Criterion Review: Buster Keaton is THE CAMERAMAN, a Silent Era Gem

As always, Criterion takes us to school

I have to get this off my chest right from the top: This is my first ever Buster Keaton film.

And to be even more transparent, it’s not even a title I had ever heard of until I got the Criterion announcement email. Fortunately for us all, Buster Keaton does an enormous amount of work to make it really easy to enjoy his films no matter what your level of familiarity with him may be, and The Cameraman was a perfectly wonderful first foray into the world of Buster Keaton.

In the past several years, I’ve been really trying to take opportunities to soak in some of the great silent films and fill in some of my most shameful blind spots. I still can’t even boast to have seen as many as a dozen of them in total, but I’ve checked out Metropolis and Modern Times just for fun and here at Cinapse I’ve written up D.W. Griffith’s The Birth Of A Nation and Harold Lloyd’s The Kid Brother. Barring Nation, I’ve genuinely enjoyed them all, and not just “appreciated” them as historical treasures but personally enjoyed the exploration. It is a unique and jarring experience to watch silent film in 2020. The art form is just so dramatically, drastically different today that watching silent film feels like an almost refreshing adventure in time travel. That said, while the differences are indeed myriad, my undying love for action cinema can be traced directly back to the visual wonder of the silent era.

Though this is the first Keaton film I’ve watched top to bottom, as a student of action cinema it’s clear that without Buster Keaton there would be no action cinema as we know it today. Perhaps the most obvious point of comparison is that legendary big screen hero Jackie Chan is a devotee of Keaton and has made a phenomenal career out of doing his own death-defying stunts as inspired by the silent-era great. It’s likely also a safe assessment to suggest that modern-era Tom Cruise would not exist without Keaton as well. Hell, even my personal action favorite Scott Adkins has made his name by being able to personally, physically, carry out feats of wonder on screen even in the era of CGI. What was true in Keaton’s time remains true today: Cinema is a visual medium and those who do the work to create genuine human spectacle can gain audience appreciation on a more potent and visceral level.

In this particular misadventure, Keaton plays a smitten photographer who tries to make it as a news beat cameraman in order to stay close to the radiant Marceline Day, who works at the front desk of the newsroom. (I guess these folks have character names but since no one is saying them I’ll stick with the actors’ names). Sure, our cameraman’s pining for this gorgeous young lady might seem somewhat creepy by today’s standards, but she’s clearly interested, and a sweet and hilarious romance brews even as the hapless cameraman creates havoc wherever he goes through brilliant physical comedy set pieces designed by Keaton. Keaton’s character is clearly hapless and causes disaster in his wake constantly. But he’s also filled with bravery and pluck, and soon not only proves his love for the leading lady, but also manages to get show stopping footage of a Chinese street gang war and even (accidentally) proves his bravery catching a daring rescue on film which he himself performed. At one point there’s a live monkey (Keaton’s character picks up this sidekick along the way) firing a gatling gun in the middle of said gang war, and one’s mind is simply blown at the spectacle of it all. The plot is light, favoring the gags and visual improv that made Keaton a legend, but what plot is there is quite effective in getting you to fall in love with these characters and root for them.

In terms of historical context, this Criterion release paints an extremely full picture of Keaton’s career and the entire 1928 Hollywood landscape through the bonus features. The film is made all the more fascinating when learning that it was the first Keaton made under the “studio system”, and was generally regarded as his last great masterpiece precisely because of Keaton’s inability to work within that system. When watching a Blu-ray release like this, one gets the pure enjoyment of the revelation of the film itself, and then the wonderful and insightful experience of learning the history and context of it all. It’s a joy for cinephiles.

The Cameraman is a delightful romp that would easily appeal to folks like me who’ve experienced very little silent film, and probably appeals to hardcore silent film fans as well (as a lesser known work from one of the era’s greatest talents). There’s comedy and physical feats of wonder that translate just as well today as they did back then. And today we get the added sense of whimsical time travel back to a different era so far removed from us that it creates a novelty and wonder all its own. I’d highly recommend the film and the Blu-ray to anyone interested in Keaton or silent film.

The Package

It’s worth noting that the bonus content on this release is stellar. There are interviews with an older Buster Keaton and those are fascinating to break the magic of his characters’ silence and hear just a regular guy with regular problems talking about his life. It breaks the silver screen magic but fills it back in with humanity. My favorite bonus feature followed some L.A. location detectives who obsessively locate old filming locations in modern L.A. The bonus feature uses all kinds of graphics and maps and overlays to show us 1928 locations compared to how they look today. It’s tremendously geeky work these detectives do, and it’s enthralling to watch. There’s even an entire second feature of Keaton’s studio era included here as a bonus feature: Spite Marriage (1929). This package is just remarkably stacked and highly engaging.

And I’m Out.

The Cameraman is now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection

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