A salute to comedy's Great Stoneface

Idolised by comedians, filmmakers and writers - Beckett was a fan - Buster Keaton's deadpan genius lives on, writes Armando Iannucci…

Idolised by comedians, filmmakers and writers - Beckett was a fan - Buster Keaton's deadpan genius lives on, writes Armando Iannucci

When I was a student, I had up on my wall a very, very large poster of Buster Keaton. It was a full-length photo: he was just standing, looking rather stony-faced. A comedian completely slapstick-less. It dominated the room. While my contemporaries raided the poster stores for tennis players scratching their arse or Debbie Harry looking unobtainable, I had a rather bleak-looking individual who was supposed to be funny but seemed suicidal.

Actually, Buster Keaton's face, the look of a silent-movie star who was known at the time as "The Great Stoneface", was one of the most magical in cinema history - greater even, I'd say, than Garbo's. Keaton had hit on the rather excellent joke that you could make things funnier the less you showed everyone how funny they were. A house could collapse around him, or 14 tonnes of soot could fall from above, and it just seemed funnier if he stood there expressionless at the end of it, rather than chucking his hat violently to the ground and storming off mouthing the word "Doh!"

If you're going to characterise your entire career in cinema by a single expression, the expression on Buster Keaton's face is a very good one to have. I remember recognising this when I first saw Steamboat Bill, Jr, made in 1928. There's a scene in it featuring a particularly fierce hurricane visiting destruction on a small town. Keaton is holding on to a tree to stop being blown away by the fierce gale. However, the force is so strong the wind breaks the tree from its roots in the ground and carries it, with Keaton still clinging on, up and across a river where it slowly sinks. Keaton's expression throughout all these stunning visuals is the best part of the joke: he consistently stares blankly at the camera, a man who can't believe his dignity is being robbed in this way. The hard stare remains, even as every last part of him disappears under the water.

Actually, Steamboat Bill, Jr is a very good place to start if you want to find out why it is people in comedy (and quite a lot of people in film) revere Buster Keaton so much. The hurricane sequence in Steamboat Bill, Jr is one of the most celebrated in all cinema. It's a technical masterpiece, pushing the mechanics of a young medium to breaking point.

But it also has some of cinema's finest jokes. Keaton is in a hospital ward as the storm whips up. In fact, the wind is so strong, it blows the hospital away, leaving Keaton, still in bed, in the middle of an empty field. That's a stunning idea; and, in the world before digital effects, absolutely gobsmacking to watch: an entire building is suddenly winched away from around him. Later on you get the most famous stunt of the lot: an entire front facade falls over, and Buster survives only because he's in the precise spot where the space created by an open window falls over him instead of tonnes of brick and cement. You laugh, not just at the stupidity of the visuals, but also because you know what dangers he must have gone through to get it absolutely right.

That's why any newcomer to Keaton's comedy is bowled over. The man had, for all his supposed stillness, an incredible agility that defied normal human possibility. There's one scene I remember from one of his shorts in which a train hurtles past him. He's busy talking to someone as it goes by (at top speed); he says his farewell, holds out his hand, and grabs a handle on the side of the train, to be whisked out of shot faster than a bullet. A simple, one-second sight-gag that puts all the stunts in Mission: Impossible and Spider-Man to shame.

Buster Keaton is always compared to Charlie Chaplin, of course, and people seem to divide themselves off into champions of either one or the other, as if somehow we can have only one Undisputed Master of Silent Comedy. The truth is, we should rejoice in them both. It used to be cool to say Chaplin wasn't as funny as Keaton, but in fact his films have more heart, and a narrative wrought with tenderness as well as anger; that is why they connected with world audiences so phenomenally. But Keaton, I think, has more of a sense of the hunger to explore the possibilities of what film could do. Chaplin puts on a farcical play and films it. Keaton makes a film from scratch. The humour is in the shot, the edit, the composition of the frame, as much as it is in the face and the body. His gags are gags that could only work in the cinema. A Cock and Bull Story has shown us how post-modern early novels were. Keaton was being postmodernist about cinema even as the art form was being born.

His films are full of self-referential gags and, in Sherlock, Jr (1924) he makes a whole movie about movie magic, playing a projectionist who falls asleep and dreams he's wandering into his own film.

There's one short (I think it's One Week, made in 1920) where Buster has just got married and spends a week building their new house out of parts that have come delivered in boxes. In the course of 20 minutes, and for various stupid reasons there's no point going into now, the resulting misshapen two-story house ends up on a primitive cart that gets stuck crossing a railway line. In the distance, we can see a train coming. The final few minutes of the film are spent watching Buster and his wife desperately trying to move the house before it's too late. The train gets nearer and nearer. This is all done in one shot. Then, just as the train bears down on us, the camera pans slightly to the right, revealing a second railway line. The train is on that one and passes by, leaving the house on the first line intact. Everyone looks relieved and then a second train comes from nowhere in the opposite direction and smashes through the house.

Buster Keaton's films are an astounding display from a master comedian working out to what lengths cinema could go in the name of comedy. That's why he's revered not just by comedians but by film directors: he explored both disciplines to perfection. If you manage to see his films the way they should be seen, on the big screen, you will be astounded by the modernist techniques. He wrote rules of visual comedy that are still in operation today.

I never found his face sad. It looks it, but doesn't feel it. There's so much more expression than just what you see on the surface. The still face hid a restless mind, and a hilarious imagination.