Saturday, December 15, 2007
As one of the waxworks playing bridge in Sunset Boulevard (1950), a ravaged Buster Keaton contemplates a dubious hand. With his customary stoicism, he croaks, “Pass.” Then, facing up to lousy luck, his face only slightly dejected, he again says “Pass” more quietly.
This brief appearance in Billy Wilder's mordant classic expresses the essential attitude of his life and work. It is this attitude that makes Buster an important artist, patronized by intellectuals who appreciate his profundity and by mainstream audiences who gasp and giggle at his daring. Dismissing claims to greatness, Keaton insisted again and again that what he was most interested in was getting the laugh.
Like Chaplin, he had a native gift for movement, but, unlike the Little Tramp, he had very modern instincts that propelled him far ahead of any of his contemporaries. For so long, he was thought of as just a forgotten pie-thrower with stone face and porkpie hat. Today he is revered for that stream of pure movies from the twenties, a sequence of work that has improved with age and speaks to us all from the viewpoint of an artist who is both burned and purified, numb and serene, hopeful but cynical. Buster was just getting the laughs. We got the rest.