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During The Cameraman’s finale, Buster Keaton films newsreel footage as a (racially insensitive) gang war erupts in Chinatown. Satirizing media, Keaton grabs a knife, and drops it into a ground scuffle to, you know, make it more “exciting” for prime time (or in 1928, for theatrical news).

As is the norm for Keaton silents, the silent star plays an accidental buffoon, out of his league, and often emasculated. That fight is his chance to break into the industry; a little bloodshed is a small price, especially after the events leading to the climax.

There’s not a single missed gag in The Cameraman. Keaton mimes a baseball game in Yankee Stadium, chases down a bus, takes numerous pratfalls, and director creativity blossoms in a crane shot as the actor rushes down apartment steps. Silent cinema didn’t need rich characterization, yet Keaton embodies someone with a bumpy life. It’s legible on his face, his mannerisms, and his desperation. Nothing goes right, something always interfering, whether on a career path or in love.

The Cameraman inspires viewers to never quit or lose hope – there’s always a chance

Much is made of Keaton working under MGM’s restrictive process and the resulting clamp down on the star’s filmmaking spirit. The Cameraman represents a shift, but not a departure. A story of Keaton finding love, failing, and shying from masculine traits isn’t straying from formula; it’s decidedly Keaton. Less daring maybe, certainly less complex, missing the rabid pace, but wholeheartedly innocent. The immediately empathetic, likable simpleton only wants a date and job security. Everything gets in the way, and through Keaton’s style, it’s usually bigger, bruising men who create a comically wimpy visual against the action.

Even when locked in a cramped dressing room trying to change for a day at the pool, Keaton never throws a punch. Most men would. And yet, he’s a shy, quiet fighter whose tenacity and enthusiasm never escape his limber body. Only a year away from the Great Depression, The Cameraman inspires viewers to never quit or lose hope – there’s always a chance.

All the falls, flailing, and awkward social interactions lead to a strangely inspiring comedic classic. Helpless, Keaton’s affection for all that he does is clear, unwilling to break, even when accosted by a Capuchin monkey he’s forced to buy. In fact, those animal interactions capture such comic purity, it’s a shame Keaton didn’t pair with more animals in his silent tenure. Saving that for one of the final reels was a grand choice.

Video

Criterion’s 4K master for this Blu-ray is obscene. That’s figuratively, for the quality, and literally, since the added clarity shows more of co-star Marceline Day in the pool than was ever likely visible prior.

Utilizing a split source from surviving elements, The Cameraman begins with passable 16mm footage. While damaged, it’s acceptable given the circumstances. Contrast blows out a little, running hot, and sharpness reaches an adequate peak. Were all of The Cameraman like this, it’d still impress.

Then comes the switch to 35mm, and suddenly, Criterion issues what is likely the purest, cleanest, and sharpest silent on Blu-ray. Impeccable grain reproduction, masterful gray scale, outstanding detail, and ludicrously flawless condition show results from countless man hours in the mastering room.

More than Day’s revealing bathing suit, it’s possible to make out the minuscule cracks in the office window, prepped for a glass shattering gag when the door shuts. A long shot down Chinatown’s streets shows every brick, sign, and person on the march. Jaw-dropping isn’t the right adjective or phrase, because none can capture how stellar this looks.

Audio

A perky score in PCM finds proper balance, bouncing into the low-end as needed, along with sharp highs. As a modern recording, there’s little to complain about.

Extras

Criterion includes a second Keaton feature – his final silent – Spite Marriage complete with a new 2K scan. For The Cameraman, author Glenn Mitchell speaks on a decent commentary track (he often just narrates the action), sourced from 2004. From the same year, a 38-minute documentary about Keaton’s MGM career.

The new stuff includes Time Travelers, detailing the locations used in the film. A chat with author James Neibaur runs 14-minutes. And, because Criterion is Criterion, they restored a 1979 feature on movie cameras at full 4K, from a 16mm print; this runs 33-minutes.

The Cameraman
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras
4

Movie

While lacking the usual effusive pace and danger, The Cameraman still represents the best of Buster Keaton’s comic style.

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