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.