We were taking a road trip together to Iola, Kansas, for a local celebration of silent film stars Buster Keaton and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Leonard being the guest of honor. Keaton had been born in nearby Picqua, Kansas, and this was Iola's fourth annual celebration. In the early Seventies, Leonard and I took regular summer road trips that ended up as used-book-buying sprees. This September weekend had worked out in our schedules so that we could meet up and drive there together.
Back in the summer of 1964, when Leonard and I were 13, we lived in Teaneck, New Jersey, just a short drive from New York City. One day when we had plans to go into the City (mostly to see movies and shop for books), Leonard excitedly showed me a New York Times article that talked about how Samuel Beckett was shooting his first film in Manhattan, starring Buster Keaton. Samuel Beckett we didn't know, but Buster Keaton was one of our heroes then, as he most certainly is now. Silent films were one of our passions, and we were fortunate to have the opportunity to see many of them at film societies and museums in the city and at collectors' homes. Keaton was one of our favorites, a film genius about whose work we were passionate.
We took the bus into the city, then subways over to Canal Street. Coming out of the station, we headed towards the Bridge, almost immediately noticing lights and screens just a few blocks away. We approached.
Buster Keaton was sitting in the back seat of a car, about halfway down the block, reading a newspaper, his famous hat on the seat beside him. I was nervous and hesitant but with Leonard in the lead, we just walked over to Keaton, who was quite gracious. Soft-spoken but friendly, he politely answered questions. Leonard showed him a still from one of his movies that we couldn't identify. Keaton quickly named the movie but said the actress in the shot with him was not the same one as in the movie. After a few minutes, other people began coming over, and eventually we left.
Thirty-two years later we are in a car in Kansas, continuing many of the same discussions we began over three decades before. The visit will go like this, deep in the American heartland, where we are wined and dined, everyone being so thrilled to meet Leonard Maltin.
I would love to talk here, in detail, about the great Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. The universal response to his name has more to do with an alleged rape and unfortunate death in San Francisco rather than his brilliance as a comic performer. Most of the Arbuckle scandal was trumped-up garbage having more to do with political ambition and intra-city rivalries (Los Angeles and San Francisco) than sex and Coke bottles. The details would be great to go into: How the third jury (there had been two hung juries) acquitted Arbuckle in one minute, taking an additional five minutes to draft a statement apologizing for his being brought to trial; how just days after his acquittal, newly appointed movie moral czar Will Hayes banned him from the screen. But that would all be just defending Arbuckle, and I think that case, in the minds of the American public, is lost (although, if you're interested, read David Yallop's great The Day the Laughter Died). If there were space, I'd not only celebrate Keaton's genius but also talk about Arbuckle and how agile, skilled, and physically funny he was, about his great sense of comic timing and his mastery of physical space. Some other time...
Ironically, the night after I returned to Austin, Beckett's film, titled Film, was shown by the Austin Film Society on a double bill with The General. This has already happened, but don't be too bitter, The General is a masterpiece but Film (though impossible to see and we are all indebted to the film society for bringing it) is a bore. Coming back from that small, sweet Kansas town, where the two days of screenings and discussions was such a special event, I realized how lucky we are here in Austin.
We have not only the regu- lar programming at the Dobie, the Village, and the Student Union, but the wake of Richard Linklater -- from the number of independent film-makers at work to the many Austin Film Society series. Currently, AFS is running the Powell/Pressburger Archers series (see p.46), the British Playwrights series (p.48), a fall edition of their successful Film Noir series, plus numerous special screenings. Next week is the Austin Heart of Film Screenwriters Conference, which, in a few short years has become one of the country's most prominent screenwriting conferences. This year's lineup of Hollywood writing talent is truly extraordinary; their film festival offers over 30 films including local and national premieres (p.46). The 21st season of The Territory, KLRU-TV'S acclaimed series that showcases independent, animated, and experimental film begins on October 8 (p.50). A revitalized CinemaTexas has just finished an ambitious expansive student film festival. There are also different film/video societies and support groups I'm not even mentioning. And this just covers October.... n