Woe to the author who, either by design or by chance, must compete with another when their two books deal with the same subject on approximately the same publication date. The inevitable double reviews may be catnip to critics, but they can force a zero-sum game on the authors: Two books come in, one survives. Fortunately, when it comes to Buster Keaton, the subject of two compelling and complementary new books, there’s plenty to go around.
The motto accompanying Dana Stevens’ new book, “Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century,” is a title card from Keaton’s 1921 two-roll film The High Sign: “Our Hero Got Nowhere.” It was a quintessential self-effacing piece of Keaton lore. Although Keaton appeared to enter the cinema fully formed, he perfected his craft and his durability in a popular family vaudeville act during several years As for going nowhere, he would soon become an acclaimed silent comedian, today he is widely regarded as the greatest of them all.
In addition to Stevens’ sharp work of cultural criticism, there’s James Curtis’ Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life, an 832-page biography that leaves no stone unturned. The two books work well together: one a close-up of Keaton as the avatar of modernity, the other a hefty and authoritative crane shot. That bookshelves have room for both speaks to Keaton’s enduring popularity.
“I’ve come across in print or even in person someone who is into comedy and has no respect for Buster Keaton,” Curtis said in a phone call.
Both books tell the story of a child prodigy who learned to lick as part of the family act. Keaton’s father, Joe, would throw the boy across the stage like a bowling ball. By the time Buster embarked on his own independent film career in 1920, he was ready to perfect the deadly stunts and underdog persona that made him a 5-foot-5 giant of the 1920s movie. Photos like “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” (1928), in which the falling facade of a house comes a few centimeters from the crushing Keaton, remain exciting to this day. (You can watch the entire movie on YouTube.)
But his triumph did not last more than the decade. The dawn of sound and an ill-advised, restrictive contract with MGM combined to clip its creative wings. The following decades had occasional highs, such as his performance as one of Norma Desmond’s bridge-playing “waxworks” in “Sunset Blvd.” from the ’50s, but his gifts never really took hold in the post-silent world.
For Slate’s film critic Stevens, Keaton—with his stone face, porkpie hat, and calm acrobatics—was the quintessential man of the 20th century. She begins by looking back to 1895, the year Keaton was born, and spotlighting parallel figures and events: Freud’s inspiration to analyze dreams, Oscar Wilde’s conviction for “gross indecency,” Booker T. Washington’s speech. at Atlanta Compromise.
As Stevens writes, “It was as if the twentieth century, already enamored with movement, change and speed, went back five years to advance the last half decade of the relatively small nineteenth.”
Stevens realizes she may seem to be doing the same thing — going back a century to jerk Keaton into contemporary culture. “It was a hundred years ago and they’re black and white silent movies, and we look at them now as artifacts from the past,” she says on the phone. “My argument is that he was ahead of his time and he was ahead of his time.”
Stevens sees something both topical and timeless in some of the tensions that run through Keaton’s work. There is the relationship between humans and technology which he explores in films like ‘The General’, ‘The Navigator’ and ‘The Boat’. There is the conflict between individual freedom and the demands of society in ‘Seven Chances’ and ‘Cops’. “He was a modernist,” Stevens says, “like Virginia Woolf or the Surrealists or… [Russian experimental filmmaker] Dziga Vertov, in the sense that he always reinvented the medium in which he worked.”
Curtis has written biographies of WC Fields, Spencer Tracy and Preston Sturges, among others. But his connection with Keaton started when he was a kid, watching reruns of “The Buster Keaton Show” on Saturday morning television in the early 1960s. Keaton was on TV a lot at the time, making guest spots on “You Asked for It,” “The Eddie Cantor Comedy Theater,” “The Twilight Zone” and other programs. “God knows the TV series didn’t reflect his best work at all,” says Curtis. “It wasn’t until later that I got to see his really good things. And then I was really smitten. The fact that he never smiled really appealed to me.”
For Curtis, what set Keaton apart from the other silent comedy greats – Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd – was his instincts as a director.
“Buster saw the whole frame and he saw the whole point of the frame,” says Curtis. “He also knew instinctively that you could do things with the film camera that you couldn’t on stage. You can take the camera anywhere and shoot anything you want with it. He traveled enough and had insight enough to know it was important. And I think that did a lot of what he did.”
Both authors caution against reading too much about the bang-bang timing of their books’ release dates (Stevens hits shelves on January 25, Curtis on February 15). Both books were set to be released in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic pushed them back. There is no major confluence that made Keaton’s season early in 2022. “I don’t want to falsely compete the two books or infringe on someone doing archival work the way he does,” Stevens says. “I’m not trying to tell new stories about Buster Keaton. I try to interpret.”
In other words, you don’t have to choose. It’s Keaton’s season, and not for any particular reason, but because it’s always the right time to revisit an artist who – though sidelined by a changing world – made that world the subject of work. that would never go out of style.
Vognar is a freelance writer based in Houston.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.