Keith: There are two ways to watch Buster Keaton movies, and they overlap and complement each other. One is to focus on Keaton’s on-screen persona: stone-faced, forever in danger of getting ground up by the machinery of life (sometimes literally), and forever determined to prevail. Keaton’s rival Charlie Chaplin sometimes gets criticized for excessive sentimentality—unfairly, in my opinion, because he makes the sentimentality work for his films—but it’s easy to see why those of a more cerebral bent gravitate toward Keaton. His characters tend to end up in comic situations that double as powerful metaphors: trying to control out-of-control technology, pursued by potential brides, and so on. So did Chaplin’s, but Keaton never tries to pull on the heartstrings for empathy. Instead, he creates films filled with a real sense of peril drawing from a seemingly bottomless well of inventiveness. And that’s the other way to watch Keaton: His films are hilarious, packed with one remarkable gag after another, from setpieces executed on a mammoth scale to little bits of character work.
Sherlock, Jr. nicely illustrates both ways to watch Keaton. It has jaw-dropping stunts and gags that surprise on multiple viewings. (How did he jump through his friend’s chest?) But it also offers a strange, post-modern-before-it-had-a-name exploration of movies, viewers, and the relationship between the two. Come for the laughs, stay for the philosophical hall-of-mirrors.
Noel: To me, the key to understanding Keaton is to recognize that he never seemed to have as much of a grand plan as Chaplin. It’s not that he lacked ambition, or talent—far from it. It’s more that Keaton excelled at conceiving and executing scenes as individual units of entertainment that he then placed one after another. I don’t know that I’d say that Sherlock, Jr. has an especially well-crafted narrative, aside from its one big gimmick: that the hero dreams himself into a detective movie that mirrors his real-life troubles. But each sequence has a clever idea, and as I discussed in my Keynote yesterday, Keaton choreographs them all so that they’re uncluttered and easy to follow.
I should add that my perception of Keaton is always going to be shaded a little by all that I’ve read about him over the years: that he was melancholic by nature, and drank too much, which made him difficult to work with and eventually derailed his career. I wish in a way that I’d never seen any of Keaton’s sound pictures, not because they’re terrible (he actually made a few pretty good ones), but because I can’t watch the silent Keaton films without hearing his deep, raspy, Eeyore-like monotone voice in my head. I love Keaton, but he makes me sad as much as he makes me laugh—and he makes me laugh a lot.
Scott: I’m definitely a Keaton man myself, for a number of reasons: The deadpan countenance, the amazing stunt work and comic inventiveness, and mostly for the way he staged sequences as discrete units, conceived with the camera as a key partner. One of my favorite sequences in Sherlock, Jr. is the bit with the train and the water pipe—a stunt that actually fractured Keaton’s neck. The camera is static and at a middle distance while all the movement happens in front of it, with the train bustling under Keaton’s feet as he struggles to treadmill his way back to the center of the frame. He eventually grabs onto the water pipe and gets thoroughly drenched, followed quickly by his pursuers slipping on the water, again at center frame. Keaton understood the simple effectiveness of balancing a frame and making it as much of a deadpan artist as he was.
Nathan: Watching Sherlock, Jr., I was struck by the contrast between Keaton’s great stone face and that incredibly expressive physicality. It’s as if Keaton’s elastic and miraculous body was conveying all the things his permanent frown couldn’t convey. Keaton was famous for being inexpressive, but there’s a sadness about the eyes and his bearing that lends a melancholy air to even the goofiest physical shtick. The man had an aura of sadness, regardless of the context—and that includes the Beach Party movies he appeared in in the 1960s, which were my first exposure to him. I sensed from the context of those appearances that he used to be famous, but also that he was, at his core, very sad.
Noel: I did my initial re-watch of Sherlock, Jr. on Netflix, which has the version of the movie scored by Club Foot Orchestra, a San Francisco art-folk project that first started performing live soundtracks to silent movies in the 1980s, as a way to contextualize some of the band’s cultural influences. I’ll be honest: I kind of hate the CFO score for this movie, which is distractingly anachronistic and cheesy-sounding, and reminds me of the scores for those super-cheap 1960s Looney Tunes shorts. About halfway through watching on Netflix, I gave up and dug out my Kino DVD with the much more classical-sounding Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra score, which I enjoy much, much more.
But the whole experience made me think about how much we’re missing when we watch and try to appreciate silent movies today. I like to think that I can project myself back into the mind of an audience member from 50 years ago (not too long before I was born), but the further back I go, the harder it is to keep in mind what the presentation must’ve been like for these films—and for the silent movies especially, with appropriate live accompaniment in a big, full house. Do those external factors—the ones that Keaton had no control over—bother any of the rest of you?
Keith: I take heart in your final point: Keaton had no control over those elements of the presentation, so it hasn’t changed that much. Like you, I kind of hate that CFO score. I think you bailed before the low point, when it starts quoting James Bond music during the car chase. My ideal presentation of silent films on home video doesn’t try too hard to be old-timey or contemporary, but that’s a tough hair to split. I like the Carl Davis scores for Harold Lloyd movies that have appeared on Criterion’s reissues, but even there they never feel like a native part of the movie. The larger issue is that silents may lose more than most films when moved out of their native environment and their native era—all the more reason to turn up on the rare occasions when you can see one with live music. (I still regret missing my chance, a few years back, to see a Japanese silent with a real, live benshi, the storytellers who used to explain the action to Japanese audiences, and who had enough clout to extend the silent-film era into the mid-1930s in Japan.)
Nathan: I share your frustration with the CFO score, which nudges hard in the ribs when it should sit back and let Sherlock, Jr. and Keaton do the heavy lifting. One of the greatest filmgoing experiences of my life was a performance of Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon The Brain! narrated by Crispin Glover and accompanied by a live orchestra and live sound effects. It wasn’t just a movie, it was a multimedia experience that makes watching a silent film on a computer screen with half-assed, after-the-fact scores seem hopelessly ersatz. I love that Sherlock, Jr. is available for the whole world to see at the click of a button on Netflix; it’s also probably one of the worst ways to see a film like that.
Scott: I’ll fourth everyone on the CFO score for Sherlock, Jr. It’s atrocious and so distracting that I actually muted the sound completely at one point out of frustration. (Serves me right for not picking up the Kino reissues. That company has done much to burnish Keaton’s reputation over the years.) The shame of it is that Netflix’s streaming service offers so few silent movies and the score could turn off budding young cinephiles looking to familiarize themselves with Keaton’s work. Generally speaking, though, this is one of the few occasions where the scoring on a silent movie has been a distraction, and I wonder if just a more generic piece of comic ambience would work better than a bum score written specifically for the film.
Nathan: Watching Sherlock, Jr. today is like watching a magic trick; you wonder how on earth Keaton accomplished all those marvelous illusions even as you’re dazzled by their effect. Keaton was so brilliant from a technical perspective that the humor almost becomes secondary to the death-defying physical stunts and cinematic magic. But while much of Sherlock, Jr. is so technically complicated that a century later we’re still puzzling it out, a lot of its biggest laughs come from very simple comic tropes and ideas. I’m thinking specifically of when Keaton is “tailing” his suspect so closely that if he were to turn around he’d knock him over. It’s a simple gag, but the closeness with which Keaton pursues his prey and the meticulous way he mirrors his body language are both hilarious and virtuosic. What are some of your favorite gags and/or moments here?
Noel: Scott already mentioned the train/water-pipe sequence, so I’ll name an even smaller gag: Our Man being unable to get a piece of sticky trash off of his hand, and placing it on the ground such that a patron exiting the movie theater steps on it and carries it away on his foot. Some of my favorite comic bits in any silent movie are the ones where the hero is dealing with a common, annoying problem, and comes up with an ingenious solution on the fly.
Keith: Call me a sap (or, more appropriately, a sap-head), but I love the bit at the end when Keaton’s character starts taking his cues on how to propose to the love of his life from the movie he’s projecting. It’s funny, it’s played beautifully, and it neatly ties up some of the movie’s themes. We’ll talk next about the big walking-into-the-movies montage sequence, but that’s not the only place where Sherlock, Jr. plays with the idea of movie-life and real-life bleeding together, and it revisits that idea with this sweet final scene.
Scott: Perhaps the primary reason that Sherlock, Jr. is so treasured among cinephiles is that it’s a touchstone movie about the movies—about their possibilities, about the fantasies they inspire, about our capacity to live vicariously through film characters, and about the desires that we project onto the screen. Even when Keaton’s off on other bits of business, he makes the audience aware that they’re watching a movie; perhaps my single favorite shot in the film has Our Man in the projection booth, framed by a window—a frame within a frame. The money sequence in Sherlock, Jr. has a dreaming Keaton crossing through the fourth wall and getting swept up in a montage of backdrops that send him flopping around a range of different settings. Again, in the Keaton style, the camera stares dead ahead at the screen and the comedy is largely dead-center of the frame, with Keaton the stationary (or would-be stationary) figure in a flurry of dramatic action. It’s funny and a testament to the varied pleasures that movies have to offer.
Noel: What I love about that montage—beyond the phenomenal precision of the staging—is how Keaton very quickly abandons the the idea that he’s in a real movie. The plot-within-the-plot kicks back in after the montage, but for those few minutes, the hero is stuck in the craziest movie imaginable, with cuts and changes of scenery every few seconds. The logic of the film succumbs to the needs of the comedy.
Keith: Each time I watch this, there’s a point where I give up trying to figure out how Keaton made it happen and just go along with it. There are tricks within tricks at work here. But then we’re not really supposed to figure it out. I think part of the beauty of the scene is that it sweeps us along dreamily, just as it does the protagonist. It’s movie magic before that term became a cliché.
Nathan: Keith, the phrase “movie magic” ran through my mind throughout the film as well. To me, it’s a return to and an extension of the work of Georges Méliès, who was an illusionist in real life and made films that reflected his mastery of misdirection. Like you, I spent part of the movie trying to figure it all out, the way an audiences tries to figure out a magic trick. But also like you, I eventually just gave into the illusion, and there are few films that make giving into the illusion as enjoyable or as easy as Sherlock, Jr.
Noel: One of my favorite things about watching movies from the first three decades of the 20th century—as opposed to watching movies about the first three decades of the 20th century—is seeing little glimpses of the past that weren’t meant to be quaint. For example, what’s up with that “stag party” in Sherlock, Jr., where a bunch of dudes are having a picnic and playing tug-of-war? I’m used to “stag party” referring either to a bachelor party or to a bunch of Rotarians watching dirty movies in the basement. But in the movie, this seems like an actual business: an outdoor facility designed for men to come and hang out together.
Scott: Anyone else detect a Keaton influence on Wes Anderson here? Anderson’s attention to the very center of the frame was recently pointed out in a nifty supercut , but when Keaton sets about solving the case by following the steps in his How To Be A Detective book, there was a same sense of comic orderliness here as there is in Anderson’s work, which is liberal with the use of titles for inventory purposes. Then again, Anderson is one of those directors, like Martin Scorsese, whose films so bear the imprint of other work (and yet are distinctively theirs), that it’s hard to pull a single filmmaker like Keaton from the soup.
Nathan: Scott, I too detect a strong Keaton influence on Wes Anderson. The meticulousness of the compositions, the sense of order perpetually threatened by the impending arrival of chaos, the deadpan whimsy: It’s all there, as is the fetishism of books and reading as a key to unlocking the universe, or at least alleviating your loneliness and confusion for a while. The guide to being a detective certainly wouldn’t feel out of place on the bookshelves of the Tenenbaums or any other of Anderson’s divine, book-loving weirdoes.
Keith: I recently picked up the term “radio liar” from Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman. (It’s one who boasts about picking up distant signals using the then-new technology of short-wave radio.) Similarly, here and in other Keaton films I love getting glimpses of early-20th-century California, where civilization seemed to taper off into the countryside without much notice. These are films made closer to the Victorian era than our own, but they also offer proof that the history of film hasn’t been a steady march forward, as nobody has topped what Keaton and other silent comics did with visual gags.
Don’t miss yesterday’s keynote on Sherlock, Jr.’s masterful use of framing and geometry. And come back tomorrow for Matthew Dessem’s look at the sad history of Keaton’s co-writer, Clyde Bruckman.