86 Dana Stevens on Buster Keaton (JP EF)


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Dana Stevens joins Elizabeth and John to discuss Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema and the Invention of the Twentieth Century. Her fantastic new book serves as occasion to revel in the work and working world of Buster Keaton, that "solemn, beautiful, perpetually airborne man."

Although packed with fascinating tidbits from Keaton's life, Camera Man is much more than just a biography. It performs its own airborne magic, lightly traversing topics like the crackdown on the use of children in vaudeville, the fluidity of roles before and behind the camera in early Hollywood and the doors that were briefly (ever so briefly) opened for female directors. Among other treats, Dana unpacks one of Keaton's early great "two-reelers" One Week ( a spoof of brisk upbeat industrial films) and his parodic "burlesques" e.g. of Lillian Gish.

People, Films, Books and Ideas in the conversation include:

Roscoe ("Fatty") Arbuckle: got Keaton his start in early films like Butcher Boy, reportedly filmed the day Keaton first stepped onto a set. He said "Buster lived inside the camera."

"Cinema of Attractions." a phrase coined by film historian Tom Gunning to describe the way the early years of cinema (1895 to 1913, more or less) achieved success by way of gags, stunts, special effects and other dazzling technological innovations--rather than plot or character development,.

John and Dana rave about Keaton's last great film (age 33!), The Cameraman (1928) and deprecate the later silents (with a silent caveat for the pancake scene Grand Slam Opera).

Mabel Normand: Arbuckle's longtime collaborator and briefly a rising director--Charlie Chaplin kneecapped her at a crucial moment in her career. Dana singles out for special praise Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916) starring Luke, the first canine movie star.

Singing in the Rain as a MGM-friendly myth-making explanation for Clara Bow's eclipse (and the famous vocal failure moment: "I can't stand 'im")

Steamboat Bill Jr. ( 1928, Buster Keaton feature) "Keaton's most mature movie" says Dana.

Read the transcript here.

Elizabeth Ferry is Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University. Email: ferry@brandeis.edu. John Plotz is Barbara Mandel Professor of the Humanities at Brandeis University and co-founder of the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative. Email: plotz@brandeis.edu.

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