The first segment of the film concerns the protagonistís unlikely aspirations to become a detective, and what better place to learn this vocation then through a book: "How to Be a Detective". The misunderstanding or failure of this book provides some of the early comedy as when it lists to follow the suspect closely, and our hero jumps right in behind the sheik, like a shadow following him step-for-step. Moreover, when he does follow the instructions correctly, things take a turn for the worse as he is eventually searched and found with the pawnshop receipt. It seems that his lofty goals can only be achieved through dreaming, the cinema, or actually an odd combination of the two, while practical steps fail or backfire. This idea comments on the role of the movies as a place to lose oneself in cinematic fantasies and to become swept up in the dream-like events projected on a screen. The financial concerns of the main character are brought to attention when he wants to buy the girl a three-dollar box of candy but only has two dollars on him. After an amusing gag where he winds up losing a dollar to a distressed theater patron, Keaton decides to settle for the one-dollar candy and changes the price on the box to four dollars, making sure that the girl notices this value when receiving the gift. This preoccupation with money corresponds to Keatonís new, affluent look in the fantasy segment of the film where he is able to move himself up a few notches in economic status.
As he sits with the girl after presenting her with a ring, Keaton seems unsure of what to do next, and the two blunder their way through an awkward handholding exchange; later, of course, he will discover how to act around the girl by watching a movie couple. He also searches the women quite cautiously by merely casting brief glances into the pockets on their dresses. In the dream segment, however, the protagonist is brimming with confidence and boldly puts his face up next to the girlís, and the other suspectsí as well, when examining them in his initial search. Back in reality as Keaton the character follows the sheik around, Keaton the director makes use of a visual misconception gag, a technique that appears in many of his films. His character seems to be following directly behind the sheik until a staircase presents itself in their path, and the sheik walks up it while Keaton slams into a wall to the right of it. Because of the perspective of the camera, this comes as somewhat of a shock (unless one has seen several Keaton films) since it appears that the hero should follow the man up the stairs. Shots like this indicate how much Keaton understood about filmmaking and, specifically, the importance of camera placement in making his gags work.
Because the main character is unsuccessful in detective work, he returns to his movie projection job, and the most fascinating part of the film begins as he falls asleep during a film screening. Keaton begins dreaming that the people involved in the recent stolen watch fiasco are actually wrapped up in the high-class melodrama being shown, except now the girl has been kidnapped and the four-dollar watch has transformed into a string of expensive pearls. This melding of (the filmís) facts and fiction suggests the way film characters and their experiences can act as projections of certain aspects of a viewerís real life. This is often what gives movies their power over a viewer: the personal resonance of the onscreen occurrences, how much recognizable reality is reflected, and the possibility for one to imagine himself doing the things being shown. Furthermore, it is not really the movie itself that leads the protagonist into fantasy and adventureóthat is his own dreaming. It is actually just the idea of the film that focuses his thoughts and sets his subconscious mind to work in creating a heroic fiction for himself. This process reveals how film can inspire the imagination by presenting a different picture of life and by suggesting varied perspectives for looking at the world. The film gives Keaton a ghostly dream-body, complete with the spirit of his hat, with which to enter the screen so that reality, the movie being shown, and his dreaming become intertwined. But before he enters the main narrative of the dream, an interesting sequence follows that shows how editing between locations might affect someone remaining stationary within the frame. This nonnarrative segment points out how much films actually toy with space through cuts that jump between different perspectives and locales. Finally, a fade out actually erases the main character from the screen in an almost eerie manner, suggesting that he has been subsumed into the onscreen world.
The protagonist becomes the master detective Sherlock Jr. who outwits the sheik and his henchmen in various ways. The billiards scene is a skillful one that plays with expectations, and it is humorous that the audience doesnít get to see the massé shot, only a visual description of the ball curving. The sequence where Sherlock Jr. jumps through a window and pulls a womanís garment over his body to fool the thugs is incredible, and its mix of athleticism and ingenuity is something that only Keaton could accomplish. The subsequent chase scenes are equally thrilling, and it seems Sherlock Jr. has saved the day, at least until he drives into the water. But then he is able to use the carís top as a sail and create a makeshift boat that coasts along the water, until a few seconds later when it begins to sink. Then he must save the girl and swim to shore, and it seems that this pattern of crisis countered by inventiveness could go on forever; unfortunately, it must end, and the protagonist awakens back in reality for the insightful conclusion.
The girl arrives at the projection booth and apologizes on behalf of her father for accusing the protagonist, and all is made well between the two. However, he is unsure what to do next and turns toward the movie couple for guidance. Of course, reality cannot live up to idealized film situations, and the real coupleís kiss is not quite as smooth as the one on the silver screen. This situation clearly represents the influence that motion pictures can have over their audiences and the examples they provide for actual behavior. It is this idea that has made the events depicted in Birth of a Nation seem somewhat dangerous and has more recently stirred up debate regarding the depiction of violence and its effects on viewers. Interestingly, Sherlock Jr. has its film-within-the-film surprise, even frighten, the protagonist by showing him the logical extension of this behavior--a conclusion that many movies avoid. It makes him consider, as writer Dan Georgakas puts it, "how much of his destiny he wants dictated by the screen". Sherlock Jr. poses this question and many more about the nature of reality, fantasy, and film to ensure its status as one of Keatonís, and silent comedyís, best films.
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