On this day in 1966, the motion pictures lost one of its few, true creative giants: Buster Keaton passed at the age of 70. Taken by an aggressive form of lung cancer, Keaton didn’t have any idea just how serious his condition was: he was, in fact, under the impression that he was simply suffering from a very bad case of bronchitis. In fact, he played cards with his friends–as was his habit–the day before he died. Even though his personal and professional career had been wrecked for decades, by the mid-1960s the man responsible for some of the most daringly creative moments in cinema history had begun to enjoy a resurgence in popularity. People knew the name Keaton just as well as they knew the name Chaplin, and thank god for it: I can’t imagine my life without the laughter of Keaton’s films being a part of it.
I’ll leave the sociological and academic analysis of his films and their seismic influence on the framework of modern cinema to all the David Thomsons of the world, and instead, simply confess that the reason I love Keaton so much and why his work is so personally important to me, even 50 years after his death, is because of something he excelled so very much in:
Now, just to get it out of the way up front, this writer is a massive Charlie Chaplin fan. Massive. In some ways, I’d go so far as to say that Charlie is the love of my life. After all, I was only 10 years old when I fell in love with Charlie’s movies– and 10 is a wondrous, marvelous, romantic age to discover anything. As an adult, you look back on being 10 as a halcyon dream of warm fuzzy memories; idealized by the passage of time.
But I was 14 when I saw my first Buster Keaton film.
Being 14 sucks. In fact… few things suck more than being 14. (Except, maybe, 15.) As an adult, 14 is not the age you look back on as a halcyon dream of warm fuzzy memories; in fact many of the memories you do have probably result in a cringe-inducing embarrassment.
Which is why Sherlock Jr. absolutely rocked my world when I first saw it flicker on the old movie channel one random weekend. (Oh you remember,those days when AMC was still American Movie Classics.) If anyone’s life sucked more than mine, it was Buster’s. That sweetly honest stone face that just couldn’t catch a break. The girl in his life was something of a bitch, his boss was a jerk, his future prospects were dim, he’s painfully awkward, and the only ray of sunshine in his life involved celluloid fantasies.
Yeah. I knew that guy.
Here I am in my 30s and I realize that I will always know this guy. And when chaos consumes, and all I have to keep my sanity is my sense of humor, there is nothing more therapeutic than a Keaton film. That’s when I switch on Steamboat Bill Jr to watch Buster battle hurricanes, or Seven Chances to watch him dodge a gang of pissed off jilted brides, or The Cameraman to watch him fight urban turf wars.
It’s absurd. But so is life.
Buster knows it. His films get it. And, in so many ways, he is all of us. Buster doesn‘t always get the girl, beat the bad guy, or ride off into the sunset. Sometimes, life truly is as out-of-control as a motorcycle without a driver but you just gotta suck it up and keep moving. And somehow … it’ll still be OK. Never perfect, but if there’s one thing that you learn from a Buster Keaton film (and from his own personal life lessons) it’s that nothing in life is ever perfect.
This basic truth is why 50 years after his death (and 120 years after he was born) we’re still so deeply affected by his work. So the editors here at The Retro Set would just like to take a minute to champion that deeply human comedy of the man who understood, painfully so, what it meant to get kicked up the backside by life.
Thanks, Buster, for always keepin’ it real. The 21st Century REALLY needs you.
And so do 14 year olds.