To audiences, Buster Keaton is “the Great Stoneface.” A man capable of conjuring laughs from doing little more than standing in a dangerous situation and letting what happens happen. His style of comedy is one that could only have come around as a result of the silent era and has influenced several generations of comedic performers. It’s a story laid out in director Peter Bogdanovich’s latest documentary, The Great Buster. A mixture of omnibus exploration of the comic’s life alongside Bogdanovich’s thoughts and analysis of Keaton’s features and performances, The Great Buster will enmesh longtime fans of Keaton while giving newer audiences a comprehensive, if distant, overview of the performer.
The Great Buster is divided into two distinct halves, shorn so perfectly as to feel like two separate movies slammed into each other. Over an hour of the film looks at Keaton’s life, charting his rise as a child performer working alongside his parents, Joe and Myra on the vaudeville stage as “The Three Keatons.” It’s said that a chance meeting with Harry Houdini gave Keaton his legendary stage name, as the magician declared “that was a real buster!” The young Keaton was a common source of buffoonery during his early days, with his father slinging him around the stage so office Child Protective Services was threatened a time or two.
The footage assembled here is simply remarkable and Bogdanovich lets that speak (pun intended) for itself. Towards the film’s latter half, Bogdanovich will let full sequences of Keaton’s work from films like College (1927) and One Week (1920) play without interruption, or play with Bogdanovich’s own commentary in the background. At times the whole affair plays like the best film school, though Bogdanovich’s sonorous voice can make it feel like he’s reading from a dry film book at times. But part of what makes The Great Buster so special is hearing about him from the people who loved him, including Bogdanovich.
The group of talking heads assembled come from every facet of the comic world, from Jackass star Johnny Knoxville to TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. All of them talk about how Keaton either influenced their performances or pulled off numerous feats. There does seem to be a fair bit of gladhanding with those interviewed. Though certain interview subjects, like Richard Lewis and Dick van Dyke, knew Keaton or his wife, Eleanor, there are just as many people purely talking about how they’ve been influenced. Footage of Knoxville’s stunts in Jackass, or an extended divergence to looking at the new Spider-Man film, seem more like advertisements sandwiched into a documentary to make it palatable for the kids, as they say.
But when The Great Buster is actively showing why Keaton was so out-of-this-world, it’s a wonder. I’ve only watched a few of Keaton’s features and watching some of his grandest stunts in isolation shows the strength, agility, and mastery of his timing and comedy. It’d be impossible to pull any of what Keaton did now because of the advent of CGI, leaving us truly lesser for it. The saddest thing explored in the doc is how Keaton truly lost himself after becoming enmeshed in the studio system. During his time as the director of silent one-reels, Keaton had full control only to lose it once he was presumably meant to hit the big time. Seeing his salary dwindle, it’s horrible to think of his mistreated his was in his career.
The Great Buster takes some unique roads – Keaton’s death is discussed at the hour mark with nearly 40 minutes left that’s just playing scenes of his movies – but there’s a method to Bogdanovich’s madness. The acclaimed director truly loves Keaton, and the best way to show that is give the actor what he was denied during his career: a chance to show off and honor his value.
The Great Buster comes to theaters October 5th.