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.
... superb ... an unconventional biography that casts its subject as the protagonist of his time, a mirror for the rapidly changing country in which he lived ... Some of the most unexpectedly entertaining chapters deal with now-forgotten phenomena, such as the advent of kit houses...and the rise and fall of the Childs Restaurant chain ... a disarmingly personal book. Stevens explains her relationship to Keaton’s work in a brief preface, but her presence is felt throughout ... Of the book’s various miniature biographies and character sketches, the most moving is the detailing of Roscoe Arbuckle’s sad life ... Keaton, of course, is at the center of it all, and Camera Man enhances our understanding of his life and times ... Camera Man will appeal to established Keaton fans and induct some curious newcomers into the world of 'the great stone face.'