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Beyond Surrealism: Keaton's Legacy LiKE HIS silent film character, Buster Keaton was a survivor. Despite his dismissal by MGM in 1933, his ongoing battle with alcoholism through much of the 1930s and 1940s, and his rela­ tive obscurity until the final years of his life, Keaton continued to make a moderate living as a performer.1 Though he never regained the budget and artistic control necessary for the realization of the cinematic vision he devel­ oped during the 1920s, Keaton always worked, in film and later in televi­ sion. Yet during these dark days of his career, his influence seemed to wane. Surrealists no longer invoked his name; cinematographers no longer stud­ ied his camera techniques. His name, at least in the public eye, became equated with the generic image of the old silent film comedies—that of a pie-thrower, despite the fact that Keaton never threw a single pie in any of the films he directed during the 1920s. Keaton simply used such a miscon­ ception to survive, making guest appearances on television variety shows with comedians such as Ed Wynn, in which he threw pies as if he were born to do only that. The lessons in publicity he learned from his father during his childhood ensured his living during the lean years. Yet in the 1960s, Keaton re-emerged as a living icon of the silent-film era and began to get steady work as a film actor. Seeing Keaton in his last films is alternately exciting and depressing—exciting because he retains much of his earlier vitality and humanity as a performer, yet depressing because he continued to be denied the opportunity to direct his own films and fully control his working process. Nonetheless, to survive at the end of his career, Keaton did not become merely an actor-pawn in other people's films; on the contrary, he survived by holding on to whatever measure of artistic control he could acquire. Fortunately, two of Keaton's last and to my mind most B E Y O N D S U R R E A L I S M 135 significant film appearances—in Gerald Potterton's The Railroader (1965) and Samuel Beckett's Film (1965)—were well-documented, and the records of his working process provide a lucid picture of Keaton's artistic concerns and methods in the more restricted circumstances of his last films.2 These films were debuts, of a sort, for both directors: Alan Schneider enjoyed the distinction of having directed the American premieres of Beck­ ett's major plays, but Film was to prove his first and last film-directing expe­ rience; and although Gerald Potterton was an accomplished young director of animated films (he would go on to create animation for Yellow Submarine [1968] and Heavy Metal [1981]), The Railroader was his first live action film. For this reason, Keaton might be considered the best or the worst possible actor for these men to employ. Although he brought a wealth of experience to these projects and was, by all accounts, an extremely patient and dedicated performer, Keaton also retained strong ideas about how films should be made, and, as I have described in the previous chapters, he thrived in an environment where he was allowed to improvise. Improvisa­ tion and collaboration flourish in an atmosphere of trust, and new film di­ rectors, no matter how accomplished in other media, might find it difficult to cede a certain amount of artistic control to a more experienced actor/ director like Keaton. Gerald Potterton's The Railroader Gerald Potterton gave Keaton much greater freedom to improvise and col­ laborate during the filming of The Railroader than Alan Schneider allowed him in Film. Potterton originally conceived of the project essentially as an animated film: "Up to that time I had worked mostly in animation, so my initial idea was to place Buster's live-action face on an animated body and send him across Canada."3 After he discovered that Keaton was still alive— like many people who had seen only Keaton's silent films, Potterton as­ sumed he had died years ago—he contacted Keaton and hired him as a performer. But once on location in Canada, Potterton discovered that Kea­ ton was more than just a live body for his first live action film; he still had an active comic imagination and the desire to contribute to the process of filmmaking. Several factors led Potterton to allow Keaton more artistic...


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