For the love of Buster Keaton

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The following is my entry in The Third Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, being hosted by the lovely Lea at her blog Silent-ology from Feb. 19-21, 2017. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ tributes to the movies, TV work, and life of this silent-film comedy legend!

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Film blogger Jim Emerson once wrote that he could see “the end of cinema” – that is, a time down the road when he was entirely sick of going to the movies, having seen it all already. Emerson asked his readers, “Has there been a movie, or a development in movies, that made you feel like saying ‘That’s it! I’m done!’? Where would you draw the line?”

On at least some days, I would draw the line at May 20, 1928. That was the release date of Steamboat Bill, Jr., the final independently produced film of Buster Keaton.

Cinema has continued to thrive since that particular date, of course. But the essence of much of the reason I ever wanted to go to the movies stops right there.

I used to follow movie comedy religiously. But frankly, for the past couple of decades, the coming-attractions trailers have been enough to turn me off. Modern comedies seem interchangeable – the same geeky guys getting into over-their-head situations, either eager to get laid (American Pie) or wishing they hadn’t (Knocked Up), or dealing with situations that any double-digitted IQ would have avoided from the start (What Happens in Vegas, The Hangover).

And finally, there are the guys who seem to aspire to the old school, bringing a reliable persona to film after film. Except that the personas consist mostly of mugging it up (Jim Carrey) or dealing heavily in bodily functions (Adam Sandler).

When I look at all these guys, I just want to shake my head and tell them, “Buster Keaton. You lose.”

What is there to see in modern film comedy that I haven’t seen in Keaton’s best work?

Jim Carrey expects kudos for a bungee jump in Yes Man? Big deal. Try having a real-life two-ton wall fall down all around you, as Keaton did in Steamboat Bill, Jr.

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Eddie Murphy or Mike Myers doing multiple roles? Buster Keaton did nine perfectly timed versions of himself on-screen all at once, along with several other roles, in The Playhouse.

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Computer-generated special effects? Feh. Watch Keaton literally throw himself into a movie-within-a-movie in Sherlock Jr. (Woody Allen swears this movie wasn’t the inspiration for his own The Purple Rose of Cairo, in which a screen character leaves his movie and enters “real life.” Yeah, right.)

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Superhero Movie-type parody? In The Frozen North, Keaton laid waste to 1920’s Western star William S. Hart, making his entrance to the titular snowy territory via a subway kiosk.

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Emerson mentions that the late, great movie-bio author William K. Everson (“Who’s that?”, I hear the teenagers saying) had little interest in movies made past the early 1950’s, preferring to stick to the movie world he knew. Like a 21st-century Everson, I find little reason these days to venture beyond my PC, where I can toss in a DVD of Our Hospitality and watch a put-upon but stoic, almost epic comedian nearly kill himself, literally, for his laughs.

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11 responses to “For the love of Buster Keaton

  1. I never want to denigrate the creative film artists of today, but when it comes to comedy I also feel the pickings are extremely lean. If I pay my money I want to laugh, but I want those laughs guaranteed. So, I don’t spend my money, I stay home and enjoy the folks who really knew their stuff.

    Your eloquent post said it all and beautifully. All hail our Buster!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love your post, Steve! I agree with it 100%. So much of today’s “comedy” would probably make Buster sick, lol! It’s mostly jokes revolving around annoying characters’ quirks, gross out humor, shock humor, and terrible slapstick requiring various stuntmen to humiliate themselves. Buster did REAL comedy, comedy that was art, and in so many cases he did it first!

    Thanks for joining in the blogathon! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Precisely, Steve! You’ve spoken for so many of us, who feel that today’s film comedy is woefully inadequate and disappointing compared to that of the past, but especially that of those film comedy pioneers like Buster. Buster’s work was especially brilliant with its perfect balance of the spectacular with the nuanced. Thank you for an enjoyable read!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I very much agree with the sentiments of your article. Many times I’ve had high hopes for new films featuring current comedy stars but end up disappointed with the results. Which overall is a disappointment because I believe that many current comedy artists have ability to ALMOST compare to Buster’s work, but I think they take the quick way out to appeal to the cheap humor that’s common today … oh, who am I kidding? Buster was one-of-a-kind, and no one will ever compare to him 🙂
    Great article; thanks for posting.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wouldn’t it have been great to have been alive in the 1910s and 1920s to experience Buster Keaton’s films when they were first released? Your post made me a little envious of folks back in the day who were able to enjoy his comedy for the first time on the big screen.

    Really enjoyed your tribute to Keaton. I was getting a little misty during the last paragraph…

    Liked by 2 people

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