Wednesday, November 07, 2018

The Great Buster

Thing I probably should have realized well before now: Buster Keaton's films were blockbusters. It's kind of obvious - they're full of jaw-dropping action and never look like they're cutting corners, the train crash in The General was famously expensive, and Keaton was a big star - but until Peter Bogdanovich casually mentions that Keaton's movies cost two or three times what other movies being made at the time, it didn't quite click with me that his movies were that sort of outlier. Maybe it's a sort of survivorship bias - chances to see Keaton's greatest films come reasonably frequently (as well as Chaplin's, to speak of another guy who clearly spent on his silents), so they form our impression of what silents were like, and that these are remembered because they're incredibly elaborate doesn't necessarily connect until you've seen enough other things. And even then, the number makes an impression.

Unfortunately, the availability of these movies on disc seems to ebb and flow a bit - the best versions of from Kino, who reissue them every few years after the previous versions have sold out, and right now they're at a pretty low level. That the next release is 4K discs is probably too much to ask, but wouldn't that be something? Especially when you watch this movie and note the difference in picture quality between Keaton's films, which have good surviving prints, and some of his later TV work, which look like they are third-generation kinescopes or something. It seems unlikely - 4K isn't a given even from major studios, let alone smaller distributors - but I wonder. To a certain extent, silents are the sort of catalog items that can get sold to the same people again and again if the quality is bumped, and some of the other movies that thrive on that (The Evil Dead, for instance) are starting to come out.

Even if that sort of release isn't in the cards, it seems like there should be more Keaton discs out, more on Prime, etc., to coincide with this movie's release. Hopefully that's the case when it reaches home video.

The Great Buster: A Celebration

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 November 2018 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run, DCP)

Is there necessarily much new to learn about Buster Keaton in 2018, a hundred years after his first on-screen successes and ninety after his most fertile period ended? No, not really, although many viewers of Peter Bogdanovich's "celebration" will likely pick up something new to them. It's a good primer by a meticulous student of the medium, and it's worth having one of those come around once in a while to remind people of Keaton's brilliance anew.

Bogdanovich is thorough, making sure that practically everything Keaton ever did in the entertainment business has a moment to be seen, mentioned, and placed into context, and as such this survey can seem a mile wide and an inch deep. Despite the seeming need to rattle off every short that Keaton made, Bogdanovich has a way of making it not seem a dry list despite his restrained narration; he's quietly reverent and very conscious of who his long-term audience may be, slipping in bits of repetition and reinforcement that may serve him well when people are half-paying attention to this as it streams. It's a manner of speaking that can register as odd - it doesn't feel either conversational or like the written word - but it's clear in terms of both relaying information and atmosphere, saying this is worth knowing but not cause for a raised voice.

He's not alone in his praise for Keaton, of course. He enlists a great many people to pay tribute, some predictably enjoyable because they've done this sort of thing a lot and are established as both knowledgeable and charismatic; you listen when Mel Brooks, Werner Herzog, or Leonard Maltin talks movies. others who are surprisingly dedicated fans who have become close to the family (Richard Lewis, Dick Van Dyke). Bogdanovich does stumble a bit with younger voices, and that is in some ways the film's greatest weakness if part of the goal is to introduce Keaton to a new generation; he doesn't seem to know what he wants to get from Bill Hader or Quentin Tarantino, for instance, and seems to miss opportunities to dissect the man's genius more fully with Johnny Knoxville and director Jon Watts - Knoxville being as good a person to talk to about stunt-based physical comedy as anyone while Watts's discussion of how Keaton's expressive stone face influenced how he used the masked title character of Spider-Man: Homecoming doesn't go much further than "he was a big influence".

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