Regardless of where you fall on slapstick humor (pun intended), to watch Buster Keaton on film is to witness magic. The genius behind silent-era masterpieces such as The General and Sherlock Jr. is invincible on screen; no matter what life throws at him, he keeps getting up. It’s almost like he’s from another planet—one without gravity, permanent injury or the despair that plagues life on this mortal coil.
Of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, Keaton’s finesse for falling was won through family dysfunction and physical abuse. But in Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century, film critic and Slate’s “Culture Gabfest” host Dana Stevens decenters Keaton’s hardship, using his life as a frame to explore the advent of film and its effect on visual culture today.
Keaton was born into a vaudeville family in 1895, the same year film projection technology debuted. He was performing by age 3, honing his comedic genius in a school of literal hard knocks. Buster’s father threw the boy “acrobatically” around the stage, using him as a mop, among other things. The on-stage domestic abuse Keaton endured from his sometimes-sober father was the stuff of legend, drawing both large audiences and investigation from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Though its historical wanderings read as windingly as one of Keaton’s famous chase scenes, Camera Man redeems details from Keaton’s life that previous biographers have misread or glossed over. For example, Buster’s time in the Cirque Medrano has often been cited as a hard-times clown gig rather than what it was: an invitation from European circus royalty to be the honored guest performer at a permanent, well-respected circus frequented by Edgar Degas and Pablo Picasso.
Like the handsome, stone-faced performer himself, Camera Man has wide appeal. General readers, history buffs and deep-cut Keaton historians alike will laugh, cry and marvel at both the world of Buster Keaton and the effect he had on cinema.