Sherlock Holmes is moving along; we're about to start on Charles Marowitz's Sherlock's Last Case, which is aimed at audiences who have always wondered why Watson didn't just slug Holmes across the jaw and toss him in the Thames. (Alas, the ending is less satisfying from that POV than the end of Act I.) Meanwhile, we watched the Rathbone/Bruce Hound last week, and everyone was pretty appalled by Bruce's Watson--which is hardly an unusual reaction. Still, the angst was useful for moving the students in a different direction: making your instinctive gut responses ("This Watson is an utter fool! Why does Holmes even put up with him?!") into prompts for further reflection ("OK, but what does the film get out of making Watson an utter fool?"). Once the question about Foolish!Watson's narrative function was on the table, the students quickly moved beyond GRAR and into more complex issues, especially the way in which the film sets up Holmes as a national superhero--the ending pretty much says this explicitly--and uses his relationship with Watson to emphasize his status as protector of the "innocent." (In this context, the film's cheeriness about Holmes' drug use is quite fascinating.) Because, as the class concluded, Bruce's Watson isn't simply a fool; in many ways, he's a child, in need of paternal oversight.
The success of Lincoln and Argo, along with the tense debates over Zero Dark Thirty, has been responsible for reviving a centuries-old question: what is the proper status of the historical in historical fiction (or, in this case, film)? Strictly speaking, this is really a subset of a far older question about the right relationship between any fictional representation and reality, which we could pursue all the way to Plato and Aristotle. And that question, in turn, brings up an equally old problem: what does fiction do to its readers/viewers? In the early modern and modern era, for example, we have Don Quixote and its descendants (e.g., Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote); the anti-Gothics of Jane Austen, E. S. Barrett, and William Beckford; Flaubert's Madame Bovary; and the like, all criticizing the deadly combination of fictional excess (or inaccuracy) and readerly gullibility. Of course, modern readers may scoff at the assumption that some people really believed that romance narratives were somehow "real," and yet we have our own equivalents--the notorious "CSI effect" (which may or may not be true) being an example. From the flip side, arguments in favor of fiction suggested that narrative could provide the innocent reader with guides to courtship (How and How Not to Do It), make us better people (by learning to identify with characters and, thus, other humans), or even clarify the existence of God (divine providence being "clearer" in fiction). Everyone agrees that we learn something from fiction. But what?
These questions are understandably more pressing when it comes to historical fictions, where cultural memory (and, not infrequently, national politics) are at stake. Maureen Dowd tells us that her "pet peeve" is "filmmakers who make up facts in stories about real people to add 'drama,' rather than just writing the real facts better." But she doesn't really wrestle with writer Tony Kushner's argument about Lincoln: "He said that in historical movies, as opposed to history books where you
go for 'a blow-by-blow account,' it is completely acceptable to 'manipulate a small detail in the service of a greater historical truth.
History doesn’t always organize itself according to the rules of drama.'" There's a conflict here, that is, between the demands of genre conventions and narrative form, on the one hand, and facts, on the other. Kushner describes standard operating procedure for historical novelists from Walter Scott onward: to the extent that an imaginative work can make truth-claims about history, it does so through the overarching narrative, reserving the right to move things around/rewrite inconvenient details/consolidate characters/whatever in order to make the narrative function successfully within its generic constraints. Emphasizing narrative gets you Waverley; emphasizing facts gets you, well, Queenhoo-Hall. (And yes, I've read Queenhoo-Hall. I nearly fell asleep over it--and given what I normally read for my research, that tells you something.) We expect history to aspire to objectivity, even if its reach exceeds its grasp; historical fiction tends to be more pronouncedly presentist. (Is Lincoln about the Civil War era, or is it about twenty-first century politics? Or both?) But then, as critics have long pointed out, what does it mean to determine that this or that fact can be twisted or tweaked? I can recall the historian Kali Israel being deeply annoyed about what happens to Sir Charles Dilke in Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown (blink and you'll miss him--he's the guy screaming about how we should get rid of the monarchy), for reasons very similar to Dowd's. Here's the thing: we cannot separate this new "fact" about Dilke from the film's narrative arguments concerning the role and nature of modern monarchy. And so we're back to that tension between narrative and fact again. There's a reason why these questions remain forever unresolved...
ETA: As I continued to think about this topic overnight, I was suddenly struck by Dowd's choice of facts. In the very same newspaper, Kate Masur had noted the distorted representation of William Slade and Elizabeth Keckley, who were political activists, not simply White House servants. And yet, this depature from facticity doesn't make it into Dowd's article. In other words, objections raised at the level of fact have their own political valences; they're not simply cries of "objectivity!" and "reality!" raised against narrative distortions.
Some people were asking about what "The Curious Case of the Adapted Detective" looks like, so here it is. Bear in mind that this is my department's upper-division theory seminar, so that the post-Doyle Holmes universe becomes a case study for talking about adaptation, appropriation, and the sometimes exceptionally fuzzy line between the two. Because of in-class tech constraints, we're dealing with fairly conventional media--novels, film, TV--but the students have leeway to research Whatever They Want, which, when it comes to Sherlock Holmes, is a stunningly wide range of material...
Given the immense quantities of Holmes out there, and the necessity of giving the students ample time to prep and discuss the secondary texts, I had to make some v. sad decisions--chief among them being that I wound up eliminating the RDJ/Law Holmes (OK, I don't actually like the films as Holmes films, but they're significant in terms of certain trends). Ultimately, for pedagogical purposes, I opted for a straight run of variants on the Hound, giving us a baseline for comparison.
The class assumes no prior knowledge of the original stories. The literary pastiches come in groups: two very different (and either bleak or sardonic) accounts of how the Holmes/Watson partnership "ended"; two attempts to rethink Holmes and his methods in the context of WWII and the Holocaust; and two more...unusual...takes on the canon.
Introduction and tour
A Study in Scarlet
Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Five Orange Pips," “The Speckled Band,” “The Engineer’s Thumb” (Adventures)
Leslie Haynsworth, “Sensational Adventures: Sherlock
Holmes and His Generic Past” (Project Muse)
Hound of the Baskervilles
Hound of the Baskervilles
“A Scandal in Bohemia” ($1.99 on Amazon Instant Video, or you may borrow DVD
from me); Hutcheon, Theory of
Adaptation, ch. 1
1st group presents:
Hutcheon, ch. 2
Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)
Short paper due 2/22
2nd group presents: McFarlane, Novel to Film, Pt. I
Last Sherlock Holmes Story
3rd group presents: Sanders, Adaptation and Appropriation, chs. 2,
Dibdin, Last Sherlock Holmes Story
Marowitz, Sherlock’s Last Case
Individual meetings with instructor; prospectus due 3/15
The Final Solution
4th group presents: Stef Craps and Gert Buelens, “Traumatic Mirrorings:
Holocaust and Colonial Trauma in Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution” (Project Muse)
Research discussion day—post queries and finds to the Wiki
Annotated bibliography due 3/29
A Slight Trick of the Mind
Vote by 4/1: watch EITHER the Livanov Hound
of the Baskervilles OR the Brett Hound
of the Baskervilles, both available on Amazon
5th group presents: Neil Caw, Adapting Detective Fiction: Crime,
Englishness and the TV Detectives, ch. 2 (eBrary)
Watch The Hounds of Baskerville
from Sherlock, season 2, available
6th group presents: Balaka Basu, “Sherlock and the (Re)Invention of
Modernity,” Sherlock and Transmedia
Fandom (eBooks Library)
About midway through Lincoln, I had a disrespectful thought--about the movie, I mean, not the president. Because it struck me that I had seen the narrative structure before. And I had: the film is, dare I say it, more than a little reminiscent of the musical 1776. Without the sometimes questionable score, I mean. Or the puns on adverbs. And with an assassination. But both the plot (determined advocate for position X ticks off a lot of people, while everyone jockeys for votes) and one of the underlying messages (history's heroes are, in the end, human beings like everyone else, with all that entails) are the same. So too is the film's critique of political purism: winning means compromise, even if compromise opens up space for disaster down the line. (Screenwriter Tony Kushner seems to enjoy needling conservatives and liberals in equal measure.) In the case of 1776, the compromise--over slavery--is precisely the problem that Lincoln is trying to repair in Lincoln. Obviously, this is a coincidence, and Kushner should feel free to rage at me if he wants (not that he'll ever see this review).
More seriously, like a number of professional and amateur reviewers, I felt that this film couldn't make up its mind: was it a film about a Great Man or about a post-idealistic politician? As a general rule, Lincoln is much more interesting when it is the latter than the former. Lincoln raging at his insubordinate cabinet, frustrated son, or unhappy wife, or Lincoln musing over the tension between his oath of office and the technical legality of his actions, co-exist uncomfortably with the Lincoln stared at reverently by his servants and subordinates. (Gore Vidal's novel Lincoln, which lets us inside Lincoln's head only once, takes a more hardheaded approach: there's considerable fear leavening the reverential lump, as all of the characters slowly realize that, in one way or another, they've deceived themselves about who Lincoln is and what he's capable of doing.) In particular, the assassination struck me as a structural misstep, not least because of the sentimentalized tableau around his bedside (complete with gentle halo of white light, no less). We know he's going to die, but that doesn't mean that the film needed to include the assassination (especially not offstage); if anything, moving straight to the second inauguration speech from the amendment's passage would have been more fitting. Finally, there's the film's odd split between its political rhetoric and what appears on the screen. On the one hand, some of the politicans (especially Thaddeus Stevens) sound like they've been reading up on contemporary social justice rhetoric; on the other hand, as Kate Masur and others have noted, the film pays virtually no attention to the existence of Black activism in the period--even though two notable activists, the White House servants William Slade and Elizabeth Keckley, are featured prominently in the film! (Masur rightly calls their portrayal here "generic, archetypal characters.") Only the pointed queries from the soldier at the beginning hint that the Black population was not simply watching from the sidelines.
As some of you may have noticed, Disney didn't just buy LucasFilm; it promised to make yet more Star Wars films. (Not that there have been any SW films since Return of the Jedi, of course.) Allow me to modestly propose that Disney has overlooked a back catalog of intellectual properties that could be easily adapted into animated films.
1. THE FILM: Bleak House.
THE PRINCESS: Esther Summerson.
HER PRINCE: Woodcourt.
MERCHANDISING OPPORTUNITY: "Little Jo" dolls, accessorized with a broom that has interchangeable bristles ("clean" bristles, "dirty" bristles).
DISNEYLAND ATTRACTION: The Skimpole Maypole (overlay of Dumbo the Flying Elephant).
THE SCENARIO: After years of being mistreated by her Evil Guardian, young Esther is befriended by an affectionate talking bear named Jarndyce (song: "The Second Key on the Right"), who brings her to a mysterious castle known as Bleak House. Bleak House, we soon learn, has long been under the spell of a Scary Witch named Chancery Court (song: "Grim Grinning Guineas"). Esther's warm and loving ways soon bring a new light to the castle--so much so that even the spiders decide to help her clean it (song: "Webbing While You Work"). Meanwhile, Jarndyce, in the guise of a performing bear, entices the young nobleman Woodcourt to the castle. They all live happily ever after, except for...
DISNEY VILLAIN DEATH: ...Chancery Court, who falls backwards off the balcony after she is frightened by one of Esther's much-loved spiders.
2. THE FILM: Wuthering Heights.
THE PRINCESS: Catherine Earnshaw (you know, the first one).
HER PRINCE: Heathcliff.
MERCHANDISING OPPORTUNITY: Stuffed bulldogs named Mo, accessorized with multiple collars (a spiked collar, a velvet bowtie, and so on).
DISNEYLAND ATTRACTION: Wuthering Heights dark ride, featuring cute creatures on the moors. Lots of moors. Pretty much all moors (replaces the Alice in Wonderland dark ride).
THE SCENARIO: After years of being mistreated by an Evil Orphanage Owner, young Heathcliff runs away and finds himself lost on the moors (song: "Step in Grime"). There, he is discovered by the mysterious young Catherine, who lives in a tumbledown farmhouse, Wuthering Heights, with only her pet mouse Nelly Dean for company (song: "Some Day She'll Drop a Crumb"). Heathcliff immediately falls in love with Catherine; however, he soon discovers that she is under a spell cast by the Scary Wizard Edgar Linton, who decided he wanted Catherine for himself after she was bitten by his pet bulldog Mo. Now, Catherine can only think of Linton's money (song: "I've Got No Rings"). Luckily, Nelly Dean manages to befriend Mo, and they help Heathcliff find the anecdote to the spell. They all live happily ever after, except for...
DISNEY VILLAIN DEATH: ...Edgar Linton, who falls backwards into a midden after being attacked by Nelly Dean.
3. THE FILM: Dracula.
THE PRINCESS: Mina Harker.
HER PRINCE: Dracula (come on, it's trendy now, right?).
MERCHANDISING OPPORTUNITY: A line of "Sweet Blood Red" makeup products for little girls, all conveniently available at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique.
DISNEYLAND ATTRACTION: Seasonal Halloween overlay of the Haunted Mansion.
THE SCENARIO: After years of being mistreated by an Evil Chiropterist, young Dracula escapes to England, where he has a series of comical misadventures involving his dietary habits (song: "Let It Flow, Let It Flow, Let It Flow"). Dracula finally resolves to leave his vampiric ways and become a vegetarian instead (song: "It's Not Easy Eating Green"). However, he soon attracts the attention of a Scary Lawyer, Jonathan Harker, whose beautiful wife, Mina, is under a terrible spell: she cannot eat anything except paprikash prepared by Jonathan's pet dormouse, Hubert G. Thremnodikins III. Dracula immediately falls in love with Mina, and realizing that Jonathan was the one who cast the spell, he seeks to liberate her with the help of a friendly talking elephant, Van Hulking ("Hi Diddle Dee Dee, Who's Got a Stake for Me"). Together, Dracula and Van Hulking persuade HGT III to put garlic into the paprikash, which breaks the spell. They all live happily ever after, except for...
DISNEY VILLAIN DEATH: Jonathan Harker, who falls backwards into the Thames after Van Hulking threatens to sit on him.
4. THE FILM: Jude the Obscure.
THE PRINCESS: Sue Bridehead.
HER PRINCE: Jude Fawley.
MERCHANDISING OPPORTUNITY: Little Father Time wristwatches.
DISNEYLAND ATTRACTION: Stones of Venice Tower of Terror (renamed version of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror).
THE SCENARIO: After years of being mistreated by an Evil Renovator, Jude Fawley runs away to build circus tents. However, he soon becomes fascinated by a beautiful young woman, Sue Bridehead, who is absolutely not his cousin. Sue makes magical paintings that predict the future (song: "Who's Been Painting My Future Sched?"), and one day sees a Scary Architect (known only as Camden Society) trap Jude in a ruined building. Fearing for Jude's safety, Sue and her best friend, a cuddly owl named Little Father Time, seek out the Scary Architect (song: "The Flying Buttresses Song"). Together, they manage to avert Camden Society's plot and bring Jude home, making Sue Bridehead a feminist action princessTM. They all live happily ever after, except for...
DISNEY VILLAIN DEATH: ...Camden Society, who falls backwards off a gargoyle after being spooked by Little Father Time.
5. THE FILM: Dubliners.
THE PRINCESS: N/A.
THE PRINCE: N/A.
MERCHANDISING OPPORTUNITY: "The Dead" snowglobes, featuring Mickey Mouse (as Gabriel Conroy) and Minnie Mouse (as Gretta Conroy) in cheerful Christmas costumes.
DISNEYLAND ATTRACTION: New costumes for the relevant meet-and-greet cartoon characters.
THE SCENARIO: Billed as "Fantasia for the twenty-first century," Dubliners combines classic hand-drawn Disney animation, the 3D experience, and atmospheric music by Elton John. Beloved Disney characters like Goofy, Donald Duck, the Mad Hatter, and, of course, Mickey and Minnie romp through musical settings of James Joyce's short stories. Notable episodes include "Eveline" (Ariel the mermaid finds a prince, escapes the sea, and lives happily ever after), "The Boarding House" (Daisy Duck's mother introduces her to a fine young goose, and they live happily ever after), "A Painful Case" (Scrooge McDuck meets a lonely Cinderella, discovers the meaning of friendship, and lives happily ever after), and, of course, "The Dead" (Mickey and Minnie Mouse go to a party, sing Christmas carols in the snow, and live happily ever after).
DISNEY VILLAIN DEATH: None. There is nothing downbeat whatsoever about this film.
When I saw the extended trailer for Cloud Atlas, I thought that the result was going to be either a total mess or something brilliant. Predictions being what they are, I was wrong on both counts: this adaptation of David Mitchell's complicated novel is not that much of a mess (although I suspect some of the multiple plotlines will be unintelligble without prior acquaintance with the book), but it's not especially brilliant, either. The film cuts rapidly between six plot layers: Adam Ewing, lawyer, and the moral effects of his encounter with an escaped slave (1840s); Robert Frobisher, composer, and his misguided attempt to latch onto the coat-tails of another composer, now aging and ill (1930s); Luisa Rey, reporter, and her investigation into the mysterious goings-on at a nuclear power plant (1970s); Timothy Cavendish, publisher, and his seriocomic adventures when a crook wants a bigger cut of his royalties (2012); Sonmi-451, a fabricant worker at Papa Song's cafe, and her discovery of both consciousness and the possibility of social change (a dystopian, post-global warming world some centuries on); and, finally, Zachry, one of the few survivors in a post-apocalyptic village, who encounters a Prescient from Earth's last remaining advanced culture (another several centuries on). Everything happens simultaneously; we rarely rest in any one plotline for more than five minutes or so. All of the plots are linked by themes of imprisonment (both literal and figurative), exploitation, and the relationship between individual choice and social change. As Adam Ewing reminds his slave-trader father-in-law at the end, "what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?"
The Wachowskis have done their best both to simplify the novel and to make it more upbeat. Thus, the ambiguous relationship between fiction and reality in the novel, which persistently sabotages the supposed veracity of all of its plots, disappears entirely in the film: there's nothing to indicate that anything's wrong with Ewing's journal, the film version of The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish appears to be based on a "true story" (as is the Luisa Rey novel), the Archivist doesn't query Sonmi-451's narrative, and so on. Frobisher's relationship with Ayrs, the decrepit composer, unravels far more crudely in the film, without many of the underlying complications involving Jocasta or Eva (absent from the adaptation). More drastically, the Sonmi-451 plot no longer involves the revelation that the Union rebellion is, in fact, a government-managed trick; instead, the rebels are all true martyrs for their cause, and Sonmi's relationship with Hae-Joo becomes a genuine romance. (This undermines novel-Sonmi's greater self-consciousness about her narrative work, which emerges from her awareness of "plotting" in a larger sense.) Similarly, Timothy Cavendish gets to make things right with his own long-lost beloved. And Meronym and Zachry wind up leaving the planet (!) and living happily ever after with lots and lots of grandkids. (All this added romance makes the outcome of the Sixsmith/Frobisher plot much more frustrating.) In other words, the Wachowskis rewrite most of Mitchell's novel in comic mode, substituting a paean to the power of love for the novel's far more pessimistic assessment of humanity's likely future. Apparently, we're not going to completely do ourselves in.
Despite eliminating much of the novel's metafictional character, the Wachowskis do try to emulate its rampant pastichery. Alert viewers, for example, may notice hints of Peter Jackson's Ringwraiths hanging out alongside shots that appear directly lifted from Star Wars (check out the Neo-Seoul fighter pilots). The Ewing and Frobisher segments look like Hollywood prestige period films, complete with loving shots of Ayrs' ancient mansion and lushly-colored nature imagery. By contrast, the washed-out interiors of the nursing home in Cavendish's plot owe something to One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (as, obviously, does the nurse). As much as I hate to say it, Meronym's white jumpsuit (which apparently repels dirt...) looks suspiciously like Wilma's uniform in Buck Rogers. And the orange-brown tones of much of the Luisa Rey segment does have a seventies feel to it. In terms of design, the post-apocalyptic Zachry plot felt the least convincing; I felt like I was looking at Planet of the Apes-style sets plunked down randomly somewhere. But in general, the film's use of pastiche functioned more as a historical signifier than as a reflection on the nature of narrative--except, perhaps, for the Luisa Rey detective plot, with its self-aware budding mystery author.
Much has been made of the decision to have the same actors playing multiple roles, crossing both genders and races in the process. The excuse for having white actors playing Asians (and other races), in particular, has been that the characters are reincarnated again and again across the plots. As Mike Le pointed out when the trailer appeared, and again more recently, this excuse makes precious little sense: instead of slapping terrible yellowface makeup on Caucasian actors--and really, as MANAA argues, the Korean makeup is appallingly, distractingly bad, especially on Hugo Weaving--one could adopt any number of other approaches to the reincarnation motif. Like, say, casting a Korean actor when one was called for. In fact, I thought that reusing the actors badly blurred the novel's own quite limited use of reincarnation. Strictly speaking, in the film, the only characters in each plot who overlap thematically are the leads and anybody played by Hugo Weaving, despite local differences. One can draw a line from Ewing to Frobisher to Cavendish etc. etc. etc. But all of the actors multitask, which makes life distinctly confusing: the ship's doctor, the hotel manager, and Hoggins are connected, but not to Tom Hanks' other roles, while none of Jim Broadbent's characters match up especially well. (The famously chameleonic Broadbent, by the way, tends to disappear entirely into his makeup, whereas Weaving's distinctively-angled features are impossible to camouflage.) By the same token, it's not clear why Ewing and Frobisher are played by different actors! I found the gimmick much more distracting than just casting different performers across the board; one could have achieved the reincarnation effect just as well using cross-cutting, more verbal echoes (as with Haskell Moore's and Boardman Mephi's dialogue), and more recurring objects (as with the button).
Operating on the assumption that it's never too early to think about syllabi, I'm contemplating what to do with the return of Brit Lit II in the fall. My syllabus for this course has always been unapologetically old-fashioned, in the sense that I treat it as an introduction to major authors only; I've never seen the intellectual point of "canon-busting" for students who have never encountered the canon, and therefore don't understand the stakes of the busting, let alone what's being busted. (My students soon grow familiar with my eternal "And look, here again is why you need to read Paradise Lost" refrain, which goes along with the "please read The Pilgrim's Progress in your copious spare time," "yes, Shakespeare is necessary," and "if you're an English major, you need a Bible" refrains.) However, I also ask students to write papers about works that are not on the syllabus--or, sometimes, works that are on the syllabus, but were deliberately not discussed in class--and here's where the less-familiar authors creep in, even at the introductory level. There are two primary pedagogical reasons for this approach: a) it frees students from the constraints of pre-existing classroom discussion; b) it opens up opportunities for them to show that they can translate reading skills from text to text.
One of my favorite ways of sneaking other authors into a course is to work with texts that revise, appropriate, respond to, and otherwise rework those on the syllabus. Thus, we get Felicia Hemans on Lord Byron, Mary Robinson on S. T. Coleridge, half of the known galaxy on Shakespeare, and so forth. A variant is to have students read/watch adaptations--which, of course, pose their own set of problems, the most serious of which is the dreaded "fidelity" issue. As anyone who has ever taught adaptations knows all too well, students with no experience in this area sometimes default to conjuring up long lists of similarities and differences (cue instructor: ARRRGH) without an argument. Yes, yes, differences, but what are they doing there? Ergo, the poor beleaguered instructor needs to somehow head the default off at the pass. And that means...demonstration day!
Paragraph three, and I've yet to address the title of this blog post. (Hmmm. My grade appears to be dropping.) I've never taught any Lewis Carroll in Brit Lit II--in fact, I've never taught Carroll at all--and I thought it might be fun to a) get a little Alice in Wonderland into the mix and b) do some work with adaptation/appropriation. What I think I'll do is pull the "Mad Tea Party" chapter along with a brief extract from a Victorian etiquette manual, and then have the students look at some clips before they come to class. But which ones? Many of them will have seen Disney's Alice in Wonderland (1951) as children, but it can't hurt to have them look at it again (although I suppose I'll have to explain that the Hatter has somehow been amalgamated with Humpty-Dumpty). There are some extremely surreal versions out there: e.g., Gavin Millar's Dreamchild (1985), with scary muppets (Dark Crystal mode, not Sesame Street) as Hatter and Co., and Jan Svankmajer's Neco z Alenky (1988), with battered, primitive-looking toys. Equally surreal is Jonathan Miller's dreamy Alice in Wonderland (1966), although it risks sending viewers off into a different kind of dreaminess. I'd like to sneak in a couple of ballet adaptations, Christopher Wheeldon's (2011) and Glen Tetley's (1988) (not YouTubed), both of which pose more extreme difficulties for talking about adaptations of Carroll; as reviewers of Wheeldon's ballet kept pointing out, it's awfully hard to confine an Alice to dance and mime. And there's the 1999 TV adaptation, I suppose, but I really dislike it--possibly because I find Martin Short grating, possibly because it just seems to drag on forever. Whatever their approach, both the straight-up adaptations and the more revisionist appropriations tend to bring out what U. C. Knoepflmacher calls the "unremittingly hostile" (173) quality of the Mad Hatter and the March Hare; the chapter's humor has a habit of deflating when visualized. In any event, I have the summer to make up my mind...
Two very good films about the sadness of faded glory and the coming of a new era.
Of course, other than that, they have absolutely nothing in common.
Michel Hazanavicius' exceptionally sweet The Artist aims not for a serious history of the frequently tragic consequences of the sound era for many actors' careers, but for a warm fable in the mode of a bubbly early comedy. As Peter Travers has already pointed out, the film's plot is "A Star is Born blended with Singin' in the Rain"--viewers will have a fun time spotting the allusions--and one might take it as either a comic version of the former (the old star gets a revamp and lives happily ever after!) or a dark one of the latter (what would really happen to Lina Lamont?). (The finale, though, I think is more of a shout-out to Fred Astaire's and Eleanor Powell's "Beguin the Beguine.") Our hero, George Valentin, must learn about the sin of "pride" and the power of unconditional love--that last embodied in the odd triumvirate of the appropriately-named Peppy Miller, who supplants him as box-office star; his devoted chauffeur, Clifton; and his wonder dog, a Jack Russell known as, well, the Dog. George, who spends his career churning out one action picture after another, is not actually done in by the new sound technology, but by his own refusal to speak--something referenced both comically and not-so-comically in otherwise unrelated dialogue. ("Why won't you talk?" wails his desperate wife.) The fault lies not in the new regime, but in an old star's unwillingness to change his marketing strategy. Peppy, by contrast, immediately embraces both the novelty and the new performance techniques it enables (the ones we're watching on the screen, as it happens). In fact, the film is joyously in favor of commercial art: George does action films, Peppy makes her mark as a sprightly comedienne, and the whole thing comes to a crescendo with the rise of the musical comedy film. Even when George sets out to make his "great" silent film, he's still doing his usual shtick. Despite the deliberately pretentious title, then, the film doesn't retread the usual high art/pop culture war narrative beloved of many filmmakers. (Of course, many viewers will be seeing this film in an arthouse cinema...) The Artist may suggest that the studio system can be incredibly cruel, but in the end, the system still supplies some awfully good escapism.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is absorbing, but definitely not peppy. As an adaptation, it does not aim for the near-transcription-level fidelity of the Alec Guinness miniseries: events are moved around with a free hand, somebody dies who shouldn't (although, since the filmmakers are apparently adopting the miniseries route and jumping straight to Smiley's People for a sequel, it doesn't much matter), one character's sexual orientation has been altered, and so forth. I mentioned a couple of months ago that Le Carre's Smiley reminded me of Chesterton's Father Brown, but that's certainly not the vibe one gets from Gary Oldman, who is both edgier (in more ways than one--he's about half of Smiley's expected weight) and icier than either the original or Guinness' version. Unlike the novel, which consists almost entirely of Smiley retracing Control's steps through the documents, the film primarily emphasizes people looking. In particular, it frames scene after scene through windows. We see the action or look into the Circus through a window; characters spy on each other through windows; Smiley looks out a window and sees his wife having sex (possibly a tip of the hat to the second novel, in which something similar happens); little Bill Roach watches Prideaux through his caravan window. Etc. The windows simultaneously reveal (because we see the action) and conceal (because the characters frequently can't hear anything); the glass may be transparent, but it remains a barrier. This suggests the open-yet-distanced relationships amongst everyone in the Circus, as they're all "visible" to one another, yet permanently shut off. Of the film's changes to the novel, the only one I found troubling was Smiley's stunt with Toby Esterhase, which would make sense in the third novel (when Smiley effectively turns into his opposite number) but is out of place character-wise here. However, the film captures the novel's glum diagnosis of Cold War British malaise very well indeed, twisting the knife even further when Smiley makes it clear that British intelligence is not important--the entire stunt is to get access to the Americans. What's a superpower to do when it stops being super?
The second installment in the franchise introduces the Napoleon of Crime himself, Professor Moriarty, who turns out to be at the heart of a mega-conspiracy to profit from World War One. As the year is 1891, he is somewhat ahead of schedule. (He is also somewhat out of line with the previous film, which was set around the time of the US Civil War. But who needs chronological continuity when you want to get WWI going?) In the meantime, he builds his shadow empire by offing significant businessmen, opium traders, doctors, and goodness knows else. Moriarty is aided in his endeavors by wicked sharpshooter Col. Sebastian Moran and an armory of before-its-time weaponry, along with some equally anachronistic innovations in the field of plastic surgery. Holmes, meanwhile, finds himself torn between tracking Moriarty to his lair and dealing with Watson's marriage (hint: do not ask Holmes to arrange your stag party). For some reason, he also has the assistance of his brother Mycroft "Mikey" Holmes (Stephen Fry, rather too skinny), who genially addresses Holmes as "Shirley," wanders about his home in a state of undress, and keeps a superannuated butler named Stanley. Also for some reason, Holmes and Watson wind up with a female sidekick concocted out of an embarrassing run of gypsy stereotypes (fortune telling! theft! dirt!). Although Holmes wants to prevent Moriarty from blowing Europe to smithereens, he is actually more interested in preventing Moriarty from "creatively" murdering Watson (oh yes, and Watson's wife). Everything climaxes in a castle built right over Reichenbach Falls, where the expected happens.
In many ways, this film owes far more to the Rathbone/Bruce WWII propaganda films (e.g., Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon ) than to the canon: Holmes and Watson are out to save "Western Civilization" (the film's term) from Doom. Doom's methods bear some resemblance to modern terrorism, and there's also a pointed nod to (ahem) interrogation techniques; however, Doom has no particular ideological purpose, other than to make a lot of money out of "industrial warfare." War is good for private pocketbooks, it seems. Like the previous film, which counterpointed the villain's nefarious scheming for control of the Empire with the decrepit state of the urban landscape, Game of Shadows suggests a world in which there really isn't much in the way of moral content; Moriarty is evil, but as he coolly tells Holmes just before being schlepped over the Falls, it's not clear that his evil is all that unwelcome to the Higher Powers. After all, he correctly points out, WWI is coming anyway. This lends the film a certain noirish sensibility, even as it also suggests that European politics has declined into meaningless balls and state dinners. That, however, is the end of the film's pretensions to serious thought.
Technically, the film looks very much like its predecessor, featuring lots of fight sequences shot with rapid cuts (distractingly so) and a fatal overdose of bullet time. The opening, with Watson typing up the manuscript of "The Final Problem," hearkens back to 1930s and 1940s adaptations of classic novels; the Switzerland scenes also look suspiciously like a nod to the Lord of the Rings films, and at one point a made-up Holmes resembles the late Heath Ledger's Joker. But there is surprisingly less exterior London, although for once somebody remembers that the city would not have been inhabited solely by white people. Frustratingly, there is even less of Sherlock Holmes being, well, Sherlock Holmes; while there's nothing wrong with Holmes engaging in fisticuffs (he was a good boxer, after all), the ratio of things blowing up/being shot up/being punched to Holmes using his mental powers is awfully disproportionate. If anything, the real inspiration for director Guy Ritchie and his writers appears to be TV Tropes: they hit everything from Ascended Fanon ("John Hamish Watson") to Room Full of Crazy, with, of course, extensive time spent in Ho Yay. In fact, unlike the previous film, where Mary Morstan's appeal was at least reasonably obvious, this time around actress Kelly Reilly has been directed to simper endlessly, leaving Holmes and Watson to wrestle suggestively and, for some reason, dance unremarked around a ballroom floor. If we must have a third installment, the filmmakers will no doubt find a reason to stick to canon and send Mary to her grave, leaving Holmes to cheer poor Watson up. As Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law actually spark nicely off each other, that might improve matters somewhat; the film's (few) best moments consistently involve them just talking to (and/or flirting with) each other. Perhaps more of that and less of mass set destruction?
I happily watched the Planet of the Apes TV series when I was a kid, and later saw all of the (notoriously varied in quality) movies; Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is must-see watching, of course, for any UC Irvine student. Although I've yet to watch the Tim Burton remake, I was feeling nostalgic enough yesterday that I trotted over to the local movie theatre to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes, starring James Franco and an awful lot of CGI. Several minutes in, I began thinking, with some puzzlement, "Wait. Isn't this Frankenstein?" Returning home, I punched in the appropriate search terms, and indeed, it'sFrankenstein.
However, where Frankenstein spent his nights in noisome "charnel houses," identifying the secrets of death and how to overcome them with electricity (the wonder fad of the day), our scientist, Rodman, yearns instead to conquer Alzheimer's disease, which he plans to rewrite via a canny virus. Rodman's scientific quest intensifies Frankenstein's focus on the nature of identity: for many people, the characters in this film included, the great terror of Alzheimer's lies in its power to erase human subjectivity, progressively stripping individuals of everything that constituted them as a self. Frankenstein's Creature is in trouble because he is absolutely unprecedented, and therefore cannot be recognized as an individuated subject in the first place. When I teach the novel, I point out that during the novel's main plot, Frankenstein finds there's just no intelligible story about the Creature that can be told to other humans (and indeed, when Frankenstein finally does tell someone about the Creature, he is only believed as a talented Gothic novelist might be believed...). In fact, one of Frankenstein's moral failures lies in his inability to register how the Creature might, or might not, be able to function in the world as we now know it. This is not, however, the problem that Caesar the genetically-altered chimpanzee faces, although his first trip to Gen*Sys replicates the Creature's attempts to find himself through reading different literary texts (including Paradise Lost). Unlike Frankenstein and his Creature, Rodman doesn't abandon Caesar until the System forces him to, and there's never any sign that Caesar lacks love or nurturing. But he isn't a human, and as the director notes in the first link above, he hasn't been adequately socialized as a chimpanzee, either. Caesar soon demonstrates that he isn't entirely Other to his fellow apes, though, and the film dramatizes his appropriation of human technology to transform the apes into a cohesive social unit. The Creature masters language, but his speech never "normalizes" him, never turns him into a recognizable man; thanks to Rodman's intervention, Caesar masters the language of both apes and men, and constructs something novel out of the two.
Caesar's ability to innovate, mobilize, and ultimately triumph is an important deviation from the Frankenstein narrative. Frankenstein's Creature may be superhuman, but--as the fallen image of fallen man--he can only create death and absence. He erases, instead of reproduces. (There's a reason he needs Frankenstein to create his would-be bride, instead of replicating the technique himself.) Even though the film does nod its head to visions of modern-day Edens invaded by human snakes--the rainforest, the redwoods--neither the Biblical nor Miltonic falls are actually in play here. If anything, Rodman successfully raises Caesar to be more moral than anyone else in the film (himself included). PaceChristianity Today, the apes don't "start taking innocent lives": Caesar accidentally electrocutes the sadistic keeper and saves the vaguely stoned but harmless one from the other apes; there are no random attacks on any human beings, who are usually allowed to just run away; and even most of the cops attacking the apes are left alive at Caesar's direction. (CultureLab notes that this isn't exactly normal chimpanzee behavior.) The scant handful of deaths are all distributed according to poetic justice. Just war? Proportional retribution? Mercy? In any event, Caesar turns out to have an ethical regard for life that nobody else in the film does.
But the film also deviates from the novel in its lack of ambiguity about responsibility and blame. Frankenstein spends much of the novel, including the end, trying to weasel out of admitting fault--and, notoriously, concludes that he's not responsible for much of anything; the Creature blames himself for his actions, but also notes that the very structure of the narrative stacks the deck against him. ("'Am I to be thought the only criminal,'" he asks Walton, "'when all human kind sinned against me?'") Here, the deck gets stacked in a different direction. This film operates with Good Guys and Bad Guys, and pays little attention to the potential problems with Good Guy behavior. Moreover, given that Franco channels Keir Dullea's emotionless performance in 2001, it's hard to identify with him qua human being, just as it's difficult to feel much for any of the other human characters (except, perhaps, Rodman's dying father). As the reviewer for Varietypoints out, Rise seems not to blame Rodman at all for engineering the total destruction of the human race, thanks to the new virus. Raging capitalism is to blame! Far from being the "new Prometheus," bringing fire to inaugurate civilization as we know it, Rodman turns out to be one of the harbingers of the apocalypse. Perhaps we should regard the film as posing a what-if about Frankenstein: what if Frankenstein had been successful? Had done everything right? Rodman does create a new Adam, at the expense of the old...