Buster Keaton has been kicking Charlie Chaplin’s ass for well over a century

Few skills in life – and make no mistake, it is a skill – are more important to maintaining humanity than finding a way to laugh. The person who makes us laugh is also important. It’s one of the reasons why no one in the history of cinema has been more necessary than Buster Keaton, and why, even today, we should still be wise to spend time with his ever-modern self.

Years ago, returning home from college for the summer, I embarked on a Buster Keaton odyssey. On Fridays, I took advantage of the ten-for-one rental deal and walked out of the store with a stack of Buster Keaton VHS tapes balanced against my chest. Next Monday I would have been as deeply impressed as I have been few times in my life. From the Beatles, Beethoven, the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thoreau’s diaries and mid-period Billie Holiday.

Back then, Charlie Chaplin was still celebrated as the brilliant visionary of the early days of American cinema, and his Little Tramp character was heralded as the most iconic creation of the cinematic medium. Chaplin, I thought? nope Come on. Everyone could see that Keaton wasn’t just the man, he was the force of life.

There has been a course correction when it comes to Keaton versus Chaplin, with the former finally being critically placed in his rightful place. So we have a book like Buster Keaton: The Life of a Filmmakerby James Curtis, who attempts to do for the imperious Stone Face what Simon Callow did biographically for Orson Welles, albeit in a single volume rather than Callow’s four.

Curtis’ three-word subtitle speaks volumes and is respectful: Keaton is an artist. Not a clown, not “just a comedian,” a ick dealer. He is a filmmaker as Jean Vigo was a filmmaker, and John Ford and Howard Hawks; only, keaton might be better than them all.

Comedy packs a punch when it comes to cinematic prestige. But a comedic piece of cinematic art is like the person you have in the car on the long drive to a funeral. It’s going to be a tough day, it’s a hassle to get there, and having that person with you for the ride — and the ride back, which is crucial — will help you get through it and maybe help you do a thing or two to learn about life and death and purpose and truth. However, when you come to the church, your buddy is not allowed in. Not elegant and grumpy enough. Too real. Her Pal might well be a Buster Keaton comedy.

Curtis treats Keaton’s films as a Hawthorne scholar would view the stories: Art for the Ages That Leads Nowhere. They are discussed as films that we can watch over and over again and always gain new insights. This isn’t a book-length apology for comedy, nor is it a jargon-like exercise in mental masturbation that one so often gets with the kind of academic writing that strives to take Keaton’s comedy seriously.

The solid years have not bode well for Keaton as he has been stripped of the hyper-visual core of his métier. Hearing him speak in a movie must have been shocking at the time, Keaton sounded like he’d just gargled a bucket of rocks. In writing about the whole Keaton stuff, Curtis’ text becomes as thin as Keaton’s own later material. Once you’ve gotten past Keaton’s masterpieces of the silent era, the book is for completists, which is no knock. But examining the silent film years is examining purely transformative art.

Welles believed that there was no more beautiful American image than that of Keaton The general (1926), a film about the love between an engineer and his train. If you watch it once – and you should if you haven’t, and get your kids in on the action too – you’ll probably watch it 100 times, because in a Keaton masterpiece, we see ourselves and are called the back. It’s not enough to call your characters Everyman. That sounds folksy, relaxed, unnuanced and specific. That’s the trick, though – giving a character quirks and quirks, gradations of personality, but in a way that everyone can instantly relate to the central human being. This is both Keatsian art and Keaton-like.

Keaton’s characters, as he wrote, acted, directed, and nurtured them, stand on the brink of tragedy or are simply mired in the ruts of tragedy itself. These are the ruts of life. We all end up in their weather-worn grooves. I’m watching a film noir where someone gets shanghaied and takes a tour of squalor on a sealer ship, but another character still has a funny line that makes our protagonist laugh. When you’re in the hospital because of the death of a loved one, there’s a remark that makes you smile. Humor is not cheap and commonplace. It’s as real as the pain, the loss of love, the breakdown of the body; it makes these realities of life manageable.

What we find in Curtis’ discussion of the best Keaton films is the idea that humor isn’t just a means of coping. It’s a way of being, and unless we have some version of that way tattooed into our souls, we’re going to have a bloody horrible time with pretty much everything, and we’re also going to have trouble processing and reveling in it in joy when it is at hand. Humor, as Buster Keaton understood it, doesn’t just get us through; it elevates us so we can see the world better and we become people who exclaim “Ah hah!”. instead of “Oh oh.”

Keaton was a quintessential American artist, something we don’t have anymore, although an abundance of them—or just one—would serve us well. I don’t mean the woke way, the anti-woke way, the left way, the conservative way. All of this is a trap, and a trap doesn’t last. They are transcended and moved beyond, often with a rapidity that people do not expect, although it happens repeatedly.

The quintessential American artist is a versatile power artist. They were modernists before modernity and beyond modernity. They are an amalgamation of styles, voices, selves within a dominant self. There’s Melville, Thoreau, the oratory Lincoln, Welles, Louis Armstrong. Listen to Armstrong’s “West End Blues” and his solo. It’s “against the rules,” and it’s just up to that person’s imagination and the possibilities of that person’s imagination. Keaton The general is the same. It celebrates a love of one thing – the train itself – which is shocking in this age when so many people are talking about decluttering, minimalism and experiencing things, which becomes that kind of rhetorical cover-up for the reality that people don’t have that much in their Life.

Keaton was an artist who focused on the value of interest, and I don’t mean what’s happening in the savings account. He is an open lover of the possibilities of human existence and when one fits in, the individual becomes one who truly lives. A cynic might counter that Thoreau was meticulously spartan and that Keaton’s paintings were governed by the rigorous discipline of craftsmanship, but Thoreau’s chief interest was in the whole world outside his cabin or bedding – nature – and nothing is shabbier than that, nature be it of the fox and the owl or of man and his neighbor.

Meanwhile, when Keaton was standing on a street and the side of a house was collapsing from above and our hero survived only because he walked through the room where a window would have gone, he brought to life a Joseph Cornell shadow box with Gordon Matta – Clark cuts, wild rascality. Keaton is our ultimate cinematic powerhouse, because even when we’re gasping for breath – like in the tight escapes The general– the chance for a laugh is never far away.

A tidbit of a balanced study like Curtis’ is that films that never got the fame are now getting some of it. For Keaton, that means the shorts. In this abridged medium, he would abandon the natural order to teach us what orders our world, or what should. Magic abounds, optical illusions that make it hard to become the status quo. It could even be said that if you’re a die-hard Keaton guy, you tend to wear shorts.

Description of the short film police officers (1922), Curtis writes, “As always with Keaton, the simplest concept yielded the best results,” which is true of this film in which Keaton is being chased by the entire Los Angeles Police Department, but it’s like the cartoon -on- the-page qualities of Voltaire candidate were brought to visual life.

Curtis has enthusiasm, but his writing is riddled with clichés and phone-it-in phrases. Still, the correctness of the verdict that breaks through and stirs up enthusiasm cannot be stifled.

But Keaton is the artist here. That’s the catchphrase for him. “Filmmaker” fits under the umbrella term because we have given that word a pedigree of class, just as the French New Wave theorists once did with auteur. But I want to call Keaton an author of life, because those are the real artists, regardless of their medium.

Buster Keaton was – is – an artist who could jump the train across the chasm from one side of the broken track of human life to the solid ground of the other – ground destined to move forward. To paraphrase the name of Keaton’s title ship in The boat, you know how damn good this is? damn human And forever. Buster Keaton has been kicking Charlie Chaplin’s ass for well over a century


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