I don’t know if I can overstate how much I love Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924). It’s just, well, so much better than everything else. Its slim 44 minutes lampoon the genre conventions of romance, melodrama, and detective fiction; test the laws of physics with one near-impossible stunt after another; and construct a dazzling, meta-cinematic spectacle within the dreams of one lowly projectionist. It’s also this week’s movie for The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series, which means I need to pick the one image that best represents it. It’s a tough choice, since Keaton wasn’t just funny and physically daring, but a visually gifted director too.
In Sherlock Jr., he doesn’t just rely on the default humor of his life-endangering pratfalls. Every visual gag is elegantly framed and executed, with nary a single step (often into the path of an oncoming vehicle) out of place. Many of my favorite such jokes involve objects’ motion and momentum in a straight horizontal line, whether across a street, a (discontinuous) bridge, or a moving train. I love the one pictured above, too, for both its box-within-a-box composition and Buster’s sheer surprise at the magic of editing. That’s really the essence of the “Buster Keaton” character, there in those flailing arms: always bemused by the world’s instability, never able to get his feet on solid ground.
Which is a great segue to my favorite shot, because riding past a train on the handlebars of a driverless motorcycle is about as far from solid ground as you can get. The camera’s been traveling alongside Buster as he’s careened along a country road, with farmland zooming by and the train tracks coming into view. As soon as he catches sight of the train, Buster performs a beautiful full-body double-take, then does what any sensible person would do so close to death: presses his hands to his head and cowers. Seconds later, after racing past a car as well, he tentatively peeks up like a turtle from its shell. No title card, nor any need for one—just a disbelieving face that says “How am I still alive?”
How indeed? It’s all perfectly timed, leaving us to marvel at his split-second survival. (To spoil the illusion somewhat, TCM’s John H. Miller says “repeated viewing reveals that the shot was safely filmed backwards.”) Even though Keaton himself was a peerless, fearless acrobat, the onscreen Buster is just like you or me. He’s hopelessly inept, a victim of circumstance, and whenever things go right it’s because of pure dumb luck. Like the rest of us, he’s just the oblivious X in a vast, complex equation. Maybe part of the reason I love Sherlock Jr. (and The General, and Our Hospitality, etc.) so much is the profound optimism implicit in Buster’s everyman quality. Because hey, if he can make it out alive, who’s to say I can’t too?