David caught on a fairly rough video at the 2004 Appleby Jazz Festival. Within the simple blues chord structure he finds endless inspiration!
There should be a very special kind of magic when David meets Buster!
David Newton will be playing live to two Buster Keaton shorts on Saturday 17th September. Details and tickets are available here.