Mutability is the watchword of Buster Keaton's inimitable brand of silent comedy, a cinema of manifold metamorphoses in which crashed jalopies double as makeshift sailboats, and wooden Native Americans spring unexpectedly to life, just as the man in the breadline in front of Keaton may well prove an inanimate mannequin—to choose more or less at random from an endlessly proliferating pool of examples. Anything and everything under the sun can be repurposed by Keaton, that marvelous mechanic, for redeployment in a pinch. He personifies to perfection an archetype Hannah Arendt identified as Man the Maker, a wily Ulysses of the machine age. Witness the Rube Goldbergian labor-saving contraptions that dominate shorts like The Scarecrow, as well as its parodic obverse The Electric House, where those machines, abetted by a jealous rival, turn against their fabricator.
"Buster plainly is a man inclined towards a belief in nothing," as David Thomson observed, "but mathematics and absurdity." Indeed, Keaton's films can be plotted along a coordinate system of Keatonian comedy: The vertical axis comprises feats of seemingly effortless physical agility and alarming recklessness, while surrealistic examples of camera trickery and legerdemain occupy the horizontal axis. The former inclination invites a cinematic style of objective observation (call it the Lumière factor); the latter demands sleights of eye worthy of Georges Méliès. Alongside the very greatest filmmakers, Keaton finds inventive ways to reconcile these equal but opposing tendencies. What's more—as opposed to, say, Andrei Tarkovsky—he's actually funny.
Two early shorts, Cops and The Playhouse, provide ideal object lessons in this regard. Not only does Cops raise the ante exponentially on the chase sequence endemic to so much silent slapstick (containing the indelible image of Keaton fleetly eluding what seems like hundreds of uniformed officers), it also provides an excellent illustration of the anarchic insubordination that colors much of Keaton's best work. At one point, he lights his cigarette off the fuse of a bomb before blithely tossing it into a phalanx of policemen on parade. (Small wonder they're after him!) In the end, he manages to trap the cops in their own precinct house; until, that is, the haughty heartbreaker whose rejection kick-started the whole farrago comes traipsing along. When she persists in turning her nose up at him, he decides to release his prisoners, who promptly haul him in, slamming the jail doors closed on him. The closing title card shows "The End" inscribed on a tombstone, atop which perches Keaton's trademark porkpie hat.
The Playhouse is pure proto-surrealism. (Probably it's no coincidence that the even more oneiric Sherlock, Jr. came out in 1924, the same year that André Breton published the first Surrealist Manifesto.) In the film's first reel, Keaton attends an old-school vaudeville performance, and the running gag is that he portrays the entire orchestra and on-stage minstrel routine, as well as every member of the audience. The painstaking in-camera effects work here, as in Sherlock, Jr., was contributed by frequent Keaton lensman Elgin Lessley. Keaton is shaken from this duplicitous dream only to discover that his bedroom is nothing more than a theatrical backdrop (a set piece that doubtless informs The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie's dinner-table dream). The second reel revels in reflections, introducing twin love interests, much to Keaton's dismay and our delight, who momentarily morph into quadruplets in front of two full-length mirrors. As if that weren't enough, Keaton himself appears in triplicate in a dressing-room mirror, and later doubles for a trained monkey who (what else?) goes ape among the audience.
The Playhouse was not the only Keaton film to have an impact on the burgeoning surrealist movement. In a laudatory review of College written two years before his own directorial debut, Luis Buñuel labeled the film "beautiful as a bathroom, vital as a Hispano" and described Keaton as "a great specialist against sentimental infection of all kinds." On the face of it, the appeal of this fairly straightforward farce for someone of Buñuel's distinctive sensibilities seems a bit far-fetched, yet College hurtles into the absurdist empyrean in its final 30 seconds: Following an exemplary happy ending (involving nuptials, natch) that would have provided an apt fade-out for any other comedian, Keaton tacks on a rapid-fire montage, first showing the young couple saddled with kids, then flashing forward to a scene of them in advanced old age, before closing on a shot of his-and-hers headstones. Something in this sequence certainly suggests Un Chien Andalou's capricious temporal disjunctions, as well as its final image of young lovers buried in the blazing sand.
Dream sequences abound in Keaton's films. Rather than defuse the often antisocial sentiments on display (Convict 13 and The Frozen North are particularly violent little numbers), his numerous rude awakenings play like the ending of Fritz Lang's nightmare noir The Woman in the Window—an admission that their contents disguise material that could be considered censorious by superego and studio head alike. Such material might be personal (the pronounced ambivalence toward weddings and offspring); then again, it might be more overtly public (the anti-law enforcement bent in contemporaneous shorts reads like indignant commentary on the tribulations of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Keaton's erstwhile mentor). The very ubiquity of the device indicates with what intimacy Keaton equated the dream life and the life flickering up there on the silver screen. Not for nothing did he once concede: "In those days, we ate, slept, and dreamed our films."
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Kino's impeccable Blu-ray transfers have set the bar exceedingly high when it comes to films of the silent era, and The Ultimate Buster Keaton Collection is no exception. Considering these films are nearly 100 years old, it's still a safe bet that they've never looked clearer and cleaner in any previous home-video presentation. Barring the inclusion of two or three early shorts presented in alternate versions that have been treated to some substantial DNR manhandling, the majority of these discs come bearing healthy doses of extant film grain as well as abundant artifacts (scratches, flickers, and even serious nitrate stock degradation on occasion). On the audio front, most of the feature films contain multiple options. There's usually a choice among scores (most often coming from composers Robert Israel or Ben Model), and the additional selection between a 5.1 Master Audio mix and a two-channel stereo or even monaural track.
As you might expect, bonus materials on individual titles vary in quantity and quality, but the sheer profusion of material over the set's 14 discs is tantamount to taking a master class in the films of Buster Keaton. The bulk of the early shorts are accompanied by visual essays that examine topics like the repertory company of bit players that recur over the course of Keaton's films, the context of the films' productions (especially the influence of the Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle scandal on Keaton, who stuck beside his onetime mentor throughout), as well as issues related to restoration and scoring. About half of the feature films have their own commentary tracks, ranging in style from laidback and conversational to more pedagogically minded. Many of the discs (shorts and features alike) include an illustrated essay on filming locations that's narrated by film historian John Bengston. These are particularly fascinating tidbits of then-and-now urban archeology.
One of the most impressive box sets of the year, The Ultimate Buster Keaton Collection provides essential one-stop-shopping for those looking to bump their Buster up to Blu-ray. Those who have been keeping up with Keaton all along may want to hold out until the set's sole exclusive content, College, makes its debut separately sometime in 2013.