Political and Artistic impacts of Buster Keaton The Cameraman.

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I was wondering about Buster Keaton (Chaplin rival) and his Political and Artistic impacts in The Cameraman. This film was the last true Keaton film before MGM took over his career. As a result he made this film a powerful message to the public. Did he have any significant political and/or artistic impacts on film making?

 Tags: Artistic, buster, Cameraman, impacts, Keaton, Political



  1. Guest23284964

    Buster Keaton would be seriously puzzled today if he were alive and knew that people were paying $35-$45 for copies of his film, THE CAMERAMAN. The film has survived in pristine condition, and is a popular favorite among audiences today. The film does not feature any incredible or death-defying stunts, however, there are a number of set pieces that provide exciting humor (the staircase sequence, for instance), and also some hilarious situations such as when he loses his bathing suit at the municipal plunge, or when he has to protect his camera from the attackers during a tong war. Thankfully, MGM had not yet put Keaton in films that did not fit his established persona (SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK), or that did not take advantage of his particular comic gifts (FREE AND EASY). Keaton is wonderful throughout, charismatic, sympathetic, and agile. Marceline Day is a charming female lead and actually makes a three-dimensional character out of what could have been a superficial role in other hands. She continued working into the sound era until the mid-1930s, but wound up in poverty-row features.

    THE CAMERAMAN is well worth watching and shows that initially Keaton was able to work well within MGM's system.

    Here is an excellent diagnosis of the film by Your Boone, published in October 2003:


    The Pose of the Misfit:

    Buster Keaton in ?The Cameraman


    This paper offers an analysis of the film The Cameraman (Sedgwick, 1928, feat. Buster Keaton) by re-examining a case made in an earlier analysis by the French Keaton critic Jean-Pierre Coursodon. The main focus is on the tension between stasis and dynamism with regard to the issues of physical performance and technical form. The analysis is secured by a close examination of one distinctively illustrative scene, and afterwards extrapolated to the rest of the film.


    In a review of Sedgwick's The Cameraman, the French film critic Jean-Pierre Coursodon describes the protagonist's physical performance as regrettably lackluster in comparison with earlier Buster Keaton products. Luke Shannon might appear a near complete rehash of the canonical Keaton character, yet the physical bravado of a Johnny Gray or a William McKay seems alien to him. However, rather than discarding the lack of dynamism from which Luke suffers as a flaw of The Cameraman, as Coursodon is tempted to do, we will argue that it contributes to the theme and as such is tied to formal aspects of the film. In order to do so, we will start by exposing the storyline of the film. After this, we will examine the topic of physical dynamism which we will then link to cinematic dynamism. Finally, we will try to focus on the relevance of the interconnectedness of these two to the plot.

    Since it will serve our argument later on, we will begin by setting forth the well-known story. Luke Shannon, a tintype' portrait photographer, falls in love with a happenstance client named Sally, who works at the MGM newsreel department of New York City. In a desperate attempt to win her over, the love-stricken photographer barters his photo camera for a film camera and endeavors to enroll as an operator at MGM. His first attempts at news shorts, however, turn out to be horribly amateurish, making him the laughing stock of Hearst professionals. Amongst them is Harold, Luke's chief rival for Sally's affection. Taking pity on her persistent suitor, Sally secretly lets him in on a potential headliner: a Chinatown Tong war.

    On his way to the scene of fighting Luke has an eventful run-in with an organ grinder, after which he ends up as the rightful owner of a monkey. He manages to get some front row shooting of the Tong war and triumphantly returns to MGM, only to find that the footage is missing. Fatally discouraged, Luke then seems to abandon both his amatory and professional aspirations. Sometime later however, upon witnessing a motorboat accident involving Sally and Harold, Luke undertakes a perilous rescue of his former love, while his cowardly rival saves himself. During the incident, Sally had passed out from exposure to the cold water, so that she is unsuspecting when Harold claims full credit for her rescue afterwards. In the mean time, Luke discovers that his monkey had got hold of the reel recording the Tong war and had also filmed Luke's rescue of Sally. He has the reel delivered to MGM, where he is recognized as a great cameraman by the department chief and as a fearless rescuer by Sally.

    Fitting In

    Set in New York City, the story evidently provides none of the open spaces featured in some of Keaton's earlier films. Coursodon reckons that this fact contributes to the stasis apparent in The Cameraman. He makes his case in a passage that could be translated thus: \"Perhaps it is because of the limitations which an urban setting imposes on physical action that the hero of the film does not have the full-fledged originality of the heroes in Our Hospitality, The Navigator or The General, who define themselves by a kind of action that is sustained, complicated and conquering\". Indeed Luke seems to have trouble physically manifesting him, to such extent that he is persistently threatened by physical oppression while struggling for a place near Sally. He appears to us, far from conquering', as a misfit in the most immediate sense of the word, as a person who has no place in the social space.

    Exemplary for this diagnosis is the passage where Luke takes Sally out for a date. At about half an hour into the movie, the two of them climb a double-decker on their way to the Municipal Plunge swimming pool. Sally easily finds herself a seat on the lower deck, but Luke is cut off from her by a mob suddenly mounting the vehicle. Struggling against a tide of stair-climbing brutes, he is lifted to the upper deck on the shoulders of one of them. A little after, Luke and Sally arrive at their destination and make for the counter, walking hand in hand, when a gentleman gets himself caught up in their clasped arms). While still casting an angry frown at the gentleman's back, Luke bumps into another man standing at the counter. Next, he fishes out from his pockets the coins earned from his portrait work when suddenly a woman bumps on his elbow, scattering the money all over the pavement. More hardships ensue as Luke's hand is trampled upon when he tries to pick the money up.

    Apparently, the space which Luke wishes for himself in the public, especially near Sally, is already partly or completely occupied, and he lacks the physical prowess to claim it by force. An inversion of this procedure is also indicative. Instead of obstructing the space Luke wants to occupy, there are spatial elements that keep him bound to his current surroundings when he tries to move on to the next; we will cite some examples taken from the same scene as discussed above. At one point, Luke starts walking away from the Municipal Plunge counter while the tickets in his hand are still attached to a reel, forcing him to stop as he clings on to them when the veering is gone. Just as unsuspectingly, he is hooked by the ball retainer when he forgets to pay him his dues. These restraining elements have the very same effect as the aforementioned oppressive elements: hindering Luke's free movement in the company of Sally and compelling the physically unfit to spatial stasis.

    Moving On

    At this point a link can be made between physical and cinematic dynamism as apparent in The Cameraman, for there is an obstruction to Luke's movement, an element periodically functioning as a spatial restraint, which we have refrained from mentioning until now, namely the camera as a confiner of action. This however is directly related to another major element of the storyline ? And an essential drive in the plot: Luke's conversion from photographer to cameraman. Naturally, the opposition between photographer and cameraman recalls the anathematized opposition between stasis and dynamism, seen here in technical rather than physical terms. But before elaborating on the interconnectedness of these two forms of dynamism on the level of the plot, we will try and demonstrate Luke's initial failure as a cameraman, as represented on the level of the action and on a formal level.

    Calling back to mind the scene in front of the Municipal Plunge, a first instance illustrative of Luke's apparent inability to transform himself from photographer into cameraman is symbolically manifest on the level of the action. We hint here at the previously quoted incident with the tickets at the counter. The reel of tickets, as the description gives away, bears an uncanny resemblance to a reel of film; the reel preventing free movement and compelling Luke to stasis thus mirrors his failed attempt to move on from photography to film camera work. But more often Luke's failure is translated not onto the level of action, but into the formal structure of the film. In the light of Luke's physical struggle for space the most obvious procedure in this respect is the restrictive use of a static camera, of which we will show some examples.

    We can note several occasions on which the camera refuses to follow the course of action, and in doing so outwits the Keaton character. When Sally makes her way to the ladies' dressing rooms, Luke follows her through the door and closes it behind them. At this point, unwilling to cut to the next space, the camera instead keeps focusing the door. After only a few moments Luke pops back out with a vacant gaze. A similar event occurs in the men's dressing rooms: Luke stumbles into a cabin that is already occupied while the camera awaits his inevitable return to the corridor in prognostic stasis. But it is not only during Luke's attempted trespassing on to an occupied space that the camera plays out its restrictive potential. In yet another cabin, Luke himself is surprised by a beefy visitor, and the two men try to dress in the cramped cabin where they are held together by a single shot for fully three minutes. The claustrophobic framing makes their actions derail into a genuine struggle for space.

    Even when he is not bumping into or hooking on to obstacles, the portrayal of Luke's movement around Sally obeys a similar logic. Most often his trajectory is broken up and rendered in several shots, linked by continuity editing, while tracking shots, pans and tilts are rare. There are examples of Luke's displaying athletic dynamism in a stunning sprint, portrayed in a devoted tracking shot, for example when on his way to Sally's home, or in his make-believe Yankee game at the stadium. Still, he is only granted this freedom of movement precisely because Sally is not around.

    A key example of the prevalent depiction of Luke's movement around Sally occurs thirty-five minutes into the movie. Sally, just having left the women's dressing rooms, is strolling along the poolside while the camera tracks her steps. Some seconds through the shot, she lingers, on the lookout for Luke, when suddenly a band of muscled men come swimming in from the bottom of the screen, and, eager for her companionship, climb out of the water in her pursuit. All the while the shot is unbroken and the camera continues tracking movement. Only when Luke enters the scene this tracking dynamic is abolished, the camera favoring once again a fixed shot of Luke with Sally and her suite walking in from the right of the screen. For the next few moments Luke worms himself through the wall of admirers to lead Sally out by the hand; this pseudo-rescue presented in several shots linked through continuity editing.

    There is all in all only two instances where the camera does track the movement of the two when they are together ? Their rareness making these shots the more significant. The first occurs right before they mount the double-decker, at about, when they are strolling down the street. The tracking movement is interrupted by an instance of physical unfitness when Luke slips on a banana peel. The second, in fact a series of tracking shots, is reserved for the end. Sally seeks out Luke after recognizing him as her true rescuer and ascertains him that his fame is on everybody's lips. As she leads him by the hand towards the MGM premises, a cheering crowd forms around them ? Mistaken by Luke for his supporters ? Still leaving them enough room to walk on side by side and for once unhindered, their movement is depicted in four tracking shots, intercut by one showing the real reason for the gathering: Charles Lindbergh passes through town after his flight over the Atlantic.

    Sizing Up

    The fact that physical and cinematic dynamism co-occur in the ending sequence is no coincidence, but rather an indication that they feature as interdependent factors in the film, as argued above, and that their mutual dependence plays a significant role in the plot, as we will argue from here on. As seen in the exposition of the story in the first part of this essay, Luke only wins Sally over after undertaking two significant actions: the first, heroically rescuing her from drowning, and the second, recording this rescue on film at the same time. This proves that, in order to be able to move freely around his love, he needed to become both a physical hero and a cameraman. This is mirrored in the identity of his eager competitors, icons of dynamism on both levels: cameramen, most notably Harold, and the aforementioned bunch of athletes at the swimming pool.

    Harold, Luke's adversary both in love and in his mission of technical advancement, has been the most important competitor from the outset. He steals Sally away from Luke's company at the end of their date, and beguiles her into believing that he rescued her from drowning. The athletes, Luke's physical and amatory competitors, appear as soon as Sally enters the swimming pool. Dubbed \"Sea Lions\" by a jealous Luke, they attract her attention with hazardous diving and cut her off from Luke by interfering with their ball game. As the intertwining of physical and cinematic dynamism implies the intertwining of their representatives, we will argue that the athletes and Harold are in most instances transformations of each other from a cinematic on to a physical level and vice versa.

    First, both Harold and the athletes display features that are normally appropriated to the other: on the one hand, we find cinematic dynamism in the gracefully rendered diving of the athletes, as well as in their pursuit of Sally around the pool, both brought in careful tracking shots; on the other hand, we see physical dynamism in Harold's overtaking of Luke in a speedboat, while Luke himself is growing at snail's pace. A second clear link appears when Luke fails to size up against either of them on a first encounter. When demonstrating his newly acquired film camera at the newsreel department, he virtually dismantles the tool, and finds himself mocked by Harold who in contrast is so handy with a camera. A transformation of this event occurs when Luke accidentally stumbles into the swimming pool wearing the ludicrously oversized bathing suit of one of the \"sea lions.\" He tries to imitate their expert diving, but clumsily trips and loses the bathing suit in the process.


    In a film entitled The Cameraman, it is evident that the cinematic presentation of the film will be seen as thematically significant, as evident as it is to draw attention to physical aptness in a film featuring Buster Keaton. Given this, The Cameraman could do no other than examine the elements of physical performance and technical skills in mutual response. These elements, as we have seen, were represented in a constant tension between stasis and dynamism: for both elements, stasis is what characterizes the protagonist in the beginning of the film whereas dynamism is what has to be aspired to if the love story is to reach its apex. The dramatic tension of the film is a consequence of the presence of competitors with regards to both elements, and what is at stake in each case is the same: a place next to Sally.

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