Slate film critic Dana Stevens explores the life of actor Buster Keaton as one encapsulating the ideas and mores of an era, considering concurrent developments in entertainment, journalism, law, technology, the political and social status of women and the popular understanding of addiction.
Excellent ... Stevens, in Camera Man takes an original and, in a way, more distanced approach to Keaton ... Stevens offers a series of pas de deux between Keaton and other personages of his time, who shared one or another of his preoccupations or projects. It’s a new kind of history, making more of overlapping horizontal 'frames' than of direct chronological history, and Stevens does it extraordinarily well. Some of these pairings, to be sure, are more graceful than others ... A chapter on Robert Sherwood and Keaton is genuinely illuminating ... Stevens takes up the really big question: What made Keaton’s solo work seem so modern?
Stevens clearly adores her subject, describing him as a 'solemn, beautiful, perpetually airborne man.' Camera Man is less a traditional biography than a series of reported essays about the progress of the 20th century with Keaton at their center. Sometimes Stevens ventures too far afield ... But Stevens is sharper when she focuses on such ancillary phenomena as the emergence of serious film criticism ... Stevens [has] done well to bring the boy with the funeral expression back from the dead.
Dana Stevens shows us she isn’t screwing around as early as page six by unpacking the year 1895 ... Coming from another author, this would perhaps undercut the celebration of Keaton’s name by reducing it. Coming from Stevens...parsing out Keaton’s beginnings in the shadow of great national change serves to brighten his star ... Stevens never hides her admiration for Keaton and his films—if she did, we’d have as little reason to read Camera Man as she would to write it—but in drawing her conclusions about the space he occupied in 20th century culture, that admiration gradually glows warmer. This is not the work of a fan, but an enthusiast and expert ... Camera Man deftly separates man from character and accomplishment from virtue. It may be that Stevens respects Keaton as much for his contributions to cinema as for his failings as a human being, though that judgment is for the individual to decide. What’s undeniable is the weight of Stevens’ knowledge coupled with the nimbleness of her prose. Together, these qualities make Camera Man a joy, eye-opening for casual and devoted moviegoers alike, and infectious in its adoration of Keaton’s filmography.