November 30, 2012 to January 9, 2013
Klaus Nüchtern writes that we do not laugh at, but rather with Buster Keaton, as he careens with unimaginable energy and resilience through the challenges of the modern world. This invitation to a "laughter of solidarity", to non-triumphant feelings of joy, explains the special kind of enthusiasm engendered by Keaton. We feel the vital necessity of this joy and solidarity, which – in life – is still so rare: "I admit that I admire Keaton's comedy most when it elicits not just cascading laughter but also amazement and delight at the way in which he succeeds rather than fails in his endeavors. This makes his comedy unique, and it fosters an occasional outburst of ‘species-patriotism’ in me when Buster does what he does: Humans are capable of such things? How wonderful!"
The artist whose works have been able to evoke such emotion for almost 100 years now, is the subject of the Film Museum’s year-end retrospective. In addition to Keaton's canonical features – Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), Go West (1925), Seven Chances (1925), Battling Butler (1926), The General (1926), Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) and The Cameraman (1928) – the show will also include the unsurpassed series of short films with which Keaton earlier made a name for himself, first alongside Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and than on his own.
Born on October 4, 1895, Joseph "Buster" Keaton (legend has it that the nickname was supplied by Harry Houdini) was the son of vaudevillians and wasted no time getting onto the stage. As part of their act, he played a misbehaving child who endured with a poker-face all the disciplinary measures his parents meted out to him. When his father succumbed to alcoholism (and the show became too dangerous), Keaton moved to New Yorkwhere he met Arbuckle and made his film debut as “Fatty’s” sidekick in The Butcher Boy (1917). It was here that Keaton learned his craft, soon becoming a director's assistant to the great Arbuckle. Starting in 1920, Keaton made twenty madcap and fully realized two-reelers, including the cubistic house-building nightmare, One Week (1920) and the anarchic chase movie, Cops (1922); on the side, he still found time to play the lead in the MGM feature The Saphead (1920).
Even as a "pure," non-directing actor, Keaton nurtured his historical role as the comedian of modernity and objectivity. Saccharine relationships between the sexes and sentimentality were of little interest to him; his pathos is based on understatement and the dry imperturbability of his struggle with objects and institutions. This probably also explains his nickname, "The Great Stone Face," a somewhat clichéd label which is put into perspective as soon as we encounter Keaton's actual presence – his highly expressive face and his eloquent body – on the big screen.
Keaton the director, the complete auteur, is the personification of musical precision and elegance when it comes to the arrangement of gags, stunts and chase sequences, which are unequalled to this day. His conception of cinema was disarmingly naturalistic, the poetry of his films was always derived from reality. However, he also upheld the idea of the romantic individual in the midst of all the machines, professions and modes of transportation the 19th and 20th centuries had to offer.
In 1923, Keaton conquered the feature film format. His black comedy Our Hospitality is the first in a series of masterpieces in which he demonstrates his life-long fascination for all things mechanical, and for what happens when they go awry. The cine-machine itself – as shown by Sherlock Jr. in which it becomes the subject – is an essential part of this fascination. The "titular heroes" of The Navigator and The General are an abandoned ocean liner and a hijacked locomotive; in his attempt to bring them under control, Buster ends up in the most absurd situations, usually involving peril to his life. His daredevil stunts often resulted in injuries, but they would never deter him from his insistence on precision. This manifests itself in the incomparable perfection of his timing and the exactness of the mise en scène; The General is not merely a perfect comedy, it is also a poetic reconstruction of the Civil War period with an eye for the most minute details.
After Steamboat Bill, Jr., Keaton’s brother-in-law Joseph Schenck sold their company to MGM – and Keaton was expected to fit into the studio system. Instead of having absolutely free reign, he was now obliged to conform to a script. The Cameraman (1928) is his last major work about the mechanics of filmmaking – and an authentic, worthy counterpart to Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera, released the same year in the Soviet Union. Keaton made the transition to talkies, but quickly burned out in a series of mundane productions. He put up with it all, but started drinking heavily. Two marriages failed, and he was fired by the studio. After a period of rehab treatment, he returned to MGM as a gag writer for the Marx Brothers. His later work was restricted to small acting roles (among them his legendary collaboration with Samuel Beckett: a film called Film, newly restored in 2012). Buster Keaton died of lung cancer on February 1, 1966, at a time when his genius was just beginning to be rediscovered.
The retrospective is supported by the U.S. Embassy in Vienna and includes all existing shorts and features made by Buster Keaton between 1917 and 1929. His first sound film, "Free and Easy" (1930), some of his later appearances such as "Film" (1965), and Kevin Browlow's epic portrait of Keaton, "A Hard Act to Follow" (1987), will also be screened.
To kick off the retrospective on November 30, Klaus Nüchtern will present a lecture on Keaton and introduce his book, "Buster Keaton or the Love of Geometry," jointly published by Zsolnay and the Film Museum.