WHO is he?
American screenwriter, actor and director of comic movies who directed over 40 feature and short films and starred in about a hundred more between the mid-1910s and the 1960s. Though Keaton’s career spanned the silent and sound eras of Hollywood cinema, he is almost unanimously remembered for the successful silent films he made during the 1920s.
WHAT are his films about?
Like Charlie Chaplin, Keaton’s movie image hinges on a single iconic template character — the spry, poker-faced small-timer full of chutzpah and delusions of grandeur, who frequently finds himself in exceptional circumstances. The narratives typically juxtapose extreme situations — security and danger, excess and scarcity — in a way that sometimes blurs the line between comedy and horror. Everyday objects, like in the works of Surrealism, are dislocated from their quotidian presence and assume extraordinary qualities that challenge our natural perception of them.
Keaton’s cinema involves a brand of intensely physical comedy wherein the human body — Keaton’s own — becomes a language of expression in itself. These films are, in a way, a catalogue of the various startling ways in which a body can interact with physical objects around it. Consequently, scale, speed, timing and spatial accuracy become the pre-eminent structural elements of a shot or scene. While other silent actors used visual effects and rehearsed movement for their slapstick comedy, Keaton’s stunts would actually involve the risk that we sense while watching.
WHY is he of interest?
Even though Keaton is generally overshadowed by the monumental popularity of his contemporary Charlie Chaplin, he has his own incomparable space in the history of Hollywood film. While the appeal of Chaplin’s cinema is primarily humanistic, Keaton’s movies come across as materialist, anti-Humanistic even, in the way they build their comedy and, in effect, compose their poetry almost entirely with physical entities.
WHERE to discover him?
Sherlock Jr. (1924) follows a small-time film projectionist — unlucky in romance — who dozes off during one of his screenings and, in his dream, finds himself playing the hero of the film being projected. Brimming with incredible visual gags, Sherlock Jr. is not only a shining example of a comedy that fully harnesses qualities of the cinematic medium, but also a testament to the quasi-magical, therapeutic power of cinema, in which our fears and anxieties are given form and emphatically overcome.