Saturday, February 27, 2016

No Audio Audient: Sherlock, Jr.

This is the second in my 2016 series No Audio Audient, in which I catch up with one silent film per month.

I've been chastising myself lately for being too indiscriminate with my high star ratings on Letterboxd. I'm desperately trying, by hook or by crook, to recalibrate my personal rating system, so a wider range of the available star ratings can be used to fairly describe my feelings about the movies I see.

But if I can't give five stars to one of the most delightful and imaginative silent films I have ever seen, I don't know when I can give it.

And even watching it late at night, after I'd tried to go to bed but tossed and turned for 20 minutes before giving up, didn't damper my appreciation of it.

Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr. was one of the films that prompted me to choose this as my series for 2016, and it was what I meant to start with last month before a separate movie challenge led me to select the Harold Lloyd vehicle The Freshman instead. If I'm not mistaken, Chicago film critic Michael Phillips chose it as one of his ten films to submit to the Sight and Sound list in 2012 -- either actually, or as a theoretical ballot composed just for his appearance on Filmspotting for their Sight and Sound-themed episode. I hadn't had all that much familiarity with it prior to that, but quickly stashed the title away in the back of my mind for future use.

It's a 45-minute "feature" (remember, I'm expanding my usually rigid definition of what constitutes a feature for the purposes of this series) from 1924, involving a projectionist (Keaton) who is studying to be a detective (as the poster above shows you). He's also in love with a girl and is trying to buy her a fancy box of chocolates that will help woo her, but is poor and can only afford a $1 box of chocolates. His rival, the "local sheik," is also poor, but steals the girl's father's pocket watch in order to pawn it and buy her a $3 box of chocolates. He slips the pawn ticket into Keaton's character's pocket in order to frame him for the crime once it is discovered. Keaton's own amateur detective work to find the culprit leads to himself, and he's banished from the girl's home. Upon returning to work, he dreams himself away into the film he's watching, replacing the actors with people from his life and trying again to solve the crime on celluloid.

Although the film ultimately ends up having a fairly well defined plot, Sherlock, Jr. is as close as I've seen to a film that exists purely to celebrate the possibilities of cinema and their inherent joys. This film is full of lovely optical tricks, which had to have been comparatively simple by today's standards, but whose actual mechanical details still sort of escaped me as I sat there watching them. The proof in the pudding of their success was that I didn't want to try to figure out what they'd done. I just wanted to sit there, reveling in it.

The most notable instance of this is probably when Keaton first tries to join the film in his dream, and he actually runs up to the screen and dives forward into it. That in itself is impressive, but it's only a prelude of things to come. As is always the case in the silent films of Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, the hero must be constantly challenged by changing circumstances out of his control, and in this case, that couldn't have a more literal interpretation. The image on the movie screen keeps changing to scenes from different movies, such that the item he's sitting on in one scene will suddenly be gone; he'll be on dry land one moment and standing in the water the next; he'll be alone, and then moments later he'll be joined by tigers, which pass before him in the foreground to prove it's not just some visual trick. (I mean, it is a visual trick, but it invites you to believe it isn't.)

This type of sensibility is demonstrated throughout. There's a part where Keaton is being chased, and he meets a strange man in alley with a briefcase. The man seems to be offering him a way out. Before we know it, the man has opened his briefcase in front of him, in the classic position of a peddler showing you his wares. But instead of wares, it's some kind of portal to another dimension -- or simply to the other side of the fence, I guess. We see Keaton run forward and dive into the briefcase, still held at chest level for the man, so not only is he diving in to the briefcase, he's diving into the space where the man's chest should be. Only later is it revealed that he's on the other side of the fence. Again, how they did it had to have been fairly simple -- by today's standards. But I don't want to know, because the illusion was so damn pleasing on its own terms.

Then there's the part where Keaton is driving in a car with the woman and the car goes through all kinds of transformations as it's going along, losing its top, losing its bottom, driving over surfaces it should not be able to drive over, driving over surfaces that are present only for the very moment that the car is passing. As ever, Keaton and his passenger are completely stone-faced. Keaton's ability to underplay a zany moment is perhaps unparalleled in cinematic history.

Then there's the scene where he's playing pool with a #13 ball that is rigged to explode, only he doesn't know it (or does he?). It's actually incredibly tense as we watch him execute one shot after another that miraculously does not involve any incidental contact with that particular ball. This took some incredible trick shooting on Keaton's part, and it's not a feat we should just take in stride -- though by making it look so easy, Keaton does indeed invite us to do that.

I also love the moment when he perfectly rides one of those wooden arms that prevents cars from crossing train tracks, down from the top of the building to the back of a passing convertible. It's not a trick in this case, just one of Keaton's famous perfectly executed stunts.

I could probably go on, as I feel like I have not even scratched the surface of what's stuffed into these 45 minutes. But let me instead end by discussing the final scene, and if you really want a spoiler alert about a movie that is 92 years old, well here it is.

Sherlock, Jr. does end happily for its protagonist, who wakes up from his dream to discover that his girl has gleaned the true identity of the thief and has come to reconcile with him. It's then that we learn that as with his detective aspirations, the projectionist has modeled all his behaviors and goals on the cinema. He looks up at the screen to discover that characters in the movie are also having a romantic reconciliation. Clueless how to do this on his own, he simply mimics the behavior of the movie's romantic lead. And here we are reminded of one of the main philosophical underpinnings of the study of art and culture, which is that life imitates art. And the comparatively young medium of cinema is the perfect way for that occur.

Watching Sherlock, Jr. was also highly informative in the wake of listening to the episode of You Must Remember This on Keaton, which discusses his disastrous decision to sign with MGM and give over creative control on his movies to the studio. When Keaton was at Metro in the 1920s, he was allowed to do whatever he wanted because it was always a financial (and critical) success. But once sound came in, which more or less coincided with the signing of his MGM contract, Keaton became creatively castrated, and he promptly stopped being able to create things with this seemingly effortless sense of artistic joy and imagination. And so I felt like I watched this movie with an extra layer of sentimentality, as I knew that Keaton's days as a genius free to frolic within his element were numbered.

If that's not a five-star movie, I don't know what is.

Next month I'm inclined to start diving into some of the three-hour silent epics I've been meaning to watch for years, but I expect March to be a particularly busy month for me, so let's instead jump back in time ten years from the first two films I've watched in this series and check out the 72-minute Regeneration from 1915. I know nothing about it except it was recently recommended in my Flickchart group on Facebook, and that it's available on Youtube.

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