Saturday, December 24, 2011

Trailers & Clips for BBC's Sherlock: Series 2













BEGINNERS - FILM REVIEW (2010 - Directed by Mike Mills)


"People in the building like us. Half of them think things will never work out. The other half believe in magic. It's like a war between them."
- Anna
______________________________________________________________________________________________

We all have a number of preconceived notions. Some of them, well, we’re emotionally attached to them. Even the most rational and logical among us have presuppositions that we’ve always assumed to be true. We have beliefs, and we often consider our beliefs as part of who we are as persons. My beliefs are part of what make me who I am. They shape my hopes and dreams. They influence my choices. They motivate my actions. They powerfully affect how I feel. They even determine how I treat other people.

Sometimes, if you believe something, it will cause you to treat another person badly.

Not many of us are into questioning everything. But some of us are. One likes to say how one has no good reason for being emotionally attached to anything that you’ve been taught - how one is willing to change one’s mind and give up beliefs you’ve always just blindly accepted as long as someone else can convince you logically how they are false. But that doesn’t mean that your beliefs still don’t shape who you are as a person ... and how you act.

You can always reason things out in your head. If you are a good reasoner, you can even work out a few difficult problems that way. But thinking things through in your head is nothing compared to real life experience with other people. Other living and breathing human beings out there are affected by the way you act. Some of them are more vulnerable than others. Some of them are strong. Some of them are weak. Some of them are more loveable than others. Some of them are repelling. All of them have value and exist for a good reason. In other words, what you believe - just inside your own head - affects your attitude and actions. These, in turn, affect other people. So therefore, the beliefs you have in your head affect other people.

Some of your beliefs can hurt other people.

Some of your beliefs can help them.

Beginners is a film about a man whose preconceived notions about his own life are shell-shocked. Ewan McGregor plays this man and his name is Oliver. Honestly, I don’t think McGregor has been given this kind of role before. He’s mostly been in action movies and thrillers where the demand for acting ability has never been that demanding. But we’ve got to hand it to him, he impressively does more acting in this film just standing in one spot than I think he’s done in his other more popular films put together. The effort he puts into showing us how much his character is wrestling with his own conflicting thoughts pays off.
______________________________________________________________________________________________

"What? You’re not allowed to interact with the art?"
- Oliver’s mother
______________________________________________________________________________________________

Oliver's life is shell-shocked because he is confronted with two surprises in quick succession. First, after his mother dies, his father, Hal (played with charm by Christopher Plummer), tells him that he's gay. Second, after he discovers his father is gay, he is next told that his father is dying from cancer.

This short plot summary (of really only the first five minutes of the film) is enough to keep a large number of people away from it. They are already calling it an example of gay rights propaganda. Never mind that the story is based on the director's own life experience with his own father. Never mind that the film seriously explores questions far deeper than mere political alignment on the issues. And never mind that Beginners is, in fact, an all around well-constructed and powerful film.
______________________________________________________________________________________________

"My parents got married in 1955. He was a museum director. She fixed up old houses. They had a child, and they stayed married for 44 years ... until she died in their bed, after four months of cancer and eating French toast for every meal and watching the Teletubbies everyday and confusing white straws for her cigarettes and skipping back and forth through time inside her head ... Six months later, my father told me he was gay. He had just turned 75."
- Oliver
______________________________________________________________________________________________

The controversy can distract from the main point.

Gay rights, as a political issue, is supposed to be one of the main dividing battle lines in what is absurdly called the "culture war" in our country. Republican Presidential candidate, Michele Bachmann, has already declared that gay marriage is the most important political issue facing our nation today. The fact that a majority of younger Americans support gay rights was actually supposed to be a big story this year. And the more politicized our "culture" is supposed to be, the more gay rights as a political issue is a cause for offense, anger, accusations, severed family relationships, dropped friendships, bigotry, prejudice and pain.

Thus, the film Beginners will cause offense for many conservatives who will choose to avoid or disparage it simply because of the subject matter. I doubt any of us are that interested in reading very much bias so I'll attempt to deal with this quickly and then move on. Unfortunately, you couldn't ask for a more stereotypical example of nonthinking prejudice than looking for what is called a "Christian" review of this film. In spite of the fact that there is currently talk of Beginners getting "best picture" nominations this year, most Christian movie review sites have simply ignored it altogether. While Beginners was first released in the United States in April to June of 2010, so far it appears that the major Christian conservative film reviewers have essentially pretended it doesn't exist, including Focus on the Family's PluggedIn, Christianity Today, Christian Spotlight on Entertainment, ChristianCinema.com, CatholicMovieReviews.org, and The Christian Broadcasting Network.
______________________________________________________________________________________________

"I’m Andy, Hal’s boyfriend ... You know I have the right to be here as much as anyone else."
- Andy
______________________________________________________________________________________________

Crosswalk.com seems to be one of the only ones who managed to mention it with a brief lukewarm summary. On the other hand, a popular and widely-read reviewer, Ted Baehr of MovieGuide, can be relied upon to supply just the exact stereotypical response that will be widely considered representative of the Christian point of view. He writes fusses -

"BEGINNERS is truly a horrible movie with a very strong Anti-Christian, politically correct worldview. Were it merely a depressing film about a father dying of cancer or a man who, scarred from childhood, is unable to handle long-term relationships, BEGINNERS perhaps would have been bearable. Were it even a film discussing marriage, art, love, or social issues, it might have been at least viewable. However, the movie only sporadically uses dark humor to offset its jumble of mid-life crisis, death, cancer, loss of identity, loss of love, and utterly Anti-Christian beliefs. In fact, this is a joy-sucking project that, while originally meant to be thought-evoking and inspiring by its Writer/Director Mike Mills (the film is based off his life), merely serves to drown out feelings of certainty, happiness or morality ... BEGINNERS is filled with abhorrent, immoral values and a politically correct, anti-Christian agenda. Thus, the movie’s few funny and touching emotional moments are vastly overshadowed by an overwhelming sense of depression. Media-wise viewers wanting more uplifting content can skip BEGINNERS."

Now, to be fair, we can't be completely sure that Baehr actually managed to see the whole thing. He could have, after all, just sort of watched it, along with exuberant use of the fast-forward button.

Also, unlike other instances of conservative hypocrisy when it comes to issues of homosexuality, Baehr does manage to also point out his dislike of the implied non-marital sex (between Oliver and the girl, Anna) in the film along with his dislike of the gay relationship. With something of both a rhetorical flair and an utter misunderstanding of the entire story, his viewpoint is so perfectly biased that it is almost funny. He writes remonstrates -

"They eventually have sexual relations (during which she weirdly bites his arm) and thus the relationship begins. Filled with books of pornography entitled 'The Joy of Sex' and misquoted verses from The Velveteen Rabbit, their relationship is a unique one – living out of her hotel room and seeking fulfillment from each other. Anna even tells Oliver at one point, 'You’ve lost so much. How can I make up for that?' To which he simply replies with an expletive."

I personally find it amazing that the subject matter, politically controversial as it's supposed to be in our society, should so blind people like Baehr to what this film really has to offer. He is incapable of taking anything positive from the film because the nature of the relationships in it disgusts him. And this is illustrative of our problem. Why should the private lives of other people matter to you? The answer is simple. Because you've been taught that you should care about what other people do in their own private lives. You believe that it matters.
______________________________________________________________________________________________

"Your personality was created by this guy John Russell, a hunting enthusiast in the 1800s. And he bred your ancestors to have stamina and courage for the hunt. You think you’re just you, and you want to chase the foxes, but other people planted that in you years ago."
- Oliver, talking to his dog, Arthur
______________________________________________________________________________________________

Just so all my cards are on the table, for the reader's information I am a Christian. I'm also a political conservative. I was raised in a Christian conservative background full of like-minded family, friends and churches. After eventually questioning most of what I'd been taught, I discarded what didn't make any sense (a lot of it) and came back from all the questioning still a dyed-in-the-wool Christian conservative. I've also come to believe that most churches in America treat gay people badly (and that's putting it mildly). Furthermore, having also spent about one third of my life in the U.S. military, I've also seen how gay men are mocked, despised, threatened, and worst of all, excluded - left friendless and alone. If you are gay, and if you live in America, you are living in constant danger of being discriminated against, hurt, abused, persecuted, scoffed at and, once again, excluded from normal parts of everyday life that everyone else takes for granted.

This is wrong, unfair and unjust.

This should have absolutely nothing to do with being politically liberal or conservative. And, even more fundamentally, if you hold to Christianity being true, then you should not be part of those who are personally offended by the sexual orientation of other people. Nor should the fact that you believe them to be sinners affect how you treat them in any way.
______________________________________________________________________________________________

"My mother didn’t know she was Jewish until she was 13. It was 1938 ... Her father tried to hide that they were Jewish. This is the swim team that asked her to leave once they discovered that she was Jewish ... My father realized he was gay when he was 13. It was 1938 ... My father laid down on a couch like this and told the psychiatrist all his problems in 1955. The doctor told him that homosexuality was a mental illness, but it could be cured ... Not everyone got cured."
- Oliver
______________________________________________________________________________________________

Beginners is not a work of propaganda any more than films like Gentlemen's Agreement, To Kill a Mockingbird, Giant, or The Crimson Kimono were. Like them, it's a film that deals with systematic discrimination as a integral part of the story both intelligently and provocatively. As the story progresses, Oliver has to reconcile how his father lived for over four decades hiding and repressing what he felt and who he was. Throughout his childhood, Oliver sensed that something was wrong between his mother and father. Thus, you get dialogue like the following -

Hal: Did you know, about me?
Oliver: No, I just thought you and mom weren’t in love.
Hal: We loved each other.
Oliver: But you were gay that whole time.
Hal: I learned how not to be.
Oliver: For 44 years?
Hal: I knew I was gay, though, at dinner parties I was looking at the husbands not the wives. I couldn’t have survived if I didn’t know that. I just chose not to follow those instincts.
Oliver: What about sex? You guys had sex?
Hal: She didn’t think I was the greatest lover, but we made do. Look, I liked my life, the museum, our house, that’s what I wanted.
Oliver: And mom? You wanted mom too right?
Hal: Yes, stop that ... She proposed to me you know. I said - look, I love you and we’re great buddies but you know what I am. And then she says, that doesn’t matter. I’ll fix that. I thought ‘Oh God ... I’ll try anything.’
______________________________________________________________________________________________

"I don’t know, Anna. I don’t think this is what I am supposed to feel like."
- Oliver
______________________________________________________________________________________________

Most conservatives who believe that homosexuality is morally wrong believe that you should just suppress the feelings of attraction that you have, and that that can fix everything. This is what Oliver discovers that his father did, out of sacrificial love for him and his mother, for 44 years of marriage. And yet, his mother was not able to change the way his father felt. She wasn't able to fix it. That's how their marriage was a tragedy. And it was the tragedy of their marriage that created Oliver's very existence in the first place. He is devastated by the fact that his parents relationship was decades of two unhappy people who were trying to force themselves to feel what they didn't feel. The consequence of this is Oliver now has an idea that there is a certain way that you ought to feel in a good relationship. And yet, in every romantic relationship that he has tried, he still hasn't felt what he thinks he ought to.

I don't know if everyone who sees Beginners will get this idea - but this film is intentionally exploring the idea of morality applied to your feelings. The idea is that we have desires that are right and desires that are wrong. We have feelings that are good and feelings that are evil. Doesn't this seem a bit strange? And yet, because of his upbringing, this is what Oliver now believes - he believes that there is a way that he ought to feel in a relationship.

Here's my question. Moral responsibility, by definition, implies choice. Otherwise, how can one be morally culpable for that which one has not chosen? But since when do you choose who you are physically attracted to? Even though there are those explain that being gay is only a choice, telling someone that they can choose who they are attracted to is not going to allow suddenly allow them to shape their feelings by mere acts of will. Oliver is attracted to women, not by choice, it's simply who he is. Oliver's father, Hal, tells him that he just chose not to follow the way that he felt. This is to be distinguished from actually being able to choose how you feel. And this is what we are taught people who are attracted to the same sex ought to do.
______________________________________________________________________________________________

Hal: Well, let’s say, when you were little, you always dreamed of some day getting a lion. And you wait and you wait and you wait and you wait and the lion doesn’t come. Then along comes a giraffe. You can be alone or you can be with the giraffe.
Oliver: I’d wait for the lion.
Hal: That’s why I worry about you.
______________________________________________________________________________________________

Oliver doesn't want to settle like he believes his parents did. He is dysfunctional about his own relationships because he is holding them up to a higher standard. He doesn't control how he feels, but whatever it is that he believes he ought to feel is destroying every relationship he tries to commit to.

His problem mirrors the problem of his mother and father. They chose to act against the way that Hal felt, and suffered for it because Hal couldn't will himself to feel differently. Oliver is choosing to attempt to follow the way that he feels, and he is suffering for it because he can't find a girl who makes him feel what he has decided is right to feel.

In our modern culture, we are regularly told how we ought to feel, as if we could determine this through our own acts of will. But it gets worse than that. There is a theological point of view that turns these questions upside down. There are Christian teachers and churches who will even teach that moral responsibility does not imply choice. You can be morally culpable for what you have not chosen because you were condemned to your sinful state by predetermined powers. In other words, you can never choose to act contrary to your own desires, even if your desires are evil.
______________________________________________________________________________________________

"My personality was created by someone else and all I got was this stupid T-shirt."
- Oliver's graphic design theme
______________________________________________________________________________________________

The questions of the origin of our desires, whether we choose our own desires, whether we are even able to will ourselves to either change our desires or to act against them ... all these questions have fascinated philosophers and theologians for centuries. Calvinist theologian, Jonathan Edwards (famous for his 1700s hell-fire sermon, Sinners in The Hands of an Angry God) wrote a treatise disagreeing with Christian philosopher John Locke on the ability of man to will contrary to his own desires. In the treatise entitled 'A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of Will which is supposed to be essential to Moral Agency,' Edwards writes -

"So in every act of refusal, the mind chooses the absence of the thing refused; the positive and the negative are set before the mind for its choice, and it chooses the negative; and the mind's making its choice in that case is properly the act of the Will: the Will's determining between the two, is a voluntary determination; but that is the same thing as making a choice. So that by whatever names we call the act of the Will, choosing, refusing, approving, disapproving, liking, disliking, embracing, rejecting, determining, directing, commanding, forbidding, inclining, or being averse, being pleased or displeased with; all may be reduced to this of choosing. For the soul to act voluntarily, is evermore to act electively. Mr. Locke (1) says, " The Will signifies nothing but a power or ability to prefer or choose." And, in the foregoing page, he says, "The word preferring seems best to express the act of volition;" but adds, that "it does it not precisely; for, though a man would prefer flying to walking, yet who can say he ever wills it?" But the instance he mentions, does not prove that there is any thing else in willing, but merely preferring: for it should be considered what is the immediate object of the will, with respect to a man's walking, or any other external action; which is not being removed from one place to another; on the earth or through the air; these are remoter objects of preference; but such or such an immediate exertion of himself ...

"Mr. Locke (2) says, "The Will is perfectly distinguished from desire; which in the very same action may have quite contrary tendency from that which our wills sets us upon. A man, says he, whom I cannot deny, may oblige me to use persuasions to another, which, at the same time I am speaking, I may wish not prevail on him. In this case, it is plain the Will and Desire run counter." I do not suppose, that Will and Desire are words of precisely the same signification: Will seems to be a word of more general signification, extending to things present and absent. Desire respects something absent. I may prefer my present situation and posture, suppose sitting still, or having my eyes open, and so may will it. But yet I cannot think they are so entirely distinct, that they can ever be properly said to run counter. A man never, in any instance, wills any thing contrary to his desires, or desires any thing contrary to his will. The forementioned instance, which Mr. Locke produces, is no proof that ever does. He may, on some consideration or other will to utter speeches which have a tendency to persuade another and still may desire that they may not persuade him; but yet his Will and Desire do not run counter all: the thing which he wills, the very same he desires; and he does not will a thing, and desire the contrary, in any particular. In this instance, it is not carefully observed, what is the thing willed, and what is the thing desired: if it were, it would be found, that Will and Desire do not clash in the least ...

Friday, December 23, 2011

SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS - FILM REVIEW (2011 - Directed by Guy Ritchie)


"When all is said and done, there have never been better detective stories than the old series of Sherlock Holmes; and though the name of that magnificent magician has been spread over the whole world, and is perhaps the one great popular legend made in the modern world, I do not think that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has ever been thanked enough for them. As one of the many millions, I offer my own mite of homage."
- G.K. Chesterton, Principles of the Detective Story, August 19, 1922

"Dr Watson doesn’t write to you, he talks to you, with Edwardian courtesy, across a glowing fire. His voice has no barriers or affectations. It is clear, energetic and decent, the voice of a tweedy, no-nonsense colonial Britisher at ease with himself. He is one of the greatest storytellers the world has ever listened to."
- John le Carré, Introduction to The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, November 17, 2004
______________________________________________________________________________________________

There have been numerous complaints from film critics who are annoyed that director Guy Ritchie has turned his Sherlock Holmes films into action movies. But they are forgetting something. When you read these stories as a child, you imagine Holmes as very much the action hero. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is completely clear about Holmes' advanced fighting skills, including both boxing (A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four) and historical martial arts like Bartitsu (The Final Problem). And, given the dangerous world he walks in, he makes use of them in Doyle's stories on a regular basis. But really, the action is not really the point of Richie's Sherlockian films. It's the characters that make the film so enjoyable, and it's the mystery-solving deductional powers of Holmes that make his character into the larger-than-life hero that we've all grown to love. The second film in the franchise, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is superior to the first one. And it is better precisely because it gives Holmes a more personal challenge to solve and a more formidable opponent to face. I'd even argue that A Game of Shadows is perhaps also more traditional than the vast majority of other Holmes films in existence. Look at how much of Conan Doyle's original dialogue actually makes it into the film. There is more dialogue from the books in A Game of Shadows, probably, than in any other Holmes film adaptation other than Jeremy Brett's brilliant TV series.

I can happily say that, personally, there is not another collection of stories in classic literature that has captured my imagination more than the adventures and mysteries of Sherlock Holmes. There is just something about the atmosphere of these tales that is completely and absolutely perfect. The dark criminal underworld, the thick inpenetrable London fog, the sound of rattling hansom cabs and the deep chimes of the Big Ben, the Dickensian Victorian characters skulking, creeping and swaggering across the pages, and looming shadows of two figures on the hunt for evil - all these things combine in the jovial friendship of two good men who aid the helpless and protect the innocent when no one else will.

If you still have doubts about Ritchie's latest film, just remember, it's not just a big dumb action movie when you can cram all the explosions of a 128 minute long film in just under 30 seconds ...



Holmes and Watson feel like they are my old friends. I will never get tired of returning to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's writing over and over again. As many times as I've read them, on a consistent basis I still find myself re-entering the rooms of 221 B Baker Street, stuffed as they are from floor to ceiling with books, newspapers, newspaper clippings, the bearskin hearthrug, the violin, pipe tobacco, cigars, chemistry sets, weaponry, bullet holes in the wall, legal codes, scientific treatises, an American Encyclopedia, forensic tools, medical references, elaborate disguises, velvet lined arm chairs, a pipe rack, a Persian slipper, scientific charts, maps, and a typewriter.
______________________________________________________________________________________________

"Holmes, are you in there? ... Your hedge needs trimming."
- John Watson
______________________________________________________________________________________________

Why is this film version worth it? It's worth it, now that I think about it, because it is the single best film portrayal of Sherlock Holmes vs. Professor Moriarty I've ever seen. The strongest part of A Game of Shadows is how Ritchie builds and builds and builds the tension up to the final confrontation at the end. It doesn't even matter if you've already read the ending, by the end of the film - as every solved problem, every death, every fight, every action scene, every chess move, and every foreign border crossed has led up to it - you'll be on the edge of your seat as Holmes and Moriarty find themselves facing one another for the climax of their intellectual duel at the top of Reichenbach Falls.

As Moriarty, Jared Harris (son of Richard Harris) speaks with his father's same powerful menacing whisper. He's an excellent actor and is surprisingly suddenly in competition as one of the best Professor Moriarty's in the history of film. That, along with Robert Downey Jr.'s acting, allows Ritchie's imagination to turn Holmes and Moriarty's lethal conflict throughout the film into a duel of a kind you will have never seen before. Based on Conan Doyle's short story, A Final Problem , this film elaborates on the journey to Switzerland. And yet, everything matters. Holmes is putting things together in every main scene of the film that is all intended to fall into place at just the right moment. The conflict between Holmes and Moriarty is an intellectual one, violence is just one tool to use when it is most useful.

And, speaking of violence, all those scenes where you've seen Holmes analytically think through every single trigger-pull, kick, stab and punch of a fight that Ritchie's stylized take on violence allows us to follow? Just remember what makes the ending into the chess match that it is ... Moriarty is Holmes' intellectual equal, so that means ...
______________________________________________________________________________________________

"The laws of celestial mechanics dictate that when two objects collide there is always damage of a collateral nature ... Now, are you sure you want to play this game?"
- Professor James Moriarty
______________________________________________________________________________________________

There just one difficulty with their conflict. Holmes has one weakness that Moriarty does not. He's the good guy, and therefore, there are other people he cares about (Irene Adler, Watson and his wife Mary, his brother Mycroft) that he wants to protect. Moriarty does not have this problem and, logically, it makes sense for him to exploit it against Holmes. So in spite of their intellectual equality, Holmes is the underdog at the disadvantage here. He is hamstrung by his humanity. Early in the film, you discover that Moriarty is essentially interested in starting a World War (Holmes' career is historically set from about 1880-1914). Holmes, on the other hand, is obsessed with stopping him. When Moriarty scoffs at Holmes and explains that "you're not fighting me so much as you're fighting the human condition" he's commenting on how his enemy, despite all his powers of deduction, is fighting a losing battle. Moriarty has human nature on his side. Holmes has only abstract ideals on his ... and Watson.

Another aspect of Robert Downey Jr.'s bringing the famous detective to the big screen is how he humanizes Holmes without losing the logical superpowers that Sherlock is famous for. Holmes is known as completely calm, cold, detached, aloof, and purely intellectual as a character. He has trained himself to observe every little tiny detail, to deduct the relevant logical conclusions from these details, and to arrive at the solution to any problem whether it's how to follow Moriarty's tangled web of schemes, how to precisely time a domino cause and effect chain of events, or how to physically incapacitate a physically superior opponent. But Holmes is still a man, not a superhero, and Downey shows this by playing Holmes as an eccentric unkempt, manic depressive, socially awkward soul who could very likely have some form of Asperger's Syndrome. His powers of observation and deduction make him into the hero that he is, but they also hurt him.

If you've seen the first film, then you will remember the exertion it takes for Downey Jr.'s Holmes to simply just sit still in a restaurant, much less to act empathetically with the special girl that his friend wants to marry. In fact, I'd have to suggest that, even though the second is better to the first, seeing the first film is almost a requirement for understanding the second.


______________________________________________________________________________________________

Sim: "What do you see?"
Holmes: "Everything ... That is my curse."
Sim: "But, you don't see what you're looking for."
______________________________________________________________________________________________

Bee Wilson just recently wrote for The Economist that Holmes' energy is part of what make the mysteries worth following. "Holmes never stands up if he can spring to his feet. He also grasps, thrusts, jerks and tosses." Downey Jr. gets this. He's always moving and when he's still, his eyes are moving (while his brain is moving even faster). In fact, he won over a number of Conan Doyle fans in a few of his interviews for the first film. For example, in the Wall Street Journal, Downey Jr. was asked -

"To prepare for the role, as well as that important relationship with Watson, did you watch previous portrayals of Sherlock Holmes, in movies, on television?

I watched some of the old movies, but to tell you the truth, the more you watch the old stuff, the more you realize how not traditional it is — it's not like the stories at all. Part of the tableau in which Holmes is always thought of is him, in profile, with a deerstalker hat and with a curved pipe in his mouth. Nothing about that has anything to do with Doyle's description — in one description, Doyle says he is wearing a hat, but it's more of a moleskin cap. The oversized pipe came from something that theater actor [and playwright] William Gillette used in his portrayal — and now it's always used on stage.

So how did you prepare?

I really wanted to portray Holmes as Doyle wrote him. When I played Chaplin I flew all over the planet looking for clues, but the definitive Western expert on Holmes [Leslie S. Klinger] lives 20 minutes up the road in Malibu. So I went and hung out with him, I read through his book, a definitive annotated Sherlock Holmes, which was probably the modern data center for us.
Did you read a lot of Doyle’s stories?

I read them all.

Were you a Sherlock Holmes fan before you signed onto the movie, or did you pack in all that reading afterwards?

I honestly knew nothing about the character — just that he's a detective and that he's a weirdo. But there are all kinds of misconceptions about him. Many have said that he's a huge drug fiend, but it's clear reading the stories — he's not. It's just that none of those behaviors were considered strange or illegal at that time, so he partakes in drugs, but he doesn't abuse anything. He just overindulges in them when he's bored and when he's not bored he puts them down.

Why do you think Sherlock Holmes is such an enduring character?

Look at "Hill Street Blues" or "CSI" — there have been so many legacies that respond to Holmes's character. He can be a little cocksure and full of himself, but Holmes is also like that freaky roommate everybody has once in their life, that guy who is a math genius but could never pay his part of the rent. And at the same time, he has this dedication to doing the right thing to the exclusion of doing all other things. He sacrifices everything so he can become better at what he does. As a character actor, I found that trait endlessly compelling."

Understanding that this is Downey Jr.'s take on Holmes allows you to appreciate many of the little things he does for the character (and his attachment to/jealousy over Watson has to do with the fact that their friendship is one of the only human indulgements that he's allowed himself). Downey Jr.'s Holmes is therefore a little more vulnerable than most other film versions of the great detective. In fact, he's not just vulnerable, he's a mess - a mess out of which he has created the superpower of his analytical mind. Not many other films have explained the personal cost of Holmes' creation of his powers, but these films do.

Now, even though this film is receiving more positive reviews than negative reviews, I'm still getting the impression that the criticism that the film is receiving is turning people away from it. Don't let this happen to you. This sort of film is bound to get negativity of one sort or another, but that's not a reason to give up on it. In A Game of Shadows' defense, let's briefly go over the main points of abuse being leveled at the film. Why do so many critics dislike the film? Here's why -

#1 - Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr. have turned Sherlock Holmes into an action hero.

(According to Matt Brunson, Peter Rainer, Peter Travers, Richard Roeper, Jim Judy, Mike Scott, Rick Groen, Peter Sobcynski, and etc.)

Answer: While this is the most popular criticism of the film, they've got it wrong. Conan Doyle is the one who made Holmes into a thinking man's action hero. The action is just fine as long as they combine it with intellect. Besides, I've never had a problem with Holmes applying his intellect to ridiculously elaborate and precisely timed action set pieces ever since seeing the manic depressive Basil of Baker Street as a child -



This criticism is fun-killing. Downey Jr.'s Holmes does exactly, in the train sequence, what Basil does here. It's quite fun, so don't let the whining about the action scenes stop you from seeing the film.

#2 - The film doesn’t follow the books.

(According to Jules Brenner, Ethan Alter, Mark Dujsik, Todd McCarthy and etc.)

Answer: I can only point out that Conan Doyle's The Final Problem does not "follow the books" either. It is not a traditional Holmes & Watson story and Doyle never intended for it to be. It's not set in London or at rooms of 221 B, instead it's on the international stage (thus, the inevitable and relentless comparisons to James Bond). A Game of Shadows follows the story of The Final Problem , therefore, criticizing it for not following the books is silly. While expanding on the journey Holmes and Watson take overseas, Guy Ritchie uses it to show the more vulnerable side of Holmes (something that, if you remember those little flashes of actual human emotion that would occasionally appear in Doyle's stories, like The Adventure of the Three Garridebs , DOES follow the books). If you are going to base a film on a short story, then you are going to have to elaborate. The important thing is getting the spirit of the story right, and Downey Jr. and Law get it right.

#3 - The film critics had no sense of humor and were thus frowning with deep disapproval every time Holmes or Watson would crack a joke.

(Dennis Schwartz, Matthew Razak, Kyle Smith, Mick LaSalle, Claudia Puig, Shaun Munro)

Answer: They ought not to be Scrooges this time of year. Holmes and Watson bickering like an old married couple is all part of the fun. They insult each other like old friends are supposed to. If you can't enjoy that, then ... I don't know, just go read your Ayn Rand or Franz Kafka. Actually, P.D. James would probably be more along your line of mystery story than Conan Doyle's. It is important to point out that A Game of Shadows , in spite of the occasional dark subject matter, is meant to be a light-hearted adventure romp. Holmes and Watson's tales have a smattering of philosophy in them, but, for the most part they are meant to be enjoyed. So, enjoy it.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE - FILM REVIEW (2004 - Directed by Michael Radford)


“Let not the sound of shallow foppery enter my sober house.”
- Shylock
________________________________________________________________________________

 C.S. Lewis wrote the following -

An Illyrian Duke spoke, in an air which had just ceased vibrating to the sound of music, words that seemed to come out of the very heart of some golden world of dreamlike passion: but all this was spoiled because the meddlers had told me it was the portrait of a self-deceiving or unrealistic man and given me the impression that it was my business to diagnose ... instead of submitting to the charm. Shakespeare offered me a King who could not even sentence a man to banishment without saying:

‘The sly slow hours shall not determinate The dateless limit of thy dear exile.' (Richard II, I, iii, 50)

Left to myself I would simply have drunk it in and been thankful. That is just how beautiful, willful, passionate, unfortunate kings killed long ago ought to talk. But then again the critic was at my elbow instilling the pestilential notion that I ought to prize such words chiefly as illustrations of what he called Richard's weakness, and (worse still) inviting me to admire the vulgar, bustling efficiency of Bolingbroke. I am probably being very unjust to the critics in this account. I am not even sure who they were. But somehow or other this was the sort of idea they gave me. I believe they have given it to thousands. As far as I am concerned it meant that Shakespeare became to me for many years a closed book. Read him in that way I could not; and it was some time before I had the courage to read him in any other. Only much later, reinforced with a wider knowledge of literature, and able now to rate at its true value the humble little outfit of prudential maxims which really underlay much of the talk about Shakespeare's characters, did I return and read him with enjoyment ...

... With that help I have come to one very definite conclusion. I do not say that the characters - especially the comic characters - count for nothing. But the first thing is to surrender oneself to the poetry and the situation. It is only through that you can reach the characters, and it is for their sake that the characters exist. All conceptions of the characters arrived at, so to speak, in cold blood, by working out what sort of man it would have to be who in real life would act or speak as they do, are in my opinion chimerical. The wiseacres who proceed in that way only substitute our own ideas of character and life, which are not often either profound or delectable, for the bright shapes which the poet is actually using ...

A good example of the kind of play which can be twisted out of recognition by character criticism is the Merchant of Venice. Nothing is easier than to disengage and condemn the mercenary element in Bassanio's original suit to Portia, to point out that Jessica was a bad daughter, and by dwelling on Shylock's wrongs to turn him into a tragic figure. The hero thus becomes a scamp, the heroine's love for him a disaster, the villain a hero, the last act an irrelevance, and the casket story a monstrosity. What is not explained is why anyone should enjoy such a depressing and confused piece of work. It seems to me that what we actually enjoy is something quite different. The real play is not so much about men as about metals. The horror of usury lay in the fact that it treated metal in a way contrary to nature. If you have cattle they will breed. To make money - the mere medium of exchange - breed as if it were alive is a sort of black magic. The speech about Laban and Jacob is put into Shylock's mouth to show that he cannot grasp this distinction and the Christians point out that friendship does not take ‘A breed for barren metal'. The important thing about Bassanio is that he can say, ‘Only my blood speaks to you in my veins ' and again, ‘all the wealth I had Ran in my veins '.

... The whole contrast is between the crimson and organic wealth in his veins, the medium of nobility and fecundity, and the cold, mineral wealth in Shylock's counting-house. The charge that he is a mercenary wooer is a product of prosaic analysis. The play is much nearer the Märchen level than that. When the hero marries the princess we are not expected to ask whether her wealth, her beauty, or her rank was the determining factor. They are all blended together in the simple man's conception of Princess. Of course great ladies are beautiful: of course they are rich. Bassanio compares Portia to the Golden Fleece. That strikes the proper note. And when once we approach the play with our senses and imaginations it becomes obvious that the presence of the casket story is no accident. For it also is a story about metals, and the rejection of the commercial metals by Bassanio is kind of counter-point to the conquest of Shylock's metallic power by the lady of the beautiful mountain. The very terms in which they are rejected proclaim it. Silver is the 'pale and common drudge ‘Tween man and man '. Gold is ‘Hard food for Midas ' - Midas who, like Shylock, tried to use as the fuel of life what is in its own nature dead. And the last act, so far from being an irrelevant coda, is almost the thing for which the play exists ... If I err, I err in childishness, not in sophistication."
- C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, pgs. 94-97
________________________________________________________________________________

“All that glistens is not gold.
Often have you heard that told.
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
Fare you well ... but your suit is cold."

- Portia's Father

Michael Radford's 2004 film version of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is perhaps not quite as exuberant or showy as other Shakespeare films. But it isn't all comedy. Indeed, along with All's Well That End's Well, Measure for Measure, Timon of Athens, Troilus and Cressida, and The Winter's Tale, The Merchant of Venice is often classified by critics as one of Shakespeare's “tragic comedies" or “problem plays." In other words, it encompasses elements both of tragedy and comedy - elements that any good drama or romance ought to contain. However, this is the Shakespeare play that gets much analysis, discussion and controversy from the critics based on modern interpretation.
________________________________________________________________________________

“Gratiano speaks an infinite deal of nothing, more than any man in all of Venice."
- Bassanio
________________________________________________________________________________

This is the play that leads critics to wonder if William Shakespeare was anti-Semitic. It's the play that theater and film producers wonder if they should change or edit in order to make it more palatable for the modern audience. Much discussion is had over which characters in the play are anti-Semites, over whether Antonio is really good or bad, and over whether Shylock is really the villain or a sympathetic and tragic hero.

Radford delivers a version of this play as I'd like to believe Shakespeare would have meant it to be. Yes, antisemitism is a part of history, even within Western culture. Yes, Jews were discriminated against in both England, Italy and Europe during the Renaissance. Radford even introduces these facts to us as directly and clearly as possible in the opening scenes of the film (in ways that Shakespeare probably wouldn't have). But that doesn't mean he still, as a director, doesn't get the spirit of the story right. Neither does it follow that the story of Shylock and Antonio is a story about antisemitism.

If you want to analyze the play by deciding which characters are anti-Semites (or whether Shakespeare himself was) you are entirely missing out on something of far more value. There is a charm and beauty to this play that, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, you will lose by overanalysis (whether you are politicizing it for ideological reasons or psychologically evaluating each character). This sort of thinking also annoyed G.K. Chesterton extremely, who wrote -
________________________________________________________________________________

“I will take a typical case, which sums up the whole of this absurd fashion. There was a controversy in the columns of an important daily paper, some time ago, on the subject of the character of Shylock in Shakespeare. Actors and authors of distinction, including some of the most brilliant of living Jews, argued the matter from the most varied points of view. Some said that Shakespeare was prevented by the prejudices of his time from having a complete sympathy with Shylock. Some said that Shakespeare was only restrained by fear of the powers of his time from expressing his complete sympathy with Shylock. Some wondered how or why Shakespeare had got hold of such a queer story as that of the pound of flesh, and what it could possibly have to do with so dignified and intellectual a character as Shylock. In short, some wondered why a man of genius whould be so much of an Anti-Semite, and some stoutly declared that he must have been a Pro-Semite. But all of them in a sense admitted that they were puzzled as to what the play was about. The correspondence filled column after column and went on for weeks. And from one end of that correspondence to the other, no human being even so much as mentioned the word ‘usury.’ It is exactly as if twenty clever critics were set down to talk for a month about the play of Macbeth, and were all strictly forbidden to mention the word ‘murder.’

The play called The Merchant of Venice happens to be about usury, and its story is a medieval satire on usury. It is the fashion to say that it is a clumsy and grotesque story; but as a fact it is an exceedingly good story. It is a perfect and pointed story for its purpose, which is to convey the moral of the story. And the moral is that the logic of usury is in its nature at war with life. In other words, if a creditor can always claim a man’s tools or a man’s home, he might quite as justly claim one of his arms or legs. This principle was not only embodied in medieval satires but in very sound medieval laws, which set a limit on the usurer who was trying to take away a man’s livelihood, as the usurer in the play is trying to take away a man’s life. And if anybody thinks that usury can never be got to lengths wicked enough to be worthy of so wild an image, then that person either knows nothing about it or knows too much.

... All this, I say, is a fact that must be faced, but there is another side to the case, and it is this that the genius of Shakespeare discovered. What he did do, and what the medieval satirist did not do, was to attempt to understand Shylock; in the true sense to sympathise with Shylock the money-lender, as he sympathised with Macbeth the murderer. It was not to deny that the man was an usurer, but to assert that the usurer was a man. And the Elizabethan dramatist does make him a man, where the medieval satirist made him a monster. Shakespeare not only makes him a man but a perfectly sincere and self-respecting man."
- G.K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (1920), pgs. 278-280
________________________________________________________________________________

Think over some of Shakespeare's other villains. Did their race, class or religion really ever matter? Don John from Much Ado About Nothing was Spanish, but so was his good brother, Don Pedro. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are Scottish. Claudius (like most of the characters in Hamlet) is Danish. Joan of Arc is obviously French. Iago (like most of the characters in Othello) is Italian. Tamora from Titus Andronicus is a Goth (but almost every character in that play is bad). Aaron is a Moor, but so is the sympathetic tragic hero of Othello. Edmund from King Lear and Richard III are both English. In fact, I think all the rest of Shakespeare's bad guys are English. So why should Shakespeare be antisemitic just because the money lender/usurer bad guy in The Merchant of Venice is Jewish (an obvious stereotype of the time period)?

This film version gets Chesterton's understanding of Shylock as a character. And Al Pacino adds so much to the part - craftiness, martyrdom, determination, passion, rage, and utter sadness - that, while he plays the role of one of Shakespeare's villains, he's as completely human and sympathetic as Shakespeare meant him to be. In fact, the whole film is entirely well cast. Jeremy Irons brings a dignity and melancholy to the part of Antonio. Joseph Fiennes is a soft-spoken and humble Bassanio. Lynn Collins mixes beauty, wit and understandably conflicting emotions into the character of Portia. Kris Marshall's Gratiano and Heather Goldenhersh's Nerissa provide some of the comic relief. Charlie Cox plays plays Lorenzo with equal parts cheerfulness and innocence. Zuleikha Robinson's Jessica is both coy and childlike. Each character is unique, but also fills a sort of stereotype.

Distracted by all the racial and political analysis of the play and film, critics can forget that The Merchant of Venice is actually an enchanting, nuanced and complex story. Different meaningful themes run through the play and Radford picks up on all of them. There's the problem of things and people not being what or who they first appear to be. In other words, appearances are deceiving. (Each girl main character, typical to Shakespeare, at one point or other dresses up as a male to fool other characters.) The appearances and messages in the three chests are not what they first seem to be. Antonio and Shylock both don't always follow the religions they at first seem to hold to. The hopefully profitable act of borrowing money on credit is not what it first appears to be. This is a story filled with trickery and deception. The young people interested in love have to carefully navigate this world in order to win success. The older people interested in wealth have to manipulate and work through risks and dangers in order to be successful.

________________________________________________________________________________

"So may the outward shows be least themselves.
The world is still deceived with ornament.
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt
but being seasoned with a gracious voice
obscures the show of evil?
In religion, what damned error
but some sober brow will bless it
and approve it with a text,
hiding the grossness with fair ... ornament?
Look on beauty and you shall see
'tis purchased by the weight."

- Bassanio
________________________________________________________________________________

Radford's film adaptation is so good because he understands the crisscrossing themes of the story. The Merchant of Venice is a reflection on the nature of man, the requirements of real love, and the difference between justice and mercy, law and grace. Radford, early on, chooses to show how the Jews are being treated unjustly. They are not being treated in this society as they deserve. He even explains in the opening credits, essentially, that Shylock is a moneylender because Venetian discrimination has left him with no other choice. In the opening scene, a Jewish Shylock (forced to wear a red hat like a badge of identification) looks for sympathy or mercy from Antonio while other Christians are assaulting other Jews. The Christian Antonio has one response - he spits in disgust in Shylock's face and turns his back to him.

Antonio, with his willingness to help and even die for his friend, demonstrates a few Christian virtues. But he's inherently flawed and shows it by his attitude toward Shylock. Shylock's hatred is created by the way Antonio and other Christians have treated him and his people all his life. And while this hatred is obviously a dangerous flaw in Shylock's character, it demonstrates a flaw in Antonio's character (and the Christian Venetian society) as well. That Radford gets this is demonstrated by the wordless scenes he has added to the film, and it is also demonstrated by Jeremy Irons' persistent sadness. Irons plays Antonio with a world weariness - a weariness that is only really shared by Pacino's Shylock. This stands in stark contrast to the other younger characters' pursuit of joy. And it makes Pacino's best scene, one of the most famous speeches in all of Shakespeare's plays, more meaningful. It is only after losing his daughter and then being angrily confronted by Antonio's friends and asked if he really means to insist on what the law entitles him to that Shylock reveals his soul. Shylock is a man who is not free, not given the rights that the Christians in Venice are given. It has warped and twisted him. And yet, twisted and corrupted as he is, he is still entirely and believably human.
________________________________________________________________________________

"He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million,
laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains,
cooled my friends, heated mine enemies, and what's his reason? I am a Jew!
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands?
Organs, dimensions? Senses, affections, passions?
Fed with the same food? Hurt with the same weapons?
Subject to the same diseases? Healed by the same means?
Warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?
If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.
If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge.
If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be
by Christian example? Why, revenge.
The villainy you teach me I will execute.
And it shall go hard but I will better the instruction."

- Shylock
________________________________________________________________________________

Shylock fundamentally misunderstands Christianity because of his experience with Christians. This is an insight into reality that we can completely apply and remember in our experiences today. There are still plenty of people with Shylock's understandable view of Christianity today.

This is what makes Shylock a more interesting Shakespearean villain than most. His insistence on something that is evil is in rebellion to the evil with which he has been treated and enslaved. He is simply turning the tables on the society that has mistreated him for so long. There is a very logical method to his madness. Al Pacino plays him straight and passionately without any need to overact or be in any way flamboyant, and by doing that, Pacino even makes the character a little likeable. You identify with his rage against injustice. And in this rage against injustice, he insists on what the unjust society he lives in calls justice. And by doing that, he becomes unjust himself. He uses the law created by his oppressors against his oppressors. In this sense, Antonio is a symbol of everything Shylock has suffered against his whole life.

Like Chesterton, Harold Bloom also wrote (in Shakespeare - The Invention of the Human) that there was something different about Shakespeare's Shylock - "There is an extraordinary energy in Shylock's prose and poetry, a force both cognitive and passional, which palpably is in excess of the play's comic requirements." (pg. 171.) "... if only Shylock's voice and presence would stop reverberating, which they never have and never will, four centuries after Shakespeare composed, and in the centuries to come ... Shakespeare, we can assume, was Shakespeare's greatest critic, and he would have been aware that Shylock, comic or not, was a grander achievement than Antonio could be." (pgs. 178-179.) "... no previous figure in the plays has anything like Shylock's strength, complexity, and vital potential." (pg. 182.)


With this in mind, Jeremy Irons' melancholy suddenly makes more sense. While Shylock is oppressed by the law of Venice, Antonio accepts the same law and follows it almost blindly. He takes no pleasure in his role, and he accepts the risks of his profession passively and almost fatalistically.

"I hold the world but
as the world, Gratiano -
a stage where every man
must play his part, and mine a sad one."


When he binds himself to the pound-of-flesh-pact-with-the-devil, he practically considers it a joke. And when the consequences of borrowing on more credit than his diminishing resources can support look to turn lethal, he still passively accepts the system in which he lives.

"The duke cannot deny the course of law.
For the commodity that strangers have
with us in Venice, if it be denied,
will much impeach the justice of the state."


In one sense, you get the feeling that there's a certain nobility about Antonio. But in another, there is something suffocating about it. He has bound himself with a vow to pay back his usury loans with his life, and he is so accepting of the culture in which he lives, that it doesn't seem to either surprise or bother him. He takes financial risks, and then is willing to go down with the ship. But there is nothing pleasurable about it, and he leads a sad and melancholy life. A life that is so depressed that you sort of understand why Irons plays him in such a way that Shylock's threats don't even seem to give him any second-thoughts about its value.

In purposeful contrast, the lovers of the play are also dealing in vows, promises and risks. But they are taking these risks and making these values in pursuit of one another. The danger in the story is that their vows and promises actually mean something. In the society in which we live today, people are living above their means with huge, overcharged lines of credit and debt because the promises our society makes about borrowing money have ceased to be meaningful. We currently have a government working under the philosophy that you can pay back your debts by taking out more debts. The consequences of this slavery to debt are just beginning to hit us.

In the same sense, in the society in which we live today, romance, dating and marriage relationships are no longer taken as seriously. Vows you make at a wedding can be terminated at any time. There is no risk in taking a marriage vow, or in promising to be faithful to a romantic partner, if modern society doesn't expect you to be able to follow them anyhow. We currently have culture of countless failed and failing relationships. The consequences of this low view of marriage and romance are still just beginning to hit us.

Shakespeare's characters have fundamentally different views on the nature of vows and romance. Anthony Esolen explains -

"‘Greater love than this hath no man’, says Jesus, prophesying his death, ‘than to lay down his life for his friends.’ In The Merchant of Venice, the merchant Antonio, apparently bankrupt, is willing to die for his friend Bassanio yet wins no credit from the modern audience. Why so? I concede that, after our recent miserable century, the most tolerant Jewish reader might not stomach [what happens at the end.] Yet Shakespeare knew little about Jewish piety, perhaps as little as the typical secular theatergoer today. There were, basically, no Jews in his England. But there were loan sharks; wherever there are cities and idle young men, you are going to find that predator prowling about, seeking whom to devour. And there were Puritans. If the Jew reminded Shakespeare’s audience of anyone they might meet as they stumbled home after the show, it was the sober, circumspect, thrifty, self-righteous Puritan.

"That too is liable to be misunderstood by the modern audience ... The Puritans of old often mistook innocent merriment for lust. We have advanced beyond that. We no longer know ‘innocent merriment.’ All is lust, and lust is good. A glance at our mass entertainment will show that we have combined the vices of the precise, scheming, bet-hedging prig with the dissipation of the debauched. We do not know what is wrong with Shylock, because what is wrong with Shylock is wrong with us; nor do we know what is right with all the adventurous lovers in the play ..."
(pg. 183.)

Esolen is arguing that our understanding of this play is hindered by our modern cultural values. He continues -

"Love must make one vulnerable. You cannot love if you are not willing to be wounded. That is in the first instance an acknowledgment of frailty. The streets of Shakespeare’s Venice are crowded with men and women whose love is shown most nobly through embarrassed circumstances: Bassanio overspends himself; Portia obeys the terms of her deceased father’s lottery; Nerissa ties her fate to Portia’s; Jessica steals from her father’s house dressed as a boy. Her blushing modesty is as winning as her courage:

'I am glad ‘tis night, you do not look on me,
For I am much asham’d of my exchange.
But love is blind, and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit,
For if they could, Cupid himself would blush
To see me thus transformed to a boy.'

"... Both hazard and forgiveness - hazard of body and soul, forgiveness of debts and follies and sin - are essential to the comic vision of this play. It is not simply that we are frail but that our strength lies in openness to the wound. He who would gain his life must lose it ... ‘Who chooseth me’, says the message on the leaden casket, ‘ must give and hazard all he hath’."


"... when we meet Portia, we first learn that her father has not left her marriage up to her. He has instead set up a kind of magic lottery that reveals the character of her suitors ... To understand that this lottery is more than the whim of an old man, you must understand that Portia is a pearl of great price; to gain her, you would sell all you have. But if you understand that, you will know the romance of the hazard ... So Bassanio risks a life of happiness in this venture, which he will win only if knows that winning depends upon his willingness to throw cautious reckoning to the winds. He will win Portia’s love only by love. A lottery is a lottery, and though we know that Bassanio has to choose correctly, he and Portia are apprehensive. If she were a shrew, she would ignore her father’s will and dispense with the game. If he were a cad, he would take the oath in bad faith, intending to break it should he lose. The game is no game unless the players are noble and accept the hazard, obeying the rules, come what may. They really are vulnerable. That is clear from Portia’s sweet attempt to delay Bassanio’s choice. She would detain him for a month, she says, adding that she could teach him how to choose right but that she will not, lest she be forsworn ... Shakespeare knew what we have forgotten, that the hazard is essential to love. It does not cease with a betrothal. Rather, the betrothal is when it really begins ... In the light of the brave risk of these young, delightful lovers, we interpret the rest of the play ..." (pgs. 184, 189-191.)

The romance of the characters in Shakespeare's play is not the romance most of us are encouraged to experience in modern society. In fact, there is an argument to be made that Elizabethan romance is dead. Dating and relationships are crafted today in the attempt to avoid the natural risks inherent in older romantic relationships.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

HUGO - FILM REVIEW (2011 - Directed by Martin Scorsese)


“Wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers ... come and dream with me.”
- Papa Georges
______________________________________________________________________________________________

Part One - Go Ahead

The very first thing about this film that I'm obliged to demand of you is to ignore, ignore, ignore all the advertisements and trailers for it. Erase them from your mind. There are some terribly incompetent forces in advertising out there, and every once in a while, they get their hands on a good work and market it out of all recognition. Combine that with the fact that all film advertising is, understandably, supposed to try and cater to that which is popular (and during the holidays it is assumed we like the tawdry Robert Zemeckis styled garishness we've supported at the box office in the past). The end result is that a lovingly crafted, genuinely moving film (like this one) will be advertised as the cheap, cliche-ridden, kitschy irritating eyewash that often does so well at the box office.

In our short-attention span age, one can't help but get the uncomfortable impression that almost all Hollywood films designed for children are designed to assist you in raising the most emotionally and spiritually stunted kids possible. In 2011 alone, the majority of "family friendly" fare has been at best brain-cell killing, and at worst, helping to shape your child into a soulless automaton. If you've been trying to take your children to the movie theater, so far you've been presented with options like:

(1) A particularly stupid cartoon mutilation of Romeo and Juliet (Gnomeo and Juliet), which is not, by the way, how you introduce your children to Shakespeare. (2) The story of the emotional travails of an overworked larynx belonging to a screeching prepubescent child (Justin Bieber: Never Say Never). (3) A reptilian cartoon western (narrated by an annoying mariachi band of owls by the way) with dialogue written by a 10-year-old (Rango). (4) The tale of a creepy walking corpse (motion-captured) kid who has to rescue his dead-eyed soulless mom from some fairly normal looking cartoon aliens (Mars Needs Moms). (5) Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2 - the title says it all. (6) A travesty about (a) an extremely irritating jelly-bean pooping bunny, and (b) a loser whose life dream is to learn how to hop and be a bunny too (Hop). (7) A sequel which replaces the clever humor of the original with fart jokes and gags about getting hit in the crotch (Hoodwinked Too!). (8) An adaptation abortion of a beloved children's book that replaces the original story with gags like showing a penguin pooping on a man's face (Mr. Popper's Penguins). I must ... keep ... but no. This list is getting redundant. I could describe more - Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Monte Carlo, Zookeeper, The Smurfs, Real Steel, Happy Feet Two - but suffice to say that you are destroying what could otherwise be quite innocent and magical childhoods by taking your kids to any of these movies.

In stark contrast, Martin Scorsese's Hugo stands as a work of the imagination capable of inspiring, ennobling or awakening anyone with a childlike soul. This film contains children protagonists, with tough problems of their own, but who wonder about the world around them, who actually think about and discuss what it means to have purpose and meaning, and who look out to people other than themselves with the intent of figuring out how to help them. In other words, the natural intelligence and moral abilities of children is actually assumed by the film (instead of assuming their nonexistence).
______________________________________________________________________________________________

"Everything has a purpose, even machines. Maybe that’s why broken machines make me so sad: They can’t do what they’re meant to do. Maybe it’s the same with people ... I'd imagine the whole world was a machine. Machines don’t come with extra parts, you know."
- Hugo
______________________________________________________________________________________________

Hugo is essentially a film about the power of the imagination. My saying this might sound nice, but good luck getting far with a phrase like that. The “power of the imagination” could be an easy cliche, but while it’s easy to like, in a few minutes let’s take what the idea means a little farther. Scorsese takes us here into an eye-catching train station in a cold and snowy Paris. The film’s protagonist, Hugo, is a parentless child who lives inside the walls of the train station, caring for, fixing and winding the station's large collection of clocks. Thus we are taken into a world of secret passages, tunnels, small twisting hallways, hidden rooms, winding staircases, little windows, mazes of drain pipes, steam pipes, fog, mist and snow. This is why watching the film in 3D is worth it - once Hugo climbs into the gears, shafts, swinging pendulums, wheels, parts, hanging ladders and intricate clockwork, it’s enough alone to keep you spellbound.

This film is also a mystery. An old discarded broken automaton, constructed by its maker to write a mysterious message, becomes the focus of the first half of the film. Somehow, Scorsese manages to give the automaton a slightly otherwordly look. So you can’t help but share the two children’s fascination with it. It was created for a purpose, and if Hugo can find out what that purpose is, he’s convinced that the answer will change his life. Solving the mystery turns out not to be an easy task. And it takes a particular amount of faith and determination in order even to try. But Hugo and Isabelle are determined to try, and that's what makes for a rollicking good story.

Another part of the magic of this story consists entirely with the well-built characters. Rarely does a film develop its entire cast of characters to something other than cardboard cutout stereotypes, but Hugo makes every character important. Asa Butterfield (Son of Rambow, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) plays Hugo, and it’s his best role to date - he gives the character a passionate energy that other child actors struggle even to hint at. With Scorsese’s penchant for using the same actors through a whole series of films, you can’t help but look forward to what he could find for Butterfield next. And I'm not the most sympathetic of film goers when it comes to child characters. I have a bad habit of finding them annoying enough to wreck a film. But Butterfield's intensity makes his philosophic lines later in the film entirely believable. He makes you end up wanting to believe what he believes.

In spite of what other critics are saying, Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass, Let Me In) as Isabelle is a charming conspirator-in-arms for Hugo. She's the romantic, literary, and adventurous playmate that hopefully you had at least once as a child. Her character is a voracious reader, and good luck betting any odds that your English vocabulary is as extensive as hers. (She says things like "And I think we should be very clandestine" or "Being enigmatic really doesn’t suit you.") She somehow manages to apply the experiences of Sydney Carton (A Tale of Two Cities), Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights), and Jean Valjean (Les Miserables) to her every day life. She recites Christina Rossetti's poetry on cue, and she thinks the bookshop is the most wonderful place on earth. How can Hugo resist being drawn to her?
______________________________________________________________________________________________

Isabelle: “How about letting me see your covert lair.”
Hugo: “My what?”
______________________________________________________________________________________________

Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat, Sweeney Todd) is the station inspector, who, if not the villain of the story, is still the foil for Hugo's self-surviving thieving ways. Cohen brings his comedic talents for delivering most of Inspector Gustav's lines ("His hand was trespassing in a paper bag with the intent of removing its contents" ... "Are they, are they ... are they smelly? Are they smelly flowers?" ..."He is disturbed by your physio-cology.
He doesn’t like your visage."
), but also surprisingly shows hints, perhaps for the first time in his career, of an actual ability to act in showing hints of a deep sadness behind all the bravado.

Jude Law has a cameo appearance as Hugo's clockmaker father. Helen McCrory (Harry Potter) has a small but well nuanced and sweet turn as the toymaker's wife. Ray Winstone (The Departed, King Arthur) is Hugo's cigar-smoking, drunk uncle. Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man, Boardwalk Empire) relishes an enthusiastic turn as a historian. The rest of the cast makes up the colorful and enjoyable characters that inhabit the train station.

Emily Mortimer (Shutter Island, Dear Frankie) is the flower stand girl. Richard Griffiths (Harry Potter) is the owner of the newspaper stand. Frances de la Tour (Harry Potter) is the owner of the French cafe/bakery/pastry shop. Scorsese allows us to watch all these characters as Hugo watches them. They are the life of the train station and you enjoy watching them interact as much as Hugo does. There are even two ongoing potential romances in the station, but one of them is thwarted by the inopportune squeaking of a leg brace while the other is obstructed (as many a romance often is) by the bad-temper of a highly suspicious little dog.

Christopher Lee (Lord of the Rings) is the imposing, observational, and purposeful bookshop owner who ends up giving Hugo the book, Robin Hood le proscrit by Alexandre Dumas (with N.C. Wyeth on the cover). His bookshop, by the way, is made by the filmmakers to look exactly like an old bookshop ought to look. Overstuffed and overflowing with old ancient editions, tomes, and classics, not enough book shelves for all the options, and therefore towering stacks and looming piles of books from floor to ceiling converting the entire shop into a maze of endless books.

And then, we have what is probably the best performance of the entire film, but more on him later ...

First, let's take another look at the possible cliche of this being a story about the power of the imagination. Genuine imagination, as I hinted at in the first three paragraphs, is fairly rare in our modern day culture. The greatest story tellers, either from today or back in history, are always those story tellers with the largest and most compelling imaginations. This idea reminded me of an essay that one of them wrote "On Stories."

I'll admit that C.S. Lewis's idea, in this essay, took me a little while to wrap my mind around. But once you get it, you'll think of film and literature in just a little more of a cultivated way.

It's an idea that has to do with the exercise of the imagination or the lack thereof. The idea is this - there is something about a good story that is far more important than merely how exciting the dangers are, or how erotic the sensuality is, or how quantitative the violence, death or destruction is. When a story awakens our imaginations, it isn't because of how many gags or how much slapstick, violence, sex, death or danger that the storyteller can manages to cram all into one film or book.

Lewis writes that, when thinking about good stories -
"... nearly everyone makes the assumption that ‘excitement’ is the only pleasure they ever give or are intended to give. Excitement, in this sense, may be defined as the alternate tension and appeasement of imagined anxiety. This is what I think untrue. In some such books [or stories], and for some readers [or film goers], another factor comes in." (pg. 6)

Well, alright, but that is a little difficult for me to understand. I tend to judge a film or book by how well it appeals to my emotions. Films that excite me or tug at my heartstrings seem superior to me than the ones which don't.

C.S. Lewis continues -

"... where excitement is the only thing that matters kinds of danger must be irrelevant. Only degrees of danger will matter. The greater the danger and the narrower the hero’s escape from it, the more exciting a story will be. But when we are concerned with the ‘something else’ this is not so. Different kinds of danger strike different chords from the imagination." (pg. 7)

"No doubt if sheer excitement is all you want from a story, and if increase in dangers increases excitement, then a rapidly changing series of two risks ([for instance] that of being burned alive and that of being crushed to bits) would be better than [oh say] the single prolonged danger of starving to death in a cave. But that is just the point. There must be a pleasure in such stories distinct from mere excitement ..." (pg. 5)

You can, for example, have two authors or filmmakers tell the exact same story, with the exact same dangers and villains, and one will affect your imagination and the other will not. The degree of excitement that a film gives you is distinct from the imaginative power of the same film. Lewis even wonders "whether the ‘excitement’ may not be an element actually hostile to the deeper imagination." (pg. 10) This is because the kind of pleasure that a good story can give you is misunderstood ... by most of us.

In Hugo, the mystery that the child has to solve, fixing that eery looking automaton in order to discover its secret message, does not, quantitatively speaking, involve that great a deal of excitement. This would demonstrate why, in a few reviews and comments I've heard on the film, some people don't think that Hugo and Isabelle are really given that much of an adventure. Early in the film, it even becomes apparent that there isn't really going to be a dangerous villain out to get Hugo or anyone else. Other than the occasional possibility that he might misnavigate and slip from the towers and ladders of the inner workings of the train station clockwork, the degree of danger Hugo has to face isn't that substantial - at least from one point of view.

The antagonist in the film, in fact, really turns out to be nothing more than life itself, with all the pain, loss, suffering, disappointments, problems and unsatisfied longings that it brings us. The real danger Hugo faces is that of being lost, alone and disillusioned with the fate that life has given him (like another different person in the film).
______________________________________________________________________________________________

"There are things you are too young to understand. You should not know such sadness."
- Mama Jeanne
______________________________________________________________________________________________

But Scorsese doesn't need to add arbitrary dangers or villains in order to make Hugo into a good and imaginative story, "stuck on," as Lewis complains, often "to make the narrative more sensational." (pg. 12) Another common storytelling distinction that critics like to make is the difference between reality and fiction. But if this film is really exploring the power of the imagination, then we need to distinguish between the imagination and something else. Imaginative storytelling can make use of both reality and fiction together or separately. So how do we distinguish that which is Non-imaginative storytelling?

Another writer I enjoy who often provides thought-provoking commentary on our modern culture is named Roger Scruton. He distinguishes between what he calls the imagination and fantasy. In his book, Beauty, Scruton writes:

"True art appeals to the imagination, whereas effects elicit fantasy. Imaginary things are pondered, fantasies are acted out. Both fantasy and imagination concern unrealities; but while the unrealities of fantasy penetrate and pollute our world, thsoe of the imagination exist in a world of their own, in which we wander freely and in a condition of sympathetic detachment.

Modern society abounds in fantasy objects, since the realistic image, in photograph, cinema and TV screen, offers surrogate fulfilment to our forbidden desires, thereby permitting them. A fantasy desire seeks neither a literary description, nor a delicate painting of its object, but a simulacrum - an image from which all veils of hesitation have been torn away ... The ideal fantasy is perfectly realized, and perfectly unreal - an imaginary object that leaves nothing to the imagination ... Imagined scenes, by contrast, are not realized but represented; they come to us soaked in thought, and in no sense are they surrogates, standing in place of the unobtainable. On the contrary, they are deliberately placed at a distance ..."
(pgs. 104-105)

The point is that there is a difference between fantasy, in the sense of simulated emotional highs crafted to satisfy the appetites of our desires, and imagination, which explores a created world in which joy and satisfaction are won by the adventures, work, trials, temptations, and effort of the characters. Imaginative films engage us by leading us through the pleasure of considering something that is other than ourselves. Fantasy films, in the sense of the word as Scruton uses it, disengage us by appealing to our appetites and desires and offering that which isn't real to temporarily sate them.
______________________________________________________________________________________________

"Through the work of art, by contrast, we encounter a world of real, vulnerable and living people, which we can enter only by an effort of the imagination, and where we, like they, are on trial ... The matter of imagination is not realized but represented; it comes to us, as a rule heavily masked by thought ...

The Greeks knew what our cineastes have since discovered - that the portrayal of sex and violence is the natural object of fantasy, and slides of its own accord from realism to realisation. Hence it disrupts the work of the imagination ... [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge described the posture of the reader (and therefore the spectator in the theatre) as a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. He should have written a ‘willing suspension of belief’: all pleasure and emotion depend on knowing that the action on stage is unreal. And the spectators enter this unreality by an act of will, not in search of surrogates for their own desires, but in order to explore a world that is not their own."

- Scruton, Modern Culture, pgs. 56-57
______________________________________________________________________________________________

Within the philosophy of art, another topic of interest involves the effect of commercialism upon a given art form (like film). The forces of supply and demand in the market operate upon the film industry. Bad films are often made, precisely because they make a profit at the box office. Dumb films are made for children because parents pay money to take their children to see dumb films. And, in our present egalitarian consumer society, the difference between a good and bad film is dismissed purely as a matter of personal taste.

But our personal tastes do not determine how imaginative a storyteller or filmmaker is. Neither do the they determine if any given film is actually only offering us cheap visceral thrills (like Jackass or Saw) which essentially consists of fantasy offered for the every so transient stimulation of our appetites by filmmakers who ramp up the degrees of danger to infinite excess in order to merely offer the greatest quantitative amount of excitement possible. The result? A bad story that will not appeal to your imagination. Look, if the general public is willing to pay for trite cliches, then trite cliches is exactly what the market will give them. But there is a danger here. And the danger is that the market forces which we create by our own demands will eliminate those who offer us imaginative work instead.

Part Two - If You Haven’t Seen the Film Yet, Stop Reading, and Go See It (Spoilers Ahead)