d. Buster Keaton / USA / 44 mins.
It is an exhausted but perpetually romantic cliche that the movies are perhaps the purest artistic incarnation of our sleeping hours. In both, we enter into the comfort of a dark room, relax, and find ourselves whisked away into an incomparable dreamlike state where our minds are alive and nothing is impossible. Every film, even the ones that attempt to evoke uncontaminated realism, possesses a fraction of this illusory quality, and some more than others. Spend just a few minutes with a Buster Keaton film and it's clear he is among the latter. He uses his body on-screen in ways that often shouldn't be possible, and uses the practically limitless capabilities of cinema's ability to deceive to create scenes that range from unlikely to just downright impossible.
The most ethereal of his films is Sherlock Jr., for the ways it disintegrates the boundaries between reality and cinema. It is essentially a film about (a) film, one of the earliest metacinematic experiences that was disguised as something much more ordinary. This was the earliest Keaton film I saw, and it continues to be my personal favorite — which, I suppose, shouldn't be all that surprising to those who know Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window is my favorite film of all time. Like Hitchcock's, Keaton's is painstakingly crafted. Both are imminently accessible yet infinitely layered, and sing complex and unrestrained praises of the medium in which they appear while producing the most enjoyable work of art possible. Few experiments are more difficult than creating a work of art that adequately reflects, praises, and comments on its medium; few, if any, come as close as these films to creating such a work that also reaches perfection.
The triumph of Sherlock Jr. is the triumph of the quotidian and of the universal. Keaton plays a likable movie theater janitor and projectionist, hapless in life and love but aiming for something better. His dream is to become a detective and to win the affection of a girl (Kathryn McGuire), but his progress toward either dream is thwarted when a villain (Ward Crane) sets him up as a thief and attempts to win the girl. He returns to his job a distraught man, and as he falls asleep behind the theater's projector, he dreams his way onto the screen, where the characters have been replaced with the people of his own life and where, as his dream persona of Sherlock Jr., he is for once able to move deftly, skillfully, and acrobatically to solve the case.
Dream states were not new territory for Keaton by 1924. The early part of the decade was still a nascent age for film, and the narrative device of a dream had allowed him to get away with scenes and sequences that depart from reality while not profoundly disrupting audience interpretation. In shorts like The Love Nest and The Frozen North, Keaton used the dream as an excuse to explore an exotic location. But his short The Playhouse, in which Keaton uses multiple exposures to play more than twenty roles in the span of just a few minutes, has more in common with Sherlock Jr. in the opportunities it afforded Keaton to create in the netherlands of possibility.
The contrast works well. In the opening scenes, the primary comic emphasis is on slapstick and pure jokes. There's a wonderfully simple sequence where he finds $3 in the trash outside the theater but soon finds himself losing it in a series of unfortunate events. Shortly thereafter, his "How to Be A Detective" book suggests he follow his suspect closely, and Keaton and Crane perform a pantomime where Keaton mirrors his every step only inches behind him. But once Keaton enters the film, the other side of Keaton emerges: the stunt-work, the choreography, the diligent planning of nearly every moment. It is in these moments — in our dreams, when anything seems possible — that Keaton shoots a perfect game of billiards (all avoiding a single ball, which was planted as an explosive), jumps through a window and perfectly into the clothing disguise of an old woman, and makes a daring escape on the handle-bars of a motorcycle that zips through potential crash after potential crash, all while not knowing there's no one driving it.
The cinematic legacy of Sherlock Jr. may be less about its superb entertainment factor (at 44 minutes, it seems too scant to be a feature film, but it exists without an ounce of fat) than it is about its superb filmmaking factor. It is a complete synthesis of performance and form. Walter Kerr, in The Silent Clowns, notes Keaton demurred all claims of intellectuality in his films and stubbornly settled with a classically stone-faced line of, "I was just trying to get laughs." But, Kerr notes, that doesn't negate the reality that Sherlock Jr. nevertheless shows Keaton to be a brilliant analyst of film, particularly in the early scene of Keaton being transported from one landscape to another (only to trip over, fall, or spin in the shock that he is somewhere new) with the speed of a splice. Writes Kerr:
... the sequence illustrates basic theories of continuity and cutting more vividly and with greater precision than theorists themselves have ever been able to do. But the analysis was in not Keaton's head. It was in the film. He went past celebration and worked only with the thing itself, creating what amounts to theory out of his body, his camera, his fingers, a pair of scissors. Art is often something done before it is something thought: Keaton's impulses were not only stronger but more accurate than any verbal formulation he might have chosen to offer for them.
It is tour de force filmmaking: special effects created purely with the aid of mathematics, celluloid, and scissors instead of computer rendering software. That scene so baffled audiences and colleagues that cameramen and directors were reportedly heard to boast around the corners of Hollywood that they'd seen it multiple times and still had yet to discover how Keaton had actually managed to create the illusion, to transport himself between locales without seeming to move a muscle. Two decades went by before he revealed the secret: first he meticulously measured the distance between the camera and himself, then he developed the last frame from the previous shot and placed it inside the camera's viewfinder, where his cameraman could coach him into lining up with himself. Thus the irony reveals itself: when you see the sequence play out on the screen, it appears to be the product of miraculous technology; but the technology was rather ordinary, and instead, it was Keaton's corporeal control and poise that proved to be more miraculous. (Sherlock Jr. tested the endurance of his body in other ways as well. While filming a scene where he falls from the trough of a water tower and lands on a set of train tracks with hundreds of gallons spilling out onto him, he broke several vertebrae. He suffered severe migraines in the years that followed but only realized he'd actually broken the bones when a doctor told him during a routine insurance examination that it had healed well.)
That tension between the film's outer narrative (Keaton the projectionist, trying to become the detective and win the girl) and the film's inner narrative (Keaton the detective, solving crimes with über-sleuth panache) does not drive Sherlock Jr. on its face. By the time of the climactic motorcycle sequence, it is possible that most people — myself included, practically every time I watch the film casually and do not force myself to track its machination — have become so consumed with the inner detective story that they have forgotten the film's narrative origin. But of course that's no accident. Robert Knopf calls the whole inner story "one of the longest narrative disruptions in Hollywood cinema," an altogether fitting description because films usually deliver two-hour disruptions in the human condition. They transport us somewhere new and allow us to become something we are not. Sherlock Jr. rejoices and relishes in that fact; by setting forth on an audacious journey to codify that sensation into the physical language of film, it delivers one of cinema's most flawless spectacles.
11 August 2009
d. Buster Keaton / USA / 44 mins.