24 July 2014 @ 08:10 pm

Yes, this seriously took me seven months to write. Well, in fairness... I wrote like a paragraph or so of my thoughts back in January and then actually started writing the rest of this a few days ago. But I at least thought quite hard about it for half a year.

Series three is so...complicated. I watched it and at first liked it, then hated it, then grew to enjoy it again despite myself. It's clearly a transitional series in a way that series two possibly should have been, but ultimately wasn't. It's hard to say if it's even good or not. But I will, as always, attempt to probe its depths and find out.

'Okay, but what you don't know is that I've brutally murdered thirty-three people for the CIA.' )
06 May 2014 @ 11:23 pm
Yikes, it's been a minute since series three aired. Well, in the spirit of what I did last time we had new episodes...a screencap review, a la [ profile] film_stills. All of them are my own this time around.

'Oh, please, killing me. That's so two years ago.' )

Reckon I'll eventually get around to reviewing the episodes... It's a bit more challenging since I'm still not sure how I feel about the newest series as a whole, even nearly four months on. So odd, that, but series three is the transitional series that series two probably should have been, and naturally people are bound to be divided about that sort of thing.

Bear with me, this is probably more of an essay than a review. I suppose if you know me--or at the very least, have taken a look at my favorite films listed on Facebook--you're aware of the affection I have for this film. More than affection, really, since it's probably one of my favorite movies of all time and certainly my favorite adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. And why?

It's mystifying, really. I don't necessarily feel that Robert Stephens portrays the best or most complete Holmes, yet he's still my favorite. Holmes has been re-imagined time after time after time, each adaptation giving us different glimpses of his enigmatic character and allowing countless authors to put personal spins on him and his world, all filtered through vastly different cultural lenses. He's been variously portrayed as heroic, antisocial, emotionally distant, endearingly gentlemanly, kind, callous, gallant, misogynistic, and many, many, many other things aside. They're all equally applicable to his character at different times and in various contexts, of course. Yet these ideas about who Sherlock Holmes really is have been consistently toyed with over the years to the point that Holmes has become no longer a simple literary character in his own right, but a cultural myth and something of a trope. The same can be said for Watson, as well.... after all, simply think about what comes to mind when you hear their names. "Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson."

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, maybe? The level-headed detective in a deer-stalker with a pipe and his bumbling but completely reliable assistant, Watson? None of those qualities are strictly canonically accurate representations of the two. People simply love to latch on to certain images and ideas regardless of whether they're wrong or right. All because they ring true to us or are comforting or palatable in some way, and because social norms inform every aspect of our media consumption. And until the 1960s or 1970s, what was palatable and acceptable in a literary hero like Sherlock Holmes were qualities like even-mindedness, a lack of emotional volatility, gentlemanly demeanor, and a straight-laced lifestyle. (Kind of odd given his very distinctly bohemian tendencies in the original publications.)

So while I don't feel that Wilder's Holmes is the best on-screen portrayal of Sherlock Holmes as a character, it's still my favorite because, until The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and The Seven Percent Solution and such came along, what I mentioned above was the status quo. What Watchmen did for the comic universe in the 1980s, adaptations like these did for Sherlock Holmes. They changed everything about what we thought Sherlock Holmes could be as a character and cultural icon. They suddenly and un-apologetically introduced as yet unexplored sides to a hero which were viewed as unseemly, politically incorrect, and intolerable. Suddenly, the genius detective was portrayed as having sexual interests, a drug problem, and underlying mental and emotional issues quietly buried under his logical exterior. And these sorts of things were seen at the time as completely unacceptable and even socially irresponsible to portray, at least on the part of Wilder, a famous film maker. Shortly after the movie's release, for example, Films in Review released a scathing indictment of its content: "Some of [the film's] sequences have no purpose other than to suggest Holmes was a sex pervert and his use of narcotics a legitimate relief from boredom. The deliberate utilization of a fictional character of worldwide popularity to promote or condone those two vices is reprehensible."

So Wilder gave us a different Holmes, a deviation from the slightly distant crime-fighting gentleman of good repute we've been culturally conditioned to associate with the character. In the film, Holmes is bitingly sarcastic and witty (sometimes caustically so), fends off boredom with drug use, and is amusingly camp. He's also at the peak of his detective career and his burgeoning fame is becoming more and more of an annoyance to him. Amusingly enough, one of the initial scenes includes him walking into 221-B decked out in deerstalker and inverness cape, frustrated that he's been expected to wear them in public to match the apparent description Watson has given of him in his tales published in the Strand. Watson, of course, blames the illustrator.

(It's clear that Wilder loved the material and was fascinated with the original publications, because only someone who really cares a good deal for their media of choice can so boldly take the mick out of it and turn it into a humorous, twisted shadow of the original in a way that's well-crafted, funny, and intelligent to both die-hard Holmesians and casual moviegoers.)

So we can immediately tell that we're being treated to an adaptation unlike any previous...this Holmes acts as a frequent mouthpiece for Wilder's observations and criticisms of the Sherlock Holmes series and how it's been received at large by the public. There's an incredible layer of metatextuality that pervades the entire film and one never knows just what to expect from the sparkling, hilariously funny script. (Trust that there are several laugh-out-loud moments.) The film itself is split into two different parts: the first deals with Holmes' attempt to extricate himself from a difficult situation with a Russian ballerina, who desires for him, as a man of great intelligence, to father her child. Holmes immediately refuses on the pretense of being involved in a gay relationship with Watson in what has got to be one of the most humorous, awkward half hours in a Sherlock Holmes adaptation to date (complete with a little throw-back to Some Like It Hot).

WATSON: "You may think this is funny, but we're in the same boat! We must take desperate measures....we must stop this talk! Maybe if we got married--"

HOLMES: "...then they'd really talk!"

Brilliant! The film then takes a different turn in its second part when, one evening, Holmes and Watson are very suddenly saddled with the enigmatic and beautiful Gabrielle Valladon. She is initially dumped off at their place by a cabbie and appears to suffer from amnesia. Further prodding reveals that she was coming to London to pursue the trail of her missing husband, Emile Valladon, who worked as an engineer and was involved with the British government. She intended to consult Holmes and Watson for help in unraveling his disappearance before being ambushed--as they all assume--by people trying to keep her nose out of whatever business in which her husband was involved. So the three of them, with Holmes disguised as Madame Valladon's husband, are lead on a bit of a whirlwind adventure to a castle in Scotland to discover the truth behind Emile's disappearance...and a few other odd mysteries, as well, all seemingly tied to Sherlock's coolly diplomatic brother. (Mycroft. Charmingly played by a young Christopher Lee.)

I should note that the film wholly markets itself as revealing some of Holmes' most humiliating or otherwise unmentionable cases, and this one is no exception. Holmes is deceived at every turn until the very end, and instead of being hurt or feeling a great personal loss of some sort, he actually seems to take great solace in his own defeat. Which must make his feelings towards Madame Valladon rather complicated... much of the film deals either directly with or has an underlying commentary on Holmes' supposed misogyny and distrust of women, much of which stems from supposed romantic or sexual encounters earlier in his life. Or so we think; after all, Wilder apparently regretted not making it more abundantly clear that Holmes' general outsiders' melancholy was a product of his actively suppressed homosexuality. It's entirely possible from Holmes' tone in his retelling of these experiences that they never really happened. Apparently some portions of the film which were removed from the final cut addressed these topics more explicitly. It's unfortunate that it's a lesser known film of Wilder's and that it was treated so shoddily by the industry... the final version of the film is only a fraction of Wilder's original creation, which originally included further stories, some of which were set in Holmes' younger years at university or involved other cases. Some of these bits and pieces have been restored and included on recent DVD releases, fortunately, but some will probably never resurface and are lost to time. But the final version released to tape/DVD is interesting enough as is, and pretty self-contained, even if it leaves you thirsting for more.

...I could also go on a bit about how Sherlock's faults as a fully-realized modern-day Holmes adaptation can be traced back to how heavily Gatiss and Moffat both borrow from Wilder's film, which has very 60s-70s aesthetics and politics, but that would take literally forever. So I'll just make note of this: the relationship between Mycroft and Sherlock in Sherlock, and really Mycroft's entire character in the series, is a direct call-out to Christopher Lee's run as Mycroft in The Private Life. Which is pretty cool.

For more fun reading on similar, check out these:

1971 Film Quarterly Review, on JSTOR

Michael Wood's 'Scentless Murder', on the London Review of Books (review of 'Conversations with Wilder' by Cameron Crowe)
The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975, UK/US)

Opinions have always seemed to be a little divided on it among Holmes aficionados. Why, I’m not sure. You have a little bit of everything in this film. It’s “A Scandal in Bohemia”, “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton”, “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty”, and “The Final Problem” gone terribly, horribly camp. Also wrong. Very wrong. It’s a weird movie, and also rather anachronistic in the same fashion as Blazing Saddles, which never fails to amuse me for some reason. I won’t lie and say that the film is on par with Saddles, because it isn’t... As much as I love Gene Wilder, directing is not his strong suit, so don’t go into this one expecting a classic on par with Brooks’ films. (Given the casting of Gene Wilder, Arty Feldman, and Madeline Kahn, you would really assume it to be a Brooks film in the first place.) But it’s still quite funny and contains some seriously choice lines and gags that I would love to see reproduced in other works derivative of Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother has a bit of a misleading title, and probably purposefully so. Most fans of ACD’s stories would assume it to be a film about Mycroft, but even though there’s an amusing throwaway line concerning him in the film, he makes no appearance at all. The star of the show is Sigerson, Sherlock Holmes’ other smarter brother. (Trust me when I say that his position as such is by his own estimation. He even brilliantly refers to his own brother as “Sheer-Luck”.) Even Sherlock himself makes a few appearances in the film. He's there in the beginning to hand off a seemingly unrelated case to his brother via Orville Sacker, a clerk for Scotland Yard, but generally only pops up incognito when Sigerson is in need of “gentle guidance”. Guidance concerning the (actually quite important) case and, scarily, the well-being of Sigerson’s own clients. It makes you feel that Sigerson is really the second fiddle in his own stardom, but that's probably for the best. He is certainly intelligent in some ways (as only a Holmes can be), but he's kind of bumbling and endlessly bitter towards his older brother, which hinders him in others. He frequently lacks the absolutely mind-boggling eye for detail that Sherlock possesses; one of the best recurring gags involves him mistaking his large, male messenger for a woman from the sound of his footsteps outside the door to his flat.

So the plot itself is rather a mish-mash of ACD’s stories. The big case involves Jenny Hill, aka Bessie Bellewood, who was probably meant as something of a call-out to Irene Adler. She isn't exactly brilliant, though, and you get the impression that she only ever gets anything over on Sigerson because he's equally as ignorant half the time. But she is a rather saucy opera singer who finds herself in a scandalous relationship involving political intrigue, which sort of runs her right into the path of Moriarty and his underlings. So it's up to Sigerson to secure the top secret plans that she mistakenly pawns off to a big-time blackmailer in cahoots with the notorious professor. Sigerson and Orville make a team easily more bizarre than any Sherlock and Watson duo, and it’s frankly hilarious that they manage to get themselves into so many odd situations. Overall, it's an incredibly fun, weird film. And longtime Holmes fans will also appreciate the appearance of Douglas Wilmer as Sherlock.

The Great Mouse Detective (1986, US)

Speaking of things to do with Sherlock Holmes, I recently saw "The Great Mouse Detective" again. Despite the fact that I have an apparently inhuman tolerance for Disney magic, I really do like the movie. My memories of it from childhood were murky at best, but if any of you were subjected to the splendors/horrors of the Disney channel in the early-to-mid 1990s, you probably remember constantly being barraged with irrelevant or quirky information about the making of various films during commercial breaks. I didn’t mind the info bits on the Great Mouse Detective because they always dealt with the final battle scene in Big Ben. Which was, by the way, the first use of computer generated imagery in a 2D animated film. Or so they said. The Black Cauldron has that unique distinction in reality, but it’s not surprising to me at all that Disney would like to pretend that the film never even happened. The whirling gears of Big Ben have always been a striking image to me, however, and the battle scene between Basil and Rattigan is easily one of my favorite cinematic moments in an animated film. It’s just very well put together, especially coupled with the film’s score.

(Anyone watching "The Great Mouse Detective" for the first time would probably be inclined to believe that the titular character is just Sherlock Holmes in mouse form, but they’d be slightly off. No, Sherlock Holmes actually exists in human form in this universe. Basil of Baker Street, the film’s namesake, is actually, Basil. He lives beneath 221B and is remarkably similar to Holmes, like a rodent counterpart. One imagines that he is the end result of chemical run-off from a science experiment gone wrong upstairs, but this theory is out the window when you realize that there’s honestly no logical explanation for how Dawson could exist as such.)

Nevertheless, Basil has a cute little dressing gown and his own chemistry set and everything. And even a violin! It really is just adorable, like always. Dawson isn’t portrayed as being quite as capable as some other Watsons, but at least he isn't a fumbling, ineffectual buffoon meant to showcase his Holmesian counterpart’s massive intellect and perceptive skills. The two actually made a nice cuddly little team, and the film ends on a note suggesting that this story, despite being based on “The Final Problem” (sort of), is their “A Study in Scarlet”. Actually, with Rattigan out of the way, it makes me wonder just how exciting they’ll find London at all… he was sort of the master criminal. I guess these two are doomed to an adorable eternity finding lost mouse-sized rings and naval treaties written on tiny receipt slips or something.