You know, I wish this light was all light, that it would follow only us.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

On two British movies.

The Thirty-Nine Steps-Alfred Hitchcock, dir. (U.K. 1935)

The career artist loses some of the austerity that makes him great when he's young. As an old artist he relaxes. In relaxing the fineness of the fire is bargained away.

Young Hitchcock. He made superb, thoughtful movies nearly all his working life. But the British movies from the thirties are such confidently composed things that they exceed even the halcyon of his late 50's work. They reflect a time and place as impossibly distant as it is concrete, reflective--one even more impossibly distant than England in the 30's. That it was Illuminated by Bernard Knowles' tarnished photography (the silversmith responsible for the insidious 'Gaslight') gives Hitchcock's between-the-wars England a special air of austere and harsh beauty.

There is an appealing force to Robert Donat's performance, one Hitchcock would mine in leading men in later ventures, rarely with such capital success--though Michael Redgrave in The Lady Vanishes, in 1938, competes. Donat is Hannay, the common man with a stuttering desire to remain hidden in the world, an embarrassed, fearful post-Victorian shadow of manners and propriety. In his circumstances he must transgress manner and break propriety to save his own skin. See him throw himself at a beautiful female train passenger, not out of amorous impulse, but to avoid being nabbed by pursuant policemen. He happens into a political rally where his stoicism and expressive modesty must take a back seat while he whips the crowd into a froth to find subterfuge in their ensuing calamity. It's as if Hitchcock anticipated Frank Capra's expanding social agenda--Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington would follow The Thirty Nine Steps in 1938, and provided paranoid point to its rabble-rousing American counterpoint.

In the former's case it is the angry little guy causing a stir in the big room just to get back to his unexamined comfort zone--measuring a man as combatant of all forces barring his way to the quietude. Capra's everyman, on the other hand, is making his noise specifically to get to that big room, he uses the noise, yes, but he loves the noise! Hitchcock's England was still spooked by the the Great War, breathing the continental portent of the war to come--his idea of human explosion came with justified nausea. Capra, salving the Depression-era America, took a decidedly different tack.

The lewd commuters on Hitchcock's train--is it possible that the train even edges out pristine Grace Kelly as the most reliable of Hitchcock's cinematic foils?; the bored, trusting Scottish farmer's wife, and the harsh farmer ("God made the country!"), are snap characters, simple enough to have been ink-drawn in a single line each, compelled by a warmth nearly impossibly demanding for such brief encounters. Anyhow, there they are in Hannay's abrupt English adventure.

Take the doddering emcee who introduces Mr. Memory, the vessel of the 39 steps secret, to a rowdy theater crowd. Introducing the performer whose ability it is to recall from memory any trivial bit of information on request, he remarks, "I also add, ladies and gentlemen, that Mr. Memory has left his brain to the British Museum." Hitchcock, ever fond of show biz metaphors, never strays far from the silliness and pathos of the examined life. The British Museum announcement is met with a cheer from the impatient crowd, their beers raised. When all else fails, Hitchcock says with a wan grin, praise country. Perhaps it is an encoded Englishman's lament, perhaps a portent of the same cajoled patriotisms he would generate in his new American residence. Still, it's a line of dialogue incapable of containing itself. Is there some self-satirizing (or self-pitying) trace of the director himself in the monkey-suited Mr. Memory, the freakish wonder whose gift and curse is to so accurately and popularly give the clamoring people what they want, the comfort of their own world, the little bits that make up their lives, another reason to raise their glasses and drink to forget? And of course if he does his job right Mr. Memory will belong to the British long after he's gone.

Sherlock Holmes-Guy Richie, dir. (U.K. 2009)

Guy Richie struck me, much as more recently Judd Apatow did, not first by the quality of his work, but by his aggravating ability to exceed my cynicism. I never wanted to like either. After Quentin Tarantino there seemed to linger in movies for years a reek of fratboy philosophizing, spat at break neck speeds by b-list or z-list actors in shitty haircuts and even shittier clothes. There was that commercial goldmine concept of a new wunderkind; this I fear is how Boondock Saints came into its wretched state of being. Douchebags were taken seriously. Wit was the sum of what an artist overheard.

After Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and the even better Snatch, I resolved that whatever his generational idiosyncrasies may be Guy Richie is a highly talented movie maker, and his movies are precisely what they should be: bloodied up bad guys a girl in motion and fun.

Guy Richie passed through the corridor of middle age into an early autumn of mixed expectations--his own creative youth was exceptional. After that, eh, not so much. If Sherlock Holmes seemed a high stakes jab at midlife resuscitation (his previous, Revolver, was unwatchably pretentious, replete with chess metaphors and Jason Statham) the machine was clearly ready to stake him: double A-list cast--at this point if you can't make a winner with Robert Downey Jr. you should go back to data entry; a de Mille-scale budget and proportion; and of course a bite at a perennial favorite: Sherlock Holmes.

Much as Guy Richie complacently eased into the role of England's Tarantino, his Sherlock Holmes found him paying homage to yet another movie maker (and fellow post-Tarantino Hollywood golden child) Christopher Nolan. If the tone of Sherlock Holmes errs in any one glaring regard it is in its Dark Knight-concept of steely and harshly stylized dystopia fought for by creatively humanized heroes and villains. Christ you can just hear a producer telling another producer that very sentiment over, fuck, I don't know, haddock. This is an adventure movie. Ponderous by misunderstanding of duty, nevertheless, a swashbuckler movie. Robert Downey Jr.'s Holmes is every bit the yogafied pin-up that Christian Bale was as the Caped Crusader. The conveniently named Lord Blackwood (really...) lacks the aggravating dynamism of Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow or Heath Ledger's Triumphally morbid city orphan, The Joker, but all the same, his insidious design opens the set-piece window on the soul of the city--CGIed industrial blight and all, for us to weigh the moral dimensions of our own precarious moment.

To lay the blame at Lord Blackwood's feet--actually he was more of an overcoat than a lord, played by, well honestly, I couldn't say, would mismanage the problem; even the competent--at the very least watchable, Jude Law, sinks fatally in the thick of this writing. His Watson is a mere buddy--a tributary crisis and enough sensuous hot air to fill a small bag; Law was robbed of the rich laurels of Dr. Watson, one of our language's greatest narrative voices. Here he's Victorian Hutch...or Starsky. Whichever one wasn't as important. Both maybe.

He's a self-conscious playboy torn between the affairs of dudedom and the beckonings of a normal life with a hot chick; it's his odious turn in Alfie come back to haunt us. By the way, don't ever watch the remake of Alfie.

The flaws of Sherlock Holmes are small, though on such a budgetary scale they add up: Rachel McAdams, eleventh hour it-girl is quintessentially miscast as the elusive genius femme, Irene Adler. The chemistry between her wily paramour and the detective is Dark Knight in period drag ('I love you but I've chosen darkness'). So too is the Holmes and Watson comraderie distressed. Robert Downey Jr. chews through the flimsy characterization with ample spirit and muscularity--frankly the whole martial arts luxuriation is loads of fun, but the connection to his fellow cast is tenuous; the dogged infatuation with Irene Adler is simmered down to save-the-damsel remediality, while that bedrock bachelor clusterfuck buddy-life he shares with Dr. Watson is something more reasonably expected from Matthew McConaughey and, I don't know, Hutch.

One of the compelling qualities of Victoriana lies in that rejuvenating sense of smarts with which we view it. The overdressed bells and cuffs of clothing, the architecture at once marred and dignified by industrial soot, the veil of manner, the books women read (and wrote!), of course the volcanic moment in science and learning, compile in a diorama of riches that no artist could resist--let alone when plumbing the Sherlock Holmes stories. Everything about Richie's Sherlock Holmes looks right--I could even forgive those petty casting decisions, were it not for the fundamental error: Guy Richie, asskicker, thought he could phone in the smarts. The dialogue is tinny and cliched--not to mention clumsily de-emphasized; the ingenuity of the crimes and their solutions is bland and without human mystery--the movie goes out of its way to establish a black cloud of secret society evil, only to betray it with a small imagination; shit, Wile E. Coyote never actually caught the Roadrunner but the dude bought crazy gear and came hard every time. And of course the tensile Holmes and Watson relationship is stewed down to alternately distracted and dim-witted exchanges involving vice and outgrowing it--as if the two belonged to the same adult discussion.

Human mystery--and its puzzling vessel, deserved better than this.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie!

You know, there was an hour in our time, the early fifties, 1951 specifically, when you could get up, put on a cotton oxford and cordovan slip-ons, have an egg with an orangy middle and coffee, watch Wile E. Coyote stupefy the west with a silly gadget, and buy the new Ella Fitzgerald album, 'Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie!'

Eh, I got nothin'. Here. See...