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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Best Keaton Book I've Read

Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy by Imogen Sara Smith has been a constant companion this week. We've been together to the barber shop, in and out of fish camps, Glenn's Tastee-Freeze (the one with B-west lobby cards on the walls) ... wherever I had time and leisure to enjoy a few more pages. Measuring a good book often comes down to whether or not it leaves the house with you. This one did until it was finished. If you like Keaton and haven't read Persistence, I'd suggest ordering. The author brings fresh insight to Buster's story. She mingled with and gauged reaction of modern audiences to his comedy, being aware of Keaton as an ongoing entertainment presence still gathering admirers to his net. Smith discovered BK as a teenager via The Goat on American Movie Classics. Since then, she read all the Buster books there were, as have most of us that follow him. I like the way this writer confronts myths about Keaton's life. Was his boisterous vaudeville act as "human mop" with parents tantamount to child abuse? Was BK a functioning illiterate as others have claimed? Smith digs into the films, Buster's influences (Roscoe Arbuckle chief among them), his marriages (best appraisal yet of ill-fated one with Natalie), and those decades coming back from a career in ruins. She's also got some of Keaton's latter-day following pretty well nailed: "Buster Keaton" is a favorite name to drop, shorthand for a cool, dry, deadpan style, and a mechanically elaborate absurdist aesthetic. To identify oneself as a fan is to side with black humor, irony, and hip disaffection. This is a stylish caricature that fits on a t-shirt. Now there's perception of a sort Smith's book is filled with. You come away from writing so astute and think, Why didn't I come up with that?

Timing is ripe to revisit Buster Keaton in any case, what with Blu-Rays, the Educational shorts DVD packaged at last, and hope that all his best work will eventually be available on high-definition. The Persistence of Comedy covers Keaton's output not in terms of mere synopsis and recitation of well-trod anecdote, but by ways invigorated and excitingly alert. Smith evaluates previous Keaton books, including the comedian's own ghost-written autobio, and reveals plus/minus factors in each. You know a book is special when the extensive footnotes are as readable as the main text, as was case here. I've not been fully satisfied with any Keaton overview before this one. It doesn't pretend to be definitive biography, which is fine because we pretty much have that data spread among what's been published over the last fifty years. Smith has instead synthesized all of that and spun her own interpretation toward events and accomplishments of Buster Keaton's life in a way that's fresh, modern, and not at all bound by assumptions/conclusions others have made. Best of all, she is a fan of Buster's (not always the case among previous writers) and observant of how newcomers react to him, something historians too often overlook. People who knew Buster wondered just what made him tick. His was instinctive genius you'd not acquire in school. Smith gets closer to the heart of this great comedian than anyone I've read. Her analysis/appreciation inspired my own repeat (re)viewings of (so far) Battling Butler and Steamboat Bill, Jr., both richer desserts for following satisfied serving of this book. The Persistence of Comedy really gets it done on the subject of Keaton, and more than merits any film lover's time and attention.


Anonymous r.j. said...

The girl in the mast head you have with Buster in "Daydreams" is of course his longtime leading lady,Virginia Fox, who would in time become Mrs. Darryl Zanuck.

3:07 PM  
Blogger Dugan said...

How does it compare to the Brownlow documentary?

8:08 PM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

I'd be interested to know what you thought of Rudi Blesh's bio of Keaton. I enjoyed it as a youngster, but wonder if, like Stan Laurel's early biographers William Everson and John McCabe, he might have been too close to his subject to be objective.

Having said that... I find Keaton hilarious and fascinating. At times, he doesn't seem to care if he gets a laugh or not. I wish I'd introduced his silents to my daughter when she was younger. Now that she's 14, she might be a little too jaded.

PS: Regarding your previous post: count me in as one of those movie freaks who rented and loved "Docks of New York" on its original VHS release in the '80s.

8:40 PM  
Blogger Tom Ruegger said...

I'm sold
Great review.
Sounds like a great book.
Glad it exists.

3:06 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I recently re-watched the Brownlow documentary, which is wonderful, of course. "Persistence Of Comedy" makes a good reading companion to that, in fact.

Kevin, I've always liked Rudi Blesh's book. In fact, it was the first I read on Keaton.

11:03 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

As the publisher of Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy, I thank you for your effusive praise for the book. I believe your evaluation of the author and the material is on the mark. Ms. Smith's writing is perceptive and makes one nod and say, "exactly - I wish I could've put it that way." And you're correct, she is a true "fan" of Keaton. She does not let her admiration for him cloud her ability to put his work and his personal life in their proper perspectives, however. I'm very proud of the contribution Gambit Publishing has made in the canon of Keaton biography with this work. Thank you for adding your validation to it.
Gail Glaser

11:07 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon has some interesting observations about Buster Keaton and other silent comedians ...


I'd say the right book got the right review, here! I wish I was more flush as I would plunk for this book on the basis of your appreciative overview. I like the example you offer of the author's prose as it reveals her smart, unendowed analysis of why Keaton still floats and Langdon or Charley Chase do not. I think she's suggesting that the contemporary slouch who puts Keaton in this coffee can is going to equate him to Bill Murray in "Ghostbusters", or almost. I actually think the closest contemporary to the great silent comics might be someone like Paul Rudd, who is able to do a lot with a minimum of face-making (though admittedly not the fixed mask of Buster) and more than that, project the sense of everyman and the gentle innocence, not the same as stupidity, of the silent greats. I'm forcing him into the mold but just for the sake of conversation...not adamantly. It's rare enough to find anyone today who can put innocence across without it seeming either fake or puerile.

The thing that's often overlooked is that the greatest silent comics ALL partook of a mesmerizing minimalism, hence the stock 'uniform'----a mode of dress that never significantly varied (Buster Keaton more than most), attitude toward situations generally, and particularly a constrained number of facial expressions. Chaplin and Laurel generally fit this model, I'd say. Any good critic, any good writer, any good artist needs to do as this lady has done: approach the job not in imitation even of their own strongest influences in their field, but rather as if they were reinventing the whole thing, but organically and earnestly, not with irritating mannerisms. In this case, as if a bio of Keaton had never been done, or, never properly done. How else can you refresh a subject? And you have to be yourself. It sounds like she's achieved admirably.


4:38 PM  

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