Let us first sing songs of joy: Hit Me with Your Best Shot has been renewed! Well, I’m overjoyed, anyway, and I would like to declare now in front of God and everyone that I will contribute an entry each and every week in 2013, as I have done in 2012, because it is way the hell too much fun not to. I hope some of you join me in selecting a particularly treasured still from whichever movie Nathaniel R of The Film Experience selects for us to play with, week in and week out.
That leaves just three more episodes until the third season wraps up, starting with Sherlock Jr., a classic silent comedy from 1924 that just so happens to be the Buster Keaton film which I know the most about, having written what is, I think, a gruelingly well-researched term paper on it in my film school days. I can’t imagine why you’d care about this.
More to the point, even despite having been perhaps over-exposed to Sherlock Jr., I still feel the barely-a-feature (it’s 44 minutes long; filming was cut short when Keaton suffered one of the few genuinely debilitating injuries of his career) is the actor-director’s funniest; of his two great masterpieces, this is the one that makes me laugh first and gawk at the incredible talent on display second, while The General, while it is a fucking masterpiece, always seems to me to go the other way: first my jaw drops in sheer amazement, and then I remember that this is all actually very funny, in addition to being just about the most ridiculously complicated stuntwork ever filmed.
I’m sorry, we were talking about Sherlock Jr. Not The General. Which, if you haven’t seen it, you need to do right this second, because it is a fucking masterpiece.
Sherlock Jr. is also a fucking masterpiece, and very short, so you basically don’t have any excuses. It is the story of a nameless movie projectionist (Keaton) who just wants to be with his girl (Kathryn McGuire), but complications happen and he dreams about entering the movie he’s showing and becoming the greatest detective in the world. There is more packed into this film’s 44 minutes about the way that movie audiences process reality as a by-product of the moviegoing experience than in almost all the movies about movies ever made; and most of those aren’t even trying to be as funny as Keaton is in virtually every virtuosic shot.
I’m putting off the shot, aren’t I? And here’s why: the second – the absolute instant – that I saw the film’s title pop up on Nathaniel’s upcoming list, my mind flashed to one shot and I knew I wanted to pick it. Done and dusted. It’s been my favorite shot of the movie since the first time I saw it. The problem is, it’s the very last shot, and I can’t talk about it without spoiling the movie, and I really don’t want to spoil the movie. So I hoped if I talked about how it was just the greatest ever, you might be interested in wandering away for a mere 44 minutes to watch it – it’s on Netflix! – and we could all come back together to talk about the last shot. Otherwise, it’s below the jump.
On the admittedly minute chance that you didn’t just this second finish watching the movie, let me refresh your memory: the boy has woken up, found out that everything has worked out for the best, and the girl is ready and waiting for him to take her in his arms. As he has done with everything so far, he takes his cue from the movie he’s still projecting, and as the onscreen lover performs his gesticulations of love, the boy copies them intently. Then, the film he’s watching dissolves to a “later” scene, of its hero bouncing two babies on his lap, with a beaming smile of fatherly contentment. Then we cut back to our shot of the boy and the girl, watching them through the projection booth window – watching them, as we have been, from the movie’s own POV, and first we see the boy study the image for his next cue-
-open his eyes wider and straighten up, in apparent surprise-
-and put his hand to his head as Sherlock Jr. fades to black.
They didn’t call him the Great Stone Face for nothing, but this isn’t my pick solely because it’s the best example of a perfect Keaton deadpan in existence, though it is that. It’s because that deadpan leads to a profound and delicious ambiguity: what is the boy thinking? Had he not, until this moment, realised that babies were part of the whole love and marriage package? Is he not entirely sure of what that process entails? Does he know exactly what it entails, and he’s not sure whether this is the right moment to, as it were, make babies with his lady love? And what about the babies themselves – is that a feeling of concern and worry, or repulsion, or simple uncertainty, that we see on his face when confronted with the idea of fatherhood?
If Sherlock Jr. on the whole is a comic exaggeration about what happens when film viewers spend too much time and energy copying the things they see on the screen and not enough time being their own selves, this shot is the punchline, in which our protagonist (who has never, after all, been punished for his film fetish) hits a wall and finds exactly what the limits are of using the movies as a guide to life. Romance and adventure are well and good, but there are some life lessons we simply aren’t going to get from cinema, and the film ends with the boy – the perfect vessel of filmgoing, in possession of no other self than the one he picked up on the big screen – lost as to where to go next.
There’s even a way that this flips right back on us, as we watch this watcher, because we, rather pointedly, don’t know what he’s thinking; that’s what makes Keaton’s deadpan so funny. Thus our own filmgoing experience ends on an aggressively vague note, and in the end we haven’t actually learned a lesson from watching our movie any more than the boy learns a lesson from watching his. If there is a point to Sherlock Jr. and the mysterious expression that closes it, I think it’s this: for God’s sake, don’t go looking for a point. It’s only a movie, after all.