How History Moves Through a Life: Dana Stevens on Buster Keaton | Interviews

He wasn’t interested in it? 

This is me psychologizing, but it’s almost like he’s not emotionally capable of it. I’m sure with any artist their deepest traumas and character flaws get translated into the work. Buster was not a connected father, he was not a good husband for his first two marriages, he was completely absorbed with his work, and not that good at personal life. I think all of this comes out in his work. I feel like the inside of his brain is inaccessible, except on the screen. His brain must have been this Rube Goldberg machine, sorting things out, but not like “What do I want to express?” It was more like “What would happen if a car fell out of an airplane?”

I was so interested in your thoughts about how he connected to what else was going on in art in the teens and 1920s. Surrealism, the Modernists, the Dadaists.

I’m not the first one to observe this, but he really does fit into Modernism. Luis Buñuel wrote about him, and Federico García Lorca loved Keaton and wrote a weird little playlet about him. Keaton was so modern.

Knowing what you know about Modernism, how does he fit into it? Did he himself feel connected to it?

I would not say he was connected to any artistic movement, but obviously he was of his time, in that way. I think of it as a generational phenomenon. In modern discourse, I resist the generalizations about generations, even though I am a classic Gen-Xer. I resist the shallow media discourse people use to pit different belief systems against each other. But there are some generations—like the Lost Generation that Buster was a part of—and I would say the Baby Boomers, too—that are historically meaningful because they were formed by war, in both cases. Almost every great artist that we think of as a Modernist was born sometime between 1888 and 1902, Joyce and Virginia Woolf and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the Surrealists—all of those people were part of a generation which I described in the 1895 section of the book. They experienced the upheaval between the Victorian era and the 20th century.

It’s the generation gap to end all generation gaps.

It makes you see why the roaring ’20s were what they were.

What is the technological equivalent of what happened during those years? Maybe the internet?

It seems like our world is moving fast right now, but if you really think about what the world was like a generation ago, there are lots of similarities to now. We are in the same built environment, we are moving around at the same speed in the same vehicles. Yes, we can communicate digitally a little faster than we could but there was digital communication since the 1990s or so. Our world much more resembles our parents world, and our kids’ world much more resembles our world, than Keaton and Woolf’s world in the ’20s and ’30s resembled their parents’ world. And their art thematizes that. Woolf wasn’t interested in technology, per se, but she was interested in capturing human existence in a fractal way, which feels very in touch with the stuff that Keaton was doing. I’m listening to Mrs. Dalloway on audiobook right now and I keep thinking about Keaton as I’m listening to it. It takes place in the years right after the war, and basically Mrs. Dalloway wanders through the city, and the book is about urban experience coming at you, which is what “Cops” and lots of other Keaton movies are about. If you put their art side by side, you really feel the connections.

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