There’s a scene at the end of Sherlock Jr when Buster Keaton, a cinema projectionist and amateur sleuth, is in the projection room with his beloved. After a series of misunderstandings she has realised that kind, innocent Buster is the man for her and has come to tell him so, casting her eyes down and away in apology as she does so.
Buster, however, is not sure what to do next. He flaps his arms, his mouth opens and closes, and then he catches sight of the screen through the projection window where the exact same situation happens to be playing out. The difference is that the debonair blade on the screen knows exactly what he’s doing.
Buster realises that he could do worse than emulate the images projecting into the auditorium. After each action, whenever his imminent fiancée looks away Buster glares urgently at the screen for further instruction, from where the camera is watching his every move. It’s as if he’s looking right at us, the audience, in a wonderful inversion that underlines a subtext of Sherlock Jr as a tribute to the magic of cinema.
Last night, every time Buster snapped his gaze in our direction it prompted torrents of laughter in a packed cinema in central London, where the film was showing as part of a Keaton season at the BFI.
I’m a bit of a Buster Keaton fan – I have a shelf full of DVDs and books about and by him, a portrait of Buster hangs on the wall in my lounge and I even own a Buster-style flattened porkpie hat – so I was always going to be well-disposed to seeing his films on the big screen with a live piano accompaniment. But even I didn’t expect to leave with such a glow of warmth and well-being when I emerged from the cinema into the south London drizzle last night.
This was Keaton as he was meant to be seen: on a large screen in front of an audience. These films – Sherlock Jr was last night partnered with Keaton’s tribute to the eternity of love The Three Ages – exude a freshness that makes the gags as funny today as they were ninety years ago when they were made, from the large scale slapstick set pieces to the perfectly-timed subtlety of Buster’s looks towards the screen for romantic inspiration.
Sherlock Jr showcases everything that was great about Buster Keaton: his creative vision, his comic timing, his skill as an actor, his instinct for warm, compassionate storytelling and warm, compassionate humour, and his pushing of physical comedy to its limits (after filming this scene, where Buster is thrown down onto the rails by a torrent of water from the water tower, production was halted for two days while he recovered from neck pain and severe headaches. Years later after a routine x-ray the doctor pointed at a misshapen vertebra and asked when he’d broken his neck).
Buster and his ilk are often dismissed as one-dimensional slapstick merchants (Buster himself is quoted as saying, “no man can be a genius in slap shoes and a flat hat”) who never grew any more sophisticated than a custard pie in the face. As I sat there last night as part of a twenty-first century cinema audience that was laughing louder and longer than in any modern film comedy I’ve ever seen, I realised that the reason we were laughing so hard at films made ninety years ago by a man who’s been dead for nearly half a century was their sheer intelligence.
Keaton’s jokes were the product of his genius: beautifully crafted and meticulously performed. These films are extraordinary works of art because of the perfection of their humour. During that projection room scene, last night’s audience dissolved into hysterics at the slightest movement of Buster’s famously expressionless face. It wasn’t just the perfect timing that did it, it was the culmination of how he’d built up the character and worked towards that situation over the previous forty-odd minutes. It’s brilliant because it has that finely-honed veneer of simplicity.
This is the reason that ninety years on Buster Keaton is still filling cinemas and making people laugh: his legacy lies in his perpetual proving that the last thing intelligent humour needs to be is complicated.