Earning critical praise and awards (including Oscar) buzz, “Green Book” is collecting accolades for its simple buddy narrative spinning in a vortex of volatile racial turmoil. For reasons to be explained later, I have a personal interest in the film (my rating is five reels out of five).
A working-class Italian-American bouncer becomes the driver for an African-American classical pianist on a tour of venues through the 1960’s pre civil rights era American South. The mismatched traveling companions face continuous verbal and physical hardships throughout the segregated states.
It’s not the night/day visual disparity, but the cultural backgrounds of the two men which gives purpose to this very entertaining opposites-attract Civil Rights Era buddy road movie. The rough-hewn bouncer with a Calabrese-Bronx dialect Tony Vallelonga, known professionally as Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), is engaged by classical pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as a bodyguard, chauffeur and valet for a concert tour in 1962. Tony, a likable Italian-American, who brushes shoulders with mob-types, also has a soft inner self, very protective of his wife and children. His racial bias, rooted in childhood innocence, keeps him somewhat open minded rather than harboring hard core prejudice toward Black American culture.
Ali portrays piano man Don Shirley with majestic reserve, impeccable manners and professorial intelligence. His speech, laden with literary perception, a contrast to Tony’s street lingo utterances, fuels much of the film’s humor. Yet, despite the disparity, there’s a sense of character camaraderie prompted by the casting esprit de corps partnership of Mortensen and Ali which I expect will be recognized in the upcoming awards season.
My interest in the film stems from a memorable meeting with Don Shirley in the early 1970’s. Our sit-down tete-a-tete (I was in radio at the time) evolved into an illuminating and entertaining conversation between friends, rather than a structured media interview. Our discussion centered on music as well as bittersweet racial issues invading his career. Shirley was very erudite in our verbal exchanges, evoking an intelligence (shown in the film) without a superior attitude. He also gifted me with an LP containing a unique interpretation of the folk song “Water Boy,” which became a signature piece in his repertoire and a personal favorite of yours truly. Check it out on YouTube Music.
The screenplay is based on the actual friendship of Tony Vallelonga and Don Shirley, remaining so till their deaths within months of each other in 2013.
“Green Book” shows that barriers can be shattered through friendship, understanding and respect. The film, now in wide release, does so with heartfelt humor.
THE GREAT BUSTER
Current movie comedies could use some learnin’ from the used-to-be-silent flicks which were starring vehicles for Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Ben Turpin, and the Keystone Cops. GI technology was far into the future. Human ingenuity coupled with the resourcefulness of performers taking physical risks for the sake of laughs is what attracted audiences to nickelodian showings for a nickel.
“The Great Buster” is a noteable example of Buster Keaton’s contribution to the gentle art (?????) of slapstick and pratfall comedy. The documentary celebrates the life and career of one of the most influential and celebrated filmmakers and comedians at the dawning of the moving pictures industry. Keaton, whose singular style and fertile output during the silent era created his legacy as a true cinematic visionary. Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, a filmmaker and cinema historian, “The Great Buster” is filled with stunningly restored archival Keaton film clips.
Keaton’s beginnings on the vaudeville circuit are chronicled, as is the development of his trademark physical comedy and deadpan expression that designated him as “The Great Stone Face”. This opened a career as the director, writer, producer and star of his own short films and features.
Interspersed throughout are interviews with collaborators, filmmakers, performers and friends, including Mel Brooks, Quentin Tarantino, Werner Herzog and Dick van Dyke, who discuss Keaton’s influence on modern comedy and, indeed, cinema itself. The loss of artistic independence and career decline that marked his later years are also covered by Bogdanovich. Highlighted as well is Keaton’s extraordinary output as the writer, director and star of 19 shorts and ten feature films he created without interruption between the years 1920 and 1929 (including 1926’s The General and 1928’s Steamboat Bill, Jr.) that stamped him with greatness. Many are regarded as classics, while others were looked on as simply outstanding, and further projects are considered as lesser entries or curiosities in Keaton’s collection. The thinking is that all remain highly watchable, with repeated viewings revealing just how well constructed they were and how visionary their creator was.
Buster Keaton was a pioneer in the craft of making people laugh at moving images (his trademark physical comedy without stunt stand ins) while the medium was still in its infancy. Keaton, and fellow silent-film era great Charlie Chaplin, led the way with talents that were intuitive and natural in the 1920s. Keaton’s deadpan countenance would blend alongside the 60-foot sculpture heads of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln carved into the granite face of South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore. His contribution to silent-film was as large.
“The Great Buster:A Celebration” is currently showing in select markets.