We first announced this exciting development back in April, but now it’s available to pre-order, with a pub date of January 25, and what’s more I have read it, so can recommend Camera Man, Dana Stevens’ new book on Buster Keaton to you in DETAIL.
In a nutshell I can report that the book is like no previous one on the topic. Having spent many years steeped in every corner of Keatonia, Stevens presents us not just with the facts of Keaton’s life (weeding out myths along the way), but also original insights about both his life and art. The result is a book that is neither contemptibly uncritical (as many of the gushing early books about Keaton are) or unreadably academic (as some of the more recent ones have been). This is a piece of writing to be savored, much more literary and ruminative than mosts books on “Slapshoe Geniuses” tend to be.
Its most original feature is liable to be its most controversial. To provide context for Keaton’s art, Stevens liberates the clown from the silent comedy silo and discusses him at length in relation to contemporaries, often ones seemingly farther afield than you’d typically expect. For example, she writes at length about Mabel Normand (and feminism), Bert Williams (and race), and even F. Scott Fitzgerald (and the Lost Generation), to get at America’s rapidly changing culture in the 1920s, when Keaton was at the height of his career. Naturally she hits the more obvious suspects as well, like Arbuckle, Chaplin, and Keaton’s family, but by reaching a little more, her embrace is able to include topics like child welfare, alcoholism, modern art, and much else.
Also, because she is a critic and not a mere fangirl Stevens tell us where the films fail as well as where they succeed. I agree with her assessment, for example, that College is probably the worst and least characteristic of Keaton’s silent features (though many people unaccountably seem to like that one). I also love her depiction of Keaton’s films as metaphors for key parts of his life. One particular insight she provides (drawing a clear distinction between the “Buster” of the silent years, with the “Elmer” of the talkies) is liable to become a valuable tool in serious discussions about the comedian for a long time to come. Something else I loved is that (unlike many authors), she devotes ample attention to Keaton’s years of “decline” — which in many ways weren’t a decline, given his prominence on television, popular films, and prestige gigs like Circus Metrano in his last couple of decades.
As I say, it’s available to pre-order now, though you’ll have to cool your jets for a couple of months ’til your copy arrives. Get yours here.
And in the meantime, while you’re making your Holiday purchases this Cyber Monday, why not add this to your cart? I haven’t chosen it at random. On Stage, Gypsies was written by Dana Stevens’ grandmother Shanna Hacker, who was a chorus girl with Fanchon and Marco prologue musicals in the early 1930s! It’s plainly in the blood! Get that one here.