Monday, November 17, 2008

'The General' vs. 'The General'

Update: A few special features were left out of the "only on MK2" section. They're all there now.

I sit in on DVDTalk's Silent DVD column this week with a review of Kino's new edition of Buster Keaton's "The General." This edition aims to become the quintessential release, with a new HD transfer from the original camera negative and three different accompaniment tracks including a new 5.1 version of the beloved Carl Davis score from Keven Brownlow's Thames Silents TV broadcast.

Being the parade-rainer I am, I was compelled to point out that the French company MK2 also did an HD transfer of the film back in 2004, and spent more time on frame-by-frame cleanup, whereas the Kino edition shows the (relatively light) wear and decay of the source material. Now, some silent film aficionados believe that transfers shouldn't be overly repaired, but simply capture the surviving documents. I'm of the opinion that, for a home presentation like this, if you can make the film look as close to how it looked when Keaton premiered it, then that's the way to go. Anyway, read the review, which has a lot more on the film beyond PQ nitpicking. And if you're thinking about going PAL region 2 for the MK2 (I recommend the UK Cinema Club release), here's a comparison of the two editions.

KINO: Color-tinted HD transfer — Some of Keaton's compositions are particularly gorgeous in sepia tone, but I'm still partial to black-and-white, mainly when it comes to the blue nighttime scenes. Great detail and crisp image.
MK2: Black-and-white HD transfer — Brilliant image, free of the scratches and decay on most silent prints. Would be extremely difficult to top.

BOTH EDITIONS feature high-definition transfers, but neither companies will give us the film on a damn HD format. At least put it on iTunes, for crying out loud!

KINO: Carl Davis score performed by Thames Silent Orchestra (5.1 and stereo), Organ score by Lee Irwin — Davis's score is involving, exciting, and sounds great. Irwin's score is a nice bonus.

MK2: Joe Hisaishi score performed by Tokyo City Philharmonic Orchestra (5.1) — Hisaishi's beautiful score features some inspired moments, although at certain times is a bit detached from the film.

BOTH EDITIONS: The Robert Israel score that's on, like, every edition of "The General" ever (not really, but this one's been around for a while, and is featured on Kino's previous edition).

Special Features

Filmed introduction by Orson Welles — The great Welles offers an introduction that's at times insightful and astute, and always comedically Wellesian. Clips from "Coney Island" and "Cops" illustrate Keaton's development. (The Kino version maintains the old TV titles and credits for "The Silent Years: From the Collection of Paul Killiam," while the MK2 version doesn't.) (12:00)

Behind-the-scenes home movie footage (called "Filming the General" on MK2) — an interesting minute's worth of behind-the-scenes footage. Neither company makes an effort to add context via editing or voiceover.

MK2 Only:
"The Railroader" (actually "The Railrodder") — This 25-minute Canadian promotional short from 1965 is known as one of Keaton's most Keatonesque works from his later life. It and the documentary of its making (see below) give the MK2 release the upper hand, unless you already own them.

"Buster Keaton Rides Again" An excellent chronicle of the making of "The Railrodder." The film offers rare insight into Keaton's creative process, as well as a somewhat inaccurate history of his career. A great look at the man behind the stone face. (55:00)

Introduction by David Robinson — Robinson provides a nice overview of the film and its history, illustrated by clips and stills.

Featurette on movie restoration — The usual shots of original physical prints, the side-by-side comparisons, etc. (2:00)

Featurette on recording the 2004 score — This one is not subtitled in English, and features mainly footage of the recording process before some chanteuse shows up to sing a song about Johnny Gray to one of Hisaishi's themes.

Footage from the tinted version — In case you haven't seen it elsewhere, footage from the old transfer. (7:00)

Keaton filmography — Stills and clips from Keaton's Silent features. (11:00)

"The Return of The General" — 1962 publicity film documentary by the Louisville & Tennessee Railroad showcases the restored engine, which is featured in the present day on the Kino edition.

The trailer for "The Great Locomotive Chase" — Disney brought the same story that inspired "The General to the screen in 1956

"The Iron Mule" — This 1925 Al St. John silent two-reeler features the replica of the small, absurd train The Rocket that Keaton used in "Our Hospitality." The film (and its title) reference John Ford's "The Iron Horse" from the previous year. Keaton also appears, uncredited, as an Indian. (13:00)

"Alice's Tin Pony" — From Walt Disney's "Alice in Cartoonland" series, which combined animation with live-action photography, this 1925 short was also inspired by "The Iron Horse." (6:00)

Cinema Club distributed MK2's edition in the UK and includes a nice 24-page booklet with details on the film and the features, including the text of David Robinson's introduction. I understand that the French edition includes nice literature too—si tu parles français, naturellement!

If you already own "The Railrodder" and "Buster Keaton Rides Again," Kino might have the edge.

Filmed introduction by Gloria Swanson — This clip from TV's "Silents Please" is amusing in a campy sort of way. (2:13)

A video tour of the authentic General, presented in association with the Southern Museum — See the General, learn its history and how it operates. (18:00)

A tour of the filming locations, presented by John Bengston, author of Silent Echoes — Bengston's detective work is always impressive. (4:30)

"The Buster Express" — Kino describes this as "A brisk montage of train gags from throughout Keaton's career," and that about sums it up. It's a fun, free-association montage, but certainly not essential. (5:45)

Finally, the disc features a gallery of promotional photos, lobby cards from various countries and production stills, including some from a sequence deleted from the film.


Nancy said...

I love the Carl Davis score, and just wish they had included it on the MK2 version.
Looks like I'll have to get another edition of the disc for the Bengstrom materials and the lobby cards alone! Thank you for the excellent review.

Jeremy Mathews said...

Yeah, it's a shame that we can't just have one nice, big edition with all the scores and special features we love in one set. I'm of the opinion that we'd be pretty close if the MK2 and Kino editions were merged (including both transfers—as they respectively represent the best non-tinted and tinted versions available). We'd just need to add a few extra scores for good measure and we'd almost be there. Oh well

PS I made a slight update to MK2 summary, listing some of the old movies that are included on the bonus disc.

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