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The Great Buster: A Celebration demonstrates its subject's film legacy

The Great Buster: A Celebration demonstrates its subject's film legacy

The Great Stone Face — that’s what they called Buster Keaton back when he was dominating the silver screen with his silent comedies. Why? Because unlike other silent performers, Keaton opted out of cartoonish mugging, instead choosing stoicism. It’s as if Keaton’s characters were always in a state of “of course this happened, why wouldn’t it?” 

One would think that this dry approach to slapstick comedy would eventually grow old, but as the years pass it’s more than clear that Buster Keaton’s legacy, as both a comedian and a filmmaker, is indelible to the craft. So it makes perfect sense that a giant in the game like Peter Bogdanovich would feel the need to put together the quintessential documentary on Keaton’s long, storied career. The film begins as a love letter, with a variety of talking heads (including Bill Hader, Johnny Knoxville, Mel Brooks, Werner Herzog, Richard Lewis, etc) describing their favorite pieces of Keaton’s work, as well as what it is that he inspired in their own work. As each commentator speaks their piece of worship, it’s hard not to be blown away by the broad range of influence Keaton offered to the generations of show biz that followed. 

From here Bogdanovich moves into a bit of film history. The industry defined itself alongside the films of Keaton, and the ingenuity he brought to his work comes to the forefront when placed in this context. From his early years as an adolescent vaudeville star to his de facto internship with Fatty Arbuckle, and ultimately into the creation of his very own studio, the footage gathered illustrates how each new development of Keaton’s career put a new talent into his bag of tricks. By the time he moves from two reel films to five, he’s already a master of the craft, despite it being a relatively new medium.

The Great Buster: A Celebration follows Keaton’s rise to superstardom and eventual fall at the hands of the studio system. We see how his troubles with the business led to struggles with vice, and how the indomitable creativity he wielded managed to bring him back to success once again. It’s all pretty standard stuff, but up until this point, the most we’ve gotten in terms of films about the finest comedian of the silent film era have been limited to bland TV specials. This primer serves as more than just a love letter or introductory lesson, it also serves as a study into the techniques which remain prominent in film and comedy today.

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The second half of the film focuses on precisely that: craft. Using footage from many of Keaton’s films, Bogdanovich is able to pinpoint many of the subtleties and nuances of Keaton’s work with thoroughness and specificity. Granted, this section works better if you’re already familiar with Keaton’s output, otherwise it serves as a great cinematic homework assignment. Even I, someone who has seen the bulk of Keaton’s work, spent much of the film bookmarking the movies I have yet to consume, while also wishing for more time in the day so I can go back and revisit those I have already seen with fresh eyes. 

Whether you find yourself in the fan camp or the newbie camp, The Great Buster: A Celebration is a great place to start or continue your Keaton fandom. And even if you aren’t savvy to the charms of silent comedies, film nerds should still hunt this down. At a time when so many films were just recorded stage plays, it was Keaton who helped to make the camera a malleable, usable entity. Without The General, you don’t have Mad Max: Fury Road, without Steamboat Bill, Jr. you don’t have Project A.

In fact, now that I’m thinking about it, that’s probably my biggest criticism of the film: George Miller and Jackie Chan weren’t included in the litany of talking heads, and they absolutely should have been. Regardless, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen Jackass regarded as art, (a distinction that Keaton wouldn’t have given his own work, if asked) so I’ll take it.

The Great Buster: A Celebration opens today at the Ritz Bourse.

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