Sherlock, Jr. – 1924 – dir. Buster Keaton
The following is an entirely insufficient attempt to explain what Sherlock Jr is about without using the words “projectionist” or “detective”:
“Sherlock Jr is about a man’s (or Man’s) struggle against the destructive forces of the world and their indifference to our petty squabbles and emotional yearnings. It is a film of divergent, diverse forces wreaking havoc on mere mortals, as well as the need for these mortals to develop a realized, physical skill set in order to, if not to conquer and command the forces, at least eke out a living against a smorgasbord of pressures.”
Lacking, to be sure, but one can easily understand Sherlock Jr on some meaningful level by first understanding that it is about the many forces man struggles to control, but always in vain. These forces are material and immaterial, internal and external. Sherlock Jr is perhaps best at dealing with these distinctions because of its explicit forays into the subconscious dream world. Each force is given time to flower and announce itself, creating numerous threads and layers that spark critical discussion.
The diverse takes on Sherlock Jr in critical writing are indicative of the many forces examined in the film. Yet most of the plethora of essays written about Sherlock Jr attempt to fashion the film as one elaborate metaphor, a dramatization of a particular social or philosophical concern. Everything from masculine identity to the laws of mathematics are presented as the hidden subject of Sherlock Jr, its status as an action-comedy merely an obstacle to be overcome by a more truthful thematic reading . That’s not to say that these texts are not extremely valuable, as nearly all of them can cite examples of Keaton’s style (and the substance of his gags) lending something to each of their pet interpretations.
Thus the challenge for the viewer is not to find one ‘right’ interpretation but to watch it through the right lens. This essay then is not about interpreting the film as much as it is about correcting one’s thought process while watching it.
Most readings published up to this point ultimately ignore the medium of silent comedy, and of Keaton’s principles behind the camera. Surely the man earnestly peddling the maxim “think slow, act fast” would not set out to film the problems of masculine identity. The film is, after all, 45 minutes orchestrated for a series of falls and injuries. This is a terrible approach to take to Keaton, however, and you should absolutely not stop reading at this point, lest you develop that condescending thought process currently infecting modern audiences: “Well, it must have been really impressive eighty-five years ago back when the peasants were all simpletons, so I admire it because it’s interesting for its time but quaint and unassuming.”
Don’t scoff at Keaton’s famous maxim either, there’s Zen-like wisdom in such a pithy phrase, an accident of brainless genius. It forms the artistic backbone of Keaton’s filmography, all of which holds up. It’s Art with a capital “A”, and no work of his is as accomplished in that regard as Sherlock Jr. Those stuffy critics are right to point out the intellectual values of the film. Their only mistake is that they didn’t fully explain how Sherlock Jr’s artistic wholeness stems not from the rigorous formalism of a Bresson or a Dreyer but rather from the artistic questions inherent in the schematics of silent comedy.
Silent film comedy rests primarily on using a sequence of events and visual slight of hand to elicit a physical response from a character. The end result generally is a physical force moving the character in some way. Generally, it’s a fall, but it could also be beautiful acrobatic displays. Both are littered throughout Sherlock Jr. Keaton is a master at this because of the way he uses a scene of physical force or action to conjure an abstract force. Consider this one example: Keaton is bewitched by numbers in his daily life (note the $1 and $4 prices) but as Sherlock Jr, Keaton summons power over numbers as he evades his would-be killers and their number 13 ball.
And it’s worth pointing out that all of Keaton’s comedy comes from cinematic virtues, the use of camera placement as visual trickery being the primary example. There is a certain kind of laugh associated with Sherlock Jr (you’ll see what I mean). It is laughter of awe, the only appropriate sign of respect for Buster Keaton. It’s like a holy Om sung in praise of a man who, in the course of forty-five minutes, has single-handedly justified cinema.
A Long Afterword:
The Keaton-Chaplin war is the central ideological conflict of the twentieth century. The chief question of modern times is not whether the future rests in socialism or capitalism, it’s “Are you a Chaplin or a Keaton?” This question dispenses with the vacuous bickering of day-to-day politics; no, answering this question gets us as close to understanding how we view the world and ourselves in it as we may ever be.
And make no mistake, there is very much a war. There are two opposing forces battling for the soul of man, pulling him from the realm of emotion to the realm of Zen and back again. There have always been the Chaplin hordes, the blind followers lapping up equal parts skin-deep social commentary and sentimental whimsy entranced by the way his endearing eyes wail for your emotion in those “LOVE ME!” close-ups.
It is harder to be a Keaton man. It takes courage to invest oneself emotionally in a mystery, in something whose very nature makes emotional investment difficult. Most souls are wayward, embracing the all-too-easily understood Chaplin versus Keaton’s perpetual enigma. Their side grows larger and they become arrogant, noisy. Chaplinic mass is a loud, public affair like a political protest.
The noblest Keatonist monks, on the other hand, pray in silence. They are the Washington Generals, the stalwart heroes locked in an endless Sisyphean struggle with the Harlem Globetrotters. Stone-faced to the end, they take pratfall after pratfall as countless forces beyond their control conspire to guarantee their perpetual defeat. And yet, like all of us, they soldier on, not a moment spared for tears. Pure Keaton, made even more so by the probable fact that they don’t even know they’re Keatonist monks.
Not for nothing do they have the same name as Keaton’s most acclaimed film.
We may yet lose the war. Please, join us on principle, but know that defeat is imminent. Any day now the last remaining Keatonites will be arrested and exiled for the crime of insufficient social awareness. But when the Tomanian secret police comes to shut us down for good, I vow to be one of the stalwart holdouts, one of the brave twenty hiding in a basement projecting the last faded copy of Sherlock Jr, dreaming the projectionist’s dream and dancing from life to screen and from screen to life.