For 90 Years, Moviegoers Have Avoided Meta Depictions of Cinematic Escapism

By  · Published on April 21st, 2014

Kino International

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.

Orion Pictures Corporation

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.

New Line Cinema Productions

Other meta depictions of cinematic escapism have been made before and since, usually to similarly negative result, though anything altering the conceit enough can fare better. Blazing Saddles and Monty Python and the Holy Grail both were hits while changing up the idea to have the action spill out into and as a film shoot, not a theater audience (however, the former does involve a scene where characters then go into a theater showing their own movie). Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (which was released between The Purple Rose of Cairo and Last Action Hero) blurs the lines between cartoons and the real world in a way that’s less directly reflexive. There’s not exactly a crossing over through the screen. And it was a huge hit.

Fat Albert, which does involve screen-crossing, here TV-to-reality and cartoon-to-live-action (if that’s what we even need to call our three-dimensional reality), at least grossed the amount of its budget, though that is technically a failure. Four years prior, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle had the same idea and flopped much harder (it also featured Fat Albert star and future SNL cast member Kenan Thompson). Stay Tuned, which also involved television and was released a year before Last Action Hero, flopped. 1998’s Pleasantville fared better with critics but also was a box office disappointment. And yet I could argue that TV isn’t considered as much escapist as the movies, given the smaller, non-engulfing screen (it’s often more passive, though). Wes Craven’s Shocker, which like Stay Tuned and Pleasantville has characters entering the TV world, was actually a box office success.

That last is a horror movie, the meta examples of which can be more profitable because these movies are typically cheap and because horror audiences like the back and forth of being sucked in and scared yet also distanced enough to not be overly traumatized – they like to laugh at themselves being afraid. Craven has had a number of meta horror successes, and horror spoofs will always be huge. Even The Cabin in the Woods, which was thought at first to be a flop, made money with its deconstructing scenario that was much more meta than the most meta of Craven’s movies. There is no screen crossover in the way of Sherlock Jr., The Purple Rose of Cairo and Last Action Hero, almost fitting more with the Blazing Saddles and Holy Grail variety, though without involvement of a film production in a literal sense.

It’s been more than two decades since a true example of the Keaton variety has been made, and maybe that’s because Hollywood got the hint. But the film industry’s memory is short and it’s likely that we’ll get another meta depiction of cinematic escapism at some point in the future, likely fairly soon. Maybe it won’t even be about forgetting as much as a challenge for some brave filmmaker. I suspect it could easily be a hit with critics and others in the more devoted movie-loving crowd, but because of what it does to ruin the nature of what movies are for so many it probably won’t be a hit with mainstream audiences any more than its predecessors were.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.