December 30, 2009

Sherlock Holmes (a review)

Let me be the first to say that I did not expect to like this movie. I expected to sit through it, see pretty steam-punk pictures of “Victorian London”, and cry a little inside at the perversion of some of my all-time favorite characters of literature. I even had the opening line of this post written in my head, “Holmes,” I would lament, “What have they done to you?”.

Despite my initial misgivings, and despite myself, I actually immensely enjoyed this film. I thought all the notes which required playing were hit impeccably; neither hammered too forcefully nor touched so lightly as not to be heard. The movie was enjoyable to both myself (an admitted literati-snob and hard sell on revisions such as this) and my father (an avid enjoyer of mister Holmes but certainly not a literature scholar and also partial to bad action flicks). Crossing demographics, it was a film to please both the oxford-shirt-and-sweater-vest novel-touters and the average “this movie looks awesome” Saturday-afternoon action buffs.

Let’s start with my one little gripe before I continue to rave about this movie. In addition to our dynamic duo, Irene Adler is added to the fray as an on-again off-again member of the team. She spends the movie wrestling with her own wistful romantic feelings for Holmes as she kicks butt and takes names along with the boys. Now trust me, I do love a good female action hero. But to me, chicks don’t belong in Holmes’ universe. The notorious woman-hater should not be pining for a pretty face when he has a case to solve, even if the object of his affection is, as Watson puts it, “the woman”. I know that in Conan Doyle’s mythology Adler was the only woman who ever found a way into Holmes’ heart and indeed managed to best him at some point, but I really always pictured their relationship with more rough edges than soft spots. This film is a study in the soft spots.

In short, she was cool, but I really didn’t need to see that.

Now onto the fantastic stuff:

The Holmes/Watson relationship was NAILED. There are some critics who will say “first we have gay hobbits, now we have gay Victorian Super Heroes. WTF Hollywood?”. Honestly, though I can see the homosexual under (and sometimes over) tones, they didn’t bother me. They’re there from the literature, people. Holmes and Watson are the Victorian Batman and Robin. They come as a packaged set. What, since two men are more like brothers than friends they automatically have to be sleeping together? They care for each other, true, but for years they were their own support network. Holmes cannot exist without Watson, no more can Watson exist without Holmes. It is only natural that a third party in this equation (in this case Mary) would bring tension between the dynamic duo. To me, whether you see this relationship as “gay” or “bromantic”, it really doesn’t matter. Either way, they love and support one another, and the movie nailed this.

Holmes’ character was spot on. When I first heard that Robert Downey Junior was going to be playing our dear detective, my thoughts immediately soured. He’s too young and good-looking, not dynamic enough, and would reduce the genius into a mere action hero. I could not have been more mistaken. Through a combination of the actor’s performance and the filmmaker’s creativity, I bought this character hook, line and sinker. A few particularly spectacular elements were the CSI-esque slow-mo explanations of Holmes’ thought processes, the priceless portrayal of Holmes’ quirky detective techniques, and the sense of profound loneliness that true brilliance incurs. This Holmes was very clearly a beautiful disaster, if an eccentric genius.

Jude Law’s Watson was also a pleasant surprise. He was made, in the film, into much more of a comrade to Holmes than sidekick. Able to hold his own in any fight, and more importantly pick up the pieces when Holmes dropped them, Watson was certainly not Conan Doyle’s lapdoggy Doctor. Don’t get me wrong, I do love the classical Watson, but Law’s had more gravitas. He was more of an equal to Holmes, if not in deductive reasoning than in practical experience. He and Holmes seemed to go together- I understood why Holmes would want and indeed require this Watson around.

Now I’m not saying the plot of this movie was “classic entertainment”, nor am I implying that the writers wrote Holmes better than Conan Doyle, but they did manage to modernize our beloved series while maintaining its integrity. In classic Holmesian style, this was a universe ruled by the laws of science rather than magic (no matter how it would otherwise appear). In the end, it was logic and reason that solved the mystery not wand-waving and incantations of power.

Small touches truly made the film rest in Conan Doyle’s story. The picture of Adler Holmes had in his study, the inclusion of Holmes’ famed disguises and skill as an actor, Holmes’ use of his violin all led to a believable and inclusive image of the famed detective. The one thing I did miss from the movie was Holmes’ opium addiction, though I do believe his addictive personality and reliance upon substances to free him from the prison of his own intellect was made entirely clear.

If you can forgive the villain a silly reason for his hostile take-over plan and Holmes’ monologuing at the end (but really, Holmes was born to monologue), the movie really delivered.

Oh and the faux-antique-pencil-sketch-still-frames during the credits are really nifty too.

December 28, 2009

The Stare-Down

Have you ever been secretly intimidated by a piece of literature?

And I don’t mean “secretly” as in being intimidated but not admitting it to your book club, I mean “secretly” as in being in denial about it. You keep meaning to read something, let’s say A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You know you should read Shakespeare because he is the father of modern theatre and the English language as we know it. You know you should read this particular play because it is a staple of theatre companies everywhere. It’s a comedy with lots of fun elements- no heavy-hearted Othello or Lear. Maybe you’ve heard of some of the characters before; Puck, the lovers Hermia, Helen, Demetrius or Lysander, Oberon, Titania. Or maybe you’re even a Greek history buff and want to read another take on the Theseus/Hypolyta story.

But for some reason, some reason unbeknownst to yourself, some ethereal reason that you can’t put your finger on, you just never read this particular work of literature. Even though you should. Even though culture tells you to. Even though your better sense tells you to. You may page through the book every time you pass it in the bookstore. You may even go so far as to purchase the volume. But, despite the piece beckoning you, you just don’t do it.

That’s been my relationship with The Handmaid’s Tale for the past week. I was supposed to be on a strict fifty-page-a-day regime over the winter break before the craziness of my jam-packed semester started. However, the holidays hit and I took some time off. Then it became “Oh, I’ll read it tomorrow”. And that’s gone on since I finished Heart of Darkness.

I don’t know what it is about this book. It’s a friendly book. Not too thick. If I put my mind to it, it’ll be finished in a matter of a few days. The subject matter doesn’t seem too terribly dry, the language isn’t dense or archaic, the story is renowned and well-written… there shouldn’t be anything stopping me from picking up this book and giving it the good ol’ Graduate School try. Somehow though, I’ve been finding ways to push dear Meg from my schedule day after day.

Well, I can no longer hide from her. I have a week before I begin my position TAing over winter break, and that means only seven days of unadulterated literature with nominal other demands upon my time.

There’s no more hiding, running or avoiding. There’s no more calling apologetically and promising to reschedule. There’s no more setting her up with a friend hoping that she likes him better than she likes me because I can’t stand to see the look on her face when I miss our appointed coffee meetings together. Tomorrow I have a date with Margaret Atwood.

December 24, 2009

A New Task...

My usual interests and extracurricular pursuits have officially been commandeered.

I have completed one semester as a Master’s student in English. This has brought with it a brave new world of work, pain, sleepless nights, new interests, new insights, tears, joy, you name it it’s been in there. I’m loving every minute of it.

It does, however, cut into my blogging time. Which is part of why I’ve decided to broaden the focus of my work here. One of my professors this semester made the observation that if she doesn’t write something about what she’s reading, it doesn’t stick. I tend to agree. The act of writing makes your mind process things differently. It makes your brain juices digest all those scrumptious words on the page. It makes you translate a mental experience to a different kind of mental experience and, ultimately, a physical experience.

To achieve my Master’s, I am required to pass an exam. The exam is on this booklist. As I wasn’t an English major in my undergrad, most of these books I’ve never heard of much less read. I’ve decided that as a companion to this reading list, as I slowly chew my way through it, I’m going to keep a record here of some thoughts about what I’m reading. At least then, when I go to study for la grande exam of doom I’ll have something to look back on. And maybe someone will enjoy my ramblings.

First up: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

First published in 1899 in Blackwood’s Magazine as a three-part series, the novella was then published as a complete work in 1902. Having spent time as a steamboat captain on the Congo, Conrad used his experiences in Africa as a basis for the book.

The story is told in a nested narrative as a sailor named Marlowe relates his experience in the ivory trade to other passengers of an unknown steamboat. This structure, reminiscent of that of Frankenstein or The Canterbury Tales, frees Conrad from having to take direct responsibility for any ideas stated by the text. Whether or not he meant to, Conrad liberated himself via the nested narrative, the mask of the inner character can be said to deflect any fault in the novella from Conrad himself.

The novella itself is short and dense. Packed with imagery and metaphor, at times it almost feels surreal to read. Because of this drifty dream-like quality to the narrative, I had to be particularly careful to not allow my mind to wander into my own dreamland. It wasn’t that I wasn’t enjoying the book (I actually did like it), it was that the boundary between this misty Congo river and my own hazy hallucinations was so thin that it was easy to forget. I had to re-read several passages due to having arrived at the end of the page and not being able to recollect what it was I had just read.

The major theme of the novella is supposedly the darkness of the dark continent (it is, after all, named for this), but other than throwing the word “dark” into a few passages I didn’t find this theme to be compelling or pervasive. Yes, the darkness of Africa is held against the light of civilization. Yes, civilization is supposed to bring light to dark places, etc. so on and so forth. I found a more pressing theme in the great silence of Africa. The jungle is constantly described as somewhere utterly quiet. Perhaps this is indicative of an ideal quality in its people; the people of Africa should remain as the country itself. Majestic, beautiful, and silent. They ought to have no voice, either in civilization or in their own home.

Funny enough the word “Africa” is never actually used in the book. Though this could be chalked up to the logic that no place names are used in the book, but I wonder what this says about sense of place in “the Dark Continent”. Does it not exist? Is one thing the same as another to the point that no word can describe place because place is interchangeable? Is Africa just too horrid to name?

I found myself reading in the school of Chinua Achebe (even before I realized there was a school of Chinua Achebe); this book does portray the African people in an utterly racist fashion. But can you blame it? I didn’t read Heart of Darkness thinking I would get a sermon on equality or some great enlightening “we are all equal” message. It was published in 1902 for chrissakes! This was a mere forty years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Conrad by no means lived in a “racially enlightened society” and we cannot expect forward thinking. If we did, such thinking would no longer be extraordinary.

So I did find the portrayal of the African in this book to be as something other than human. They are animals, robbed of language, sense and even human form. At their best, they are part of the majestic otherworldly Africa scenery. At their worst, they are savage brutes. The cannibals that Marlowe’s steamboat crew hires are treated better than the run-of-the-mill African native in this novella, both in action and in description.

Pre-Achebe, the common reading of Africa in Heart of Darkness was of a place for insanity. It was what drove Kurtz mad. This is true, the man likely suffered from some jungle fever, illness of malnourishment, or parasite. Kurtz’s death is a fitting end for a man who fashioned himself into some sort of jungle God in order to pillage Africa herself. The Europeans rape Africa for her ivory, and Africa fights back. The Dark Continent reclaimed Kurtz and as the steamboat which bears him back to civilization leaves Africa, his health ebbs. Africa, then, is a cruel mistress. She will be revenged upon her tormentors, one way or another.

Achebe invokes a metaphore in his essay which I find particularly poignant; “Africa is to Europe as the picture is to Dorian Gray -- a carrier onto whom the master unloads his physical and moral deformities so that he may go forward, erect and immaculate. Consequently Africa is something to be avoided just as the picture has to be hidden away to safeguard the man's jeopardous integrity.” This also makes Africa the ultimate downfall of Europe. A single look into her dark, silent depths will kill the very image she was made to keep alive.

Perhaps the most pertinent to this blog, and of course the most interesting to me, are the brief glimpses and echoes of Shakespeare which I found within this book (oh shush, I find them all over). As Kurtz lays dying, Marlowe remarks, “His was in impenetrable darkness. I looked at him as you peer down at a man who is lying at the bottom of a precipice where the sun never shines” (86). I cannot help but hear echoes of Juliet’s “Me thinkes I see thee now, thou art so lowe, /As one dead in the bottome of a Tombe, /Either my eye-sight failes, or thou look'st pale.” The image of the far-away man, bellow the speaker, is pervasive in both these utterances.

A second parallel is found in Kurtz’s fiancĂ©’s words upon hearing of his death. She laments, “I cannot believe that I shall never see him again, that nobody will see him again, never, never, never” (95). Read that and tell me you don’t see Lear over Cordelia’s body, “Why should a Dog, a Horse, a Rat haue life, /And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more, /Neuer, neuer, neuer, neuer, neuer.” I suppose it shouldn’t be all too surprising as Conrad originally learned English by perusing Shakespeare (betchya didn’t know that… betchya didn’t really care either… ah well it could be a conversation starter at your next cocktail party).

So to wrap things up for today; Africa: Big, Dark and Silent. Joseph Conrad: utter racist, but who could really blame him? Shakespeare: Still relevant.

Happy Holidays!

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'" Massachusetts Review. 18. 1977. Rpt. in Heart of Darkness, An Authoritative Text, background and Sources Criticism. 1961. 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough, London: W. W Norton and Co., 1988, pp.251-261

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Modern Library Classics Paperback. New York: Random House, 1999.