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Emmys 2017
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The Art of Buster Keaton

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The Art of Buster Keaton

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In Season
Buster Keaton

We gave it an A

In a simultaneous boon for the computer-graphics and insurance industries, one of the new digital wonder companies recently created the first fully formed, lifelike, nonexistent actor: a virtual stuntman. The benefit, of course, is that he can literally — that is, literally virtually — do anything.

Okay. Maybe he can, say, ride a motorcycle on the handlebars — across a broken bridge. While the bridge collapses. And maybe he can play nine different roles — in one scene. At the same time. But I say, Whoop-de-digital-do. Some 70 years ago, when movies were not only black and white but soundless, shot with hand-cranked cameras, Buster Keaton managed to do all of that. Here was a performer who could do anything; in fact, he did everything, and, most impressive, did it with profound humanity.

Actor, athlete, screenwriter, producer, director, Keaton endures 100 years after his birth as one of the most versatile and original figures in movie history. Indeed, he has come to mean something different to every kind of film buff: To the academics, his trademark stone-face represents the paralysis of conscience in a chaotic world, and his tussles with machinery signify the dehumanization of industrialized society; meanwhile, to video-store geeks who know him through his late-career paychecks such as 1965’s How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, he’s a great slapstick jokester, the silent Jim Carrey.

While Buster Keaton may very well personify such roles, a more compelling and relevant Keaton emerges — for the first time in decades — through a new 10-tape series presenting all 11 feature films and 19 of the major shorts Keaton produced independently during his creative prime in the 1920s. The Art of Buster Keaton includes several titles never before available on video, including Keaton’s feature masterpiece of surrealist high jinks, Sherlock, Jr., in which a movie projectionist imagines that he walks right into a film; and the jaw-dropping short The Playhouse, wherein a chorus of nine Keatons dance together.

Restored from high-quality archival prints, these tapes show Keaton as almost no one has seen him since the films’ original releases, shortly after the First World War. The effect is revelatory: Keaton’s face, long reduced in inferior video editions to a cartoony outline, is suddenly detailed, realistic — human. An actor who worked with the subtlest shades of the emotional spectrum, Keaton now comes across vividly as the most cinematic of silent comedy actors, contemporary in technique and impact.

As a director, too, Keaton benefits greatly from these restorations. Unlike the movies of Charlie Chaplin, which rarely escape the stagy limits of their stars’ music-hall training, Keaton’s work is utterly filmic, exploratory in its use of screen space — a trait diminished in the flat, low-contrast prints in circulation before these videos.

Unfortunately, this series suffers from a few flaws of its own. There is a bit of picture jitter on many of the movies, and most of them have cheesy and arbitrary new music soundtracks. (Sherlock, Jr. includes snippets from one of the James Bond themes.) No harm: Turn the sound off. Buster Keaton, who could do anything, fills the senses with speechless eloquence. A