Keaton in the Multiverse

The Space Between Worlds.  Everything Everywhere All At Once.  Spider-Man: No Way Home.  Doctor Strange.  I’m suffering “multiverse fatigue.” This au courant plot device is an escape for too many stories that won’t commit characters to the important consequences of their actions. The sci-fi and hero genres are leading offenders, but the popularity of what-if speculation trickles even into Dana Stevens’s Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century. She devotes considerable real estate to fanciful thought experiments, asking “What might Keaton have accomplished had he…?”

  • not hitched his wagon to Arbuckle’s embattled star
  • not been sold by the Schenk brothers to MGM
  • brought a modern perspective of race to his films
  • embraced AA’s communal support model
  • enjoyed conjugal intimacy with Natalie Talmadge
  • been popularly lauded as a Lost Generation genius
  • lived as long as Charlie Chaplin

Stevens bemoans the approach of other biographers whose focus on Keaton’s few anni horribiles render him a Pagliacci. Yet her wanly indulgent examination of such quantum crossroads repeatedly casts Buster as sad clown instead of 20th century innovator.

The early chapters of Camera Man offer promising context. They amplify a familiar Keaton timeline with welcome new information about child labor laws, Prohibition, and film exhibition trends of the teens. But Stevens wanders from this enlightening approach, following the North Star of personal opinion to the detriment of research or even discernible chronology.

Today’s culture scholars (perhaps especially those who, like Stevens, earned diplomas from Vassar and Berkeley) are obliged to flash their liberal bona fides. Stevens thus inserts herself in first-person observations that readers of non-fic rockstars Erik Larson and Jill Lepore are apt to find transgressive. The racial stereotypes of The Paleface (1922) are certainly dated and lamentable. But Stevens’s reflexive cringe keeps her from identifying the progressive social commentary of Neighbors (1920) and woefully underserves the technical miracle of The Playhouse (1921).

In Neighbors, Keaton appears in blackface after a painting mishap. The police take no notice of him as a white man, but immediately accost him when black. Of course Keaton pushes the gag even further, wiping the paint from half his face. The officer on the black side abuses Buster; an officer on the white side ignores him. Surely, this astute observation of racial inequity connects Keaton to Eddie Murphy’s famous SNL mockumentary, White Like Me, decades later.

A minstrel show is central to the plot of The Playhouse. But, not, I think, for reasons of plot or content. Audiences of the day understood minstrel show’s signature floor plan. Minstrel performers sat in an arc or row roughly parallel to the front of the stage. This prescribed array of chairs neatly facilitates Keaton’s multiple exposure trick. Any stage form he uses must avoid overlap between characters. Musicians in the pit can’t hand each other sheet music, for example. The soft-shoe dancers can’t cross in front of each other. The performers in any of the film’s theatrical acts cannot physically interact. Alas, despite its many social shortcomings, the minstrel show is perfectly suited to Keaton’s experiment of form.

Stevens willfully, repeatedly takes the off-ramp to tangential chapters featuring lengthy discussions of people Keaton hardly knew. Witness the first sentence of a chapter devoted to Fitzgerald: “There’s no evidence that Buster Keaton and F. Scott Fitzgerald ever crossed paths at MGM.” So Mabel Normand, Bert Williams, Robert Sherwood, and James Agee, get lengthy consideration while the author ignores the likes of Elgin Lessley. Lessley gets four passing mentions in the book, none specifying an essential contribution to The Playhouse. Lessley, known in Hollywood as “the human metronome,” handcranked (!) the film, an achievement of accuracy that borders on witchcraft. It’s a telling omission from a book purporting to be about the creation of the 20th century’s ubiquitous, signature art form.

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