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Book Review: Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century

Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century
By Dana Stevens
Simon & Schuster
January 25, 2022
$29.99
Buy It

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When I was first learning about Buster Keaton in college, Tom Dardis's 1979 biography Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down was my go-to for information. But now Dana Stevens's exemplary Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century (2022, Simon & Schuster, $29.99) — has supplanted it, handily. Stevens has landed upon the idea that Keaton was born the year cinema was invented, so, in an approach that recalls Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, she traces his life alongside other events of the 20th century. For example, when discussing Keaton's great two-reeler One Week, she takes a few paragraphs to introduce the novelty of "kit houses" that inspired the film, as well as an industrial film from the Ford Motor Company that Keaton might have seen. Chapters go into great detail on Roscoe Arbuckle, the Talmadge sisters, MGM, F. Scott Fitzgerald (who was working at MGM at the same time as Keaton), James Agee, Charlie Chaplin, the production of Limelight, and much more. Most importantly, there's a progressive chapter acknowledging the "blackface" sequence of Keaton's College. Sometimes the asides feel a little distracting, such as a discussion of the history of the pancake house where Keaton ordered a life-changing breakfast, but if you hang in there, things snap together. Stevens's criticism in Slate has always been personable, with gorgeous prose, as well as a sharp eye for cinema, and she brings all of that here. Her "reviews" of Keaton's great films bring them to life all over again (just as her savage pans of the MGM talkies cut like blades). Highly recommended.

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