Playing Mon May 23 at 7:30 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]
Film Forum’s “Best of Buster” retro starts today with The Cameraman, and continues with a one-time screening of classic Keaton comedies (The General, The Navigator, Sherlock Jr., et al.) every Monday evening for the next 12 weeks.
Don’t miss the chance to see these films projected in a public theater. The clockwork intricacy of Keaton’s long-shot set-pieces can only be appreciated on the big screen. And while comedy, as a rule, rises and falls on the strength of audience participation (laughter being like yawning, only more so), silent comedy is particularly dependent on the live orchestration of a convulsively laughing and thoroughly gut-busted theater crowd.
Round-up below starts with some material on Keaton generally, then The Cameraman specifically.
From James Agee‘s famous Life Magazine article “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” first published in 1949 and since anthologized in the Library of America’s Agee reader:
[Keaton] was by his whole style and nature so much the most deeply “silent” of the silent comedians that even a smile was as deafeningly out of key as a yell. In a way his pictures are like a transcendent juggling act in which it seems that the whole universe is in exquisite flying motion and the one point of repose is the juggler’s effortless, uninterested face. Keaton’s face ranked almost with Lincoln’s as an early American archetype; it was haunting, handsome, almost beautiful, yet it was irreducibly funny. No other comedian could do as much with the dead-pan.
Keaton was a wonderfully resourceful inventor of mechanistic gags (he still spends much of his time fooling with Erector sets); as he ran afoul of locomotives, steamships prefabricated and over-electrified houses, he put himself through some of the hardest and cleverest punishment ever designed for laughs. In Sherlock Jr., boiling along on the handlebars of a motor cycle quite unaware that he has lost his driver, Keaton whips through city traffic, breaks up a tug-of-war, gets a shovel full of dirt in the face from each of a long line of Rockette-timed ditch diggers, approaches a log at high speed which is hinged open by dynamite precisely soon enough to let him through and, hitting an obstruction, leaves the handlebars like an arrow leaving a bow, whams through the window of a shack in which the heroin is about to be violated, and hits the heavy feet-first knocking him through the opposite wall. The whole sequence is as clean in motion as the trajectory of a bullet.
Much of the charm and edge of Keaton’s comedy, however, lay in the subtle leverages of expression he could work against his nominal dead pan. Trapped in the side wheel of a ferryboat, saving himself from drowning only by walking, then desperately running like a squirrel in a cage, his only real concern was, obviously, to keep his hat on. Confronted by Love, he was not as dead-pan as he was cracked up to be, either; there was an odd, abrupt motion of his head which suggested a horse nipping at a sugar lump…Keaton worked strictly for laughs, but his work came from so far inside a curious and original spirit that he achieved a great deal more besides.
Gilberto Perez in his excellent The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium:
If all comedians are outsiders, Keaton is the outsider who will not give up the attempt to join in, to connect with others. Chaplin’s Tramp, by contrast, is more or less self-sufficient, “an aristocrat,” as Robert Warshow put it, “fallen on hard times.” Lloyd’s bespectacled democrat is a blundering free enterpriser, motivated by self-interest, patently inferior to his fellow men but aspiring to rise above them in the land of opportunity. Buster is unique in earnestly seeking a genuine togetherness. If he seems the loneliest of all comedians, it’s because he’s the one to whom companionship matters most.
That loneliness is hauntingly conveyed in those distant long shots, typical of Keaton, in which he appears as a tiny figure amid large empty surroundings. […] Keaton developed, no doubt intuitively, an original cinematic style beautifully suited to his purposes. His penchant for deep focus and long takes, his avoidance of close-ups and reductions of cuts — an approach unappreciatted by his contemporaries, who were schooled in Griffith’s editing and Eisenstein’s montage — assisted his rediscovery by film critics in the Sixties, when Andre Bazin anti-montage conceptions became widely influential.
Alt Screen Contributing Editor Jim Emerson, at his old old website, Cinepad:
Keaton’s comedy is ideally suited to the aesthetics and technology of the movies. It’s a medium brought to life by sprockets and shutters, lamps and lenses, and to Keaton the world itself is one huge, whirring, implacable machine.
But if Buster is forever at the mercy of the inexorable, indifferent forces around him, it’s his impassivity and adaptability to those forces that allow him to survive, and triumph, over adversity. Keaton can always roll with whatever punches the universe can throw at him.
Unlike Chaplin’s “Little Tramp,” Keaton never cries out for sympathy. The audience doesn’t need to be coaxed into identifying with him; the serene blankness of his face is like an empty screen onto which viewers can project their own hopes and fears. Like the audience, Keaton himself is an observer. He doesn’t rush blindly into action; he waits, watches, considers, taking in everything around him. And that’s his secret.
Richard Corliss for Time Magazine:
Watch [Keaton’s] beautiful, compact body as it pirouettes or pretzels in tortured permutations or, even more elegantly, stands in repose as everything goes crazy around it. Watch his mind as it contemplates a hostile universe whose violent whims Buster understands, withstands and, miraculously, tames. Watch his camera taking his picture (Keaton directed or supervised all his best films); it is as cool as the star it captured in its glass.
Keaton is usually enshrined with Charles Chaplin and Harold Lloyd in silent comedy’s holy trinity. In fact, his true film siblings are the old adventure stars Douglas Fairbanks and William S. Hart. Like Fairbanks, Keaton performed gorgeous, reckless stunts; his films were thrillers culminating in wild cyclones (Steamboat Bill, Jr.) and boat disasters (The Navigator). Like Hart, Keaton was the American loner: a dour, improbably heroic figure beneath a hostile sky.
He was famous for not smiling. In a lovely moment from Go West, a tough cowpoke orders him at gunpoint to smile; after considering whether he’d rather die, Keaton fingers the corners of his mouth into an awful grimace. But this blank visage was a versatile comic instrument. The giant eyes spoke all manner of emotions: ardor, terror, despair, sheer mulishness. The Keaton deadpan is stoic, heroic and as thoroughly modernist as a Beckett play or a Bauhaus facade. Next to him, Chaplin is a Victorian coquette, Lloyd a glad-handing politician.
Swedish-language one-sheet for The Cameraman:
Eric Henderson for Slant:
When Keaton sacrificed that independence and control by signing a contract with MGM, where production schedules were tighter and less open to the sort of gag-improvisations Keaton was used to indulging in, many observed it as the beginning of his career decline. Which makes it all the more poignant that his first MGM feature, 1928’s The Cameraman, directed not by Keaton himself, but Edward Sedgwick (up to that point, more or less a director-for-hire), is right up there with Sherlock, Jr. as one of Keaton’s most impressively self-reflective films and an ode to the unexpected and elusive lightening-in-a-bottle nature of filmmaking.
Lucia Bozzola for Allmovie:
In his first film for MGM and his last important work, Buster Keaton once again mined the comic possibilities of filmmaking. Blending studio sets with documentary footage and location shooting in New York, Keaton’s adventures as a hapless yet inadvertently avant-garde Hearst newsreel man amply demonstrated his signature athleticism and visual cleverness, as he films a Tong War in Chinatown, plays baseball with himself in an empty Yankee Stadium, and gets a little too involved in Charles Lindbergh’s tickertape parade. An improvised situation involving a shared Coney Island dressing room and bathing suit showcased Keaton’s well-honed gifts for comic timing and unscripted creativity, but that work situation was not to last at bottom line-fixated MGM. Even though The Cameraman was a success, MGM demanded that Keaton give up his looser, off-the-cuff working style and stick to prepared shooting scripts; his penchant for dangerous stunts did not find favor either. With his comic methods curtailed after 1928, The Cameraman was the final film made exactly as Keaton wished–and, perhaps not surprisingly, his last great feature.
Journeyman director Edward M. Sedgwick films Keaton in a comic bathhouse scene.
Penn State Professor Kevin Hagopian contextualizes The Cameraman in Keaton’s career:
In the spring of 1928, Buster Keaton was making perhaps the most perfectly engineered films in the history of the American cinema. His films were organized around linked gags in a structure developed by a rotating team of a half-dozen or so of Keaton’s cronies from vaudeville and from the days of Keaton’s own long apprenticeship in two-reelers, the short cinema form that from 1917 to 1923 had allowed him to hone his comic craft into a laugh-getting machine that was still deeply humane and compassionate, oiled by human kindness and romance. When Keaton, Eddie Kline, Joe Mitchell, Clyde Bruckman, and the rest of the gang hit a snag, they simply left the set and indulged in Buster Keaton’s other great passion: the Keaton unit played baseball until someone figured out how to get Buster out of the plot corner they had just painted him into. At United Artists, producer Joseph Schenck did more than let the inimitable Keaton have his head: he let Keaton have his own studio. […] United Artists was then still “The Studio Owned by the Stars,” designed by Mark Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin to be both a financial boon and a creative haven for film artists, the company actually an archipelago of truly independent producers. For Keaton, it was paradise.
But in 1928, after releasing the brilliant Steamboat Bill, Jr., Keaton was talked into dismantling the financial structure of his studio, and coming under the aegis of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The massive hyphenate was already, in only its fourth year of existence, a huge picture-making operation that had made a shotgun marriage of art and commerce…So Keaton went to MGM: many years later, he called it, “the worst mistake of my career.” His traveling Lambs Club of comic writers went with him, but was scattered across the MGM lot, working on films for everyone except Keaton. As a result, the gag structures of his MGM films feel truncated and unfinished as a result. Meanwhile, in pursuit of economy and the kind of films it liked to call “product,” the MGM suits harassed Keaton into economies and “sure-fire” plots that failed to combust.
But it wasn’t all over just yet. At MGM, Keaton had one more great film left in him. In the fall of 1928, his unit was still intact, and together they made The Cameraman…Just before burning out, the filament of a light bulb will often flare brightly. So it is in The Cameraman.
The Keaton two-reeler The Playhouse (1921) will open tonight’s program. In three framegrabs: