Nothing is less funny these days than the state of movie comedy. The Hollywood farces dominating the world's screens are sad affairs populated by TV stars playing dumb. The notion of laughter as a worldwide language is dormant, presumed dead. So what's a viewer to do?
Watch Buster Keaton, in the 19 short films and 11 silent features he made between 1920 and 1928. Watch his beautiful, compact body as it pirouettes or pretzels in tortured permutations or, even more elegantly, stands in repose as everything goes crazy around it. Watch his mind as it contemplates a hostile universe whose violent whims Buster understands, withstands and, miraculously, tames. Watch his camera taking his picture (Keaton directed or supervised all his best films); it is as cool as the star it captured in its glass.
Keaton would have been 100 this week--he starred in his first film 75 years ago--but his work requires no scholar's indulgence for antique art. It is fresh and universally funny. Watch, laugh and marvel: this is movie comedy as it should be.
The good news is that for the first time since they were new, you can see Keaton's films without having to peer through the accumulated crud of illegal dupings. Among many centennial tributes, including Marion Meade's thorough, poignant new biography, Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase (HarperCollins), the best present is Kino Video's release of 10 cassettes that include all the great works, spiffily restored. amc, the cable movie network, will show the whole oeuvre on Oct. 4, Keaton's birthday.
Keaton is usually enshrined with Charles Chaplin and Harold Lloyd in silent comedy's holy trinity. In fact, his true film siblings are the old adventure stars Douglas Fairbanks and William S. Hart. Like Fairbanks, Keaton performed gorgeous, reckless stunts; his films were thrillers culminating in wild cyclones (Steamboat Bill, Jr.) and boat disasters (The Navigator). Like Hart, Keaton was the American loner: a dour, improbably heroic figure beneath a hostile sky.
He was famous for not smiling. In a lovely moment from Go West, a tough cowpoke orders him at gunpoint to smile; after considering whether he'd rather die, Keaton fingers the corners of his mouth into an awful grimace. But this blank visage was a versatile comic instrument. The giant eyes spoke all manner of emotions: ardor, terror, despair, sheer mulishness. The Keaton deadpan is stoic, heroic and as thoroughly modernist as a Beckett play or a Bauhaus facade. Next to him, Chaplin is a Victorian coquette, Lloyd a glad-handing politician.