Part of the Movies About Movies blog-a-thon hosted at Goatdog

The great silent comedian Buster Keaton isn't typically thought of as a cultural commentator; I think most people would sooner point to Charles Chaplin, whose iconic Little Tramp stood in for all men and women trampled by those with money, power and influence. Certainly, Chaplin's social critique is nothing if not obvious, and it only intensified as his career entered the sound era - but I'm not here to pick at the happily dormant Chaplin-Keaton debate. I just want to suggest that Keaton very much did have something important to say about the world around him, and as befits his persona, his greatest social satire is about as stone-faced as they come.

The 1924 masterpiece Sherlock Jr. is a pop-culture critique from a time before the phrase "pop culture" existed, and perhaps the first example of a subgenre that has since become something of a post-modern cliché: movies about how movies are complete bullshit. The story of the 44-minute, three-reel feature (which should have been longer, except that one particularly violent stunt left Keaton unable to complete his original script after his neck was fractured - something he only discovered years later), for those who haven't seen it yet - shame on you, and change that as quickly as you possibly can - follows a young man (Keaton) who works as a projectionist at the local movie house, dreaming of becoming a detective. This boy is very much in love with a young lady (Kathryn McGuire), whose hand is also sought by a swaggering tough guy (Ward Crane), who frustrates the boy's courtship by accusing him of stealing the girl's father's (Joe Keaton) pocket watch. Cast out and angry, the boy goes back to his job, projecting the romantic drama Hearts and Pearls. As he watches the melodrama unfold, the boy falls asleep, and dreams that he enters the movie, with all the principals transformed into the figures from his day. Now recast as the world's greatest detective, Sherlock, Jr, the boy is able to live out his fantasies, both professional and romantic.

On the most obvious level, this is a poke at how movies are a form of wish fulfillment, coming up with absurdly unlikely ways to make sure good things happen to good people (and Keaton is nothing if not an absurd world's greatest detective). The Dream Factory, they used to call Hollywood, for it was the place where dreams came true. And in a fashion, the boy's dreams do come true: he's proven innocent of the theft and wins the girl, through absolutely no fault of his own. He's neither a casanova nor a detective; he's Buster Keaton, and therefore prone to clumsiness. The idealised, Hollywoodised dream has no connection at all to reality. It's especially worth pointing out that the girl finds the watch, thus clearing the boy and essentially sealing their courtship, before he ever dreams the "Sherlock Jr." sequence - the conflict has already been resolved when the boy starts to dream up his movie that resolves the same conflict.

The problem with that reading is that it misses out on most of the film, which can be easily divided into thirds: in the first part, the boy tries futilely to impress the girl with baubles despite having one dollar to his name; in the second, he tries and fails at playing detective, to find the nasty truth about his rival; the third, well, that's the movie-within-the-movie.

If the last part of the film is where Keaton is obviously poking fun at the shortcomings of the cinema as a guide to life, it's the rest where he's being a bit more subtle, a bit smarter, and a bit meaner. It is noted that Sherlock Jr. is the only Keaton feature in which none of the characters have given names; they're all credited by function. The Boy, The Girl, The Father, The Sheik (in romantic films of the time, "sheik" was the debonair, manly guy who was either the romantic hero or the bully, depending on the story's need). The polite thing to do would be to call these "archetypes"; the better thing to do is observe that they're one-dimensional caricatures.

The same "young lovers" genre that gave us the character type "The Sheik" also gave us a lot of cookie-cutter plots about gentle young men who had to prove their worth against a seemingly better match for the lovely ingénue; the first parts of Sherlock Jr. present this genre stripped to the bone. It's so damn typical, Keaton and his writers (Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez and Joe Mitchell) couldn't even be bothered to give the characters names.

So we've already been taken out of the movie a little bit by the absence of a comforting lie that these are real people with actual identities; that's when Keaton and company start to have a bit of fun with us, poking smaller and then larger holes in the fabric of their film. The “small town” of the main action is clearly a stage; in the sequence of the boy trailing the sheik (the only time we get a good view of the town), there is a shot of the two walking past a row of houses. Behind this is a large domed building that’s either a soundstage or an aircraft hangar; take your pick, but it doesn’t belong here. Furthermore, the three main locations that we see the two men walk through are too discordant to exist in as small a region as we are led to believe that they are traversing: from a neighborhood to the middle of a town, to a vast oil field out on a railroad track, all in less than a minute.

Then there's Hearts and Pearls, which besides being an apparently bad movie (it puts the boy to sleep, at any rate), doesn't seem to be one that could possibly exist. Once the dream starts, and the boy enters the film, he's suddenly attacked by a bad case of editing; a case of bad editing, even. As he steps into the movie, he sits on a bench which vanishes when the image cuts to a busy street; he looks down a sheer cliff just as it turns into a lion. Unless it is meant to be an avant-garde experimental piece decades ahead of schedule, I think we can assume that lions, busy streets, deserts and snowy mountains are not aspects of the diegesis of Hearts and Pearls, and this gag - this superlatively funny gag, I might add - points out the falseness of the movie which contains such a pointlessly random series of shots...and it's worth mentioning that ultimately, the film containing that series is really titled Sherlock Jr.

At a time when movies were coming to dominate American life like they never have since the 1940s, influence both dress and behavior across the country, Keaton's aim in this film appears to have been to remind us all that whatever other charms they possess, movies are at best a counterfeit of life. And not a particularly convincing one, at that. So let's please not use them as guides to life, and become human beings just as shallow as the everyboy, the everygirl, the everysheik.

It's a lesson that the boy seems to learn, in the end. The last shots of Hearts and Pearls follow the young lovers of that film falling into each other's arms, cutting to an image, some time later, of the now-married couple with a pair of babies. The last shot of Sherlock Jr. is the boy's shell-shocked face upon seeing this. It's left ambiguous whether he has no idea what kissing and babies could have to do with each other, or if he's just terror-striken at the idea of having babies of his own, but either way the same point is made: his ability to learn from this particular movie is at an end, and all of sudden the things he's seeing onscreen aren't part of his life any longer. There's a certain irony in the idea that we should learn from the boy - who, once more for emphasis, is a cliché who doesn't exist - but let's just chalk that up to Keaton's sense of humor. For God's sake, the movies are supposed to be fun, after all. That's the reason they have to be faked in the first place.