Friday, January 1, 2010

Sequiturs and non sequiturs: Fantastic Mr. Fox and Sherlock Holmes

Yesterday, for the first time in a year and a half, I went to see two films back to back. I've made it to very few films, lately -- in fact, only two since the quarter began at the start of autumn term. And usually I like to take more time in between films, in order to think about them more carefully. But part of my goal yesterday was to get out of the house in order to avoid going to bed at 4 as a result of MLA-related tiredness and jetlag. So the fact that Fantastic Mr. Fox and Sherlock Holmes were nicely bookended was awfully convenient. And they're both adaptations, so it seemed a good pairing.

Unfortunately, I have nothing positive to say about Fantastic Mr. Fox, other than that the animation isn't ugly. Wes Anderson seems to chosen to immerse himself even further in the McSweeney's comedy style, which I'm tempted to name post-coherence. I think post-coherence captures what Anderson and Baumbach seem to be trying to achieve: where the non sequitur is not only the ultimate joke, but the formula for the entire plot.

I do love a good non sequitur, but overuse is just painful. The final scene, given the "wild animal" theme running throughout, was flat as could be.

Sherlock Holmes was moderately more successful. Almost every review I've read has praised the UST between Holmes and Watson; what I liked in addition to this was that there was also chemistry between Holmes and Adler -- but the film isn't actually a romantic comedy, and so rather than being dissipated through any number of tired, stale script sequences, the UST simply hangs around, and it felt more interesting -- and utterly more watchable.

As for the plot, it suggested that Ritchie and his screenwriters, Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham, are much taken with the aesthetic of steampunk, and equally insecure about how to craft a plot that actually fits within the conventions of the genre, with its focus on mechanization and alchemy. This is to their detriment, because it meant that they also couldn't work out how to communicate the clues to the audience. I kept thinking about Franco Moretti's analysis, in Graphs, Maps, Trees, of how a plethora of authors writing detective stories and mysteries in the 1890s were forgotten, leaving only the few heavyweights that we know today, with Doyle first among equals. Moretti makes a clear case that success depended on making mystery stories solvable by their readers -- evolving from having no clues at all, to visible (but not decodable) clues, to finally, decodable ones. "The Red-Headed League" and "The Speckled Band" are decodable; "The Five Orange Pips" and "The Adventure of the Dying Detective" are not.

Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes was firmly in the visible-but-not-decodable branch of the tree. If frogs are dead, the viewer can't tell that they were paralyzed before death. A single shot of a leaf/flower in a lab is not decodable to anything but that someone was analyzing said object. Moreover, all the visible clues for the film were delivered in a single scene, which strikes me as shoddy organization. But in hindsight, I think this is part of the point of Ritchie's update to the characters of Holmes & Watson. Jude Law's Watson is great, and for the first time that I can remember, Watson is the character with whom the audience is meant to identify: lover, fighter, efficient pragmatist (he never forgets the gun). If Watson evolves into a hero, though, Holmes has to become a superhero: and by definition, he can perceive things that the rest of us simply can't. Non sequitur is the whole point. He has abilities that the rest of us don't have: one of my favorite scenes in the film was the sequence where Holmes disguises himself, very quickly, while in pursuit of Adler. It was not only completely canonical -- it made an aspect of the canonical Holmes more visible, and vibrant than he had ever been before in my mind.* However, he has to have clear weaknesses, too, lest the plot become a story about the inferiority of the normal human (think of Syndrome in The Incredibles).

This choice made sense to me. I can't help but think of Holmes in contrast with Christian Bale's Batman in The Dark Knight: he was interesting to watch, but I also felt as if Christopher Nolan almost painted himself into a corner, even without the complication of Heath Ledger's death. There's nowhere left to go for Batman, except to become an antihero. Ritchie has different plans for Holmes, I imagine -- and the more I think about it, the more I think that the combination of different strengths and weaknesses among Holmes, Watson, and Adler, in combination with the underlying sexual tension between them, could make for a series of fantastic ensemble-driven caper films. But the creators are going to have to come up with something a little more impressive than a remote control. (If that last sentence doesn't make sense, just see the film).

* And I've been a Holmes fan since age 8, and spent about half of 5th grade reading and producing book reports on the entire canon, and every adaptation that I could get my hands on. Thank you, Mr. Hagin, for allowing me to run amok. It was an utter delight.


  1. Totally agree on the clue decodability factor, and I'm glad I'm not the only one who was trying to remember the details of Moretti's argument as the clues whizzed by.

    I think they came up with the remote control so they could nudge the audience in the ribs with Holmes's "Imagine, Watson, if we could control machines with radio waves!" line. The conscious semi-anachronism seemed in line with the steampunkish aesthetic they were going for -- though from what I've read of steampunk, it doesn't always go for such an obvious level of rib-nudging.

    I wonder what the fanfic authors are going to make of this one. (Then again, I've only seen one or two Sherlock Holmes fanfic stories I actually liked.)

  2. (Oops. I don't know why Blogger isn't recognizing my Typepad profile. Let's try this again...)

  3. I enjoyed the movie, but I coulnd't help feeling that we were seeing some kind of Babelfish version - Holmes translated into House MD translated back into Holmes. Because they kept having conversations that could have been House and Wilson (with more sexual tension).

    And yes, it was unsolveable. But that didn't bother me as much as usual (ie. 3 days earlier when I read "The Thief", where I felt resentful at being tricked)...

  4. Wow, I'm not getting any comment notifications at all. Hi, folks!

    I'd totally forgotten about the wink-wink-nudge-nudge factor with steampunk, but yes, now that you mention it...

    And gosh, how vexing to hear that The Thief is undecodable. I've been hearing such good things about Megan Whalen Turner. Did it have any other redeeming factors?

  5. It was engaging, well-written, and I enjoyed all the similarities to ancient Greece.

    And I dunno, I should add that I read it on a day when I'd been up since 3am and was travelling. Maybe I was just too stupid to decode it that day, or to feel like enough hints had been laid down. But I really was pissed off.

    I just wrote up my gripe in detail, and then erased it because you may still want to read the book. It was spoileriffic, and would have prejudiced you.

  6. Ah, thank you for that care, Rachel. I just glanced at it on Kindle, where it's $3.99, so no doubt I'll give in and buy it soon.