Despite the fact that he broke his neck while filming a stunt for The General, Buster Keaton was always one of the most schematic and precise artists of cinema’s early years. His control was evident both physically (witness his confidence—or perhaps that’s insanity—during the hurricane sequence that closes Steamboat Bill, Jr., most notably the bit where the side of a house literally comes down around him) and emotionally (the moniker “stone face” has less to do with his alleged facial inexpressiveness and more about his naturalistically muted response to exaggerated situations). When Keaton sacrificed that independence and control by signing a contract with MGM, where production schedules were tighter and less open to the sort of gag-improvisations Keaton was used to indulging in, many observed it as the beginning of his career decline. Which makes it all the more poignant that his first MGM feature, 1928’s The Cameraman, directed not by Keaton himself, but Edward Sedgwick (up to that point, more or less a director-for-hire), is right up there with Sherlock, Jr. as one of Keaton’s most impressively self-reflective films and an ode to the unexpected and elusive lightening-in-a-bottle nature of filmmaking.
One of the film’s great early gags defines Cameraman‘s preoccupation with lack of control. Keaton plays a street-corner tintype photographer who falls in love with Sally, the receptionist at a newsreel production office. In a bid for her attention, he applies for a job shooting on-the-spot news with the only camera he can afford, a totally outmoded, hand-cranked shoebox model. After a splurge of shooting events for “audition” footage, Keaton has his reels screened for the office management only to discover that his lack of experience with his ancient equipment has resulted in a mess of poetic double exposures (a battleship appears to be loping down a busy Manhattan thoroughfare) and kaleidoscopic, pre-Man with a Movie Camera street bustle. (In its own low-down deportment, The Cameraman is really a raucous, more accessible iteration of Vertov’s meta-cinematic masterpiece, at least to the extent that both thrive on postmodern self-referentiality.) Keaton’s camera repeatedly causes chaos, photographically as well as physically, acting as an extended, pseudo-vestigial limb that frequently shatters glass panes as readily as Keaton’s own body works its way into myriad bizarre pratfalls and situations at a local saltwater pool.
Keaton appears in front of his own camera twice in the film’s duration (once in each half). The first occurrence is during his cinematographic gestalt period, when he consciously places himself in the role of his film’s subject: a one-man baseball team, enacting impossible feats of slugging (an infield run) and defense (a miraculously nonchalant triple play). The second time occurs when he jumps into the water to save Sally when a romantic rival has left her to drown after a failed daredevil stunt. Redemption has already entered into Keaton’s life—when Keaton accidentally knocks down and supposedly kills an organ-grinder’s dancing monkey, he is pressured to buy the tiny corpse, which seems to come back from the dead in an eerie and hysterical slow-motion shot (the monkey removing his white shroud like a resurrected saint). And it is that same miracle monkey that is revealed to be rolling film on Keaton’s heroism and, thereby, the artist behind the scenes who engineers a comedic resolution. If the film’s first half posits that amateurism is the jumping point for both accidental expressionism and aimless experimentalism, then the second half appears to argue for unregulated primitivism. Specifically, The Cameraman‘s most tangible moral is that, if you want to achieve unfussy filmed drama, you’d do best to take your lessons from an organ-grinder’s monkey. As far as I’m concerned, this is a message for the ages.