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Getting Out Alive

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?

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My Favorite Movies: Sherlock Jr.

When I first learned about Sherlock Jr. (1924, viewable here), my expectations weren’t that high. I knew little about Buster Keaton, and still wondered how anyone could challenge Chaplin’s mastery of silent pathos and comedy. (Little did I know then that Keaton and Chaplin aren’t comparable so much in form or content, but in the levels of innovation they brought to their work.) The idea of a projectionist entering into a film seemed appealing enough, but nothing too radical. Then I finally saw the film, let it stew around my head, saw it again, and again, and realized that it’s a work of concentrated comic perfection.

I grant that Sherlock Jr. doesn’t quite have the well-developed, back-and-forth narrative of The General, which sustains Keaton’s audacious acrobatics for longer and to greater purpose, but I still feel it’s probably the best showcase for his talents. Buster Keaton’s trademark stunts put every other example of choreographed mayhem to shame; they’re comparable to Busby Berkeley’s dance routines of the ’30s in their uniqueness, surreal logic, and aestheticization of human physicality, but they substitute hilarity for eroticism. And nowhere in Keaton’s body of work are they crammed together as effectively and syllogistically as in Sherlock Jr., where the entire film unfolds like the best-constructed line of dominoes in film history.

The plot’s pretty simple: Keaton plays his usual nameless, stolid sad sack character, trying to win a girl’s love. He works as a projectionist, but aspires to be a detective (hence the title). However, through a series of unfortuitous clues, his scuzzy rival frames him for the theft of a watch, and he retires to the projection booth, defeated. While the girl discovers his innocence, he daydreams himself into the film-within-a-film, and a parallel secondary story takes place. Eventually he awakes, and finds the girl has realized her mistake, leading to one of Keaton’s great, ironic happy endings.

Within this framework, Keaton unleashes his bottomless bag of tricks – bottomless because his resources are the physical laws of the universe. Anyone can take a fall, but Keaton takes falls that defy our beliefs and expectations. He also roots his physical comedy in a romantic plot filled with its own pitfalls, whether they’re jokes at the expense of his protagonist, the girl, her idle rich father, or the rival, who’s depicted as a mustache-twirling cad.

I view the romances in Keaton’s films as somewhat cynical, as flat and unsentimental as the look on his face. In this film, for example, the girl seems willing to be bought off with fancy gifts, and a similar love-for-sale ethic pervades his earlier film Three Ages, which sees competition for mates – and the subsequent mating – as a constant of human nature. Maybe an argument could be made that the romantic urges of his protagonists are as obligatory as their obedience to gravity; after all, romances are omnipresent in his films, but they’re never really dwelled upon for their own sakes. It’s one more curious aspect of his filmography that shows how different he was, and how much he enjoyed sticking a little satirical thorn into the side of formula.

But really, the subtly offbeat romance is just the springboard off which Keaton launches all kinds of verbal, visual, and situational humor: his attempt to scrounge up a few dollars in the movie theater’s rubbish pile, and later his investigation into the watch’s disappearance, when his ultraliteral interpretation of a guidebook’s injunction to “Shadow your man closely” leads to a sequence of prolonged absurdity. This scene, in which Keaton tails his rival very closely, lets him toy with our perception of film, and question whether they’re seeing it in two or three dimensions. (He returns to this trick with even greater effect during the film’s climactic chase.) It also justifies some of his beloved train-based physical comedy (again, see The General).

This segment constitutes a good demonstration of Keaton’s prowess at staging and executing barely believable chains of cause and effect, yet in reality, it’s just a precursor to the meat of the film, which takes place in its protagonist’s imagination. As he projects himself into a stereotypical Perils of Pauline-esque silent melodrama, Keaton engages in some meta-cinematic playfulness; it doesn’t really have a spot in the film’s narrative, but it’s so cleverly staged that it ceases to matter. It rewrites the film’s ground rules: henceforth, this is not a normal comedy. Things will work the way Buster wants them to.

The protagonist takes up his place as “the crime-crushing criminologist – SHERLOCK JR.,” idealizing himself as suave and authoritative, effortlessly outsmarting a villainous pair of pearl thieves. After a pool game that riffs on the very concept of suspense, the film cuts to the next morning, and the remainder is pretty much one long, brilliant, loving exercise in concrete physics. This is the substance of Buster’s greatness, whether we’re talking about this film, or his other masterpieces like The General or Cops: his ability as a filmmaker to construct ridiculous master plans that would make Rube Goldberg balk, and then as an actor to endure them without flinching.

Watching the last third of Sherlock Jr. is both totally enjoyable on visceral and intellectual levels: you’re overwhelmed both by what you see happening, and by any attempt to fully process it, leading inevitably to the question, “How did he do that?” Ashley and I (and anyone else we’ve asked about it) are still completely baffled by a scene in which Keaton appears to leap through his assistant, into a wall. Sources suggest it’s accomplished via something called a “vampire trap” (from its use in a play version of Polidori’s The Vampire), but this doesn’t explain anything.

Kubrick once said that “if it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed”; I’m not sure where Buster Keaton falls on that spectrum. I’m not sure whether his art is closer to trompe l’oeil painting, or to poetry, or to architecture. He’s a beautiful anomaly. The chase scene in Sherlock Jr. seems to espouse a belief in overarching fate, in Newtonian determinism, in the happy conjunction of man’s actions and the physical laws. In the amusement of the gods, to whom we are “like flies to wanton boys,” as Shakespeare’s Gloucester would put it.

I’m not sure which of these viewpoints Keaton would actually agree with, but some blind faith must be in his unexpressive face as he careens along on the handlebars of a motorcycle without a driver – some willingness to leap before he looks. He injured himself countless times, risked life and limb, put himself in severe physical jeopardy in order to produce visual art with the power to make us laugh. To me, that’s saintly – putting yourself on the chopping block to benefit the rest of humanity.

When I watch the climax to Sherlock Jr., my mind keeps coming back to geometry: the circles, the lines, the angles that come together so flawlessly to yield these movements, where Buster is just one little piece in a huge, dynamic system. His influence has been felt everywhere in physical comedy (perhaps most resonantly in Roadrunner and Coyote), but never equaled. He just had his peerless skill, precision, and the bravura necessary to pull it all off. I’ve seen Sherlock Jr. several times (after all, it’s less than an hour long), and I hope to see it many, many more. With its ageless humor, tightly-packed inventiveness, and near-perfect execution, Sherlock Jr. is one of my favorite movies.

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