Introduction to screening of Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman

Before we leave the early part of the twentieth century I thought it would be worthwhile to show a sustained work from the period, rather than the short films I have been showing so far. Of the many I could have chosen, I have selected The Camerman. This is a film made at the end of the silent film era in 1928, and it demonstrates how sophisticated this genre had become since the beginning of the cinema industry in the early twentieth century. It was made by an established comedy  ‘star’, Buster Keaton, who had been hugely popular for ten years. The film sustains a conventional love story narrative over a feature length, delaying the romantic pay-off till the very end.  However it takes time out to stop the process of plot development for extended periods of comedy ‘business’, which hark back to Keaton’s origins in early silent comedies. Although they don’t develop the plot, these sections have Keaton’s characteristic balletic fluidity, for which he was famous, as he runs up, down and across the frame, pitting his body against the modern city for the cause of love. It’s a ‘big budget’ film, using many locations, from Coney Island to China Town to Fifth Avenue, that defined the metropolis of New York. It is also a film very much engaged with the present (1928) and modernity. It comments on the emerging mass media landscape of spectacular parades and newsreel companies feeding the audience’s insatiable appetite for spectacle. It even parodies some of the ‘avant-garde’ films we have seen, when Buster accidentally double exposes some film. It is also fascinated with the power of the camera, and its ‘automatic’ purely mechanical presence in people’s lives — in a similar way, in fact, to the stop-frame insect animation we saw from 1913 – The Cameraman’s Revenge. My favourite moment is when we see Keaton in the act of falling in love as he is jostled against his love object, the secretary of a newsreel company, in a crowd — to me this moment is sublime.

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