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Buster Keaton in The Cameraman

The Cameraman

1928. M-G-M, Directed by Eddie Sedgwick.With Buster Keaton and Marceline Day.

Despite its promising title, this late Keaton silent is a more conventional comedy than Sherlock, Jr. One reason may be that the eponymous cameraman is a newsreel photographer, so the focus here is the recording of real events rather than the camera's capacity to misrepresent (or perhaps hyper-represent) and confound.

The one time in this movie that Keaton plays with the artifice of moving pictures, it's presented as a joke and a failure. Buster is trying to break into the newsreel business (at "M-G-M News") and has gone around town shooting footage on spec. Unfamiliar with the moving-picture camera, he brings back a reel full of what his girl calls "mistakes": a diver leaps backward out of the water onto a diving board; a double-exposure makes an ocean liner appear to be gliding down Fifth Avenue; a city scene is broken up into multiple kaleidoscopic images like some German expressionist experiment. The cigar-chomping boss and the veteran cameramen laugh Buster out of the screening room. The girl who is trying to promote his career instructs him, "You must always grind forwards, never backwards."

But "grinding forwards" does not create the kind of cinematic mysteries that we're interested in on this List. The camera that confounds Buster here is a literal one, and his troubles with it are more often physical than metaphysical. He swings the tripod around and conks people (usually authority figures), he catches his tie in the mechanism, the tripod's legs spread out slowly and Buster has to sink to the ground with his camera. The gags are ingenious and often beautiful--in one scene he feeds ribbons of bullets into his camera and uses it as a machine gun--but they're about the perversity of mechanical objects, not the mysteries of film.

And yet. . . Buster Keaton could never treat a movie camera as simply a technological device. Look at the way the story resolves itself:


Buster's happiness ultimately hinges on the question of whether or not the camera has done its job and recorded the events before it. Buster is in despair because his exciting footage of a Chinatown shootout turns out to be blackness: there was no film in his camera. He's out of a job and he's lost the girl. Later he performs a daring rescue, but the bullying newsreel photographer who has been his nemesis throughout the film takes the credit. Luckily--in a turn of events that Walter Kerr calls "one of the genuinely surprising comic climaxes any silent comedian ever devised"--the whole rescue has been caught on film. Buster's heroism is revealed, he gets the girl, and the Chinatown footage turns up too.

Where SherlockJr explores, in a dreamlike way, the blurred line between what actually happens "out there" and what the camera perceives, The Cameraman focuses on a non-blurry kind of cinema--factual "pictures of the world's happenings," as the opening title states. Yet the camera, by being fortuitously present when needed, by showing and concealing with a kind of benevolent design, by in the end triumphing over human lies and resolving human confusions, proves to be a magic machine. The Cameraman finds Keaton slipping in, after all, what Kerr calls his "private trysts with the camera."



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein