Archive for the ‘ Film ’ Category

Happy Hour – June 10

Since before the Memorial Day Rabbitcon through today, I’ve been working at a fairly brisk pace. It’s gotten to the point that I actually need to go over my books and Friday and make sure I’m remembering all my invoices. It also means, as I have mentioned before, that it is harder to find things to say here. I write 5 columns a month, and most of what I play is either for review or 3MA, so there’s no need to opine here about any of that stuff.

God, what a boring person I seem to be becoming. “Sorry, guys, all I talk about is games, and I do that for other places.” My original frustration with a lot of games writing was that it was so rarely in dialogue with broader culture and history. Now I am gunning out reviews and columns while a stack of unread books and unwatched films piles up behind me.

Still, this is perhaps the wrong week to complain about this. I finished E.L. Doctorow’s The Waterworks and Susanne Collins The Hunger Games this week, and The Waterworks is nothing if not inspiring to a writer. I read the first and last dozen pages aloud, because the prose is so completely perfect and evocative. Not just of the time and place, but of the narrator’s character and the people who surround him.

And then I went out to the indie film multiplex a few blocks from my apartment to see a Woody Allen film in a theater for the first time, Midnight in Paris, and a few nights later had a near-religious experience with Steve Gaynor and Chris Remo when we went to see Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.

Actually, scratch that. I’ve had religious experiences. A few dawn Masses when what the Church had to say and what I needed to hear perfectly aligned, or just those days that make pagans of us all, when the perfection and glory of creation seems sufficient proof of God, and spending a day under the open sky seems like the truest act of worship.

Tree of Life wasn’t near-religious. By design, it is explicitly religious. Through the death of a child and the life of a family, Malick is addressing our relationship with Heavenly and earthly Fathers and Mothers. It was about as powerful a film as I have ever seen, the sort of film that lead to an unself-conscious conversation about what it is we are supposed to be doing with our lives and talents. What will make us proud in the twilight years to come.

I guess I had things to say, after all. Maybe the danger of neglecting this space is not that I abandon my audience or become boring, but that I stop believing my mind is engaged with anything other than the workaday tasks for which I spend my Fridays editing and invoicing. That games become all there is, because that’s all I’m bothering to process.

Anyway, I have hopes of this being a grand weekend. The Bruins play in just a moment. F1 is running at Montreal, one of my favorite tracks because it is so ridiculously fast with some truly devilish chicanes and turns that force drivers to the very edge of recklessness. Then there are the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which I will be trying to watch in between a number of podcast obligations. On top of all that, I will likely be playing The Darkness on my 360 and Pride of Nations on my PC.

Not to mention catching up on my reading. My pal J.P. Grant did a great profile for Kill Screen on Greg Kasavin, who is working on one of the very few upcoming games for which I am genuinely excited: Bastion. The few minutes I spent with it suggested that it might be one of the best-written games of the year, and John does a fine job of showing why Kasavin is just the sort of person to make such a game.

I also finished L.A. Noire and was finally able to start reading over the reviews, including Kirk Hamilton’s justly-praised Kill Screen piece. Kirk has an alternate-take on the game, and badly do I wish the game’s central conceit were as interesting and well-thought out. Team Bondi ultimately seemed to reach the same conclusion about Cole Phelps’ character, but the story is too slowly-developed, too literal to draw out Phelps’ real dilemma.

Christmas Movie Recommendation – Remember the Night

Every time I watch Remember the Night, I am amazed.

It’s so unlike anything else Preston Sturges ever did, and the story goes that he was so furious with how director Mitchell Leisen butchered his script that he demanded to direct all his films. He would go on an unmatched streak of brilliant romantic comedies, blazing through Christmas in July, The Great McGinty, Miracle at Morgan’s Creek, Palm Beach Story, Sullivan’s Travels, and The Lady Eve all in just a few years. Then, as quickly as it had come, the streak would be over. Sturges would be an angry burnout after directing the disastrous football movie, and would leave behind just this handful of films that both define and defy the romantic comedies of the 30s and 40s.

I’ve watched this film once every year for as long as I can remember. Call it twenty times. I’ve come to the conclusion that either Sturges never understood what Leisen accomplished with Remember the Night, or he was just burning to direct and took issue with Remember only as a ploy. It is the best film Sturges helped make, although I would hesitate a long time before ranking Remember the Night, The Lady Eve, or Palm Beach Story. They are peers in excellence.

But Remember the Night stands apart, a strangely honest and heartfelt film from a writer, and later director, who made such self-conscious films. Sturges never stooped to meta-filmmaking preciousness, but he loved to rap his knuckles against the fourth wall. His characters weren’t real people but the caricatures of a brilliant cartoonist. He played with words and loved to share the fun he was having with his audience. His situations were absurd: card-sharks and con artists traveling on the same ocean liner as a renowned herpatologist / brewing fortune heir.

Remember the Night doesn’t have the same absurdist streak. It opens with Deputy DA John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) called to a trial on the day he is supposed to travel home from New York to his family’s farm in Indiana. He finds himself prosecuting Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck), a career criminal who is looking at her third conviction. Her lawyer plays on the jury’s Christmas spirit and bottomless credulity and is on the cusp of securing an acquittal, so Sargent holds the case over until the New Year. Feeling bad about having used a procedural trick to keep her in jail and deny her an acquittal, Sargent has a bondsman friend secure Lee’s release. Because she has no money and nowhere to stay, and because she’s from a small Indiana town not far from his family home, he agrees to drive her home for the holiday. The rest of the film is their week together before the trial resumes.

Sturges’ script is preoccupied with deeper questions than most of his other films. Sargent and Lee come from almost identical backgrounds and experiences. Yet one of them has become a successful attorney and the paragon of honesty and decency, and the other has become a small-time crook marking time until the state finally locks her up and throws away the key. Why did their paths diverge so starkly? How much responsibility does she bear for the way her life has gone, and how much credit can Sargent claim for what he’s accomplished?

One of the threads that runs through Sturges’ films is that virtue and decency are conditional, and judgment is perilous. At the start of the film, Sargent does not understand this. He thinks he lives in a world where things are roughly as they should be, and so he can’t make sense of Lee. She’s smart, kind, and in many ways honest. He cannot imagine how those virtues exist in a criminal, because he has deluded himself into thinking the world is a place of absolutes. Lee knows better. The film is a record of his education. She says, early in the film,  “Gee, you’re sweet. You never think of anything wrong, do you?”

He doesn’t, and that is what blinds him. As they head into Indiana to see her family, Lee tries to explain that she and her mother parted on very bad terms but Sargent’s response is simple: “Of course she’ll be glad to see you. She’s your mother.” Anyone could look at Lee’s face and know that it’s not that simple, but Sargent can’t because he just assumes that all mothers love and forgive their children.

The scene where he and Lee meet her mother is one of the all time great moments in American cinema, a sequence of prairie gothic that evokes the later Night of the Hunter. As Lee’s mother, a hard-faced woman straight out of a Dustbowl photograph, relentlessly tears into Lee for being a lifelong sneak and a liar, you can see the understanding that is finally striking John Sargent.

Lee had to leave home because, her mother explains, she stole “my mission money that I put by with the sweatuh mah brow.” Lee, almost sobbing, says, “I told you, I was going to pay it back.”

“But you never paid me back, didja? And ya never paid anyone else back, either.”

“How could I after you called me a thief in front of the whole town?”

We learn later that this is a mirror of an event that happened between Sargent and his mother. His mother later reminds him of the incident and asks if he remembers how bad he felt when he learned it was wrong, and how hard he worked to pay back the money he took. He says, “You made me understand.” She shakes her heads and whispers, “No, dear, it was love that made you understand.”

Lee’s family is the polar opposite of Sargent’s. Both poor Indiana farmers, Sargent grew up surrounded by love, security, and the sense of opportunity they afford. Lee was ground down by the hardness of country living and her mother’s unrelenting, self-righteous misery. Her mother was the grim prairie zealot, choosing to live in near misery and squalor but making a special point to set aside money for the church mission, while setting aside neither money nor affection for her child. Sargent comes from an idealized America where things are as they should be. What Sargent comes to understand is that while Lee might be guilty of many crimes, she is also a victim of crimes and circumstances for which the law affords no protection.

The Train

Not long ago, MK and I watched John Frankenheimer’s The Train, and I was amazed all over again at what a tense, beautifully photographed, and surprisingly thought-provoking action movie this is.

The Train opens in the middle of the night in a Parisian art museum. A German officer, Colonel Waldheim (Paul Scofield), stands in the darkness surrounded by luminous masterpieces. The German occupation of Paris is in its final days. The museum curator appears, and together they regard the art in silence. Then she thanks him. For not being like the rest of the Nazis. For treating her and the art with such respect. For protecting it.

Then the spell is broken as he tells her that he is going to continue protecting it. The art will be taken from the museum and brought to Germany before the Allies take the city. As if on cue, a small army of German soldiers burst into the museum as the lights come up, armed with creates and packaging. As the curator looks on in horror, France’s artistic heritage is entombed in crates with names like “RENOIR” and “PICASSO” stencilled in black lettering across their lids. The scene ends with the curator, standing stunned beneath stark white light and surrounded by empty walls.

The Train is shot in black and white, and is probably the last major action picture shot that way. Throughout the film, Frankenheimer goes for brutal, stark contrasts, cutting frames in half and thirds. His scenes are packed with action all the way into the background, and the camera stalks through the scenery alongside the characters. The first time we meet Burt Lancaster’s character, French railroad engineer and yard manager Paul Labiche, he is striding across the train yard as German troops bustle too and fro with their retreat. Without breaking stride he dodges past arriving trains, armored vehicles, and lines of soldiers.

All of it is actually happening. This is not an effects shot. Every frame is teeming with living detail because there really are things happening in front of the camera. You get the sense that Labiche could just as easily change directions, walk deeper into the frame, and go about an ordinary day. The Train seems to be taking place within a world, not creating one.

When Labiche arrives at his meeting, a clandestine gathering of Resistance members, we get the setup that will take us through the rest of the film. Col. Waldheim’s art train must be stopped at all costs, but without harming the art. The Resistance members initially want nothing to do with it. They have lost friends in this war and the end is in sight. In a few days the Germans will be gone, and they’ve sacrificed enough. Paintings aren’t something worth dying over. The curator is struck dumb when one of Labiche’s men suggests the paintings just be replaced.

This brings us to the most fascinating aspect of The Train. It seriously considers our relationship to culture. Nations have ideas and touchstones, but for most of us they’re not real objects. The Smithsonian is not a part of my life. I haven’t been to the Art Museum of Chicago in years. I haven’t read most of the Western Canon. And neither, I suspect, have you.

Most of us are too damn busy working hard and keeping the wolves at bay to form a personal relationship with the things that supposedly define our civilizations, or our nations. Yet for all that, we identify with a culture based on touchstones that we’ve never actually touched, on ideas we’ve never contemplated. Millions have died “for France” without ever touring the Louvre or taking Communion at Reims Cathedral. Why? How can patriotism, not that of jingoist sloganeering, but the real love of the patria, burn bright enough to make willing heroes of working stiffs and jaded cynics? How does it survive in a disillusioned world?

We begin to alight on an understanding when Papa Boule, a broken-down and mutinous train operator discovers he’s being given the job of driving the art train out of France. Boule is a drunken troll, and hasn’t been allowed to drive trains for some unknown (but easily imaginable) infractions. A conductor at the yard takes him aside during the night shift and explains the cargo, and tells him that these paintings are France. He starts listing the masters on this train, and Boule stops him at Renoir. His eyes go out of focus as he explains that once, when he was a much younger man, he dated a girl who modeled for Renoir.

For reasons he never really explains, Boule decides to save these paintings and sabotage the train. What he sets in motion will eventually involve Labiche’s small Resistance cell and numerous other Resistance members. But it’s Boule’s curious choice to intervene that remains the pivotal point of the film. When he is caught by the Germans, Labiche attempts to win some mercy for him by protesting of Waldheim that Boule is just a foolish old man, who didn’t know what he was doing. Boule turns on him and snarls that he knew exactly what he was doing. Does Labiche?

It’s interesting. Boule refuses to be made a victim or a sucker. This is a film from the early 1960s, distant enough from WWII to be skeptical of the heroic narrative, but not yet soured by the great disillusionment of the 60s and 70s. In just 14 years, Burt Lancaster would wheel on an idealistic young soldier in Go Tell the Spartans and angrily accuse him of being a “fucking hero.” But here in The Train, between World War II and Vietnam, we find a film that considers heroism and self-sacrifice with neither irony nor pity. The paintings are France, and in spite of everything, including a futile massacre in in the trenches and a bloody, ignominious debacle  in 1940, a burned-out blue-collar engineer decides to throw his life away for an idea he’d have mocked if he ever heard someone trying to express it.

The Train is ultimately an action film, and Frankenheimer does a typically expert job of building and sustaining suspense, and laying out clear, coherent, and thrilling set-pieces. But it’s an action film with its mind on bigger questions. Go take a look (it’s available for streaming on Netflix). It’s a great example of the beauty of postwar black-and-white photography, and one of the most thought-provoking action pictures  you’re likely to see.

The Love of One’s Country

The Wind That Shakes the Barley tells the story of two brothers who fight the Anglo-Irish War together, and then find themselves fighting each other in the Irish Civil War that followed.

I hate that description. It makes the movie sound cliched and sentimental. It isn’t. It is one of the most searing and beautiful movies I’ve seen lately. It is comprised of a series of unforgettable moments, and when the credits rolled, neither MK nor I could really say anything for a few minutes. Director Ken Loach and his crew produced a powerful piece of filmmaking, and you should make an effort to see it.

Perhaps most admirably, it does not stoop to using the warring brothers and comrades as simple metaphors for the broader struggle for Ireland’s soul. The men and women of this film retain their individuality, and never for a moment do you doubt that they are reaching private decisions for their own reasons. They might be caught in the tide of history, but they are also its agents.

Like its spiritual and stylistic parent, The Battle of Algiers, The Wind That Shakes the Barley is shot in an intimate, semi-documentary style. The camera is your proxy in the film, a silent and trusted fellow dissident and confidante among rebels. Later, as the band of fighters splinters in the final third of the film, the camera finds itself adrift between the players, cutting back and forth like a child watching his parents fire volleys across the dinner table.

This is a period of history I know well, but always from the point of view of the elites. That’s a distorted view of the action, however. It’s easy to see why Collins and the Army crushed the partisans so brutally: their refusal to compromise with the British would have cost Ireland its last best chance for independence. Their leaders had recused themselves from the actual negotiations with Lloyd-George and Churchill so that they they could maintain the fiction of their revolutionary purity. They seem like violent, self-serving idealists. It’s easy to forget that many of them had their own reasons, and real principles.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley is not a history of winners and losers. It is a series of tragedies nestled within one another. British soldiers make martyrs of their victims and mortal enemies of those who witness their excesses, and the men who volunteer to murder British Tommies and Irish traitors spin dreams for themselves that can somehow redeem the bloodshed. But there must come a moment in a revolution when dreams give way to the possible.

Damien (Cillian Murphy) is a reluctant killer who takes on more than his share of responsibility, because his conscience won’t let him delegate a necessary evil. He would never have taken up arms unless he could believe with all his heart that the future would be worth it. When he discovers that it won’t be, he has a legion of ghosts at his back, urging him to keep fighting until he pays his debts to them.

There is also a degree of narcissism in this decision. Damien and his friend, Dan (Liam Cunningham), are breaking a hard-won peace because it is not their peace. They are deaf to the argument that most of Ireland voted for the Treaty, coming up with flimsy explanations of how the people were duped by the sell-outs. They begin terrorizing and killing their fellow Irishmen in the newborn army, because they have chosen to serve Ireland and not Damien’s and Dan’s vision for it. In a war of national liberation, Damien and his fellow hard-liners have fallen into the revolutionary trap of identifying themselves with the nation.

Still, I find myself thinking over and over about an execution scene halfway through the film. Damien has to shoot a pair of informers, and Cillian Murphy looks like a man who has just awakened from a pleasant dream to find himself in Hell. As he slams pistol rounds into his revolver, he says, “I studied anatomy for five years, Dan. Now I’m going to shoot this man in the head. I’ve known Chris Riley since he was a child.” He pauses and shakes his head. “I hope this Ireland we’re fighting for is worth it.”

In the last shot of the scene we see that all the other cell members, including those that urged the execution, have turned their faces away from it. We see them all outlined against the hills, their heads bowed and looking to the right of the frame. Chris Riley’s body lies lost in the tall grass behind them. Damien throws the pistol down and exits to the left, walking alone down the hill, a man already isolated by the choices being forced on him and the promises he’s made to himself.

Strange Days in Feminist Film Criticism

I saw Hurt Locker in a theater last summer, or I think I did. After reading this rather nasty take-down of the film and its director from Martha Nochimson over at Salon, I think I might have seen something else.

For instance, Nochimson sees in Jeremy Renner’s Sgt. Will James a modern John Wayne character, stripped of the humanity and feeling that marked Wayne’s protagonists and reduced to being masculine machine. And she’s convinced the film gives this character the hero treatment.

When they bonded with young, earnest boys, Wayne’s men became meaningful mentors — Gillom Rogers (Ron Howard) in “The Shootist” couldn’t have grown up without the wit and wisdom of Wayne’s John Bernard Books. But Will, with his Wayne-ian steely gaze, his laconic ease at the portals of death, and his patented hero saunter, loves “just one thing,” as he tells his baby boy before leaving him, maybe forever, to return to the killing fields of Iraq. And it isn’t women or kids.

To their credit, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal never reduce “the thing” to a word. Will’s unnamed passion is left to the enormity of our imaginations when we see him back in Iraq in the humongous bomb-disposal suit that insulates him from any direct contact with the world. What’s less happy is the confused adulation of this solitary savior at the end of the film, as Will takes the place of the bomb-disposal robot we saw in the opening scene — a better “bot.”

Adulation is a strong word there at the end, and I’m pretty certain that nothing in the film supports its usage. If you look at Hurt Locker as, among other things, a character study of Will James, then it reveals him to be a man who is fundamentally broken and unheroic in spite of numerous admirable traits. He is brave to the point of foolishness, and unconscionably reckless with the lives of the soldiers around him. And the last shot of the film does, indeed, show him with that “one thing” that he loves, but it never asks the audience to share or admire that love. Coming on the heels of his unsuccessful and half-hearted attempt at resuming life with his family, James’s return to Iraq seems more like a defeat than anything else.

But I was really taken aback by this passage. I love a nasty cheap shot as much as the next guy, and I’ve taken a few of them here, but shouldn’t the targets at least have it coming? Nochimson really dislikes Bigelow and this film, and she doesn’t care how she comes across.

Quentin Tarantino, who should know better, having just directed a piercingly original ironic study of war and blood lust, dubbed Bigelow the “Queen of Directors” when she took the DGA award. I prefer the “Transvestite of Directors.” Looks to me like she’s masquerading as the baddest boy on the block to win the respect of an industry still so hobbled by gender-specific tunnel vision that it has trouble admiring anything but filmmaking soaked in a reduced notion of masculinity.

OK, I see you objecting back there in the last row. Is it because Bigelow and Boal seem to think they have made an antiwar film, as they made clear when they accepted their BAFTAs (the British Academy Awards)? Something to do with an ironic presentation of Will? Uh-huh. We spend one-and-a-half hours enduring crisis after crisis in which Will is the only person with the daring and skill to save us (since we identify with the American soldiers) from being blown to bits. We hover over him anxiously, for seemingly endless stretches of time, watching (beautiful) extreme close-ups of his skillful and steady fingers palpating wires and wielding wire-cutters, our vicarious lives hanging on each motion. Our field of vision is so completely limited to his expertise in defusing bombs and dealing with invisible enemies that our capacity to think about the larger context of the American presence in Iraq is replaced by nuance-free instincts more characteristic of the tea party movement.

No, I can’t believe she just played the “Real Woman” card either. But we’ll come back to that in a moment, because Nochimson is going to revisit this theme. I’m more interested in her interpretation of the film.

First, we hover anxiously over Will because this is a movie about defusing and disposing of bombs, and Bigelow has told the story with all the tension and stomach-churning terror that it deserves. But in a number of those scenes, I think it’s easier to identify with the other members of Will’s unit. Because here is the funny thing about what Will does: he’s not really saving anybody. He doesn’t really even need to bother with defusing the bombs. He is summoned to sites where US troops have already found, or suspect they have found, explosives or booby-traps and have withdrawn to a safe distance. And the bomb squad always has the option to detonate the bombs from safety. But Will, regardless of what the smart or safe course of action would be, insists on sticking his head inside the lion’s mouth. And his men are forced to come along for that ride.

Nochimson also underplays the importance of Sgt. Sanborn and Spc. Eldridge in this film. Eldridge is wrestling with severe PTSD from the start of the film, and it’s obvious that he needs to get the hell out of Iraq but can’t until he is finished with his tour. We last see him being placed on a medevac chopper and cursing out Will. He is being sent home wounded because Will, as he always does, needlessly put his men in danger. Sanborn, Will’s second in command, is the responsible one of the group. When the unit comes under a deadly sniper attack in the desert, Sanborn reveals himself to be as steady and skilled as Will. The difference is that Sanborn doesn’t feel the need to test himself, nor does he relish such occasions. He is a professional soldier. Will is a cowboy in the worst sense of the word.

None of this is subtext. It’s front and center throughout the film, and while there are moments we might think Will is brave or heroic, by the end we’ve seen through him, as has Sanborn.

As for the “larger context” that The Hurt Locker supposedly lacks, I’m not certain what more Nochimson could want. We have a sequence where Will, in a blind fury at the murder of a child he believes to be one that he befriended, breaks into an Iraqi’s home and holds him at gunpoint and demands answers through a mild language barrier and Will’s own incomprehensibility. Will is demanding an explanation from a man who has no idea what Will is talking about. I don’t think we need to look very far for ways this scene applies to our endeavors in the Middle East. And honestly, a movie about guys fighting the shadow war against Iraqi insurgents seems to invite some serious thought about context.

Toward the end of the piece, Nochimson comes to her real complaint. Bigelow has been praised to the skies for directing a brutal, kinetic war film. She demonstrated her technical proficiency in the kind of macho genre that Hollywood loves. In the meantime, the work of other female directors is the veritable tree falling in the forest if it’s work that can be dismissed as part of a “chick” genre.

I think the outsize admiration for her masterly technique and the summary dismissal in the current buzz of directors like Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers reveal an untenable assumption that the muscular filmmaking appropriate for the fragmented, death-saturated situations of war films is innately superior to the technique appropriate to the organic, life-affirming situations of romantic comedy.I don’t begrudge the praise for Bigelow’s depiction of urban war violence, but why the general opinion that Ephron and Meyers aren’t up to much because they don’t use hand-held cameras and flashy cuts that tensely survey an inscrutable environment? That’s not their material. Why isn’t there also some praise for Ephron, for example, for the scenes in “Julie & Julia” that capture the love of life conveyed by Meryl Streep in her celebrated performance as Julia Child? When Julia and her sister, reunited in a Paris train station, run toward each other, so adorably full of affection they don’t care about their resemblance to two lurching cows high on jouissance grass, does anyone think that incandescent moment was achieved only by acting? That the director’s framing of the scene had nothing to do with it?

I sympathize on this score, but I see two problems. First, Nora Ephron is not a great standard-bearer for female directors (I can’t speak to Meyers). I watched Julie & Julia six weeks ago, and I cannot for the life of me remember the scene that Nochimson describes here. I can remember The Hurt Locker almost scene for scene, and I saw it only once about nine months ago. The scenes I tend to remember from Julie & Julia stand out because of Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci, or because they are the flat Julie Powell sequences that bear the self-conscious cuteness that is practically Ephron’s signature. Ephron makes enjoyable, often charming movies that usually have one or two flaws or tics that drive me insane each time I see them. She does not make movies I consider great.

The larger problem is that the issue Nochimson identifies has less to do with gender than it does with Hollywood’s views on what constitutes a “serious” film. Hollywood has always been a sucker for the passable epic, the “issue” film (Gentlemen’s Agreement, anyone?), and the oppressively serious drama. Spend a few minutes poking around IMDB comparing academy award nominations in a given year versus which movies came out that year, and the full scope of the travesty should be clear. To get you started, here is 1995: A year in which Braveheart beat out the superb Babe and Sense and Sensibility for Best Picture, and Before Sunrise and Clockers received no nominations. Heat, Se7en, and The Usual Suspects also came out that year. Men and women both have grounds for complaint when we consider the types of movies that always seem to make the biggest pseudo-critical, pseudo-artistic splash. So Nochimson has identified an old, recurrent problem and interpreted its latest instantiation through the lens of gender-bias.

Nochimson’s critique of The Hurt Locker is based, I think, on a seriously flawed interpretation of the film. But her attack on Bigelow highlights a persistent problem between women and Hollywood. Nochimson accuses Bigelow of playing the transvestite to advance her career. She has made a masculine film and has therefore somehow betrayed feminism by not using her talents to direct feminine “life affirming” movies. Ironically, by using this line of attack, Nochimson has tacitly accepted sexist Hollywood’s gendering of the genres. The Hurt Locker isn’t a masculine film, and I don’t consider Julie and Julia a feminine film. They are films about different subject matter and characters, and different material requires a different approach. But it doesn’t require a gendered approach, and it’s wrong to insist that female directors take one.

A Study in Schlock

The Charles River is frozen, and the view looking south from the Longfellow Bridge at night is incredible. The Boston skyline sparkles between the burnt lavender of the clouds and the ghostly layer of ice. Late on a weeknight, with barely any cars going by and nobody else walking the streets, there are few places more peaceful and lovely to be than halfway between Cambridge and Boston.

Unfortunately for MK and me, we continued walking into Boston to go see Sherlock Holmes. Despite a series of lukewarm, mildly negative reviews, we were smitten by the notion of Downey, Jr. and Jude Law going on a homoerotic detective romp through Victorian London. It was going to be loud, silly, and distasteful to a Holmes purist, but that was just the kind of fun we were looking to have on Monday night.

We probably should have just admired the skyline for two hours, then gone home once frostbite claimed our toes.

In the first place, Sherlock Holmes is an impressively ugly movie. Not content with maximizing the grit and grime of Victorian London, Ritchie also aims for graininess. Entire scenes look like they were filmed with a webcam. This is Mr. Ritchie’s style, of course, but here it begins to feel less like a style and more like evidence that he lacks one. He knows how to make a movie about ugly English thugs beating the shit out of each other in sewage-colored rooms, and he just keeps on making it.

The difference this time is that one of those English thugs is Sherlock Holmes, but it’s Holmes by way of a Judd Apatow production. It’s Sherlock Holmes and the Pineapple Express. Holmes and Watson are arrested adolescents who live in a criminology frat house, with Mrs. Hudson reduced to the role of ineffectual den mother. Holmes and Watson smirk and flirt at each other, Watson holds Holmes’ hair out of the toilet when he gets too trashed, and Holmes reminds Watson of their bros-before-hoes code when the latter is in danger of getting married and catching a potentially lethal case of cooties.

But let us not forget that Holmes is a great detective! You can tell because in the film’s first scene, Holmes deduces that shattering a dude’s eardrum, then breaking his leg at the knee will, as a matter of elementary logic, fuck that guy up. Case closed! But, will Holmes be able to solve the diabolical Mystery of the Even Bigger Goon later in the film?

There is, of course, a detective story of sorts in this film. Lord Blackthorn is hanged for the murders of several people around London, but no sooner has he been buried than he apparently rises from the dead and starts an unlife of crime. All of this is part of a plan to seize control of Parliament and conquer the world, a task that apparently requires nothing more than a strong ministry in Whitehall.

Knowing all this, would you be astonished to learn that Blackthorn is not really an adversary worthy of Sherlock Holmes? Not that I expected a great battle of wits from a Guy Ritchie movie, but this is like turning Sherlock Holmes loose against the magician at second-grader’s birthday party. Except that would have comedy value, while unmasking Blackthorn’s plot means enduring endless scenes of cut-rate Masons performing boring rituals and giving dire warnings about all the dark, uncontrollable forces Blackthorn is unleashing with his powers.

And that really brings us to central problem of this film: it’s just not very much fun, and a movie as stupid as this needs to be fun. The pro forma tension between Holmes and Watson over Watson’s impending engagement just serves to bring the movie down, along with the boring machinations of the villain, the endless fist fighting, and Moriarty’s momentum-killing cameos. Downey, Jr.’s Holmes and Law’s Watson never really get a chance to play off one another, which is a key element of a good bromantic comedy. With the exception of a few childish establishing scenes, they spend most of the movie either apart, in silence, or brawling side by side.

There is exactly one scene in this movie that really worked. Watson has forced Holmes to come dine with him and his soon-to-be fiancee, but Holmes has arrived at the restaurant too early. As he sits there, the camera catches his eyes as they start to dart around the room. We see his view as he scans the crowd, picking up a cacophony of details and evidence of minor crimes and betrayals. The crowd noise swells to a roar of conversation fragments and sounds.

Next, Holmes shove himself back into his booth, eyes tightly closed and hands pressing against his face. This is obviously a recurring problem, a condition with which he has never come to terms. We see evidence of this as Watson and his fiancee arrive to join him, and she makes the mistake of asking Holmes what he can deduce about her.

What happens next is a slow-motion train wreck. Holmes can’t stop himself from going too far, from telling her too much about herself, and from being cruel out of a misguided protectiveness of Watson. She leaves in a fury, and Watson just looks at Holmes with a mixture of pity and disappointment. It’s the lack of anger that’s the most hurtful thing to Holmes, because it’s clear just how much Watson views Holmes as his sick, broken friend. Holmes just looks back at Watson with a mixture of sheepish defiance, sorry and ashamed but constitutionally incapable of apologizing. It is a pity we never get to see the rest of that movie.