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Wednesday, 1 December, 1999, 17:15 GMT
The silent stars on today's cutting edge
Heads up: Steve McQueen pays tribute to Buster Keaton

Tracey Emin's unmade bed may have dominated the Turner Prize. But the award for the best contemporary art went to work inspired by a 70-year-old movie.

Steve McQueen's win has refocused attention on the debt today's art owes to silent film.

Emin's vilified mattress aside, much of the work shortlisted for the lucrative prize was video art.

Pillow talk: Emin's bed slammed
Although its supporters suggest video is a powerful and versatile medium to express artistic ideas, the lack of "traditional" artists has caused an outcry.

While the Turner prize jury has been charged with promoting art which is beyond the comprehension of the public, it is worth noting the influence of cinema - an ever-popular artform.

Now crowned the prince of cutting edge British art, Steve McQueen's most popular work - Deadpan - is a direct reference to the work of Hollywood legend Buster Keaton.

McQueen recreates Keaton's stunt of standing impassive in front of a house as the facade falls on him. He escapes thanks to an open window.

The stunt in Keaton's 1928 film Steamboat Bill, Jr. has been held up as the epitome of the "great stone face's" cinematic genius.

Buster Keaton: Stone-faced funnyman
The lasting appeal of such sequences lies in Keaton's ability to raise tension by keeping an expression of calm in moments of extreme danger.

Flotsam swept through life's trials, Keaton's fatalism still strikes a chord.

The British Film Institute's Luke McKernan says: "Keaton appeals to modern sensibilities in a way his contemporaries fail to."

Harold Lloyd's "man-about-town" act, for example, fell foul of the Depression. And nowadays, Charlie Chaplin's "Little Tramp" is dismissed as dated social comment.

Mr McKernan says that while Keaton's falling wall stunt "endures and still appeals", his films themselves are largely forgotten.

"They are not popular as complete works, but people remember them for their snippets."

Charlie Chaplin fails to raise smiles today
Few have seen a Keaton film, but his stunts and gags have been constantly recycled in adverts, TV shows and now art exhibits.

It is perhaps a testament to Keaton's skill, that McQueen's recreation of the familiar stunt remains thrilling.

Mr McKernan explains that without the benefit of sound, the star had to create visual images which would "linger in the mind".

Like a modern artist, Keaton had a very strong personal vision of how his work should turn out.

As director, actor, stuntman and gag writer Keaton wielded power on the film set unrivalled in Hollywood today.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. marked an end of an era for the comic legend. Wooed by the MGM studio, Keaton relinquished control of his films.

In a cautionary tale to all those artists tempted to please others before themselves, Keaton was never able to bring the house down in quite the same way again.

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See also:
30 Nov 99 |  UK
McQueen wins Turner Prize
01 Dec 99 |  UK
Steve McQueen: Profile

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