Lingering In the Golden Gleam: Sherlock Jr.
Over at The Film Experience (a marvelous blog), there’s a series called “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” where, each week, some writers pick their favorite shot within a given film and explain why. This week’s movie is Sherlock Jr., which reigns supreme over so many other movies that I just couldn’t not give it a try. Special thanks to Andreas at Pussy Goes Grrr (an equally marvelous blog) for tipping me off on the opportunity. My vote for “Best Shot” goes to:
This is the best kind of Buster image. At its heart, it’s a gag. Buster, who works as a projectionist, has fallen asleep on the job. In his dream, he hops out of his corporeal body and begins to see his own life projected on the screen. At the precise moment of this frame, Buster is trying to deal with the fact that he sees his nemesis and heartthrob on screen together. It’s a gut reaction to seeing our imagination on display.
While the gags and giggles will always be the heart of Buster’s work, there are a number of intellectually satisfying things happening that form the brain — and the heart can’t work without the brain. Keaton’s genius relies on this hierarchy. He used his filmmaking skill to inform and enhance the gags, rather than the other way around. So often we see filmmakers try to use film as a highway for jokes. Unfortunately, the wit doesn’t always translate to visual facility. This is one reason I feel Tati is so often compared to Keaton — they were kindred spirits who knew that comedy is dependent on craft.
Let’s think about the numerous things Keaton manages to accomplish in this single frame. First of all, it is a fine image. The foreground is out of focus, but crucial (more on that in a moment), the two Busters and a projector fill out the middle, and there is a clear backdrop. That’s at least three levels of depth established without multiple angles. Especially in Sherlock Jr., Keaton brings an outstanding sense of depth to his imagery — and for good reason. The film has as much voyeurism in its blood as Rear Window. Observe how Keaton designs the foreground. It looks like a picture frame hanging on our living room wall. So, not only are we watching Buster practice awareness of his own voyeurism, he is inviting the audience to be aware of the same. A common motif in Sherlock is that of passing through things. Many times, Buster makes a joke by moving through something that appears to be a solid object — a mirror, a wall, movie screens, even a person. Other times, he plays a simple variation on the theme of the above image. Look at this incredible composition.
Whoa depth. This picture goes on forever, tracing the power lines until they disappear with Buster’s tails wiggling in the wind and the inexplicable Washington portrait. But the image is really accomplishing the same thing as the other. It is Keaton’s way of showing us the business of looking at and through things. Here, it’s a bank vault door — and doesn’t the door frame still look like a picture frame?
Like The Cameraman, another great Keaton picture, Sherlock gives us an account of his own personal thoughts on the cinema. I’m a sucker for movies about movies, but there’s some real meat here. The image at the top of the page shows us two Busters. One of them is staring at the screen, dumbfounded and mystified — enchanted by the impossibility of his imagination. But the other is just taking a nap. Keaton was one of the filmmakers who understood the intimacy between movies and dreams, he proves it here. In fact, the “awake” Buster is really just a dream version of the sleeping one. Over all of the variations on voyeurism taking place in Sherlock, it’s heaviest power lies in its belief in human imagination. Keaton knew that cinema was the key to letting us reproduce our dreams, our fantasies, and our nightmares. That’s probably the source of the confusion on “awake” Buster’s face. In a way, he’s seeing into the future. He’s seeing his own life projected in front of him. And he has the balls to actually hop in and play along. When he does, he becomes a rakish gentleman in tails who destroys all threats to his honor at the billiard table. I’m not sure, but Sherlock might be the most earnest thing Keaton made — and it’s done by being outrageous, fantastical even.
There’s one more thing about the top image. Visually, it establishes that “frame” motif that comes back again and again, holding the picture together. The end of the film has some iconic imagery that echoes the same moment.
Finally, Buster’s got the girl and he has risen from the dream. He awkwardly (read: charmingly) enacts the love scene that plays on screen. The visual symmetry between the two moments is obvious, but its message is more subtle. In the image at the top of the post, Buster is looking at his exaggerated impression of his own life being played out in front of him. Here, he is trying to bring elements of the imagined film into real practice — he’s being more proactive. But even through this flipped circumstance, he still wears a mystified expression. It’s of a different kind than the other, but it is an acknowledgment of cinema’s ability to beguile us whether or not we think we’re the ones in control.
The image of the two Busters remains a key to Sherlock. We see so much of the film distilled into a single frame — the dreams, the wonder, and the extra layers. Most importantly, I feel Mr. Keaton might say, he’s making a funny face.