Buster Keaton lives on in the hearts and minds of filmmakers.
This year, Keaton made an appearance on NBC's Heroes. Hiro and Ando, a pair of Japanese heroes, pursue a Haitian bad guy into a French theater to watch an American comedy. Wow, multiculturalism gives me a headache. Keaton's Cops is playing on the screen when they first enter the theater.
But the film on screen changes abruptly as the scene progresses. If you look below, you can now see the climax of Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) visible over the shoulders of actor Jimmy Jean-Louis. Keaton, blown through the street by a cyclone, tumbles across the screen.
Keaton's influence has been seen this year on the big screen.
First, his name came up in reviews for WALL-E. Jeffrey Westhoff, a critic with the Northwest Herald, wrote "[I]magine Buster Keaton as a small box with binoculars for eyes and tank treads for legs. . . WALL-E is the finest Buster Keaton film in 80 years." Katrina Onstad, a New York Times critic, wrote, "WALL-E feels almost like a silent film. The first 25 to 30 minutes introduce WALL-E as a Buster Keaton-meets-E.T. figure, comically rocking and shuffling." Mary Wehring, critic at the Cary News, wrote, "WALL-E is an animated Buster Keaton — running into walls and knocking himself over because he’s so distracted by a girl."
Andrew Stanton, the director of WALL-E, confirmed that Keaton was a major influence on his robot hero. "Oh, he's definitely Keaton, in my mind," said Stanton. The director explained that WALL-E's binocular eyes were designed to give the robot ''a Buster Keaton, stone-face, sad-eyes quality." Stanton explained that he immersed his crew in the work of Keaton and Chaplin. "We looked at everything those guys did," said Stanton. "We watched a Chaplin film and one of Keaton's at lunch every day for almost a year until we saw their entire body of work. We walked away thinking there's almost no emotion you can't convey visually. It gave us the courage to take a risk to get it across: If those guys did it, we could too. . . [I]n terms of humor, of how much you can convey with very little, we definitely pulled from Keaton's playbook. He was the Great Stone Face - his expression never changed very much, and neither does WALL-E's."
Critics have also identified Keaton's influence on O'Horten, a recent comedy from Norwegian filmmaker Bent Hamer. O'Horten, according to Boston Globe critic Ty Burr, is "a precise, deadpan drama of slapstick existentialism." Lisa Schwarzbaum, in her review for Entertainment Weekly, referred to star Baard Owe as "Buster Keaton-ish." Alissa Simon, a critic for Variety, wrote, "Owe is Buster Keaton-like perfection." Walter Addiego, critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote, "[Owe]'s taciturn. . . and has a bit of a Buster Keaton air." Nick Roddick, critic for the Evening Standard, wrote, "[T]he ghost of Buster Keaton is probably among those chuckling." Peter Rainer, critic for the Christian Science Monitor, referred to "Horten's blankly expressive, Buster Keaton-like face." Milos Stehlik, critic for Chicago Public Radio, wrote, "O’Horten also harks back to comic anti-heroes like Jacques Tati’s M. Hulot or Buster Keaton." Lou Lumenick, critic for the New York Post, wrote that Bard Owe gives a brilliant performance "that Buster Keaton would be proud to call his own."
As the film begins, Odd Horten is preparing to retire after forty years as a locomotive engineer. Burr points out that the film's opening scenes show Horten's train traveling in a perfectly straight line "as it cuts through. . . glowing white snowfields." This is a beautiful, orderly world. As an engineer, Horten lived by a timetable and traveled on tracks that never let him veer off course. Burr wrote,"O'Horten is what happens to this man when he retires and the strangeness of life finally comes rushing in." Schwarzbaum noted that the film is about the retired engineer "learn[ing] to live life without a timetable."
It is a low-key film that progresses at a relaxed pace. Burr wrote, "Only at the end do we understand the vast emotional terrain traveled." In early scenes, Horten is shown performing routine tasks, which helps you to understand the mundaneness of his life. A scene showing Horten filling a water cup in a bird cage is not something you would see in an American film unless the bird were to bite the man's finger or fly out of the cage and shit on the man's shoulder.
A series of problems begin for Horten when he gets locked out of the building where his friends are gathered for his retirement party. He climbs up a scaffolding and through a window but he encounters a little boy having trouble falling asleep and he agrees to sit at the boy's bedside until he dozes off. Horten himself falls asleep, which causes him to miss the party.
Horten encounters a number of men and women long retired from the world. Early on, he visits a nursing home to see his mother, who is in a catatonic state. Horten is clearly troubled to see the woman this way. Later, Horten sees an old man enter a smoke shop acting confused and almost desperate. The man asks the shopkeeper if he bought matches from her earlier. He seems to have a vague recollection of the purchase but he cannot find what he did with the matches. The woman gives him another box of matches and then helps him to the door. We can see the man through the window in the store front. He no sooner leaves the store then he falls down on the sidewalk. This is something that the audience can see, but it goes unnoticed by Horten and the shopkeeper. The old man eventually picks himself up and returns inside the shop asking again if he had bought matches. Horten closely observes this old man who has trouble remembering things or staying on his feet. Critic Walter Addiego says that this "series of mildly absurd events and adventures. . . hint at how his remaining days may turn out."
Soon after, Horten helps another old man who has collapsed in the street. The old man introduces himself as Trygve Sissener. He says that he is a retired diplomat. Horten takes it upon himself to escort the friendly old gentleman home. Sissener arrives home to find that he forget to shut off his refrigerator's ice dispenser, which has spilled enough ice on the kitchen floor to sink the Titanic. Again, Horten is served with a reminder as to how unreliable the mind becomes in old age.
Sissener picks up a rock he has sitting inside his liquor cabinet and tells Horten that this is a meteor rock 4.3 billion years old. He explains that the rock started its journey before the Earth was even born. Horten quips that the rock traveled all those years just to end its journey in a liquor cabinet. It is the one time in the film that he smiles, albeit it is a slight smile. Sissener insists that the journey of the old rock has not ended. It is an obvious, yet effective metaphor for Horten.
Sissener tells Horten that, years ago, he discovered that he could see with his eyes closed and he was able to drive through city streets without looking at the road. He invites Horten to come with him for a drive in the morning and he will show him that he is able to do this. The men realize that this is something daring that they are about to do, but they believe that this adventure will be worth the risk. This sets into motion the final act of the film.
Horten's preoccupation with trains certainly links him to Keaton. The character particularly resembles Keaton when he gets lost on an airport tarmac. He stands stiffly, this lone figure in the middle of a great, barren expanse.
I have written a futuristic novel, Slaughterhouse Frome, in which a planet has been named after Keaton. The planet has an amusement park based on Keaton's films. Geneticists on the planet initiate a project to clone Keaton but the clone, while a mechanical genius, fails to demonstrate a sense of humor. I am beginning to wonder, given this growing adoration of Keaton, if the idea of a Keaton amusement park isn't too far-fetched.
Keaton, as a comedy icon, has become embedded in our culture. He is sure to influence filmmakers for generations to come.