It’s been a while, but Peter Bogdanovich is having a moment. The former film critic-turned-star ‘70s director of The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, and What’s Up Doc? has been instrumental in completing Orson Welles’ final film, The Other Side of the Wind (which will be released on Netflix next month). On top of that, he’s just completed a beautiful cinematic love letter to the greatest of all silent-era comedians, Buster Keaton, with The Great Buster: A Tribute. Sorry, Chaplin fans, but it’s true.
Bogdanovich knows as well as anyone how fickle and fleeting American moviegoers’ tastes can be. In the film, he cites Gore Vidal’s famous quote about “The United States of Amnesia”. So his gloriously entertaining new Keaton documentary isn’t just an act of nostalgia, it’s an exhumation – an attempt at reappraisal and resurrection. Anyone who’s been fortunate enough to interview Bogdanovich knows that he’s one of Hollywood’s great raconteurs, so it makes sense that he should narrate his own film. He turns out to be the perfect man for the job, mixing dry wit and genuine awe. His deeply knowledgeable voiceover provides at least half of the film’s charm.
The other half comes from watching The Great Stone Face, Keaton himself, in action. Through well-curated film clips from Keaton’s seemingly bottomless résumé of shorts and features from every stage of his career, we get a front row seat to the miraculous bits and death-defying gags from such classic films as Steamboat Bill, Jr., The General, Sherlock Jr., and Seven Chances. They still astound. Conceived and executed at a time many decades before modern special effects, they have a breathtaking sense of kinetic impossibility. They’re like watching a magician performing sleight of hand tricks, where death or at least serious bodily harm was barely skirted.
To a certain generation, a film about Keaton will no doubt be a tough sell. Silent movies are cinema’s overlooked stepchild. It’s their loss. Because Keaton possessed a modern deadpan sensibility that was decades ahead of his time. And, in The Great Buster, Bogdanovich has provided a brilliantly enthralling primer. Keaton’s ingenuity and fearlessness as a physical comic had (and has) no equal. He pushed the boundaries, staging Rube Goldbergian feats of choreographed balletic mayhem that would make most of today’s professional stuntmen blanch.
Less sentimental than Chaplin (but still melancholy in his own way), Keaton began his show-business career when he was just 11 months old. His parents were Vaudeville performers, and he joined their act by wandering on stage by accident. By age four, as part of “The Three Keatons,” his father was violently hurling him around the stage to the point that he was repeatedly accused of child abuse. Keaton, the ham, just loved the laughs. He quickly vaulted up the ladder of the burgeoning movie business, taken under the wing of the soon-to-be-disgraced Fatty Arbuckle, before eventually branching out on his own. He was a one-man band and a force of nature.
Bogdanovich wrangles an eclectic mix of talking heads to testify to Keaton’s unique genius such as Mel Brooks, Richard Lewis, Bill Hader, Dick Van Dyke, Johnny Knoxville, and oddest of all, Werner Herzog (“Keaton always had that quiet tragedy, which is very, very funny”). The cradle-to-grave arc of Keaton’s life is dutifully covered — even the sad, later years when he was reduced to popping up in ’60s teen beach-blanket movies and jobbing TV commercials. But Bogdanovich smartly decides not to end on those final, maudlin, booze-soaked notes. In fact, he saves the best for last, throwing chronology out the window to double back to Keaton’s greatest hits – the run of out-and-out masterpieces he made during the Roaring ‘20s. They are miraculous then, and they are miraculous still. A-