Seeing is believing with Buster Keaton, a movie god who continues to inspire awe more than half a century after his death.
A silent film comic actor and director almost without peer whose best work feels remarkably modern, Keaton bridges a cultural continuum from vaudeville to Samuel Beckett, with unexpected stops like “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” along the way. “Buster Keaton is the essence of movies,” says director and fan Werner Herzog, and it is hard to argue the point.
Herzog is one of the film notables appearing in “The Great Buster: A Celebration,” an amusing and authoritative documentary directed by Peter Bogdanovich that both satisfies the true believer and offers the agnostic a place to begin.
Bogdanovich has interviewed all kinds of folks on their Keaton opinions and memories, from likely suspects like his “Limelight” costar Norman Lloyd to unexpected individuals like Herzog and even Quentin Tarantino.
The best thing, not surprisingly, about this celebration is the chance it offers to delight in clips of the great man’s work, 4K digitally restored by Cohen Film Classics.
Those who know Keaton only by his Great Stone Face reputation will be surprised at how expressive his characters are: They may not have smiled, but they conveyed everything else.
And Keaton’s legendary gags were hardly haphazard slapstick. Meticulously worked out, they were miracles of exact timing that depended on formidable body control and Keaton’s scientific mind.
Most famous of these, and featured prominently here, is the scene in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” where the entire front of a two-story house falls over and misses Keaton by inches. As Mel Brooks — no minor risk taker himself — says, “he either has no fear or is crazy.”
“The Great Buster” briskly takes us through the stations of Keaton’s eventful life and career, mostly going the expected chronological route with one key exception.
Keaton famously began working with his vaudevillian parents as a tiny tot, becoming the essential element of a Three Keatons act that involved so much rough physical comedy that it’s amazing that Buster survived intact.
A chance New York City meeting with fellow vaudevillian-turned-filmmaker Fatty Arbuckle led to an invitation to watch how movies were made. It was love at first sight for Keaton, and a clip from his first screen appearance, in the 1917 short “The Butcher Boy,” shows that his gifts were apparent from the get-go.
Between 1920 and 1923, Keaton wrote, directed and starred in 19 two-reel shorts, and the best ones — like the manic “One Week” and “The Playhouse,” where Keaton plays all the roles — were brilliant.
The comic even found time to mock William S. Hart in “The Frozen North,” a satire so mercilessly accurate that the great western star didn’t talk to Keaton for two years.
“The Great Buster” then skips ahead to Keaton’s lean years after he signed with MGM and was forced into inferior vehicles, a situation so dire that, when combined with personal setbacks, it led to a nervous breakdown.
Ever the trouper, Keaton never stopped acting. He did commercials for Northwest Orient Airlines and Econoline Vans, tried straight drama on a Rheingold Theatre TV episode and collaborated with Beckett on the avant-garde short “Film.”
Keaton’s glory days, however, remained the 10 independent features he did between 1923 and 1928, and unwilling to end on a sad note, director Bogdanovich has made these classics “The Great Buster’s” closing section.
Sampling even clips from comic epics like “Sherlock Jr.,” “Seven Chances,” “The General” and “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” is the purest of cinematic pleasures. (Those who want to see more can check out the mini-Keaton festival Oct. 26-28 at the Ahrya Fine Arts in Beverly Hills.)
I never met Keaton, but I did spend a morning interviewing his surviving wife, Eleanor, who told me that he was beyond shocked when his old silent films were rediscovered and lionized decades after they were made. Watching them today, we can only wonder that it took the world that long to catch up to this extraordinary talent.
‘The Great Buster: A Celebration’
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes