Thursday, June 7, 2012

Notes from Buster Keaton's Newest Fan

I have been a die-hard Buster Keaton fan for almost a week.

My love of him first started at approximately 7:05 pm on June 1st. My knowledge of him began about 5 minutes earlier -- when I cued up "Sherlock Jr." on Netflix.  Prior to that time, I knew the name and had a notion of him being a film star of the silent era. Beyond that I knew nothing. Thank heavens that while doing research for our family's classic film project, I thought to include something he'd done to our list.
One brief exposure and I was hooked. Keaton grew on me quickly, and now I can't remember film without him. What strikes me most about the man, beyond his achingly interesting looks, is his extraordinary screen presence. Commentators use words like elegance and grace when describing his physicality. It isn't enough. He is almost supernormal in his ability to project a total ease and gentleness upon the things around him. He moves through space with a sweetness and light that I've simply never seen before.

This natural talent for poetry in motion is typified by Keaton's very first appearance onscreen in a movie called "The Butcher Boy." In his biography of Keaton, ("Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat"), Edward McPherson shares the story. Keaton was taken to a Fatty Arbuckle movie set by a mutual friend one day, just to check it all out. The movie was filming and Fatty apparently asked Buster (who had tons of vaudeville and stage comedy experience but no prior experience with movies) if he'd like to appear on screen as an extra. Buster declined. Fatty stopped production for a bit in order to show his friend's buddy around the set and the ins and outs of what was going on; by the end of the tour, Buster had changed his mind and Fatty wrote him in to the production. (Gotta love how the movie biz worked back then.)

The film is cute enough and generally enjoyable, but Keaton steals the show - 6 minutes in with the simple act of tossing a broom. Buster walks in to the butcher shop, inexplicably picks up and inspects a broom from a barrel then tosses it to the ground; he picks up another, inspects it, then tosses this one back into the barrel. Only, those words can hardly describe the act -- how he seems to just invite that broom to sail sweetly back into the barrel on its own. Buster then walks over to the one on the floor and prods it with his foot, at which point the broom joins him in hand, then in barrel - without effort. The motion of those silly brooms and the simple but mesmerizing effect is bizarre. How can something like this be so riveting? I've watched the clip a half dozen times and I'm not sure. But it is apparent to any viewer that it is not all just a fluke because the next moment the broom routine is followed by the tasting of molasses. Which is even better. Yes that's it. Molasses. On shoe, finger, in mouth. Pure entertainment. Whatever star power is, this kid has it in droves.

If you're interested in Buster Keaton, check out the new blog What Would Buster Keaton Do. It features information and writing on his life and films.

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