Buster Keaton: king of comedy kings
Anyone who thinks Buster Keaton is dead should have a look at Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary love letter, “The Great Buster: A Celebration,” opening Friday at the Kendall Square. The stone-faced silent comedian’s influence on every possible aspect of physical comedy is wide and deep, attested to in this movie by entertainers old (Bill Irwin, Paul Dooley, Richard Lewis), ancient (Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner), youngish (Bill Hader, Quentin Tarantino), and random (Cybill Shepherd, Werner Herzog).
When “Jackass” prankster Johnny Knoxville shows up, you might shake your head in disbelief — and then nod your head as the bespectacled stunt-bro draws a straight, conscious line between Keaton’s pratfalls and the show’s, to the point of reprising the famous house-façade-falls-around-Buster bit with a hilarious and painful twist.
“The Great Buster” is a solid primer on what made Keaton not just one of the most important — and funniest — comedians in the history of the movies but also one of its most visionary directors. Charlie Chaplin’s films mostly centered on the tragicomic performance at the center of the frame; Buster classics like “The General,” The Navigator,” and “Steamboat Bill Jr.” are gorgeously intelligent works that display a mind attuned to all aspects of filmmaking. When Orson Welles called “The General” “100 times more strong visually than ‘Gone With the Wind,’ ” he wasn’t wrong.
Bogdanovich covers more than the eight years of Keaton’s most fertile period during the 1920s. “The Great Buster” has an unusual — and arguably awkward — structure in which we get the comic’s early years as a happy punching bag in his parents’ vaudeville act and apprenticeship with Fatty Arbuckle, followed by a tour through Keaton’s great short films. Bogdanovich then leaps over the feature films to cover Keaton’s dreadful decline in the 1930s and late-life rediscovery before returning to an in-depth analysis of “The Generall” The Navigator,” et al.
The approach yields lots of archival gems, especially from Keaton’s final decades, when he appeared in dozens of television ads, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” and a handful of “Beach Blanket” movies. (The most intriguing item from this period, a surreal 1965 short called “Film” that was written and co-directed by Samuel Beckett, gets only a cursory mention.)
The film is worth watching as well, for the attention paid to Keaton’s unearthly knack for comic timing and the physical grace in everything but his face. (“His non-expressive face expressed so much,” says Reiner.) Popular in the 1920s, the comedian has since been elevated to a rung just below Chaplin — some of us would put him a rung above — if only because that stoic, enduring face at the center of the whirlwind seems more than ever a statement on modern life.
The irony is that (unlike Chaplin) Keaton never thought of what he was doing as Art, which may be one reason it was and is. “The Great Buster” is a fine reminder of what made him funny, then sad, then eternal, but if you’re introducing your kids to Buster — and really, it’s never too early — it’s still best to start with the movies, many of which can be found at your local library or in various streaming outposts online. (All the shorts are available at tubi.tv; just steer clear of the sound films.) Which is to say that for all the love on display in “The Great Buster,” nothing beats a movie like “Sherlock Jr.” for decades-ahead-of-its time meta-movie delight.
★ ★ ★
THE GREAT BUSTER: A CELEBRATION
Written, directed, and narrated by Peter Bogdanovich. Starring Buster Keaton, Mel Brooks, Bill Hader, Werner Herzog, Johnny Knoxville, Dick Van Dyke. At Kendall Square. 101 minutes. Unrated.