Saturday, February 5, 2011

Saturday Movie Madness: Buster Keaton in THE CAMERAMAN

"Photography is an art.  You got to have the right film, good exposure, and you gotta scream just before they get the good into their mouth." (The Great Gonzo)

Buster Keaton's The Cameraman is a wonderful picture, filled with sadness and uproarious, silly comedy, and if it isn't the funniest of Keaton's pictures it has one of the best stories in his films.  Ironically Keaton wasn't terribly hot to make the film; he signed a contract with MGM and didn't like the lack of creative freedom (which, meta-irony of things, this film would be about a cameraman named Buster trying to break in as an MGM photog-for-hire).  This would be exacerbated over the years, but for his debut feature under contract, it was for a moment a partnership made just right.  MGM and their writers were able to get what Keaton's whole shtick or just his appeal was, and Keaton was able, after some harranging, to get what he wanted which was some improvisation.

When I say it's not one of the funniest Keaton pictures, it's like saying that 'this Van Gogh isn't one of his most colorful'.  I mean, hell, it's still Van Gogh and it's still Keaton!  It's a character who, many times in his films, we in the audience may think to ourselves "Oh, poor Buster", and without any sarcasm.  This is a guy who just can't catch a break, which is usually the deal with silent movie clowns.  He keeps struggling and inching to get something- a job, a girl, some kind of status, anything- and in this case it's kind of all three.

Murnau could get away with it, but Keaton?
The story has Buster as a cameraman shooting just stupid stills on the street with a camera that is a piece of junk.  But Buster sees his break: other newsreel cameramen, going out on assignment.  On top of this there's the secretary at the MGM office, whom he wants to impress, or just go out on a walk with.  Neither seems as easy as it sounds, as he bumbles his first camera try-out shooting double (no, triple!) exposed film in the developing, and b) another guy buts in during Buster's date and drives her home (actually, Buster is also driven home with them, but in the inconvenient back-seat that gets rained on).

It's mostly a matter of trials and tribulations for Buster, until the big climactic (or pre-climactic?) mini-war with Chinese gangs in the streets.  This is the kind of sequence Buster Keaton was created for, as he's at first just in the midst of the chaos, filming away, but then caught up in the mayhem (a metaphor for his career up to that point, it's more than possible to me, more like an in-joke).  His camera-stand legs get shot off one by one, he's attacked left and right, he dodges, he ducks, he's like a ninja all unto himself amongst more street thugs with knives.  At one point a thug tries to stab Buster, but he misses and Buster clonks him on the head.  Then he just shoots the guy with the camera.  It's a hilarious moment tinged with the daring-do of a guy, and actor, who was fearless on screen.

Checking your pulse... good, dead, and action!
And fearless in letting himself be the butt of jokes on camera at his expense.  I feel so deeply for Buster that I feel embarrassed at times laughing at him, or even with him.  He's a comic foil, but we root for him  every step of the way, particularly with this girl whom he fancies and she fancies a bit too.  There's a scene where the two of them go swimming, and at first it's just silly Keaton-style gags (i.e. a guy at the changing room takes up the same space with Keaton- a very large man- and trying to change in the same spot becomes an epic in awkward, tight, and uncomfortable poses and physical movements, almost like harsh dance or something).  Then in the pool, Buster takes a flop-dive off of the board, and his bathing suit is gone!  It's such a sad, awkward little moment, but thankfully we laugh along the way almost as a way of getting past some of the shock.  And the pay-off, when he finally gets "something" to wear out of the pool, is a classic gag unto itself.

The Cameraman may not have been a movie Keaton wanted to make, at least as much as he did others in his independent period with Joseph Shenck the producer.  But it's got the goods that fans and just newcomers and people looking for a good comedy and some heart to it want: Buster just has a lot of bad luck, that's the main circumstance he has to conquer, and he does it with perseverance and a look like "okay, what next", but not as a question.  He's not as endearing as the 'Tramp', but he doesn't need to be, and shouldn't, as he's more like the comic-clown we might find working at a pub or trying to work on a formula in a lab.  And he never smiles... ever.... Whoa.

Original version of the end scene from Barton Fink
And it's about something, which is how people in creative fields look to just be presentable at least and commendable at best (there's a very funny but touching end moment as Buster is walking along thinking a big celebration in the streets is for him, its meant to give a smile even if you're not laughing).  There may be some silliness in the movie that is not, shall we say, 'high-brow', and was written in probably for the kids; how else to explain an organ-grinder monkey sidekick?  (To be sure, how Keaton comes about obtaining this monkey is maybe the funniest moment in the picture, however, momentarily, cruel)  But even that works, somehow, by the grace of it being stupid slapstick with the tinge of genius.

In big spurts, like a solo-time at Yankee Stadium for the camera at the bat, The Cameraman meets heights of genius that Keaton was capable of as a filmmaker and star, and its story is rich with fun characters and great set-ups and pay-offs, not to mention a genuine love for cinema and its bizarre passageways to creation.  It's a highlight in a career that, sadly afterwards, would be spotty from then on.

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