Reviews: Camera Man – the remarkable Buster Keaton, celebrated

Camera Man, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century,
Dana Stevens,
Atria Books

I count the years of defeat and grief and disappointment, and their percentage is so minute that is continually surprises and delights me.”

I’ve adored Buster Keaton for as long as I can remember; when I was very young, the films of Buster, Harold Lloyd, Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy were a staple on television, often put on during the school holidays, and were the gateway into that long-ago era of early film for me (and for many others, I would think). I watched them with my dad (who would delight in telling me how he actually saw Laurel and Hardy when he was young, his father taking him to see them on their final UK tour – clearly love of this kind of humour runs in our family). Actually we still watch them together to this day, enjoying them as much, if not more, than we did when I was just a little boy. I imagine this is a scenario more than a few of you will recognise and likely share – not just watching these films and loving them, but sharing them with someone important to you (which always makes them better and even more special).

So, as you may guess, I was more than delighted to be sent a copy of Camera Man by Dana Stevens, film critic at Slate and also a lifelong admirer of Keaton’s work. I was even more delighted to find this is far more than a biography; yes, it does, as you would expect, contain a lot of biographic information, from Buster’s early days as a child star on the vaudeville stages with his family, performing unbelievable – not to mention dangerous – acts and stunts (that would stand him in such good stead when he moved to film), through early exposure to film work, finding his feet in the new medium, the changes as the years pass, the downs as well as the ups, his later life.

Yes, that’s all here, and it is fascinating. However, Stevens also does something far more interesting – she discusses what is going on around Buster as his life and career unfolds across the decades, in popular culture, society and in technology. This means not only taking in aspects of Buster’s world you might expect, such as how the new-fangled moving image (born in the same year as our man, 1895) would start to encroach on the older forms of popular entertainment, such as the vaudeville circuit Buster’s family operated on, or how the introduction of sound, or the emergence of the large studio systems, replacing the many small, independent, seat of the pants production companies, and how this affected Buster, determined his choices and options.

(Above: very early Keaton, from around 1917, working with Roscoe Arbuckle. Below: from both their late career stage – Keaton and Chaplin in Limelight, from 1952)

But it also takes in the wider world around him – we see an early American movie industry where many women held senior positions such as producers and directors, as well as being on-screen talent (sadly something that changed to the still too familiar patriarchal system with the coming of the big studios), we see early experiments in a totally new medium, artists figuring out what they can do with this flickering image, pushing what can be done on film. We also see the wider world around it – the “new woman” of the 1910s and 20s, the multiple connections across all levels of society (one early film critic, a great supporter of Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton’s art, would also become a speech writer for Franklin D Roosevelt), we see the emergence of that gloriously hedonistic 1920s Hollywood (so recently celebrated in the film Babylon), where a newly flush Buster buys a big home, with near neighbours like Valentino, and Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks (whose Hollywood mansion boasted a lawn so big the Goodyear Blimp could land on it!). Changes in gender relations, race relations and more as society alters and changes, it’s all in here.

It all serves very effectively not only to give an overview of Buster’s life, his craft and his body of work, it gives it all so much more context, placing it in the world he was in at each moment of that remarkable life, which is vitally important, because it’s all connected, it influences everything. Stevens doesn’t shy away from discussing aspects such as race – a common “minstrel” trope of the period, involving black face and a parody of an African American that is very hard for a modern viewer to watch is discussed, for instance, while she also notes the shoddy treatment Mabel Normand, one of the biggest women in film of her time (and so sadly often overlooked today) received (Keaton’s contemporary, Chaplin, was especially singled out for his chauvinistic stance to taking orders from a women director, despite her having far more experience than he has, just starting out in film). And, of course, it explores the darker moments – the marriage failures, the terrible time lost to alcohol abuse.

However, the main focus here is clearly in celebrating one of the most remarkable figures of early cinema, and rightly justifying why he is important, not just specifically in the history of comedy, but also in film history in general, for his innovations and techniques, his eagerness to embrace new technologies and see what he could do with them, and, most importantly, how he could use them to create a good gag and make people laugh. And there is a lot of laughter to be had here, rather fittingly – it’s hard to read some descriptions of moments from making those films and not to start giggling away with laughter. Frankly, I sat there with a big smile on my face for a lot of this book, pausing now and then to put the book down and then go and watch some of those films (fortunately so many available online now). In fact I think this is a book that encourages you to stop reading periodically and go and watch some of the films it is discussing.

Kudos also to Stevens for using the latter segments of the book to bust (bad pun intended, sorry) some of the myths about Buster’s later life – many still think he made just a handful of films after sound came in, then spent the rest of his life in the shadows of his former reputation, drinking away. And while he did go through some very rough times and a long, dark night of the soul, that’s far from the full truth. Stevens takes us through the 1940s, 50s and 60s; we see Buster still writing, still performing, on stage (at a sadly now gone famous Parisian circus post-war, where he was rightly acclaimed as a great artist) and then getting himself involved in another emerging new medium – television.

Yes, Buster had his own show for a little while in the early days of TV broadcasting in the US, and he found a new outlet for new gags and pranks to delight a new audience. This new medium – whose emergence so frightened Hollywood at the time – would also be a major part of the reason his and other performers from that era had their reputation and place in film history cemented, because some of those old films were unearthed and shown on the new “boob tube”. In much the way it did with Universal’s famous monster movies of the 30s, so long out of fashion, the TV screenings made them new to a different audience – performers like Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd, Lugosi, Karloff, they all had a renaissance in popular culture this way, and that’s never truly gone away. The book also touches on the first stirrings, decades on from the Silent Film era, to find and preserve that rapidly disintegrating treasure trove before more of it was lost for all time (for which I imagine many of us are profoundly grateful), along with a cultural reevaluation of the importance of those works. He was still working away on new ideas and projects pretty much until the end.

A few years ago I went to a Keaton screening at my beloved Filmhouse in Edinburgh (home to the Edinburgh International Film Festival – sadly closed suddenly last autumn, you can read my report on that sad news elsewhere on LFF). It was a weekend matinee, the cinema actively encouraged family groups with children (with very low ticket prices too). The screening was a bunch of Keaton shorts, then an interval, and the second half was the feature, Steamboat Bill Jr- yes, the one with the front of the house falling on Buster, who emerges unscathed through the window frame (this was all shot for real!). That was also his last independent feature; after this he was folded into the new studio system, working for MGM, who removed his artistic freedom and ruined what could have been good films (sadly a tale many artists in many a medium are too familiar with to the present day, the Suits telling the Talent what works).

A couple of rows in front of me was a man with his two wee boys, maybe around six and seven years of age. They laughed with their dad all through the endless gags of the short films. I found myself wondering how they would react to a feature length silent in the second half; I needn’t have worried, the little boys sat spellbound at Buster’s athletic stunts and laughed and laughed. I include this little personal moment here because it illustrates something Stevens does so well with this book – Buster is as wonderful and funny to new audiences as he was in his 1920s silent-era heyday, and he’s always being discovered by someone for the first time, just as I first found them when I was a kid, watching with my dad, and here I saw that process taking place again. More importantly I got to sit in a cinema, watching a man long dead, restored to life by a magical, flickering beam of light, and that man made people smile and laugh. What a wonderful gift and legacy, one rightly celebrated in this book.

Camera Man is published by Atria Books, out now in hardback, with the paperback release this April.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Riding the rails in Canada

To mark Canada Day why not enjoy this National Film Board of Canada’s film – it’s a documentary about a short film they shot with silent movie god Buster Keaton in the 1960s, where Buster gets stuck on a ride on a railway scooter, taking in some behind the scenes elements of the short film and chatting to the legendary actor:

Buster Keaton Rides Again, John Spotton, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Talking silent movies: Saving Brinton

Saving Brinton,
Directed by Tommy Haines, Andrew Sherburne,
Starring Mike Zahs

Saving Brinton is one of the movies that leapt out at me when I was busy circling the movies I most wanted to try and get tickets for at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival: a documentary about a man, Mike Zahs, in a tiny Iowa farm town, who just happened to have collected, protected and shared some gems from the very, very earliest days of cinematic history. It’s an irresistible subject for those of us who love film.

William Franklin Brinton was an itinerant showman, he and his wife travelled up and down the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, from Texas to Minnesota, with shows which included music, gadgets (some of the existing music boxes are preserved in the collection as well as film), attempts at heavier than air flight (several years before the Wright Brothers managed several seconds in the air), some truly enchanting magic lantern slides and, always a sharp showman with one eye on getting those bums on seats, but another eye always on technological innovation, which fascinated this intelligent, curious man, he was an early adopter of the new miracle of the Victorian era: moving pictures. Some, even innovators like Edison who would contribute to the development of the medium, saw film as a passing fad. To be fair, he was not alone, few could have predicted film would grow to be one of the great art forms and mediums of the following century and into the next, let alone that it would become so entangled with our own lives, our dreams, fears, aspirations and hopes.

Brinton saw more in this infant medium, and in a later, more settled part of his career he managed the Graham Opera House in the small town of Washington, Iowa, which has been showing film pretty much since the birth of the medium, and has now been recognised by Guinness World Records as the oldest continually operating cinema on the planet. There is something rather pleasing that such an accolade goes not to some historic old cinema in Paris, or London or New York, but a wee town in the middle of the great farming fields of Iowa, right in the heart of the vast American continent. Once every town had such palaces of delights, but most are long gone in the US, as here, long since converted to other uses or ripped down and built over. Here though, a slice of entertainment history still lives, still serves its community, and for around three decades it has also seen some of the rarest early film works from the Brinton collection projected on its venerable screen.

Zahs, an incredibly genial, modest and charming man with a mighty beard (he looks like Gandalf crossed with Father Christmas, perhaps), a teacher, historian and collector, has been saving and documenting this collection for years, trying to interest the wider world in these treasures. There is a delicious irony that the small community here has been watching films, some of which cinema historians had, for years, lamented as lost, totally unaware of Mike’s collection. But eventually perseverance pays off, local academics from the University of Iowa work with Mike, and as academics do, they bring in other experts, including the Library of Congress. It’s soon recognised that the collection has remarkable works, such as rare moving images of Teddy Roosevelt, the first known film from Burma (how astonishing and exotic would that have seemed to an 1890s audience in an era before television, internet and easy international travel?), absolute gold: works by the first true genius of our beloved cinematic medium, Georges Méliès. Actually scratch that, Georges Méliès is not so much a genius as a wizard.

(above, Brinton projecting one of his shows, image from University of Iowa’s Brinton collection; below, Mike Zahs and the film-makers at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, pics from my Flickr)
Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - Saving Brinton 02

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - Saving Brinton 03

All of this “lost” cinematic history being rediscovered as academics finally take notice, increasingly enthusiastically, of what Mike has been trying to show them for years, would be fascinating enough, and the triumph, from only local folks watching to international recognition of the importance of this collection (complete with showbills, photographs, glass slides for the magic lanterns, projectors and more along with the actual nitrate films) is satisfying: Mike goes from showing the works to his local friends and community to an outdoor film festival screening in an ancient square in Bologna, and the international film festival circuit. But there is much more to Saving Brinton than the rare works saved from vanishing into history: this is a film which is as much about people and about community as anything else.

It’s to the credit of the film-makers that they spend quite a bit of the running time on Saving Britnon exploring this small local community, and Mike is their way into this small farming town. As well as putting on shows with Brinton’s films, magic lantern slides (some very sophisticated, allowing for overlaps and dissolves which are still gorgeous looking even to modern eyes used to CGI wonders), we see Mike planting peach trees on the family farm close to others that go back generation in his family, Mike delighting young kids at the local school showing them all sorts of odd-looking historical artifacts from his collection and engaging them into learning without even realising it (always a good trick to play on kids to enthuse them), even giving a talk to some of the local Amish families on local history. As Mike said himself at the Edinburgh screening, the most important part of the world “history” is “story”, and stories are about people. And Saving Brinton shows how that remarkable collection is more than preserved celluloid frames and ephemera, it has been woven into the local communities since 1895 when Brinton took it from town to town.

At the Edinburgh Film Festival screening we were lucky enough to have the film-makers Tommy Haines and Andrew Sherbune present, as well as Mike himself, who seemed utterly delighted to be showing this work at the world’s oldest continually running film festival (quite an appropriate venue for such a subject, surely), and in person he was as delightful and fascinating as he was to watch in the film. As a bonus, after the film and a Q&A we were treated to ten minutes of these very short works – works that, as is said in the film, were made when the people we now think of as the stars of the silent era, the Chaplins, the Keatons, would still have been children, they are that early. These included the “flying machines” which many in the UK will recognise (created by Brinton’s contemporary Sir Hiram Maxim, still flying at Blackpool today), some truly glorious early 1900s colour film (each frame painstakingly hand-tinted to produce the effect, which still looks magical), and treasure upon treasure, a Georges Méliès film which was thought lost for most of the last century, and here Mike and his small town had been enjoying watching it for the last thirty years…

This is just an utterly enchanting, beautiful film about shared history, community, art, lives. Mike and his wife have donated the collection to the University of Iowa Libraries, where it is being carefully examined, conserved and digitally copied so it can be shared. There is a dedicated site for the Brinton Collection run by the university, which I highly recommend visiting for more information and also to find links to watch some of these incredibly early films online, such as the hand-coloured Serpentine Dance and other little gems that were so nearly lost forever, and the official Saving Brinton site has more information. This is an absolutely magical, warm, smile-inducing documentary that is a must-see for anyone with a passion for film.