A few weeks ago the International Buster Keaton Society (also known as the Damfinos) celebrated the 100th anniversary of Buster’s first day on a movie set: March 21, 1917. They were able to pinpoint the date by consulting Buster’s own hand-written diary! That gives you some idea of the dedication of Keaton followers, who have much to take in right now.
Keaton completists will want to check out Notfilm, a highly personal documentary years in the making by Ross Lipman. It is available in a two-disc edition from Milestone Films, with a generous amount of bonus material Lipman accumulated while researching and producing his film. He calls it a kino-essay, which gives you an idea of his approach and the tone of the piece. It might also be called Events Leading Up to the Production of ‘Film,’ as it details the life and work of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, his partnership with American publisher Barney Rosset of the Grove Press, and his collaboration with theater director Alan Schneider. They joined forces to make an experimental silent short and chose Buster as their star. However, Notfilm confirms my longtime belief that Buster Keaton was not so much a muse as a pawn in the making of this avant-garde silent short.
I appear briefly in the documentary because I visited the set and met Keaton when I was 13 years old with my pal Louis Black. Little did we know that standing nearby was actor James Karen, who appears in Film and later became a close friend. At 94, Jimmy is now the only person who can provide a clear-eyed account of the film’s production. Disc 2 presents an uncut version of his interview.
As for Film itself, I didn’t know what to make of it when I attended its premiere at the New York Film Festival in 1965. I find it somewhat more interesting today because of Buster’s poignant presence and because Notfilm provides useful context. It, too, is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Milestone.
If your interest is strictly vintage Keaton, you should know about Lobster Films’ digital restoration of his classic silent films (following in the footsteps of a similarly ambitious project on Chaplin). The results are being released in the U.S. by Kino Lorber. If you already own Kino Lorber’s previous DVD and Blu-ray releases of these classics you may wonder if it’s worth upgrading your copies. This is not an easy question to answer, but know this: Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange of Lobster have reviewed every frame of the Keaton films available from the world’s archives and used the best versions. They aren’t working scene by scene but shot by shot! They have also performed digital cleaning of dirt, dust, and artifacts.
Comparing the “old” and new releases of College on Blu-ray the difference is relatively minor; the title cards are much cleaner in the new edition but the picture quality is relatively the same. In Three Ages, however, one can see how some shots are notably sharper and the effects of nitrate deterioration have been muted or minimized.
Kino has also gone the extra mile to add new bonus material to their first round of Keaton double-features: there are new scores on The General (one by Robert Israel, which is an update of his previous score, and one by Joe Hisaishi), a new audio commentary by Mike Schlesinger and Stan Taffel, and “Return of the General” (a vintage short film on the restoration of the locomotive).
New material on Three Ages includes an Alka-Seltzer commercial and Candid Camera TV segment featuring Buster. There are also two scores: one by Robert Israel and one by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. includes a new audio commentary by Mike Schlesinger and Stan Taffel, a score by Timothy Brock not featured on the previous version, an introduction by Serge Bromberg, and a vintage Alka-Seltzer commercial featuring Keaton.
College offers a Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra score, an introduction by Serge Bromberg, a filmed introduction by Lillian Gish (from “The Silent Years” television series), and the 1928 Mack Sennett collegiate comedy Run Girl Run with a young Carole Lombard. You can learn more HERE.
As for celebrating the Buster’s hundredth anniversary in movies, you can sign up for e-mail blasts and Facebook updates by logging onto www.busterkeaton.com. I also encourage you to join the Damfinos and receive their enthusiastic and erudite newsletter, The Keaton Chronicle. I look forward to each new issue and always learn something I didn’t know before.