Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Junk Food for Thought

Robert Downey Jr. may be sober, but his recent movies sure aren't.  Whether they're good (A Scanner Darkly is easily Linklater's best and trippiest work to date), bad (though in its defense, Iron Man is the only picture I've seen that directly references the board game "Operation"), or shockingly funny (I think even Mel Brooks would've stopped short of putting an actor in blackface for an entire film), they're all typified by their intemperance, their immoderation, their indulgence.  And this is equally true of the adaptation of Sherlock Holmes in which he stars. 

I'm often fond of films that treat their source material with respect, but there's something to be said for the other extreme too: the movie that shamelessly tramples over everything its progenitors stood for, the movie that, like the hungover be-mulleted teenage son of a divinity professor doing the walk of shame with only a hand puppet to clothe himself, bears a resemblance to its forebear in name alone.  Such a film is Holmes.  I imagine the vaguely steampunkish screenplay was banged out in a single night under the heavy influence of Wild Wild West, one of those two liter bottles of Mountain Dew, and the author's gnawing fear that his classic 1962 Chevy Corvair was about to be repossessed.  But pointing out the problems with this movie would be missing the point.  Like a beer bong, the purpose of a film like this one is to deliver enjoyment to the consumer as quickly and efficiently as possible, and to a limited extent, it succeeds.  Unlike Tranformers, a film so blurred and incomprehensible it at times looked like Michael Bay had simply carried his camera onto a robot-themed ride at Universal Studios, Holmes boasts action sequences with -- gasp! -- discernible action, and if you don't focus too intently on the plot's numerous holes, there's a measurable degree of suspense.  So I come neither to praise nor to decimate Sherlock Holmes, but rather to comment on something I found interesting about the particular way it stomped all over the character and stories on which it's based.

I haven't read the original Sherlock Holmes books since middle school, but as I recall, Holmes' methods of detection in them were straightforward, even debatably plausible.  In one story I remember, he notices that a bell pull isn't connected to anything, bell-wise; when he pieces together that it's a rope ladder for a murderous snake to climb down, it actually makes a kind of sense.  Holmes in these stories is preternaturally intelligent, true, but that intelligence is passive, reactive: to ply his detective trade, he requires time and an adequate supply of someone else's mistakes.  He's not a man of action, much less violence.  The strongarm stuff is for characters who aren't using their heads.

In the movie, of course, it's the opposite.  The idea of "detection," if that word can even be used, has been extended to such a bizarre, cartoonish extent here that its meaning is very nearly its opposite.  Although Sherlock Holmes does now and again figure things out from sensory detail -- clues, if we can use so quaint a term -- his real superpower is now his ability to apply the mad skillz of empirical observation to hand-to-hand combat.  Imagine if The Matrix took place in a DOS program where Neo had to key-in fight commands one at a time, and you'll get a sense of what's in store in the rumble sequences of Sherlock Holmes.  In some extra-chronological space, Holmes intones things like, "Uppercut to jaw... kick balls really hard" (not an actual quote) while all around him the action freezes, only to restart with a literal POW as he executes his "deduction" to the solar plexus.  Now that's thinkin'!

This conceit is dizzyingly moronic, and actually just about the best thing the movie has to offer in terms of minute-by-minute entertainment value.  But it's also extremely strange, and the more I think about it, the stranger it gets.  Since time immemorial, the notions of intelligence and brute strength have been played as opposites in drama, especially schlocky popular drama -- think of the archetypal science nerd getting his ass handed to him on the playground, the evil genius villain coming up with an ultimate weapon, only to have it wrested from his spindly fingers by a buff, bluff superguy.  Yet in Sherlock Holmes, the smart weakling has entirely collapsed into the kung fu fighter.  When someone takes a beatdown in this film, he's being bested physically and intellectually at once.  And, just to drive the point home, Sherlock's physical abilities never fall short of what he mentally envisions himself doing -- not even when he's facing off with an 8-foot-tall giant.  What gives?

Let me go off on a seemingly unrelated tangent for a moment here.  Over the weekend, I encountered what might be the best blog post I've ever read over at "Et Tu, Mr. Destructo?" about KFC's new meatwich, the Double Down.  This post is fascinating to me not because of its hilarious descriptions of disgusting fast food (though they were laugh-out-loud funny) but because, as the grease fire smoke clears, pseudonymous blogger Mobutu Sese Seko steps forward with a revelation about the nature of health/diet reporting in general:

"Since the late 1970s, the U.S. has borne witness to an increasingly judgmental and fanatic concern with body image. That our national fever for exercise has been matched by the fattening of us all hasn't occasioned much handwringing about our approach, but self-reflection is one of those time-wasting luxuries only allowed to people who aren't already late for spinning class.  Whatever the flaws in our calisthenic religion, an unmistakable side effect has been the impression that those who eat fast food are slovenly, lazy and/or obese, and that all these conditions have a shared precursor: ignorance. You have to be stupid to eat fast food, and like all good stupid people, you look unpleasant as a biological signal to the world that says, 'Yo, I'm stupid. Don't breed here'... This, of course, is stupid."

I think Seko's hit upon something exactly true about our culture.  As we become obsessed with physical "perfection" (a completely arbitrary ideal that's nonetheless foisted on us constantly through media and advertising) to an increasingly insane degree, it becomes more and more essential to dismiss not just the appearance but the inner lives of the so-called "unfit."  This means that, for example, a doctor who's overweight -- be it Dr. Watson or the Surgeon General -- couldn't possibly be a good doctor, because if he knew his stuff he wouldn't look the way he does.  Constant debates of "is so-and-so a good role model, b/c she's teh fatz" imply that if young people look up to someone obese, it's only the weight that they could possibly be seeking to emulate.  We're reassured again and again that nothing could be going on inside the head of a public figure, or even an ordinary person, that isn't already written on her body; that, as the old McDonald's slogan goes, "What you see is what you get."

My deduction: the smarter a man is, the more closely he resembles Rocky Balboa.

And the logical extension of all this, of course, is that if someone is a genius, he can exercise complete control, not over his mind (that's a given) but over his body too: that he can comprehend his way straight to a whuppin'.  It's a revealing perspective coming from a film that's the intellectual equivalent of a Baconator with a side of fries.

1 comment:

Research Intensive Investing said...

I completely agree. The best example of this was the scene in the ring, where Holmes applies his crazy biological genius to give the bigger guy an ass-whopping (because he can't just be a good detective, he also needs to be a student of delivering pain and to have the body capable of doing that). I was surprised that they managed to turn this into an action movie and what that says about how hollywood is going to take popular brands and turn them into an action movie - great post!