It feels appropriate to start with a movie about the movies – or, rather, a movie about our own relationship to storytelling and imagination. Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. is of course one of the silent star’s masterpieces, a lean, witty film that balances and builds the comedy of Keaton’s setpieces more expertly than in any other of his films except perhaps The General. Much has been said in the nearly 90 years since the film was made about its physical and visual genius, but I wanted to kick off this blog with this film, for more than any reason, because of this shot:
This is after all a film where a projectionist dreams himself into a mystery where he attempts to set right the problems of his personal life. It works by identifying the cinema as a dreamspace, where the physical and emotional laws of reality are warped and man can reinvent himself with relative ease. How appropriate, then, that the first shot is of the movie screen looking down at a theater, empty and awaiting an audience. This shot would have played differently in 1924, when the viewer was herself in a theater (not sitting at a computer or on a couch in the living room), the first shot thus a partial reflection of the physical space of the audience. The screen, a window to the imagination (which, by the time this film was made had a quarter century of visual precedent and myth-making behind it) looks back at you, except you aren’t there. What is there is the solitary figure of a man not even watching the film. In a theater devoid of an audience, he becomes the audience, and the vehicle through which the cinematic dreamworld will be explored.
By “cinematic dreamworld” I do not mean the physical movies themselves, which are fixed on celluloid (or now, in bytes) well before you start watching them. Nor do I mean the subconscious as depicted on film, the sort of Lynchian universe where people’s actions are larger in scope and emotion while also being more difficult to parse. I’m really referring to the idea of the cinema as a place where, on the one hand, anything is literally possible while, on the other hand, you can experience a more rigorous and understandable moral universe. It is the kind of place where you can have adventures on the frontier but still ride off into the sunset, the sort of place our capitalist society likes to pretend it is, and which has done an excellent job simulating for a certain segment of the world’s population. It is this cultural fairyland which Sherlock Jr. is exploring.
There’s a whole genre of “movies about movies.” Some of these are about Hollywood (Singing in the Rain, The Player), fame or creative struggles (A Star is Born, 8 1/2), or our shared cultural mythology as shaped by cinema (Spielberg, Tarantino). However, some are more meta, more about performance and how we use culture to model and shape our own public and private selves. This last category is probably the richest, and includes everything from Citizen Kane to Breathless , Taxi Driver to A Serious Man. Sherlock Jr. is in this category, one of the earliest films to tackle the question of how a man – especially a fairly unimpressive, unaccomplished man – thinks of himself and how he’d like to be thought of by others.
Buster Keaton’s status as an “Everyman” figure is well-trod, but it’s not just because of his innocence and unyielding stonefaced expression. It’s because he’s able to tap into the audience’s own experience as viewers, that is: as people struggling to define themselves by using stories – and cinema specifically – as a means in which to do so.
Keaton is trying to be a detective, and is doing so by reading a book titled, quite bluntly, “How to Be a Detective.” In the film’s first half, we see him attempt to use the guidelines of this book to solve the “mystery” of a stolen watch. But he’s far too literal and naive, and the book doesn’t really help him at all. He ends up accused of the crime himself, and eventually forced to escape from a moving train (the only brazen showcase of this portion of the film, which otherwise is fairly low-key). The mystery is eventually solved by his girlfriend, through a fairly simple and not dangerous method of inquiry.1
Keaton aspires not to be a real detective but to be the idea of a detective – the sharp wit, the quick instincts, the romance, the constant getting into and getting out of danger – which he can only find on screen.
And not even really on screen – despite the film’s conflation of movies and dreams, it is only in the dream where Keaton’s character is able to pursue his enemies and win over the girl. The imagination of cinema, not the cinema itself, provides the space for him to play around with his own deficiencies.
“Play” is the operative word, since the action of the film’s second half is almost entirely playful. It’s just unbridled fun and enthusiasm. But it’s only possible because it’s not real. In the waking world, Keaton’s attempts to play fail. You could probably come up with a good list of why that happens: he’s naive, he’s isn’t assertive, he tries to fashion himself as something he isn’t – something with is inherently false – and fails. Even before trying his hand as a detective, he’s trying to be a romantic, but his chocolates are too cheap, the ring he buys is too small, and he acts awkwardly around the woman of his affections. He doesn’t know how to act, only how he’s supposed to act.
The last scene of the film, when Keaton awakes from his dream,2 he famously mimics the action on the screen in order to console his girlfriend, only to run into a situation on film he cannot hope, or does not want, to duplicate. Cinema gives us the tools to navigate the world, faulty as those tools may be, but even those tools have their limits. We can’t always be watching movies if we want to live.
1. It’s rather interesting that in this silent film it is through a conversation that the crime is cracked. Keaton’s detective, relying on surveillance and physical interaction, is hopeless.
2. Which ends, by the way, with Sherlock Jr. and his girl floating helplessly in a lake, not exactly a heroic conclusion.