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How Buster Keaton Revolutionized the Early Film Industry

A conversation with Dana Stevens, the author of “Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century”

Buster Keaton clings to the front of a train in a black-and-white still
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Buster Keaton in a still from the film “The General”

Last week, The New Republic’s literary editor, Laura Marsh, spoke with author Dana Stevens, Slate’s movie critic and the author of the new book Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century.

Keaton began his career as a child star in vaudeville and, in his twenties, enjoyed a decade-long stretch as a movie director, star, stuntman, and editor, masterminding some of the greatest silent comedies ever made. Keaton crossed paths with influential figures like Roscoe Arbuckle, Lucille Ball, and Samuel Beckett.

In Camera Man, Stevens examines Keaton’s life in the context of developments in entertainment, journalism, law, technology, the political and social status of women, and the popular understanding of addiction. With erudition and sparkling humor, she brings us up to the present day, when Keaton’s breathtaking and sometimes life-threatening stunts remain more popular than ever as they circulate the internet.

Watch Dana Stevens’s reading and conversation with Marsh: