Many years ago, I saw The General in a theater with live orchestral accompaniment and loved it. A couple years ago, I loved Modern Times, liked The Great Dictator, and was underwhelmed by City Lights. Enjoying the films of Charlie Chaplin inspired me to further explore the works of Buster Keaton…eventually. Sherlock, Jr. sat in my mental watchlist far too long for a 45-minute film I could have watched in the amount of time it took to watch one episode of The Americans, but holy crap, have you seen The Americans?? Sherlock, Jr. had far less spycraft and ‘80s needle drops, but it did have a fun little romance, and I lost count of the number of times I exclaimed to no one, “What the fuck?!” Such is the experience of watching silent films and constantly wondering how they did that because you know the special effects and stunts could not have been done with digital trickery since Alan Turing was still a child in 1924. After fifteen minutes of romance and crime — and only one notable piece of stunt work, in which Keaton broke his goddamn neck and didn’t even notice — Keaton comes to the reason he made this movie at all, as his detective/projectionist character jumps into a movie. It’s an effect that’s astounding even if you intellectually understand that they just built a frame to create the illusion of a film within a film and there is no actual screen. It does not matter! This is movie magic! While what will follow as the titular Sherlock, Jr. attempts to solve a crime is full of vaudevillian trickery and death-defying stunt work, I want to take a closer look at the great piece of early filmmaking that acts as a transition into the next phase of the story. After Buster — as I will refer to the unnamed character to distinguish him from the director — enters the film within the film, he is for some reason transported from location to location as if he’s jumping through all of film history, exploring different genres, and it’s like Keaton is inventing visual gags and physical comedy that would give birth to the styles of filmmakers like Edgar Wright and Daniels. Come with me as I break down one man’s surreal and hilarious trip through many worlds. Welcome to Buster K in the Multiverse of Madness.
Once Buster jumps into the movie, he naturally tries to enter the house in which he saw his lady love. When he’s denied entry, he turns around and begins to walk down the steps. Right as he takes his first step, however, the scene changes, and — in a perfect match cut — he has gone from standing at the top of stone steps to standing on a stone bench, and the step down that would have been a few inches is now a couple feet. He falls ass over tea kettle as only Buster Keaton can. Watch that first step, it’s a doozy! The key here is that the cut happens so goddamn fast you register it all as one fluid motion, but if you look closely, you can see that the edit is a half-second before Buster takes the step down, at the instant his left foot hits the stone and his right foot is just about to come up, thus allowing Keaton a moment to stand in place for the match cut. Keaton’s cameraman, Byron Houck, used surveying instruments to ensure the necessary placement of both the actor and camera to achieve a perfect match. Throughout this sequence, the magic comes from the illusion that Buster is moving in both scenes in the same direction, and you can see this same illusion in something like Everything Everywhere All at Once, which similarly uses a lot of practical effects and clever editing to fool the viewer’s eyes into seeing fluid motion from the same characters through two universes, or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which transports characters from location A to location B while they’re in motion. But back to Buster, who’s just fallen off a bench.
A bench is for sitting, so Buster decides to sit down on the bench, but mid-squat — you can see Keaton hover for a half-second (the man had glutes of steel) — he’s transported to a sidewalk, and with no bench to sit down on, he falls once again. But this time, as a bonus, he rolls into the street and must narrowly avoid a car. And after avoiding the car, he has to avoid the pedestrians. That escalated quickly! A little too quickly, as the sequence doesn’t seem to have a deliberate build in its danger level for Buster, but what it does do is constantly subvert the audience’s expectations because after two cuts, the game’s pretty well established, so now it has to keep the audience on their toes. When will Buster be transported next and why?
Well, speaking of keeping the audience on their toes, Buster first walks down the street toward the right of the frame before changing his mind and turning around, and as he now more confidently walks to the left of the frame, he’s transported to a cliff and the next step takes him right to the edge, where he almost loses his balance and falls, hanging on by just, well, his toes. (Then he actually does fall and has to scramble back up.) This is the most fluid cut in the whole sequence, and as many times as I watch it, I cannot find the moment where Keaton freezes in place for the match cut. It looks like it happens while he’s in motion, and I know that’s technologically impossible for the time, but I can’t explain how Keaton could make this cut perfect in a way the others aren’t. Interestingly, after this cut, Keaton will leave the city behind for the rest of the sequence, opting for more exotic locations as if to show the audience all the different places a film can take you.
Buster’s getting pretty disoriented by this point, wildly looking around at his new surroundings, and with no other direction to go, he stands at the edge and peers down over the cliff…when suddenly the mountainous landscape is replaced by a jungle! With lions! In my opinion, this is the weakest cut in the sequence because it’s not motivated by motion and while looking down in the cliff setting makes sense, looking down in the jungle isn’t really a punchline. The joke, presumably, is the presence of lions — which must be real since greenscreen didn’t exist, right? — and the danger they present, but the lions don’t even react to his appearance, so it falls flat. At least they startle Buster by getting up as he starts walking away, but I can only assume that Keaton had access to lions for some reason and wanted an excuse to use them.
Once again, Buster walks toward the left of the frame — after having walked back the correct number of feet as determined by Houck — and he ends up in the desert. Not only that, but in a hole! This is a particularly clever edit because the environments change so dramatically that it’s easy to hide what’s going on with Keaton himself. The motion remains fluid as he bumps into the edge of the hole. There are some shenanigans here where Buster thinks the desert is empty but then, similar to the earlier scene with the car, almost gets hit by a train. What keeps this whole sequence fresh is it never repeats itself ore settles into a predictable rhythm, so you can’t always anticipate how Keaton will subvert your expectations. There’s an awkward cut during the train scene where Keaton changes locations, but I don’t think it’s supposed to mean anything beyond two takes stitched together. It’s a distracting edit in an otherwise impeccably edited sequence.
Once the train leaves, Buster orients himself again and then goes to sit on a mound. Well, first he stands on the mound. Successfully! Then he sits on the mound. Successfully! This bit is cheeky as fuck because Keaton holds on Buster for a couple seconds, toying with the audience who thought the mound would disappear and he would fall on his ass yet again, but if you’ve noticed, Keaton has never done the same joke twice. Unless you count this one because it is essentially a more successful version of the cliff-jungle cut in that it’s not motivated by motion, but it makes more sense and actually has a punchline. Buster goes from sitting on a mound in the desert to sitting on a rock in the ocean — desert to ocean is a wonderful choice — and then he’s immediately soaked by a crashing wave. What Keaton does so well in these cuts is make poor Buster feel like he’s perfectly safe right before pulling the rug out from under him.
Well, there’s nothing for it. Might as well dive into the ocean! Right before he dives, however, the ocean is replaced by snow, and Buster dives headfirst into it, his legs comically sticking out in the air. This might be the most obvious and telegraphed cut because of the very clear diving position, and unlike the cut that happened as Buster was sitting down, it would have been physically impossible for Keaton to match a mid-air cut, so he did the best he could.
Or maybe the most obvious and telegraphed cut is this final one where Buster very dramatically poses with his hand out, ready to lean against a tree, and it’s cheeky as fuck in the opposite way from the desert-ocean cut because, at this point, Keaton knows we know what’s coming, and while there’s pleasure in subversion, there’s also pleasure in giving the audience what they want. It’s the perfect time to reward the audience’s familiarity because the next location is the first location that Buster ever traveled to with that stone bench. So of course there’s no tree anymore, but Keaton doesn’t just have Buster fall down, oh no. For maximum pain, Buster falls onto the stone bench and tumbles over it. Sitting on his ass, he recognizes this space as we do, and he scratches his head in confusion as the scene fades to black.
Here’s the thing: everything I just described occurs in the film within the film. We watch that footage within the frame we just saw him jump into, so although that was an illusion, now there is clearly a screen projecting these images — the camera places us in the audience — and when the sequence ends, Keaton zooms in toward the “screen” so that for the rest of the film within the film, all we see is that fictional reality. Of course, Keaton could have easily zoomed in as soon as Buster jumped inside the movie. So what was the purpose of all that universe-hopping? Certainly, it’s a display of showmanship, but it’s also an ode to film that shows all the places you can go and stories you can tell in these early days of film, presenting it as literally transportive. It’s also an ode to the technical wizardry of editing itself — a fundamental element of filmmaking that should be honored live at the ceremony, Academy — in the precision of its match cuts. More importantly, however, that concentrated dose of movie magic serves to convince the audience that now that Buster has become part of a movie, anything is possible. For the rest of the film, you will believe anything because Keaton has sold the illusion.