For the patient among us, Sherlock Holmes, as re-imagined by Guy Ritchie, was released on DVD Tuesday.
You know. For those of us that didn’t see it in theatres, pay per view, at the dollar cinema, or bought it a month ago in stores.
I obtained it from the cherished Redbox at our local McDonalds, and watched it Tuesday evening.
Goody for you, you get to read my thoughts on the subject.
Or, you now “Mark as read” and move the hell on.
As a large part of my thoughts are grumpy, well, your call.
Why, you might ask, did I wait until now to watch the movie?
My reasons for delaying were that the reviews and comments I read about the film were mixed, but mostly poor. Most reviews I saw said that while the acting was enjoyable for fans of Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr, the plot was confused, difficult to follow, not very good, mixed up, etc.
Also, I saw reviews that said that there was very little of the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes within the movie. It was, in their words, an action mix ’em up with a bad plot but fun buddy cop hijinks.
I am a true fan of Sherlock Holmes, so I was going to go see it anyway, but that kind of thing certainly put me off.
Upshot is, I didn’t see the movie in the theater.
Moron. I’m a bloody moron. Why, oh why do I keep thinking that movie critics have any clue whatsoever about anything they say?
Mission Impossible should have clued me in. When the critics panned it as a horrible movie because the plot was incomprehensible, whereas I found the plot 100% clear and engaging, and I enjoyed the intrigue every bit of the way, I should have known.
m not the sharpest axe in the shed, but I swear, most movie critics are simply too stupid to follow anything that isn’t spoon fed to them with a Cliff Notes synopsis. And if they end up feeling stupid, then the plot must suck, right?
Who is the greater fool, then, when I persist in allowing myself to be guided by known idiots.
I’m not talking out of my butt here.
Before I talk about my impression of the Guy Ritchie version of Sherlock Holmes, I’d like to establish a certain level of credibility towards why I feel I just might have the qualifications to share my opinion on this subject.
First, of course, I’ve read all of the stories.
One of my fondest literary memories of all time was when I visited my uncle’s home, and found a thin, threadbare copy of a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories on his bookshelf. It was a slim volume that combined the stories from the Adventures and the Memoirs.
Ah, I feel the beginnings of a Bearwall. Here we go…
Digression towards education.
Let’s talk for a moment about the importance of the well-stocked library of classics.
My family would occasionally visit my aunt and uncle, who I found out much later in life was a retired Major in the US Marines.
As the neighborhood my uncle lived in had no other children my age to play with, and no TV (yes, that’s right, no TV. It was common for homes back then not to bother with TV. There was nothing but crap on, anyway, so why have one?), it fell upon myself to discover some form of entertainment.
With a heavy, dreary weekend looming before me, there were only so many charms to be found in running in circles on the back lawn, exploring the tool shed and the mysteries of two stroke gasolene engines, and playing with the electric organ until people screamed at me to shut the hell up.
Thus, I turned my attention to what the boring old people had in their library. Oh joy, I bet there are dry academic tomes. Oooh, a complete Encyclopedia. How exciting.
As my own parents were mostly illiterate, I didn’t hold out much hope. My highest ambitions, in fact, were that there might be some stashed Archie and Jughead comics in the bedroom of one of their boys who had grown up and moved to college, as that seemed to epitomize the height of my relatives’ humor.
Old people. Boooooring.
Imagine, then, the wonder of a small boy as he discovers, for the first time, “The Gold Bug” by Edgar Allen Poe, “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell, “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas, “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo” by Captain Ted W Lawson, a wonderful collection of the works of H.G. Wells and many other treasures, all hidden in plain sight like the Purloined Letter, if you will, right there amongst the Reader’s Digest Collected Editions.
Can any words truly describe my shock and amazement to find thin books of advanced age, clad in threadbare cloth and cracked leather bindings, words imprinted in gold foil as if on a pocket Bible, that held such tantalizing titles as “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag”? Or even the seeming simplicity of “The Most Dangerous Game.”
No teasers to spoil the story, for there were no dust jackets on these volumes. The title itself had to intrigue, had to beckon you inside. And they did.
My uncles’ library turned out to have the outward facade of boring, conventional lameness, keeping in perfect lockstep with the Joneses, but on closer examination it yielded adventures, thrillers and penny dreadfuls of a character to scandalize all of lower Miami’s tasteful middle class.
Well, I say all the books were clad in unassuming cloth and leather bindings, and for the most part that was true… except for the collection of Doc Savage novels I found tucked secretly behind the Encyclopedia Brittanicas, where they wouldn’t cause a ruckus or start a riot with their lurid cover illustrations.
Why did I search behind the books? Because at that point, I no longer trusted other adults to be quite as boring and placid as they first appeared. Hiding the good stuff? How dare they!
Still, I’m sure it would have caused quite a sensation among the late night electric organ crowd. Paperbacks in the library? Shameful!
In hindsight, I can truly credit my uncle for opening my eyes not only to the very existence of amazing and astounding stories that thrilled my imagination, but also to the idea that, just because something is old, and even in dated language, it doesn’t automatically render it crap.
This is not something they teach in public school, at least not at a young enough age. Well, at least not in the schools I bloody well went to. By the time they do introduce interesting books in school, it’s part of the officially approved school curriculum, and thus, inherently evil and to be shunned and hated.
If it wasn’t for my uncle, I’m sure I never would have dived as deeply into the ancient stacks of old science fiction at our public library as I subsequently did, there to discover the joys of Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Harlan Ellison and so many others.
As a parent, looking back at my own formative experiences, and seeing how my own son is growing and what influences he’s exposed to, I think we have a responsibility to pass the torch of wonder to the next generation.
I’m sure most folks already keep a library of good quality movies and music they cherish, but I think care should also be taken to maintain a library of the fictional classics that inspired in us a sense of wonder, amazement and mystery.
Let us be the ones who play our own subversive role in the education of the young.
Have you yet taken the time to build your own small library of books available to visitors or your own children?
If you did, what books would you especially wish to have in such a collection, intended to expand their horizons and open up their eyes to the possibilities of the world?
This has gone pretty far afield, hasn’t it? All the signs of the true Bearwall.
That pretty much ends anything except talking about, and bitching about, Sherlock Holmes. This is your second warning to “Mark as read”.
Okay, then. Moving on.
Back to my credentials with Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
However it came about, Sherlock Holmes captured my young imagination, as I expect the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did for many of you, as well. There is something about those of us, the architects and the adventurers of the imagination, that we find ourselves drawn to stories of the mysterious, the elusive, and the puzzling.
I think our shared curiousity and inquisitiveness also helps explain why so many of us also possess interests in stage magic, the histories of various esoteric cultures and religions throughout history, and other knowledge from the fringes of mainstream life.
The stories, yes, of course. Back on track.
These days, I have my own volume of The Complete Sherlock Holmes, some 1300+ pages as printed in the 40’s, a particularly well cared for, and yet threadbare tome of power.
I could use it to stun attacking badgers. Not that I have, but I could.
It’s got a heft to it. I re-read it quite frequently, especially when I’ve been subjected to some modern crap. I mean, I re-read the whole bloody thing about once a year. It would be more often, as I am assaulted by modern mediocrity constantly, a veritable bombardment of trendy shit, but I have one hell of a library to keep me warm and shelter me from evil, and remind me that this too shall pass.
My knowledge of Sherlock Holmes doesn’t stop there, though. Oh, hell no.
I have many movies and television shows on tape and DVD that recreate the original stories, or include new interpretations. My favorite of these would have to be Young Sherlock Holmes. It just captured the spirit, if not any of the actual lore, so very, very well.
None of that, I think, serves to document my insanity on this subject quite so well, however, as to let you know that I also have the complete collection of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes episodes starring Jeremy Brett on DVD.
This collection numbers some 41 television episodes, each faithfully addressing one of the short stories from the original work. That’s over 36 hours of Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett.
Many folks out there, I’m sure, can claim the same.
But how many went one step further, as I did? I meticulously ripped the episodes from the DVDs to my computer, rearranged them to match the original timeline of the release of the printed stories on which they were based, and then reburnt them to my own DVDs so that when I watch them all, it is in their true, proper, published order. A visual companion to my book, so to speak.
Leaving the question of my sanity aside for the moment, what I’m saying is I do in fact have a passing familiarity with the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, most particularly concerning his famous sleuth.
Up to this point in my life, I’ve seen many re-imaginings of the stories, different portrayals, new concepts. I’ve even seen a Saturday morning children’s cartoon that introduced a robot into the future that had the, ahem, “Memories” of Sherlock Holmes for a brain.
So yes, I’ve seen modern talentless hacks take something that inspired wonder, and twist it, dumb it down and make shit out of it to trade off a famous name and turn a fast buck.
I’m well educated on the subject of Sherlock Holmes, in terms of the stories themselves and of the various interpretations. I’m a fan of the heart and soul of the stories, I respect the work and the language of the originals, but I’m not quite an obsessive fanboy in that I demand an exact reproduction.
I do not require everything to be a precise portrayal of every line and movement. I admire those that do bring the originals to life in such precise and faithful a fashion, but it’s not the words themselves that move me, it’s every aspect of the spirit of mystery, of wonder, of thrilling imagination, and of course the nature of the friendship of these two vastly dissimilar men.
I love the originals in print and on the screen, but I can also admire and enjoy a re-imagining if done in the spirit of the originals, like Young Sherlock Holmes was.
Hey! What did I think of the damn movie?
I loved it.
In fact, towards the end it was so good it pissed me off.
Once again, as with the recent Star Trek movie, I entered with certain pre-conceived notions, expectations that it would go off the rails or descend into triteness thanks.
Well, because as I said earlier, I actually gave weight to what I’d read from critics about it.
While I enjoyed it all as it unfolded, I had in the back of my mind that little voice, the inner person that expected that, sooner or later, no matter how good it seemed, it would inevitably turn to crap.
By the time I realized the critics and naysayers were full of shit, it was too late. Fully two thirds of the movie had passed. Pricks.
Here’s the thing about the movie, where I can see how critics might just not get it. From prejudice, ignorance, I don’t know.
I think the biggest thing that people might have objected to is that it seems to take remarkable liberties with changing the characters’ personalities, histories, hobbies and lifestyles. The second is that Holmes seems to have nearly supernatural powers of observation, deduction and prediction.
The problem I have with the first viewpoint, is that it doesn’t. It bloody well doesn’t, except from the most strict interpretation of the original.
What it DOES do, is take the original stories, almost word for word in what is said, what dialogue is used, and what clues are left as to the character’s history and inner nature, and go in a different direction of interpretation than the more classic portrayals as made famous by such TV shows as the ones starring Jeremy Brett that I already mentioned.
If you are most familiar with Sherlock Holmes from watching TV episodes, then the interpretation you have seen is that of the calm, cool, cerebral professional, always calculating, unemotional and logical.
That is how Holmes is depicted in the stories as to how he thinks of himself, as being nearly robotic and meticulously precise, without emotion or wanton act. Again, it’s how the stories show that he prefers to see himself.
If you actually read the stories, though, carefully, they reveal a deeper picture. Sherlock Holmes is a man full of deep passion and immense intellect, who has trained himself to observe and analyze everything and everyone around himself. He runs at a fever pitch, but frequently he runs himself too hard for too long and burns himself out with his obsession, coming close to ruining his health. When once an idea comes into his mind, he must pursue it to the end.
Obsession to the point of physical collapse is not purely of logical thought.
But let’s move from his emotional state for a moment, and talk about the fight scenes I saw critics complain about. I saw accounts that objected to Holmes’ being shown as a skilled, fit fighter in a rough gambling den, masterful and electric, kicking the ass of big hairy chested men. “Much too physical, not nearly cerebral enough.”
But if the critics had actually read, perhaps, “The Sign of Four”, the story in which Mary Morstan, Dr. Watson’s eventual wife was introduced, they would have known that not only was Sherlock Holmes skilled in boxing, but that it is specifically mentioned that he sparred in backroom matches at “Alison’s rooms”, and, in the words of McMurdo, a former prize fighter he encounters guarding the door, “If instead of standin’ there so quiet you had just stepped up and given me that cross-hit of yours under the jaw, I’d ha’ known you without question.”
It’s clearly stated that, far from just being a skilled fighter, Holmes had actually applied the same study, research and hard work into mastering the science of fighting as he had into observing, detecting and understanding what he saw… but that he had done so before Dr. Watson had met him.
Oh yes, and how strong is Sherlock Holmes? After all, he’s so thin and passive most times, right? Well, that’s the TV shows interpretation, again. If you’re familiar with “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, when Dr. Grimesby Roylott confronts Holmes in his own chambers, and bends a poker in his hands to demonstrate his strength, Holmes himself then demonstrated to Watson that things might not have turned out as Roylott expected in a fight, and with sudden effort, straightened the poker out again.
So in the movie, when Guy Ritchie takes those passing mentions of skill and strength from the story, and develops it into an inner vision of how Sherlock Holmes applies his skills at observation and deduction to being a badass fighter… it’s not bullshit or something new at all. It’s actually taking what was already there, plain as day in the original, shining it up and bringing it to the forefront of our attention, something no other interpretation had done before.
That’s where I think the critics really blew it.
At every step of the movie, what I saw was not changing or deforming the original away from the spirit, not at all. Everything was there, in the written word, in some way, depending on how you chose to interpret it.
Okay, I’ll give you one thing. Watson always had the will to fight, and having been an Army Surgeon was no stranger to sudden violence. He even frequently backed Holmes up by carrying a pistol, and not being afraid to use it.
But Watson had, according to various accounts, either suffered a debilitating wound that put him on disability from the Army from a bullet to the shoulder, or one to the leg. Over the length of the stories, the location of the wound changes. In one mention, the Jezail bullet was even still lodged in his leg, where it throbs when the weather changes.
That, as far as I can see, is the only thing whose spirit is toyed with, since even though he does carry a cane in the movie, by showing a length of sword steel within it becomes more of an Ace up the sleeve than an aid to walking. And he certainly never seemed to suffer any the worse from this injury during the numerous fights. That’s my one “okay, I’ll give you that one” moment.
What the script writer did in my opinion was use a positive brilliance in bringing a brand new interpretation to Sherlock Holmes that wasn’t the same old rehash, and yet still remained true to the spirit of the original stories.
They also went to great pains to weave the originals directly into the film, for the enjoyment of the fan.
I cannot count the amount of dialogue that was taken straight from the stories.
There is one scene in particular that made me laugh, where Holmes hands Watson a pocketwatch, and asks him to deduce what he can. Watson parrots lines Holmes himself used when he deduced details about the identity of a person from nothing more than his pocketwatch, a scene that came again from the story “The Sign of Four.”
To return to the character of Holmes. The whole thing is of a piece. The state of Holmes’ rooms, his pistol shots indoors, his sleeping all hours and not going out, his smoking, the apparent drug use of cocaine when bored out of his mind (a major part of the early stories), his eccentricities, his ego and even at times overconfidence, his love of music played well, and his habit of playing his violin while thinking, usually dischordant tones, but then slipping into beautiful improvised melody when he comes out of his own private reveries.
Even his way of sitting down, unmoving, for hours at a time, smoking and playing the violin and just thinking, all comes straight from the original stories, and is highly suggestive that within Sherlock Holmes’ calm logical exterior is a powerful well of emotion kept under strict control.
The Sherlock Holmes stories were always about a man who denies the existence of his own chaotic nature and emotion with a strict adherence to a life of logic, reason and deduction. Not accepts, or deals with, but denies their very existence, sometimes to his sorrow.
In the movie, at times Watson is angry with and disgusted at the antics of Holmes. At heart, he loves him and the adventures and the hunt, but being kept in the dark, made to feel stupid, and his disgust at the sometimes cold way Holmes treats other people and manuevers them sometimes shows. These things, too, are an integral part of the stories.
What of the introduction of Irene Adler, criminal mastermind and love interest?
I’ll grant you that the scope of her later actions, her love of money or luxury were not in the original story, but when she was introduced in “A Scandal in Bohemia”, it’s made abundantly clear that she beat Sherlock Holmes at his own game, even when Holmes had the initiative. It’s also made clear that Holmes, while denying any feelings for women at all, felt for her a keen admiration that masked his own feelings, even to the point of, yes, keeping her portrait upon his table but denying it held any special significance.
That she put on her own disguise in a flash and trailed Holmes back to his lair, the cheekines with which she tells him, “Good night Mr. Sherlock Holmes”, tweaking his nose, it is all perfectly in keeping with how she was portrayed in the movie. Again, the scriptwriters took the writing itself, and pulled from it something that was already there, but never brought out into vivid life.
I could go on like this for hours, but there’s no point. The movie did not imagine everything from whole cloth, it simply bent your expectations 180 degrees.
And what, at last, of the story itself?
I felt it to be a wonderful example of the heart of a Sherlock Holmes story.
It begins with the initial revelations, the case, the buildup of events.
What I feel some people have lost sight of, is that a Holmes story is not about our, the viewer or reader, being given enough facts to solve the case ourselves in step with the detective.
No, not hardly. Certainly, we are given enough to sense the broad outline of events, if we pay attention and follow along. We can keep up, and see the shape of the case and events.
But in a Holmes story, part of it has always been the near magical way Sherlock Holmes sees deeper into the nature of the mystery, sees more in the clues, deduces more than other people… and keeps it to himself alone, while we follow along and see the results of his actions, see what steps he took based upon his understanding, without ever knowing what it is exactly he saw, observed or deduced along the way.
It is only after the very end of everything, when the villain is unmasked and captured, or the situation is resolved, that there comes a moment of peace at the apartments of 221B Baker Street, a moment where Holmes makes all things clear to Dr. Watson; how this little thing or that revealed to him a deeper understanding of events, and how he then manipulated the criminals to their doom, without their even knowing it.
The story is structured to keep us wondering, speculating, imagining, and guessing all the way to the end.
In that regard, I felt that the movie performed brilliantly. Right up to Holmes’ making decisions based on esoteric knowledge of chemical processes that we the viewer couldn’t be expected to share.
That’s what’s so frustrating about the whole thing, to me.
The damn movie was not only fun with a good solid mysterious story, but it also succeeds on every level I care about from a Sherlock Holmes fanboy point of view, right down to a mention of Sherlocks’ brother Mycroft Holmes.
Even the extent of Holmes’ predicting upcoming events, an ability that seems nothing short of impossible bullshit to a modern reader or watcher, is true to the original.
A key part of the stories was the documenting of cases showing the amazing feats of impossible deduction and prediction, made with uncanny accuracy, based on observation and his knowledge of previous case studies and files and researches into science and chemistry.
The movie even won on that score at another level, because even in the stories, there were times when Sherlock Holmes, made small mistakes, leaped to a conclusion despite cautioning himself against doing so, or when he acted on too few facts. And the movie had it’s share of showing that too.
The point in the film when you have already seen how he plans his fight choreography in advance, takes a swing against a giant and his blow is blocked by a pipe hanging there that he hadn’t noticed… his momentary shock, his double take that things went off his mental script in the fight… that was awesome.
I’m not saying it’s the greatest film of all time. It’s not. It was a good movie, fun, entertaining. I enjoyed ita lot, but it’s not like my favorite movie of all time or anything. I doubt if I’ll buy it, for example. I’d certainly rent and watch it again with friends and have a good time.
What I am saying is, it really pisses me off that the movie took so much crap from reviewers that clearly were talking out of their ass.
What I wanted out of the film was to have fun, laugh, enjoy the camaraderie of Holmes and Watson, and above all, feel the sense of wonder, suspense, and thrills that come from being within a true Sherlock Holmes story, never quite knowing where the adventure will carry you next.
Well, it succeeded for me. Bravo!