Instant Education

One morning in July 1898, when he was just 20 months old, Buster Keaton got his right index finger crushed when he stuck his hand in a clothes wringer out back of the boardinghouse where he was staying with his parents, who were vaudeville troupers. The local doctor took the finger off at the first joint, and Buster cried himself to sleep. When he woke up, he went back outside and started trying to knock a peach out of a tree with a rock. Instead, the rock hit him on the head, and it was back to the doc for three stitches in his scalp. That night he stayed inside, but it didn't do any good. While he stood watching a tornado from a second-story window, the wind suddenly scooped him up and blew him more than a city block before a man snatched him to safety. It was around that time that Buster's parents decided to incorporate him into their act, reasoning that he would be safer on stage where they could keep an eye on him.

That would be a horrifying story about almost any other baby, but since it is about the baby who would grow up to be Buster Keaton, it's both horrifying and funny, because it so neatly presages the multifold woes that Keaton would pile one on top of the other to create his indelible works of comic genius. So neatly, sadly, that it makes you wonder if it's true. Keaton's widow, the late Eleanor Keaton, tells the story in "Buster Keaton Remembered" (Abrams), a new posthumous book of reminiscences and biography written with film historian Jeffrey Vance. She probably heard it from her husband. Still, stories that sound too good to be true usually are. On the other hand, a lot of the facts about Keaton's childhood sound just as outlandish, and they are a matter of record. For starters, Buster, born Joseph Frank Keaton, got his nickname from Harry Houdini, a friend of the family. And what a family. The vaudeville act of "The Fighting Keatons" concentrated almost completely on the category known as knockabout farce. Think WWF played for laughs. Keaton's father would hurl his kid down a flight of stairs and throw him across the stage and into the audience. (Buster wore a door handle in the back of his stage costume to make the throwing more accurate.) They called him "The Human Mop" because the father would literally mop up the stage floor with his son.

My interest in Keaton was rekindled in the last couple of months by a pair of new Kino DVDs, "Arbuckle and Keaton, Vols. 1 & 2," restorations of the comedy film shorts the team produced between 1917 and 1920. These movies are the first that Keaton appears in, and right from the start you can see that he already has the Buster thing, the cornball-as-hip attitude, down cold. (OK, he had 20 years in vaudeville to hone his persona, but no one had to teach Keaton how to play to the camera-he was just a born movie actor.) Most of these movies don't have a plot, they have a situation. It's Fatty and Buster as bellboys, or Fatty and Buster as garage mechanics who double as firemen. Unsophisticated? Not any more than "Scary Movie" or its sequel-and a lot funnier.

But the most remarkable thing about these DVDs is that they are so accessible. I don't mean the comedy, although you certainly don't need to be a film scholar to get the jokes. I mean, quite simply, that you can get your hands on this stuff now with astonishing ease. Six months ago, I'd never heard of the Arbuckle-Keaton shorts, and now I can curl up in front of the tube and watch them all night long. So, say what you like about the current state of culture. Our ability to ignore the present and seek solace in past wonders more than makes up for any deficiencies in the current scene, musical, cinematic, you name it. What can you get? What can't you get?

In my youth, 30 years or so ago, the idea of seeing an old Buster Keaton movie was pretty much impossible, unless you lived in a big city, and I didn't. The only silent movies I remember seeing before adulthood were when, as a child, I would curl up in front of my cousins' television early Saturday morning-and I mean early, because we'd watch that Indian chief on the test pattern until programming started. Things kicked off with "The Little Rascals," and sometimes to fill out the hour, they'd show the silent ones. I don't remember liking them, but it was that or nothing, so I stuck around to watch. When I got to be a teenager and started listening to music, it was even worse. If I wanted to find out what Thelonious Monk sounded like, I had to find a store that sold his records and buy one. No radio station near me played anything resembling jazz. A couple of record stores did have listening booths, but that was as close as you got to checking something out before you bought it. Today all any curious kid has to do is log onto Amazon or some other site that peddles music and click on "Thelonious Monk," scroll down to the highlighted selections, and hear a sample of the music. Instant education. And this accessibility, so taken for granted, so unremarked on, is probably one of if not the greatest cultural breakthrough in my lifetime. Anybody almost anywhere can get his or her hands on a book, tape or DVD, and get hip in a hurry. For the first time, location does not matter. The global village has come to us.

Lately I've been wallowing in an excess of riches, watching Keaton and Arbuckle and listening nonstop to three new Columbia releases of Monk: "Monk in Tokyo," "Thelonius Monk-Live at the Jazz Workshop Complete" (which includes 12 previously unreleased tracks) and an anthology, "Thelonious Monk, the Columbia Years 1962-1968." I know, I know, this is not the purist's Monk, the Monk on Riverside or the Monk on Atlantic with Art Blakey. By 1962, Monk had more or less stopped composing new tunes. But he sure hadn't stopped playing. His performances on these albums are revelatory. And inspiring. After immersing myself in these recordings, I bought some sheet music and started teaching myself to play "Well You Needn't." How far have I come? About as far as learning that I've completely forgotten the bass clef since those childhood piano lessons. But it's coming back. And the act of slowly, painstakingly working my way through the music one bar at a time is the best way I've found yet to understand how the song is put together.

This, I believe, is the most persuasive rebuttal to the charge that all this access to old material only makes us more passive, more willing to just sit back and listen and watch. I don't think so. I think it makes us more curious, greedier to get out there and find more, learn more. If I can't hear "Well You Needn't," how am I ever going to want to learn how to play it?

Buster Keaton loved to tell a story about the making of "Sherlock Jr.," the 1924 film where, playing a movie projectionist, he falls asleep and dreams that he steps into the film on the screen. Everything you see happening in this movie actually happened. Keaton did his own stunts, so if he's seen walking across the cars of a moving railroad train, he's really walking on that train. (What you don't see-and what Keaton didn't even realize until he had an X-ray years later-is that when the water from the water tower blasts him onto the railroad track, it actually broke his neck.) One of the scenes he stumbles into involves lions, and in 1924 there were no computer graphics to help him out. The lions and Buster shared the same soundstage. There was a cage to protect the crew, but the lions and Buster were locked up together. The scene was shot without incident, but when the cameraman told Keaton they'd have to shoot the scene again for the negative that would be sent to European markets, the usually unflappable Keaton shot back, "They ain't going to see this scene in Europe!" Oh, but they will, Buster, they will now.

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