Sunday, December 27, 2009

How I'm Thinking About Sherlock

I just got back in from seeing the new Sherlock Holmes movie.  It’s a pistol – as a fella I ran into tonight pointed out, Guy Ritchie started making good movies again once he broke up with Madonna.  It also totally taps one of my great preoccupations of late –the Western 19th century.  Pretty broad stroke, I know, but I’m still learning the fine grains of the history.  On my long drive to and from the family homestead for Christmas, I’m listening to two great books – Steven Bown’s Scurvy and Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map.  These books are about the development of modern science in an age of loose thinking and persistent superstition, the main point of my interest in that broad sweep, and a theme shared with Ritchie’s Victorian brawler. 

Sherlock Holmes is, even in this new, more physical adaptation, the very embodiment of reason and logic.  As he demands repeatedly in the film,
what concerns him is “Data, data, data.”  Against the odds, the violence fits right in to the Holmes we know and love, subject as it is to a regime of medical logic – Ritchie’s trademark slow-down-speed-up lurching sequences are used to great effect here as Holmes abstracts himself from his own actions, blocking any emotion that might accompany his precise destruction of human bodies.  The film’s main antagonist at first appears to be a warlock of some sort, ominously pale and disturbingly hard to kill.
The presence of magic in the film makes crystal clear why not just I, but we as a culture are experiencing a bit of a Victorian moment.  Sherlock Holmes itself is just one of the most high-profile outcroppings of the mounting ‘steampunk’ trend, which is allied/related to the strands of “New Weird” fantasy fiction – I’m sure there are more prominent examples, but for the tired moment, they’re escaping me.  Holmes’ eventual triumph – not just the defeat of magic, but its unmasking as mere charlatanry – is a fantasy resolution to the uncertainties about the age we ourselves live in. 
As we face with mounting unease the possibility of regression back to a less advanced era, here’s a film that dramatizes the violent birth-pangs that pushed rationality out of the womb of fear.  We are fascinated by the time and tale of the ascent to our current Olympian heights – or perhaps simply by any comparisons that will make us feel so good about where we are as a culture.  We know, somewhere in our viewing and creating selves, that the dirt and grime of Victorian England may be the future we face after whatever relative sweetness and light we have been momentarily gifted.
Of  course, I’d be a lax media scholar if I didn’t go beyond just reading the film to ask what reading practices the film demands of me.  In other words, is the audience here being asked to engage in the same ratiocination that Holmes the character represents?  No, not really – this is not a film with Easter Eggs or a structure that would point a profoundly attentive or smart viewer towards the ‘right answer,’ instead just keeping us in the right amount of suspense so that we’re really primed for the dramatic moment when Holmes explains everything.  It is in that conclusion that the audience is given its only real  ‘clue’ to decipher, one strongly suggesting that, whatever we may think we control or understand, there are real powers beyond our science and reason.
The film is really fun - what you’d call a ‘romp.’  But like all supposedly innocent entertainments, it also sends a strong message, in this case one about the battle between reason and myth.  It would be easy to call that message ‘ambiguous,’ as the movie takes away with the left hand the rationality handed out by the right.  But I think that it’s more the point to say that it’s giving us both at the same time – showing the powerful triumph of reason over the chicanery of a trickster, but showing that Holmes’ reason itself has limits at an even higher plane of power, justice and judgment.  Though it’s a little heavy-handed on film, this is an essentially accurate encapsulation of the spirit of the original stories, in which the powerful rationality internal to all of the major characters couldn’t keep the world itself from constantly spinning just slightly off its appointed axis.

4 comments:

Meryl said...

"Holmes’ eventual triumph – not just the defeat of magic, but its unmasking as mere charlatanry – is a fantasy resolution to the uncertainties about the age we ourselves live in."

The real message is that it *isn't* chicanery...it's *actually* science/rationality/logic!!! The ginger midget is experimenting to scientifically conjure all Blackwood's tricks. That's a heckuva lot more intense message than a revevalation of chicanery in my view. Traversing the fantasy leads chicanery gets us to...another fantasy - that of rationality - the one that we are feeling shaky about and needing to shore up in our own moment.

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