You know how there are movies that are so bad they’re good? They slide right past mediocrity and dreck, and firmly plant themselves in the realm of the colossally awful. Stilted acting, horrible dialog, outrageous storylines that make you groan, roll your eyes, bury your head in your hands, talk back to the TV, fall out of your chair with laughter. I’m thinking Plan 9, Coyote Ugly or Showgirls. (The latter I’m going from reputation, since I’ve never brought myself to watch it.)
Well, I’m currently reading a book that’s so bad it’s good: Buster: A Legend In Laughter (1995) by Larry Edwards. Continuing on my holiday Buster Keaton jag, I pulled a few books from the library yesterday, hoping to learn something new about Keaton. I’ve done a fair amount of reading on the Internet, watched his films multi-multi-multiple times, and even taken a course on him taught by Roger Ebert a few years ago. But I’ve never read a proper biography, and my searching for one has turned up what many Keatonphiles already know–they’re few and far between. Most books are out of print, and many are panned by readers for blurring the fact and the fiction about the man, the filmmaker and the times.
So, anyway, back to the book at hand. Judging from the reader reviews found on Amazon, this book is living up to its reputation in spades. I figured I’d give it a try since it was the only bio on the shelf of my public library. From page one, it was evident that this is one of the most poorly written books I’ve ever read. In the tradition of the most clichéd high school book report, it’s characterized by repetition, lousy sentence structure and laughable hyperbole. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s filled with errors. Dates are wrong. Plot descriptions for Keaton’s movies are consistently incorrect; if the author couldn’t get something as easily verifiable as the plot right, it makes you wonder how off he is on the personal and professional details of Buster’s life. (And yes, back in 1995, there wasn’t the access to everything on DVD that we have now, but the films existed and I’d think watching them in some way, shape or form would be part of the research process.)
Back to the “so bad it’s good” aspect. Take these prize tidbits of fine writing as example:
Unknown to the audience, another train is steaming down the tracks from the opposite direction of the first one. This train plows through the house. The element of surprise here is tremendous (even after viewing it over one hundred times).
One hundred times? I trust the author watched it one hundred times, thereby coming to this interesting and specific conclusion.
According to many film historians and critic’s (sic), One Week is the greatest starring film debut by an actor in the history of the American cinema.
This statement is supported by exactly zero quotes or references. This just screams high school term paper. Blanket statement attributed to the omnipresent “Many.” Oldest trick in the book.
It is difficult to pinpoint the best sight gags in The Balloonatic, however a couple of great scenes include Buster battling the natural elements of a rapidly flowing river. Another interesting and amusing scene has Buster in a battle of wits with a bear. By the way, this bear is not an actor in a bear suit, it is a real bear!
By the way, it’s called an editor. I think you needed one!
Whereas Intolerance showed man’s inhumanity toward man in four parts, Buster had Three Ages show the evolution of man in three parts representing ages. These ages are The Stone Age, The Roman Age, and The Modern Age. Three Ages is a feature film, but to be even more precise, it is actually three separate short films edited together to make one feature-length film.
Straight out of a Jr. High English course: “My book report is about Moby Dick-The Whale. It is a book about a whale. The whale is called Moby Dick.” And I love that he actually uses the phrase “man’s inhumanity to man.” Brilliant.
Words like brilliant, memorable and greatest are battered around a lot. Every fourth word has a superlative adjective attached to it. What easier way to hit your word count, I’m guessin’. Deep, insightful stuff here.
Round about page 40, as I caught myself snorting and shaking my head for the umpteenth time, I just gave up on it. But because I was on an El ride with nothing else to read, I kept reading and started making a game of how many errors I could call out and how hilariously bad the writing could be.
My quest for a better (and available) book continues. I saw The General Thursday evening at the Film Center–there’s no better film to close out the year with than Keaton’s Civil War action comedy–and Dave Drazin was performing the piano accompaniment, as he has for all the Keaton films in this retrospective. (He’s great, by the way. I recommend making a special trip to see a silent film when he’s providing the score. Drazin’s been doing this for years and is quite talented at setting the right mood and tone for a picture, often improvising along with the film. His accompaniment always makes the viewing that much more special.) Knowing that he’s a silent film “expert,” I asked for his recommendation for a biography. He suggested Keaton by Rudi Blesh. Of course, it’s also out of print. Perhaps this is just the push I needed (or didn’t) to break into Ebay.
And I had to laugh in agreement when during our brief conversation Mr. Drazin said, “Yeah, BK rules.”