Buster Keaton Andrew Sarris - Essay

Andrew Sarris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One of Buster Keaton's inimitable images is worth a thousand words of explicatory prose…. This kind of hyperbolic heraldry gets me into trouble with people like Walter Kerr, who chides me … for describing Buster Keaton as "cerebral." I stand by my opinions, however, as I would much prefer to have people see Keaton's movies than sob over his memory…. But if any group can be credited with saving Keaton, it is that body of European intellectuals and academics who steadfastly regarded Keaton as an immortal artist rather than as a dated comic. And if Keaton has become, like Chaplin, a figure of speech in the discussion of cinematic style, it is because his films have been studied as high art, and not merely enjoyed as escapist entertainment.

Also, I don't believe the "fun" argument is as strong a motivation for looking at silent movies as is the "art" argument. For anything old to be appreciated in our Now-oriented culture, it must be certified as spinach rather than as ice cream. We are still more puritanical than we care to admit, and we have never treated comic talent with the awe and respect it deserved. In any event, Keaton was always a very special case in that he often became so preoccupied with the peculiar implications of his visual and kinetic ideas that he lost sight of his audience and even his characters. Hence, he was never the most efficient laugh machine in Hollywood. Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Lloyd easily surpass him on that score. Where Keaton excels is in the dreamlike gravity and grace with which he transforms the unimpeachably material world into the purest fantasy. Funny? Not really. Certainly, not entirely. Beautiful, rigorous, resourceful, inventive, creative, evocative, expressive.

But don't take my word for it…. Try to forget all your preconceptions about Keaton and silent comedy. You will be startled and disconcerted by elements of the romantic, the adventurous, and the heroic in the Keaton characterizations. Forget even about the tell-tale porkpie hat. It wasn't glued to his head as the derby was to Chaplin's…. I envy people who have not yet seen Keaton's legacy.

Andrew Sarris, "Revivals: Buster Keaton Festival" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1976), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXI, No. 4, January 26, 1976, p. 117.