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A Bloc of Buster
May 30, 2005 — 11:48 am

This morning I stumbled across this book review of a Buster Keaton biography. A couple years ago, I bought an 11-disc DVD set of Buster Keaton’s films, but never got around to wading through the entire collection. Passages like this make me eager to get started again:

In this spiffy new biography, Edward McPherson is especially good at describing the ingenuity at the heart of Keaton’s career. Consider an early, two-reel tour de force, “The Playhouse.” A precursor to the restaurant scene in “Being John Malkovich,” the film is all Buster, almost all the time. That is, the playhouse audience is composed of nothing but Busters — every man, woman and child. Same with the orchestra: Buster after Buster after Buster. And when the curtain goes up, here come the Buster Keaton Minstrels, nine cavorting replicas of guess who.

As McPherson explains, for the on-stage sequence Keaton in effect split the screen into nine fragments, one for each minstrel, “courtesy of a custom-designed shuttered lightproof casing that fit over the camera. . . . To create the minstrels, the shutters simply were opened one at a time, with the film rewound in between. However, mechanical precision was not enough. It took the steady arm of cameraman Elgin Lessley — the human metronome — to crank each exposure at exactly the same speed. And then — to achieve onscreen synchronicity — Buster had to give nine flawless, identical performances. . . . One slipup — by anyone, on any take — would ruin the strip of film, and with it all the previous work.” To see how fiendishly well Keaton and Lessley collaborated, rent “The Playhouse” from your video store and be wowed.

— Eric D. DixonComments (0)

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Eric D. Dixon

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