Directed by Peter Bogdanovich
Starring Peter Bogdanovich, Mel Brooks, Buster Keaton
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
MPAA rating: Not rated
by Rosalie Kicks, Old Sport
“Silence is of the gods…”
– Buster Keaton
Written, directed and narrated by Peter Bogdanovich, The Great Buster tells a rather jumbled and at times, meandering story of the silent film master, Buster Keaton. During the hour and forty-two minutes the film tells stories of Keaton’s life, starting with his youthful years on the vaudeville circuit with his family to his introduction of silent filmmaking via mentor, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and lastly how a decision of becoming a studio player led to his career’s demise. It’s not that the film neglected to show the greatness that is Buster, it was the methods that were utilized to do so. One thing is certain, when the credits hit the screen, there is no question…Buster Keaton truly was a cinematic genius.
It is not exaggeration to say that the Kansas born Keaton is a pioneer of cinema. It is not an overstatement to declare him as having an influence on almost every single film that has been made since the moment he showed up on the scene. Before Tommy C. was jumping out of helicopters, Buster was climbing aboard trains or hitching a ride on moving vehicles. If Buster made a film, this meant he was going to show the audience something that would leave them talking.
Buster was more than a filmmaker, he was an inventor. Throughout the documentary, filmmakers, actors, and writers such as Mel Brooks, Johnny Knoxville, Dick Van Dyke, Richard Lewis, Werner Herzog, and Leonard Maltin share their memories of watching Keaton’s pictures, discuss his filmmaking techniques, achievements, and setbacks. After much of the commentary, clips from Buster’s films are shown; some more celebrated than others.
For anyone that knows of Keaton’s work, the flicks from the 1920s are his most renowned of his lengthy filmography. Viewing scenes after listening to some of the remarks being made, I could not help but see the films in a different way. Keaton was never just making a movie, he was conducting an experiment. An experiment that he invited the audience to witness. Just when he would have us thinking we knew what would happen next, he would go and pull the wool right over our eyes. There was always something that could go wrong and as a viewer he always had you thinking you may even witness it.
It is clear to see, the days he spent making films in the 1920s were his happiest. Flicks such as The General, The Haunted House, Sherlock Jr., The Play House, and College…just to name a few, were all made during this time. These were the days in which Buster was free to create. He was able to tinker, often going to set with a script that only had a beginning or an end, humbly remarking, “The middle would take care of itself.” By the end of the 1920s he was cornered into a deal with MGM and everything changed. Simply put, the studio ruined him.
Buster fell into a black hole of alcoholism and depression. He would never find success like he had in the 1920s. He would however, always keep himself busy, whether it was partaking in the occasional commercial spot for an airline or showing up in a 60s beach party romp (i.e. How to Stuff a Wild Bikini).
For the avid Buster fan, this documentary is most likely not going to share anything with you that you don’t already know. I feel this is where it greatly misses the mark. What I would have liked this movie to be was more of a gateway for those that do not know of Buster. To teach these up and coming cinephiles of the impact he has had on movies of today. It also would have been refreshing to see someone other than an old white dude talking about the influence this prolific filmmaker had on their lives. Seriously, Johnny Knoxville? Listen, it is a surprise to see after all this guy has been through, to know that he is still alive. Good for him. What I can’t unhear, though, is him comparing his jackass stunts to Buster’s highly sophisticated and thoroughly planned out gags. Johnny, nah, not today.
Probably the biggest travesty of the film, is that there is only one female (Cybill Shepherd) interviewed. I would have loved to have seen the likes of Alicia Malone, Amy Nicholson, or Karina Longworth talk about Buster. All these knowledgeable film ladies would have added amazing insight into Buster’s career and influences. Which leads me to another issue. Towards the beginning of the film there is a comparison of Buster’s work influencing Spider-Man Homecoming. I found this to be rather interesting and wish that throughout the documentary more of these examples would have been given. Weaving in the present-day stories with the past, along with the a more diverse group of guest commentators, would have hopefully led to fresh eyes possibly discovering Buster for the first time.
Here’s the thing though…Buster is one of my favorite dead guys, so there isn’t a film about him that I won’t watch. So if you, too, are a super fan, give this movie a watch but understand, it probably isn’t going to tell you something you already didn’t know. But hey, maybe you will leave with another flick to add to your watchlist like I did, or learn that Buster Keaton was in fact an amazing bridge player who died standing up.