Three years ago, when I sat down with some of the wonderful people responsible for the Toronto Silent Film Festival, I asked for guidance.
You see back then, in the run-up to their event and in the wake of films like THE ARTIST and HUGO, it became painfully clear to me that I was tragically ill-versed in the medium of silent cinema. I didn’t know my Caligari from my Falconetti…my WIND from my WINGS. However, at the time I did have a running grasp of silent comedy…since that’s the gateway drug of the medium, and I got hooked on the drug early thanks to a dealer named Chaplin.
And yet, through all of the ground I’ve been making up, and all of the new avenues I’ve been traversing, there’s been one silent artist I’ve remained woefully in the dark on, and it’s a curious case since he’s one of the most accessible artists.
How in all of my silent film consumption am I still so brutally sheltered from the work of Buster Keaton?
SHERLOCK, JR. features the stonefaced genius at his best. The story is about a projectionist in a movie theatre who longs to be a detective. He reads his trusty manual, tries to “walk the walk”, and hopes that someday he won’t have to pick through the refuse he’s sweeping for stray dollar bills. The idea is that if he became a detective (or really anything other than a projectionist), he could afford to woo the girl who catches his eye. Instead he has to stand back and watch more financially flush – yet emotionally bankrupt – suitors stand in line ahead of him.
However when one of those suitors has his watch stolen, and all evidence points towards our hero, he is placed in an especially compromising situation. So it is that he’s turned away from his lady love and sent back to the projection booth.
It’s there that he nods off…and dreams about solving the case.
While my heart will always belong to Charlie Chaplin, I can’t deny the deep allure of Keaton and the way he draws comedy from everyday objects. In a comedic sense, he’s like the great-grandfather of MacGyver; taking a bobby pin, a piece of gum, and a thread and turning them into a comedic bomb. His scenes are built upon the physical pieces they contain, be they a box of chocolates or a bomb in a billiard ball.
There’s a naturalism to the way he employs these items and is able to use them for laughs. Sure, he’s not above dropping a banana peel and letting that classic gag play out, but it takes a certain sort of cleverness to have a magnifying glass on hand for a fiancée to see the teeny diamond in the ring she’s just been given. Keaton has that cleverness, and that cleverness serves him well when it comes to alluding falling blades or reaching past poison drinks.
I can only imagine that it’s like watching Prince noodle on guitar; it might seem very wild and slapstick, but there is a massive amount of genius pouring out.
The situations Keaton finds himself in also find a way of elegantly folding in upon themselves, until what began as a love letter to an unsuspecting audience soon becomes an envelope containing a whole other letter entirely. In SHERLOCK, JR., that envelope is handed to us by way of our projectionist interacting with the film he is showing.
Here we see an early understanding of how the movies present idols – women and men that we strive to be as our ideal selves. If Keaton were just to see these interactions and mimic them, that would be clever enough. Instead, by framing them as the dreams of a projectionist/patron, he plays upon the notion that what we see in the movies is our very dreams come to life. This character feels the way we in the audience feel, so when he looks back at us with longing or hesitation, we feel as though we’ve worn that look before.
But taking the magic of the movies one step further, our projectionist gets the ability to jump in and out of the movie screen. It reminds us of when we were children and we’d dress up like our heroes, only it goes one step further because in the world contained in that screen he can be one of his heroes.
What’s more, he becomes a rare movie character that is able to react to editing. To this day, no story character ever flinches when they are staring out at us one instant, and then having us look out over their shoulder the next. No jump cut ever jars, no wipe ever wavers. And yet the employment of editing is so unnatural that early film critics had a problem getting used to it.
Here we see Keaton acknowledging the oddity…as only Keaton can…and it’s glorious.
As I got to the end of SHERLOCK, JR., I was fixated on one bittersweet idea. The idea stemmed back to one of the earliest inter titles we see in the film – one that declares “Do not try to do two things at once and expect to do justice to them both.”
The line is directed at our hero trying to be both working stiff and would-be gumshoe, but it could just as easily apply to my forray into silent film…and “essential film” in general. As I said off the top, it surprised me when I thought back on how many silent films I’ve seen through the last few years, how few of them have been comedies. Could it be that my wish to study film has stood in the way of my enjoyment of film?
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been deeply inspired by a lot of the films I’ve tracked down in an effort to broaden my vocabulary…but many of these films have been watched at the expense of movies whose enjoyment factor is far greater. I do enjoy these essentials, but I’m not sure I get the same sort of essential enjoyment out of them that I do my old favorites. Likewise, my natural proclivities would have pushed me towards Keaton far earlier had it not been for an urge to study Eisenstein, Murnau, and Sjöström.
So maybe Sherlock’s book applies to me too. Maybe I shouldn’t try to enjoy film and study film while expecting to do justice to both…
I usually post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for April so far..with many more to come considering this month I have posted one week early…
Becca Sharp watched LAGAAN
Beatrice watched LEON THE PROFESSIONAL
Katy watched RESERVOIR DOGS
Al watched BRAZIL
Keisha watched NIGHTS OF CABIRIA
Josh watched TABU
Del watched EIGHT MEN OUT
Jordan watched CHILDREN OF MEN
Jenna & Allie watched TAXI DRIVER
Fisti watched THREE CROWNS OF THE SAILOR
Ruth watched 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY
John Hitchcock watched GANGS OF NEW YORK
Jay Cluitt watched ACE IN THE HOLE
Chris watched THIS IS SPINAL TAAP
Mette Kowalski watched METROPOLIS
James watched TROIS COULEURS: BLANC
Nostra watched TROIS COULEURS: BLEU
Brittani watched THE CRYING GAME
Luke watched THE LEOPARD
Sean Kelly watched THE BIG CHILL
Paskalis watched BEING JOHN MALKOVICH
Kevin watched MEAN STREETS
Steve watched SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS