Thursday, June 2, 2022

Camera Man: Buster Keaton by Dana Stevens

Camera Man
Buster Keaton, The Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the 20th Century 
By Dana Stevens
Atria Books
Hardcover ISBN: 9781501134197
432 pages
January 2022

“I think I have had the happiest and luckiest of lives. It would be ridiculous of me to complain… I count the years of defeat and grief and disappointment, and their percentage is so minute that it continually surprises and delights me.” — Buster Keaton

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more beloved figure from film history than Buster Keaton. He's wowed generations of moviegoers, some born several decades after his death in 1966, with his physical comedy and incredible stunt work. And he did it all with a straight face. Who can forget the house frame falling over Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), the death-defying stunts in The General (1926), Keaton running over train cars and onto a water tower in Sherlock Jr. (1924) or the epic chase scenes in Seven Chances (1925)? He did it all himself, no stuntman needed and made it look effortless. Keaton was also a pioneer in filmmaking. He thrived in the era before studios took over Hollywood. With his years of vaudeville training, he knew what audiences liked and developed that on a bigger scale for moviegoers. With the birth of cinema, he learned as he went, preferring to work independently and often writing, "choreographing" and directing his own feature films and shorts. Today Keaton's work is appreciated by many, even those who are new to classic movies. You'll hear those who are normally adamantly against watching black-and-white movies from the past being open and willing to watching Keaton perform his magic on screen.

Film critic Dana Stevens offers a look at Keaton's life and career in her book Camera Man: Buster Keaton, The Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the 20th Century. This is a life-and-times style book rather than a traditional biography. And what I mean by that is the book offers the reader equal parts biography and cultural history which places its subject, in this case Buster Keaton, in context with the eras they lived through. You won't get a play-by-play on everything that happened in Keaton's life and career. Instead, Stevens offers a look at Keaton through a cultural history lens and readers with reap the rewards from all the historical context.

The chapters are thematic essays that follow the course of Keaton's life chronologically but each focus on a particular subject with a couple of context points. Some of these include women filmmakers, child cruelty regulations, the birth of radio, film and television, movie magazines, collegiate culture, racism, indie filmmaking vs. Hollywood studios, etc. There is also in-depth biographical information on key figures from Keaton's life and career including Keaton's three wives, Roscoe Arbuckle, Robert Sherwood, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, Charlie Chaplin and more. These context points make for some illuminating reading and really help readers understand Keaton's world.

Stevens is a fantastic writer and I kept stopping to write down a quote I liked. Here are a few:

“For Keaton, every potential home is a space of danger and transformation; no facade stays standing for long… The ephemerality of the built world reveals the foundational homelessness of Buster’s character, whose defining trait is his ability to move through chaos while remaining miraculously unperturbed.”

“The Hollywood economy was large enough that Wall Street, another institution that rose to new heights of power and cultural influence in the 1920s, had started to play a key role in the financial and creative decisions of the top movie moguls…the big banks of the East Coast, where the money side of the business was still based, got skittish about lending large sums to small studios with spotty box-office records. To get back their investment, they needed a reliable flow of commercial hits.”

“Buster Keaton was ahead of his time in many ways but when it came to the ambient cultural racism of the Jim Crow era, he was unfortunately very much a product of it.” 
"Some accounts of Keaton’s late life—the ones that want to frame him as a tragic figure permanently destroyed by Hollywood—present his time performing with the circus as some sort of comedown… in fact, he held the prize second-act slot at one of Europe’s most prestigious and innovative circuses…”

If you're a fan of Buster Keaton and love cultural history, then Camera Man is a must read. 

Note: For those who will want a more traditional biography, author James Curtis' book Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life also came out this year.

This is my first review for the 2022 Classic Film Reading Challenge. 

Thank you to Atria Books for sending me Camera Man for review!

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