The Keaton Project

Programme curated by Cecilia Cenciarelli

A turning point for the Keaton Project, co-launched with the Cohen Film Collection in 2015 for to restore the films Buster Keaton made between 1920 and 1928. Sixteen of the thirty films – shorts and feature-length – have been completed. The roughly two-hundred elements inspected, repaired and analysed came to Bologna via Cohen Collection (former Rohouer’s) as well as from many film archives around the world. One of the outcomes of this project has been to finally have an accurate maps in terms of the location and condition of the film elements, including those we have not been able to access due to rights-related reasons. Luckily, that has only be the case only for a small minority, but it does confirm the importance of thoroughly and transparently documenting the selection and choices made during the reconstruction and restoration process, even more so in the digital era. It is also the evidence that the work carried by film archives is truly irreplaceable because of its inherent complexity and constant negotiating. As usual, the four films in this programme have been following the progress made with our research as opposed to chronological order. The difficulties encountered were mainly related with the poor conditions and/or deterioration of the materials (The Frozen North, for instance) or with incomplete first generation elements and choices regarding how and how much to integrate them with others (like The Scarecrow). In our case, we aimed to achieve a harmonious balance between completeness and the image’s photographic quality.
Watching these four films in succession demonstrates that the nineteen two-reelers Buster Keaton made in less than three years were anything but training for feature-length films. And the fact that this artist’s evolution does not seem as linear as his contemporaries, if not in the greater means available to him, perhaps derives from the fact that he had an innate, clear idea of film. Regardless of the overall success of his individual films, it is evident that ever since the beginning of his independent career Keaton conceived every comic situation “imagining it” in cinematographic terms. He told his stories with a movie camera instead of planting it somewhere and acting in front of it. Nor do we have to wait for his more complicated works, like The Navigator and Go West, to feel his magnetic gaze.

NB: Keaton’s eyes and gaze have been written about vastly, as we know. García Lorca’s short theatre piece El paseo de Buster Keaton perhaps says it best: “His sad infinite eyes, like those of a new-born animal, are dreaming of lilies, angels and silk sashes. His eyes are like the bottom of a glass, like a mad child’s. Very ugly. Very beautiful. An ostrich’s eyes. Human eyes in the exact balance of melancholy”.

Cecilia Cenciarelli