By Liam Lacey
Some of the most astonishing action and comedy sequences you can see on movie screens this holiday happen to be on films that are almost a century old. They’re in director Peter Bogdanovich's documentary, The Great Buster: A Celebration, looking back at the silent movie actor/director Buster Keaton, who justly remains the focus of a continuing cult of adoration among many comedians and film directors.
Keaton, nicknamed "the Great Stone Face," dignified the deadpan persona. His face remained unfazed in the midst of hair-raising predicaments and it was the secret to his popularity. But his legacy is also about his playful approach to the cinematic apparatus. His characters walk from the movie audience onto a movie screen, they escape pursuers by running through mirrors or they crash into painted backdrops. These gags give his work a surprisingly modern, surreal edge (Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel were fans). While Charlie Chaplin was a great clown on film, Keaton made great cinematic jokes.
Bogdanovich has assembled a wide range of marquee commentators — Richard Lewis, Bill Hader, Dick Van Dyke, Quentin Tarantino, Werner Herzog, and Johnny Knoxville to name a few — who cite Keaton's influence or their admiration for his art. (And if you're saying, ‘Sure Buster Keaton's fun but he's no Spider-Man,’ we have director Jon Watts talking about how Keaton was an influence on Spider-Man: Homecoming.) In truth, there are too many commentators and their expertise isn't always obvious. (Cybill Shepherd on Keaton's acting?) but they serve to remind us of the breadth of Keaton's influence.
The documentary begins with a 1972 clip from The Dick Cavett Show, with an interview with a young Bogdanovich and the director, Frank Capra Jr., about Keaton's legacy. Their conversation is illustrated with one of Keaton's more astonishing sequences from a film called Seven Chances, in which he is chased down a hill by an avalanche of flying boulders. Capra observes that Keaton's career went into decline with the sound era but also was challenged by the increasing popularity of cartoons. Bogdanovich points out that Warner Bros. cartoon mastermind Chuck Jones cited Keaton's gags as a key inspiration.
Bogdanovich continues as the film's narrator, tracing Keaton's career from his time as a vaudeville star, already famous for his pratfalls at the age of four. (The nickname "buster" meaning “a fall” was supposedly given to him by Harry Houdini). After a stint in the First World War, Keaton learned about filmmaking from the popular, later infamous, Fatty Arbuckle, forming his own company, BK Studios, in the early 1920s. At the end of the decade, Keaton made the error of signing with MGM, losing control of his films and suffering under a studio that was notoriously bad for comedians. He turned to drink, was fired and later, at 44, was rescued by his third marriage to Eleanor Norris, a 21-year-old dancer, who helped get him off booze and revived his reputation.
Of particular interest to Keaton buffs is the amount of footage available from the 1950s and 1960s: Numerous television commercials, some terrific bits on Candid Camera (a man at a diner who drops his toupee in his soup), a starring role in the Samuel Beckett-penned short, Film, plus parts in teenaged beach movies. One of the richest documents of Keaton's work is Gerald Potterton's 1965 NFB silent film, The Railrodder, with an accompanying "making of" feature, Buster Keaton Rides Again.
After Bogdanovich reviews Keaton's life in an efficient hour, he slows the momentum in the last 40 minutes by rewinding the story to the 1920s for an intro film class on Keaton's 10 feature films during that decade. The last segment feels awkwardly grafted on, though it serves as a reminder of how good Keaton was, focusing on Sherlock Jr, The Navigator, The General and Steamboat Bill Jr.
The latter film is responsible for Keaton's most famous and widely imitated gag (copied everywhere from Arrested Development to The Simpsons) in which Keaton, facing the camera, narrowly escapes being flattened by the facade of a three-story house that collapses over him — his body emerging unscathed through an open attic window. The moment as he turns his head slightly to see the near catastrophe might serve as an emoji of the miraculous: Tragedy, against overwhelming odds, narrowly averted.
The Great Buster: A Celebration. Directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Playing at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Theatre December 21 through January 3. On Dec. 27, Hot Docs will also show a special screening of Keaton's most widely recognized masterpiece, The General (11:30 am) followed by The Great Buster: A Celebration at 1:45 pm.