Although already well-established as the director and star of many two-reelers, it was not until 1923 that vaudeville comedian Buster Keaton got to write, direct, produce and star in his first feature film, Three Ages – which, to placate a studio nervous about entrusting a long-form project to a man whose directorial track record did not extend beyond shorts, Keaton divided into three intercut episodes, each set in a different epoch (the Stone Age, Roman Antiquity and Modern Times), and each telling similar stories of the rivalry between a Boy (Keaton) and a Villain (Wallace Beery) for the affections of a Girl (Margaret Leahy). This tripartite, time-leaping structure has been appropriated by brothers Jay and Mark Meyers for their own debut feature, Three Eras.
The formal similarities between these two works are offset by some obvious differences, starting from the change of Keaton’s titular ‘Ages’ to the Meyers’ ‘Eras’ (a word which, both meaningfully and amusingly, is homophonous with ‘errors’ in American English). The Meyers’ film is neither in black and white, nor silent, although it does regularly punctuate its narratives with outmoded intertitles in homage to Keaton’s original. Its second story is set in the mid-nineteenth-century Era of the Old West rather than in Ancient Rome. And the love triangle around which all three of Keaton’s narratives were organised here gets a look-in only in the prehistoric story, and takes on a newly homosexual form, in a film whose every (speaking) character – in every age – is, after all, male. Indeed, romance is entirely absent as a theme here, replaced instead by real estate and power. “Governance alone is the changing axis on which the world revolves,” intones the all-new narrator – a white-bearded amalgam of God, Father Time and Death – in His deep Voice of Authority. “There is no better way to prove this than by comparing the stories of periods in time,” he adds, justifying the film’s structure as evidence for his thesis.
In the first story, Buster (Jay Meyers) is a Caveman ahead of his times, trying (and failing) to provide for his partner E.E.E.E. (Mark Meyers) through non-violent real estate deals in an era when brutal bullying and religious charlatanism trump all else. In the second, disgruntled, dumber-than-he-thinks school teacher Jeff (Jay Meyers) resorts to violence against his neighbour Bud (Chris Kerr) in an attempt to cash in on a new railway line that will pass through both their properties. In the third, three arrogant, entitled, obnoxious brothers – Sal (Mark Meyers), Jared (Jay Meyers) and Eric (Chris Kerr) – constantly abuse and deride ‘dumb’ Don (K.C. Mackey) who is filming them on his phone to promote their superrich father’s condominium business, only to realise that their recorded antics are themselves even more saleable than any apartment.
Made independently on a low budget, and as shonky and amateurish in its presentation as the entrepreneurial practices that it portrays, this comedy of eras slyly sells itself as a study in human affairs and evolution spread across several million years, while in fact using all three of its stories to bring into oblique focus the browbeating idiocy and rapacious hypocrisy that have come to dominate our own age – an age where perhaps the best known dealer in real estate and governance is none other than Donald Trump. In these sketches with their interchangeable personnel and interlocking motifs, development is also devolution, as the more things change, the more they stay the same. Three Eras is both gonzo outsider art, and a darkly funny trip through time, the mannered line readings and bad lip-synching only serving to enhance its broader sketches of mankind as a schlubby, bumbling, pathetic species.
strap: Jay and Mark Meyers’ feature debut is a tripartite satirical sketch of mankind’s questionable evolution over the ages
© Anton Bitel