He’s just this strange figure who was sort of prodigiously talented at something that he never chose to do,” Dana Stevens says. “And then continued to invent new ways of exploring that.”
Stevens—the movie critic for slate.com and co-host of the site’s podcast, Culture Gabfest—is talking about Buster Keaton, the subject of her new book, Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the 20th Century. The subtitle should tip you off: Camera Man is not a standard-issue biography of Keaton’s life cradle to grave. Well, it kind of is, but Camera Man is so much more. It’s about Keaton’s early days on the vaudeville stage, his turn to slapstick comedy in front of the camera, his death-defying stunts that made him a legend, his fall in stature at MGM, and his reappraisal by future generations of moviegoers. But Camera Man also digresses into the lives and careers of Roscoe Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand. It peers behind the curtain of child labor laws at the turn of the century and explores the unpleasant ubiquity of Blackface in theater and on film. It even makes a crucial stop at New York’s Childs Restaurant. As Stevens writes in Camera Man’s introduction, “More and more I became convinced that to understand [Keaton’s] life was to understand the history of that medium’s first century.”
“It became sort of my hobby to think about him in the context of his time,” Stevens says. “If I think of this book as anything, it’s not really a biography. It’s more like a cultural history of [Keaton’s] lifespan.”
And that span, 1895 to 1966, wasn’t exactly long, but, as Stevens points out, “the world changed so much during that time.”
Stevens fell for Keaton as a graduate student studying in France. At that time, cinémathèques were celebrating Keaton’s centenary, and Stevens became enchanted by his gravity-defying stunts. Most people still are, but as Stevens sat down to write Camera Man, she became more and more fascinated by Keaton’s early days on the vaudeville stage.
“I got so sucked in by that period of his life that, at a certain point, I thought: I should just be writing on his childhood,” Stevens recounts. “I feel like it’s something that gets . . . not glossed over—I mean, they’re very charming stories, so all biographies of him or accounts of his life will tell those stories—but they tend to be told in that biographical way, as if it’s just about him preparing to become a filmmaker. And the fact is that he had this very successful and long career as a stage performer before he ever stepped in front of the camera.”
What’s also missing from those biographies are perspectives beyond the ones Keaton told anecdotally years after the fact. Stevens writes more than once in Camera Man, “This story comes to us only through Buster’s retelling.”
“So all of that stuff was what drove me and fascinated me,” Stevens says. “Like: How do you look in between the documents and the films and the things that exist to figure out who this person was?”
And that continues to make Keaton a fascinating subject 100-plus years after his birth. He was, and still is, known as “The Great Stone Face,” unflappable no matter how high the stakes. It made Keaton iconic. It also made him enigmatic.
“Ultimately, he’s kind of remained a mystery to me,” Stevens says. And when she signs her book, she adds: “I hope this brings something new to your appreciation of the mystery of Buster.”
“Because I don’t think that mystery is really soluble,” she says. “Except by watching the films themselves.”