I genuinely hate the phrase “They don’t make them like they used to.” Or “We couldn’t make that today.” The usual response is “Yes, thank God; you use to have led based paint; I don’t trust your judgment.” It’s false worship of the past that implies that things were better over a hundred years ago. When the globe was coming out of the most devastating war humanity had ever known. And TB was still the major killer of the working classes, violent revolutions and counter-revolutions were sweeping Europe and The Birth of a Nation (1915) was still one of the most beloved movies in America. It is a fetishisation of the past that leaves out so many little details to imply there is something wrong with our current age. I mean there is, we know that. Still, we don’t need some housebound racist phoning in to talk radio into glorifying a fictional representation of history.
But, that all said, there are times when we can say those phrases. Little moments when we can, legitimately say that “they don’t make them like they used to.” Because, with over sixty years since his death, we have never had anything that comes close to the raw talent we see in the work of Buster Keaton. Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary The Great Buster , out now on Blu-ray is a celebration of one of Hollywood and comedies’ most incredible talents.
With interviews from a diverse gathering of devotees including Dick van Dyke, Johnny Knoxville, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Werner Herzog, Quentin Tarantino, and Cybill Shepherd to name just a few popping up in this, Bogdanovich tells not only the life of Keaton but also his impact on cinema to this day. From his days as a successful child vaudevillian, appearing with his parents and being thrown around the stage like a prop (but in the best possible taste), to his discovery by Fatty Arbuckle and his film career, Bogdanovich recounts the highs and lows of Keaton’s life and style. His moniker as the Great Stone Face shows how he changed cinema; perfecting a deadpan and acting with the eyes during an era that needed expression. How Keaton, through creative control and directing, was able to create entertainment that was both visually stunning and cinematically revolutionary. In many ways it’s a tragic story, we see Keaton’s fall from grace as he loses out, first to Talkies, then to MGM as they take creative control away from him. Through failed marriages and alcoholic breakdowns, it’s a rollercoaster ride until we get to see Keaton pulling off the greatest miracle ever seen in cinema. His career being saved by doing advertisements.
This is not just a celebration of Keaton; it’s a history of the Golden era of Hollywood. How, small, almost theatre company level, production studios with their focus on production creativity clash and the factory floor mentality of the big studios like MGM. The influx of vaudevillian entertainers who would push the physical limits of filmmaking, experimenting with new techniques, such as 1921’s The Playhouse, where Keaton plays multiply characters at the same time.
The Great Buster isn’t without issue. It feels more like a PBS arts documentary than a film doc. Not that there is anything wrong with PBS documentaries, but the life of Keaton cannot be crammed into one. You feel like you’re being teased with information, like finding out that it was Harry Houdini who provided Keaton with the nickname Buster. That’s a film in itself. The first two-thirds move at breakneck speed while the last third goes back and examines essential silent-era films, which is just weird. You’d have thought those would be included through the narrative part of the documentary and getting to that stage; you wouldn’t be blamed if you switched off.
I do love Buster Keaton. Part mime, part stuntman, his work was creative, perfectly timed, and brilliantly funny. While some of Charlie Chaplin’s or Laurel and Hardy’s work has aged and lost something, Keaton’s work still makes us laugh and has had a more profound impact on Hollywood. Bogdanovich shows that without him, there would be none of the madman humour of Mel Brooks, Mr. Bean, the insane stunts of Jackass, or even Jon Watts take on Spiderman.
Dir: Peter Bogdanovich
Scr: Peter Bogdanovich
Cast: Buster Keaton, Peter Bogdanovich, including Dick van Dyke, Johnny Knoxville, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Werner Herzog, Quentin Tarantino, Cybill Shepherd
Prd: Peter Bogdanovich Charles V. Bender , Bill Berg-Hillinger
DOP: Dustin Pearlman
Runtime: 102 minutes
The Great Buster: A Celebration is available on Blu-ray and DVD now