How Buster Keaton Became a Digital Meme.

AuthorCortellessa, Eric
PositionCamera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the 20th Century

Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the 20th Century

by Dana Stevens

Atria Books, 432 pp.

The great silent film actor-director invented much of the language of cinema. It still speaks to us on our cell phones.

Orson Welles once said, "The enemy of art is the absence of limitations." It's a statement full of wisdom, but it also carries a degree of irony. Welles made Citizen Kane--one of the most daring and inventive movies of all time--when RKO Radio Pictures granted him historic levels of artistic freedom. It might be more accurate, then, to say the enemy of art is the absence of limitations for most--but not for an exclusive few.

In fact, in the history of motion pictures, there might be only one other filmmaker who could make films of such consequence and majesty with complete creative control: Buster Keaton. His life's greatest tragedy was that, once he gave up that freedom, he could never get it back.

The vaudeville child star turned filmmaker had a run in the 1920s that makes him, as Roger Ebert once declared, arguably the greatest actor-director in the history of movies. During that decade, he churned out 10 silent feature films--including his most famous, The General--and a collection of shorts that created the grammar of cinema. At the dawn of the medium, Keaton figured out visual storytelling like none other. His gags worked not only because of his physical courage and prowess--he did his own stunts, often in one take--but because of his ingenuity with the camera.

In his short film The Goat (1921), for instance, Keaton tries to escape from the police by hiding in a spare tire attached to the back of a car. Once the car drives away, however, we see that the spare tire is not, in fact, attached; rather, it's part of a display for a tire store. We are then left with Buster, his body encased helplessly in rubber next to the curb. It's a joke that requires hardly any technical trickery; it works because he knew where to put the camera. To this day, Keaton's shots are among the most imitated, like the house collapse in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) when a wall falls down on him, but he's saved by standing on the perfect spot to pass through the attic window.

Keaton loved the comedy of action and the ability of the camera to fool the eye. He was a genius at experimentation. With the exception of The General, he never worked with a completed script. He would devise a compelling beginning and a satisfying finish. "The middle will take care of itself," he would say.

Unfortunately, though, like all things, Keaton's incredible run came to an end in 1928, when he...

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