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CAMERA MAN: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century by Dana Stevens

    So many books and so little time. CAMERA MAN: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century by Dana Stevens is a must read on my to-do-list. After listening to Dana on the Marc Maron show, the highly intelligent writer has got my interest. It also helps that I am a fan of Buster Keaton. It’s great to see new passion for Buster Keaton, who has garnished rightly deserved praise as a brilliant artist in recent years. This is one book that you should pick up and polish your knowledge on a much under appreciated silent cinema dominated by Buster Keaton.

    In this genre-defying work of cultural history, the chief film critic of Slate places comedy legend and acclaimed filmmaker Buster Keaton’s unique creative genius in the context of his time.

    Born the same year as the film industry in 1895, Buster Keaton began his career as the child star of a family slapstick act reputed to be the most violent in vaudeville. Beginning in his early twenties, he enjoyed a decade-long stretch as the director, star, stuntman, editor, and all-around mastermind of some of the greatest silent comedies ever made, including Sherlock Jr., The General, and The Cameraman.

    Even through his dark middle years as a severely depressed alcoholic finding work on the margins of show business, Keaton’s life had a way of reflecting the changes going on in the world around him. He found success in three different mediums at their creative peak: first vaudeville, then silent film, and finally the experimental early years of television. Over the course of his action-packed seventy years on earth, his life trajectory intersected with those of such influential figures as the escape artist Harry Houdini, the pioneering Black stage comedian Bert Williams, the television legend Lucille Ball, and literary innovators like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Samuel Beckett.

    In Camera Man, film critic Dana Stevens pulls the lens out from Keaton’s life and work to look at concurrent developments in entertainment, journalism, law, technology, the political and social status of women, and the popular understanding of addiction. With erudition and sparkling humor, Stevens hopscotches among disciplines to bring us up to the present day, when Keaton’s breathtaking (and sometimes life-threatening) stunts remain more popular than ever as they circulate on the internet in the form of viral gifs. Far more than a biography or a work of film history, Camera Man is a wide-ranging meditation on modernity that paints a complex portrait of a one-of-a-kind artist.

    Dana Stevens has been Slate’s film critic since 2006. She is also a cohost of the magazine’s long-running culture podcast, Culture Gabfest, and has written for The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Atlantic, and Bookforum. She lives with her family in New York. Camera Man is her first book. You can follow her on Twitter @TheHighSign.

    Marc Maron talks with Dana about her new book, Camera Man, which is not just a biography of Keaton. It’s a look at the politics of film, the beginning of the studio system, the start of film criticism, the rise and fall of early movie stars, and how America dealt with the seismic change that was ushered in by this new art form. 

    “Dana Stevens’s “Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century” is a welcome complement, in that Stevens, a movie critic for Slate, contextualizes Keaton’s achievements in a way that Curtis does not. In an elegant preface, Stevens positions 1895, the year of Keaton’s birth, as a crucially transitional time, “not yet the 20th century but the still-illegible sign of what it might become.” Marconi has only just succeeded at “transmitting radio waves over a considerable distance.” Freud is struck by the idea to analyze his patients by interpreting their dreams. And in the basement of a Paris cafe, the Lumière brothers screen their moving pictures for a paying audience for the first time.”-New York Times

    “Dana Stevens, in “Camera Man” (Atria), takes an original and, in a way, more distanced approach to Keaton. In place of a standard social history of silent comedy, much less a standard biography, Stevens offers a series of pas de deux between Keaton and other personages of his time, who shared one or another of his preoccupations or projects. It’s a new kind of history, making more of overlapping horizontal “frames” than of direct chronological history, and Stevens does it extraordinarily well.” The New Yorker

    “Stevens gives us telling details—how a forgotten short film from the Ford Motor Company(!) was the almost-certain inspiration for Keaton’s second-made, first-released film as a director, “Home Made.” And she gives us the context—how the careers of Mabel Normand and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle intersected and paralleled Keaton’s. (She also makes it clear that Arbuckle’s cancellation following allegations of rape was never supported by the facts determined at legal proceedings.) Time telescoped before me as I read that Joseph Schenck, who was Keaton’s brother-in-law and producer in the ’20s, was the same man who gave Marilyn Monroe her start in the ’50s. –

    Tony M.