Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Searching for Baker Street

By ned * Other ned Posts

Robert Downey Jr breathes life into a variety of different characters. When contrasted with more serious roles in Chaplin and the Soloist, his comedic role in Tropic Thunder perhaps best demonstrates his versatility and ability to garner critical praise. As his next conquest, he has recently been paired in the new Sherlock Holmes movie with Jude Law -- whom I have kept my eye out for ever since his chilling portrayal in the Road to Perdition. But, the casting was not the cause of my initial excitement for the upcoming Sherlock Holmes movie. Not since 2001's Gosford Park have the masses been able to enjoy a good mystery on the big screen (please feel free to correct me and Dana Carvey's Master of Disguise does not count). Moreover to my personal stake, I consider myself to be a casual fan of mysteries. Yes, if given the options on the little screen of America's Best Dance Crew, Family Guy or the BBC's Sherlock Holmes of the 80's on PBS, I will probably turn to the sleuth of Baker Street. As with any story though, there is a twist; my heart sank when I heard the movie was directed by Guy Ritchie and saw this preview.

This is not to say that I have not enjoyed Guy Ritchie movies in the past. Snatch and Lock, Stock, & Two Smoking Barrels stimulate the senses. They keep you on your toes while cutting quickly to visually interesting shots, to graphic violence, or to dryly witful situations. These Guy Ritchie movies feel at times like a cinematic love child between Pulp Fiction and Ocean's Eleven. With comparisons such as this, you can assume they are enjoyable for what they are. Needless to say though, neither the flashy aesthetic nor the jarring pacing was likely what Sir Aurthur was trying to create with a cognitive, mysterious gumshoe in Victorian England. If the past Ritchie and the preview are any indication, it is probably safe to say the new Holmes will be a new take on an old friend.

This take potentially speaks to a larger trend. Without recent examples of mysteries coming to mind, the new Sherlock Holmes and like movies are missing the mystery, intrigue, and deliberate action of a rich tradition of movies from film noir to Hitchcock. So apparently Downey can bring to life a variety of characters but not a genre. Whether Rear Window or the Maltese Falcon, some of AFI's top 100 movies unravel a conundrum of illicit affairs in dark subtle shrouds of intrigue. Apparently though, these movies do not fit into the profit formula for the production studios of today.

Perhaps, I am being too harsh and these types movies have just been replaced by comparable choices. With that said, there may be a few general alternatives today in lieu of the classic whodunnit. Just as a mystery builds to an ah-ha moment, there are the recent twisters that try to build to the revelation at the end of the movie - see the Usual Suspects or every M. Knight Shyamalan movie. You also have the prime time CSI crime shows. However - maybe with the exception of the show Monk - today's examples all seem different to me. Their plots are driven much more by short scenes and flashy science visuals than by the dialogue or subtlety that you need to pay attention to in say, Vertigo.

There may be a few explanations for this trend. On the supply side, perhaps film makers of yesteryear had greater ties to the craft of the theater. On the stage action needs to rely on more plot points and dialogue as opposed to visuals, explosions and editing which are techniques that have have developed over the history of film making. Perhaps demonstrative of this tie to the theater, most of the action of the classic Rear Window appears to happen on a single set that could be transplanted onto a stage. A Sherlock Holmes or Sam Spade who is an astute observer of words and simple actions would be more at home in this type of small set than an expansive one where he is dodging massive explosions.

On the demand side, our attention spans crave shorter burst and are less willingness to engage detail than earlier movie audiences. We are a generation of iPods shufflers, channel changers, and twitterati. Its hard to deny that our media exposure is gradually being consumed in shorter and shorter bursts. Thus, to keep with the pacing of our lives, movies need to appeal to our senses through quick changes. For examples of this look to the commercial success of the Oceans Eleven franchise, Get Shorty, and Kill Bill.

Lastly, there is a factor that would impact the consumer as well as the producer. In our society, greatness is not defined usually from repeating the old but creating something new. On the flip side consumers tend to search for newness. Thus, the makers want something fresh as much as the takers. The mysteries of old are familiar; they certainly do not satisfy that need. However, although that might be the case, I think I will sit this block buster out. Instead, I will seek out the familiar, taking in Holmes around the couch instead of in stadium seating.

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