Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Film #1: Sherlock, Jr. (1924)

A Few Thoughts on Silent Film. I'm not a fanatic for silent movies, but they hold a place in my heart. Film school students and historians point to the innovations made by filmmakers from the early 20th century and appreciate them for their technical merits. Most of us, however, don't. Most of us, myself included, mainly want entertainment. And, let's face it, we are now a culture of endless stimuli. The simple combination of visuals and music doesn't quite cut it. The thing that we forget is that film gains most of its power from visuals. The other elements: dialogue, narration, and music, were elements of literature and theater, and simply enhance the visual story being told in films. Before Al Jolson broke the "sound barrier" with The Jazz Singer in 1929, films were all about visual storytelling. Once dialogue was made possible, the gradual de-emphasis on visuals began. These days, the art of telling the story without the aid of words is all but lost. A few major filmmakers of the present and recent past still show this skill. Sergio Leone was a great, Quentin Tarantino is quite an adept, and the Coen Brothers are true masters of it. In a way, the total reliance on facial expressions, body language, prop positioning, camera shots & angles, and choreography to tell the story is pure cinema. With this in mind, let's have a look at one of the earliest icons of silent film:

Times Previously Viewed: 1 (about 10 years ago)

My Thoughts
At 45 minutes, Sherlock, Jr. is not much of a time commitment, and I enjoyed it. As with most silent films, the story is simple: a young projection operator (Keaton) has daydreams of being a world-class detective. Most of the film is given over to an extended fantasy that he has while he falls asleep in the projection booth. He dreams himself into the middle of a case of stolen pearls, outwits the bad guys through a combination of luck and skill, and makes many a narrow escape throughout.

Basically, Buster Keaton was awesome. He seemed to understand, even back then, a universal truth about physical and silly humor - the goofier you're going to be, the straighter you have to play it. Throughout every gag, both obvious and subtle alike, he maintains a stone deadpan that makes for the perfect counterpart to his casual agility, grace and athleticism. This "stone-face" approach still lives today: think very early Woody Allen, Leslie Nielsen in the Airplane and Naked Gun movies, or Ricky Gervais. The thing that makes those bits funny is that the guys pulling them act as if absolutely nothing's amiss. Keaton was way ahead of the curve on this one. I had more than one honest-to-goodness laugh during this short flick.

The diminutive Keaton did all of his own stunts, some of which are pretty astounding when you keep in mind the time period. Here's a montage of some of the hits. Keaton severely fractured his neck doing the one from the train at the beginning. Unfortunately, a few of my favorites were left out (the best bits start at about 5:00 into the video):

Overall, it was a fun watch. Had it been longer, I may have grown a bit tired of the simplicity of the plot and the way that everything is manipulated towards the stunts. As it was, however, I enjoyed it. I may not watch it again any time soon, but it's a great introduction to someone looking for one of the great silent films. I actually think a young kid would still really love this one, too. I mean, what young'un doesn't want to see a goofy little guy nearly getting shot, punched out, run over by trains, and hurled off of motorcycles? Not this one!

Why Film Geeks Love This Film

The answer, like the stories of Keaton's films, is simple: pretty much the same reason the common person liked it - the visual gags and the impeccable orchestration of the stunts. Also, the scene in which Keaton "jumps" into a rolling movie on a projection screen was seen as a major innovation (it's in the middle of the posted visual clip). By today's special effects standards, it seems grossly outdated. At the time, however, it was quite the eye-opener. Here's the complete review by one of the list compilers.

Side Note

On the same DVD as Sherlock, Jr. was an earlier Keaton flick, Our Hospitality (1923). This one was longer, but I actually liked it more. The sight gags were even better, and the story cleverly wove together disparate plot elements, a la the very best episodes of Seinfeld.

Coming Soon...Film # 2 on the list: Metropolis (1927)

This one is considered one of, if not the first great cinematic science fiction masterpiece. Come back in a few days to see what I think of the unblinking stare of that metal chick in the poster. She's going to keep looking at and thinking about you until you come back. Sleep tight.