Monday Editor’s Pick: The Cameraman (1928)

by on December 19, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Mon Dec 26 at 8:00* at Film Forum [Program & Tix]
*Live piano accompaniment by Steve Sterner
Film Forum’s “The Silent Roar: MGM 19-24-29” series continues Monday evenings thru February 6.
Don’t miss the chance to see this film 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… And there’s a monkey!

Imogen Smith in her series overview for Alt Screen:

Keaton made a valentine to the machine he loved in 1928′s The Cameraman, his first film at MGM — after his producer, Joseph Schenck, dissolved his independent studio and sold his contract — and his last masterpiece. He plays a street tintypist who buys a beat-up movie camera and struggles to become a newsreel photographer, all in the hopes of impressing a pretty secretary (Marceline Day). In this role Keaton obeys the dictate of the Soviet avant-gardist Dziga Vertov: “The man with the camera…must exert his powers of observation, quickness and agility to the utmost to keep pace with life’s fleeting phenomena.” Like all of Keaton’s silent films, The Cameraman is a watchmaker’s ballet, revealing timing as not only the essence of comedy, but the expression of inner grace.
When cameras were muffled to shoot talkies, Keaton said he missed the rhythmic grinding of the crank, which he had used as a metronome. (His rhythm is also in the cutting of his films, which Keaton did himself.) As he scrambles down the stairs of his boarding house, or trudges dejectedly back up, all of his soul is in the pace of his feet and the angle of his body. His meticulously choreographed actions are enhanced by the way the camera follows him up and down on the specially-built cutaway set: gesture, staging and cinematography work in three-part harmony to create the scene and get the laugh. A phone call releases him into an ecstatic, arrow-in-flight sprint through the streets of Manhattan, bringing him to his girl’s doorstep before she’s hung up the receiver. Silent film allowed time to be elastic, subordinate to Keaton’s own timing. The absence of sound made pratfalls look weightless, and enabled crystalline refinements of slapstick, as in the film’s famous changing-room scene, a precise pas de deux of mounting chaos and frustration. With sound, physical comedy became the “dumb” brother of smart talk, but silent comedians like Keaton display intelligence in action.



Smith continues:

Keaton punctuates action with moments of perfect stillness, as when, in The Cameraman, the girl he’s just rescued goes off with his cowardly rival, mistaking him for her hero: Buster sinks to his knees, his face averted, the slump of his back articulating contained yet abject defeat. This excruciating scene is cut short before it can descend into tear-jerking: the camera saves us by pulling back to reveal Buster’s camera saving him, thanks to his clever, troublemaking monkey (the brilliant Josephine, a better actor than many humans in silent film) who cranks away, capturing the truth. But the scene leaves no doubt that Keaton could pierce hearts if he wanted to. That audiences of the time called him the Great Stone Face — or, in other countries, variations on “a blank piece of paper” or “the hole in the doughnut” — suggests that his underacting was so ahead of its time that people literally couldn’t see it. A later reaction against sentimentality and melodrama led people to praise him, wrongly, for his cool refusal of emotion.

But Keaton was never emotionless, he was merely able to hold his feelings at bay. It’s the tension between his stoic façade and the depth of feeling behind it that makes him moving. Stoicism lies at the heart of his humor: just as he favored wide shots over close-ups, his gaze had “that built-in distance; it keeps us at arm’s length,” as the French film critic Robert Benayoun wrote. Keaton’s face was never blank; it could express through minimal changes terror, anger, embarrassment, bliss. In The Cameraman we often see his eyes juxtaposed with a camera lens, soulful and fathomless above the unblinking aperture.


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.


Don Druker for the Chicago Reader:

Buster Keaton’s 1928 film on the problems and principles of making movies. Directed by Edward Sedgwick, the film follows the adventures of Keaton as he tries to become a cameraman for the Hearst newsreel company, and it includes some of the best asides on the techniques and psychology of shooting films ever captured in a movie. In many ways it summarizes Keaton’s career and makes a marvelous companion piece to his other film-about-film, Sherlock Jr.



Time Out (London):

Keaton gets involved in a Tong war and (inadvertently) with an organ-grinder’s monkey. He shoots exclusive footage, but the monkey steals the film. Keaton returns with an empty camera and is kicked out. Gloomily he goes to the beach. His girl is in a boating accident. Forsaking his camera, he rescues her. The monkey keeps the camera rolling. Keaton gets the girl, and back at MGM, it’s the greatest news film they’ve ever seen…shot by the monkey. A delightful piece of film-making within-a-film which is both an insight into Keaton’s own logic, and also, alas, a sort of epitaph.


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.

Jana Prikryl had a great piece on Keaton recently, for the New York Review of Books.


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.



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.


Eric Henderson again:

Keaton appears in front of his own camera twice in the film’s duration (once in each half). The first occurrence is during his cinematographic gestalt period, when he consciously places himself in the role of his film’s subject: a one-man baseball team, enacting impossible feats of slugging (an infield run) and defense (a miraculously nonchalant triple play). The second time occurs when he jumps into the water to save Sally when a romantic rival has left her to drown after a failed daredevil stunt. Redemption has already entered into Keaton’s life—when Keaton accidentally knocks down and supposedly kills an organ-grinder’s dancing monkey, he is pressured to buy the tiny corpse, which seems to come back from the dead in an eerie and hysterical slow-motion shot (the monkey removing his white shroud like a resurrected saint). And it is that same miracle monkey that is revealed to be rolling film on Keaton’s heroism and, thereby, the artist behind the scenes who engineers a comedic resolution. If the film’s first half posits that amateurism is the jumping point for both accidental expressionism and aimless experimentalism, then the second half appears to argue for unregulated primitivism. Specifically, The Cameraman’s most tangible moral is that, if you want to achieve unfussy filmed drama, you’d do best to take your lessons from an organ-grinder’s monkey. As far as I’m concerned, this is a message for the ages.


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