Neaux Reel Idea: The Great Buster Review

Old Hollywood Gatekeeper via New Hollywood Stardom Peter Bogdanovich – filmmaker, historian, Orson Welles confidant, etc – makes the most of an exceptional 2018 (which saw the completion and release of The Other Side of the Wind by Netflix) with his film essay ode to silent movie clown and cinema master-worker Buster Keaton, in The Great Buster: A Celebration. Indeed, it’s a career, life, and catalog worth celebrating, but one riddled with tragedy and serendipitous fate, along with many gags and laughs along the way. “A Celebration” is important here, as this isn’t really a definitive Kevin Brownlow documentary, but a romantic love letter through and through.

Bogdanovich’s ascot-wearing matter of factly voiceover narration, spoken over various footage of Buster, from early two-reels (twenty-minute movies) to features to later commercials, is rich with knowledge and stoneface giddiness over being an orator to a legend’s tale. Cut together from archive photos and film, combined with family anecdotes and friendly memories, The Great Buster surpasses the norms of what biographical movies cover and how, choosing a flashy and near non-linear manner to romanticize and make into myth a man of grand talent.

We’re talking about a filmmaker, actor, stuntman, and overall craftsman who developed thrilling action sequences built upon drama and conflict to tell jokes and a story at once. For example, Bogdanovich often lights up when talking about the boulders in Seven Chances or surviving a falling wall from Steamboat Bill Jr. For a cinephile like myself, these bits were great to see (especially in as high-definition as possible) but also represented territory already covered. However, Bogdanovich’s remarks and notes, along with those of interviewees like Quentin Tarantino, Bill Hader, Werner Herzog, and more, provide charm and cheer that only add to the appreciation.

Meant for fans new and old alike, The Great Buster works as both introduction and re-entry, taking with it the good and the bad of his life, if briefly covered. The MGM contract he signed ended his independence and bruised his legacy to an extent, leading to massive depression and alcoholism. However, despite this corporate takeover and downfall in “The United States of Amnesia” (a Gore Vidal quote Bogdanovich is more than happy to oblige), Keaton’s greatest works of the 1920s, where he released ten titanic silent classics, are chronicled for the finale of this film. It’s almost lecture/powerpoint like how Bogdanovich concludes our evening of remembrance and discovery, merely pointing out favorite shots and scenarios mixed with the occasional historical fact.

By no means am I dissatisfied with this documentary-lite presentation, but it does feel like a missed opportunity at a deeper talk on aesthetic and theory. Surely, this would only interest a few of us but considering how astute our narrator is and his limited attempts at introducing some more intricate analysis of Buster’s movies as they are, I’m left almost stunned that he keeps things as airy and casual as he does. Maybe it’s for the best, maybe it isn’t, oh well. With a chuckle here and there in his voice, Bogdanovich is amused all the way. And when he sneaks in an Orson Welles scene, perhaps he felt it more so. Culled from a giant encyclopedia and Rolodex of stars, this essay isn’t so much personal as it is a kind sentiment. It’s nice and gentle, but keeps a distance, relegating itself to the audience staring at the screen. How much farther past that can we get, with all these years lost?

Not a documentary but more, The Great Buster is quite a lovely way to round out a year of modern classics; by paying respect and tribute to their elder of the framework. It’s A Celebration first, foremost, and always, one that’s welcoming and within reach. I should look to books for more study. Or remastered blu rays. Or retrospective screenings. For now, this is fine.

RATING: 3 / 5

The Great Buster: A Celebration screens at Chalmette Movies starting this weekend.

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