Monday, January 18, 2010

Holmes and homage

I saw the new Sherlock Holmes movie yesterday. As one who watched the Basil Rathbone films long ago, and read the Conan Doyle stories even longer ago than that, I wondered whether I might object to the liberties this one takes with the iconic fiction of Holmes and Watson. A lot of ink and talk had already been spilled about how unfaithful this film is.

Robert Downey, Jr., doesn't much resemble the Holmes of popular memory, and --oh, dear -- Holmes and Watson (Jude Law) seem to have a thing going for each other, which would have been improbable for Rathbone and his Watson of old (Nigel Bruce).

Who cares? Not I: if I want fidelity, I'll read the stories. Which I may do, again, now. Nothing is so boring to me as a movie that plods piece by piece, scene by scene, through a novel (like the dreary Merchant/Ivory Howards End of some years ago). Some call it "paying homage" to a book to treat it faithfully: I'd say we ought rather to pay bail to get it out of the prison of fidelity.

(WARNING: Spoilers may follow!) This version, directed by the little-known Guy Ritchie, is fortunately free of tasteful homage (in academia, we like the French version of words like this). Rather than trying for fidelity to some consistent view of the past (whether to the original stories, say, or to the settings, habits, and costumes of nineteenth-century London), Ritchie's film shamelessly borrows. It borrows from all over:  shots of St. Paul's cathedral in the smoke, reminiscent of wartime photos, jostle with a boxing match echoing the grittiness of Scorsese's Gangs of New York (featured last night on the Golden Globes); restaurants and interiors have a certain plush Western-brothel-Miss-Kitty look; the scientific apparatus seems to be drawn directly from Branagh's bizarre Frankenstein rather than any effort to echo Victorian actuality.

Robert Downey handcuffed to a bed is more Sade than Sherlock. And, as you can tell from the image even if you haven't seen the movie, it's funny. Just as Downey himself is amused by his own appearance, so is the film.

One example: a big scene involves a shipyard, with the hull of a gigantic ship being built. Holmes and Watson are trying to escape a hammer-wielding seven-foot French-speaking bruiser (why French-speaking? who knows? he's more like a thug from a Bond film--mabye Dr. No?) who knocks out all the poles supporting the ship one by one, and breaks the big chains holding her on land. Why she doesn't fall over, don't ask. In a massive, noisy, exciting scene, she rumbles down the slip into the river. The funniest part is the end of the sequence: we watch a great distance, from inside the shipyard, as this massive hull -- now a tiny model in the center of a CGI river -- settles slowly into the river, tips up its bow, and sinks. It's James Cameron's Titanic, of course, but this time without an orchestra and in the muddy waters of the Thames, and totally unpopulated and without consequence.

The movie's effects, of course, are computer-generated-imagery (CGI). London streets, the House of Lords, an ambassador in flames leaping through a stained-glass window -- they all have the excitement and the curious unreality of CGI effects. As the Batman movies have a hard-edged, armor-like quality to the surfaces of Gotham, this one has a stage-set, scrim-like intangibility to its London. Its settings are not so much gestures to reality or history as allusions to other representations, to theater, art, and film in particular.

And its plot -- though plot is not why you go to see this movie -- acknowledges that appropriation and allusion are at its heart. (Again, spoilers follow!) The plot hangs on (literally, since hanging is central) a Da Vinci code ripoff. Conan Doyle purists rightly scoff at the implausibility and the cheap coat-tail allusion to a twenty-first century potboiler. But the film actually knows what it's doing. The rituals turn out to be a sham, the invention (or rather, appropriation!) of none other than Holmes' arch-rival, Professor Moriarty.

All the hoodoo (crosses and pentagrams and ancient books of curses) has been produced by Moriarty. It's he, the shadowy presence whose face is never seen (and whose name, like Voldemort, is evil itself) who has seen Dan Brown films (how? go figure) and Batman films, and Dracula (the villain of the movie is an English lord who looks strangely like a certain Transylvanian). The evil Moriarty has studied, not old curses, but contemporary culture, and he uses his dastardly knowledge to generate a scenario of world domination. No wonder he's a professor: not a Harvard symbologist like the Tom Hanks character in Da Vinci Code, but maybe an English/Cinema Studies/Cultural Studies professor at a small liberal arts college somewhere in the midwest. Uh oh: worse than that, he has also invented that dreaded device of evil, the TV remote!