Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Buster Keaton: Parkour and Pathos

If you know me, you know that Buster Keaton is my favorite of the silent film comedians. He’s the Star of the Month on TCM (!) and I’ve been giddy as a fifth-grader at a Justin Bieber concert, pushing my poor rickety old VCR to grab up all the shorts and films I haven’t seen yet.

“But Jen,” you might be saying, “why such a soft spot for Buster instead of, say, Charlie Chaplin?”

Damfino, dear reader!

(But seriously, folks…)

I have great respect and appreciation for Chaplin as an artist, and I find Lloyd’s films very funny and extremely entertaining (he’s my second favorite), but my heart belongs to Keaton, and it all started with The Cameraman (1928).

I’d never seen a Keaton picture before, and had only passing acquaintance with a short or two, when the local art-house theatre advertised a screening complete with accompaniment by the wonderful Ben Model. Ooh, I couldn’t pass that up! I’d already seen Safety Last! that way and it was fantastic.

The lights dimmed, the piano thrummed an intro, and suddenly we were transported through the time machine of a little fellow with large, limpid eyes and a stoic expression. (And a surprisingly athletic body under all that baggy clothing!)

For those who haven’t seen it, The Cameraman is about a photographer who – after falling in love with Sally, a girl working for the newsreels (Marceline Day) —decides to ditch the tintypes, get himself a movie camera, and impress her. Sounds simple enough – until he gets embroiled in enough trouble for ten newsreels! It’s a lot of fun, especially the scenes where Buster and Sally spend a day at the swimming pool. But...there’s more to it than that.

A way I’ve taken to describing Keaton lately is parkour and pathos: he does his breakneck stunts—how that man lived to be as old as he was, I’ll never know—but there is also genuine love and heartbreak. Without spoiling it for newcomers, there’s a scene on the beach where you positively ache for him, the disillusionment and bitterness seeping out of his frame and keenly making its mark on the audience. It’s a powerful shot because we can all relate to what he’s going through at that very moment. (Though most of us don’t have a monkey filming it!)

This looked like a promising first picture under his new contract with MGM, but history sadly proved that not to be the case. Yet, even knowing it was the harbinger of a difficult period in Buster’s life, I still love this movie and consider it to be one of his best.

Simply put: Buster wasn’t just a comedic genius, he was an excellent actor. By the time the lights went up, I was hooked.

Since that day back in 2007 I’ve read and watched a great deal of Keaton and I have yet to be disappointed. Some of it might be hysterical (Steamboat Bill Jr, amongst many others) and some might be horrendous (Free and Easy), but it’s always worth the time. I can’t ever imagine becoming tired of him.

This year we celebrate his 116th birthday. Why not get one of his films or shorts and let him enchant you? I could make a starting suggestion… ;)


Emily & Gracie said...

Buster is my favorite, too.I wish I had a TV so I could watch all that is being shown on TCM! At least Netflix has a few of his films on instant, but I realllllllly want to see "The Cameraman" now.


Chris Edwards said...

Really nice piece, Jen. THE CAMERAMAN was my first Keaton film too. I rented it on VHS at a Blockbuster on the outskirts of Toronto.

It is SO sad for a Keaton feature. Really unique in his canon, and, I think, his last great film.

Thanks for your memories.


Rachel said...

I've just begun to get into Buster's films this month, thank you TCM! And he's presenting a dilemma because Charlie Chaplin has been my favorite for awhile now but Buster brings something so different and maybe deeper to the table than Charlie does that he's already threatening Charlie's position as number 1 in my heart. :)

Dave the Movie Guy said...

Great post Jen -

Buster is the greatest ...

It's a shame that MGM totally stifled all his comedic talent when he signed with them.

He was reduced to just another actor (albeit a very talented one) and not allowed to showcase his directing talents and his incredible stunts.

Vetiveronica said...

Buster Keaton. The General.

Best movie in the history of motion pictures.

☮ ♡