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The Great Buster: A Celebration (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 4, 2020

The Great Buster: A Celebration


Featuring Dick Van Dyke, Johnny Knoxville, Werner Herzog, Quentin Tarantino, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Bill Hader, Richard Lewis, Jon Watts, Nick Kroll, French Stewart, Cybill Shepherd, Paul Dooley, Patty Tobias, Bob Borgen, James Curtis, James Karen, Leonard Maltin, Norman Lloyd, Bill Irwin and Ben Mankiewicz.

Narrated by Peter Bogdanovich.

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich.

Distributed by Cohen Media Group. 102 minutes. Not Rated.

My film student daughter is a big Charlie Chaplin fan, so silent film clips have been played in my house for quite a while. I’d always heard of Buster Keaton, but aside from a couple of film snippets viewed on YouTube, I was far less familiar with his work.

I am so thankful that my true introduction to Buster Keaton came through the documentary, The Great Buster: A Celebration directed by Peter Bogdanovich. This documentary is a loving tribute both in its detailed film clips, numerous interviews, and perfectly matched score.

The documentary starts with an overview of Keaton’s life and work spanning his career, and then doubles back to focus in on the ten feature films from the 1920’s that best showcase his unique talents.

Known for his signature “Stone Face,” porkpie hat, and physical humor (including performing his own death-defying stunts), Buster Keaton has influenced generations of filmmakers.

The Interviewee list is long, including actors, comedians, and directors, amongst others. Many spoke of Keaton as the inspiration for their work, including Jon Watts, the director of Spider-Man: Homecoming. Watts discusses how Keaton’s stone face inspired Spider-Man’s facial movements, particularly the use of only the eyes to show emotion in the absence of a mouth while masked.

Early on it is mentioned that Keaton’s work influenced cartoonist Chuck Jones – and through clips of giant boulders chasing Keaton down a hillside, a house façade falling on Keaton with him surviving through the window cut out, and comically struggling to enter a boxing ring, it is easy to recognize his influence in many modern-day films. He would routinely include the camera as part of his gags, breaking the wall between reality and cinema.

The Great Buster had me laughing out loud. Dick van Dyke chuckles mentioning how as a small child, Keaton’s parents’ vaudeville act included applying a luggage handle to their son’s back and throwing him about the stage. He learned early on how to manage a fall, a skill that he would use throughout his career, but most noticeably when he had full creative control of his work in the 1920’s.

At the transition between the silent film era to talking films, Keaton signed with MGM as a favor to his brother-in-law Joe Skank, a move that he would consider his biggest mistake and led to a loss of creative independence. While Keaton was known for going off script and believing that “The middle would take care of itself,” MGM required the creation and adherence to a script. That killed much of the spontaneity and creative genius of Keaton’s earlier work. He spiraled into alcoholism which he battled off and on for decades, affecting his work and family life.

In 1965, he was honored at the Venice Film Festival with a ten-minute standing ovation, a validation of his life’s work and contribution to the history of cinema.

Bogdanovich not only directs, but also provides narration to some of Keaton’s most iconic clips. He allows them to play out their scene, which allows the work to highlight itself. The music is perfectly matched with the clips and transitions throughout the film, creating an extremely watchable historical documentary that provides insight and entertainment. I look forward to sharing it with my daughter in the future.

Bonnie Paul

Copyright ©2018 All rights reserved. Posted: November 9, 2018.

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