Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sherlock, Jr.

Directed by Buster Keaton, United States, 1924, approx. 44 minutes
Our Hospitality and Sherlock, Jr. - Kino Video, 1999

The comedic film has hardly been more fun and funny than in the hands on the great “stone face”, Buster Keaton. His 1924 four reel short Sherlock, Jr. is a surreal, special effects laden gemstone that conjures up the magic of the movies and draws guffaws and dropped jaws. Keaton’s short comments on the ethereal, shadow world of the silver screen through gorgeous and ghostly effects and registers richters in laughter.

Keaton plays a bumbling movie theatre projectionist, caught up in a dream of becoming a detective just like Sherlock Holmes. He daydreams and wishes, simpering in the booth. But ‘detectivity’ isn’t the only thing Keaton pines for: he is also quite madly in love with The Girl (no, but really, that’s the character’s name). She’s capitalized: The Girl. The One. Unfortunately for our hero, The Girl is also the object of The Sheik’s (a bad guy) affection. After an unfortunate mystery develops leaving Keaton all but hopeless, he falls asleep and transcends into the world of the motion picture, becoming a real life detective.

Sherlock, Jr. is entirely tongue in cheek; at a pivotal moment Keaton literally leaves his body and jumps right into a motion picture, leaving our real life audience watching a movie audience watching a movie (and to add to the fun, when this was filmed, the movie audience was really watching live actors in a carefully designed set made to look just like a screen). The escapist qualities of the cinema become absolute for Keaton, and his other worldly self becomes caught up in the projected movie. This is when the literal film transitions from being a movie about a movie to being the movie. Keaton frames the real point of the movie with the real world, but the reason Sherlock, Jr. exists is the story of the detective. The Projectionist is not the projectionist, he is Sherlock, Jr.

The trick photography in Sherlock, Jr. is still pretty mind blowing in contemporary context. The moments after Keaton enters the on-screen movie are particularly exciting. Keaton is thrown into a variety of situations: stuck on a cliff, in the middle of a bust intersection, through a series of cuts. The reality of the scene is never questioned though, as each segment is shot so precisely and proportionally well. Keaton reportedly shot this footage with the aid of surveyor's equipment. His ingenuity worked.

This series of misadventures is not unlike Duck Amuck, which Prof. Middents posted earlier. The notion of the screen is questioned, as well as the idea of who is making the movie. The scenes which Keaton is tossed around in are entirely disparate and random, and have nothing to do with the the movie that follows. Keaton is being toyed with, much like Daffy by his animator - but who is playing with Keaton? The Projectionist Keaton? The inside-movie-filmmakers their selves? The audience? The perception of the spectacle of the cinema is what is questioned here, but it’s done so in a laugh-a-minute riot house.

I think this is an essential question for any examination of cinema, regardless of length, and it’s one that we come back to often in class, as it is more visible through the short lens. What makes a movie? Is it literally the material matter, the film or video, that constitutes the motion picture? Is it less than that, just a series of photos, the motion that makes the movie? This of course, does not allow for a film like La Jetée to be considered a motion picture -- so is it the audience that believes in the idea that it is a movie that makes it a movie? Any audience member seeing a feature in a theatre today will agree it is a movie, and most audience members watching short films in a theatre or at a festival will argue for the validity of the presentations as movies. As a class I believe we agree that La Jetée was a movie; would another audience consider it one, though?

Keaton is arguing through stone-faced comedy in Sherlock, Jr. The duality of The Projectionist’s realities calls into question the legitimacy of our reality. Do we perceive things to be real, therefore making them real? Or are we all just part of a bigger picture, a bigger movie; are we all just sleeping projectionists in some cinema somewhere?

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