During Buster Keaton's heyday, he ran a distant second in public and critical esteem to Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin was an icon, his image gracing everything from comic strips to stuffed toys, his Little Tramp character as instantly recognizable as Mickey Mouse. Keaton, by contrast, was just a famous funnyman; universally liked, but not beloved.
Both men were true masters of silent film, and both stumbled badly when sound hit, tragically squandering their talents for the last few decades of their careers. Chaplin at least went out a star; even if pop culture no longer had a use for him, it still acknowledged him as a former great. Keaton was not so lucky, enduring a long, slow decline into obscurity. By the '60s, he was turning up in the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach pictures, and the poor bastard was lucky to get the gigs.
In the '70s and '80s, Chaplin underwent something of a renaissance, as his image was used in posters and commercials, again and again, as a shorthand for old-time Hollywood glamour, alongside Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Bogie. But during the '90s, Chaplin's rep slipped precipitously. As irony and emotional detachment gained ever greater cultural currency, Chaplin, with his Victorian sentimentality and eternal desperation to please, began to seem retro in a bad way, dangerously unhip to critics and audiences alike.
Keaton, on the other hand, was suddenly cool; with his blank stare in the face of an aggressive, incomprehensible reality, Keaton provides a protagonist the harried, modern urbanite can easily identify with. While Keaton's audience so far is a cult one, it seems only a matter of days before he catches on again big-time. As we will ourselves numb to survive another day in this world, we are all Buster Keaton.
In The Cameraman, Keaton stars as Luke, a fumbly tintype photographer who wants to become a newsreel photographer to impress the girl of his dreams. He fails in this endeavor in increasingly spectacular ways, teetering ever closer to the edge of total ruination, right up to the final reel. In one amazing sequence, Keaton, desperate for footage, scrambles to create an exciting baseball game with only himself as cast and crew. Later, he films a nastily spectacular, full-scale Tong war, cranking away at his camera with unblinking dedication as debris sails past his head and people strangle one another at his feet.
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No matter what he does, Luke's efforts always come to naught, undone by one maddening twist of fate after another. . . . Like I said, this is a protagonist the modern viewer can all-too-readily identify with. Throw in what may just be the cutest monkey in cinematic history, and you have a comedy for the ages.
The Cameraman was Keaton's first film for a studio (MGM) after a run as an independent producer. He was following the well-meaning advice of his brother-in-law, producer Joseph M. Schenck, and while the decision doubtlessly made sound financial sense at the time, it would ultimately prove to be Keaton's artistic undoing. With each subsequent picture, MGM production chief Irving G. Thalberg gained more control over Keaton's work, insisting on including more melodrama and romance (the same formula Thalberg would later employ to destroy the Marx Brothers).
While The Cameraman's writing and direction are credited to others, Keaton is said to have done some uncredited direction himself, as well as improvising whole, brilliant sequences on the spot. The picture is unmistakably Keaton's, bearing close comparison to his masterwork, The General. The Cameraman was Keaton's last great film, but what a way to go out.
The Cameraman screens at the Bay Theater, 340 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 431-9988. Mon., 7 p.m. $5-$10.