From today's Guardian newspaper:
Buster Keaton is the comedian's comedian, a fantastically athletic genius whose stunts are still astonishing today. Armando Iannucci pays tribute
When I was a student, I had up on my wall a very very large poster of Buster Keaton. It was a full-length photo: he was just standing, looking rather stony-faced. A comedian completely slapstick-less. It dominated the room. While my contemporaries raided Athena for tennis players scratching their arse or Debbie Harry looking unobtainable, I had a rather bleak looking individual who was supposed to be funny but seemed suicidal.
Actually, Buster Keaton's face, the look of a silent movie star who was known at the time as "The Great Stoneface", was one of the most magical in cinema history - greater even, I'd say, than Garbo's. Keaton had hit on the rather excellent joke that you could make things funnier the less you showed everyone how funny they were. A house could collapse around him, or 14 tons of soot could fall from above, and it just seemed funnier if he stood there expressionless at the end of it, rather than chucking his hat violently to the ground and storming off mouthing the word "Doh!"
If you're going to characterise your entire career in cinema by a single expression, the expression on Buster Keaton's face is a very good one to have. I remember recognising this when I first saw Steamboat Bill, Jr, made in 1928. There's a scene in it featuring a particularly fierce hurricane visiting destruction on a small town. Keaton is holding on to a tree to stop being blown away by the fierce gale. However, the force is so strong the wind breaks the tree from its roots in the ground and carries it, with Keaton still clinging on, up and across a river where it slowly sinks. Keaton's expression throughout all these stunning visuals is the best part of the joke: he consistently stares blankly at the camera, a man who can't believe his dignity is being robbed in this way. The hard stare remains, even as every last part of him disappears under the water.
Actually, Steamboat Bill, Jr is a very good place to start if you want to find out why it is people in comedy (and quite a lot of people in film) revere Buster Keaton so much. You can take the opportunity to do so at the National Film Theatre in London, which is running a season of Buster Keaton films the way they were intended to be shown but so rarely are: on the big screen. The hurricane sequence in Steamboat Bill, Jr is one of the most celebrated in all cinema. It's a technical masterpiece, pushing the mechanics of a young medium to breaking point.
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Buster Keaton season at the NFT
Silence Is Golden