Film critics have been shitting themselves over Buster Keaton ever since film criticism began. In fact, if there is one conjoining factor to film critics of all opinions and perspectives, it’s that they all think Buster Keaton is quite a fine piece.
James Agee in the late ’50s exalted Keaton to the skies, describing his as ‘a face as still and sad as a daguerreotype’ which ”ranked almost with Lincoln’s as an early American archetype: it was haunting, handsome, almost beautiful…’
Walter Kerr took the reigns from Agee as the current god of criticism in the ’70s, and attested to this beauty in his own book, The Silent Clowns. Anthony Lane in one of his New Yorker essays compared him to a ‘grieving Giotto fresco’.
This, more than anything, was Keaton’s influence. To make male viewers feel completely at home in their own sexuality while faced with the undeniable fact of male juiciness.
For Keaton was not only beautiful in a classic, stoic way–he had also to his credit–especially in the two-reel shorts–the body of an athlete, the flexibility of a tantric genius–the peerless ass of something painted. Keaton, in the silents, radiated sex. And it was to his credit–still is–that he does so seamlessly: his was a modest sexuality, whose understatement called attention to the thing it sought to hide. In this case, a perfect body coupled with a sensitive, downtrodden spirit, a somewhat quirkier version of the Everyman, whose hour-and-a-half long documentaries of public humiliation were the joy of millions back in the day–that is, the millions who weren’t just watching it for his ass.
But something happens when you watch Keaton today, something more than the onslaught of melancholy you’re bound to feel watching in slow, silent time the day-to-day mechanisms of a world much more beautiful than your own. You’re watching Keaton fail, horribly, physically, publicly, over and over again–getting beaten up by machines, caught in natural disasters, trampled by stampedes, and all with that light-hearted air that the comic long shot lends it. Sure, there aren’t any real consequences, and it comes out, quite often, like Roadrunner violence (in The Cameraman, Keaton breaks a glass door about six times and never once asked to pay for it). But it’s the deadly repetition of it–he can’t win. You don’t expect him to–you expect him to come to properly absurd ends, hopefully involving some kind of romance with a non-human object (in Go West, he is reunited with the heifer he loves, In The General it is a steam engine) and in these particulars a true Keaton ending never disappoints. What’s painful to see–particularly in the later films–what winning ends up looking like–which is very much like the hero of a boxing film who after the end, having suffered deforming beatings and a loss of teeth, is heralded as the victor of a pointless, painful battle, the winning of which has not in any way enriched his life. Always there is the same Sisyphian strain in Keaton’s films, stories of battering and bruisings, persecution, ridicule and romantic humiliation. They are often so painful to watch that there’s really left to do but look at his ass–to focus, as it were, on the positive, the thing that survives, seemingly no worse for wear. As with the statues of Ancient Greece around which Keaton’s form seems modeled, everything decays around him.
As our Midnight in Paris dual correspondents Aimee and Calvin can testify, great cities as the subject of films always become more about their great past than their present–but what happens with bodies from the past? Is it equally morbid to fetishize the physical beauty of the past as well as its zeitgeist? With Keaton the act is twofold–getting lost in the beauty of a figure who seems to have his own, religious relationship to gravity, finding it ethereal and strange, while at the same moment completely recognizing the brutal strain in the world that remains, in the films as well as life, to undercut its lovely movements. The ultimate tragedy of a Keaton film is that he is, in the end, always brought down to earth.
See Keaton’s films and shorts every Monday this Summer at Film Forum