Documentary Review: Bogdanovich reminds us of the Genius of “The Great Buster”

buster1Film fans revere Charlie Chaplin, but they — we — LOVE Buster Keaton.

He was the embodiment of comic stoicism, an often hapless but never rattled “Great Stone Face” who never let on how funny he was or how hilarious his precarious predicaments could be.

Peter Bogdanovich, the film scholar turned filmmaker (“Paper Moon”) has loved Keaton forever, and his documentary “The Great Buster: A Celebration” establishes those bonafides right in the opening moments. He and director Frank Capra chatted at length on “The Dick Cavett Show” in the early ’70s about this then-forgotten genius of the silent cinema.

A child of vaudeville, trained to take a punch and a fall from infancy, named “Buster” by no less than Harry Houdini, a giant of the silent cinema, creator of some of the most enduring and repeated-to-this-day sight gags in film history, director of “The Boat,” “Seven Ages” and the greatest epic of silent comedy, “The General,” Keaton undergoes a revival every decade or so simply because his antiquated black and white/silent movies remain hilarious to this day.

“Great Buster” turns Bogdanovich’s lifelong appreciation into cinematic adoration, using generous clips of Keaton’s short films, features and late-life TV appearances to remind us that, as Johnny Knoxville says in the movie, “he was funny then, he’s funny now and he’ll be funny 100 years from now.”

Stuntman/actor Knoxville is one of the legions of Keaton fans Bogdanovich rounded up to give testimonials, with Knoxville most admiring that the man did his own deathly-dangerous (and funny) stunts right up to the end. Actor James Karen was a friend, Paul Dooley (“Breaking Away/Popeye”) was such a fan he fought to get into a TV commercial Keaton did for Ford Econoline vans in the 1950s (He’s one of the “Keystone Cops” in this spot).

Dick Van Dyke knew Keaton, learned how to take pratfalls from him and admits, “I stole as many moves from him as I could…He was like a ballet dancer, incredible control of his body.”

The clown Bill Irwin gushes at Keaton’s single-take brilliance in a classic “Candid Camera” bit, admirer Richard Lewis befriended Keaton’s widow and treasures a porkpie hat she made him just like the one that was Keaton’s trademark.

Quentin Tarantino, Mel Brooks and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” director Jon Watts use Keaton as a filmmaking reference and inspiration.

“He always had that quiet tragedy which is very, very funny,” Werner Herzog says. And about Keaton’s role as a founding father of motion pictures, “He is the essence of cinema.”

Cybill Shepherd vouches for his acting, Keaton’s mime-face realization that “Acting’s all in the eyes.”

Bogdanovich shows us a sequence, the facade of a house falling over Keaton or him grabbing a passing car to make his getaway in “Cops,” and Carl Reiner, Bill Hadar and others marvel at “How’d he DO that?”

Comic actor Nick Kroll dissects the deadpan Keaton persona with this spot-on take — “In these heightened comic scenarios, playing them incredibly seriously  raises the stakes of every scene he plays.”

And Bogdanovich as narrator relates Keaton anecdotes, describes the arc of his personal life — triumph to tragedy, to revival — and analyzes scenes, Keaton’s penchant for long takes allowing an entire gag to develop without tricks or cuts, what film critic Leonard Maltin means when he says “The best special effect in a Buster Keaton movie is Buster himself.”

Back in 1987, PBS filmmakers David Gill and Kevin Brownlow presented a three part “American Masters” tribute titled “Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow.” Narrated by the great British director Lindsay Anderson, it was thorough, sweeping and at close to three hours in length, pretty much the definitive Keaton biographical documentary.

It was itself a hard act to follow as Bogdanovich’s film covers the same ground in much the same way. But Bogdanovich found different scenes from Keaton’s movies, fresher TV commercials from Keaton’s later years and lots of funny people to marvel over their idol in this fresh, lively and thoroughly entertaining remembrance of a great clown, a “Great Stone Face” and a brilliant filmmaker.

MPAA Rating: unrated, profanity

Cast: Buster Keaton, Peter Bogdanovich, Mel Brooks, Werner Herzog, Bill Hader, Nick Kroll, Carl Reiner, Cybill Shepherd, Richard Lewis

Credits: Written and directed by Peter Bogdanovich. A Cohen Media Group release.

Running time: 1:42

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