Throughout the twentieth century and up through today, cinema has withheld as the ultimate art form. It is the collision of all our other contemporary crafts — writing, music, choreography, photography, acting — into one glorious and unique new form. With it came an equally unique and new craft to string it all together: the art of editing. The magic of instantaneously shifting from one moving picture to another generates an emotional resonance on an unprecedented level. With editing, our preeminent artists are able to take the impossible, and render it into reality. The creative limitations of cinema were already being tested in the early days of its construction. Hollywood opened its doors to a flood of varying entertainers, all looking to explore this new medium in ways their previous occupations could not supply. What cinema truly offers that is different from any other art form is a kind of total transcendence; a transportive experience to an immersive world where the only limitations are at the filmmaker’s behest. Hardly could there be a better figure to represent the ambitious pursuit of artistic ingenuity than one of the titans of the Silent Era. Buster Keaton, the great stone-faced daredevil, relentlessly honed his surrealistic style of comedy in increasingly cinematic and inventive ways, culminating in a reverent realization about the magic of movies during the height of his artistic prowess.
Keaton was a child of entertainers and grew up as a vaudeville star. His comedy style is rooted in dead-pan reactions and the universal humor of slapstick, where he consistently pushed the physical boundaries of safety in order to achieve the grandest and most hilarious stunts. Though these death-defying stunts are what he’s largely remembered for today, Keaton’s unique style of comedy is better showcased in the simpler and more creative gags he invented. These are the types of jokes that dislodge the films from our own reality by doing things that are often nonsensical or completely without logic. Keaton called these “Impossible Gags” or “Cartoon Gags”, and they’re what separates him from the other silent comedians. He would break the rules of the already disconnected reality of silent comedies with absurd moments of surreality. These gags could be as simple as drawing a chalk hook that suspends his signature porkpie hat in The High Sign (1921), or as grand as the full-fledged orchestra and audience in The Playhouse (1921), played entirely by Keaton himself. He even went as far as to break the fourth wall on occasion, like in One Week (1920) where the camera operator covers the lens with his hand so that the bathing woman may preserve her modesty while reaching out of the tub to retrieve the slippery bar of soap. These gags were purely cinematic, unachievable by any other means and only through the unique capabilities of the camera. The ambitions of Keaton’s creative prowess only grew as he transitioned from shorts to features, and although his surreal gags lessened as audiences expected more grounded humor, his most meta-commentative film would demand nothing less than the most cinematic and inspired of set pieces.
Though Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) and The General (1926) remain the most renowned of Keaton’s films (due largely to their singular iconic gags, the latter being the single most expensive sequence of the entire silent era), it’s Sherlock Jr. (1924) that has the honor of boasting his most creative and inventive work. Sherlock Jr. is a film about fantasy and the enchanting, mythical qualities that cinema possesses. This gives Keaton great artistic license to go fully surreal in some of his filmmaking, and he uses this opportunity to showcase not only the magic of movies on an emotional level but the magic of the craft itself. In the most ethereal scene of Keaton’s filmography, Buster falls asleep at the helm of a movie projector. A ghostly astral projection steps out from the unconscious Keaton and watches, before his eyes, as the characters of the posh mystery film being shown transform into characters from his own life. Determined to be the arbiter of this reflected reality, Keaton runs up to the screen and literally leaps into the film, shattering the illusory cloth barrier between the fictitious worlds. What proceeds is an ingenious display of technical wizardry that puts to work the unique and specialized mechanics of film to craft a side-splittingly hilarious and stunning sequence of the cinematic world constantly shifting around Keaton.
Keaton stands in the center of the frame, facing a door that has just appeared before him as he has leaped back into the picture. Without an answer to his repeated knocking, he turns around to begin walking down the stoop — when suddenly, the shot cuts around Keaton, still in the middle of the frame, as he tumbles to the ground having taken his first step, now off a bench instead of the stairs he was just descending. Bewildered, but unperturbed, he goes to sit on the bench, which then disappears with another cut, now to a bustling city street, causing Keaton to tumble to the ground yet again. The gag goes on, with Keaton stumbling through a perilous cliffside, a den of lions, a speeding desert train, the crashing waves of the ocean, and finally, a plunge into a powdery pile of snow. This sequence is a marvel of cinematic capabilities, meticulously planned and executed, and built around the unique technical advantages that cinema supplies. Not only is this magnificent scene a joke about movies, but it also exists, by its very nature, as a product of the movies, only accomplishable through this specific art form. The typically invisible editing of a film becomes a character itself for a short while, a performer alongside Keaton working in tandem to deliver this fantastical one-of-a-kind gag that serves as the perfect visual metaphor for our own escapist dreams of leaping into a world of filmic fantasy.
The unparalleled technical capabilities of film are but one aspect of Keaton’s celebratory masterwork. Movies exist on more than just a mechanical level, and it’s more the emotional impact that sticks and solidifies the impression of a film. We go to the movies not only to be entertained but often to be moved and connected with. The screen can be a mirror, a reflection of our own wants and desires, packaged in the most glamorous way imaginable. Keaton certainly saw it that way, as his titular detective reinvents himself as a suave, intelligent, and highly skilled socialite investigator within the dreamy realm of the film. Where the meek amateur sleuth could neither win the girl nor solve the mystery, the confident and capable Sherlock Jr. is more than qualified. He shows off his sophistication through an incredibly skilled game of pool before then exhibiting his incredible athleticism in a lengthy and dangerous motorcycle chase. It goes beyond self-actualizing through an idyllic persona, though, beyond escapism and fantasy entertainment. Film has an innate, influential element to it that opens a door to genuine change within ourselves. The sentimental conclusion of the film packages this idea rather neatly: Keaton successfully overcomes his social ineptitude and courts the girl of his dreams by imitating the more charming characters of the romance film screening from his projection booth. In a transcendent chain of observation, we see the emotional power of film as it transfers from the actors, to Keaton, to us.
The art of cinema has come a long way from its soundless days. While boundless innovations have moved us farther away from Keaton’s surreal style of filmmaking, his work continues to endure and provide a template for the limitless potential of film that still inspires and captivates modern audiences. Keaton’s legacy, much like his famous granite visage, has been immortalized in the annals of film history as a testament to unconventional artistry. Keaton is a figure who embodies the impossible capabilities of film, making Sherlock Jr. an embodiment of filmmaking as an art. It goes beyond the brilliant cinematic effects of the film, the thrilling motorcycle chases that laugh in the face of practicality, or the romantic embrace of the heartfelt couple that completes the film. The real romance is that of cinema itself. Sherlock Jr. is a love letter to the craft, wrapping together the technical artistry afforded by the medium with the emotional penetration achieved through our empathetic eyes. It’s about that intimate connection between an audience and the projection-lit room, that intangible force that affects us all in ways we can’t put into words. How fitting that this silent masterpiece can stand in as an indelible image about the enigmatic magic of the movies, worth more than any laundry list of words could ever surmise.