Writers on Film


Dana Stevens on Buster Keaton

Season 1, Ep. 59

Buy the book here.

In this genre-defying work of cultural history, the chief film critic of Slate places comedy legend and acclaimed filmmaker Buster Keaton’s unique creative genius in the context of his time.

Born the same year as the film industry in 1895, Buster Keaton began his career as the child star of a family slapstick act reputed to be the most violent in vaudeville. Beginning in his early twenties, he enjoyed a decade-long stretch as the director, star, stuntman, editor, and all-around mastermind of some of the greatest silent comedies ever made, including Sherlock Jr., The General, and The Cameraman.

Even through his dark middle years as a severely depressed alcoholic finding work on the margins of show business, Keaton’s life had a way of reflecting the changes going on in the world around him. He found success in three different mediums at their creative peak: first vaudeville, then silent film, and finally the experimental early years of television. Over the course of his action-packed seventy years on earth, his life trajectory intersected with those of such influential figures as the escape artist Harry Houdini, the pioneering Black stage comedian Bert Williams, the television legend Lucille Ball, and literary innovators like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Samuel Beckett.

In Camera Man, film critic Dana Stevens pulls the lens out from Keaton’s life and work to look at concurrent developments in entertainment, journalism, law, technology, the political and social status of women, and the popular understanding of addiction. With erudition and sparkling humor, Stevens hopscotches among disciplines to bring us up to the present day, when Keaton’s breathtaking (and sometimes life-threatening) stunts remain more popular than ever as they circulate on the internet in the form of viral gifs. Far more than a biography or a work of film history, Camera Man is a wide-ranging meditation on modernity that paints a complex portrait of a one-of-a-kind artist.

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Paul Fischer and the Man who Invented Motion Pictures

Season 1, Ep. 66
In 1888, Frenchman Louis Le Prince shot the world’s first motion picture. In 1890, he boarded a train in his home country and vanished — never to be seen again. Just a few months later, Thomas Edison announced “his” own groundbreaking motion picture device — one Le Prince’s family thought looked unsettlingly familiar…The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures pulls back the curtain on Louis Le Prince’s life and work, dispelling the secrets that shroud each — and sheds light, for the first time, on his disappearance…“Absorbing… bring[s] sharp forensic skills and a cool head to a narrative that has become hijacked by wild conspiracy theories” — The Sunday Times (UK)“A fascinating, informative, skillfully articulated narrative of one of the forgotten figures in cinematic history” — Kirkus (starred review)“Vivid character sketches, lyrical descriptions of the art and science of moviemaking, and a dramatic plot twist make this a must-read” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)“Combines firsthand accounts with dynamic writing to bring the Victorian era to life. A remarkable cast of characters (including Le Prince’s equally fascinating wife, Lizzie) makes for compelling reading” — Library Journal“A captivating whodunit [and] a lens on the development of cinema itself… Briskly paced and elegant… Indisputably dramatic” — Harper’s Magazine“Absorbing, forensic and jaw-dropping” — Total Film“Partly a fascinating history, partly a surprisingly twisted whodunit, and entirely an insightful story of human intrigue” — Deborah Blum, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Poisoner’s Handbook“A gripping tale that holds its own against any Hitchcockian thriller” — New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Keishin Armstrong“Meticulous and entertaining… persuasively solves the 130-year-old mystery of Le Prince’s disappearance and death. A terrific book” — Jill Jonnes, author of Empires of Light and Eiffel’s Tower