Buster Keaton: Life and Movies to Watch

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Joseph Frank Keaton, real name of Buster Keaton, was born in the United States, in Kansas, on October 4, 1895. Like Charlie Chaplin, he is the son of a couple of artists, but less unfortunate. The father has a vaudeville company where the famous saxophonist Mira Keaton and the magician Houdini perform. Little Keaton participates in the shows since he was a child and in some cases becomes the protagonist and the main star. His reckless performances and falls earned him the nickname “Buster”. His mimicry to his acting style immediately appears prodigious. 

Buster Keaton and the Art of Entertainment

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Keaton was born into a vaudeville family in Piqua, Kansas, the village where his mother, Myra Keaton (née Cutler), was staying when she went into labor. He was named Joseph to continue the tradition on his father’s side: he was the sixth in a row to bear the name Joseph Keaton, and Frank for his mother’s grandfather. His father was Joseph Hallie “Joe” Keaton who had a traveling show called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company, which he performed to market patented medicines. It seems that Keaton got the nickname Buster at the age of 18 months. After the boy fell and rolled down some stairs without injury, a friend of the father’s named George Pardey said, “Damn, he’s a buster!” Later, Keaton’s father began using the nickname to call the boy. Keaton has retold the story over the years. In Keaton’s retelling, he was 6 months old when the case happened, and it was Harry Houdini who gave him the nickname.

At age 3, Keaton began acting with his parents in The Three Keatons. He first appeared on stage in 1899 in Wilmington, Delaware. Myra played saxophone, while Joe and Keaton were on stage. Young Keaton pushed his father by disobeying him, and old Keaton reacted by throwing him against the stage set, or perhaps right into the audience. Little Keaton was athletic and never hurt himself during the performance. A suitcase handle was sewn directly into little Keaton’s clothes for throwing at subsequent shows. This outlandish style of comedy has resulted in complaints of child misuse and, at times, apprehension. Keaton was always able to tell authorities that he had no bruises or damaged bones. Eventually he was billed as “The little boy who can’t be harmed”. Years later, Keaton claimed he was never hurt by his father, and that the performance had a proven technique. Keaton said he had a blast and giggled as he fathered him on stage.

The show ran counter to regulations banning children from vaudeville. According to one biographer, Keaton was forced to go to college while working in New York, but only for a few hours each day. Regardless of the rules, Keaton was a stage climbing celebrity. He learned to read and write late, and was tutored by his mother. At the age of 21, his father’s alcohol addiction undermined the family’s credibility, Keaton and his mother, Myra, left for New York, where Keaton’s work quickly moved from vaudeville to film. Keaton volunteered for service in the American military in France with the 40th infantry division of the US army during the First world war. Throughout his time in uniform, he suffered an ear infection that permanently damaged his hearing.

Buster Keaton Discovers Cinema 

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Buster Keaton enthusiastically discovers cinema in 1917. He immediately thinks it is the most suitable means to express what he wants and to bring his characters to life. He leaves his family and moves to New York at the age of 22, where he meets the actor Roscoe Arbuckle, who specializes in throwing pies in the face. 

Thanks to Arbuckle he gets the chance to play his first film The Butcher Boy (1917), a slapstick comedy where actors throw anything in the face in a grocery store. Keaton begins to build his melancholy, humiliated and haunted character. A loser that he really likes to play and that the audience likes. Keaton participates as an actor in 15 films directed and starring Arbuckle. 

In 1920 he played his first feature film, The Saphead by Herbert Blanche. His style differs greatly from short films of Charlie Chaplin for his facial mimicry based on subtraction acting, and on a geometric dramatization of reality. His expression has been called the “stone face”. An anti-narrative and anti-dramatic controlled acting, a face that is the mask of imperturbability. 

Buster Keaton has undergone a great response from the public that allows him to set up on his own and to found his own production company. He shoots a series of comic short films that allow him to become one of the most famous actors in the United States. Meanwhile, war breaks out and Keaton is forced to go to the front against his pacifist will. He can’t believe what’s going on. Having known artists of all nationalities, he could not conceive of the idea that some nations such as Germany were portrayed as evil in person. 

Buster Keaton Becomes Director

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debut as a director is The High Sign. It is the story of a tramp looking for his fortune in an amusement park who meets a billionaire and his daughter. It is very clear that Keaton’s characters have a lot in common with Charlie Chaplin’s: socially marginalized wanderers in search of fortune who are somehow assisted by fate. In this first film, in fact, the protagonist ends up marrying the billionaire’s daughter. Like Chaplin, Keaton also goes from being an actor of primitive slapstick short films to becoming the director of his own films to create more structured and meaningful plots. 

Buster Keaton and Surrealism

With One week, the actor and director becomes a great inspirer of the surrealist movement: magazines all over the world dedicate articles to him and recognize in his film a fundamental moment in the development of surrealism. Even the most important surrealist director in the history of cinema, Luis Bunuel, praises him and greatly appreciates his next film, Convict 13. 

The development of the plot is essential and his acrobatic performances are stylized: Keaton looks at the world in a lucid and detached, as if he himself were an abstraction. Human relationships are meaningless, crushed by an increasingly alienated and aggressive technological civilization. A poetics of individual isolation is a very modern metacinematographic vision of the filmic tale, as in Sherlock jr. and The Cameraman. Buster Keaton’s cinema is a profound reflection on the mechanical reproduction of reality and on the sense of the individual in relation to technology. 

New Gags and Innovations

In his next film, The Scarecrow, from 1920, Buster invents a new kind of gag never seen before: the gag of objects that change function. A fridge becomes a bookcase, a gramophone becomes a gas stove. Neighbors also plays Buster’s father. The Haunted House, Hard Luck and The Goat followed in 1921. Also in ’21 he shoots The playhouse where he still invents new tricks and cinematographic techniques, such as the famous scene in which Buster enters a theater and discovers that every person, both among the actors and in the audience, has his own face. 

The Dark and Dramatic Side of Buster Keaton

The following film Cops, from 1922, has a more dramatic inspiration: his friend, Arbuckle, the famous actor of the pies in the face with which he had begun, is overwhelmed by a legal matter and accused of murder and can no longer work. Buster Keaton’s cinema becomes progressively more and more black, irreverent and aggressive. 

Cinema as a Life Experience

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Over time, Buster Keaton’s cinema becomes a mirror of his life experience. In My Wife’s Relations it is inspired by the difficult relationship with his wife Natalie, from whom Buster separates in 1929, after meeting the actress Dorothy Sebastian with whom he begins a new relationship. This relationship is also destined to end after a short time. Buster goes from one relationship to another and this time it’s the turn of Eleanor Norris, who becomes his third wife.

Keaton’s writers included Clyde Bruckman, Joseph Mitchell and Jean Havez, but the more enterprising gags were usually developed by Keaton himself. Even bolder gags required dangerous feats. During the railroad water tank scene in Sherlock Jr., Keaton damaged his neck when a jet of water fell on him from a water tower. A scene from Steamboat Bill, Jr. required Keaton to stop over a specific area. The exterior of a two-story structure fell in front of Keaton. The feat required precision, the home window providing only inches of clearance around Keaton’s body. The scene is one of the most striking images in his work.

In addition to Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), Keaton’s most popular features include Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924), Sherlock Jr. (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The Cameraman (1928), and The General (1926), filmed during the American Civil War, with the legendary locomotive chase. Using attractive locations, the film’s story reconstructed wartime. It would become Keaton’s biggest hit. It was also standout for some viewers who were expecting a light comedy.

Buster Keaton and the Studios

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The scene of a real train crash with a burning bridge was one of the most expensive shots in a silent film), and even Keaton no longer had control over the budget of his films. United Artists requested a production supervisor to keep a close eye on costs with story components. Keaton shot two more features this way, and then moved on to Hollywood’s premier studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Keaton’s loss of freedom as a director accompanied later sound films as well as the onset of personal problems, and his work in the early sound era was devalued because of it.

Keaton’s last 3 films were created and released separately, under Keaton’s control, and also fell short of box office expectations. In 1928 film executive Nicholas Schenck instituted a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer cure for Keaton’s solutions. Keaton had little to complain about the MGM contract; he would certainly no longer have any kind of economic burden for his films, and even his income had been pre-negotiated, without his contribution. Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd encouraged him not to make the move, warning him that he would surely lose his freedom. Keaton knew, however, that his independent film they hadn’t gone well, and he accepted the deal with MGM. He would surely later mention this as the most terrible choice of his life in his memoir.

Keaton realized too late that the system represented by MGM would seriously limit his innovative contribution. The massive studio had strict production lines, with everything planned and allocated in advance. Keaton’s first film from MGM was The Cameraman (1928), and Keaton noticed difficulties right away when he saw the script. “It was as long as War and Peace too,” he said. “I have 40 pointless characters and a number of subplots. These people don’t know that the best comedies are simple. I stated, ‘I would definitely like to do something with a drunk other than a fat girl and a baby. Get them for me. In my way of working independently they would definitely have the characters I wanted in 10 minutes. Not at MGM.” MGM only wanted Keaton stardom, Keaton the creator was considered a danger and also a loss of money.

However, Keaton was amazed by the studio’s new modern technology and wanted to make his next film, Spite Marriage, with sound. MGM refused, on the grounds that the film was better silent. MGM also forced Keaton to use a stunt double in many of the more dangerous scenes, something it had never done before, as MGM was keen to safeguard its financial investment. “…stuntmen don’t make you laugh,” Keaton stated. In Keaton’s initial films with sound, he and his fellow actors would shoot each scene 3 times: once in English, once in Spanish, and once in German or French. The actors would phonetically memorize the foreign language script a couple of lines each time and shoot the scene right after.

Keaton continued to try to encourage his employers to let him write the scenes. Production chief Irving Thalberg did not allow Keaton to produce a script because the studio had bought the rights to a screenplay from Lawrence Weingarten, who was Thalberg’s father-in-law’s brother and Keaton’s producer. Thalberg allowed Keaton to arrange the gags, which consisted of long pantomime scenes. The film version was launched as “A Buster Keaton Production” in 1931.

The following assignment validated Keaton’s anxieties about the issues of working with MGM. He was given a manuscript titled Sidewalks of New York (1932), in which he played a millionaire who becomes fascinated by a poor neighborhood woman and a gang of feral children. Keaton thought the structure was wholly inappropriate. Keaton told Irving Thalberg that he wanted to walk away from the project, but he ended up making the film, and was also surprised that it became his biggest box office hit.

MGM had included Cliff Edwards in Keaton’s films, then switched Edwards, who had substance abuse problems, to comedian Jimmy Durante. The laconic Keaton and the rambunctious Durante spawned three highly successful films: Speak Easily (1932), The Passionate Plumber (1932), and What! Not Beer? (1933). The latter was Keaton’s last starring role in his home country.

Keaton in Europe

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Keaton was so despondent during the production of What! Not Beer? that MGM fired him after filming had wrapped, whether or not the film was a commercial success. In yet another version, Keaton was fired after MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer entered Keaton’s dressing room during a party with friends and their girlfriends and Keaton kicked Mayer out. Keaton then refused to show up for a promotional event and was fired 48 hours later. In 1934, Keaton approved a deal to make an independent film in Paris, Le Roi des Champs-Élysées. Then, he made another film in England, The Invader, in 1936.

Upon his return to Hollywood in 1934, Keaton made a comeback with a series of two-reel comedies for Educational Pictures. Most of these 16 films are simple comedies with a series of gags created by Keaton himself, usually using ideas from vaudeville and his previous films. Keaton had the freedom to arrange the films, within the studio’s financial restrictions and could use his favorite auteurs as well. The comedies have far more pantomimes than his previous talkies, and Keaton remains in good shape throughout. The culmination in the Educational series is Grand Slam Opera (1936).

Keaton Gag Writer

When the Educational Collection ended in 1937, Keaton returned to MGM as a gag writer, providing ideas for the last 3 Marx Brothers MGM films: At the Circus (1939), Go West (1940), and The Big Store (1941) . ); these were not as attractively effective as the Marxes’ earlier MGM films. Keaton also directed 3 one-reel shorts for the studio, but these led to no further directing projects.

In 1939, Columbia Pictures worked with Keaton as an actor on 10 two-reel comedies; the series continued for 2 years and also includes his last performance as a comedy lead. The director was generally Jules White, whose focus on slapstick and farce made most of these films look like White’s famous Three Stooges shorts. Keaton’s personal favorite was the series launch, Pest from the West, a much shorter remake of Keaton’s little-seen 1934 film The Invader; he was defeated not by White, but by Del Lord, an able supervisor of Mack Sennett.

Keaton made his last starring film, El Moderno Barba Azul (1946), in Mexico; the film was a low-budget production, and was not released in the United States until its release on VHS in the 1980s under the title Boom in the Moon. The film was panned by famed film commentator Kevin Brownlow who called it the most horrific film ever made. Film critics discovered Keaton in 1949 and producers sometimes employed him for bigger films. He had cameos in films such as In the Good Old Summertime (1949), Sunset Boulevard (1950) and also Around the World in 80 Days (1956). Keaton also appeared in a role about two stage performers in decline in Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight (released 1952), reminiscent of the vaudeville of The Playhouse. With the exception of Seeing Stars, a small film produced in 1922, Limelight was the only time the two great artists would ever meet on film.

Buster Keaton in TV

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In 1949, comedian Ed Wynn welcomed Keaton to appear on his CBS Television comedy variety program, The Ed Wynn Show, which was broadcast live on the West Coast. The response was solid enough for a Los Angeles regional terminal to supply Keaton with its own program, also broadcast in real time, in 1950.

Life with Buster Keaton (1951) was a work to recreate the first collection of films, allowing the program to be broadcast throughout the country. The staged feature film The Misadventures of Buster Keaton was adapted from the collection. Keaton claimed that he stopped the collection himself, as he was unable to produce adequate product for a fresh weekly schedule.

Keaton’s television appearances in the 1950s and 1960s helped revitalize a passion for his silent films. He appeared on the television series Faye Emerson’s Wonderful Town, and guested on such popular television shows as The Ken Murray Show, You Asked for It, The Garry Moore Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. Well into his fifties, Keaton successfully recreated his old gags, including a gag in which he placed one foot on a table, then spun his second foot next to it, and held the uncomfortable mid-air position for a moment before collapse on the floor.

In 1954, Keaton and Eleanor met director Raymond Rohauer, with whom they formed a partnership to re-release his films. Star James Mason had bought the Keaton mansion and spotted countless reels of film, including Keaton’s classic The Boat. Keaton had prints of the films Three Ages, Sherlock Jr., Steamboat Bill, Jr. and College, and also the shorts “The Boat” and “My Wife’s Relations”.

From 1950 to 1964, Keaton made approximately 70 appearances on television variety shows, including those of Ed Sullivan and Garry Moore. Keaton has also found steady work starring in television commercials for Colgate, Alka-Seltzer, US Steel, 7-Up, RCA Victor, Phillips 66, Milky Way, Ford Motors, Minute Rub, and even Budweiser, to name just a few. In a collection of silent TV commercials for Simon Pure Beer shot in 1962 by Jim Mohr in Buffalo, New York, Keaton repurposed gags from his silent films.

On April 3, 1957, Keaton was hosted by Ralph Edwards for NBC’s weekly program This Is Your Life. The program advertised the release of the biopic The Buster Keaton Story starring Donald O’Connor. In December 1958, Keaton became popular in the “A Very Merry Christmas” episode of The Donna Reed Show on ABC. He returned to the program in 1965 in the episode “Now You See It, Now You Don’t”. In August 1960, Keaton played the silent king Sestimus the Silent in the Broadway musical Once Upon A Mattress. In 1960, he returned to MGM one last time, playing a lion tamer in a 1960 adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In 1961 he starred in The Twilight Zone episode “Once Upon a Time”, which included both audio and silent scenes. He collaborated with comedian Ernie Kovacs on a television pilot tentatively labeled “Medicine Man” in 1962, the day before Kovacs died in a car accident. In 1961, Keaton appeared in promotional films for Maryvale, a residential development in western Phoenix.

In 1965, Keaton starred in the short film The Railrodder for the National Film Board of Canada. He took a trip from one end of Canada to the other on a mechanized trolley, using his trademark pork pie hat and also performing tricks comparable to those in the films he made 50 years earlier. The film is remembered for being his last silent performance. He played the lead role in the film Samuel Beckett (1965), directed by Alan Schneider. In 1965 he appeared in the CBS television special A Salute to Stan Laurel, a tribute to the comedy and to Keaton’s friend who had died that year.

Dark Years

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Perhaps due to competition at work or problems and sentimental confusion he ends up becoming an alcoholic, always short-tempered. A self-destructive lifestyle due to which in 1932 he was fired from MGM and left by his third wife. Alone and unemployed, Buster hits rock bottom between 1933 and 1935, the worst years of his life. He drinks bottle after bottle and also suffers from delirium tremens. 

In 1936, however, he managed to get out of alcoholism and regain control of his life. He finds work at Columbia Pictures and plays for other directors a dozen short films that do not have the success of his previous films but give him the opportunity to survive. 

In 1940 he married the very young actress Eleanor Norris for the fourth time, and found a new job at Metro-Goldwin-Mayer, a leading role in the film Unknown Betrothed. In December of the same year he appears for the first time on TV, in the Ed Wynn program where he performs some of his old sketches. Buster Keaton’s large audience on TV paves the way for him to a new kind of career, that of being a guest of the most important American TV shows. 

Limelight

Limelight

In 1952 Charlie Chaplin calls him for one of the most important roles in Limelight, in which the two great actors create a memorable scene in the finale. In 1955 he collaborated on a film about his life: the story of Buster Keaton. In 1960 they gave him the Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, as a tribute to his extraordinary work in the world of cinema. 

In 1965 he took part in an Italian film with Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia entitled Two marines and a general. In every scene he appears silent and the only word he says in the finale is “thank you”. In 1964 he was invited to the Venice Film Festival together with his new work, Film by Samuel Beckett. Buster Keaton died on February 1, 1966 of lung cancer, finished shooting his latest film, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Buster Keaton Movies to Watch

The Saphead (1920)

It’s an american comedy from 1920 with Buster Keaton. It was the star’s initial role in a feature film. Keaton was chosen at the suggestion of Douglas Fairbanks. The story was a combination of 2 short stories, Bronson Howard’s 1887 play The Henrietta and the 1913 play based on Howard’s play The New Henrietta by Victor Mapes and Winchell Smith which has been suggested as an adaptation of Howard’s work.

Nicholas Van Alstyne is the richest man in New York, yet he is very dissatisfied with the habits of his son, Bertie, who avoids gambling and parties all evening, and who appears to reveal no skill or passion for work. Bertie is making this habit up as he thinks it will definitely help turn on the woman of his desires, his half-sister Agnes.

The 3 Ages (1923)

It is a 1923 black and white American film starring Buster Keaton and Wallace Beery. It is the first film Keaton produced, directed, wrote and even starred in (unlike The Saphead, in which he only starred). While Keaton was successful in the short film, had yet to show himself as an actor in a feature film. Had the job failed, the film would surely have been split into 3 shorts.

Three stories in three different historical periods, ancient times, ancient Rome and modern times, are interspersed to show the factor that man’s love for woman has not substantially changed during human history. In all three stories, the characters played by Buster Keaton and Wallace Beery have an interest in the same woman, played by Margaret Leahy.

Our Hospitality (1923)

It is a 1923 film directed by Buster Keaton and John G. Blystone. Starring Keaton, Joe Roberts and Natalie Talmadge, it uses slapstick and situational comedy to tell the story of Willie McKay, caught in the middle of the famous fight between Canfield and McKay, inspired by the real-life fight between Hatfield and McCoy. It was a pioneering film in the comedy genre, as Keaton created a combination of gags in a structured story, an interest in historical information, and also beautiful photography, superior to various other slapstick films of the period.

The Canfield and McKay families have been feuding for so long, no one remembers where the fight started. One rainy evening in 1810, family patriarch John McKay and his competitor James Canfield kill each other. After her husband’s death, John’s partner chooses that her son Willie will certainly not suffer the same fate.

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

It is a 1924 film directed and also starring Buster Keaton and written by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez and Joseph A. Mitchell. Includes Kathryn McGuire, Joe Keaton and Ward Crane. Buster is a film projectionist and also a cleaner. When the cinema is free, he reads a publication on How to be a Detective. He loves a beautiful woman but neither of them have much money. He discovers a dollar bill in the trash he picked up in the lobby. He takes it and adds it to the $2 he has. A woman claims she lost a dollar.

The Navigator (1924)

It is a 1924 film directed by and starring Buster Keaton. The film was written by Clyde Bruckman and also co-directed by Donald Crisp. Wealthy Rollo Treadway (Buster Keaton) unexpectedly decides to invite his neighbor Betsy O’Brien (Kathryn McGuire) to a wedding, and sends his secretary to book a honeymoon cruise ship to Honolulu. However, when Betsy denies her unexpected deal, she decides to make the journey anyway, embarking straight away that evening. Since the dock number is partially covered, he ends up on the wrong ship, the Navigator, which Betsy’s generous father (Frederick Vroom) has offered to a small country at war.

Seven Chances (1925) 

It is a 1925 film directed by and starring Buster Keaton, based on the play of the same name by Roi Cooper Megrue, written in 1916 by David Belasco. The cast includes T. Roy Barnes, Snitz Edwards and Ruth Dwyer. The opening scenes of the film were shot in very old Technicolor. Jimmy Shannon (Buster Keaton) works with brokerage agents Meekin and Shannon, who is on the verge of financial bankruptcy. A lawyer finally manages to educate Jimmy about his grandfather’s will. She will definitely make $7 million if she gets married by 7pm. in celebration of his 27th birthday, which coincides with the same day.

Go West (1925)

It’s a western funny movie from 1925 directed by and also starring Buster Keaton. Keaton plays Friendless, who takes a trip out west to try and make a lot of money. As soon as there he becomes involved in the disputes over cattle and dairy farming, forming a bond with a cow called “Brown Eyes”. At one point he finds himself driving a herd of cattle in Los Angeles.

Battling Butler (1926)

It is a 1926 comedy directed by and starring Buster Keaton. It is based on the 1923 music of Battling Buttler. Alfred Butler is the successor of a wealthy family member, but it is a displeasure to his father because Alfred is a meek boy, accustomed to wealth and luxury. His father recommends a research and fishing expedition to strengthen him. Alfred embarks on the journey, accompanied by his assistant and his personal valet. While on tour, he falls in love with a poor woman who lives with her family in a shack. To excite his family, the waiter tells them that Alfred is the well-known boxing champion “Battling Butler”. From there, the identity swap must be maintained. Alfred is greeted by a group of boxing lovers who believe he is the boxer.

The General (1926)

To please Annabelle, Johnnie hurries to be first in line to enlist in the American Civil War, however he is rejected on the grounds that he is much more useful as an engineer, even though he is unaware of the real reason. On his way out, he meets Annabelle’s father and also her brother, who wave him to join them in line, but he walks away, leaving them with the impression that he doesn’t want to enlist.

The boy takes the train. The boy misses the train. The boy chases the Union pressures who stole the train, recovers the train and ends up with instructions to the contrary as well. It may not sound like your average love story, but that’s exactly what deadpan comedy from one of cinema’s seminal performers, Buster Keaton, is. An impressive display of photographic technique, rhythm and comedic timing, all underpinned by genuine feeling. Trust us, it’s a must-see movie: it’s like a locomotive.

The Cameraman (1928)

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The cameraman is the most important film for Buster Keaton’s poetics. A produced by MGM in 1928 and tells a series of paradoxical adventures of a cameraman who tries to work in the film industry and is hired only after a monkey has made an acceptable reportage in his place. 

The film takes up the very personal discourse initiated by the director with the film The ball number 13, which is considered his comic masterpiece. The relationship between space and the individual becomes the cause of his discomfort: either it is a space that is too large and excessive or it is limited, as in the midst of a crowd that crushes it and creates a claustrophobic feeling, distancing it from the loved one. 

The protagonist is never at ease in the spaces in which he lives, which are spaces of cinematic fiction. In Me and the Monkey, creative materials and images shot by the cameraman with a bizarre and avant-garde style are rejected, while movies shot by the monkey in the traditional way are accepted. And Buster Keaton’s denunciation of the subjugation of cinematographic art to the Hollywood industry, personified by the monkey. A beastly and standardized way of making cinema that rejects the novelties of human ingenuity. 

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