Buster Keaton

Buster - 1993 New Zealand Film Festival

There's little question that Buster Keaton was the master of silent screen comedy. His stony face is virtually a universal definition of deadpan. He pulls off gags so elaborate they leave us reeling with pleasure, while he never blinks. Slapstick is entirely the wrong word to apply to Keaton: his ingeniously planned gags unfold with a cool, elating mastery of physics that is precisely the opposite of what that unmoved, uncomprehending stare owns up to.

While other silent comedians revel in the traditions of popular nineteenth century theatre, Keaton's work is unique in its appreciation of the modern world and his modern medium. His choreography for the camera is triumphantly cinematic. It's easy to know all this about Buster from fractured fragments - or from the Film Society's 16mm screenings of The General - but how many of us under the age of 75 have ever actually had the opportunity to see any more of these wonderful agelessly funny films?

The shortage of Keaton in our part of the world has felt like a serious deprivation for so long that we decided to do something about it. It's a truism of film archivism that famous great films are the hardest to find in good prints. We refused to be daunted. We searched the world and came up with the best prints to be had of five of the great Buster Keaton features and, for good measure, two of the classic shorts, not to mention the film he made in 1965 with Samuel Beckett. We're delighted to present this all-too-rare opportunity to become acquainted with the great genius of silent screen comedy. — Bill Gosden

Buster Keaton was an intuitively great filmmaker, and a very great actor. He was also a genius of silent film comedy, irresistibly, eruptively, incomparably funny. Born on 4 October 1895, the same year as moving pictures, during the middle of a cyclone in Piqua, Kansas, Keaton died 1 February 1966, just as his work was at last being acknowledged.

Keaton entered the movies in 1917, working with Roscoe Arbuckle. The keaton Studio opened in 1920, where he produced a stunning series of two-reel shorts, then ten features, before feing lured to M-G-M in 1928. There followed a period of humiliation and frustration. After The Cameraman he lost all creative control and independence, and he was never able to direct again, a crushing exile from creation. — Jonathan Dennis

Keaton worked strictly for laughs, but his work came from so far inside a curious and original spirit the he achieved a great deal besides, especially in his feature length comedies. He was the only comedian who kept sentiment almost entirely out of his work, and he brought pure physical comedy to its greatest heights. Beneath his lack of emotion, he was also uninsistently sardonic; deep below that, giving a disturbing tension and grandeur to the foolishness, for those who sensed it, there was in his comedy a freezing whisper not of pathos, but of melancholia. With the humour, the craftsmanship and the action there was often, besides, a fine, still and sometimes dreamlike beauty. — James Agee

Films we have screened by this Director