Both Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd warned Buster Keaton against signing with MGM studios. Keaton was enticed by a financially lucrative offer, but his peers cautioned that such a deal would not be worth losing artistic control. Keaton signed anyway and, in his own words, “wound up making the biggest mistake of my life.” MGM in the 1920s was the closest a Hollywood studio ever came to a fascist state and, as predicted, Keaton discovered he had sold his soul. He was finished as an artist.
The Cameraman (1928) was Keaton’s first film for MGM and studio interference quickly became the status quo. The Cameraman primarily succeeds because Irving Thalberg succumbed to Keaton’s pleas for “some” improvisation (much to director Edward Sedgwick’s chagrin). Although it was a box office hit, this would be Keaton’s last film in which he had any artistic input. For the most part, The Cameraman began the new formula of strictly following badly written scripts. Furthermore, Keaton was never allowed to direct another feature.
Although Keaton did not take writing credit, Cameraman follows his “keep the narrative simple” style and builds to a kinetic finale. Buster plays a street photographer in love with a pretty girl (Marceline Day) trying desperately to win her by landing a job at the newspaper she works at.
Keaton improvised two scenes, one of which has him playing baseball (by himself) at Yankee Stadium. It’s a brilliantly executed vignette. In the second Keaton undresses and dresses in a claustrophobic changing room shared with an oversized man.
However, it is the grand scale Tong War in Chinatown that burns the celluloid. Naturally, the stereotypes abound, but the sequence is so loaded and breathless that there is hardly time to notice. Keaton and a monkey sidekick (!) manage a daring escape. Naturally, the pretty girl winds up on our hero’s arm, even if she’s not much more than a mannequin. Still, The Cameraman is a near masterpiece, and it is the last Keaton film worth watching with one strange exception…
Samuel Becket’s Film (1968) is a short, and that may be the sole reason for not seriously considering it a certified 366 Weird Movie status. By this time Keaton had been reduced to a second-rate Stooge by MGM. Various DVD collections of Keaton’s “Lost Years” seem to indicate a revisionist thought that hidden treasures lie within those sound shorts and Z-grade features. Although, on occasion, a slither of the Keaton magic might shine through, for the most part they are a painfully embarrassing lot.
Chaplin had offered Keaton a role in his Limelight (1952). Strangely, some still consider this Keaton’s comeback. Actually, in Limelight we see Chaplin’s saccharine meltdown in overdrive, and even though it has a few personal moments, the good parts are encased in much dreck, and Chaplin mercilessly takes Keaton down with him. With Limelight, one tends to be thankful, for once, that Keaton was wasted in what amounts to little more than a cameo for him.
Instead, rescue came from the unlikely source of an Irish avant-garde playwright. Keaton didn’t see it that way, and neither did the late Andrew Sarris, who essentially dismissed Film as pretentious garbage. Taking nothing from Roger Ebert‘s brand of populist film criticism, Andrew Sarris, who died in 2012, is the greatest loss we have faced in the art of film criticism since the passing of Pauline Kael. Naturally, neither Sarris nor Kael is infallible. Indeed, in their authentic (and virtually extinct) reverence for film, both had a point, and both were off in their infamous back-and-forth row regarding the auteur theory. Another case in point of critical fallibility might be Sarris’ dismissive assessment of Film.
Beckett had longed to work with Harry Langdon, but Langdon died prematurely. When Beckett began considering casting Film (his only screenplay), his first choice for the role of “O” was Chaplin, but the star proved impossible to reach. Beckett’s next choice was Zero Mostel, who also did not work out. Despite being an admitted “Keaton fan” Beckett settled belatedly and reluctantly on the aging silent comedian (who only had two more roles after this before dying in 1966). Perhaps the reason behind Beckett’s reticence to cast Keaton lies in the actor’s having turned down Beckett’s offer to appear in the 1956 Broadway production of “Waiting for Godot.” At that point, Keaton had been Beckett’s first choice, but after Keaton’s rejection, the role went to Bert Lahr instead. (An MP3 sound file of Lahr’s acclaimed performance is available. It is recommended with reservations. Although listening to the performance is a remarkable experience, it grates to me to recommend something as impersonal as an MP3 sound file. Of course, my reservation is completely subjective, due to having absorbed too much Jacques Ellul and living long enough to see that philosopher tragically become a prophet).
Keaton was as crabby in regards to Beckett and Film as I am to a superficial, hyper-capitalist 21st century, postmodern mass media: Beckett’s meeting with Keaton reportedly was a struggle. Considering that Beckett was the quintessential iconoclast and Keaton, at this point, was something of an icon, their tense relationship was, in retrospect, predictable. It was Beckett’s long time (and long-suffering) director Alan Schneider who eventually persuaded Keaton, along with a hefty salary for three weeks work. Unlike his experience at MGM, this time Keaton’s ambition to sign for financial reasons yielded something remarkable, even if the artist failed to realize it. Regardless, the casting of Keaton is something approaching ideal. Keaton’s weathered face poignantly suits the nonsensical pathos of Film. Keaton’s entire aged body, mostly shot from behind, sets the expressive, balletic narrative in ways far different than how he used his body in the silent era. Film serves, quite possibly, as a simple, yet delightfully startling tribute to Keaton’s mortality and his body of work.
The second main character in the film is the camera itself, named “E”: E and O, Eye and Object. Director Alan Schneider’s interview (he credits Beckett as Film‘s true director) and Simon Critchley’s essay cannot be bettered and should be considered essential reading.