❉ Peter Bogdanovich’s tribute to Buster Keaton is a cut above most biographical documentaries.
It’s that face, isn’t it?
More than the jaw-dropping acts of derring-do, the balletic pratfalling (still the most elegant and aesthetically pleasing pratfalling in all of cinema), the hesitant body language, the naïve ‘Well shucks, what have I got myself into NOW?’ stance (shuffling, hands on hips, somewhere between bewildered, annoyed and resigned) it is that face which lingers in the mind’s eye. Huge, soft, perfectly scrutable eyes which could look confused or wounded or suspicious with barely a squint. A bone structure that somehow managed to be handsome and angular but with a hint of hunger and sadness, a history of unfortunate events carved into alabaster. A full mouth which rarely twisted into anything resembling outward emotion, but which nevertheless conveyed a perpetual weary melancholy. It never cracked a smile, because, as Malcolm McDowell’s similarly hapless Mick Travis would say years later at the end of O Lucky Man “What is there to smile ABOUT?”
125 years, almost to the day, since Joseph Frank ‘Buster’ Keaton tumbled into our world (and right onto a stage) we find ourselves watching a film about him, and we get to see some of the things that made him who he was, and the way he fell sideways into a stellar career as the finest silent clown in the world of movies, and how changing tastes, vindictive executives, his own lack of guile and sundry other personal weaknesses would lead to a long period in the wilderness that is shameful to recall, for the audience who forgot him as much as anyone.
Peter Bogdanovich, writer, director and narrator of The Great Buster is a man who knows and loves the classics of cinema more than most, and the best moments of his own career as a film-maker reflect this: The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon are glorious black and silver attempts to recapture the mood of the monochrome era. Nickelodeon is a love letter to the silents. What’s Up Doc a blend of 40s screwball comedy and cartoonish, death-defying, beautifully-constructed physical gags. Bogdanovich with his flouncy cravats, mannered, upper-crust enunciation and endless name-dropping (a former critic, he’s not above starting a sentence with “Y’know Hitch told me once…” or “I remember having dinner with Orson one time…”) can come off as ever-so-slightly pretentious. But one feels that what he wants to put on screen is the very timelessness that great cinema can offer. His films are not pastiche, they are acts of worship, and this documentary is no different.
With a talking-heads cast of dozens, all stars and experts in their own right, some who knew and loved Buster and some who only know and love him from his work, and an interesting structure which saves its last half-hour for a detailed breakdown of his ten 1920s feature films (the pinnacle of his career, Bogdanovich asserts, not incorrectly) The Great Buster is a cut above most biographical documentaries of its type. The interviewees range from superannuated superstars like Dick Van Dyke, Mel Brooks and the late Carl Reiner to contemporary performers like Bill Hader and Johnny Knoxville whose own body-conscious performance style owes a lot to The Great Stone Face. Werner Herzog hails Keaton as a foundational creator of the very idea of modern cinema: Quentin Tarantino declares him one of the greatest action directors around. Sometimes it feels like there are too many talking heads spread too thinly: Cybill Shepard begins an interesting thought about how ‘Acting is in the eyes’ which is cut short to demonstrate his influence on Spiderman. You get the feeling that Keaton is so rich a subject and his influence so far-reaching you could make a hundred documentaries all focussing on just one aspect of him and not come close to pinning the magic down.
What one learns from this film is just how much work he did beyond the silent era: even when he was drinking heavily, losing relationships, losing his millions and philandering he was writing gags for the Marx Brothers and Red Skelton, and trying not to seem too bitter about it all. The film devotes a lot of time to his later career where a resurgence of interest in him prompted by a James Agee article in Life Magazine leads to an eventful and fitfully fascinating final chapter in his life which saw him making energetic, witty TV commercials for Alka Seltzer, Northwest Orient Airlines and Ford vans, as well as high-profile cameos in films as diverse as Beach Blanket Bingo and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and a show-stopping turn as a clumsy, anonymous diner patron on Candid Camera, the godfather of all hidden camera prank shows.
At the age of 70 he was clinging for dear life to a tiny railroad car travelling from coast to coast in the National Film Board Of Canada’s extraordinary slapstick travelogue The Railrodder and creeping nervously around a sparse, dowdy apartment in Samuel Beckett’s proto-Eraserhead short film ‘Film’. It’s remarkable that none of this career-twilight work seems beneath him or beyond him: rather is suggests a restless soul who was always willing to try something new and novel, who wasn’t precious about his legacy, who was grateful to still be asked to be himself.
What one takes away from The Great Buster is a renewed hunger to devour as much of the man’s work as one can. For some reason his star dimmed a little in recent decades, while the profiles of more minimal (Laurel and Hardy), more openly charming (Harold Lloyd) and more sentimental (Chaplin) silent performers have soared. This is not an attempt to play favourites: all of those artists are fantastic in their own ways and richly deserve the accolades and the recognition. But for some reason Buster Keaton seems to be more than the sum of his parts, and his silent-era work has dated far better than most of his (somewhat forgettable) talkies. His signature on-screen character seems uniquely fitted to the present era. That blank-slate face creasing ever-so-slightly into a baffled, exasperated frown as the boat he’s standing on slides inexorably into the drink, or the house that he’s just built is totalled by a speeding train, or the walls of the hospital he’s convalescing in is swept away into the sky by a hurricane. He’s never exactly thrilled about these revoltin’ developments, but he’s not falling apart either. He stoically takes stock of whatever situation he’s landed himself in and without a hint of self-pity starts working out how to scramble his way out of it.
There’s a vital lesson there to everyone who’s lived through this Year of Our Lord 2020 AD, without question.
❉ ‘The Great Buster: A Celebration’ was released on DVD and Blu-ray, 21 September 2020 by Screenbound Pictures. Written, directed & narrated by Peter Bogdanovich. Special Features: Picturehouse Central Q&A with comedian and Buster Keaton aficionado Paul Merton and Buster Keaton historian David Macleod (27mins approx.) Running Time: 102mins. RRP (DVD/Blu-ray): £17.99/£19.99.
❉ Daniel Marner is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.