One of the most original and lovable of all Americans, sez me, is the great star of vaudeville and movies, Buster Keaton, a master of paradox.
When I was a student in New York City years ago, the 8th Avenue Cinema downtown near the Village used to run Buster Keaton movies every Sunday. With a friend I’d go almost every Sunday, and enter into another world. For a few months, it became a strangely religious experience. Darkness, the past, surrealism, an uplifting moment at the end: for me everything else fell away.
As a character, Buster Keaton is an everyman trying to do what he’s supposed to: hold down a job, find a girl, settle down. But the world has conspired against him. In the South during the war, he wants to enlist, but as a train engineer is refused. This is a double bummer for his character, because his girl has told him she wants nothing to do with him until he’s in uniform. He sits down on the drive-rod of the big locomotive, and barely notices as it begins to carry him up, down — and away.
Often his plight becomes surrealistic, as in his often-imitated "Projectionist," in which he falls asleep on the job, and finds himself battling to survive in one fanciful movie scenario after another.
Though a great athlete, he projected an uncanny sense of stillness, even when in frantic motion. Though funny as hell, he was known as "the great Stone Face," because in his movies he never smiled. Ever.
In time the dignified but always-slighted Keaton becomes a unique friend, someone you’ve always know was "different," and always liked for just that reason. And as Roger Ebert rightly says, because he mastered the minimalism of movie acting long before his peer Charlie Chaplin, in many ways he’s the most modern of the silent stars. (He’s also arguably the man who first invented what we call today the action comedy, in his masterpiece "The General," one of the biggest movies of its era.)
This month Turner Classic Movies, the only cable channel that still takes old movies seriously, is running a lot of little seen Keaton classics (including the spectacular short "Cops") on August 30. Worth a look.