• Camera Man

  • Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century
  • By: Dana Stevens
  • Narrated by: Dana Stevens
  • Length: 12 hrs and 11 mins
  • 4.7 out of 5 stars (100 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

In this genre-defying work of cultural history, the chief film critic of Slate places comedy legend and acclaimed filmmaker Buster Keaton’s unique creative genius in the context of his time.

Born the same year as the film industry in 1895, Buster Keaton began his career as the child star of a family slapstick act reputed to be the most violent in vaudeville. Beginning in his early 20s, he enjoyed a decade-long stretch as the director, star, stuntman, editor, and all-around mastermind of some of the greatest silent comedies ever made, including Sherlock Jr., The General, and The Cameraman.

Even through his dark middle years as a severely depressed alcoholic finding work on the margins of show business, Keaton’s life had a way of reflecting the changes going on in the world around him. He found success in three different mediums at their creative peak: first vaudeville, then silent film, and finally the experimental early years of television. Over the course of his action-packed 70 years on earth, his life trajectory intersected with those of such influential figures as the escape artist Harry Houdini, the pioneering Black stage comedian Bert Williams, the television legend Lucille Ball, and literary innovators like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Samuel Beckett.

In Camera Man, film critic Dana Stevens pulls the lens out from Keaton’s life and work to look at concurrent developments in entertainment, journalism, law, technology, the political and social status of women, and the popular understanding of addiction. With erudition and sparkling humor, Stevens hopscotches among disciplines to bring us up to the present day, when Keaton’s breathtaking (and sometimes life-threatening) stunts remain more popular than ever as they circulate on the internet in the form of viral gifs. Far more than a biography or a work of film history, Camera Man is a wide-ranging meditation on modernity that paints a complex portrait of a one-of-a-kind artist.

©2022 Dana Stevens. All rights reserved. (P)2022 Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

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  • Overall
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    4 out of 5 stars

Worth a listen, but only as a postscript to Curtis

Not a biography as the new Curtis book is, but rather a musing on aspects of 20th century culture that Keaton did not necessarily always play a part in. Written from a personal perspective, rather than an objective historical one, the author frequently refreshes our understanding of things that happened to interesting people in the early to later modern era, from Roscoe Arbuckle to Samuel Beckett. While some readers may find the connections strained or less insightful than the author does, the book still offers much to think about. In the end, I found the book disarmingly thoughtful and hauntingly sad, not because Keaton’s life was sad, but because the book often eulogizes the passing of both an art form and the world that originated it. Watch the films while you read, you’ll see things the author sometimes doesn’t. And don’t worry about the occasional factual errors, the author was not well served by the copy editor. The reading by the author is pleasant to listen too, but at times naive, with a childlike appreciation of Keaton’s art. In the end, from one who has been enjoying Keaton for 60 years, I am happy to say this book added to my application of him, and I think that’s the gift of this book.

3 people found this helpful

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The Dawn of Cinema Through The Life of Buster Keaton

Dana Stevens tackles many interesting subjects in this Buster Keaton biography. I like how it tackles subjects such as child actors, the movie industry, alcoholism, McCarthyism, etc through the life of BK in such a seamless way.

1 person found this helpful

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Dana Stevens, “professor” of early cinema

This book could be a textbook for early film and Hollywood. But it’s nothing like a dry, data driven textbook. Oh yes, it’s filled with information Dana has found by digging deep, but she presents it in such a creative and logical way that one hardly knows they are learning so much abt Keaton and the early movie industry. I’ve been waiting for this book since I heard it was being written and the end product was worth the wait.

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Sweeping and awesome

Dana Stevens gave her work a sweeping title but pays it off remarkably. I've always been intrigued by Buster Keaton and enjoyed learning about his life, but the really impressive part is how much I learned about the advent and evolution of American movie-making and all sorts of things about the early 20th century - all through the lens of this amazing artist.

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As graceful and seemingly effortless as Keaton himself

I downloaded this book because I’m a fan of the author’s work for Slate, and it is better than I could have hoped. Stevens manages to teach you so much about the 20th century, about the history of film and performance, about social change, and above all about Keaton’s work, without you ever feeling that you are working hard to learn it. You’ll fall in love with Keaton and his work listening to this book.

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Maybe better than an ordinary biography

I have only seen a few Keaton shorts. I don't consider myself to be a huge fan, though I did enjoy those shorts, and might enjoy watching others. So I was not sure how I feel about this book. But I found it very enjoyable overall, though never quite as much fun as actually watching a Keaton movie. The thing about this book is that it is kind of a mash-up. Part biography of Keaton, and part history of the 20th Century as it related to Keaton. Those looking for a very detailed biography of Keaton might be disappointed. There is a lot of detail here, but I'm sure other biographies have even more. For me, the level of biographical detail seemed just right. I am not trying to become a Keaton scholar. While a book focused narrowly on Keaton might have some dull moments, or a lot of dull moments, this book has the advantage of going off on tangents that enliven the narrative. So, for instance, I learned something about the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, a bit about the history of the circus in France and something about the difficulty of working under the hot lights of early cinema. My only complaint is that I felt the narrator read her book a little too fast. But this was easily corrected by adjusting the narration speed on my computer.

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What an achievement!

Congrats to Dana Stevens on her fantastic jobs as researcher, writer and reader. I especially love the side issues she gets into such as Robert Sherwood’s life and his reviews of Buster’s work. Love the story from Geraldine Chaplin.

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More than a biography!

From Charlie Chaplin to Louie B Mayer, to Irving Thalberg to Lucille Ball the author enriches the story of Keaton by writing of key people around him and of his many talents. The book includes a great overview of the development of movies from the silent era to the time of Keaton’s death. The author is a good narrator of her book.

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The fates converged...

... to lead me to this fine biography, and to an appreciation of the work of an entertainment genius.

Having been born in late 1954, I was familiar with Buster's name and face, but not with his work. I recently saw a review of Sherlock Jr. as a forgotten classic, watched it in amazement, listened to an interview with Dana Stevens, all within the span of a few days, and added this book to my library. Setting aside a few other books I was reading, I could have listened to this in one day. To me, it was that good.

I appreciate Ms. Stevens including mention of Buster's works in later life, which I will add to my viewing list. It's sad, to me, that Buster never took the opportunity to audition for the part of Lucky in Waiting for Godot. To see him playing opposite Zero Mostel and Burgess Meredith would have been a treat.

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A well written tribute

I really enjoyed this tribute to one of greatest of all time. Thank you!

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  • Anonymous User
  • 05-10-22

Exceptional

Fascinating and compelling. I shall now submerse myself in Buster Keaton features and shorts and I’ll go back and read again.
Throughly enjoyed this brilliantly researched and paced book.

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