Friday, July 13, 2012

The Accessable Man & Life Changing Event that is Buster Keaton

Its no big secret that Buster Keaton is my newest obsession. I don't wish to hide it. The only thing I'm sheepish about is using my blog about British television to express it.

However, the other night I saw a wonderful BBC documentary from 2006, "Silent Clowns," hosted by Paul Merton. Nice. A link I can hang my hat on.

This program does not just beautifully highlight Keaton's career and comedy, but speaks to the joy of silent film as an art form. Watching it, I began to see that silent film is significantly more cross-cultural an experience than movies made since the advent of sound. Silent movies, especially silent comedies, speak a universal visual language.

Because his work has the capacity for such broad popular appeal, Keaton belongs to all of us. Notably, at a time when his career was hitting the skids in America, Keaton kept working in Europe and Mexico. Late in his career he enjoyed a resurgence of fame and was treated like a returning hero during stage performances in France. And the discovery and restoration of his films is also a global story -- one that stretches from L.A. to Czechoslovakia.

While reading everything I can about the man who fascinates me as much for his life story as for his brilliance, I find that certain themes begin to emerge. Commentators (such as Paul Merton, Richard Lewis, Edward McPherson, author of "Tempest in a Flat Hat") all want to talk about the circumstances under which they first encountered Buster. Like remembering where we were when the Twin Towers were hit, personal stories abound with respect to Keaton. Exposure to him seems to be a life changing moment for many people.

This wonderful clip is Richard Lewis' tribute to Keaton

Part of the reason Keaton makes such a big impact is not just that he is so talented, but that he is so unexpected. Modern people, in our self-importance, can hardly believe that films of this era could have been so well made and that anyone back then could have been so acrobatic, so surreal and so smart a comedian.

Beyond the theme of simply wanting to share our first encounters with the man lies a common desire to find links between him and ourselves. You often hear commentators speaking of the ways in which Buster influenced us or in which we are "like" him.  People want somehow to recognize a bit of themselves in what we so value in him.

That desire to find ourselves in Keaton touches on a theme I've expressed in my blog before: that of reality fantasy. Keaton is an everyman. We experience him as one of us. We feel like him and we want to be like him, and best of all, we somehow believe that we could. He is fundamentally accessible.

These feelings are remarkable given that he was not a regular guy at all. Keaton was extraordinarily beautiful. Although he was not generally filmed with an eye toward glamor, he had the most phenomenal look - full lips, enormous expressive eyes, high cheekbones, and thick dark hair -- yet somehow he isn't seen as a sex symbol. When people talk about his face they call it the "great stone face" and speak of its impassivity. He often portrayed down on his luck guys on the edge of wimpiness, yet he was supremely in control. He had a beautiful physique with which he could do astonishing feats of skill that most of us couldn't even dream of... or  imagine.

But he could.  He could dream it -imagine it -do it and film it, with nuance.

And despite his awesomeness, despite his extraordinary talent and skill -- he still, somehow, never feels out of reach to us. His genius is in allowing us all to share the emboldening effect of his movies.

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