These notes accompany the program Buster’s Planet, which screens on January 27, 28, and 29 in Theater 3.
Joseph Francis “Buster” Keaton (1895–1966) began appearing in his family’s vaudeville act at the age of three. Charles Chaplin made his first stage appearance at five. Psychologists can have—and have had—a field day tracing all kinds of problems to this lack of an ordinary childhood in the cinema’s two greatest comedy stars. The simple fact, perhaps, is that they loved to perform and make people laugh. Buster, whose nickname has been attributed to Harry Houdini, followed in Charlie’s footsteps, entering films in 1917 (four years later than Chaplin) under the tutelage of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.
Keaton began producing his own shorts between 1920 and 1923, a period that included innumerable gems like One Week, The Playhouse, The Boat, Cops, The Electric House, and The Balloonatic. Buster created a universe in which inanimate objects and the natural elements were invariably stacked against him, but in which he unperturbedly triumphed and remained the “Great Stone Face.” Keaton’s acting was appropriate to his roles, but he never soared to the emotional levels of Chaplin. While Chaplin worshiped his heroines, Keaton comes across as borderline misogynistic. While Chaplin’s world is rooted in naturalism, Keaton’s has a sense of wonder and magic to it. In these early shorts, Buster’s fascination with machines becomes evident, particularly the most important machine in his life, the movies. While Chaplin’s films were rarely experimental (the dream sequence in The Kid being an aberration), Keaton was pushing the edges of the cinematic envelope from the moment he stepped behind the camera. While defenders of the avant-garde rarely look toward Hollywood, if they did, they might find Buster ruling over their pantheon.
Although he had made two features before Our Hospitality, it was his first sustained masterpiece. A charming evocation of rural antebellum life, the film shows Keaton to be a mature (he was twenty-seven during production) and gifted director, exclusive of any concerns about performance. Prior to Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, no other American filmmaker in his twenties had shown the promise displayed by Our Hospitality (and Sherlock, Jr.). (1927’s The General, which we will come to in March, whatever its other virtues, is as precise and perfectly made as any film I can think of.) If it were not for the extraordinary athleticism he shows in the film, one might easily forget how young Buster really was.
Orson Welles himself was later to call movies “ribbons of dreams,” and depictions of dreams date back to Alice Guy-Blaché, Georges Méliès, and Edwin S. Porter. Dream sequences would play key roles in innumerable Hollywood films, including Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945, designed by Salvador Dalí) and Rear Window (1954). Sherlock, Jr. not only anticipated these, but laid the groundwork for films as divergent as Harry Hurwitz’s The Projectionist (1971) and Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). In Sherlock, Jr., Buster, like all good projectionists I know, is conscientious, but he falls asleep. As the film progresses, he crosses the barrier imposed by the screen in a spectacular metaphor for entering into that other reality that the past century has offered us. Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? And what prompted a young unschooled clown from Kansas to raise such questions?
An aside: The death of Robin Wood in December seems to have initiated a bad patch for seminal auteurist film critics. Eric Rohmer, one of the original Cahiers du cinéma crowd, was slower than his younger and more reckless colleagues (François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Claude Chabrol) in entering the filmmaking fray as part of the French New Wave. However, one might cite the tortoise and the hare. By the time of his death last week (just short of ninety), one could make a cogent argument that Rohmer was the world’s greatest living director. He was undeniably an auteur, a maker of highly personal but restrained works. As Dave Kehr wrote in his New York Times obituary, “Mr. Rohmer’s work was warmed by an undercurrent of romanticism and erotic yearning, made perhaps all the more affecting for never quite breaking through the surface of his elegant orderly films.”