A documentary by Peter Bogdanovich. Rated PG
Just as no one will ever fully settle the old Beatles-vs.-Stones argument as to who better defined the ’60s (it really was the Beatles, obviously), there are still silent-film fans who will almost go to slapstick blows when it comes to Chaplin vs. Keaton.
Sure, Le Grand Charlot won international hearts in the 1920s and managed to keep that crown for the rest of his life. The Great Buster makes a hell of a case, however, for the unique art of the Kansas man born Joseph Frank Keaton in 1895, mere months before the Lumière brothers showed motion pictures to a paying audience for the first time, in Paris. The future star was hatched into a family of vaudevillians and got his stage name as an infant, putatively from family pal Harry Houdini, after garnering ever-bigger laughs from his father’s propensity for hurling the tyke into every possible corner of the music hall.
Buster’s bruisingly interactive view of entertainment served him well when, under the tutelage of Fatty Arbuckle and other innovators, he began designing highly elaborate sight gags for other people’s films, and then for his own, over which he exercised complete control at considerable expense for the era. (One shot in The General, of a railroad-bridge collapse, cost $50,000 in 1926 dollars.)
In this fast-moving tribute, director Peter Bogdanovich—whose own inventive years are long behind him—excavates Keaton’s early work, presenting a truly dazzling buildup to edgy mid-’20s masterworks like The Navigator and Sherlock Jr., the last of which combined his exquisite timing with still-striking special effects that allowed his character, a dreamy projectionist, to enter and exit movie screens in very meta ways, long before that term was coined.
Buster’s harried relationship with the modern world, not with other people, was what truly set him apart from other nonspeaking comics. Chaplin may have (later) captured the dehumanizing effects of industry in Modern Times, but for Keaton, the war was always personal. Houses, cars, machines of all kinds, and cinema itself were simply out to get him. And nature wasn’t much kinder, as that avalanche of boulders in Seven Chances proved. His problems were existential, not moral.
Even while aided by a battalion of talking heads—including people who knew the man, like Dick Van Dyke and Mel Brooks, and others who just like him, such as Bill Hader and Johnny Knoxville—the director doesn’t really attempt to pry off the Great Stone Face to see how he came up with his best work, or what he thought it might have meant. If the talkies rendered him permanently nostalgic, the film at least argues that a serious revival reversed his long decline in the final decades of his life.
Again, it’s hard to read how happy that made the man. Jazz-age humanity might have been trapped beating its boats against the current, as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously put it. But Buster Keaton’s ship was forever sinking before it even left the shore.