Thursday, January 3, 2013

That What Doesn't Kill You: The Buster Keaton DVD Box Set

In Billy Wilder’s Hollywood Gothic, Sunset Boulevard (1950), Buster Keaton puts in a brief appearance, alongside silent-film stars H. B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson, as one of Norma Desmond’s bridge partners. Keaton was only in his mid-fifties at the time, but he and the others are presented as has-beens who’ve survived their cultural moment, the silent era, and now dare not venture out into the sunlit world of teenagers and transistor radios, for fear of crumbling to ash; they’re unwrapped mummies, with bitter frozen faces and sawdust in their veins. A year earlier, James Agee’s famous Life magazine article about silent film comedy had begun to kick some life back into Keaton’s dozing reputation, a development that led to him appearing on such TV shows as Candid Camera and This Is Your Life, as well as an embarrassing Hollywood biopic, starring Donald O’Connor, purporting to tell what the ads called his “sad, happy, loving story.” (Short version: even the most caring and supporting studio boss in the world can only do so much to save you from yourself when you’re that big a drunk.)

Keaton’s professional comeback – which, by the early ‘60s, included the lead in a short film written by Samuel Beckett and guest appearances on The Twilight Zone and Route 66, not to mention How to Stuff a Wild Bikini  might have ended there if he hadn’t formed a partnership with the film collector Raymond Rohauer, who had several of Keaton’s early films transferred from deteriorating nitrate stock and began re-releasing them to theaters, thus making it possible for audiences to see, for the first time in decades, the work of the lovable, glowering old coot they’d been nostalgically embracing. If some of the attention lavished on Keaton in his twilight years had been based on the sentimental feeling that he was a sad clown who’d fallen on hard times, exposure to any five minutes of The General or Steamboat Bill, Jr. or The Navigator or Our Hospitality tended to blow away any idea that the people paying attention to this man were doing him some kind of favor.

Keaton, who died in 1966, lived just long enough to see the rewriting of the conventional wisdom on the silent era, so that he, whose work had been less esteemed than that of Chaplin and Harold Lloyd (who had both been much better at protecting both their reputations and their fortunes), became recognized as one of the greatest and, as Jan Prikryl put it last year in the New York Review of Books, “the most ‘modern’ silent clown.” Nowadays, when anybody with an Internet connection can confidently announce the permanent critical upgrading of anything from late Otto Preminger to Sneakers, and it doesn’t seem as if a year can go by without a new bunch of auteurists deciding that they must be the first people who’ve ever noticed that Heaven’s Gate looks kind of pretty, it may not be easy to grasp just how heroic and audacious a development that was.

The latest Keaton home-video box, the fourteen-disc Ultimate Buster Keaton Collection from Kino, repackages the label’s previous DVDs of Keaton’s silent classics from the ‘20s, including three discs of short films, plus a couple of discs’ worth of ephemera from the ‘30s. (Like the greatest American filmmaker to come out of the screwball-comedy era, Preston Sturges, Keaton did his great work in a single ten-year period, before the bosses – among them Irving Thalberg, the man who introduced singing lovers to the Marx Brothers’ universe – decided to get more involved at lending him their expertise.) All told, it amounts to twenty-odd hours demonstrating just how much fun art can be, and just how artful fun can be.

Keaton was a compulsive gadgeteer, a gagman-filmmaker whose onscreen character saw life the way a director often has to approach making a movie: as a series of problems that have to be solved, as creatively as possibly. In an interview snippet that appears in the great Kevin Brownlow-David Gill TV documentary Buster Keaton: A Hard Act To Follow, Keaton recalled that he and his team of gag writers would brainstorm a project and head into production once they had a solid beginning and ending to a story: “We never worried about the middle. We always figured the middle would take care of itself.” One of Keaton’s most wildly imaginative and ahead-of-its-time films, Sherlock, Jr., in which he plays a film projectionist who dreams himself into the movie he’s showing, came about because he had a pile of gags he was determined to use, but judged them too “impossible” to fit into any kind of naturalistic story.

Our Hospitality

How did he do it? The simple but, for aspiring imitators, discouraging answer is that life had ill-prepared him to do anything else, after an apprenticeship that began shortly after he departed his mother’s womb. As a child, Keaton was inducted into his parents’ vaudeville act and was an integral part of “The Three Keatons” by the time he was five. The act involved a lot of rough-housing, with Buster, the smallest and most portable Keaton naturally being on the receiving end of a lot of slapstick abuse, and his education, which was intense and ongoing, largely consisted of learning how to take a hit and becoming accomplished at being flung through the air into the orchestra pit. By the time he was first invited onto a movie set, his brain was the physical-comedian’s equivalent of Charles Foster Kane’s warehouse, stockpiled with gags and set-ups and stunts and illusions that, as a filmmaker, he would join to an instinctive understanding of how best to make them play visually on a screen. “You only had to turn me loose on a set, and I’d have material in two minutes,” he once said, “because I’d been doing it my whole life.”

Sherlock Jr.
The word that’s always used for Keaton’s stone-faced screen character is “stoic,” which suggests a degree of suffering that Keaton, at his usual best, doesn’t really have. He has ambitions, usually involving a pretty girl, and things get between him and realizing those ambitions, as they have to for the movie to happen, and after looking dazed for a moment, he rolls up his sleeves and keeps working towards his goal. One of the greatest Keaton sequences, a chase in Seven Chances (1925) that leads to the hero scurrying down a hill while dodging a rock slide, came about when Keaton viewed the original version of the finished film, without the rock slide, and saw that the only thing in the sequence that anyone laughed at was an accident, when he kicked a small rock and got it rolling. So he called for a re-shoot and returned to the location, filled it with paper-mache boulders, and, basically, said to them, let’s dance. The real word for Keaton, both behind and in front of the camera, might be practical. He has the resourcefulness of someone whose only choices are to get out of this fix or lie down and die. This is part of what made artists like Beckett and worshipful critics in Europe and England see him as an existential hero. It’s also what makes him now seem like a better comic-everyman figure than Chaplin.

Time was, partisans of Team Charlie and Team Buster used to pull guns and knives and hurl thunderbolts at each other, bellowing, like the Highlander, “There can be only one!” Now that Keaton’s reputation has taken on the solidity of the Rock of Gibraltar – while Chaplin’s, though still deservedly sturdy, no longer quite blocks out the sun – it might be possible to love them both, while observing that one of the best ways to appreciate why Keaton’s work has held up so well is to take note of some of the more mixed aspects of Chaplin’s legacy. The two of them worked together just once, on Chaplin’s Limelight, which is Chaplin’s own version of This Is Your Life; the story of a great forgotten clown who – while gently rejecting the love of a beautiful young woman whose life he has saved, because he knows she can do better – comes out of retirement to perform at a benefit concert, then croaks in the wings while listening to the applause that confirms his stature.

Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in Limelight
It’s the work of a millionaire who was once held up as perhaps the only proof that film comedy could rise to the status of art, but who daydreamed about being washed-up and forgotten, so that he could have the twisted emotional satisfaction of showing the naysayers how wrong they all were. Keaton, who plays Chaplin’s partner in the concert performance, is barely in it, and rumors have persisted for decades that Chaplin cut the guts out of his performance in the editing room, because he was so good that he upstaged Chaplin in the very scene that was meant to show Chaplin’s character’s unparalleled greatness as a comic performer. The rumors may be false, but even if they’re true, it’s hard to say what else Chaplin could have done under the circumstances.

Chaplin was a master performer and a great artist, especially when, like Keaton, he was focused on making the audience laugh. But sometimes, he became focused on being seen as a great artist, and his notion of art was wet, obvious, and kitschy, which is why, except for his last film with spoken dialogue, Modern Times, his features now feel much older than they are. He could have stood to have listened to the Keaton who insisted that, while he didn’t mind if the audience wanted to extend sympathy to his character, they’d never catch him begging for it. In his later, talking pictures, Chaplin often seemed to be, well, talking down to the audience, even lecturing it, while demanding proof of its love. The “dryness” that Agee once saw as limiting Keaton’s appeal to the mass audience is a sign of the artist’s respect, for which the audience now gives him all its love, gladly.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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