June 1, 2010

Buster & Me: An Introduction

I wish I had a revelation for you. A stunning moment of wide-eyed clarity the moment I first encountered Buster Keaton and realized in the span of a flash that the man was a) an inspirational genius, b) a comedy god, and c) my silent cinema boyfriend. But I can’t tell you that because it’s not true. I got into Keaton gradually, in little increments. I picked him for a Sales on Film series because he's such a rich subject, many of his films are indeed masterpieces, and heck, I just love the guy.

Even if I didn't have that lightning bolt moment, I am sure of one thing: My Buster Keaton loves goes as far back as almost any semi-serious film-related obsession. My cinema consciousness is fuzzy; there wasn’t a film that was The One and suddenly I spent all my waking hours devouring black and white VHS tapes from the local library (although I have done and still do that). That being said, Buster Keaton is tied in with what I can, in decisive terms, deem the beginning of my cinephilia: The X-Files.  If you dare, cast your mind back to the 1990s, the decade of my childhood, and the girth of the series’ 1993-2002 run. It may seem strange that a television show got me interesting in filmmaking but The X-Files was notoriously high quality, drawing on rich cinematic traditions from genres as diverse science fiction, film noir, horror, thrillers (with a specialty in 1970s political conspiracy thrillers), and police procedurals. It was exceptionally well-shot and in the earlier seasons at least, every episode strived to be as good as a “mini-movie.”

Besides these credentials, X-Files played a crucial role in my development as, well, quite frankly, just a human being. In 1993 when the show debuted I was in first grade. Every season corresponded to my grade in school. My birthday is August 8th, which is sandwiched between the birthdays of shows’ two leads, David Duchovny (August 7th) and Gillian Anderson (August 9th). Getting spooky yet? As a young kid, I came to believe I had something akin to a spiritual connection with the show. It was numerology (there was even an episode about that); it was fate. The show lasted from grades one to nine, ages six to fourteen—the entirety of my childhood.

But what does this have to do with Buster Keaton?! I’m getting to it. There’s an episode of The X-Files called “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” and it’s one of its most famous and critically acclaimed hours. Being the nerd I was am, I read all about each episode’s production, its backstory and trivia. In the episode, Bruckman is a psychic who helps Mulder and Scully find a killer who’s offing fortune tellers. In real life, Clyde Bruckman was a gag writer and sometime co-director of Buster Keaton films. In the episode, there are also two detectives named Cline and Havez. They are named for Eddie Cline, who co-directed almost all of Keaton’s shorts, and Jean Havez, his frequent collaborator and gag writer. In addition, a hotel in the episode is named “Le Damfino” after the title vessel in The Boat (Keaton & Cline, 1921). Furthermore, at one point while chasing the serial killer through the hotel kitchen, Mulder is distracted by a falling banana cream pie, an obvious reference to silent era comedy. So, even before I had seen a Keaton film, I knew about him through The X-Files. And looking back on it, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if my love of Keaton was subconsciously influenced by my love of The X-Files.

The banana cream pie from "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose": a morbid kind of slapstick and black humor Keaton probably would have enjoyed.

Keaton surrounded by his collaborators, 1923. From left to right: Joe Mitchell, Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton, Jean Havez, and Eddie Cline.

Presenting the Damfino in The Boat.

Skipping ahead a whole bunch of years, I know that I watched a Keaton film in a high school class. I believe it was The General (Keaton & Bruckman, 1926) and it was included in a week on silent comedy that included screenings of The Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin, 1925) and The Freshman (Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor, 1925). And although that class was only six years ago, my memories are again pretty fuzzy. I do remember as a habit in that class encouraging all my friends to stay awake and actually watch the films. I couldn't believe they were letting us spend an hour a day in their public education hellscape watching Charlie and Buster bound around the silver screen instead of making us do something horrible like the quadratic equation.

But even high school didn't really ignite Keaton for me. That took college. I went through a period where I rented as many Keaton films as I could get my hands on, including another look at The General. I watched The Navigator (Keaton, 1924) and One Week (Keaton & Cline, 1920) in a film course and  being the impertinent, know-it-all that I was am, fiercely debated the TA over what I considered her misinterpretation of Keaton's Rollo Treadway as a social (read: Socialist) indictment of the wealthy classes. I still believe I'm right, of course. Chaplin was political; Keaton wasn't. I think Buster's comedic stoicism is particularly affecting in college. 

The General.

For the longest time, this photo was my desktop background, not only because it's funny, but because it really seemed to get at the heart of my experience at the time. Whatever I did or tried to do, my head was always in the canon. 

Now I'm one year out of undergrad and going through my second Keaton marathon, filling in all the gaps I missed and endeavoring to get a sense of the man and his work. If you're reading this, I hope you'll tag along for the ride with me. Keaton's films are shockingly available considering the majority of silent films are lost to antiquity forever. Which brings us to...

The Buster Keaton Marathon--So far...

A note on viewing practices: I'm using good ol' Netflix as my primary source for these articles. They have a fair amount of Keaton materials, most coming from the Art of Buster Keaton boxset put out by Kino. Unfortunately, nobody pays me to write this blog so I can't afford to purchase the set, which includes all of Keaton's independently-produced shorts and feature films and a disc of extra Keaton rarities and features. Although I prefer Netflix for the quality of the prints, you do occasionally suffer set-backs like the one I did last Friday. I got both College and Steamboat Bill, Jr. and began each on Friday night with the intention of finishing Saturday. However, when I inserted the discs in my computer, no dice. Neither film would play. And in a stroke of Keatonian bad luck, of course, today is a holiday. No mail. I'm sending the films back Tuesday but that means a considerable gap in my viewing and a delay in these articles. C'est la Buster.

DIY BK Marathoning Resources: If you don't have Netflix, however (and maybe after reading that you're glad you don't), Keaton films are widely available. Your local library probably has at least The General and maybe more Keaton shorts and features. The Holy Grail of Buster on the internet is found at archive.org which has tons of shorts and features as well as Keaton's later television appearances. There’s also a wealth of Keaton on YouTube. For images, Doctor Macro can’t be beat.

I would also recommend taking a trip to the library for some books. Skip the biographies (some of them are outdated, spurious or worse and plenty of that info is available online, anyway) and head straight for the picture-heavy coffee table books. Three in particular are worth your time and have served me well in my research:

1) The Best of Buster, edited by Richard J. Anobile, 1976

-A very simple book with a few introductory essays but the bulk of the book is concerned with simply reproducing, frame by frame, famous sequences from Buster’s films. Think of them as analog screencaptures. Ingeniously simple, the book highlights the exquisite detail Keaton put into every frame of his pictures and every inch of his movements. The book is best read after you’ve watched the films, preferably immediately after; it slows you down and allows you to process and digest what you’ve just seen.

2) The Look of Buster Keaton by Robert Benayoun, 1982

 -My personal favorite of the three, the book is a series of scholarly essays that analyzes Keaton’s films, movements, and influences and ranges from comparisons with Chaplin to Salvador Dali and other surrealists to the basis and origin of cinema itself. Benayoun’s intensely intellectual style should be taken with a grain of salt; his words are more poetry, meant to spark and inspire, than absolute writ-in-stone truths. The book is full of high quality photos but it’s hardly a picture book. Readers with a strong aversion to the French or intellectual hyperbole would be advised to stay away. Readers who recognize that those two descriptors are practically one in the same should relish “The Look of Buster Keaton.”

3)  Buster Keaton Remembered by Eleanor Keaton and Jeffrey Vance, 2001

 -The pioneering effort of Keaton’s widow, this book is the most personal of the three and a tribute to the man and his work. Featuring 255 black and white photographs, many of them never before published and unavailable outside of archives, it’s a beautiful book. The best bits are Eleanor Keaton’s recollections of her life with Buster. The synopses for the films are rudimentary but the photos are consistently phenomenal. It’s part bio, part photo-essay and the essential resource on Buster Keaton as far as I’m concerned.

A note on filmography: The sheer volume of Buster Keaton screen credits is daunting enough without the prospect of documenting, analyzing and presenting my findings for this blog.

What I am committed to are Keaton’s silent films, from his first appearance onscreen with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbucke in The Butcher Boy to Spite Marriage at MGM. Everything else is up in the air at this point. I have a certain morbid curiosity about Buster’s talkies at MGM and I’d like to get my hands on his Columbia and Educational shorts if I can. And then there’s his late career resurgence in diverse fare like Samuel Beckett’s Film and The Railroader. I don’t know how deep this will go, but I’m going to be keeping track as best I can with a filmography guide. Fingers crossed!


  1. I am looking forward to reading about this project, being the biggest Keaton fan that I know.

    Unlike you I did have a Keaton revelatory instance, and again unlike you it was only a few years back, before my second year of university I had never heard of him. We screened Sherlock Jr in my film history class and I never looked back. I've since seen all of his features and shorts (only very few of the Arbuckle-Keaton shorts). I lucked out finding a DVD set on Amazon for really cheap that included all of his shorts and a few of his features, I've collected a few of his features on the side but you're right, archive.org is a good source and also my university's film archive.

    There's no denying Keaton's genius, but I also love how you described him as "a rich subject." He and his films have been the subject of a number of my studies (including "The Railrodder" which I would be interested in hearing about if you do end up seeing it).

    But again, what it boils down to is just an affection for the man.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Janessa!

    I am trying to track down a copy of The Railrodder, which has been a bit hard to find so far, but seeing as how I'm barely at Keaton's short films, I still have a long ways to go till the '60s.

    Thanks for reading :)