By Matt Hanson
The Cameraman is the hilarious capstone to a glorious period that began for Buster Keaton in the late 1910s.
Given all the time we have on our hands, and especially if you are a geek, it’s fun to set up a comparison between eminences and force yourself to pick which side you’re on. Beatles or Stones. Led Zeppelin or The Who. Hemingway or Fitzgerald. Pacino or De Niro. Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. You could debate any one of these matches for hours — but the fun is having to make a choice. For the record, my preferences are all the latter options, but that can always change depending on the topic or the mood. Chaplin’s Tramp might have my top slot personally, for now, yet it’s easy to be won over by the adroit slapstick gravitas of Old Stoneface.
Keaton’s The Cameraman, available in a handsome new edition from Criterion Collection, is considered by most critics to be his last great film. It isn’t a coincidence that the comedy is also the final project in which Keaton enjoyed full creative control. After making such undeniable silent classics as The General and Sherlock Jr., the comedian’s talents were still in full bloom. But in 1928 he moved to MGM, where his talents would be crushed by the studio assembly line. The Cameraman still works its playful magic after all these years, mainly because many of those whom Keaton had collaborated with in his earlier films were still onboard. After this, Keaton would increasingly be treated as a cog in MGM’s assembly line.
We follow the frantic adventures of Keaton’s dogged newsreel cameraman, who endures all manner of inconvenience and madness on the streets of New York City during his quest to capture sensational footage. He has a very polite crush on his co-worker, the lovely and affable Marceline Day. Naturally, there is a coarser rival for her affections. Keaton’s devoted shutterbug makes up for what he lacks in elemental competence with moxie and imagination. He arrives at Yankee Stadium to capture some of the legendary team’s lineup in action only to discover that it’s the wrong day. The Bronx Bombers are out of town. Instead, he decides to act out an inspired invisible ballgame. Apparently Keaton was quite the baseball fan in real life. It is clear that he really knew his stuff. His timing is so precise that you can almost hear the sound of the ball whizzing through the air and see the fictional players stealing bases.
Lively and subtly intricate set pieces and manic sight gags abound, from a cramped contretemps in a pool changing room to an anarchistic gangland shootout in Chinatown during the Chinese New Year. Our cameraman earnestly tries to capture it all on film, intently shooting amid the violent chaos exploding all around him. Through no fault of his own, he even ends up with a monkey sidekick. Animal gags can sometimes be a little corny, especially back in the ’20s, but the scrappy Josephine turns out to be an effective little actor in her own right, conveying a pretty expressive emotional range when necessary.
When our plucky but hapless hero shows his shots to his boss back at the newspaper there is nothing to see but distorted and fractured images of city life. This plot twist is played for laughs — haha, tough break, sucker! — but there might be something subtly revealing about it. The footage he snags (gotten when he remembered to load the camera in the first place) resembles the avant-garde, experimental style in Vertov’s The Man With The Movie Camera, which premiered the next year. Did Keaton intuitively sense the direction that cinematic modernism might take — is this a satiric joke?
Modernity was hitting the filmmaker’s audience pretty hard, especially in 1928, a tenuous period between the world wars, with a looming economic depression and the rise of fascism in the air. Keaton’s friendly rival, Chaplin, was already beginning to ponder warning signs. The power of technology and mass media, as well as the pace of American life, was accelerating. Keaton’s camera sees the rush of the crowd, the rumble of motorcars, the thrust of progress — what the critic Edmund Wilson referred to as “the American jitters.” As Karl Marx put it, “all that is solid melts into air.” As the Criterion supplements explain, Keaton’s characters are beleaguered Everyman types who are determined to keep going forward, despite the revved-up craziness around them. The tornado in Steamboat Bill Jr. was bad enough. In The Cameraman, the danger is growing. Keaton is repeatedly bonked on the head and slips on the sidewalk as he struggles to film an out-of-control gang war, bullets flying every which way.
It isn’t the cameraman’s fault that his hard-earned documentary footage is cracked and distorted, ruining his big moment. But this footage subtly demonstrates the disorientation generated by the reckless new century. Many subsequent filmmakers, both silent and not, became interested in distorting their images of “reality.” What’s more, the meta qualities of The Cameraman’s plot (an elaboration on Keaton’s earlier frame-within-a-frame masterpiece Sherlock Jr.) snugly fit our self-conscious obsession with recording everything all of the time. If Keaton’s cameraman were around today, he’d be compulsively livestreaming, talking directly into his smartphone, wobbling in front of him on the end of his selfie stick.
Unfortunately, Keaton did not have much of a future at MGM. His track record was well established, but the studio wasn’t interested in his graceful style of physical comedy (whose artistry depended on silence), its flair and inventiveness. The studio deemed his voice to be problem and by 1932 was slotting him as a second banana to the likes of Jimmy Durante. Pratfalls became the province of cartoons and the thuggish Three Stooges. Robbed of his creative team and independence, Keaton became a heavy boozer, suffered a nasty divorce, and was forced to grind out quickies to pay the bills before a late career resurgence. He eventually sobered up, married well at last, and did some powerful work for the likes of TV’s The Twilight Zone and no less an artist than Samuel Beckett.
When Keaton appeared in later years at public screenings of his films he received standing ovations — he often broke down in tears. In 1960 he won a well-deserved lifetime achievement Oscar. The Cameraman is the hilarious capstone to a glorious period that began for Keaton in the late 1910s — it is a suitably hilarious wrap-up for a giant of American comedy.
Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at the Arts Fuse whose work has also appeared in American Interest, Baffler, Guardian, Millions, New Yorker, Smart Set, and elsewhere. A longtime resident of Boston, he now lives in New Orleans.
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