Many people watch movies as a form of escapism, and it makes sense that those people wouldn’t like movies that involve reflexive techniques that address this fantasy element. For at least 90 years, as of today’s anniversary of the release of Buster Keaton‘s Sherlock Jr., there has been a lot of evidence to indicate that such meta cinema is not popular with American audiences. At the start of 1924, Keaton was riding a wave of success following his two hits of the previous year, Three Ages and Our Hospitality. But Sherlock Jr. was his first real critical failure, and as a result it was also a box office disappointment (outside of Soviet Russia, that is). Not the flop that many have labeled it as — in fact its final gross was really close to that of Three Ages, and technically it made a bit of money — but in terms of Keaton’s trajectory until then, it was definitely a blow.
The issue noted at the time was simply that viewers didn’t find it to be very funny. Humor can be either very dependent on an escapist mindset or the very opposite. Laughter is a diversion, much like fantasy, though it also often requires an understanding of what is actually going on. For instance, for slapstick and other comedy involving bodily harm, the awareness that the pain is fake makes it funny rather than tragic. For satire and spoof, the latter being part of the comedy of both Three Ages (which parodies D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance) and Sherlock Jr. (which obviously takes on Sherlock Holmes and the detective genre in general), there’s a consciousness of the thing being mocked. Verbal comedy can work more passively on audiences, but of course silent cinema didn’t have a whole lot of that.
What Keaton does with Sherlock Jr. must have given audiences too much of a task regarding the appreciation of its gags. How could they not have been falling over during the now-famous montage in which the star has entered into a movie screen yet hasn’t integrated enough into the action to be immune to abrupt cuts from one shot or scene to another? Maybe it wasn’t too complicated for them to enjoy, but it might have been too heavy a break with the fourth wall and the escapist pleasures that it just didn’t meet with their demands and desires. Today, the premise of Keaton’s projectionist character jumping into a movie is accepted by some critics as wish-fulfillment for audiences who want to escape into the world on screen. Yet it’s not wish-fulfillment. It’s a call of attention to the wish, which disrupts it. We don’t escape into the movie-within-a-movie with Keaton. We’re pushed further outward by the additional screen on screen.
It’s hard to determine what audiences in 1953 thought of Chuck Jones‘s similar gags in the animated Looney Tunes short Duck Amuck, as such films’ box office success aren’t acknowledged in the same way as feature films. The best I can go by as far as its success in its time is that it wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award, but that’s hardly an indication of whether moviegoers were into the highly reflexive concept of Daffy Duck becoming more and more frustrated with the continued pranks of his animator. I imagine that in this case the silliness of the meta surrealism here, capable of being much more out there in being drawn rather than acted out, worked more successfully for young audiences in particular. It also isn’t as much of a comment on escapism. It’s more a film about filmmaking (which is a subject for another time regarding when critical favor outshines mainstream moviegoers, due to the reflexiveness of the subject matter) than a film about the escapist fantasy of the movies.
Another 32 years later, a live-action feature that has a lot more in common with Sherlock Jr. hit theaters. Although Woody Allen claims Keaton’s film wasn’t an influence, his 1985 comedy The Purple Rose of Cairo employs the same conceit of people moving through a movie screen like it’s a gateway between worlds. This time, though, it’s a character from the film-within-the-film that exits out to the theater auditorium and real world. The address of escapism is still there even if the movie universe is doing the escaping. It’s a blurring of the border between cinema and reality. Of course, the address is targeted rather specifically on the need for escapist entertainment during the Depression, but it’s also worth noting that the 1980s were a peak time for escapism out of Hollywood. The Purple Rose of Cairo wasn’t a box office bomb, though it made less than its budget — common for the filmmaker at the time, actually.
At least that one was a critical success. Eight years later, another of this kind came around with the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Last Action Hero, which received negative reviews and a disappointing turn out at the box office. There are excuses galore for why it failed on the latter front, and in the last 20 years there has been some positive re-appraisement on the former. Audiences might have been surprised in 1993 at just how much of a spoof movie it is, especially since it starred the biggest name in the genre it’s mocking. The people who wanted to go out and watch a Schwarzenegger movie at the time were the very people who’d least want to be thinking about the construct of their own escapist interests.
This time the premise sees a two-way blurring of the fourth wall, as a young movie fan is transported into the movie world, and then later characters from the movie world exit out to the real. Like Sherlock Jr. it calls attention to the wish of cinematic escapism, and like The Purple Rose of Cairo it addresses the desire and misunderstanding by moviegoers to associate actors with the characters they play in movies. It disrupts and deconstructs the fantasy on multiple levels, giving audiences multiple reasons to be reminded and therefore constrained to their seats and their own lives.
Schwarzenegger himself has blamed the failure on the release of Last Action Hero being too close to that of Jurassic Park. He’s sort of right, though not necessarily because of bad timing. Jurassic Park‘s success only proved summer blockbuster moviegoers wanted actual escape, in that case to a cinematic world with realistic-looking dinosaurs. Especially so immediately afterward, they weren’t going to enjoy a blockbuster mockingly commenting on that escapism.