Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Sherlock Jr. is one of the cinema's greatest tributes to itself, a dazzling, relentlessly inventive ode to the movies as an escape, a source of dreams and a fantastical reflection of the real world. Buster Keaton's five-reel, 45-minute short is crisply, quickly paced, with not a second of waste, not a frame that isn't absolutely essential to the film's hilarious and strangely moving vision of the cinema's magical power. Keaton plays a hapless young movie theater projectionist who's also studying to be a detective and scraping together whatever cash he can get to woo his girlfriend (Kathryn McGuire). When he's framed for the theft of a pocket watch belonging to the girl's father, Keaton tries to catch the real crook (Ward Crane) in a hilarious scene where he shadows the taller man, walking immediately behind him and mimicking his every gesture. When this fails, he returns to the movie theater, dejected, a failure as a detective and miserable over the loss of his girl.
He then falls asleep, and what follows implicitly links the cinema to dreams, as Keaton nods off in the projection booth and has an out-of-body experience, his ghostly doppelganger stepping out of his sleeping form and into the movies. It's a fantastic, and fantastically funny, sequence, as the projectionist imagines the figures on the screen transformed into ones from his real life, enacting a mystery drama derived from his own experience with the purloined watch. Except, in this dream/movie, he can actually be the hero, the world's greatest detective, Sherlock Jr., dapper and sophisticated in a top hat and nice suit, a master intellect who can outwit any criminal. It's pure wish fulfillment, as the young loser imagines that he can catch the crooks and get the girl — and then, in Keaton's master stroke, he wakes from the dream movie into another movie, the movie Keaton's making, and he gets the girl after all.
Before he can get to this point, though, he has to pass through a cinematic gauntlet in which his greatest enemy is not a petty crook but a basic cinematic tool, the edit. Once Keaton steps up onto the movie screen, he's not fully integrated into the film that's playing. He's immune to the cut, so he remains the one constant as the scene changes, which leads to some hilarious visual gags. For a few minutes, the movie on the screen, following absurdist dream logic, ceases to be a coherent drama and starts randomly cutting from one strange locale to another, always with Keaton propelled across the cut into one outrageous situation after another. He balances on the edge of a cliff, runs from hungry lions, almost gets run over by a train and the traffic on a crowded street, and gets soaked by waves while perched on a rock in the middle of a choppy sea. It's both a devilishly clever comic showcase and a lovingly meta ode to the power of this cinematic tool, which can seamlessly bridge such tremendous gaps in location, having Keaton jump into the air to dive into the water but instead land headfirst in a snowbank, his feet kicking in the air.
Keaton's projectionist eventually manages to slip into this cinema dream world, inhabiting the role of the detective, fending off the sinister maneuvers of the crooks who concoct endless death traps that he flawlessly slips around, always intuiting their evil intentions before they can spring the trap. In the movies, the hero always wins, the bad guys always fail, and one senses that this young projectionist, like so many others, was first seized by his desire to be a detective while watching screen detectives much like this one. He inhabits an archetypal role, taking on a character type that had inspired him to try to shape his real life to match the movies, to become a detective like the ones on the screen — but only in dreams or the movies can such archetypes actually exist.
The whole dream sequence is remarkably fun, and occasionally surreal, as when a mysterious cross-dressing vendor helps Keaton evade the crooks by inviting the detective to jump through his chest and somehow flip through a false wall hiding behind the vendor. That's a bit of pure movie magic that doesn't really make a shred of sense; it's a flight of fancy that could only work in the movies. The same goes for the hilarious scene where Keaton leaps through a window in which he'd previously set up a readymade disguise. Jumping through the window, he also jumps through the clothes and lands outside dressed up as an old woman. That transformation is an echo of the one that propelled Keaton into the movie universe in the first place: he passes through a screen and comes out the other side magically changed, the usual rules suspended.
The ending, in which Keaton covertly watches a movie hero to figure out the right gestures to romance his girl, suggests that, though the movies are dreams, they're dreams with tremendous power. Keaton is exploring how we learn to act by watching the movies, how we derive our templates, both romantic and professional, from the things that happen up on the screen. In this way, the movies become, not only dreams, but wellsprings of reality, feeding back into the world models of behavior, the dream influencing and reshaping reality itself.