Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Jeremy Brett’

‘What the deuce is it to me?”‘ he interrupted impatiently: ‘you say that we go round the sun. if we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.’– Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet

Mr-Holmes-train.jpog

Dear friends and readers,

Mr Holmes has a couple of obstacles or problems to wide-spread acclaim. It is melancholy. Its themes include how to cope with aging and its losses, death, stigmatized class status (a no-no). For those brought up on the action-adventure of Robert Downey, Jude Law, Michael Strong and Rachel McAdams, it will not answer your expectations; for those still wedded to Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce (to say too little of the justified paranoia of WW2), it will make fun of the 1943 fanatical adherence to the deerstalker hunting cap and pipe (Holmes goes to a black-and-white simulacrum of such a movie and just cannot sit through it); it lacks the giddy pace and surrealism of the first 2 seasons of the BBC Cumberbatch and Freeman Sherlock concoctions; but to say it’s not Holmesian (as the New Yorker guru critic in residence, Anthony Lane means to insinuate) is just not so.

I concede fully that the perspective is post-modern (conventional thought and cant, especially about death and grief be damned), that there is something deliciously Jamesian (Henry) about it. Characters have deeply traumatic encounters on park benches while wearing impeccable hats.

MorahanMcKellen

Hat
Close-up of hat

They fail to understand one another, cannot bear one another’s emotions. It moves slowly, with shots that capture a poetry of stillness and costume drama in its green landscapes, seascapes, the sina qua non steam train rushing serpentine and noisily through. More than twice, though in one climactic instance it matters as someone is (reminding me of a Trollope scene in The Prime Minister) voluntarily smashed to smithereens.

But that it’s not Holmesian is unfair. Once you try to drill down to what could be the psychological or thematic or even political motive or moral explanation of at least two of its flashback and front story plots, you end up with ideas that will not bear any scrutiny. Convention defeats me here: I do not claim to be writing a consistently post-modern blog so allow me to explicate and show at least miminal story consistency.

There are three time frames: the present, 1947, Mr Holmes, aged 93, losing the last vestiges of memory from the past, living on the south coast of England, cared for by a housekeeper (natch) Mrs Munroe (Laura Linney) and her son, Roger (Milo Parker) who turns to Mr Holmes as father figure because his own father died in WW2: a bitter moment of memory has Linney as Mrs Munroe remembering how, like herself, her husband, was corroded by the stigmas of lower class status, and for his efforts to become a pilot in WW2, was blown to bits immediately (his mates, content to be menial mechanics all survived the war).

laura_linney_in_mr-holmes

Miloparker

A story from thirty years ago is painstakingly put together (& dramatized as flashbacks) by Mr Holmes about Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan) who had two miscarriages or stillborn children, cannot accept this and whose grief is only moderated by lessons she eventually finds for the glass harp (Frances la Tour, the crook teacher), whose intensity bothers her husband to the point he cuts off her money-supply and refuses to set up stone monuments for the never-developed nor born children. It is not giving away the story to say she plots to kill her husband.

Mr-Holmes-Ian-McKellenHattieMorahan
Holmes (McKellen) remembering (a difficult feat in the this story) Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan)

It’s not true though that there is no sense to this story. The moral is the husband was wrong; he should have allowed his wife to be deluded by the crook teacher — this reminded me of Woody Allen’s frequent defenses of fortune-tellers in many of his movies and there is a fortune-telling scene here.

mr-holmesfrancesdelatour
The glass harp medium (Frances de la Tour, aka Mrs Western in the 1997 Tom Jones)

Another backstory told through interwoven flashbacks is set in Japan: Holmes has gone to Hiroshima (1946?) to obtain a promised solution of which is said to restore the memory, only to find himself confronted by a Japanese man who accuses Holmes of seducing his father away from him and his mother through the stories of Dr Watson (The Study in Scarlet is the culprit), all the while we know that Holmes now deplores Watson’s fictions a providing false gratifying endings and heroism, with many details so wrong they are embarrassing. Of course this story “falls to pieces in your hands” (as Lane says). Worse, the explanation is reactionary defense of “national” and family secrets, of absurd honor which one sacrifices one’s life for? What Conan Doyle story does not do something like this?

mr-holmes

It is Holmes’s self-imposed mission in the film to retrieve: to retrieve the memory of who his Japanese man was (until near the end Holmes believes the man a liar, coward, and that he never met him — the man just deserted his family); to compensate for how inadequate, insensitive, absurd, selfish was his Jeremy Brett-like behavior to Anne Kelmot (the way this Kelmot thread is dramatized is closely reminiscent of the 1980s BBC Holmes movies), something which depends on memory and rewriting Watson’s story.

Much of this is done through the techniques of filmic epistolarity: voice-over with Holmes writing out new texts to replace Watson’s. Part of the fun of this is withholding. We do not see Mycroft (who explicates the Japanese story) until near the end of the film and it’s John Sessions (for me memorable as Henry Fielding, also in the 1997 Tom Jones); we do not see the bumbling inspector (played by Phil Davis, great in sinister, threatening roles in Dickensian film adaptations, now Jud in Poldark), until near the end. There is fun in recognizing these character actors from other costume dramas quietly semi-parodying the roles.

mr-holmes-2015-003-holmes-with-beekeeping-boy

Indeed the uplift at the close is the same fantasy Dickens plays upon in A Christmas Carol. We are asked to believe that people can make up for what they did wrong in the past, find a new person like the one you so hurt now to do better by. We do come near searing calamity in the present, brought on by both Mrs Munroe and Mr Holmes. I can’t deny that sometimes people (as characters) are lucky. The film is as Dickensian as it is Jamesian.

Hattie Morahan was once again “emotionally aflame” — Lane talks of her in A Doll’s House in BAM, but she was astonishing in Duchess of Malfi and I still watch her as Elinor refusing solace. I felt bad for Laura Linney(unbeatable in Love Actually, unforgettable in Hyde Park on the Hudson) that she was given the howling role. I found myself crying at the close because I couldn’t believe in the self-reproach and better behavior of our principal trio: Mr Holmes and Mrs Munroe, to say nothing of the maturation of Roger.

If I had anything to object to in this film it was that both Ian McKellen (too many great films and plays to begin to cite) and Laura Linney could have been given much more deeply nuanced moments. She is literally kept behind bars, looking out from windows:

laura-linneythroughbarsmr-holmes

The film-makers were chary about releasing stills of McKellen showing the ravages of old age in the film, as he falls, eats, puts down stones for those who have gone before him. There was a pandering to the sub-genre of old man-and-hopeful worshipping-boy

OTOH, the beautiful loving feeling at the close of the film was authentic. Doyle’s ever-cool, ever witty, impatient Sherlock is now taking the risk of giving of himself; entering into loving relationships directly. Mr Holmes will leave the property to Mrs Monro and her boy when he dies. We see Mrs Munro and Roger in the garden working together and we see them walk off hand-in-hand too. The boy is now respectful of his mother under an eye of approval by Mr Holmes. He is 94, and we last seem him putting down stones (as Ann Kelmot did) for each of his friends now gone to the earth. He bows before them murmuring a lullaby. McKellen himself is very old now. It is a summer movie because through Jeffrey Hatcher’s marvelous screenplay McKellan as Mr Holmes is believable and comforts you.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

When I turned again, Sherlock Holmes was standing smiling at me across my study table. I rose to my feet, stared at him for some seconds in utter amazement, and then it appears that I must have fainted for the first and the last time in my life. Certainly a gray mist swirled before my eyes, and when it cleared I found my collar-ends undone and the tingling after-taste of brandy upon my lips. Holmes was bending over my chair, his flask in his hand. “My dear Watson,” said the well-remembered voice, ‘I owe you a thousand apologies. I had no idea that you would be so affected’ — Doyle and Hawkesworth’s Empty House

I have heard you say that it is difficult for a man to have any object in daily use without leaving the impress of his individuality upon it in such a way that a trained observer might read it — Doyle and Hawkesworth’s Sign of Four, briefly paraphrased by Moffatt, Gatiss, Thompson

SmallWalkingAway
John Thaw as Jonathan Small being taken away to prison at close of Sign of Four

Sherlock Series 3
It is now Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) who walks off alone from the wedding gaiety (Sign of Three)

Dear friends and readers,

Well something like two years have gone by since the latest Sherlock mini-series was last aired, and as Episode 2 (Sign of Three, a total reconfiguration of the original story (see recap in I Should Have been a Blogger), Sign of Four) shows, there is something genuinely new attempted here; we have moved from sceptical and at times exhilarating camp to melancholy sentiment.

Nothing wrong in that. The real greatness of the 1987 filmic adaptation of Doyle’s Sign of Four was to have made the story turn on the perception that Jonathan Small has thrown away his life in his search for treasure and to have framed the inward story of this man (a kind of redoing of Marcus Clark’s For the Term of His Natural Life where the hero’s life is spent either in slavery or prison) with the grief on the one hand of Mary Morstan (played by the stunningly almost unreal beauty, Jenny Seagrove) for her father and on the other a coming perception of romance between her and Watson (Edward Hardwicke, as ever subtly plangent): inbetween half-mad melancholy bizarre twinned Scholto sons (played by Robin Hunter). Doyle’s story by comparison is a thin if exciting adventure chase, colonialist-drenched, also caught in the 87′ filming:

chase
Jeremy Brett at the helm, on a dark river, passing under steel bridges, keeping the prey stealthily in sight

Pursued
Jonathan Small, the pursued — scenes reminiscent or anticipating of Dickens’s text as seen in recent film adaptations (e.g., Sandy Welch’s Our Mutual Friend)

What’s awry is the melancholy sentimental figure is now Holmes himself and it’s not earned, there is no suffering, it’s egoistic. At the close of Sign of Four Small is the solitary figure, genuinely outcast; at the close of Sign of Three, Holmes walks away looking uncomfortable as everyone else gets on with the conventional wedding, but he is not exactly off to prison; at home will be Mrs Hudson and if he doesn’t keep his door firmly shut, his parents (Cumberbatch’s own parents have been secured) watching over him.

I thought it an intelligent idea to transform the original “Empty Room,” where Doyle brought Sherlock back and had to explain to Watson how he survived jumping over the falls so that the characters really emotionally involved in coping with Sherlock’s emotional manipulation of Watson’s depression:

Sherlock: Holmes and Watson go underground
Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman as Watson, together again in Empty Hearse

but when Empty Hearse (see recap) was done in such a way that Watson’s neuroticism has become wounded friendship (I had hoped the new title signaled an allusion to Orson Welles’s Third Man, where we have an empty coffin, but no such thing); and as opposed to the original story (and the Brett-Hardwicke enactment) a huge rigarmole put forward to explain how it was done (filler not camp), I became restless. As Freeman as Watson says, who cares how it was done? I reread the original story and found the explanation had been kept to a minimum.

Worse yet, our two buddies have obtained two emotionally attached female sidekicks, one whom I am not supposed to forget is in real life Martin’s partner (Amanda Abbington) and looks just too ordinary clunky to be lifted into another realm. I really couldn’t help feeling the crew had decided they might as well give another of their set off-screen a job.

SignofThree

The other is a girl so hopelessly smitten with Sherlock, Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey), that’s she’s willing to marry an inadequate simulacrum, rather like a doll; I’m told this character was in the original stories; if so who her open worship in the original stories was kept decently in the margins.

MollyHopper

I admit the most touching scene in Empty Hearse was a quiet dialogue between Cumberbatch and Brealey, slightly sweet, which I wished had not been lost in the overblast of all the computer tricks both episodes are determined to cover the TV screen with.

As will be seen, any whiff of unconventional sex is erased this season. When Mrs Hudson’s (Una Stubbs growing so old) failed marriage is made to carry subversion we are in trouble — not that it couldn’t as she was an abused woman, but it’s made a sort of uncomfortable joke of. One can no longer complain there are no women in this series, though when they function in the way of Lucy Liu as Joan Watson in Elementary (Sherlock Johnny Lee Miller attempting to remain alienated by keeping to ragged clothing), I find myself wishing there were less of them. I don’t claim there was any feminism in the 1980s-90s Brett series, but there were strong lone women, and what was at stake often were versions of their integrity (as is seen in Jenny Seagrove’s performance as a daughter who in the end rejects how her father spent, wasted really, his life and hers).

Again to give the new series its due: The Sign of Three does eliminate the egregious (embarrassing) racism of The Sign of Four, both story and 1987 film. Doyle and Hawkesworth (screenplay writer in 1987) give Small a small (very) black man as a fierce (animal-like) servant with teeth that look like something from an early caricature of Darwin’s intermediate apes: his great quality is a dog-like loyalty to Small: he saves Small repeatedly by poisoned arrows. Of course Holmes has no problem simply casting these off with his hand, and shots the servant point-blank dead. By contrast, Gatiss, Moffatt and Thompson (three screenplay writers now needed) interpolate a new story about a black guardsman, more English, gentleman-like, courteous in his behavior than the guardsman in Winnie-the-Pooh (remember Alice bemused at him?):

guardsman

This Anglo-, very well mannered, self-controlled guardsman is stalked by a white half-crazed man who looks very poor (hence suspicious); this stalker attempts to murder the guardsman by stabbing him in the shower (shades of Psycho?). This man turns up as the photographer at the Watson wedding and is easily unmasked. As will be seen though the writers turn to a new stigmatized group for ready blaming (the poverty-stricken). And they elevate an elite norm of the gentleman. I remembered how in Gaskell’s North and South (adapted as a mini-series), the manufacturer Mr Thornton tells Margaret, our heroine, that what matters in a man is not his manners, his gentlemanly surface, but his character within. In the new Sherlocks we are in Nancy Drew land where the English gentleman is the figure all men long to be, and all women to marry.

The New Sherlocks have succumbed to a pattern I’ve noticed in many of the large number of mystery series that now are found everywhere on PBS; often the detective figure is no longer to the side listening, intervening, with each week a new perspective on whatever the theme is, but develops a little family and friend group who become a central nexus, rather like a situation comedy (which is what Doc Martin feels like). The central figure is normalized, attached to a group of conventional or unexamined ideals. The effect today is to rob these series of whatever serious emotions each of the weekly deaths or anguished characters who walk off the screen provide. The ensemble camp art, the nihilism of the second season is gone.

The inversion of the early and mid-century mystery-crime stories reinforces the complacency of having detectives who go about solving who did what, meting out poetic justice, tidying up the world — Margaret Allingham knew she was doing that with her Campion series; this is not what was projected by the Holmes stories, so we end up with the Empty Hearse supposed rationale of mad chases a terrorist threat laughably unrealized — but laughably won’t do as inspired silliness when one or both of our two men are in an unguarded emotional stews.

Sherlock-Benedict-Cumberbatch-in-The-Empty-Hearse
Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock re-appearing in Empty Hearse

When Sherlock rescues Watson out of a bonfire for the Guy Fawkes’s night we are in a Perils of Pauline scene. (Again the female victims of old have turned male in the new Sherlock.) When the characters we are made to care about each time come back next week, and we are made to feel they will always be rescued in the nick of time, what’s to worry. Again we are in Nancy Drew land.

I am interested in this re-composing of the original materials: it represents a newly aggressive dislike of film adaptation that respects the source text’s terms and power. The justification is this will be more popular: it’s an elite group who knows the original books. Moffatt, Gatiss, Thompson may congratulate themselves that they’ve eliminated obsolete grating costumes and norms; but as we have seen, they end up substituting later 20th century ones.

Further, in the case of the Sherlock stories I think not. These are easy reading and still read. Hence the cult: you can pour into their relatively thin formats what you want. It seems to me no coincidence the last two PBS seasons other hit, when not sneered at because it’s a soap, Downton Abbey, gains more acceptability by not being based on an original novel. Gentle reader, have you noticed there are hardly any film adaptations of great books coming out of public TV in the US at least.

Here (like Austen’s Emma defending what she has hitherto seen no need to defend or herself questioned) I move somewhat in the opposite direction I usually take: I think there is something especially delightful and enrichening when you have a film adaptation that is faithful to the book. What makes people uncomfortable is the film in part does not live alone: you can watch it without reading the book if it’s long and subtle and well done enough, but reading the book enriches the experience immeasurably.

There’s a real prejudice against this — as there is against the art of translation. Since the development of copyright law which enables people to make money and perhaps lots of it dependent on the idea that the text as an idea even not made concrete in concrete books is a property there has been a strong development of the idea that secondary texts which are allowed but not private property in the same way are inferior. That does not go so much for films that make money and are copyrighted in their own right but the feeling does rub off. My feeling is the analogous adaptation, the appropriation is lauded on the wrong basis simply that they are different and so give us something new to talk about more easily — rather than the difference makes for a good film. It may; it may not.

The problem with the New Sherlocks is the material is resistant. They haven’t gotten rid of enough of it. In the originals typically a person who has been a victim comes to see Mr Holmes and sits down to tell Holmes and Dr Watson (standing by) his or her story. The narrator is this victim or another victim as the adventure gets going (in the Sign of Four, Jonathan Small). Colorful characters emerge with their stories (the Schioltos). In the first and second season although not explicit the narrating presence was Watson, blogger, man who visits his psychiatrist and spills his soul out. Now it’s Holmes himself, giving a long account of how he managed to fool Watson, and producing a tedious — and the writers know so try to deflect it by half-making run — wedding speech. The action such as it is is in flashbacks in the form of Holmes’s story. But Holmes does not bare his soul; that is part of the original material the writers haven’t dropped. Holmes listens, say in Sign of Four to Sholto:

Bartholomew (2)
Holmes listening

HauntedHouse (1)
He and Sholto in a far shot of the house haunted by the treasure box kept within

HauntedHouse (2)
Sholto

Bartholomew (1)
Inside the house, brother Bartholomew

The new Sholto (Alistair Petrie) is by comparison the man who listens; his face is horribly scared and he is so stricken by life that Holmes tells the story. Unlike Small and the half-mad Sholtos of the original story, this man has obeyed all traditional moral norms and been blasted; he comes to Watson’s wedding out of the same kind of sentimental friendship we see Holmes and Watson share:

Sholto

The man broods, the present disappears and we are in some other time with everyone watching Mr Holmes explains how he’s doing this, what he’s thinking. Since we don’t have a chase as plot-design, we are left with a curious stillness in both episodes 1 and 2 of this new season. Superfluous torture scenes thrown in — where again we are watching and nothing happens — the joke (bad taste I think) is that going to Les Mis is worse — Mycroft (Gatiss) is forced to take the parents to Les Mis (of course he would) so he is forgiven for letting Holmes be tortured in Empty Hearse. Yet Holmes will not bear his soul: it would not be the masculine thing to do. So whatever inward life such a scene could have is gone; its new context of domestic sentiment precludes taking it as an imitation of Tarentino.

Watching a German film adaptation of Marlen Haushofen’s The Wall last night, meant to be the faithful type and meant for cinema, I knew it was richer for me having read the book and the real interaction and intertexuality between text and film. I know the older Poldark series, the 1967 Forsyte, many of the most praised type of the 13 episode transposition (the technical term for faithfulness) do need us to read the book. That’s true for Fortunes of War — then the experience is remarkable.

Next blog I’m going to argue that part of the richness of Downton Abbey is its original scripts are not written to the formula of Syd Field — moving ever forward in a simple pattern — but rather meander, work up a full world, have much that remains inexplicable rather like a novel. By contrast, the new Sherlocks stay with the assumptions, aesthetic and moral of the latest year. They are interesting, but (I think) fail because they too closely mirror the currents of 2013 in TV, on the Net, in recent unexamined norms in actual life too. Neither looks at the conservative political ideas both programs embody.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

coverart,jpg

Dear friends and readers,

Some nine days ago I put Anthony Trollope’s satiric newspaper article, “The Uncontrolled Ruffianism of London” on my website and described its immediate context on my blog as preface to a review of Emelyne Godfrey’s Masculinity, Crime and Self-Defence … . It’s one of the many many intriguing documents Godfrey discusses in this, her companion volume to her earlier equally original Femininity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature and Society (see Caroline Reitz’s review in Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, 59-60 [2011]).

Both books, taken together, depict the era in which modern crime fiction (mysteries, police procedurals) developed as one of the responses to the growth of large cities where crowds of people unknown to one another live in close proximity; others are new permutations in norms for middle-class masculinity (as these are men who had to walk or today at least drive and take public transportation in said cities) and defensive tactics for women who feel themselves at risk or want to participate aggressively too. The root is the very paranoia that Trollope unerringly describes and partly mocks in his timely article.

Istruckhimblogsmall
“I struck him again and again” (from Femininity, Crime & Self-Defence)

In a nugget, Godfrey is looking at crime from the point of view of the city-goer, using popular writing and images and activities (clubs, educational groups), works of popular playwrights and texts by two literary geniuss: Anthony Trollope and Arthur Conan Doyle. Richard Sennett is an important source for her fundamental bases: Sennett (whom she quotes at key points) says modern cities are structured so as to have public spaces where the threat of social contact between upper, middle and lower classes is minimalized — they are planned to keep middling citizens from the “underclass” (the under- and unemployed, the poverty-striken, those driven into criminal and violent activites), but these breaches are easy to cross (p. 3). There are just so many pedestrians, commuters all higgedly-piggedly hurrying along. A fear of exposure emerges, a horror of injury.

Godfrey studies a popular movement then (and there is an equivalent one now), partly paranoic, of self-defense seen in the way male violence is depicted in the era. There is the question of what is a socially acceptable masculine behavior: self control and self-restraint were and still are part of the upper class gentleman ethos; the problem arises that men therefore may see themselves as potential victims as well as perpetrators of crime. When she looks at the interiority of male heroes you find a restrained flamboyancy; sartorial restraint is a index of modesty, reserve, manliness, professionalism. Godfrey has studied a slew of books on the history of respectable fear and where this comes from, on media panic, on figures she calls “men of blood” (violent men who yet stay within legal bounds, e.g., Trollope’s Lord Chiltern in his Palliser books. She looks at male anxieties and some of the weirder deadly instruments that were developed — like the truncheon Phineas Finn ill-advisedly carries with him (“the life-preserver”) in Phineas Redux.

Middle class respectable men were also supposed to protect women from men imagined on the attack. Novels in the era dramatize the maltreatment of women, e.g., Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall; Trollope repeatedly uses trope of animal cruelty to depict a ruthless male; the most typical opening of a Conan Doyle Holmes story is a gentlewoman comes to Holmes for protection.

jenny-seagrove-sign-of-four-1987blog
Everyone remembers John Thaw’s magnificent performance in the film adaptation of Sign of Four, but the story opens with the elegantly dressed Jenny Seagrove, all anxiety, come to Mr Holmes for help.

The later 19th century is a period of wide-spread investigations into methods of self-defense. She divides her book. Part 1 covers hitherto neglected plays popular among middle class audiences. Part 2 is a study of Trollope’s exploration of masculinity in the large political novels which take place in cities and show the importance of a measured response to aggression. Part 3 reveals the Sherlock Holmes narratives as a collection of lessons expressive of Doyle’s views on reasonable force in response to violent crime; they too promote the cause of measured self-defense for gentlemen. One new element emerged for me: I had not realized how frequently the Holmes stories focus on uses of weapons, many of them cruelly wounding.

******************
HenryBallsmall
Henry Ball’s belt-buckle pistol of 1858, Royal Armories, Leeds

AntiGarrotterblog
Anti-garotte collar and advertisement

Part I (Chapters 1 & 2) tell of the xenophobia (“foreign crimes” hit British shores) and class fears that led to the build-up of myths around a phenomenon that did occur but not with the frequency claimed: the garrotting people. Godfrey begins her book with singularly cruel execution in Cuba in 1852: a man was strangled to death in a wooden chair while an iron collar passed around his neck screwed ever tighter; his windpipe is crushed (p 19). Garrotta was the name for this kind of capital punishment and in a twist became used by robbers; you threatened to strangle your victim to death. There were such incidents on London streets where people began increasingly relying on police protection: a 1st incident is recorded 12 Feb 1851.

Godfrey looks at the panic from a literary angle, and debates in texts about nature of middle class heroism. She discusses the 1857 play by C.J. Collins’s Anti-Garrotte, a farce which reveals how reports build an awareness of such crimes; in a later unlicensed play, The Garrotters by William Whiffles, a man feels dread reading about all these strangulation robberies (p 21). The 1853 Penal Servitude Act that allowed more convicts to be given tickets of leave helped justify paranoia; these were conditional pardons for good behavior, with the person released in the UK instead of Australia — such convicts became associated with garrotters. Descriptions appeared in magazines: a 3 people act; Henry Wilkinson Holland interviewed thieves; here were articles on house-breaking equipment which anticipate Holmes uses to break into residences (panel cutter, crobars, skeleton key, lanterns). Later American readers had Wm D Howells’ play The Garrotters (1890s). Anti-immigration and racial fears (terms like “thuggees”) feelings were stirred so for religiously-dressed motivated Indians who carried a scarf (a rumal) were called “noose-operators.” Mid-Victorian novel, Confessions of a Thug (189), our evil Arab, Ameer Ali robs and kills for gain, but he also takes life for sport and exploits and murders anyone showing him kindness. Murder by strangulation is part of the imagined point; in an interview a female thuggee takes pride in having killed 21 people. Fear that exhibit in British Museum teaches these criminal types how to perform such evil crimes

Misogyny plays into this too: a recent book by Neil Story concludes most garrotters were female (ex-prostitutes). A modern film, The world is Not Enough presents Pierre Brosnan as a James Bond tortured by a garrotting woman. (11 years earlier Nicholas Meye’s The Deceivers presented Brosnan as Wm Savage, a British thuggee hunter learning art of manipulating the rumal.) It should be said there were no statistics on female victims.

Tellingly Richard Sennett is quoted suggesting that the fear of exposure leads to a militarized conception of everyday experience as attack and defense. In Phineas Redux Trollope suggests there was a run on life-preservers The Times described a weapon called an anti-garrotte glove; this was a gauntlet fortified with claws, hooks, blades. Some of these show people felt immediate killing or maiming someone else in self-defense as personal protection just fine (p 46). Another recent book, by Rob Sindall (Street Violence in the 19th Century) argues the panic was self-induced and over-wrought. Tom Browns’ Schooldays presented the middle class male ideal and shows concerns over middle class young man’s ability to defend himself. Clerks felt in danger, and acted on norms of self help, independence, masculine self-control — victims becomes feminized (as in the rape in Kleist’s famous novel). Delirium tremens seen as shaming the victim. She notes that Emily Bronte’s novel has many weapons; Gaskell showed that the Rev Bronte kept arms.

[This is utterly germane to our world in the US today where it seems to be open season on young black men since Zimmerman got away with murder: or maybe it’s that those of us who were unaware of how black men are regarded as dispensable, attacked with impunity on the grounds the person was made anxious (really) are no longer ignorant. Trollope’s article remains sceptical, ironic: he does not say there are no ruffians in the streets, but the man who lives in terror of this as an epidemic, acquires a weapon, is perhaps more in danger from the weapon being taken from him (how modern this argument is, just substitute the word gun for truncheon).]

In Chapter 3 is ostensibly on the Ticket of Leave man, Godfrey studies Victorian
obsessions over middle-class (white) masculine fitness as an index to “the health of nation” and how such ideas stoked fascination with street violence. Images formed in melodrama were deployed to create a garrotter-villain on stage: he’d have a black face, wrinkles, would be degenerate. All in contrast to new middle class ideals of civilized behavior; the magazine All the Year Round insisted there was a link between crime and disease. In this context ticket-of-leave men are seen as belonging to an abject group, who also are involved in a “tide of sewage, disease, and cholera” outbreaks.

Trollope’s is not the only sane voice: Henry Mayhew interviews convicts to show their difficulties in finding work, how they suffer false re-arrests (Stop and frisk anyone?); and Mayhew gives an account of a garrotting supposedly from the point of view of the criminal; the problem here is his story implies garrotters and convicts are the same people (p 31.). Two 19th century plays, the well-known Tom Taylor’s Ticket of Leave Man reveals society’s prejudice to develop sympathy for the rehabilitation of Robert Brierly, duped into a forgery scheme; this play was broadcast in 1937, and revived in Victoria theater, 1966 — the archetypal heart of the story is a good character thrown into bad situation.

Another play, Ticket of Leave has good and bad ticket-of-leave men. One Bottles, disguised as butler plans to garrot and rob his master, Mr Aspen Quiver. A wrongly accused convict saves Mr Quiver; again the play does not address false misconceptions. One famous attack in 1862 on Hugh Pilkington (MP for Blackburn) helped lead to a call for the old system to be put back in place. A Director of Prisons, Joshua Jebb, tried to express his support for ticket-of-leaved men. but draconian security measures against violence were passed in an act of 1863 that stipulated flogging.

Part 1 ends with a chapter about the weapons people carried, how several publications, most notably Punch made fun of these and (like Trollope) suggested the person in more danger than the garrotter by carrying such a weapon. There are plays where farcically we see characters over-estimate the danger and react hysterically to information received in the papers. There really were spiked collars, with self-injury the most likely result. Godfrey suggests articles in magazines register a perceived reader’s reluctance to depend on a perceived incompetent police force. Urban heroes those who supported and aided the police; you were supposed to remain calm; you fight back with similar weapons. Gradually what emerged was a civilizing offensive, an adoption of violence adverse perspective; over-arming seen as form of hysteria, but onus on individual to protect himself.

***********************
LifePreserversblog
“Life-preservers” (so-called), like the one Phineas carries and imagines himself threatening Bonteen with at their club door (see Ruffianism)

Part II: Anthony Trollope : aggression rewarded and punished, 1867-87

74Pallisers48Ballot19blog
A dramatized scene from Phineas Finn

Chapter One is called threats from above and below, fighting for franchise and concentrates on Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux. Some notes: Phineas’s response to violence affects social standing and political career; the question of what is a gentleman important in the novels; Trollope puts forward Phineas as an ideal of gentlemanliness: social grace, innate goodness. Political action in Phineas Finn is complicated by the question of what is appropriate aggression and what shows one’s fitness to vote (Trollope not a democrat). While we see politically motivated violence, Trollpoe distrusts political violence because he suggests it uses political ideal as a cloak. This is placing the cart before the horse (p 65), but the Times agreed: the legitimate citizen was not a man of the crowd (p 66). While Trollope is looks at the problem of bellicosity in all its aspects (a duke can be as violent as a collier, e.g, Chiltern and Kennedy) and suggests women do not forgive blows (p. 67); it is the pedestrian’s encounter with crime that is the focus of the Palliser series as a whole.

74Pallisers510Duel6blog
Chiltern heading for the duel

74Pallisers510Duel7blog
Phineas waiting

74Pallisers510DuelBackwards8blog
The duel

Trollope in his earlier phases seems pro-duel (p. 68): Godfrey goes over the history of attitudes towards duelling swiftly: it was always at odds with rule of law, but the first successful murder prosecution of a duellist was in 1838 (p 71): the voiced Victorian objection was a man left his family destitute. Trollope‘s depiction does, however, throughout betray a nostalgia for outmoded code of honor. His Chiltern resists the new cultural changes, and we are asked to see that when he can channel his violence into hunting, it is a splendid gift for providing healthy and even egalitarian (so Trollope argues though he knew how expensive it was) sports for men. Phineas reluctance is carefully not motivated by cowardice; Trollope means to show us that a man’s bravery need not depend on weapons; Phineas shows bravery and coolness in the face of death; he shoots up into the air, no murderer. The duel in Trollope is also a male secret, a male rite of passage (p 75); but we see how Phineas leaves himself open to Quintus Slide, to blackmail and finally an accusation of murder as a man of blood.

74Pallisers59Kennedy21blog
Brooding Kennedy

Chapter 5: Lord Chiltern and Mr Kennedy are two violent poles. Chiltern is the unrestrained man of blood, he should exercise more self-control, there’s a lack of manliness in not being self-controlled; but violence in Chiltern stems from lack of purpose and frustration (p 78); fox hunting allows him to use and master his finer senses – there are fears here too of the over-sexed male; Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wilfell Hall is anti-hunting. Godfrey points out that Children’s fiery temper does not harm him and men need physical confidence to survive.

Phineas too saves Kennedy, and the scene in Phineas Finn is based on a real life incident in 1862 sparking garrotting panic (pp.83-86). Trollope here seems for citizens arrest, and Phineas’s protection of Kennedy exemplary (by inference though Kennedy seen as impotent male who does not sexually satisfy his wife either). The norm here seems to be that the ideal (male) citizen does not actively seek confrontation, but exercises judgement (the right to bear arms is not the point). In Phineas Redux, he learns that you do not openly threaten, that weapons themselves are endanger people — he becomes too wrathful in his own disillusion and disappointment. His encounters with with Bonteen parallel encounters in earlier book; hunting scenes are parallel; this time Phineas hurts his horse, but this time frustration, his exclusion and feelings of inadequacy erupt. As ever Trollope is intrigued by what precipitates violent turn in human nature (p 108): what really unites all these stories is the male characters are driven into violence by a combination of what is expected of them as men (success) and what is thrown at them (scorn). Godfrey finds a parallel in the treatment of the cloak in Trollope’s Phineas Redux and one of Conan Doyle’s stories; more important is that Conan Doyle restricts his dramatization of males in psychological pain to the men Sherlock Holmes investigates and indites so that the latter series implicitly criminalizes what Trollope presents as part of his heroes’ behavior. (See my Heterosexual heroism in Trollope.)

74pallisers1122creepyexpressionblog
Stuart Wilson endows Ferdinand Lopez with a pained humiliated expression on his face before breaking out into threatened violence against his wife

There is in Phineas Redux and The Prime Minister a fascination with the murderous life–preserver (as we shall see fascination in Sherlock Holmes with exotic weapons) and other more usual weapons (whips). Interestingly, Godfrey likens Phineas wounded by lack of status, rank, respect with Dickens’s Bradley Headstone’s hatred of Eugene Wrayburn (in Our Mutual Friend) — but not Ferdinand Lopez’s; of course both books are virulent with antisemitism in the portraits of the whip-threatening Lopez and Emilius who does cravenly murder Bonteen from behind. So finally, as opposed to his newspaper article (“Ruffianism”), Trollope takes a stern, not comic approach, to the wielding of deadly weapons.

**************************


The Adventure of Abbey Grange — beautifully brings all motifs together, woman needing protection, sadistic cruelty, flamboyant defenses

Part III: Physical Flamboyance in Holmes Canon (1887-1914): on Holmes and martial arts continued in comments section 3.

The conclusion and assessment of a change of norms in the era in comments section 4.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

SolitaryCyclist
Original illustration for Conan Doyle’s “The Solitary Cyclist” by Sidney Paget

Dear friends and readers,

As reading and reviewing a book on the subject of violence, middle class masculinity and more specifically (among other things) garrotting and paranoia in the street life of London in the 19th century: Masculinity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature, I read, was delighted by and so put onto my website another article by Anthony Trollope from the political magazine he was first editor for, St Paul’s – on my website:

“The Uncontrolled Ruffianism of London — as measured by the Rule of Thumb”

As you will see when you read it, it’s a tongue-in-cheek satire in response to one of the 19th century waves of paranoia where people and newspapers were over-reacting to instances of garrotting by arming themselves and Trollope’s point is partly that by carrying a dangerous weapon you may endanger far more than help yourself. The full context is xenophobia (fear of poor people emigrating into London, sometimes not white); unexamined prejudice against those who had committed crimes and become prisoners and been transported (recently there had been an enlightened compassionate movement to free them of their past with “ticket of leaves” for good behavior; and a general feeling of insecurity among middle class males who identified as gentlemen that they were losing their ability to defend themselves against physical violence.

What is relevant here is we can see Trollope would see the absurdity of the argument that carrying guns (the right to) protects people walking in the streets. I suspect he would not be surprised that nowadays we read regularly how the police murdered this and that suspect and claim the suspect frightened them with a weapon — because police come armed like military people in a war zone. He would see the “Stand your Ground” laws for what they are: an incitement to in effect lawless murder.

A secondary topic is violence in political gatherings and there Trollope assumes a conservative stance casually when he suggests that attributing political motivation to public assembly scenes which turn violent is a transparent mask for mob scenes stirred up (inexplicably it seems) by trouble-makers. As an upper class gentleman who has no problem voting and participating in political life, Trollope values order more than he does any reform.

The piece is funny. The rule of thumb is Trollope’s own long experience as a gentleman walker in London and that of all the similar people he’s known. He includes his wife who (it seems) has a penchant for losing handkerchiefs and blaming someone else.

Its fictional context includes Trollope’s own Palliser (or Parliamentary) novels at mid-century –the two Phineas ones and The Prime Minister where we have instances of attempted garrotting with our heroes (including Ferdinand Lopez) to the rescue and political gatherings which in the case of Phineas Finn turn somewhat violent and led to Phineas’s labor-voting landlord, Bunce (a minor character Trollope sympathizes with) being put in jail when he was out on a march for genuinely political reasons. So Trollope takes the opposite tactic of his non-fiction piece: he empathizes with a person who gets caught up in a demonstration to extend the suffrage (though Trollope is against the demonstration and blames the politicians who stir it up as irresponsible). Trollope also genuinely imagines assaults.

Nonetheless, if you think about the whole novels (and other of his later books where he reverses his early pro-duelling position), the thrust is for caution and self-control as part of those reactions which are most “manly” and effective. In Trollope’s Phineas Finn Phineas does not succeed in freeing Bunce easily (in Raven’s film he manages to bribe the jailer to let Bunce go the next morning). Phineas does duel with a “man of blood” (to be explained in my next blog), Lord Chiltern, and this does not hurt his career, but partly this is due to his having shot in the air and refused to wound Chiltern, in other words exercised high courage, patience in the face of possible death.

In Phineas Redux, on the other hand, Phineas loses control: he seethes at the way his attempt to renewing his career is being easily wrecked by Bonteen (a rival for advancement) and Quintus Slide’s slandering him for his continuing relationship with Lady Laura Kennedy. He does wear a life-preserver, one of the many death-wielding weapons beyond guns of the era, and it’s when he brandishes this at the door of his club and threatens Bonteen that he provides one of the pieces of circumstantial evidence against him as murderer of Bonteen that almost costs Phineas his life.

In The Prime Minister Everett Wharton, Ferdinand Lopez’s silly but privileged friend, shows himself a drunken ass when he perversely and proudly (to show himself more courageous and thus a better man than Lopez) by insisting on walking in a very dark spot of a park very late at night. He is inviting trouble, and garrotters oblige him.

Godfrey discusses Trollope and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes where we see the same kind of resolutions. In earlier Sherlock Holmes’s stories there is a quicker resort to guns and violence than in the later; there is a fascination in all of them with over-wrought cruel weapons (using projectiles like soft bullets which do much inward damage to the human body); and finally in the later stories, “The Solitary Cyclist,” for example, a move to non-violent self-defense. In the story the good and bad guys resort to deadly guns, where Holmes prefers to use martial arts (e.g., boxing) which may wound but rarely kill.

SolitaryCyclistblog1
Declaring “everyone bear witness to my doing this in self-defense” Holmes prepares to box the violent cad Mr Woodley in “The Solitary Cyclist”

SolitaryCyclist2blog
Alan Plater, the script writer had the original illustrations in mind (in other of the 1980s series, the DVD includes sets of the illustrations, e.g. The Sign of Four)

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Psychologist [the black woman the 1st episode of the 1 season began with, Ella, played by Tanya Moodie]: “Why today?
John [Martin Freeman]: “Do you want to hear me say it?”
Ella: “18 months since our last appointment.”
John: “You read the papers?”
Ella: “Sometimes
John: “And you watch tele … you know why I’m here … I’m here becau … se … [cannot speak it]
Music starts.
Ella: “What happened John?
[the theme music for this series in minor poignant key]
John: “Sher … ummm … [looks up] …
Ella: “You need to get it out
John: “My best friend Sherlock Holmes [very faint on that last syllable] dead
[Harsh raucous music, rhythmic begins and we switch to that busy city neon-lit street, and the city with the ferris wheel] Sherlock BBC 2012


John Watson (Martin Freeman), first shot, close up


John and Ella (Tanya Moodie), second & far shot

It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to write these the last words in which I shall ever record the singular gifts by which my friend, Mr Sherlock Holmes was distinguished — Arthur Conan Doyle, The Final Problem


Silent, restrained, dignified grief (we do not see David Burke’s face), 1988 The Final Problem

Dear friends and readers,

The contrast is striking, no? the camp, contemporary, steely-edged sarky Sherlock opens with the intense distress, unguarded, of a man left alone. The 1890s bravura short story with an impersonal distanced grave memorialization (as seen in the 1988 Final Problem).

Not that Conan Doyle’s text has not got the usual pizzazz: Moriarty was first introduced in this tale (intended to kill off this character) thus: “He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson.” His reach makes Osama bin Laden look feeble: insidious inexplicable evil everywhere. Wild crazed paranoia? Literary and historical critics tell us (in speaking of where Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde gained its popularity, Dracula its force) of racism, the tiny embatttled middle and upper middle class of the great cities of Europe understandably terrified by the underclasses they made and exploited. All Conan Doyle can reference is this inexplicable spider with paid agents so ubiquitous, several are ready by the Reichenbach Falls (Switzerland) to lure Sherlock to his death (after duly separating his faithful supposedly sane friend Watson back to the nearby hotel inn).

But except for this important direct parallel of demonizing Arab and Southasian people (for similar reasons, today’s 1% making huge sums off their wars, weapons, exported industries, imposed infrastructures), we must forget the literal details of the originating story. And for me also forget its 1986 transposition in the Jeremy Brett version, scripted by John Hawkesworth, as the IMDB reviewer says “beautiful scenery, thoughtful reflective,” with just that note of doubt: one which turns the first story into a personal rivalry of psychological dimensions. (I’ve not seen any of the other versions.)

The 2012 Reichenbach Fall by Steve Thomson is not an external chase, but an inward one. In brief, Moriarty drives Sherlock to suicide by heaping infamy on Sherlock, by shaming him, by disgracing him. Sherlock is revealed to have been a fake. We open with a montage of cases solved, good done, grateful near- and ex-victims. Sherlock has much to be proud of. Then the topple. It matters not how this is managed only that Sherlock himself at the crucial point of the episode suddenly confesses. Yes yes. He has been lying all along. He is no genius. (Shout this at the top of your voice, anguished tones.) And we see him fill John in on how he researched his disquisitions before he flared out with them, apparently on the spot, spontaneously.


W. Turner, The Upper Falls of the Reichenbach (a Turner was used in the episode)


St Bartholomew Hospital, showing its name on the side

Well, who can live with this? The final moments need not be in Switzerland; they are on the roof of an ancient hospital in Smithfield, one still going strong, St Bartholomew’s (recently expanded once again). Sterling performance by Andrew Scott as Moriarity of seething hatred (cool, self contained, camp) as he goads, needles and jeers Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) into jumping. Actually the argument is offhand: “oh just kill yourself it’s a lot less effort.”

No need to go through the ins and outs of Sherlock’s infamy. I suppose the reference is to the way we live now — the public image all. Juvenal (the Roman satiric poet), asked “What does Infamy Matter: when you get to keep your fortune?” Well to Sherlock his fortune doesn’t matter. Apparently in this world we are really supposed to care what other people think. Why?

Mycroft separated himself from his brother. Why? Because others do and he fears what? he will lose what? Lestrade too.

To the point that what intimate beloved friend believes and feels doesn’t count.

Surely reactive defiance was the way to go, turn and laugh at Moriarty in turn. I thought again of Orson Welles on top of that ferris wheel in The Third Man laughing at the idea he should imitate Ronald Colman (“it is a far far better thing …”) and jump.

I agree with Judy Shoaf who commented on my second blog on this series that these films are disturbing, disquieting, especially in their depiction of Sherlock:

The question posed is whether Sherlock himself is good or bad -– capable of friendship or merely manipulative.

At graveside, we have to listen to Mrs Hudson fall in with the crowd. Now she is complaining about her lodger, Mr Holmes, all the trouble he caused her. But John doesn’t. John believes his best, his one friend is dead.

Standing there John says it was okay by him that “you weren’t a hero. There were times I didn’t think you were human. But you were the best man … human being I’ve ever known and no one will convince me that you told me a lie … so … [music starts, soft, harmonic] there … ” He goes over and pats the gravestone.

“I was so alone and I owe you so much.” Turns and walks away. Turns back. “Oh please there’s just one more thing, one more miracle for me, don’t be … dead” (tight voice), “just for me” (light tones, strained) stop it, stop this.” These games.

Cries, the poignant theme comes back. Deep sighs. Stands up straight. Military person suddenly at attention. Turn right. Turn back. March off.
Then the camera shows us the POV has a statuesque, expressionless Sherlock Holmes as the music turns lightly raucas.

What to make of this? he is betraying his one friend. Causing him intense grief. Lying to him. Does Sherlock not trust John?

A film exists in its own right. It may be next year we will have some explanation. The next season has not only been announced (see The Empty House which will be the first episode) but the makers know most readers of Sherlock Holmes stories know this is the story that came half-way through the set), but the gap is long enough to let this moment sink in. Years will pass of loneliness for Watson. What excuse can there be for this? is the way we are pushed to feel.

It’s not too much to see it as the image of the broken vet and a rejection of marine mentality that glorifies war and invents, indeed makes evil. Of hollow men. The pale face is vampiric and come to think of it the way his long coat flares out cape-like as he falls.


Either a stunt man (action-adventure movies are stunt movies), or computer generated

The Reichenbach Fall with its comic pun is still an anti-costume costume drama where historical fiction with all its luxuriant nostalgic ambivalence presents us with a usable past to comment on our present.

What should we take to heart? what should we steel ourselves against? The episode does not really make a joke of infamy (or paranoia).

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?

Uttered in the original story, in the 1988 version and now again in 2012


Holmes (Jeremy Brett) comforting the rescued Miss Stapleton (found on stairwell beneath great house, 1988 The Hound of Baskerville by Hawkesworth)


Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) questioning animal experimenter Dr Stapleton (top secret laboratory, military compound, 2012 Hounds of Baskerville by Gatiss)

Dear friends and readers,

How the new Sherlock is ensemble camp art. The 2012 Hounds of the Baskervilles is also different content: the rape gone; we are in a world of top secret military compounds, laboratory experiments (on animals) and ruined landscapes.

I must retract what I said in my previous blog on The Latest Sherlock: while it’s true that in A Study in Pink (the 1st episode of last season), Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat wrote a script which really did follow the plot-design of at least the opening and middle phases of Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlett, so that the two and Jeremy Brett’s films in general move along in tandem and may be paralleled, when we come to the new, this year’s Hounds of the Baskerville and compare it with Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and Jeremy Brett’s 1988 The Hound of the Baskerville, the new Sherlock departs so radically from the central buried or back story that the whole whole plot-design is changed and we have new content.

The film is not even an analogous adaptation. It appropriates (to use the fashionable term) the iconic character of Sherlock and his partner Watson, our memory of the general terrifying encounter of a ferocious huge glowing (phosphorescent) dog with a nervous fleeing victim in a vast wooded landscape round an ancient rich house and makes a new story for our time, and a few of the most memorable phrases to new purpose. In the comments to The Latest Sherlock , someone linked in a blog where a writer was (justifiably enough) angry at the erasure of strong women in the new series, and went on to talk about the ambiguous or fluid sexuality of the characters in a number of new mystery series, including this one.

The story of the abuse of woman is replaced. Conan Doyle’s original Hound had at its core, the mysterious tale of a cruel ruthless abuse of a young woman imprisoned in a room to be raped, who then flees the aristocratic rakish males who would abuse her again, only to find herself torn to bits by a supernatural hound. This core is paralleled by the front present day story of the amoral Baskervilles, and in the 1988 Brett version by John Hawkesworth the deceptions practiced on a modern day Miss Stapleton (Fiona Gillies). I wouldn’t call the Brett version feminist, but rather sympathetic to both its female and male vulnerable servant characters.

Rather than this, at the center of the Cumerbatch Sherlock is a military compound inside which is a vast laboratory in which top secret experiments are going on. When Sherlock and Watson penetrate their way in, they discover a very different Dr Stapleton (Amelia Bullmore). She experiments on rabbits, and we see all around her other frail and helpless animals (mostly small monkeys) in barred cages, attached to wires. The substitute is as relevant to our time as rape (especially since if we are telling the truth, the rape is kept marginal in both previous versions I’ve mentioned here): I felt distressed to see these animals and remembered Frederick Wiseman’s Primates and all that he and Jane Goodall and Sy Montgomery have taught me about the frighteningly impersonal cold cruelties wrecked on helpless animals in labs today. What is a more important threat to all of us today? Henry Knight (Russell Toyvey), the young man who is the victim of the hound in the back or buried story in the past may be paralleled to these small creatures. In this version we eventually learn that there was no hound, it was a psychological projection, helped along by what seems to be a fog machine, foisted on everyone, including Holmes and Watson.

I won’t go into the twists and turns of any of the three stories, nor compare the 1988 Sherlock with this. Why not? well, the Jeremy Brett series as produced by June Wyndham-Davies is gothic realism, heavily dependent on virtuoso acting performances at length, especially Brett’s. This is not. It’s ensemble playing: it reminded me of the relationship of Rachel Weisz in Whistleblower to Helen Mirren’s Prime Suspect. Whistleblower is also ensemble art, Mirren’s detective shows focus on her, she carries them. In addition, in this new Sherlock what happens happens centrally to Sherlock and John. They are not watchers on the side, coming in; they see the hound, they suffer madness; the core or back story moves alongside them.

So to turn to this new concoction, suffice to say that we are taken through a rigmarole which in the new version tests the friendship of Sherlock (while Brett was called Holmes by Watson in this series Cumberbatch is addressed as Sherlock by John Watson) and John (not called Watson by Sherlock but address as John). Everyone on a first name basis just about immediately in 2012. At one point Sherlock fools John by luring him to go into the laboratory and watching John’s distress and confusion and misery as he stumbles about confusedly and in increasing fear.


John lost and wandering (still partly lame), POV Sherlock from another side of a glass

An interesting side effect of this is we are (I think) supposed to feel alienated from Sherlock; he is behaving like Dr Stapleton (who may well have petted her rabbit and like the people in Wiseman’s film actually talk soothingly to the animals they are torturing). They really do quarrel over this.

Sherlock: John I don’t have friends. I have one.
[This softens John who is at heart as needy.]

I’m not making up or inserting into the story this animal rights matter. Among the deceits at the cosy inn is an attempt to cover up the high amounts of animal meat by ostentatiously offering vegetarian dishes. The poor rabbit is given the name bluebell, and Henry Knight often looks like some frantic animal caught in the headlights of an on-coming car.

The blogger who complained angrily about a lack of strong women should really not have much of a quarrel here. To me the superficiality of these demands for strength, no matter how used, is exposed in this episode. We have a second woman, Dr Mortimer (Sasha Behar), Henry’s psychologist who John Watson flirts with to get information out of her:

A Study in Pink opened with a hard-nosed woman psychologist (black) who similarly was there to make the man in front of her fit in, cope without disturbing others, and would have been more than willing to manipulate him, withhold information.

In a sense this ought to be a disturbing story. That it’s not is the result of another quality to this new Sherlock I want to bring up this time: it’s camp in Susan Sontag’s formulation: there’s a constant parodic element, strong artifice and stylization which makes what we see a game. One might say this is part of its gay sensibility — for there is one. The film-makers allude to all sorts of Sherlock paraphernalia: Sherlock is asked where is his hat? he is not recognizable without it. (The deerstalker hat is not in Conan Doyle but was a feature in some of the early illustrations and of picked up for Basil Rathbone’s costume along with the Inverness cape.)

The fun is in the exaggeration: this Mrs Hudson has liaisons, but alas the men she goes with have other women; as Sherlock gets into a cab he tells John that Mrs Hudson has been unlucky with another male again. After the opening terror of the boy attacked by a terrifying dog, we move to the cosy flat in 221B Baker and find Sherlock half-hysterical because he wants his usual stimulus — the word opium is coyly avoided and instead cigarettes are instances, but we all know what “the seven per cent solution” he’s talking of is. John scolds Sherlock from his desk that Sherlock must control himself. The performance of Cumberbatch is high theatrical body gestures and facial expression, as he swirls in his chair. The film-makers imitate a modern trope of romance drama and gothic since the 1939 Wuthering Heights and become de rigeur in Pride and Prejudice: like Catherine and Heathcliff, like Elizabeth Bennett, Sherlock stands high on a neolithic looking rock mountain:

This camp element is toned down during the moments of cheer and camaraderie between John and Sherlock — as when John is drinking his coffee at the close of the story and Sherlock walks over to a nearby set of tourists in cars near the inn where they stayed. It may disappear when neurotic upset characters are on stage (Henry Knight) or Sherlock goes into one of his long rapid-paced monologues regaling us with the banal misery of the lives about them , as when he and John are in a restaurant and nearby sits an unemployed man and his over-dressed costumed, bejewelled mother. Here is a pair like us, the 99%. Martin Freeman is very good at conveying a comical surprise whenever he finds himself in luxurious rich places so typical of these costume dramas (in this series highly modern looking — lots of glass walls). Henry has to admit, yes, he’s rich and that’s why these rooms are so large and empty.

It’s provocative to camp the Sherlock matter up. When Sherlock and John question the lab people about possible near-by monsters, they are told the last ones they saw were Abbott and Costello out after some monster.

Is there some safety in nihilism? This is post-modern nostalgia and the reassurance such as it is — with a calm ending so we seem to come back to Square one where we began (221 B Baker, the cosy inn, the car park, the cup of coffee) — comes from the spectacle, the enactments we’ve seen before. It’s the joke of timeless survival and repetition. Also oddly this two hours had some beautiful visuals against the ruined landscape around the half-buried military looking temporary buildings.

It’s not the dog that is scary; it’s the people who create false visions with their scientific equipment. This is not the first time I’ve noticed modern movies to be anti-science, even ones which seem as pro-high tech use as this one.


Never without a gadget

Ellen

Read Full Post »

‘You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive’ (I:18)

‘What the deuce is it to me?’ he interrupted impatiently, ‘you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not a make a pennyworth of difference to me or my work’ (I:21)

I had begun to think my companion was as friendless a man as I was myself (I:22) A Study in Scarlet

‘John you’re a soldier. Now it’s going to take time to recover. And writing a blog about everything that happens to you will help, honestly [the psychologist]

‘Nothing happens to me’ — John A Study in Pink


Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes in disguise, and yet perhaps seen less opaquely as a groom in Scandal in Bohemia, 1984 (scripted by Alexander Baron)


Portrait shot of Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock, 2011-12 (creator Mark Gatis, also Mycroft Holmes and Steven Moffat)

Dear friends and readers,

How does the first episode of the new Sherlock series open? We are in a war zone of noise, terror, killing. It is very sunny, hot, but near a modern airport:


First shot


Second

Then (reminding me of Patrick O’Connor film adaptation of J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country) we realize this is a bad dream of an vet come home:


He’s near tears

Then it’s morning in an anonymous flat where he sits across the way from his cane:


Cane on other side of room

We watch him go over to a table, take an apple, and mug of coffee, the mug has an insignia on it. It is the Royal Army, but it could be any large institution’s cup he got for free. Then his visits to the psychologist. All with soft tender music.

Then hard music and we see the modern city where the action is to take place, a ferris wheel prominent:

It will be quite a while before he (Martin Freeman as John Watson) meets Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and is taken to that quiet upper-middle alcove of a block that is now Baker Street complete with a comfortable wry Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs)


Breakfast no longer a lonely affair

Did you know that there were 80 (that’s right, 80) silent film adaptations of texts by Arthur Conan Doyle, 75 of them chronicling the adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (TLeitch, “Reframing the Victorians”, from Bloom & Pollock). Downton Abbey is not the only Edwardian hit of the last two seasons; the BBC and Masterpiece theater have also brought us what some might think a genuinely new Sherlock, so transformed does the analogous or free adaptation mode feel: set in London in 2011, using every new filmic technique one can think of in the last 10 years: continual sequences of images rather than a stage, brief epitomizing pictorial scenes rather than coherent narrative, any one-on-one developed interchanges continually on the move from the camera’s restlessness, computer enhancement. Plus everyone is re-dressed, re-type cast (there is some casting against type as in choosing Andrew Scott for Moriarity), high violence (as in an action-adventure film), working class accents galore (you’d think we were in Red Riding).

And yet you would be wrong if you thought so. It is true this seems to be the first re-set analogous adaptation (all others rooted in the 1890s), but Cumberbatch has studied Brett’s controlled hysteria with careful alert attentiveness to small details. As with the 2007 ITV Persuasion, which was a development out of the boldness of neurotic aspects of the 1995 BBC Persuasion (found in Austen), so this is a development out of the buried subversions (though glimpsed continually) of the long-running 1984-1994 Brett and Burke pair (produced by June Wyndham-Davies who we have so many to thank for I won’t begin).


David Burke as Warton (Hounds of Baskerville, 1988)


Martin Freeman as Watson with expression very like that of Hardwicke


But Freeman-Watson does need his cane (stumbles, lurches along when he walks)

I watched the first episode of the first season of the new Sherlock, “A Study in Pink”, two nights ago (this one directed by Paul McGuigan). My three epigraphs turn up in this “Study in Pink” which is not as surprising as on might think because the new Sherlock actually followed the plot-design outline of the original story. I went over the plot-design of the movie story and compared it to the plot-design of Conan Doyle’s first story. And, more of the memorable epitomizing lines were transposed into new speak than one would have thought possible. All the dialogue is understated, spoken low, witty lines continually thrown away, no showing off — which I like — what I noticed in this first episode and then again last night’s “The Hounds of the Baskerville” (the plural has been transposed: the original: “The Hound of the Baskervilles”), which I did not manage to finish.

Jim has asked what I like about this new series, why was I fascinated by it. Well, Benedict Cumberbatch whose abject flatness, blankness of face becomes mobile and intensely animated at key moments: think dear reader of Dickens’s famous outpourings of utterances (the one in Pickwick Papers which ends “Sagacious Dog. Very”), or Jane Austen in the (unhappily unknown) Sanditon. What was back story in Conan Doyle became front-story in the Jeremy Brett films. We had these narratives turned into powerful erotic gothic cinema. Now they are re-condensed into thrown-off speeches uttered at top speed by Cumberbatch as expressionistic ways he can project his own despair. Cumberbatch plays Sherlock as messenger from the old Greek classical plays.

I am also interested in these free or analogous adaptations as a breed. The specific changes if you can account for them do tell us about the hidden and overt realities of our lives that movies mirror and enact in front of us.

Jim’s statement shows that he was not charmed. So let me bring out the flaws and troubling aspects of this new generation (using the word in its literal sense). Violence, high violence continually indulged in. “The Study in Pink” opens with Martin Freeman as John Watson on the battle field, bombs exploding, you’d think you were in a stunt man movie (think Batman) and then he is discharged and then living in bad quarters in London. The new Hound opens with a young boy chased down by a ferocious monster. Both original stories start quietly. Quentin Tarantino matter. Now we have male violence glorified in military outfits, men in woods (Come to think of it this is how the Indian free adaptation of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, I Have Found It starts.)

Women are erased. They are victims, however eroticized in Conan Doyle, and fully developed as victim and highly sexualized presences in the Jeremy Bretts. Last night’s Hounds of the Baskerville substituted a small young boy for the nubile servant girl locked up in a room to be raped by a bunch of later 17th century male aristocrats who fled to the grounds and found herself torn to bits by a supernatural hound (Conan Doyle’s “Hound” is, like Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, a werewolf story).

Two typical heroines of yesteryear:

Gayle Hunnicutt as Irene Adler:


Through a window, framed (Scandal in Bohemia).

For all the abused victim heroines, here’s Anne Louise Lambert, as the abused wife of a high aristocrat in Abbey Grange (see my “The violent labyrinth”):


Abbey Grange — no divorce, no reprieve possible until Sherlock turns up

It’s not that I object to the rapid pace per see or necessarily, but the insistence in the film on coolness. Maybe that’s the worst thing as it’s an encouragmennt of inhumaneness. Since when is sadism fun? But Cumberbatch as Holmes says it is, sort of. The way cruelty is treated, the acceptance of phsycial pain, emotional torture, carelessness and lack of bonds between the characters who pass to and fro is troubling.

This is made up for in part by the developing friendship between Sherlock and Watson. The purpose of The Study in Pink is to build slowly that good feeling of camaraderie between Sherlock and Watson, that kindness, tenderness even, I recognize as essential; the difference now being the world outside them has darkened considerably. The 1984-1994 series kept the framework individual and protecting aristocratic spirits; now we have a setting whose application is global and about indifference. We are all going it alone in the new Sherlock.

I don’t know that this is an objection, rather simply a reality, a fact on the ground: the creators have noticed how thin and flimsy are many of the Holmes’s stories so they can bent and refold them at will; this one had hardly any of the central or front/back story – we first got to it towards the end and then it made little sense. The back-story of A Study in Pink was silly and there were no politics, no substance really but then this was just introduction. In A Study in Pink an evil man who loathes everyone is murdering people as a serial killer, doing it so they look like suicides. Phil Davies (ever the evil man, Smallweed in Bleak House) is the evil cabbie.

This is adaptation as police procedural (see Five Days, Prime Suspect). I am hoping that as they went on, the film-makers did treat some stories seriously, with the half-gravitas intended, but I cannot know.

I turn to neutral differences: things are made explicit in this new series that did not used to be: both Watson and Holmes have no friends; that’s why they can get together; they are loners, unusual. Are they gay? The film-makers for British TV and masterpiece theater are not yet ready to go homoerotic. So, if so, the series was as silent about this as our originating material and all the Sherlocks ever since. Really this is male-clubby literature; Chekhov did a satire-parody of the form and he emphasized this. The drug taking in 2012 is treated as a dread secret because of our present (in the US at least) draconian laws. Taking drugs is not a medical problem (as it was in 1890), but a criminal one. Holmes is no amateur but a consultant; indeed sometimes the writers have to go back to 1890 to retrieve parts of the original — when I went back I discovered that was Conan Doyle’s name for his profession.

The absence of such women types, with women showing up as small time and rough cops is significant. Are we in the territory of male bonding without women about in this new series? Is this really Master and Commander (a film adaptation of a Patrick O’Brien novel where there was not one woman to be seen) in disguise.

The 2012 heroine looks like this: super-thin (so frail even if steely), clinging to her gadget, cool looking:


Lara Pulver who reminds me of the actress who played Mrs Simpson in Edward VIII as Irene Adler (in the new Scandal in Belgravia): these gadgets are everywhere in the new series, everyone texting everyone else, but the story sticks close to the original Scandal in Bohemia)

I liked the intertexuality. The woman’s body laying there as central to A Study in Pink was an allusion (made specific) to Helen Mirren’s Prime Suspect. I just know Cumberbatch has the 1960s Avengers in mind (remember Patrick Macnee with his bowler hat?). Filmically it’s a modern movie, and I hope anyone involved who can speak of this makes clear how wholly contemporary it also is. No stage to be seen. Shots done in this super-sophisticated way, narrative patterns give way to moods and shots that are pictorial (like when we see Watson through a corridor watching Sherlock and the cabbie at the table). I grant they may have overdone it but we have to switch our aesthetic pattern understandings so to speak.

We get so few of these new-style adaptations made by the BBC in the US on PBS: PBS fears its older audience won’t like them too strongly and object. This one was using all the new high speed cinematic techniques — let me suggest we need to start thinking about and responding to film differently. It may be the recent Dickens adaptations are actually “against” (disliking) Dickens, but this adaptation rather like Conan Doyle’s stories.

Once upon a time some viewers (influential as well as powerless in this one most exits) and people would complain that (at least some of) the central values of the books were reversed. That’s now old hat. What troubles me about the new film adaptations is the aesthetics give up what was enjoyable and meaningful in the 1990s and early 2000 mini-series. Even when they were a one-shot deal they’d have the slow pace, good dialogue, time for acting and interaction between developed characters. I had occasion to watch a few films on PBS (which plays the British ones) and they had stick figures in slick action-adventure films dressed up as if this were the costume drama form. I had rather those who detested this form (probably partly because it got smaller audiences except when a big hit, partly its identification with women, partly sheerly the cultural value in it) tried to get rid of them altogether rather than silently re-vamp them. My students and I this term watched parts of two mini-series (Poldark, Small Island: see The Art of story-telling in a mini-series). The new anti-costume drama group decided if you can’t beat them, join them and in the process change them radically.

But I know in the wide popular audience it’s not done openly to admit you are freely adapting. And certainly not to admit to the audience for costume drama that you are centrally pulverizing its central qualities (which account for much of the love for Downton Abbey).

My last point (from Thomas Leitch’s (“Jekyll, Hyde, Hekyll, Hyde, Jekyll, Hyde, Jekyll, Hyde, ed Bloom and Pollock): there are stories, characters, matter as turned into literature that become so ubiquitous to remain alive they need not have full-blown literal treatments. It is enough to allude and quote. We can tell we are in the presence of one when such free adaptations emerge.

Such originating mythic texts are said to speak to continuing cultural and psycholoogical anxieties. But to work out what that is one must turn back to the stories, and I suggest watch the transpositions (earlier faithful films) or commentaries (less faithful, critiquing, improving, the Brett, see my Violent Labyrinth) According to Brian Rose, we must study “tracer texts” (these would include Dickens’s most famous books, Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility and Emma) in the various permutations to understand why the original text is mythic and what is done with it in each generation.

I’m not sure this new cool, self-reflexive supposed free analogy adaptation would yield its meaning by returning to the tracer texts even if follows the plot-design; my intuition tells me it has other core centers stemming form popular culture (in the case of this Hound variation, the horror film). The new stories are about the buried violence turned into psychological disquiet in Holmes who then both tries to control and stop as well show and accept a barbaric world which corresponds to the cinema which projects it.

And how we seek refuge. About 10 minutes into the first hour John is welcomed into Sherlock’s comfortable lair, complete with a wall of good books, a comfy pair of chairs and of course Mrs Hudson:


First Shot of John walking down Baker Street — jaunty happy music accompanies this


Suddenly an old-fashioned hansom cab brings in Sherlock


Welcome says Mrs Hudson: it seems Sherlock did not save her husband from execution, but ensured it


The Hard Climb Up


John looks about him


Two chairs: says John: “Oh this could be very nice …”

Remember as you watch the new Sherlock, the narrative does not matter so much, but rather the shots, the pictures, the music and the epitomizing utterances

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »