“All this changes when, a third of the way into the film, the camera points toward the movie screen, which our hero promptly tries to enter. It is the open door into a magic realm” (Parshall 70).
This is exactly how I felt while watching Buster Keaton’s cinematic masterpiece Sherlock Jr. This film blurs the boundaries between Hollywood movie making and the nature of a Vaudeville performance. Sherlock Jr. is a film made up of two separate and distinctive parts, those being the real world and the dream world we encounter as he steps right into the film-within-a-film.
Elements of fantasy exist within the flexibility the dream world. Keaton assumes the audience will accept the fantastic as possible within the dream-space. Keaton uses the film within his own as a stage for his most magical moments which makes me wonder why the rules of magic bend in his made-up film but they cannot exist within the “real” world of the outer storyline.
The real world is governed by the laws of causality: one thing must almost always directly cause another and nothing exists in the world if it doesn’t have something to do with the main plot. Keaton borrows a little of this idea from Hollywood films which require formulaic plots in order to function and explain life as ruled by a predictable cause-effect progression of events.
Sherlock Jr. evolves beyond the typical Hollywood film with its need to break the 4th wall and address its audience. It also breaks away due to its fragmented and often incoherent storyline. The basic plot is always there and running in a sense but someone wise pointed out that the real “case” is solved by Keaton’s clever on-screen sweetie “the girl” a third of the way in.
Breaking the 4th wall is a term that is common for people who frequent theatres or are well versed in theatrical language. It provides a way for actors to notice the audience and address them as if they too were part of the scene. Since Keaton is unable to do this as if we were viewing a live performance he constructs instances in the film in which the audience can become involved. This kind of wink at the audience wouldn’t fit into a classic Hollywood film.
Hollywood “is in the business of telling stories” it wants the audience to view the film as plausible, straightforward and “cut off from the realm of spectator experience” (Jenkins 36). Not only is the experience subsequently less spectacular each time we view the film but we aren’t challenged to guess how something was done, we are supposed to take everything at face value, to assume that it just exists in that reality. We are not invited to give back with our own ideas and opinions or to challenge our ways of thinking or interject our own experiences.
Sherlock Jr. is a love story in part but it is also a stage for Keaton’s enormous physical comedy, another version of his larger-than-life act projected onto film. Keaton’s fantastic tricks are pointed out for us, taunting us to figure out just how they were done. They are never intended to make us feel foolish, Keaton himself was interested in the way in which things work and it is logical that he wanted us to find the same pleasure in deducing what cannot be easily figured out. We can watch Keaton perform the same trick again and again while working out how he made it seem so real, seamless. The special effects in the film aid the act, they never completely take over the illusion; this grounds his stunts for the most part within the realm of possibility. That element is what makes Keaton so wonderfully eccentric and fun to watch, he wants the experience to be jarring, to make us imagine what else could be possible.
Keaton creates an interesting paradox with this film, he is either commenting on the film-like aspects of dreams or the dream-like qualities of film-both of these ideas are true in a way and both are certainly profound and ask questions of the very existence of both. The film is self-reflexive because it mirrors itself or different aspects of itself. When Sherlock Jr. enters the film-within-a-film, Hearts and Pearls, in his dream state he is transformed into a real detective, someone who doesn’t need to be let in on the trick. The second storyline parallels the first almost exactly, only our hero is actually the hero he wants to be instead of the poor projectionist who can only dream of rescuing his girl. Finally, in Heart and Pearls, Sherlock Jr. lives up to his namesake, he saves the girl and not the other way around. He makes a daring escape instead of being a pawn in the sheik’s trap.
As a filmmaker and artist Keaton wanted the audience to be aware of two things happening.
1. Keaton highlights the tricks performed “for the camera” including acrobatic stunts and stock comic turns. This is because “Keaton wants us to watch his performance unfold in continuous space and time so that there can be no escaping our awareness of his mastery” (Jenkins 46). This attribute shows how dedicated Keaton was to his identity as a Vaudeville performer. As an audience we are going to have a certain reaction to the performance because it is established that Keaton is not faking it, he’s really talented. We are automatically more impressed, more concerned, more mystified about the real possibility of every image we see on the screen.
2. We notice tricks preformed “with the camera” these kinds of tricks allow the viewer to be aware of the magic Keaton creates with the film and it encourages the audience to view the events as being reflexive in nature.
Vaudeville, Keaton’s “alma mater” in essence is unreal, it is the spectacular. You cannot take the performer out of Keaton and you cannot ask him to create what is not natural to him. The flair that Vaudeville gives to this piece is crucial to its success, Keaton would risk alienating everything he stood for if he simply made the movies that everyone else wanted him to make. Just as the film would be depleted without its roots in Vaudeville and the performance culture it too would be lost without the sense of a story.
The story tells us a lot about Keaton’s character and it also provides the film for an excuse to step outside of reality and to retreat to the dream world (you cannot retreat if there is nothing to retreat from!) You couldn’t just line up separate acts, film them and expect to get something people will respond to.
Sherlock Jr. assumes that spectacle isn’t enough to captivate cinematic audiences. Keaton constructs a film in which alongside brilliant stunts there are nearly seamless special effects. Special effects allow the viewer to recognize that Jr. has drifted away into the dream world. We feel as though we are allowed to leave ourselves behind when the main character enters the movie screen.
Keaton projects his own feelings about film in the bit about the scenery changing. Film is unfamiliar water for someone like Keaton, he gets no immediate feedback from the audience, and he is forced to take risks. We identify with the disorientation that takes place as a result of the rapid changing of atmosphere. We also identify with feeling like a fish out of water. As viewers and not participants in the show we are able to look at Keaton’s choices critically. This scene allows us laugh at how awkward Jr. is in unfamiliar surroundings. I argue that you could apply the tone of that scene to Keaton himself. It is possible that the “rapid transformation of space” disorients the character of Sherlock Jr. in the film just as Keaton was disoriented “as [he] struggle[d] to get a foothold in the movie world” (Jenkins 47). Sherlock Jr. speaks to the difficulties of remaining credible to one scene while transforming and adapting the art for another audience.
Keaton accomplished something unique with Sherlock Jr. and I believe that is why it stands out today as one of his most essential works. It successfully attempts to mesh together two very different venues for creativity. Keaton uses elements from each to create a film where what you see or what you think you see can reasonably exist within the space provided.
Jenkins, Henry. “This Fellow Keaton Seems to Be the Whole Show.” Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Parshall, Peter F. Houdini’s Protégé. Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Carney, Ray. Shadows. British Film Institute, 2001.