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Sherlock Jr.Buster, at right, about to enter the movie

Sherlock, Jr.

1924. Buster Keaton Productions/First National. Directed by Buster Keaton. With Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Ward Crane, Joe Keaton

Within thirty or forty years after the novel was "born," Laurence Sterne had identified many of the holes in the form and, in Tristram Shandy, walked right through them. It took even less time for Buster Keaton to notice some of the paradoxes about motion pictures and to bring them memorably to our attention.

Many Keaton films show an awareness of the camera's presence, of the lens that separates his world from ours, of the way that photography flattens space, of how the frame which seems so expansive actually leaves out so much. Stunning and beautiful "gags" result (though gag seems far too lightweight a word). In one movie Keaton's hand reaches in from nowhere to cover the lens to safeguard an actress's modesty; in another he winks right at the audience on his way out of the frame. In The Boat he shows a boat going "upstream" by tilting the camera so that the boat actually seems to be travelling toward the top corner of the frame.

The supreme example is Sherlock, Jr,. where Buster plays a projectionist who becomes part of the movie he is projecting. After much stress in his personal life, he has gone to work and fallen asleep in the projection booth. His dream is that the border between life and film blurs and finally dissolves.

Over the next five minutes, Keaton shows us three different kinds of cinematic tricks—one rather conventional, one cleverly conceived but obviousin its execution, and finally one that's absolutely breathtaking both conceptually and technically.

The "conventional" one shows his dreaming body arise out of his sleeping one via a kind of ghostly double-exposure. This was a staple of silent-film magic.

Next, Buster's dreaming self takes a look at the movie being projected, and as he watches, something strange happens. The characters in the on-screen melodrama turn into characters from Buster's own life. The ingenue turns her back and when she faces front again she's Buster's girl friend. The girl's parents and Buster's rival also take over roles in the movie, whose plot vaguely parallels the fix that the real-life Buster is in. These transformations are accomplished with quite-noticeable dissolves.

So when Buster decides to enter the movie himself, we're prepared for another "I-know-how-they-do-that" trick. Instead, we get a bafflingly seamless interaction of man and movie.

Buster sees that the villain is mistreating his girl, so he leaves the projection booth, walks up the center aisle toward the screen, and climbs up into the movie. Onscreen, he scuffles with the villain, who tosses him out of the movie and back into the theater. Buster tries again, but just as he's leaping into the film there's a cut, and he lands in an entirely different scene. There follows the famous sequence where a series of cuts continually undercuts Buster's stability: he leans on a doorframe that disappears; he goes to sit on a park bench but ends up sitting in the middle of a busy street, he dives into an ocean that changes into a snow bank by the time he lands.

The sequence is impeccably done. Though Keaton is clearly in every scene he passes through (i.e., it's not just the backgrounds changing behind him), his figure moves absolutely smoothly—no jerking, no dissolves, not even the slightest mismatch. He revealed many years later how he accomplished this, and it sounds not only ingenious but difficult and time-consuming. Worth it, though; for my money this beats any Industrial Light & Magic extravaganza. It's so simple, so tangible; we're not being bombarded or distracted, only enchanted.

I think that with this progression of three "tricks," Keaton is gradually luring us spectators into joining him "inside" of a movie. (I should add that after the funny-cuts scene described above, both he and we stay inside that screen melodrama for most of the rest of Sherlock, Jr.) The first one we've seen before and understand the syntax of. The second one we're invited to recognize as a trick. And then, just as we feel right on top of things, Keaton hits us with an illusion that we're powerless to analyze or even really understand. Our sense of distance evaporates.

"Our relationship with the screen is apparently a double one," writes Walter Kerr, from whose moving and beautifully-written book The Silent Clowns many of these ideas come.

"With one part of our minds we know that the camera is playing a trick on us; with another we take delight in refusing to see through the trick. It is as though we were recording fact with the left eye, fancy with the right, but were still forced to use both eyes to see anything at all."

Sherlock, Jr is a film about film, though not in the pop-sociology sence of how movies reflect our wishes and dreams, etc. It's a meditation on the nature of this (still quite new at that time) medium: how it both represents and misrepresents, how it imposes a logic of its own, how it both absorbs us and jolts us, how its mysteries can only be glimpsed obliquely and disappear when we look straight-on.

Here's something Kerr says in one of his early chapters;

"The premises of this kind of comedy are, in the end, quite simple. The camera is a stable factor, doing its work with integrity. The universe being photographed is a stable factor, possessed of an integrity of its own. But the relationship between them is unstable--hopelessly, hilariously unstable. Two absolutes come together at a point that cannot be absolutely detected. Not by the human eye. We cannot say with assurance where the lens ends and life begins, or vice versa.

"The instability renders the form subject to fits. Fits of expansion and contraction. Fits of simultaneity. Fits of fusion. Fits of inattention and of expectation foiled and of all the elisions of focus that the conjunction of camera and universe just naturally falls heir to. A gap has opened wide, and the clown can topple into it or escape through it. Specifically cinematic comedy never apologizes for this gap. Neither does it attempt to conceal it. Rather, it thrives on it. All the comedian has to do is remain alert to the everlasting slipperiness of the only environment he knows."

I didn't think about Keaton until this List was well under way, and I haven't picked up Kerr's book in years. But it seems that they've been waiting for us all along.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein