Published on March 14th, 2017 | by Padraic Coffey0
My Favourite Things – J.R. Jones
J.R. Jones is an award-winning film critic and editor for the Chicago Reader. His writing has appeared in New York Press, Kenyon Review, Da Capo Best Music Writing, and Noir City. He lives in Chicago.
His book The Lives of Robert Ryan was published in 2015.
Sherlock Jr. (1924, Buster Keaton)
Sherlock Jr. is an extraordinary film. It’s a straight comedy, but it’s got all sorts of gags predicated on tricks of perception. Buster Keaton plays a movie projectionist, and one night, as he’s showing a mystery film to an audience, he falls asleep and dreams that he’s jumping up on to the screen and getting into the film himself, and he becomes a character in it.
The movie is celebrated for the sequence in which Keaton first jumps onto the screen. There’s a montage of shots in which the character remains the same but the backdrop keeps changing. For instance, Keaton will be in a garden sitting down on a bench, then the scene cuts to a busy city street—his figure is exactly the same, but the bench has disappeared, and he falls down in the middle of the street. He gets up and starts walking down the street, but then the scene cuts to the top of a mountain, and he’s about to walk off a cliff. They shot the component parts of this montage using surveying instruments to make sure that his figure appeared the same on screen, then they edited them together.
That’s the sequence people always talk about, but even later there are all these extraordinary sight gags. In one scene there’s a woman on the street standing against a building, wearing a hinged sample case around her neck to display merchandise. The Keaton character backs up, takes a running jump right into her sample case, and disappears. This was shot live, in one take. For years people couldn’t figure out how he’d done it. In fact, the actor was actually lying horizontally; the head was real but the body with the open sample case was a fake with a trap door in it.
In another elaborate stunt he’s sitting on the handlebars of a bicycle, and the camera tracks him as he’s riding down the street. He thinks there’s somebody behind him piloting the bicycle, but he’s the only person on it. In the distance you can see a train track and a train approaching. You can watch the train’s progress, and his progress on the bicycle as they come almost to meet each other. He clears the track with the train about ten feet away.
The film is only 45 minutes long, so it’s over before you know it. Keaton edited it down because preview audiences hadn’t laughed at this or that, and it wound up being extremely short. His producer wanted him to add another 1000 feet to the film, but he refused, because he knew it was perfect the way it was. And he was right.
Roughing It (1872, Mark Twain)
I love Mark Twain and I’ve read most of his books, but this one has always been close to my heart, because it’s pure entertainment. Twain made his name with a travel book called The Innocents Abroad, in which he had written about touring the Holy Land. Roughing It was his second travel book, about his adventures in the American west. In 1861, Twain’s elder brother had been named Secretary of the Nevada Territory and invited Twain to come along as his private secretary, so they head off for the territory in a stage coach.
They pass through Salt Lake City, so there’s an introduction to Mormonism. There’s silver fever in the territory, and Twain goes out to the mountains to mine for silver, but he ends up broke and comes back with nothing. He continues on to California, and at the end of the book there’s an episode tacked on where he goes to the Hawaiian islands. It doesn’t really connect with the rest of the book, but there’s this incredible scene of him walking around a live volcano.
The book is a combination of a travelogue and a comedy routine, and it’s not very structured. It goes all over the place, but it’s super funny and it’s unencumbered by higher purpose. It doesn’t have any lofty ideals behind it, like Huckleberry Finn or some of the later works. It’s pure laughs, and there are also these dazzling descriptions of the sights as they make their way across the American west.
Take a Picture (1968, Margo Guryan)
This is an album a lot of people don’t know about. One song, Take a Picture, was in a camera commercial, so that’s probably the tune of hers that people have heard the most. Guryan was a native of New York, and as a young woman she studied at the Lenox School of Jazz, was trained as a jazz player, and also as a lyricist; she lyrics for jazz tunes in the fifties. In the late sixties she decided to try her hand at writing pop songs, after being inspired by Pet Sounds. She’d never been that interested in pop music because, being a jazz musician, she didn’t consider it sophisticated enough, but she was blown away by Pet Sounds, and felt that was the kind of music she could do.
She got a deal with Bell Records, which was a label that specialized in AM pop—Davy Jones was on Bell Records. Teenybopper stuff. She recorded an album of eleven tunes called Take a Picture, and it’s sort of the same vibe as Pet Sounds. You’ve got these sophisticated backing tracks and then a sort of frail voice on top. She wasn’t a performer, and she wasn’t a natural singer, so they double-tracked her vocals to build up the sound of her voice. When you hear the records, it’s still got a really vulnerable sound, because she was just holding it together as a singer. She sounds like a teenage girl singing to herself. It has a very sweet quality, and when you juxtapose it with the jazzy arrangements, the effect is compelling.