Buster Keaton Is More Human than Camera Man in Dana Stevens’ Excellent Biography

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Buster Keaton Is More Human than <I>Camera Man</I> in Dana Stevens&#8217; Excellent Biography

Profile writing takes time, research, passion and patience, and most of all requires the profiler to coax their audience’s investment in their subject. Assuming equal interest in an historically important or at least entertaining individual among every reader is folly, so a good profile will waste no time making the case for caring no matter who’s turning the pages. In her new book, Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century, a chronicle of genuine human cannonball Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton, tenured Slate critic Dana Stevens shows us she isn’t screwing around as early as page six by unpacking the year 1895.

It’s natural to picture the birth of Keaton, who spent so much of his career off of his feet that one might guess his background is part avian, as a meteoric event. Stevens puts his arrival on Earth in context with major cultural and social upheavals that shaped the end of the 19th century: The inventions of the wireless telegraph system and the “internal combustion powered automobile,” the rise of William Randolph Hearst’s grand media empire, the development of psychoanalysis, the “Atlanta compromise.” Listed alongside these happenings, Keaton appears smaller in stature—less significant in meaning, not the same kind of big screaming deal as seemingly everything else that transpired in 1895. In the midst of a great American transformation, Keaton barely registers on the radar.

Coming from another author, this would perhaps undercut the celebration of Keaton’s name by reducing it. Coming from Stevens, whose very Twitter handle derives from the name of Keaton’s first film made under the Buster Keaton Studio banner, parsing out Keaton’s beginnings in the shadow of great national change serves to brighten his star. To be born at such a time and still considered massively influential well over a century later is perhaps the height of achievement, especially when you’re born as far removed from the restructuring of your country’s mores and political architecture as Keaton was. Piqua, Kansas was the smallest of small towns in 1895, and as of 2022, it’s still incredibly damn small at a population of just 87. Given that Keaton, whom Stevens frequently refers to in fond familiarity simply as “Buster,” has already come and gone, the odds that we’ll see a talent like his emerge from the literal middle of nowhere again are roughly nil.

There’s a rapid-fire density to Stevens’ measurement of the period’s circumference: She installs several history classes’ worth of information in a small package, with the obvious message that this information is necessary even if the specifics don’t relate to Keaton’s story. But there’s a dexterity to her prose that renders this data easily absorbed. Scale is the takeaway. She impresses on us that Keaton is a byproduct of the era, formed like igneous rock after a volcanic explosion, so we can better appreciate where he eventually fit into the new America in which he came of age. Keaton was born seemingly to help engineer the growth of the medium, which, Stevens notes, was given a fatal diagnosis by one of the movie’s venerated fathers, Louis Lumière himself. “Le cinéma est une invention sans avenir,” said Lumière in—surprise!—1895. “The cinema is an invention with no future.”

Stevens’ dual role in Camera Man as both archeologist and film critic provides a triumphant but unelaborated rebuke to Lumière’s pessimism, particularly in chapter 17, “The Shadow Stage,” where she suggests that film criticism “as we know it” came to be concurrently with Keaton’s ascent as a director in the 1920s. She doesn’t argue that Keaton owns responsibility for inventing film criticism as much as she re-emphasizes that where there is history being made, there’s also Buster, a walking, occasionally catapulting locus for change. (The accidental association between Keaton and the gradual development of criticism as an actual journalistic discipline may explain why critics still revere him.)

But Stevens doesn’t paint Keaton as a fortunate doofus who couldn’t help but stumble into one foundationally essential moment after another throughout his life’s course. Buster wasn’t just a witness to invention and ingenuity, but an agent of both. He didn’t personally perfect lens masking techniques, but he understood how techniques like that could be employed to accentuate humor, something comedy movies weren’t doing in the 1920s. He pushed the boundaries of style and form in service to laughter, which had the paradoxical effect of making everyone take comedy more seriously. Stevens never hides her admiration for Keaton and his films—if she did, we’d have as little reason to read Camera Man as she would to write it—but in drawing her conclusions about the space he occupied in 20th century culture, that admiration gradually glows warmer. This is not the work of a fan, but an enthusiast and expert.

A fan, after all, would elide the role alcoholism played in Keaton’s life, and how “Buster,” the figure he adopts in his movies, would have done anything except turn to a bottle for comfort in trying times. Camera Man deftly separates man from character and accomplishment from virtue. It may be that Stevens respects Keaton as much for his contributions to cinema as for his failings as a human being, though that judgment is for the individual to decide. What’s undeniable is the weight of Stevens’ knowledge coupled with the nimbleness of her prose. Together, these qualities make Camera Man a joy, eye-opening for casual and devoted moviegoers alike, and infectious in its adoration of Keaton’s filmography. You don’t need to know who Keaton was to vibe with Stevens’ writing. You just need to be willing to take the ride with her—and, of course, with Keaton.

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.