“Camera Man”: Resilience and Reinvention

Timing is everything, they say. And timing had a lot to do with the success of vaudevillian and silent film comedian Buster Keaton, according to Dana Stevens, Slate film critic and author of the enthralling Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century. Keaton came of age at the same time movies were taking off — he was “born along with the movies” — and a remarkable symbiosis occurred. As Stevens says, Keaton’s “curiosity and ambition grew to fit what the movies were becoming, and the form, in turn, expanded to make space for what he could do.”

While the timing was indeed fortuitous, it certainly didn’t hurt that Keaton was a singularly gifted performer. He was funny, physically daring, mechanically curious, a consummate professional, a perfectionist, a prodigy. A man who would risk his life in search of a laugh. “In his effortlessly agile body, nature and art seemed to coexist without opposition,” Stevens writes with reverence.

I can’t disagree. As I read Stevens’ words about Keaton, I grew so interested in him that I watched online videos of his stunts, gags, chases, and falls, and delved into his two-reelers (short films). I advise all readers to do the same.

Camera Man is mainly a biography. Born in 1895 in Piqua, Kansas to Joe and Myra Keaton, two vaudeville entertainers, Keaton honed his skills in their act as the third and most lauded of “The Three Keatons.” In the late teens, during a three-year stint at Comique Studios, Keaton acted in and co-directed several shorts with Roscoe Arbuckle. Then, during the 1920s, he achieved the height of his success as an independent filmmaker and director who ran his own studio, Buster Keaton Studio. One of his shorts, One Week, was “as perfect a film as any director ever made.” It is well worth your time.

The book is organized imaginatively into four sections that reflect both the trajectory of Keaton’s career and the trajectory of one of his many airborne stunts: Thrown, Flying, Falling, Landing. And, after the 1920s, fall he did… hard. In the late 1920s shorts fell by the wayside in favor of longer features. And a “long tradition of silent-comedy filmmaking — one that emerged from vaudeville, pantomime, magic shows, and other forms of live stage performance” — was displaced by talking pictures and a corporatized (one might even say cutthroat) studio system. Keaton had many dark days doing the bidding of MGM executives who didn’t understand him or his comedy, and he suffered from both alcoholism and depression.

As a screenwriter myself, I couldn’t wait to read Camera Man. It didn’t disappoint. It is not just a biography; it includes elements of personal essay, history, and cultural analysis. Everything is contextualized. Stevens digresses frequently, but always deliberately. She detours to discuss the Childs restaurant chain, mail-order “kit homes,” and the advent of Alcoholics Anonymous. We learn about the history of filmmaking and the rise of film criticism. A slew of iconic entertainers, moviemakers, and content creators makes their appearance; these include Arbuckle, film critic Robert Sherwood, Black vaudevillian Bert Williams, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I particularly enjoyed learning about how audiences — who were used to theater — had to “learn to see” film in much the same way that we as “native screen-gazers” must now learn to see theater, “with its large dramatic gestures and its fixed spectatorial perspective.” The author’s discussion of actor and director Mabel Normand and the role of women at the dawn of film was likewise fascinating.

Stevens writes about Keaton with both empathy and fairness. Like any human being, he was complicated. He was a man who would have gone into engineering if he hadn’t been an entertainer; upon first encountering a movie camera, he took it home to take apart and put back together again. My favorite detail: he was a man who would “write” scripts for his films mentally, in his head, as he moved through his house in silence. But he was also a man who couldn’t fully understand the “painful cultural reality of blackface.”

The unfolding of Keaton’s life reminded me of the razor’s edge that separates the comedic from the tragic. But it also made me think about the “enormous capacity for resilience and self-reinvention” that human beings possess — Keaton landed those stunts in the end, after all. The book also made me long for a time when “small-scale, creator-driven independent filmmaking” was the name of the game. What a time to have been alive!

In short, Camera Man is a feat, and akin to any Buster Keaton ever performed.

Camera Man: Buster Keaton, The Dawn of Cinema,
and the Invention of the Twentieth Century
By Dana Stevens
Atria Books
Published January 25, 2022