Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Sherlock Jr.

In keeping with the brevity of the film for this week’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot discussions, I’m keeping my write-up short. Buster Keaton’s silent comedy Sherlock Jr is an essentially perfect film clocking in at 44 minutes. There are just two things which our hero (Keaton) wants – to become a good detective, and to have the girl of his dreams. His job as a movie projectionist, along with other odd jobs at the cinema, has him busy and an unfortunate incident with a rival suitor leaves him without his girl. Tired and forlorn he heads back to his job….what will he do? What can he do?

Escapism. The word is bandied around today in hushed tones as it’s the worst thing possible. It’s because (well, I suspect) the actual etymology of the word has given way to a more problematic connotation where escapism = fluff. But, ultimately, even if we’re doing it the “right” way (for example, to gain catharsis, as Aristotle would have us do) we turn to art because we want it to move us, and I say move as a pun, as in move us from our current state to a different. So, our hero goes to work and props his head against hand and dreams…
For in that sleep of death film what dreams may come
It’s not just incidental, of course, that his dream is a movie. Sure, there is the obvious bit of him working in a theatre but it’s such a whimsical nod to the way that cinema operates as a dream itself. For, with the movies, what dreams may come?

Dreams like this, where he’s no longer a bumbling faux-detective, but a real one.
Presenting: The crime crushing criminologist...

This was almost my choice. I love grand entrances, and they don’t get much grander than this one. Keaton’s pokerfaced expressions, his grandiose clothing, the pompous way he’s taking off his gloves. It’s such a turnaround from the man we’ve spent the last half of the film with (at least on the superficial level) and we smile and nod and cheer for him because, golly, if a man can’t succeed with his outlandish goals in his own movies (dreams) what is the world worth?

But it’s the way that particular shot worked so well that made me realise which shot I’d end up choosing before the film was half done.
My Best Shot

It’s an extended sequence where our hero reunites with his girl mimicking the actions of the hero and heroine on screen in the film within a film, but this particular expression always gets me. The way his neck is craned forward just so indicating the attention he is paying to the actions on screen amuse me. And of course, there’s the further point that he’s looking to the screen to learn the way to act which reinforces the way movies literally become a dreamscape of some sort through which we can navigate because the action he’ll copy (authentic or no) function significantly as extension of the waking dream he’s having – where he’s the hero he’s espying on the screen. He’s looking at the screen to learn, and what he learns will be put into effect thereby moving from the qualities of his dream self on screen to a thing of reality.

I like the shot, most, though for how slyly winking it is of Keaton to frame himself and McGuire within in actual frame so that as the character in Sherlock Jr. is looking at another film we’re only further drawn to the fact that they are in a film, themselves. So that, as we crane our necks in rapt attention waiting on the dénouement of it all we are seeing reflections of ourselves back up on the screen. We’re literally looking at ourselves on-screen, because even if we don’t copy wholesale (or we may not realise it) we pay as rapt attention to the machination on screen as Keaton is in the film. It’s a concept that could make my head hurt if I think too long on it and how it works as a potentially meta moment, but I like that it makes me think so....and that shot is perfect.

Head over to the excellent Nathaniel for what I suspect will be a series of great articles on Sherlock Jr.


Squasher88 said...

Great post Andrew!

Paolo said...

I almost chose that shot because of how actor-y he is. I see him a lot as a physical actor but he's also very expressive.