A nod today to The Great Buster, the 2018 tribute to Buster Keaton by critic and director Peter Bogdanovich. I’m pleased to see a guy as brilliant as Bogdanovich doing anything real at all, in light of the dreck projects that are all he’s been given to direct over the past quarter century (with a couple of exceptions). But this documentary ranks I think with his early Hawks and Ford appreciations. On the heels of the release of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, which he also had a huge part in completing, it feels like maybe Bogdanovich could be getting his mojo back. The Great Buster is insightful, to the point, and very complete. Bogdanovich does a better job than most in telling the early vaudeville years, he loops in some of the cherished lore about the Great Stoneface, brings a critic’s eye to conveying the best moments of Buster’s greatest films, and it’s all crisply edited with an economy Keaton himself would appreciate.
Most of the talking heads are folks who either knew Keaton or his widow Eleanor (she was much younger than he was and died 32 years later), or offer insight into appreciating Keaton artistically. Amazingly, centegenerian Norman Lloyd, who was in Limelight with Chaplin and Keaton, is in the film. There’s also Mel Brooks, Dick Van Dyke, and Carl Reiner, all respected veterans who emulated Keaton on some occasions, though they came along a generation later. Paul Dooley actually worked with Keaton in a a TV commercial back in the 60s. Richard Lewis was friends with Eleanor and owns important Keaton memorabilia. Keaton biographer James Curtis and critic Leonard Maltin make sensible contributions. One is naturally glad to hear what Bill Irwin has to say on the clown side of things, and what Quentin Tarantino has to say on the directing end. There is a certain amount of chaff in the interviews, though. Much as I genuinely love Bill Hader and Werner Herzog, for example, they don’t contribute much, nor do another half dozen or so other actors I semi-recognized. And while I understand why Johnny Knoxville might be included, it sort of debases the art of slapstick to have him chime in. He may be a reckless daredevil and what passes for a “showman” in the reality television era, but that doesn’t mean that what he does has ANYthing to do with what Keaton did. On the other hand, it was both wise and generous of Bogdanovich to include Patricia Eliot Tobias of the Buster Keaton Society — her knowledge and insights were naturally much greater than some of the people who were included strictly for their celebrity names.
One idiosyncratic choice Bogdanovich made was to pull Keaton’s brilliant masterpieces of the 1920s out of their natural chronological place in the narrative and present them LAST, i.e., after the account of Keaton’s years of decline. This may have been Bogdanovich’s strategy for ending on a high note — he ties these films to Keaton’s lifetime achievement award at the Venice Film Festival in 1965. It kind of works, but might be a little disorienting to a newbie. And, like many of his generation, Bogdanovich glosses over the “bad years” of the 1930s. I think there are glimmers of gold to be found in some of those films, and in the name of breaking new ground, “my” documentary (I don’t have one but if I did) would devote more attention to those later efforts than they’ve received in the past.
“Groundbreaking” would not be an adjective I would use for The Great Buster. But in these terrifying days of cultural amnesia, when things that happened a day ago, never mind a century, are swiftly forgotten, a film like this, which will introduce Keaton’s life and legacy to younger generations, can be just as valuable.
For more on silent film comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.