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Buster Keaton: A Life and the Times

Buster Keaton in The Cameraman (1928)

The first book by Slate film critic, Culture Gabfest cohost, and occasional Current contributor Dana Stevens is out this week, and it’s already being met with celebratory reviews. Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century is both a critical biography and a cultural history, and at the A.V. Club, Rien Fertel recommends it as “an essential read.”

Next month sees the release of Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life by James Curtis, whose previous books include biographies of W. C. Fields, Preston Sturges, James Whale, and Spencer Tracy. This new one is “exhaustive in its detail, dutifully complete in straightforward, 832-page fashion,” writes the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips. “On the whole I’d start with Camera Man, which is roughly half the length and twice as stimulating.”

The story begins in 1895, the year in which Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton was born in Kansas to a pair of vaudevillians, while over in Paris, Auguste and Louis Lumière were first demonstrating their cinématographe. Before he turned five, Buster was performing with his parents. The Three Keatons would knock each other around for laughs, and Buster’s father sewed a suitcase handle onto his boy’s pants so that he could lift him and toss him across the stage—to Buster’s delight. He had to learn to wipe the smile off his face because a deadpan landing drew more and longer laughter from the audience.

Keaton was twenty-one when he and his mother left the act after his father’s alcoholism flew out of control. After a stint in the army during the First World War, Keaton returned from France and met Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who immediately cast him in The Butcher Boy, a 1917 two-reeler. Keaton famously borrowed one of the cameras, took it back to his hotel room, and took it apart and put it back together just to see how it worked. The Arbuckle and Keaton shorts, fourteen in all, were so popular that producer Joseph Schenck gave Keaton his own production unit. One Week (1920), the first two-reeler from Buster Keaton Productions, will screen with the feature Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) on Thursday at Film at Lincoln Center, where Stevens will discuss her book with programmer Madeline Whittle. An evening of shorts follows on Saturday at the Museum of the Moving Image.

“Again and again, Camera Man takes detours into social history, as though Stevens had turned off her biographer’s GPS and followed the back roads of social history by dead reckoning,” writes Ty Burr. In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik notes that Stevens “offers a series of pas de deux between Keaton and other personages of his time, who shared one or another of his preoccupations or projects. It’s a new kind of history, making more of overlapping horizontal ‘frames’ than of direct chronological history, and Stevens does it extraordinarily well.”

Stevens tells Chris Vognar in the Los Angeles Times that Keaton was “a modernist like Virginia Woolf or the Surrealists or Dziga Vertov, in that he was always reinventing the medium he worked in.” Gopnik suggests that, while many of Charlie Chaplin’s films could be staged as theatrical productions, cinema is the only language in which Keaton’s often hair-raising stories could be told. “When he employs a vast and empty Yankee Stadium as a background for the private pantomime of a ballgame in The Cameraman,” writes Gopnik, “or when he plays every part in a vaudeville theatre (including the testy society wives, the orchestra members, and the stagehands), in The Playhouse, these things could not even be imagined without the movies to imagine them in.”

Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life is “exhaustively detailed and as dry as circus sawdust,” finds Tobias Gray at Air Mail, but Curtis is nevertheless “a consummate digger, and there are plenty of nuggets to be gleaned from his book.” In the New Republic, Jo Livingstone suggests that the two books “mostly make a beautiful pair. Curtis substantially updates the previous ‘authoritative’ life of Keaton, Tom Dardis’s 2002 Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down, with new source material. Stevens has the flair and comparative approach that as a critic I’d naturally favor; historians might prefer Curtis.” When the Slapstick Festival returns to Bristol on Wednesday, Curtis will talk about his book with film historian and Bristol Ideas director Andrew Kelly on Friday.

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