Monday, 4 April 2011

Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down

Tom Dardis

Buster Keaton's life follows a similar curve to that of Charlie Chaplin, though never in quite the same way. There is trauma and vaudeville in childhood, a few years of excelling in early films, until the artist is recognised and indulged.

There follows a short period of Golden Era: each is completely in charge of their own films, creating every aspect, and making films that are still regarded as masterpieces 80 years on.

This period is exceptional, in both lives. For In Our Hospitality, The Navigator and The General, Buster Keaton has complete control of every shot. He writes as he shoots, directs as he acts, and frequently risks his life. This singularity of vision, unmatched anywhere outside of an author's relationship with a novel (and even then...) is what pushes these films into greatness.

The fall happens to them both in different ways. Chaplin, having cashed in, spends the rest of his life trying to be accepted by critics. Keaton, who always had a more esoteric, less-monied appeal, cannot afford such a luxury, and is forced to become a studio man; then a bit-part man; then a gag-writer.

The fundamental difference between the two, that made Chaplin the more succesful and Keaton by far my preferred choice, is simple. Chaplin was a comedian who wanted to be an artist. Keaton was an artist who wanted to be a comedian.

Chaplin always had popular appeal, but his pretentions could never be truly fulfilled; his story ends, career wise, with him still coming down from that long-ago peak. Keaton always made a unique and timeless product, but his aspirations were harder to fill when he had to compromise on method, for reasons of economy (read: shortsighted studios).

Buster's lifegraph does turn up again at the end, as he is rediscovered and critically hailed. He cannot return to that Golden Era of film-making, but that same Era is now, looking back, eminently justified.

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