Welcome to another Criterion Month! It often feels like July is one of the less convenient months to incur this much writing on ourselves when July is the month of summer vacations and getting out in the sun and whatnot. This year, that’s the case to some extent, since we just got back from a destination wedding for Mildly Pleased contributor Matt Carstens, but hopefully have had enough recovery time to dive into another month of reviewing movies in the Criterion Collection. As is the case most years, we start our month in the silent era as well as the lone entry in The Collection from one of silent cinema’s true geniuses, Mr. Joseph Frank Keaton.
You have to love the simplistic storytelling of a lot of silent movies, and especially here where Buster Keaton is just straight-up playing a character named Buster. Fittingly, in The Cameraman, he’s playing a character who has slightly more of a resemblance to the real-life Keaton than usual, since this Buster’s main weapon in tackling the absurdities of early twentieth-century life is with his camera. He first starts out as a tintype photographer taking pictures of people on the street for money, but then seeks to take up a more more respectable form of photography, buying a movie camera in the hopes of working as a newsreel cameraman. He begins working at MGM’s newsreel division, trying to impress both his employers and an office crush who works there, but fails to do either when his newsreel footage proves to be both too experimental and too mundane at the same time.
Though the movie has this framing device of Buster trying to bring his photojournalist dreams to fruition, it is also in many ways just a series of episodic gags. Fortunately, they’re all pretty fantastic and nicely compliment the camera-obsessed story with the fact that Keaton was one of the most innovative comedic visual storytellers of all time. One sequence that really stands out uses a mostly uninterrupted shot of a staircase where we see an angle that is unimaginable in the practical sense where the camera is going up and down each level of the staircase, punctuated by Keaton both failing to realize he’s both gone up one too many staircases and then down one too many when trying to receive an important phone call.
On top of the impressive feats of camera language in the film, it also sees Keaton doing some amazing physical comedy, both in his ability to use his signature deadpan facial expressions as well as the over-the-top physicality that would later inspire Jackie Chan to infuse comedy into martial arts. Then on top of that, you’ve got an incredible performance by Josephine the monkey who plays both Buster’s partner and antagonizer in the last third of the movie. It all gives the sense that this is Keaton working at the top of his game after honing his skills over the course of the ’20s while having complete creative control when he was working for independent producer Joseph M. Schenk.
However, The Cameraman was the first film Keaton made after Schenk sold off his contract to MGM in a deal that Keaton would later call the worst mistake of his career. Though his later films for MGM would see Keaton losing creative control while the studio failed to understand what made Keaton such a potent screen presence in the first place, The Cameraman was supposedly the one instance where Keaton managed to capture the comedic dynamite of his previous silent movies. This is because for this one film, Keaton managed to fire all of the various writers and producers trying to micro-manage him and was able to lean into his ethos of simplicity in comedic storytelling.
While 1926’s The General, Keaton’s most ambitious (and arguably greatest) film saw the director-star pulling off his most death-defying stunts yet, The Cameraman is on a bit more of a smaller scale. Though there is an action-packed (for the ’20s) sequence involving a motorboat run amok, the movie relies more on Keaton’s fascination with the awkwardness of everyday life. Keaton has always appealed to me because he’s always felt like the most modern of the silent movie stars, and there are some great sequences here that are just the right mix of subtle and silly, such as the repeated gag of Keaton accidentally breaking an office-door window with his tripod stand as he heads out to capture the news of the world.
Though I’m no expert on Keaton’s later film career, by all accounts, it seems that The Cameraman was Buster Keaton’s last great movie, which is a little tragic to realize considering the guy was, uh, my age when he made the film. It’s a testament to how toxic the studio system could be for some artists, but also to how ahead of his time Buster Keaton was. There’s a hilarious sequence in The Cameraman that sees Keaton shoved into the same dressing room as a wannabe tough-guy that was clearly an inspiration for the famous “crowded stateroom” scene in The Marx Brothers’ A Night At The Opera, while for years afterward MGM would show the movie to new writers as an example of perfect comedic storytelling. I’m sure Keaton would’ve found the irony amusing if the studio (combined with his alcoholism) hadn’t effectively sapped his creativity by the end of his 30s.
(Maybe a bleak way to end a review of such an endlessly inventive comedy, but hey, it’s been that kinda week!)