Enough people have written extensively on Buster Keaton’s 1924 masterpiece Sherlock Jr., not to mention Andrew Horton’s book on the film, and certainly there have been a plethora of those who have written on the iconic dream sequence. So, if nothing more, I shall merely reiterate my love, and speculate on the love from others, for such a fantastical sequence. Even so early in the life of the cinema, Buster Keaton articulated our fascination and adoration for film.
In the sequence, Buster falls asleep at the projection booth, and imagines himself walking into the screen, at first playing with the very dramatic irony that film so often utilizes to its own advantage. It then dizzyingly jumps from scene to scene and genre to genre, but the camera itself is placed at a distance, so that the audience, orchestra, and the screen itself are all in the shot. Such a symmetrical mise-en-scene is amusing and enhances what could childishly and inarticulately be referred to as the “wow factor”.
But that inherent inarticulateness might be part of why so many people love the scene. Buster Keaton, the genius that he is, reduced our love for film, in an incredibly prophetic manner I might add, to its most basic function: escapism. The Great Stone Face literally walks into the screen and at once becomes someone else but maintains his identity in a clever self-aware manner. It is essentially that duality which makes movies so appealing: the chance to enter the lives of others and become invested in the stories of other people, but that cognitive dissonance that, despite the desire to be a part of it, one is left in the seats, resigned to gazing up at the screen in amazement.
It sounds complicated, but the love for the movies we have is just, at times, hard to articulate. But Keaton is able to do so in effortless fashion: just walking up to the screen and becoming part of the film.
That last part is critical and another reason perhaps why it has become a staple of film history: filmmakers, critics, and buffs in general adore the medium so much they want to become a part of it, whether it is through conversation or participation. Film is that magical piece of celluloid that makes dreams, nightmares, realities, etc. come to vivid life. Sherlock Jr., arguably more than any other film ever made (even with Keaton’s own filmography), illustrates why that magic is appealing.
Although Woody Allen certain expounded on the lures of the cinema and the deep romantic pull in his own singular and nuanced way in The Purple Rose of Cairo, it is Keaton’s film that keeps it simple despite however complicated it can be. To me, that pureness and simplicity is what makes the dream sequence so memorable.
Film transports, a vehicle that lets one’s imaginations run wild. As Keaton jumps from scene to scene, his deft physicality takes over, but as does the knowledge that film’s easel like quality is what makes it great. Though Keaton himself brushed off lauds that he was the next great surrealist, it is nonetheless evident that his penchant for the incredible could be witnessed on film, playing with the very limitations that film supposedly imposed.
Buster Keaton is already kind of identifiable in a sappy sort of way, with his precise body language that often illustrates his naiveté and hesitance, but here, he goes all out, both completely taken with cinema and in wonder of it all. Buster Keaton is, and often has been, a bit of an audience surrogate.
Keaton, the versatile man that he was, perfectly danced his way onto the screen, less of a pirouette in comparison to someone like Chaplin, but this scene more explicitly acknowledged the love that audiences have for film. Film as dream, film as escapism, film as augmented reality. For Buster Keaton and for the rest of us, film is magic.