Few, if any, forms of art have changed as fast as cinema. From the beginning, it was married to the greatest boom of technology the world has ever known. From the Kinetoscope and the Lumière Brothers to the birth of studios to talkies to color to 3D and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Movies have always been changing as fast as they could be made, which, generally speaking, has left audiences rapt. But this avalanche of change — like the gloriously unhinged avalanche in “Seven Chances” — has had little regard for the norms and the people in its way. Buster Keaton, the indelible king of physical comedy danced around the boulders in “Seven Chances” but was thoroughly bulled over by the changing industry. While his legacy remains intact, the arc of his career is one of painful, if humble, desperation. But while “The Great Buster: A Celebration,” a new documentary about Great Stone Face, covers the arc of his life, it aims for simplicity, for a celebration of his unrivaled talents, and often fails to explore the complexity of the very man at its center.
Keaton was born into a pratfall. His family was a touring comedy troupe and the young Buster was on stage before he was two. He transitioned into films under the guidance of Fatty Arbuckle before rocketing to fame as the director and star of his own two-reel shorts. Stardom came quick, of course, and Keaton was soon writing, directing and starring in his own features, most of which he made during the 1920s. His fall, though, began in 1927, with the birth of sound. That alone might have been a storm Keaton could have weathered, but he also signed a disastrous deal with MGM that robbed him of his creative agency, divorced his wife (who changed the last names of his children), and sank into alcoholism. That he bounced back to rebuild and sustain a reputable, if, at times, unworthy-of-his-former-glory career, is no small feat.