Saturday, 22 December 2012

The Camerman (1928)

The Cameraman is Buster Keaton's last truly great work,charming, hilarious, and an indication of how far the medium of film had come in a relatively short time

Here, Buster, once again, is trying to win the heart of a pretty girl, the secretary at a newsreel production company. Trading in his tintype camera, he tries to make it in the world of moving pictures, battling, amongst other things, a jealous rival Cameraman, his own lack of experience, and an interfering monkey.

The plot moves along at a brisk pace, with more than enough of the three vital ingredients for a Buster Keaton movie; plenty of memorable scenes, particularly the trip to Yankee stadium (“Aren’t the Yankees playing today?” “Sure – in St. Louis”), where,in the absence of an actual game, Buster mimes an imaginary one against himself;brilliant physical comedy (such as Keaton being squeezed into a small changing room with a huge man); and jaw dropping stunts (watch how he loses and regains his seat on the bus next to his date)

Special mention also must go the real co-star, an Organ Grinder’s monkey, whom Keaton adopts. Apart from providing some vital plot strands, she gives an excellent funny performance, as full of pathos and well-timed comic moves as her human co-star.

I recently saw The Cameraman on the big screen as the second half of a double bill with the 1910 silent version of A Christmas Carol. Watching them back to back provided a fascinating insight into how the language and techniques of cinema had progressed in two decades. In A Christmas Carol, the camera does not move, as if filmmakers cannot yet get past the idea that film should be a static record of a performance. By the time we get to The Cameraman, not only does it move, but also the movement helps tell the story and at times, by forcing the audience viewpoint, helps set up visual jokes. The wildly different running times of the two films also demonstrates how the makers of the latter had learned to be unafraid to take time to tell a story. These are all techniques Keaton had refined and introduced into film, often against the wishes of nervous studio heads, and because of this, I don’t think it is unfounded to call him a cinematic pioneer, along with his comedy contemporaries Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin

The Cameraman was the first of a three-picture deal with MGM, after years of working as an independent producer. This does seem to have had any great impact on the making or content of this film, other than the endless product placement for the MGM brand name and some of its product.

Unfortunately,this state of affairs was not to last, as studio head Irving Thalberg seemed unwilling or unable to understand Keaton's working methods, namely, using the same small crew, and keeping an air of spontaneity in the creative process. The result would be control over the personnel and product wrenched away from Keaton, leading to a steep drop in the quality of his films, and his eventual decline into poverty, obscurity and alcoholism, before his rediscovery in the1960s, a few years before his death.

However, this was all much further down the line, and The Cameraman still gives us “The Great Stone Face” in his prime, risking everything for the girl and the laughs, somehow always keeping both his body and his deadpan expression in one piece.