Archive for genre

You Say Sharknado, I say Potato: When the Real Shark-in-the-Tornado …is Man

Posted in movies, stupidity, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2013 by drayfish

Sharknado picture

IMAGE: Sharknado (The Asylum)

In a week in which Sharknado was a thing, you might well think that humanity’s artistic expression had reached its zenith.

Having climbed so high, breathed the sweet serene of such wonder, you may fear that there are no more dreams to pursue, no more untrammelled caverns of the imagination left to explore.  Sure, Shakespeare might have blathered on about morality and mortality and love and stuff, and Picasso may have deconstructed the very ways in which we perceive our world, but Beverly Hill 90210’s Ian Ziering blasted Sharks out of the sky with a gun and (spoiler alert) chainsawed his way through one (with a chainsaw!) straight into the pantheon of awesome.

And you know what?  Maybe we did fly too close to the sun on this one, people.  Because once the chocolate of sharks was mixed with the peanut butter of tornado there was no going back – no chance to un-taste the sweet mana against which everything else will pale.  No doubt all culture, all civilisation, is but a downward spiral from here.

Fear not: I’m not going to do a critical exploration of Sharknado (wow, that is a fun word to say).  After all, can you explain the majesty of a sunrise?  Quantify the myriad wonders of the ocean’s splendour – even if it has been sucked up into a swirling vortex, agitated, and methodically sprayed all over southern California’s d-list celebrities in a rain of ropey CGI and rubber puppets?

No, for me the most curious thing about Sharknado (it just rolls off the tongue) – aside from the fact that it legitimately did somehow thread that impossible needle of self-awareness and ham-fisted B-movie cheese, becoming so blisteringly bonkers that it transcended into joy – was the way in which it was so wholeheartedly embraced by social media.

For anyone with even a passing awareness of Twitter or the Book of Face, the coming of Sharknado (it’s the ‘nado’ part that I like most) was like the arrival into some pop-culture promised land.  As Sharknado (at this point I just like typing it) went to air, Twitter feeds and Facebook walls unified  in an explosion of unmitigated glee.  The AV Club awarded it an ‘A’ for its glorious schlockery; the NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour sardonically, but still enthusiastically, praised its excess, and Uproxx offered a suitably giddy recap after whipping themselves into an expectant flurry before its premiere.  All of America was suddenly sitting on the one sprawling electronic couch, sarcastically riffing at the screen.

Somebody has probably already made this equivalence somewhere else, but what struck me was the superbly ironic poetic correlation between the tornado that lifted those ravenous cartoon fish from the ocean and shook them into a frenzy, and the storm of social media that scooped everyone up from their viewing complacency, likewise stirring them into a maelstrom of applause and derision.

And so, all the redundant narrative tropes intentionally woven into the script were merrily torn to shreds: humanity’s environmental hubris and the political inaction that probably brought this horror upon ourselves (who knows? the film pays lip-service to these ideas, but nothing ever sticks); the beautiful young love-interest with the tortured past, scarred by her (don’t-cha-know-it) shark-related trauma; the parents and offspring reconnecting amidst the cacophony of jump-scares, buckets of red corn syrup, and sharks blasting out of manholes and raining from the sky; the contortions of plot necessary to manoeuvre a helicopter into a tornado so as to makeshift-bomb the sharks still swirling around in the funnel (do not look away: this is happening); Tara Reid’s  … well, just Tara Reid, I guess.

Admittedly Sharknado (I believe it’s both a noun and a verb), unlike other spectacular B-movie disasters like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room or James Nguyen’s Birdemic, was proverbial chum in the water, completely self-aware, and methodically designed to be every bit as bombastic and ridiculous as it could on an intentionally shoestring budget.  Indeed, the film knowingly, gleefully waved its hammy underbelly in everyone’s faces, inviting them to bite.

And bite they did, churned up in a whimsical bloodbath of irony and froth that celebrated the glorious spectacle of genre movie-making at its most absurd.  It was a combination of snark and Twitter.  It was Snarkwitter.

Or Snitter?  …Twark?

Whatever.

Because in contrast to turgid, pretentious drudgery like Man of Steel, Sharknado (why does it never get old?) – equally as lazy and hyperactive as filmmaking can be – reinvigorated that simple delight of sharing a gloriously bad cinematic fever dream with friends, ultimately reminding us that in the end, we the viewers are the real flying sharks.

…Or something.

BJ Novak Sharknado

IMAGE: from B.J. Novak’s Twitter feed

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The Walking Smurf: Smurf Village and the Birth of Modern Zombie Fiction

Posted in comics, criticism, literature, movies, television, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2013 by drayfish

IMAGE: The Walking Dead (Telltale Games)

In my first few weeks at college (sometime back around the Mesolithic era), I remember being flushed with the joy of sitting around a table with friends, and together, gleefully over-analysing the shows that we had loved as children with our newfound, half-misunderstood academic jargon.

We handily rationalised away He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983) as the colourful delusions of a spoiled young socialite, Prince Adam, who was clearly a raging drug addict.*  As we saw it, Adam – after taking some ‘Power of Grayskull’ (total euphemism) – would lose himself in a world of paranoid hallucinations, only to see his personal demons made manifest as hairy bodybuilders and hideous fluorescent beasts.  In fact, poor Skeletor was probably a sponsor Adam’s parents had hired to clean up his act.  Adam’s sworn ‘enemy’ was always trying to steal He-Man’s powers after all (trying to convince him to pull out of this narcotic death-spiral, more like), and as thanks he gets pictured as a flamboyant Grim Reaper.  Nice.

The Smurfs (1981), we decided, was a subversive, indoctrinating endorsement of Communism.  The clues were there.  In Smurf village everyone has their assigned roles in a working class that functions to serve the greater good.  Papa Smurf, the leader distributing all that material wealth based upon need, is depicted wearing a red cap.  Brainy always gets booted out of the community whenever he sneaks into Papa’s private hoard of literature and starts trying to educate himself above his station.  Even Gargamel, always trying to turn the Smurfs into gold, could be a symbol of Western Capitalism, trying to lure these Communist faithfuls away from their cooperative social structure and into doom…**

As we sat around riffing on these analyses, spooling out the connective tissue of each metaphorical leap, we thought that we had broken new ground – unravelled a mystery with a heretofore undiscovered interpretive key.  It was… genius.  Stupid, pointless, momentary genius.  And we were laughing ourselves giddy.  …This was, of course, before the time of Google (yes, as hard as it is to recall now, there was a time before Google), where a 0.00013 second search of the terms ‘Communism’ and ‘Smurf’ would have immediately (or in 0.00013 seconds) obliterated our smug, pioneering reverie (in fact, here are some right now…)

Papa Smurf Comic Book

IMAGE: Joseph Stalin Papa Smurf (Peyo)

My slightly tangential point is: The Smurfs have been accused of many things over the years – as this cackling table of cartoon revisionists exhibit.  Some have indeed seen them as a subversive endorsement of Communism; some have seen them as an animated metaphor of a creepy hippie commune (‘Hey, put on a shirt, Hefty! And I think the FDA wants to check the chemical composition of those ‘Smurfberries’ you’re cultivating, Farmer Smurf’); some have lamented the mutilation of language that inevitably occurs when you replace every third word with ‘Smurf’.  (I mean, is it as a verb?  A noun?  An adjective?  I heard one of them once use it as a preposition.  It was enough to make me lose myself in a fit of Smurfing profanity.)

But one thing for which, until recently, I was unaware that I had Smurf Village to thank, was its impact upon the modern Zombie genre.  Yes:

Zombies!

(This could well be old news to many people currently reading this post and rolling their eyes at my ignorance – but it was a surprising revelation to me.  So please bare with my naiveté as I chase this realisation down…)

Like Vampires before them, Zombies are incredibly hot right now.  The Walking Dead (after a second season slump) is once again winning rave reviews on television; World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, has become a bestselling work of popular fiction and is coming soon to a cinema near you; narrative collisions like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies have given birth to a whole new shelf-space for genre pastiche in bookstores (whether you want them to or not); videogames like Left for Dead, The Last of Us, DayZ, Call of Duty’s zombie modes, Dead Space, everysinglegameanywhereever, have embraced zombies as metaphors, as narrative devices, as bullet sponges; and zombies have even seeped into political campaigns, such as in Joss Whedon’s hilarious Mitt Romney ‘endorsement’ for President in 2012 (here).  It has seemingly never been a better time to be an aficionado of the zombie genre – or rather, a devotee to zombie fiction has never had so much material to consume.

When one thinks of zombies, the first images that springs to mind are likely blood, gore, rotting flesh, and head cavities popped open like salad bowls to expose their tasty brains…  A tale about magical woodland sprites that live harmoniously in mushrooms is probably not top of the list, but in fact these creatures came to offer one of the earliest articulations of the modern zombie fiction popularised by George A. Romero’s revolutionary Night of the Living Dead (1968) – a text that itself was reiterated upon in his canon of sequels, and that came to inform the countless other works (28 Days Later; Shaun of the Dead; Warm Bodies) that have emerged in their wake.

The Smurfs (or Les Schtroumpfs) were originally created by Belgian comic artist Peyo in 1958.  They were a spin off from Peyo’s earlier strip, Johan and Peewit (Johan et Pirlouit), seen for the first time when the titular characters encountered a group of tiny blue pixie surrogates in white clothing.  The Smurfs were a hit, and soon got their own strip that elaborated upon who these creatures were, where they lived, their currency (communists, remember?), and what their daily adventures were like.  And it was in their very first solo adventure, ‘The Black Smurfs’ (‘Les Schtroumpfs Noirs’), that they would unwittingly establish all of the hallmarks that have come to typify the zombie genre (here).

Within the story, one of the Smurfs (I shall call him: ‘Nonspecific Smurf’) gets stung by a bug that turns his skin black.***  With this transformation his personality is wiped away, and he instantly becomes an insatiable, non-verbal predator.  He sets off on a path of destruction, biting the other Smurfs on the tail (with the nondescript sound of ‘Gnap!‘) and likewise infecting them.  By the end of the story the whole village is overrun, every single Smurf has been infected by the plague no matter how desperately they ran for freedom…   Until, at the very last second, an antidote brewed by Papa Smurf is accidentally released (actually after Papa himself has been bitten and turned), and at last all of the Smurfs can revert back to themselves, allowing normality to at last be restored.

…Yeah, that’s right: they were all infected (or ‘gnapped‘, I guess).  The whole village was lost.  Bet you didn’t see that coming.

As this brief glimpse at Peyo’s end-of-days reveals, The Smurfs have always exhibited all the hallmarks of modern zombie fiction, and this – their first adventure printed a decade before Romero’s defining take on the genre – actually offers the first and most pure articulation of that structure…

After all, at its heart, like all horror fiction, the zombie genre is more about making manifest human fears and neurosis, and playing them out through the hyperbolic lens of an encounter with an otherworldly beast.  Vampires are frequently about confronting our latent sexuality and narcissism: all the way back to Dracula these creatures have been typified by an erotic, preening affectation, and ever since remain riddled with angst for being eternally young and beautiful and super-powered (yeah, I really feel for you Edward, you’re so deep).  Werewolves are the animalistic and primal in our psyche given license by the whim of the natural elements.  Split personality beasts like Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde can be seen to explore the dangers of the uninhibited id let loose.

Superficially, zombies are always about the mass, about the horde.  They embody our fears of mortality and death (what of us lingers after we are gone?) and frequently exhibit our neurosis of becoming, or being prey to, otherness.  Whether as a parody of consumerism – shuffling, insatiable, mindless beings driven solely to consume (even depicted tearing through a mall in Dawn of the Dead, 1978) – or as a manifestation of terrorism – they could be any of us, they could come from anywhere, they look like us but we can’t understand what they want (see: 28 Days Later, 2002) – zombie fiction often gives license to what it is that we fear our society at large might soon become as we fight to hold on to the individuality and self-hood that defines us.

In the more intimate, us-against-them, scramble-to-survive moments depicted in these post-apocalyptic scenarios, we see localised opportunities to test human frailties against an uncaring, merciless force of will.  Indeed, we watch as our personality traits are put on trial, and frequently found wanting.  From the cowardly guy who drives off in the rescue vehicle, only to himself be ironically devoured by the zombie he failed to notice in the backseat; to the parent, blinded by irreconcilable grief, who willingly lets her undead child back in through the door with tragic consequences; to the smug patriarch who will pretend that he wasn’t bitten back on that last run, and that even though he’s now coughing up blood, he isn’t being effected like all those other people were…

And here we see that elemental tie to The Smurfs

The Smurfs, above all else, are a tight-knit community, whose greatest danger ultimately comes from within.  Gargamel may plot and scheme and gnash his teeth, but we know instinctively that he will never succeed in tearing this little fungus-hut cooperative asunder; together they are more powerful than they are apart, and this unity will ultimately liberate them.  This happy equilibrium is only ever truly thrown into turmoil when one of their own turns antisocial, non-communicative, and cannibalistic – literalising the fear of the other within the familiar, just as we see in all zombie fiction.

Similarly, despite being three apples tall, bright blue, and having an incredibly specific form of verbal aphasia that replaces every second word with ‘Smurf’****), they are utterly human.  The Smurfs embody all of our human strengths and weaknesses: our industry (Handy Smurf; Baker Smurf), our skills (Painter Smurf; Hefty Smurf), our spectrum of emotional instability (Grumpy Smurf; Weepy Smurf), our hubris and narcissism (Brainy Smurf; Vanity Smurf), our ability to …to be female?  (Yeah, having Smurfette’s lack of a Y-chromosome be her primary defining feature indicates that the Smurfs weren’t the most gender progressive species ever…)

Nonetheless, the Smurfs are a community of human quirks and traits refracted into the multiplicity of a shirtless pixie enclave.  In many ways, they are an expansive metaphor for the ideal, harmonious human psyche, able to play out internal psychological struggles in order to resolve the whole:

‘Jokey Smurf, you’re driving everyone crazy with that one stupid joke…’

So Jokey feels excluded, and eventually decides that he needs his communal bonds more than he longs for his self-indulgence (and really, how many times can you trick people into opening an exploding gift box before they start curb-stomping you?), so he agrees to moderate his impulses and return back to the fold, the community at large sighing in relief at this resolution.

The metaphor is repeated and reiterated endlessly: in order to remain a happy, healthy Smurf village (human society; human mind, body, and soul), each attribute has to be regulated with an eye to the greater good.  Sure, you can get grumpy sometimes – but you better cool that nonsense down every so often, or you’ll throw the whole social/psychological ecosystem out of whack, and Smurf yourself up irreparably.

It’s this same elaborate symbolic struggle that plays out in all zombie fiction, again and again – although the punishment for failing to live up to the challenge of self-restraint, ingenuity and cohesion is to be devoured by the omnipresent other that presses in; to be stripped of all those human attributes that you should have better harmonised before your impending undeath.

If you’re greedily sitting on a stockpile of food and weapons that you are unwilling to share with the ragtag team of survivors knocking on your gates: ‘Gnap!’  You’ll get zombied.  If you’re boasting yourself up to everyone as a stone cold hero, despite internally being an incurable coward: ‘Gnap!’   If you’re an irrational sexist: ‘Gnap!’  A hatemongering racist: ‘Gnap!’  A sleazebag: ‘Gnap!’  Responsible for cancelling Firefly: ‘Gnap!  Gnap!  Gnap!  Gnap!  Gnap!’

…And then driven over by a makeshift armoured RV.

Ultimately, despite their divergence in tone, it’s from this same well of self-assessment and a terror of otherness that both Smurf village and all zombie fiction spring, each, in their own curious ways, playing out the most fundamental anxieties that surface in our therapeutic drive to better comprehend our own nature.

That’s not a realisation that we came to, all those years ago, sitting around a table sniggering at Handy Smurf’s proficiency with a hammer and sickle, but perhaps that was because there was no ghoulish mass of animate corpses pounding on the windows, reminding us all of what it is in our personalities that we should cherish, or that (as is more likely the case) would inevitably condemn us to death.

IMAGE: Les Schtroumpfs Noirs (The Black Smurfs) (Dupuis)

* How else do you propose to explain Orko?

** The Snorks (1984), try as we might, could not be fashioned into anything other than a cynical rip off of The Smurfs.

*** An unfortunate choice that one sincerely hopes had only accidental racial implications.

**** I am being flippant – in reality I was surprised to learn that there are elaborate rules for the application of the word ‘Smurf’, with one such disagreement shown to balloon out into a linguistic civil war between ‘Northern Smurfs’ and ‘Southern Smurfs’ that is believed to be an analogy for similar disputes between Dutch and French speaking peoples in Belgium (http://smurfs.wikia.com/wiki/Smurf_Versus_Smurf).  …In any case, someone needs to show me in a Dictionary what ‘Smurftastic’ means.

Burning Down the House: Cabin in the Woods and Genre Immolation

Posted in criticism, movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 4, 2013 by drayfish

[Seriously, DO NOT READ IF YOU EVER INTEND TO WATCH CABIN IN THE WOODS ever… and I do encourage you to watch it.  SPOILERS AHOY.]

IMAGE: Cabin in the Woods (Lionsgate, Mutant Enemy)

Joss Whedon – finally the world recognised uber-director/writer his fans always knew he was destined to be thanks to a little bohemian art-house film he made recently called The Avengers (you’ve probably never heard of it) – began the first television project he created on his own, Buffy the Vampire Slayer*, with a two minute sequence that kicked the legs out from under one of the most firmly established, and frankly tired conventions of horror.  Within the sequence a young blonde girl and a larger, muscular young man are wandering down a dark corridor, trying to find somewhere to be alone.  The girl, giggling as she sashays coquettishly in her school uniform,  grows suddenly timid, ruminating on what dangers might be lurking in the shadows around them…  The young man, amorously predatory, skulks closer, leering over her, telling her not to worry about it, that there’s nothing she needs to fear, as he looks her over hungrily and snuggles closer to her neck…

The darkness closes in, the boy towers over her, his frame eclipsing hers as they linger in this lonely alcove, cut off from the world, unable to escape, the viewer knowing that the trembling girl is wholly at his mercy…

And at that point, she spins around, revealing herself a vampire, and rips into his throat to feed.

Whedon took the sexually-promiscuous-blonde-girl-who-gets-moralistically-devoured-by-the-monster motif common to the history of the horror genre, and before the opening credits had even run, flipped it wholly on its head.  In the universe of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (as if the title wasn’t enough) it was made immediately evident that women were no longer to play the rote damsel-in-distress roles, and that weary conventions of schlock cinema were going to be fundamentally shaken up and subverted.

For seven years Buffy was a malleable catch-all for revolutionary genre pastiche, blurring fantasy, horror, comedy, romance, sci-fi, and effortlessly manifesting the heightened emotional turmoils of adolescence with literalised demons and a handful of apocalypses.  In his more recent collaboration with fellow Buffy writer Drew Goddard, Cabin in the Woods (Goddard co-wrote and directed the film), the two have sculpted an even more focussed, and arguably more acerbic, exploration of the horror genre, offering one of the finest examples of textual self-assessment I can think of, capturing a sense of homage, parody, and unapologetic embrace of traditional genre conventions all in one cohesive narrative salad.**

Yes, Cabin in the Woods lays out the mechanics of the horror narrative and riffs on them with a metatextual self-awareness; but rather than simply tear them down, or satirise them as repetitive drivel, it finds a legitimate means of validating their perpetuation.  It argues that there is a reason we let these clichés play out, a synchronicity that explains why this group of kids looks like a corporeal Scooby-Doo Gang as they drive onward to their doom; because these narratives tell us something about ourselves, about our communal psyche and the traditions of storytelling that define us.

We can laugh at it – just as we laugh at all of the things that we love – but what is embraced or emboldened is more important than what is derided.

The central conceit of Cabin in the Woods revolves around the dissonance between two depicted worlds that rub up against each other and eventually collide in a spectacular, chaotic eruption by film’s end.  Throughout the tale a group of teenagers travel to a cabin in the woods (the most clichéd location for any specious tale of dread), and begin living out the machinations of any number of urban legends that have become hard-wired into our communal human psyche (mutants; cannibals; escaped psychotics; werewolves; clowns…  ergh…  clowns), gradually getting picked off as this evil is unleashed upon them.  This is the first level of narrative.  The second level concerns a group of technicians, seemingly working in a sterile office space, who are in fact looking on at this horror playing out.  It is revealed that these men are in fact orchestrating the monstrous fate that is befalling these young people – trapping them in a snare from which the only escape is gratuitous, theatrical death.

Some have justifiably seen this structure as a fictionalised commentary upon the making of horror films – the dreariness and contemptuousness of the men in their ties a statement on the rote production of these films, playing out hackneyed, predictable narrative beats with overly familiar gore: the technicians complaining about tight schedules, broken pyrotechnics, and having to deal with that weird actor who takes his role as crusty old harbinger of doom a little too seriously – it definitely appears to be a glimpse into the behind the scenes machinations of these tired narratives and their restrictive mechanics.

However, while this is a valid way into analysing the work, in truth, I didn’t read the movie as an analogy for the production of horror films so much as the viewing of them.  To me, those observers were not solely ‘writer’/’director’ proxies, but rather mirrors.  The guys in the button down shirts and the sensible ties; the figures whining about home-repairs and pressure from their bosses to meet quotas; looking on through the observational detachment of television screens as the young hot teens die; betting on the outcomes; hoping to see boobies; scarfing down snack food and yawping with disappointment as the comely young lovers get interrupted before the sexy stuff gets too carried away – they are us.  We viewers.  Both revolted and delighted at the ritualised narrative sacrifice playing out before them.

Sure, they engineer the scenario that will be enacted – but ultimately they are just as surprised as the audience at which kind of tale will play out, and how exactly it will go down.  Will it be the zombie cannibal story about buried histories of familial abuse resurfacing to brutalise the innocent?  A fiction about fantastical creatures of legend that intrude upon the rational?  The werewolves that expose (both metaphorically and in sprays of viscera) the beast within us all?  And what do these desires say about them that they long for one more than the other?  …Why is that one guy so enamoured with the thought of mermen, already?

Then, eventually, this natural human curiosity of the onlookers is answered by that same natural human curiosity of the victims caught in the snare: several potential fates await, but it is the most inquisitive personality that dictates what tempting bauble will trigger which sacramental plotline…  And again, we get to ask: why were they so attracted to that particular bait?  Why go for the dust-speckled diary?  Why not the shiny trinket, or the mystic prophesy?  Why not continue to unravel that puzzling curio, or finish latching that antique, cursed trinket around their neck?  But of course, in this world of Saw sequels and knock-offs, we had to go for the gruesome torture-pit…

On every level of the movie – both in the kids at the cabin and the sterile overseer hub – the movie speaks to that recurring inclination to explore our own, subliminal motivations and terrors by sublimating them onto a screen soaked with gore.

Traditionally we human beings explore ourselves in these morality-play genres, repeatedly punishing the aspects of ourselves that are too prickly and antisocial (lechery; stupidity; cowardice), and manifesting the fears that plague the darker regions of our communal consciousness (the unknown; the repressed; the injustice of the past), so that we can ultimately try to confront and overcome them.  Hence, of course, the revelation scene at the end: the explanation for the ritual that is said to appease the demons lurking below.  We feed them examples of human frailty, and maybe a chaste young heroine or two survives.

And here too, contemporary humanity does triumph in this film …if only briefly, and stupefyingly self-destructively.

In the end, when a randomised agent is thrown into the mix – the Shaggy-proxy, swimming in his impenetrable weed-coma – a cog is thrown, the machine spits, and the pressure lets loose in a sprawling, chaotic self-immolation.  As they show in the live feeds from other failed attempts at appeasement from around the world (damned Japan and those resourceful kiddies), the world is outgrowing the hackneyed old beats of these repetitious tales – J-horror, jump-scares, psycho-thrillers – we’ve seen it all already, so we know what’s coming; and people aren’t just ‘Jocks’ and ‘Cheerleaders’ and ‘Virgins’ anymore.  The ‘classic’ archetypes of these fictions no longer apply in such arbitrary ways – so trying to unimaginatively cram characters into boxes, and serve up conventional, predictable colour-by-numbers plots won’t work anymore.

Thus, both the viewers – and the characters in the Cabin – start to react, to begin shaking out of their stupor and literally attempt to escape the restrictive paradigm they find themselves within: ‘I am not a meathead – I’m freaking Thor.’ (Okay, bad example…)  How about: ‘I am not some helpless damsel – I’m the woman who flips the switch and turns the whole power-structure on its head…’

And then – Well then you have a movie; and potentially a rebirth of this genre that both embraces, and transcends the old.

That moment where the lever is thrown and anarchy unleashed – where every source of human dread, literalised into monsters, pours out of their cages to mutilate and destroy – that instant is a definitive call to arms for this genre and its viewership.  Yes, on one level it is declaring the historical need for these genre fictions: if the psyche does not have these spit valves for the release of these psychological undertows, if surrogates cannot be sent to the altar to analogously purge ourselves of our more detestable aspects, then we may well (psychologically) implode.

But more than that, it was saying that if all we are doing, as viewers and moviemakers, is watching these films for cheap thrills – if it is all just to catch a glimpse of some flesh and watch a pickaxe get buried in a dude’s face – if there is no deeper interrogation of ourselves being offered even if not actively embraced, then truly it all does just become a geyser of farcically eruptive blood.

And in that case, we may as well just burn it all down.

So when that demon hand bursts out of the earth at the end (in all its suggestively human dimensions), it is either the harbinger of doom for this genre, or the birth of things to come.

IMAGE: Cabin in the Woods (Lionsgate, Mutant Enemy)

* Itself based upon his earlier attempt at telling this story as a film, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (with which he was apparently not satisfied).

** An argument could most certainly be made for the masterful works of Messrs Pegg, Frost and Wright in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, however…

The Adventure of the Ten-Foot Blue Dudes: or Sherlock and Faithful Adaptation

Posted in criticism, literature, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: Sherlock (BBC)

As I settled deeper into my chair, still appropriately stunned by the enormity of the television that dwarfed every other object in my friend’s apartment, again readjusting the 3D frames over the top of my regular glasses likeacoolperson, something occurred to me.  I was now two hours into Avatar, and, as those who have seen the film will attest, while the visuals remained spectacular, that initial awe was now rather wearing off; the narrative, while relatively functional, was starting to slow.  So my mind wandered.  (…Also, in truth I was probably still a little stunned by the use of the word ‘Unobtainium’ – what the hell?)  On screen the private military were blowing up a tree, there was a bunch of big dragon things flying around, and I started thinking – as I’m sure many others have at this point in the film – about Sherlock Holmes and the dialogical effect of his narrative play.

No seriously.  That last hour does kind of drag.

It was because of the glasses.  Because I had to keep jostling them up my nose, hearing them ‘tink’ against my regular lenses.  I got thinking about the mechanics of the whole process: about how these marvellous images get made.

From what little I understand, the filmmakers use two separate but fixed cameras that mimic the binocular process of human sight, capturing two images from two different angles, which, when projected almost simultaneously, are then processed in the mind to construct the appearance of a three-dimensional image.  Two viewpoints; two separate angles; two perspectives that, when read together, appear to fill in the gap between them and unify the contradiction into a cohesive whole: a ‘real’ world image.  Now, obviously two-visions-becoming-one is the larger, inane metaphor of James Cameron’s movie – human and alien seeing each other’s viewpoint; uniting; working together; making out, doing that weird stuff with their tails – but that’s too obvious and boring.  (And I’m not sure the film’s cartoonishly villainous humans with their greed and brutality can really be considered a legitimate opposing viewpoint…)  So instead, I want to draw a much flimsier analogy by using this premise to explore the world of England’s greatest detective, and the narrative structure that is so central to his success, exploring why the stories of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson remain thoroughly engaging, and continue to speak to new audiences one generation after the next.

Sherlock Holmes has had quite the resurgence in popularity of late.  Between the exceptional  BBC reimagining Sherlock (which I will get to drooling over momentarily), the curiously anachronistic Sherlock Holmes blockbusters starring Robert Downey Jr., and even a forthcoming American adaptation for CBS called Elementary, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s signature character is arguably risking cultural oversaturation.  Indeed, even the recently concluded series House was an overt homage to the asocial, drug-addled investigator – this time merely transplanted from the methodically-observant detective genre to a medical drama.  And although personally I baulk at the parallel, many in the past have likened the long-running Doctor Who and whatever intrepid companion is momentarily along for the ride, to the Baker street detective and his faithful scribe.*

For the purposes of this discussion I’m going to put aside the impending American remake (‘No,’ I hear purists cry, ‘but I’ve always pictured Lucy Liu as Watson!’)  Similarly I will ignore the infectiously charming Robert Downey Jr. (who, despite being fantastic, is nonetheless in a peculiarly muddled film that seems to want to convince its audience that Holmes is a genius because he can beat the crap out of people).  Instead, I intend to spend the following paragraphs raving with froth-bag affection for Sherlock, a series of made-for-television films on the BBC that – to my eye at least – perfectly capture the tone and heart of Doyle’s original text.*

There are many attributes that bind these two versions of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries – original Doyle fictions and modern television adaptation – so perfectly.  In both we see a narrative structure that thrives on its immediacy and artifice of reality, that is playfully self-referential, and that remains fundamentally tied to the collaboration of two distinct personalities, two broken souls who need each other in order to exist and thrive.

Firstly, there is the decision (now being emulated by the American adaptation) to contemporise these stories.  The creators of Sherlock decided that the only way to capture the spirit of the original tales was to set them in the modern day.  This was a choice that some thought to be a violation of the original texts (‘Sherlock Holmes using Google Maps? WTF!?’), but in actuality it is as faithful as the creators could possibly be to the source material.

In the original texts, the intent was always to allow the reader to believe that Holmes might actually be out there, a real person, actually assisting the police in their inquiries.  The stories were set in the (then) modern day, in London’s own streets.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle intentionally wrote his stories as if they were genuine account of recent incidents; he gave dates for these events; spoke of ‘reports’ published in newspapers; alluded to famous figures whose names (for the sake of decency, naturally) needed to be obscured; and he whispered that certain details of the crimes, about which only Watson and Holmes were aware, had even been hushed up by the press.  Indeed, part of the reason that the ‘death’ of Sherlock Holmes was so disturbing was that many of the people reading these adventures each month in the Strand magazine had wholly invested in the suspension of disbelief Doyle invited.  To help intensify the fiction he perpetuated the mythology that Holmes was real, that he was actually out solving cases while the reader slept, and that would be there, next month, with another rollicking adventure to share with the world.

Part of the genius of the new television version is that Holmes likewise operates in a modern setting.  He – like the original – operates with all of the cutting edge sciences and technologies available to him: he scans the transom of the world wide web; he dances across the keypads of blackberries and mobile phones; he speaks of his brain as a computer hard-drive that requires defragging.  He might not have many friends on his facebook page, nor have any purpose for it, but he at least knows what the site is.  He is familiar with, and operates inside, a wholly contemporary world.

Secondly, Doyle famously employs the construct of the witness narrator.  Watson, the second half of this duo, is Holmes’ observer, not only aiding him in his investigations but later writing them down and preserving them for we, the readers.  In a detective fiction this limited viewpoint is, of course, a delaying tactic, central to the slow reveal of the mystery: as audience we have to await elucidation along with Watson; we too have to go along with his tangents and misdirections, waiting for Holmes to explain the clue that will set is all right.

Were the story told through Holmes’ eyes, Doyle could not hold off from telling the reader what each clue he spots means at the moment he spies it (although curiously Doyle did write some very late stories through Holmes’ viewpoint – they’re not his best); through Watson’s vision however, Holmes can point out a peculiar floor covering, a brand of cigarettes, a seemingly trivial idiosyncrasy, all without naming precisely why these details should be kept in mind until he is ready to disgorge the whole sequence of events in his concluding revelatory purge.

Watson is therefore constantly referring to his own act of writing and publishing these stories: he notes that he has changed ‘real’ names to avoid scandal; he speaks of writing particular adventures in order to correct the public record and respond to rumours in the press; indeed, Holmes is a celebrity in these stories precisely because of Watson’s publication, and in response to this scrutiny he offers pissy critiques of Watson’s writing style and tendency for exaggeration – arguing that his friend gets a little carried away in his praise.

This self-referentiality is something that Sherlock has built into its foundations also.  Watson is now a blogger.***  Holmes’ adventures are typed up and posted on the web (rather than in the pages of The Strand magazine as they were under Doyle’s direction), where Holmes finds he has quite a devoted following.  Indeed, in the second series, this audience has even elevated to the state of tabloid fandom – with Holmes something of a London celebrity by the final episode.

And just as was true in the original stories, Watson (in the marvellous Martin Freeman) is not merely a hapless servant, swept along in Holmes’ wake like a leaf; he is critical of his friend, willing to paint both his strengths and his failings.  In both the original texts and the show it is revealed that Holmes has a particularly obsessive personality that can even slip into substance addiction (in the original text he’s a cocaine addict; in the new show he is wallpapered with nicotine patches).  We get to see that he is unaware of simple trivia such as the detail that the earth circles the sun; and is not mindful of the truth that human beings have feelings, and might get insulted by his robotic detachment.

But perhaps most significantly, this version of the text – unlike so many before – has finally presented Watson as more than some witless lackey, stumbling around artlessly befuddled, waiting for Holmes to clue him in.  Here – as he was in the original tales – he is an essential counterpoint to his companion, a crucial balance to his experience, one that Holmes finds he genuinely needs to prosper.

Holmes (played masterfully by Benedict Cumberbatch), is an asexual emotional vampire, lost in a maelstrom of arrogance and intellectual detachment; but in Watson, a selfless, compassionate soldier who is stirred by human empathy, he finds a partner, someone who can compliment and strengthen the aspects of his personality he knows to be lacking.  Meanwhile Watson, driven by an urge to help others both medically and heroically, but shattered by his experience at war, lacks the strength to re-enter the world on his own until he finds the ingenious but socially maladjusted Holmes.  They are more than room and work mates, they are two halves of the same broken soul.  Thus, they present the perfect bromance, opposites attracting in a non-sexual way (a joke that the show itself plays up with Watson’s repeated assertion to everyone they meet that they are just roommates), the rational and emotional working in cohesion at last.  Together, the one guides the other, providing purpose, perspective and drive.

And it’s through their intersecting perspectives that these stories, both in fiction and on our television screens, come to life.  This evolution of the story, from flat, second-hand mystery to complex, multifaceted character-based murder plot, is entirely dependent upon the roles that Holmes and Watson play within their texts – not as a detective and snivelling servant, but rather as a voices of opposition comingling with one another – two parallel, but alternate points of view that bring the whole experience into focus.

Holmes with his cold clinical rationality, and Watson with his empathetic longing to help others,  alone are unsuccessful, but together are an inviolable force of will.  United they challenge the singular viewpoint of the events presented by pointing out contradictions, poking at the seams and exploring each unresolved tangent from multiple angles until their two visions align and the mystery is solved.

Two conflicting narratives, from two divergent viewpoints are finally unified into a third, cohesive whole.  And as a direct consequence of this duality – bringing cohesion through contradiction, synthesising at least two contrary viewpoints – the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson seem to rise up and out of the pages and screens before us; we look into them, like 3D lenses, watching rounded, complex characters with lives and experiences as multifaceted as our own step into the world fully formed.

…Well, certainly with more dimension than anything offered in Avatar.  I mean, what was going on with that crazy scar-faced General in the robot suit?  What the hell was that all about?

* In recent years this likeness has been furthered because of Stephen Moffat’s integral association and guiding vision for both Sherlock and Doctor Who.

** I do want it noted for the record that I have restrained myself from mentioning Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century.  Those who know that cartoon just punched the air in nostalgic glee; to those who don’t recognise the name: go on with your life happily unburdened.  The short version is: Watson was robot; Sherlock was a clone; I was… confused.  But, hey: flying cars and bowler hats?  What’s not to love? (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyGAc-OLAiQ)

*** Indeed you can even read his blog here.

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