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Great Buster: A Celebration, The
Now, more than 30 years later, comes director Peter Bogdanovich's The Great Buster (2018). While one would hardly begrudge any project that might introduce Keaton's masterpieces to a new audience, it's a curious documentary insofar as almost all of it covers the same ground in the same way using the same film excerpts. Often, the new film's interviewees even tell, second-hand, anecdotes directly culled from the Brownlow-Gill series. Though the interviewees have perceptive things to say, some of this material pales pathetically to that found in A Hard Act to Follow, like director Jon Watts explaining his Spider-Man in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) was an homage to Keaton (!), or clips from Jackass Number Two (2006) while star Johnny Knoxville claims that he's carrying on in the Keaton tradition (!!).
Beyond those outrageous moments, The Great Buster is moderately interesting, but largely unnecessary. There's precious little material that didn't appear in the Brownlow-Gill series, one exception being an intriguing clip from the 1984-like TV drama Keaton starred in "The Awakening," a 1954 episode of Rheingold Theatre.
Perhaps wanting to distinguish itself from the earlier show, The Great Buster has a different structure. The first two-thirds chronologically covers Keaton's life story, but saves Keaton's best years, from 1923's Three Ages to 1928's Steamboat Bill, Jr. for the end. Unlike what had preceded it, that last section plays more like a visual essay, eschewing (nearly) all the interview commentary and miscellaneous odd film excerpts that had come before.
The Brownlow-Gill series was dominated by film and audio clips of Keaton himself discussing his career, interviews with Keaton's devoted widow, Eleanor, and innumerable filmmaking colleagues. As nearly all those people are long dead, Bogdanovich relies on a different mix of people, actor James Karen (who died last year at 94) being the only carryover. The interviews themselves feel rather out-of-balance. Younger interview subjects like actor Bill Hader express much admiration but offer not much insight, while nonagenarians Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, and Dick Van Dyke barely have more onscreen time than their fleeting appearances in the movie's trailer. (Now) 104-year-old Norman Lloyd tells a great story about Keaton working with Chaplin on Limelight (1952) that I'd never heard before, as does actor Paul Dooley, who describes playing a Keystone Kop in a ‘60s car commercial with Keaton, whom he revered, but there's not enough of this. Probably the film would have benefitted from more commentary by acclaimed clown-pantomimist-actor Bill Irwin, but most of his footage refers to an awkward, early ‘30s encounter Keaton had with comic Jack Pearl, footage previously shown in the Brownlow-Gill series.
Bogdanovich's film, clearly, was spurred by Cohen Media's forthcoming Blu-ray releases (and perhaps theatrical reissues) of Keaton's classic features, to generate interest while distinguishing them from Kino's earlier Blu-ray releases. No harm in that, but one wishes The Great Buster* would have mined a larger percentage of clips different from those excerpted in A Hard Act to Follow. Even miscellaneous footage, like Keaton's appearance on the TV show This Is Your Life and the Canadian-made The Railrodder and its accompanying documentary, Buster Keaton Rides Again (both 1965) are largely identical, with the same start-stop points.
Video & Audio
The Great Buster (subtitled "A Celebration") is presented in 1.78:1 with, of course, clips from Keaton's films presented in their proper 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Other than a brief excerpt from the misbegotten The Buster Keaton Story (1957), which looks sourced from VHS, the clips and newly-shot interviews all look and sound great. Audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and there are no subtitle options on this Region "A" disc.
Supplements are limited to a trailer and a half-hour post-screening conversation with Bogdanovich (on a screen smaller than mine at home!). It's marred slightly but inferior audio and poor lighting.
In the shadow of the Brownlow-Gill A Hard Act to Follow, The Great Buster plays much like Keaton's Educational and Columbia two-reelers of the 1930s: pleasant with scattered moments of inspiration, but essentially remakes or, as Keaton called them, "cheaters." Rent it.
* Not to appear too picky, but the overly-familiar title The Great Buster is pretty awkward itself. It's hard to imagine, for instance, documentaries called The Great Ingmar or The Great Orson.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.