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How History Moves Through a Life: Dana Stevens on Buster Keaton

Last week, on a cold night in Newport, Rhode Island, a group of bundled-up masked people gathered at the historic Jane Pickens Theater to attend a screening of Buster Keaton's 1926 epic "The General." The theatre is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, which means that most probably Keaton's films played there back in the 1920s, giving a pleasing sense of symmetry to the event, almost like the intervening years collapsed, allowing you to step back in time. The sensation of contemporaneous experience was intensified because the screening was accompanied by live music, a one-man-band at the synthesizer, Jeff Rapsis, an experienced silent film accompanist and film aficionado. It was an all-ages crowd, including a 10-year-old Buster Keaton fan who begged his parents to let him stay up past his bedtime so he could attend.

The guest of honor (complete with her name on the marquee) was Slate film critic Dana Stevens, whose book Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century has been picking up steam since its publication on January 25. It's a biography, yes, but it's also an interdisciplinary research extravaganza, with forays into technology, labor laws, women in film (the silent era was peopled with female powerhouses), the development of AA, all things which had direct impact on not just Keaton's life, but everyone's lives. Stevens' engaged approach contextualizes Buster Keaton in his own time, while showing simultaneously Buster's impact on that time. It's a fascinating approach. She also brings her clear and sensitive critical eye to Buster Keaton's famous "stone face" persona, and what that signified, and how it operated.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Camera Man is Stevens' clear love for her subject. She is honest about his character flaws, and does not shy away from his difficulties (and the difficulties other people had in dealing with him at times), but her love for his art is what propels the book. You feel it on every page.

The Q & A following the screening, hosted by Professor Matt Ramsey, head of the film department at nearby Salve Regina University, was lively and engaged. Ramsey started off asking about the reception to "The General" in 1926. Although it's one of Keaton's most well-known films now, and it's the one most often screened, it was a fairly famous flop in its day. Stevens came armed with mocking derisive quotes from contemporary critics, and elaborated: "A lot of people thought 'The General' was an overreach, that he was trying to be too artistic and too ambitious. The expense of this movie was well-known. As one Keaton biographer called it, it was 'the "Heaven's Gate" of the 1920s'." Stevens also spoke about 1926, the year in which "The General" was released: "The way movies were being made was changing drastically. The studio system was consolidating. It became more of a top-down corporate culture, instead of the freedom of the Wild West. Joseph Schenck, Buster's producer and brother-in-law, took him aside and told him it was over, he had to become a contract player. Buster signed at MGM and his career went down very rapidly."

Ramsey asked about how those same years affected Charlie Chaplin. Stevens replied, "He was in a different realm because he was so incredibly wealthy. He was a good businessman, unlike Keaton. Chaplin built his own studio, had a dedicated crew throughout the 30s, and he made two silent movies well into the sound era. He could do quirky things like that. Keaton didn't have that kind of business sense or creative control."

There's another biography coming out about Buster Keaton, a biography of the "doorstop" variety, and Stevens takes a philosophical view about this coincidental timing. "I knew the entire time I was writing my book that James Curtis' biography was in the works, and in a way I was glad because it took a certain amount of responsibility off of me to be a 'biographer'. I'm a critic. I've been working as a critic for over 15 years. I'm pulling the camera back from biographical details about Keaton, although those are there, to look at circumstances surrounding his life. He was born in 1895 and he died in 1966. What a different world he was born into than the world he died in."

Ramsey mentioned that when he covers silent film in his film classes, his students fall in love with Keaton instantly, whereas the films of Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin don't have the same effect. Ramsey wondered if Stevens had any thoughts on this phenomenon. Stevens said, "More people know who Chaplin is worldwide than Keaton, but there's something timeless and modern about Keaton, and that's also what my book is about. Keaton was ahead of his time in a way that continues to feel modern to us now. It still feels like he's just about to happen."

The following morning, Dana and I met up at the Corner Cafe on Broadway. It was a cold beautiful day, with blazing sunshine and fierce ocean wind, and we sat and talked about all things Buster, as our Irish waitress kept the coffee refills coming.

In the Q & A you quoted a friend who said about your book: “It’s not the story of one life, so much as it is the story of how history moves through a life." Could you talk about that a little bit? 

I thought it was such a beautiful way of putting it. The image of movement was always in my mind. It's the image of Buster as a projectile being thrown through history, and there is also this idea that he had been born ready to perform, had performed so steadily and so successfully all those years, you could almost see it as a graph, a visualization of history that would be this upward arc that would suddenly go into a downward slope at 1930. But after that, it became a different kind of arc, Buster zig-zagging his way back into being okay.

What I really loved about your book were all the tangential and yet crucial explorations of the social-cultural events happening alongside his life, events he intersected with. You really got a sense of the outside world as he was living it. For example, how you dug into the Child's restaurant chain. How did you choose what to include?

E.L. Doctorow said that writing a book is like driving a car at night, and you can only see as far as your headlights, but that's all you need to get all the way there. That's how researching the book felt. I would look at each phase of his life, and think, "What does that make me want to know more about?" I knew going in that for the section on his childhood I wanted to talk about child abuse law and child labor law. The question his childhood brought up was: "What did it mean to be a performing child at the turn of the century?" There was a fad for performing children, and there had been for almost 100 years since the Romantic period. How did the Keaton family act fit into that? In the middle part of the book, the framing became more meta: what was going on with film at the moment he entered into it? When it comes to the section on Child's, I honestly thought the editor would say, "This stuff on the pancake house is great, but it has to be one paragraph." But he loved that chapter! Along with the Mary Ellen Wilson chapter—the chapter about child abuse law in the 1870s—I felt, If I can get away with those two zig-zags this early in the book, then maybe I can keep doing this throughout.

Right. You establish early that that's what you're doing. In some ways, your approach reminds me of Joan Schenkar's eccentric biography of Patricia Highsmith. She goes down rabbit holes into little thematic pockets, like the comic book industry in the 1940s, which places Highsmith in a larger context. She couldn't accomplish it in a paragraph. I appreciated your pancake house research.

If you take Keaton's life and look at it prismatically, you're going to learn all these things about his time that feed into his films. The pancake house chapter is really about modernity and speed, and about how American culture right at that moment was changing.

I was thinking about modernity and speed watching "The General" last night. Could you talk about Buster's fascination with technology?

I don't think he was interested in the idea of technology, he was interested in actual technology. He loved machines. There are stories of him as a boy helping build a boat engine. I think he was excited about the possibilities of technology in a way that had nothing to do with "Let me push the envelope of my artform."

"The General" is a work of art, obviously, but on the level of actually getting it done, it's basically a series of logistical problems. How do we make these trains chase each other around the countryside.

It's a mathematical movie. Plus, the camera is always where it needs to be with him.

He's also completely obliterated the proscenium.

When there is a proscenium, he jokes about it. Like when he goes through the screen in "Sherlock, Jr." It's something he thought about so profoundly, probably without knowing he was thinking about it: How do you make the transfer from stage to screen? He immediately understood the difference. From the moment he stepped behind a camera, he got it.

Before I knew anything about him, I assumed that his cameo in the "waxworks" scene in "Sunset Boulevard" was representative of who he actually was, this sad ghostly guy. I loved your enthusiasm for what he was doing in his later years. The French circus. Television. Summer stock. It was very redemptive. Nobody should feel sad about him doing "Beach Blanket Bingo." 

Those were very happy years of his life, the '50s and '60s, in particular after TV came along. That period feels like a victory lap, especially after his movies started to get re-discovered, which just barely happened in time for him to know about it. I didn't spend a ton of time on the Raymond Rohauer relationship, but it's really fascinating. Rohauer helped re-discover Keaton's films, but he was also pretty predatory. People called him "the vulture of Hollywood." He did a lot of shady things, and Buster didn't like him as a person, but Buster was grateful that Rohauer was finding all these movies and getting them out there.

Would you say that Buster had a strong sense of irony? 

His sense of humor was very dry, and assumed a certain pessimism about life, even though not every movie has an unhappy ending or assumes a bleak world. When you say irony, I think that with Keaton it's a slight sense of remove. Even his famous blank gaze has a kind of irony to it. There's these moments, very rarely, but once in a while he'll break the fourth wall and look at the camera. There's a great gag—it might be in "Three Ages"—where he's tied to another guy, and they're running tied together. He ends up on this little cliff-edge with the guy above him, and the guy goes falling in front of him, so of course he realizes that the rope is about to yank him down. And he glances at the camera with a completely blank face. It's the glance that makes the whole thing funny. He didn't often break that way, but when he did it was for a reason.

His face is so perfect for the movies. The perfect projector screen.

Someone in the audience asked about what he was like as a person. That's a mysterious question but I feel like the gaze tells us a lot about that. The way he looks at us, he only invites you in so far. Even when he glances at the screen, you don't feel like you're seeing his interiority. The glance at the audience is part of the joke, perfectly timed to fit in with the joke but it's not a moment of revelation about who he is. Think of Chaplin at the end of "City Lights." That closeup is nothing but an expression of his interiority. You don't get that with Keaton.

He wasn't interested in it? 

This is me psychologizing, but it's almost like he's not emotionally capable of it. I'm sure with any artist their deepest traumas and character flaws get translated into the work. Buster was not a connected father, he was not a good husband for his first two marriages, he was completely absorbed with his work, and not that good at personal life. I think all of this comes out in his work. I feel like the inside of his brain is inaccessible, except on the screen. His brain must have been this Rube Goldberg machine, sorting things out, but not like "What do I want to express?" It was more like "What would happen if a car fell out of an airplane?"

I was so interested in your thoughts about how he connected to what else was going on in art in the teens and 1920s. Surrealism, the Modernists, the Dadaists.

I'm not the first one to observe this, but he really does fit into Modernism. Luis Buñuel wrote about him, and Federico García Lorca loved Keaton and wrote a weird little playlet about him. Keaton was so modern.

Knowing what you know about Modernism, how does he fit into it? Did he himself feel connected to it?

I would not say he was connected to any artistic movement, but obviously he was of his time, in that way. I think of it as a generational phenomenon. In modern discourse, I resist the generalizations about generations, even though I am a classic Gen-Xer. I resist the shallow media discourse people use to pit different belief systems against each other. But there are some generations—like the Lost Generation that Buster was a part of—and I would say the Baby Boomers, too—that are historically meaningful because they were formed by war, in both cases. Almost every great artist that we think of as a Modernist was born sometime between 1888 and 1902, Joyce and Virginia Woolf and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the Surrealists—all of those people were part of a generation which I described in the 1895 section of the book. They experienced the upheaval between the Victorian era and the 20th century.

It's the generation gap to end all generation gaps.

It makes you see why the roaring '20s were what they were.

What is the technological equivalent of what happened during those years? Maybe the internet?

It seems like our world is moving fast right now, but if you really think about what the world was like a generation ago, there are lots of similarities to now. We are in the same built environment, we are moving around at the same speed in the same vehicles. Yes, we can communicate digitally a little faster than we could but there was digital communication since the 1990s or so. Our world much more resembles our parents world, and our kids' world much more resembles our world, than Keaton and Woolf's world in the '20s and '30s resembled their parents' world. And their art thematizes that. Woolf wasn't interested in technology, per se, but she was interested in capturing human existence in a fractal way, which feels very in touch with the stuff that Keaton was doing. I'm listening to Mrs. Dalloway on audiobook right now and I keep thinking about Keaton as I'm listening to it. It takes place in the years right after the war, and basically Mrs. Dalloway wanders through the city, and the book is about urban experience coming at you, which is what "Cops" and lots of other Keaton movies are about. If you put their art side by side, you really feel the connections.

As I was watching "The General" last night, and listening to everyone around me howling with laughter, it almost felt like we went back in time. Like it was 1926. I thought of one of my favorite quotes from your book: "He was the coming thing in entertainment, always." 

Those were his words, not about himself but about television. And I think that's what the book is about, it's about that kind of temporality. The fact that he was existing on accelerated temporality, which means that he's still arriving to us now.

Get your copy of Camera Man now.

Sheila O'Malley

Sheila O'Malley received a BFA in Theatre from the University of Rhode Island and a Master's in Acting from the Actors Studio MFA Program. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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