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Great Directors: Buster Keaton

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There are some that find Keaton's films dull, preferring Chaplin's flash, his easy laughs and unearned tears. There is no pressing reason to choose between them, any more than there is a reason to choose between Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Both have their virtues and failings, depending on your point of view, but Keaton is definitely the more realistic of the two; when he kicks a villain in the ass, as Chaplin did constantly, his foot gets hurt.

The shorts Keaton made in the early twenties are warm-ups for his features, but they have exotic delights of their own. Filled with topical jokes about prohibition and the success of women's suffrage, they exhibit a consistent self-reflexivity, making them perhaps the first serious films about films themselves. In One Week (1920), there is a delicious scene: his newlywed wife is taking a bath. She drops the soap and reaches to get it, but then looks at the audience and makes a 'tsk-tsk!' face, whereupon a hand covers the camera lens to hide her nudity. This scene demonstrates his sophisticated awareness of the nature of the film medium, which would climax in Sherlock, Jr (1924). Keaton understood, instinctively, the dream-like nature of films — many of the shorts end with him waking up from a dream-filled slumber.

About Senses of Cinema:

Senses of Cinema is an online journal devoted to the serious and eclectic discussion of cinema. We believe cinema is an art that can take many forms, from the industrially-produced blockbuster to the hand-crafted experimental work; we also aim to encourage awareness of the histories of such diverse forms. As an Australian-based journal, we have a special commitment to the regular, wide-ranging analysis and critique of Australian cinema, past and present. Senses of Cinema is primarily concerned with ideas about particular films or bodies of work, but also with the regimes (ideological, economic and so forth) under which films are produced and viewed, and with the more abstract theoretical and philosophical issues raised by film study.

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