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COVER STORY : His Silents Are Golden : Buster Keaton's name, like the laughter that his classic films evoke, reverberates around the world on the 100th anniversary of his birth.

October 29, 1995|Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

It always comes back to the face, the Great Stone Face, a face, it's been said, "that asks to be left alone." Samuel Beckett had it in mind when he wrote "Waiting for Godot," and critic James Agee believed it "ranked almost with Lincoln's as an early American archetype; it was haunting, handsome, almost beautiful." It's a face that continues to astonish, even today.

"Wherever I go, there's a great deal of speculation about whether he could actually smile or not," says Eleanor Keaton, Buster Keaton's widow, smiling herself. "The answer was yes, as long as there weren't any cameras around."

This year, with the 100th anniversary of Keaton's birth, the most expressive blank face in film history has been getting special attention. A new biography, "Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase" by Marion Meade, has just been published; a new documentary on his life will air Dec. 11 on the A&E channel; Kino on Video has issued a comprehensive 10-cassette series called "The Art of Buster Keaton," and film festival tributes are going on worldwide in cities that include Berlin, Rio de Janeiro and New York.

And, Thursday night at 8, in collaboration with the AFI/Los Angeles Film Festival and the L.A. County Museum of Art (whose own nine-week Keaton retrospective begins Saturday), the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gets into the act. "An Academy Tribute to Buster Keaton" will feature 75 minutes of superb clips, plus a conversation between Eleanor Keaton and silent film authority Kevin Brownlow, who is flying in from London just for the event and whose 1987 "Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow" documentary, made with David Gill, remains the best look at the man.

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One of the twin pillars (along with Charlie Chaplin) of silent film comedy, Buster Keaton had an unusual combination of talents that has helped his reputation do nothing but rise since his death in 1966. He brought an engineer's mind and a poet's sensibility to slapstick, ending up, in critic Peter Hogue's words, with "some magical and unlikely wedding of surrealism and Yankee pragmatism."

And James Agee, whose 1949 essay in Life magazine, "Comedy's Greatest Era," began the Keaton revival, was even more lyrical: "In a way his pictures are like a transcendent juggling act in which it seems that the whole universe is in exquisite flying motion and the one point of repose is the juggler's effortless, uninterested face."

What is even more remarkable is that, alone among the silent clowns, the spareness of Keaton's work has an exquisitely modern feeling about it. None of his contemporaries, and that definitely includes Chaplin, has managed to remain as outside of time as he does. No matter what happened to Buster's character, and extreme scenarios were his specialty, he never got over-emotional about things, never rolled his eyes or pleaded for the audience's sympathy. Rather, like a comic philosopher of despair, he accepted the world and his lot in it and tried to make the best of an increasingly preposterous situation.

"Everything was so clean and pure and mathematically correct, there was never anything sloppy," says Eleanor Keaton of her husband's work and its continuing appeal. And Patty Tobias, president of a Keaton appreciation society with members in nations as distant as Iceland, Pakistan and New Zealand, says film professors prefer to use Keaton to introduce the genre to students because "his films don't do what people stereotype silent comedies as doing."

If Keaton could be around to see all this fuss, says Eleanor Keaton, "he would be in total shock. He wouldn't believe it--in fact he didn't believe it when his films first started coming back." She says Keaton was similarly indifferent to efforts by a zealous entrepreneur named Raymond Rohauer to preserve his silent comedies: "He just didn't know what good it would do."

To understand this point of view, Eleanor Keaton emphasizes, you have to understand the attitudes prevalent when Keaton was in his prime. Movies were a new form considered as ephemeral and disposable as Kleenex. Even Buster's father, Joe, an old vaudevillian, had contempt for the medium, telling people: "You're not going to put my act on a bedsheet for 10-cent admissions." Keaton's films were originally created, his widow emphasizes, strictly to make money for the short period it took until the next one would be ready, "and that would be the end of them. This kind of interest, Buster couldn't visualize it."

Keaton was similarly uncomfortable about the post-Agee critical fuss that examined him in rarefied terms, memorably telling one interviewer, "No man can be a genius in slap-shoes and a flat hat."

"He didn't have a big ego, he was never impressed with himself, he'd performed from the time he was 4 years old and this was all in a day's work for him," Eleanor Keaton remembers. "Geniuses were great thinkers to him; he thought calling him that was unreliable information."

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