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Arts & Life

New Buster Keaton Documentary Worth Celebrating

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Cohen Media Group

Buster Keaton is simply a marvel of brilliance and joy, but it’s not really that simple. He became a star in 1917, over a hundred years ago, yet I’ve never known someone to keep thinking that Keaton’s movies are just old, outdated silly stuff,  after they’ve seen him work. Keaton’s comedy cuts through those hundred years and watching him in action feels timeless.

Great silent comedy takes you into a dream state, where the improbable is perfectly believable, the world is just enough askew to free you from worrying about normal logic, and no one gets hurt. When Keaton does one of his masterful arcing falls, his body describing a chaotic but nearly perfect circle, you know he will get up undamaged and continue on his way.

He was called “The Great Stone face, but he is not without expression. He stares out at the world in a kind of uncomprehending wonder at its mysteries. In The Navigator, Keaton is stuck with just his lady love on a drifting ocean liner. In Seven Chances, he faces a huge avalanche with car-sized rocks tumbling down a hill at him. In Steamboat Bill Jr, a mythically unhinged wind and rain storm throws houses and trees at him, but he figures out how to harness a range of human devices --  to rescue his father from a jail house floating in a river, to pluck his girlfriend from a sinking riverboat, to fish her father from the river, and finally, to snag a minister to perform a waterlogged marriage.

Keaton may have been the first genuinely 20th century artist in American movies. Chaplin and D.W. Griffith were certainly equal geniuses to Keaton, but their art came from the 19th century. They were interested in the social world and character. Keaton took on the nature of film itself. He made jokes about what the camera could or could not see. In his 1924 masterpiece, Sherlock Jr, Keaton made brilliant and hilarious jokes about how film and actuality are not the same and work according to entirely different rules.

Keaton even made jokes about physics -- whether two vectors would intersect, or how motion and energy could be transferred from one object to another. There is no finer movie than Steamboat Bill Jr about a human being at the mercy of an unconcerned universe, and Keaton gets to it through comedy.

Keaton and Chaplin are often compared, and film scholars sometimes take sides, which I think is pointless. They’re different from each other. They only appeared together in one film, Chaplin’s 1953 Limelight, with Chaplin as an aging clown onstage for the last time – and for one scene, he brings in his assistant, played by Keaton. Actor Norman Lloyd who was in the film as a very young man described it as “two geniuses collaborating with each other.”

Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary is the best thing I’ve seen about Keaton’s career and his life. I hadn’t known how much great work – in small bits – Keaton had done in television and even in commercials. Bogdanovich traces Keaton’s life and then settles into an appraisal of the 10 remarkable features Keaton made in just five years in the 1920s. Bogdanovich’s movie makes you realize that this great genius is still available to us.

Bogdanovich guides the documentary with graceful, smart comment and wonderful clips of Keaton’s endlessly imaginative gags. Take your children. Keaton plays so friendly and inviting a character that in a minute, children forget the absence of speech and the black and white. They find Buster reassuring, a little like Mr. Rogers. Keaton’s appeal to anyone at any time comes from a comedy that’s not about insults, but instead about how maybe the only way to understand the big wide scary universe is to laugh at our predicament.

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