Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century. Dana Stevens. Simon & Schuster. New York. 2022. 415pp. $29.99
Buster Keaton (1895-1966), the “Great Stone Face” of silent movies, found himself hurled, figuratively and literally, into the 20th century. And quite an impact he was to make! We often seek a way into a story through an event or a person. Buster Keaton proves to be a perfect guide in an understanding of where we’ve been, in terms of media, these last hundred years or so. Dana Stevens, film critic for Slate since 2006, gives Buster Keaton his due and even credits him with having more than a little to do with defining the last century.
It’s only in hindsight that we can see the big picture. One of the most celebrated anecdotes about the early years of cinema goes back to one of its inventors, Louis Lumiere, who is said to have declared that “the cinema is an invention with no future.” Perhaps that is more legend than true but it was kept alive by Jean-Luc Godard for his screenplay, Contempt. As Stevens points out, time and again, there was nothing certain about this new art form. It was a gamble. It was a game for risk takers. Enter Buster Keaton and his family of daredevil vaudevillians dealing in the most spine-tingling and acrobatic of stunts!
Buster Keaton set upon the stage at the tender age of five, just at the dawn of a new century. As Stevens does throughout, she connects all sorts of disparate dots to focus on a whole, while crafting a sense of the poetic, especially with her favored metaphor of Buster in mid-air. Here is an excerpt where she tightens the frame around Buster’s origins:
By the time Buster was taking his first public falls at the turn of the century, watching talented children onstage was a cultural thrill that came with a built-in moral twinge, even when those children weren’t being flung into scenery or the rib cages of hecklers by their strapping fathers. The awareness that “the cruelty” was liable to shut down the show must have added to the audience’s frisson of mingled guilt, pleasure, and suspense–the precise mix of affects Joe and Buster’s father-son knock-about act also specialized in eliciting. This conflicted cultural, legal, and psychological space, where children were at once fragile treasures to be protected, market commodities to be exploited, and private property to be disposed of at their parents’ will, was the world into which Buster found himself thrown.
Buster Keaton, in his own way, was the ultimate Everyman of the Twentieth Century, a regular fellow thrown into a suddenly faster world. In one film after another, in countless intricately plotted near-death antics, Buster Keaton is the sad sack in over his head, just trying to get by, but forced to contend with a topsy-turvy chain of events whether it was a house frame perfectly timed to fall only inches away from him or a locomotive set to just barely miss from killing him. Stevens, with great gusto, details every step of the way of Keaton’s ongoing good citizen trapped in a new-fangled pursuit of the American Dream.
Sharing similar childhood pathos and artistic achievement in adulthood with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton is among that elite group of artists that simply transcend any one medium, elevated to the level of an icon. Look to his movies and you will find gems with a distinctive Buster Keaton artistic vision. Beyond his silent movie glory, Keaton remained relevant as a character actor at the dawn of television and in movies well into the sixties. It was Keaton’s special mix of talents and demeanor, a combination of the subversive and the melancholic, that truly spoke to a new generation and remains timeless. Dana Stevens is spot on to celebrate this singular talent and her book is a most fitting tribute.