Friday, March 9, 2012

Getting Wrecked with the Boss

Is it hypocritical for Bruce Springsteen, a millionaire rock star, to write an album decrying our country's unfair distribution of wealth?

Springsteen was never really a blue collar worker, but he's been singing and writing songs about them for his entire career. And in a way, his live shows are a form of physical labor: for three and a half hours, he literally DOES NOT STOP running, jumping, screaming, sweating, twirling guitars and microphone stands, crowd surfing. Fun? Sure. But physically demanding. And at age 62, he works harder for those millions than most 20-year-old performers.

On top of that, Bruce gives a ton of money to charity. He leads a quiet life in NJ with his family. In short, he's not a typical spoiled celebrity: bitching about inequality, then buying $30,000 worth of cocaine.

All that being said, there were a few moments on his new album, Wrecking Ball, where I couldn't help thinking: "Wait a're rich!" Specifically, the line "Up on Banker's Hill, the party's going strong / Down here below, we're shackled and drawn" doesn't quite land the right way. Springsteen has the right to criticize the bankers and C.E.O.s and politicians whose greed caused the economic recession; but it gets a bit stickier when he complains that bankers are living better than the working classes. Because, hey...HE's living better than the working classes, too.

Much more effective is a song like "Death to My Hometown," which focuses on the ruthlessness and stealth of the financial elite, rather than their quality of life. The song presents them as "marauders" and "robber barons" who snuck into town under cover of night, unseen by anyone. Without guns or bombs, they destroyed families and factories and picked the bones clean. It's one of the best songs on the album, reminding us that theft and crime have evolved, even as our legal system has failed to keep up.

Musically, the album is exactly what you'd expect from Springsteen (except for a hip-hop break on "Rocky Ground," performed by a female singer, which is quite beautiful and fits surprisingly well). When I first learned that Bruce wasn't doing this as an E Street Band album, I figured he was going for a sparser sound, a la The Ghost of Tom Joad (another album that dealt with economic instability and unemployment). Instead, this sounds EXACTLY like an E Street Band album. Weinberg, van Zandt, and Clemons do each appear on a couple of tracks; but overall, this is a different group of people trying to sound as much like the E Street Band as possible. Given the fact that he's touring for the album WITH the E Street Band, I don't know why he didn't just use them in the studio. But either way, it works fine. Everyone rocks hard, and if you like Springsteen's sound, you'll like the album musically.

As an added bonus, Wrecking Ball is mixed WAY better than his last three albums, all produced by Brendan O'Brien. O'Brien, for whatever reason, seemed to love burying Bruce's vocals under the band, going for (I guess) a Phil Spector Wall-of-Sound type approach. The problem is, Bruce's vocals are growly enough as it is, and with the band wailing over him, you miss half the lyrics. Thankfully, this album is produced by Ron Aniello, and every word is perfectly clear, so you can listen to the freaking thing WITHOUT reading along in the liner notes. Hallelujah!

Lyrically, I don't think this album is quite as brazen or ballsy as a lot of reviewers are implying. Bruce is saying the stuff you'd expect a liberal, socially-conscious rock star to say: fat cats don't give a shit, they need to be held accountable, etc. I agree with him, and it's a well-executed album both musically and lyrically, by and large. It rocks, it makes valid points in occasionally interesting ways. But it's not bringing anything new to the table. It didn't make me think; it just made me nod my head in agreement.

The first track, and lead single, is "We Take Care of Our Own." It's a good song that reminds me of "Born in the U.S.A." in the sense that the verses are cynical and dissatisfied with the way our country is going, but the chorus has an ironic flag-waving attitude. The song is prone to be taken for a patriotic anthem by people who aren't listening too closely (just as Reagan mistook "Born in the U.S.A."). Maybe someone can convince Romney to start using it at rallies.

For my money, the only real filler tracks are the two straight love songs, "This Depression" and "You've Got It." I guess they provide some relief from the gloom-and-doom railing-against-the-man stuff, but they feel generic, like Bruce forced himself to write them.

"Wrecking Ball" is a song Springsteen wrote in 2009 when he performed the last set of concerts at Giants Stadium. It's possibly the most energized, rocking track on the album. It's stuck between the two aforementioned "filler" tracks in an act of brilliant sequencing, to keep the adrenaline going through what could have been a huge lull. I can't remember if he's added lyrics to the song since the '09 incarnation (I'm inclined to say that he did), but at that time it seemed like a cool nostalgic anthem to get the crowd amped up...summoning up the ghosts of past victories and childhood memories in the stadium, while daring the son-of-a-bitch with a wrecking ball to try to knock all THAT history down. The version on the album, while keeping the explicitly Giants-and-Meadowlands-themed lyrics, turns into something more universal in the second half. The celebration of life in the face of destruction becomes personal ("When all our little victories and glories have turned into parking lots"). It fits in perfectly with the message of the rest of the album...especially when you consider that the Giants' new stadium is named after a major corporation. It's one of the strongest songs on the album, and I think it benefits from being less on-the-nose than some of the tracks.

The album ends with a one-two punch of upbeat, semi-optimistic songs. "Land of Hopes and Dreams" is a simple but elegant Gospel-style song that he's been doing live since 1999. This studio version has the late, great Clarence Clemons' final saxophone solo. It feels appropriate: Bruce is singing about an idealized, probably unattainable version of America. And Clarence's ebullient saxophone seems to be calling to us from some other plane of existence, right in front of us...yet gone forever. It's even more poignant when Bruce says the train carries "sweet souls departed."

The final song, "We Are Alive," ties death even more explicitly to Springsteen's ideal vision of America. It's a rallying cry sung by the deceased. Those who have died from injustice, be they 19th century railroad builders or victims of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, are still alive and with us, as long as we keep fighting the good fight, shoulder to shoulder with them. Again, a simple message, but a beautiful one, presented as a heartfelt and bouncy Irish folk song.

Ironically enough for an album protesting corporate greed, Columbia decided to milk consumers a little by releasing a "special edition" with two extra tracks. It's $3 extra on Amazon, and worth the upgrade, if you're a fan. "Swallowed Up" has a very sparse arrangement and some bleak imagery, comparing our current situation to the biblical story of Jonah & the Whale. It's different, and a little darker, than anything else on the album. The second song, "American Land," is another one that Bruce has been doing live for years. It's a great, bitterly ironic song about the immigrant experience, set to a frantic jig and sung in a cheerful Irish lilt. Both songs are very strong, fit the album's message, and probably should have just been on the album proper.

Check out the liner notes, too. There's a nice (if slightly self-indulgent) tribute to Clarence ("How big was the Big Man? TOO FUCKING BIG TO DIE").

My most major complaint about the whole thing is that, like Springsteen's last few albums, the CD comes in a cheap eco-friendly cardboard sleeve. "Go Green!" and all that, but I freaking HATE trying to slide CDs in and out of these things. Scratches and fingermarks are inevitable, and it's literally impossible to pull a CD out of a case like this while driving. I'm all for helping the environment, but there HAS to be a better design.

So, another solid Springsteen album: his most unified since The Rising, and containing a few tracks that rank among his all-time best (especially the title song). Throw in Clarence's last performances, and this album is a no-brainer for even casual Bruce fans.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

THE GREY: Teaching Americans to Spell Properly, and Being Bloody Entertaining While Doing It

THE GREY was a phenomenal film. I went into it expecting “man vs. nature,” but the overriding theme turned out to be “man vs. his own survival instinct.” What happens when a man who wants to die is put into a life-or-death situation?

We’ll get to the philosophical underpinnings, and Liam Neeson’s brilliant performance, in a few paragraphs. First I want to discuss the more technical aspects for a moment, because it really is one of the most incredible examples of immersive filmmaking I’ve ever seen. By the end of the film, my nose was running from the cold even though the temperature level in the theater was perfect, and I felt physically exhausted even though I’d been sitting in a chair for two hours.

I worked in a movie theater for nine years, and I LOVE watching films on the big screen. But I am NOT one of those people who pompously says, “There’s nothing like the theater! TV can’t compare!” That’s rarely true, in my experience. Often I’ll enjoy a film even more watching it in the comfort of my own home. I feel more focused. There’s less fear of missing something, because I control the pacing. I can rewind or pause. My eye can take in a fuller image, without having to run back and forth across the big screen. And heck…even with digital projection, I swear a lot of movies still look better in 1080p on my Blu Ray player.

Having said that, THE GREY is one of the few instances where I fear home viewing won’t measure up. This thing was MADE to be seen in a theater.

The sound design is incredible. The feeling of being surrounded by yipping wolves on all sides, the juicy crunch of a knife slowly cutting through the spine of a wolf carcass, the tranquil babbling of a river, and especially the WIND. The film hardly has any orchestral score--a tough thing to pull off, but something that can really heighten the tension and reality of a film if done right (see Sidney Lumet’s early films, like NETWORK and DOG DAY AFTERNOON). Here, in lieu of music, it’s just constant wind barraging the audience and the characters. This is driven home by the few moments where Neeson dreams of his wife, and experiences pure silence. TOTAL silence--the type of silence most mainstream movies are terrified of. The jarring transition from constant sound to complete silence, then back again, is just one of the many ways the film keeps the audience on its toes.

In terms of visuals, well…there’s snow. White saturating the screen, for two full hours, almost without relief. And on the BIG screen, it’s really overwhelming. You feel like you could go snowblind just watching the damn thing. The plot isn’t complicated, and I guessed the outcome before the movie had started. But the purity of the execution, the way that story is told, made the film truly special for me.

I’m shocked that opinions seem to be so divided on this film. A lot of people apparently thought the character moments, and the film’s underpinning ideas about philosophy and religion, were too heavy-handed. I couldn’t disagree more. The movie is economical in giving us details about the characters, and arguably goes for some easy characterizations (the confrontational ex-con; the Christian dad who wants to see his daughter again). However, they always felt like real people to me.

Part of what made me care about the characters was the aforementioned immersive filmmaking. A terrific example is the journey of Delmot Mulroney’s character across a horizontal rope, strung from the top of a cliff to the top of a pine tree, with a huge drop below. This character is by far the least physically able of the group, and every shot in the sequence was perfectly calculated to make me feel like it was ME sliding across that rope. Every move he made felt like the move I would make, in perfect real-time (right down to the loss of his glasses--so painful I caught myself actually reaching to make sure my own glasses were still on). Brutal. By the end of that, I felt like I’d been through battle with the guy. How could I NOT care about him?

The other thing that makes the characters seem three-dimensional is the performers, and particularly the way they play off one another. There’s an immediacy to the performances that matches the immersive filmmaking. Every death feels like it means something. All the supporting performers react exactly the way they would in real life: not with the overwrought hand-wringing or defensive coolness that actors usually portray in such scenes, but with genuine trauma and horror and pity.

Of course, Liam Neeson steals the show as Ottway. I’d watch him in anything (I’m even considering seeing the terrible-looking BATTLESHIP), but I’m having trouble thinking of another film where he was this damn good. Even in the scenes where he’s almost totally silent (such as a riverside monologue near the end of the film), his silence nearly overpowers the speaking actors. This is no discredit to the other performers (Frank Grillo in particular is really remarkable), but Neeson is such a powerhouse.

He starts the film off as a man suicidal over the loss of his wife (a performance where Neeson obviously delved into some VERY painful parts of his own psyche). Ottway has nothing to look forward to. He despises himself and what he’s become. And yet his survival instinct is stronger than anyone else’s in the group. He’s the one who explains to them that if they think about something they’re looking forward to (seeing a daughter again, getting laid again), it will strengthen their will to live. Help them fight. Yet we never exactly get an answer to what is making HIM fight.

All this relates in some way to his feelings toward God. He doesn’t believe in an afterlife, but he says he desperately wishes he could. There’s a moment early on when he talks to a dying man, comforting him and helping him to let go. This moment is all the more incredible when you realize that, in Ottway’s view, he’s not shepherding the man to the pastures of the next life. He’s pushing him off the cliff of existence, but doing it in the gentlest, noblest, most human way possible. Unlike a lot of religious folk, who focus too much on preparing for what may or may not happen in the next life, Ottway cares deeply about how he treats people in THIS world--even in their last seconds. The act of collecting the dead men’s wallets, to give to the families, is another terrific example of this. Come to think of it, in the opening minutes of the film, he even comforts a wolf in its dying moments! Even though his own life has stopped meaning a damn to him, everyone else around him matters SO much. In some way, maybe what fuels his survival instinct is the knowledge that only he can keep the others alive, due to his expertise. It would be selfish to let himself die.

Or maybe it really is just pure instinct. No matter how much a human man may struggle to tell himself “It’s over…I’m done,” the body is programmed for self-preservation.

As far as the philosophical aspect of the film, I don’t think it’s striving to make any big point. It prods the audience to think a bit, which is admirable, but there’s no argument for or against the existence of a higher power. It only matters in the context of Ottway’s personal psychological journey…and what an interesting journey it is to watch.

If I had one minor complaint about the film, it’s that the CGI wolves are never quite threatening. When the wolves were off-screen, baying and yipping, they were terrifying. But as soon as the wolves would run up alongside our group, or behind it, they looked too slick and well-rendered. The rest of the film is shot in such a basic, natural style (complete with intentionally grainy filmstock) that the CGI wolves, while they look fairly convincing, feel completely out of place. Moreover, the quick-cutting of the wolf attack scenes doesn’t flow well with the rest of the film, which is edited more like something from the ’70s than the post-BOURNE era.

Still, for me, THE GREY has already established itself as a benchmark film this year. I’d recommend that everyone see it while it’s still in the theater. And if you agree with the group who thinks the film was too on-the-nose in its quieter moments, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Sherlock Holmes Timeline: An Exercise in OCD

And now for something completely different. And maybe just a little OCD.

I’ve loved the Sherlock Holmes stories since I was a kid. As a seven or eight year old bookworm, I spent many an evening tearing through one Adventure after another. I thought that I was like Sherlock Holmes because we were both tall and thin and kind of solitary (although of course, I wasn’t much like him beyond that). I would imagine myself in his place as I read the stories. Wandering the wide dismal moor with fog so thick I couldn’t see the dead body three feet in front of me. Crouching in complete silence and darkness in a bank vault on a Saturday night, waiting for robbers, while outside Londoners were happily going to the theater and playing whist.

Whatever allure the stories had for me was absent from Guy Ritchie’s 2009 movie, with its “Jack Sparrow” Holmes and bullet-time effects. When they announced he was shooting a sequel, I was inspired to reread the stories for probably the fifth or sixth time in my life, so that I’d be prepared to really pick the film apart when it came out. But I decided I’d do something else as I read. I would try to create a timeline.

Creating a chronology of all the stories is a notoriously impossible task. Better nerds than I have tried and failed. Here’s the thing: Arthur Conan Doyle loved peppering his Sherlock Holmes stories with dates. The dates, coupled with the first-person narration, heighten the reality of Holmes’ world. When Watson references a case beginning in June 1902, shortly after Holmes refused a knighthood, the reader feels like it’s a matter of history. It’s suspension of disbelief at its best. Yet upon closer inspection, it becomes evident that while writing, Doyle consulted his other stories (and a calendar) maybe 50% of the time. That’s the challenge of constructing a history of Sherlock Holmes’ career: is it possible to create order where order was never particularly intended?

More than a year after starting, I find myself with not only a timeline, but extensive explanatory notes that I wrote as I went along. The beauty of the Internet is that someone somewhere may find this of use seven years from now. So in the interest of my time not having been completely wasted, here it is: My Sherlock Holmes Timeline, followed by notes.





Summer - 1877 or earlierThe Adventure of the “Gloria Scott”MEMOIRS
1878Watson graduates M.D. from University of London. 
July 27, 1880Watson wounded at the Battle of Maiwand. 
1881 or earlierThe Adventure of the Musgrave RitualMEMOIRS
March 4, 1883A Study in ScarletA STUDY IN SCARLET
April 1883The Adventure of the Speckled BandADVENTURES
Oct. 1883The Adventure of the Resident PatientMEMOIRS
April 14, 1887The Adventure of the Reigate SquireMEMOIRS
1887Watson's brother dies. 
Sept. 1887 (or July 7, 1887)The Sign of the FourTHE SIGN OF THE FOUR
Aug. 1887The Adventure of the Cardboard BoxHIS LAST BOW
Sept. 1887The Five Orange PipsADVENTURES
Oct. 1887The Adventure of the Noble BachelorADVENTURES
Jan. 7, 1888The Valley of FearTHE VALLEY OF FEAR
Early 1888Watson marries Mary Morstan. 
March 20, 1888A Scandal in BohemiaADVENTURES
1888 (or 1890)A Case of IdentityADVENTURES
June 1888The Adventure of the Stockbroker's ClerkMEMOIRS
Late July 1888The Adventure of the Naval TreatyMEMOIRS
Summer 1888The Adventure of the Crooked ManMEMOIRS
Autumn 1888 (or July 1888)The Adventure of the Second StainRETURN
June 1889The Boscombe Valley MysteryADVENTURES
June 19, 1889The Man with the Twisted LipADVENTURES
Summer 1889The Adventure of the Engineer's ThumbADVENTURES
First 3 weeks of Oct. 1889 (ending on Oct. 19)The Hound of the BaskervillesTHE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES
Dec. 27, 1889The Adventure of the Blue CarbuncleADVENTURES
Early spring 1890The Adventure of the Copper BeechesADVENTURES
Oct. 9, 1890 (or June 1890)The Red-Headed LeagueADVENTURES
April 24, 1891The Final ProblemMEMOIRS
May 4, 1891Holmes kills Moriarty, stages his own death at Reichenbach Falls. 
March 1892 (see notes)The Adventure of Wisteria LodgeHIS LAST BOW
Circa 1894Watson's wife passes away. 
April 1894The Adventure of the Empty HouseRETURN
Aug. 1894The Adventure of the Norwood BuilderRETURN
Nov. 1894The Adventure of the Golden Pince-nezRETURN
April 23, 1895The Adventure of the Solitary CyclistRETURN
Early July 1895The Adventure of Black PeterRETURN
1895The Adventure of the Three StudentsRETURN
Nov. 21, 1895The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington PlansHIS LAST BOW
Late 1896The Adventure of the Veiled LodgerCASE-BOOK
Late winter 1897The Adventure of the Abbey GrangeRETURN
March 16, 1897The Adventure of the Devil's FootHIS LAST BOW
Late July 1898The Adventure of the Dancing MenRETURN
Summer 1898The Adventure of the Retired ColourmanCASE-BOOK
May 16, 1901The Adventure of the Priory SchoolRETURN
June 1902Holmes refuses a knighthood. 
Late June 1902The Adventure of the Three GarridebsCASE-BOOK
Summer 1902Watson remarries. 
Sept. 3, 1902The Adventure of the Illustrious ClientCASE-BOOK
Jan. 1903The Adventure of the Blanched SoldierCASE-BOOK
Summer 1903The Adventure of the Mazarin StoneCASE-BOOK
Sept. 6, 1903The Adventure of the Creeping ManCASE-BOOK
Nov. 1903 (or Nov. 1889)The Adventure of the Dying DetectiveHIS LAST BOW
Circa late 1903Holmes retires to the Sussex Downs to keep bees. 
July 1907The Adventure of the Lion's ManeCASE-BOOK
Aug. 2, 1914His Last BowHIS LAST BOW


These are cases I was not able to place due to a lack of internal evidence. See additional notes below.




February ~ 1884-1887The Adventure of the Beryl CoronetADVENTURES
Autumn ~ 1883-1887Silver BlazeMEMOIRS
Spring ~ 1883-1887The Adventure of the Yellow FaceMEMOIRS
Summer ~ 1883-1887The Adventure of the Greek InterpreterMEMOIRS
Winter ~ 1883-1887 or 1894-1902The Adventure of Charles Augustus MilvertonRETURN
June ~ 1883-1887 or 1894-1902The Adventure of the Six NapoleonsRETURN
1894-1898-ishThe Adventure of the Missing Three-QuarterRETURN
Winter ~ 1883-1887 or 1894-1902The Adventure of the Red CircleHIS LAST BOW
~ 1883-1887 or 1894-1902The Disappearance of Lady Frances CarfaxHIS LAST BOW
Oct. ~ 1883-1887 or 1894-1901The Problem of Thor BridgeCASE-BOOK
Nov. 19 ~ 1883-1887 or 1894-1901The Adventure of the Sussex VampireCASE-BOOK
~ 1883-1891 or 1894-1903The Adventure of the Three GablesCASE-BOOK
May ~ 1883-1887 or 1894-1902The Adventure of Shoscombe Old PlaceCASE-BOOK


There are 60 Sherlock Holmes stories (four novels and 56 short stories). 24 of the stories explicitly state the year that they occur. These dates are noted in bold on the chart. My thought process in assigning years to the remaining stories is detailed below.

18 of the stories mention exact dates (month and day). Any exact dates in my timeline are taken directly from the stories. In most cases they indicate the day the case begins, although the entire story doesn’t necessarily take place on that date.

24 of the stories mention a season or month, but no year. Any time a month or season is used in my timeline, it’s taken directly from the stories.

I assume that all stories take place before their real-world publication date. Aside from that, publication dates are irrelevant.


Almost all of the Sherlock Holmes stories are supposedly written by Dr. John H. Watson. Two are written by Holmes (“The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” and “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane”—which are also the only two stories that don’t feature Watson as a character at all). Two-and-a-half are written by an unidentified third-person narrator (the second half of A Study in Scarlet, “His Last Bow,” and “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone”). Watson possibly takes credit for the third-person stories in “The Problem of Thor Bridge,” as he considers the possibility of recounting cases where he was “either not present or played so small a part that they could only be told as by a third person.” (“Thor Bridge” was published as the next story after “His Last Bow” and “Mazarin Stone”).


We know almost nothing of Sherlock Holmes’ family. In “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter” he says that he is descended from simple country squires, yet indicates a belief that his brilliant nature is hereditary, as his grandmother was the sister of Émile Jean-Horace Vernet (a real-life French painter who died in 1863). He has a brother, Mycroft, who is seven years older and far more intelligent even than Sherlock, but is incredibly lazy. In adulthood Mycroft works for the British government (“occasionally he is the British government,” according to Sherlock, due to his encyclopedic knowledge of every department). Mycroft never goes anywhere except his own home, his job, and the Diogenes Club (a club he founded himself where men can go to sit and read—but are forbidden under any circumstances to speak). Sherlock and Mycroft’s parents are never referenced.

Watson’s family information comes from the beginning of The Sign of the Four. His father had the initials H.W. and has been dead “many years” as of the late 1880s. Dr. Watson also had an elder brother who shared their father’s name, was an alcoholic, and bounced back and forth between prosperity and destitution before finally dying shortly before the start of The Sign of the Four. Watson’s mother is never referenced.


Holmes is referred to as being 60 in 1914 in “His Last Bow.” He calls himself and Watson “middle-aged” in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” which takes place no later than 1890. These both favor an early-to-mid-1850s birth for Holmes, although “‘Gloria Scott’” seems to contradict this.

“The Adventure of the ‘Gloria Scott’” and “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual” are the only stories that take place before Holmes met Watson. (They’re presented in the format of a framing story, with Holmes relating the cases to Watson years after the fact).

“‘Gloria Scott’” takes place while Holmes is still in college. The backstory of a main character, Justice Trevor, begins in 1855. This is immovable, due to the importance of the Crimean War in his story. Two references are made to that having been “thirty years ago.” This too seems pretty likely: He had time afterwards to make a fortune in Australia, then return to England, get married, and have a college-aged son, Victor Trevor. Yet it can’t be 1885, or anywhere near it. Victor is attending college with Holmes, who was a fully-practicing consulting detective by 1877 (see next section).

In “Musgrave Ritual,” Reginald Musgrave is referred to as a college acquaintance Holmes hasn’t seen in four years. Holmes only attended college for two years according to “‘Gloria Scott’”; so even assuming that “‘Gloria Scott’” takes place in his second year and he knew Musgrave in the first, at least three years have to elapse between the two stories. Holmes is in active practice, living in rooms on Montague Street. He says that Musgrave’s case was his third “after months of inactivity.” By the time he meets Watson in early 1883 he’s built up a fairly solid practice, so “Musgrave” can’t be any later than 1881.

As for Watson’s backstory: A Study in Scarlet lets us know that Watson finished his medical training at the University of London in 1878, then enlisted as an army surgeon. He served with the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers in the Second Afghan War (yes, we westerners have been at war with Afghanistan on-and-off for well over a century!). He was wounded at the Battle of Maiwand (7/27/1880) by a bullet in the shoulder (or leg, according to The Sign of the Four), leading to his return to London. There, he spends some time convalescing, and even more time bumming around and depleting his bank account.


We can calculate the beginning of Holmes’ career thanks to one of the last published stories, “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger,” which tells us that Holmes’ active practice lasted for twenty-three years, and Watson acted as his collaborator and biographer for seventeen of those years. Working backwards, we know for sure that the second phase of Holmes’ career ran from April 1894 (“Empty House”) to late 1903 (“Creeping Man”). That’s about nine and a half years.

The first phase of their partnership ended in May 1891 (“The Final Problem”). It goes back at least as far as 1883, because “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” is explicitly dated April 1883. That’s another eight years, bringing us up to seventeen and a half. So it’s safe to say that A Study in Scarlet, the story where they first meet and move to Baker Street, takes place in 1883. The actual murder (their first case together) occurs on 3/04, although they’ve already been roommates for several months by that point.

Adding the six additional years Holmes was in practice before meeting Watson gives us 1877 for Holmes’ first year as a professional consulting detective.

I dated “The Adventure of the Resident Patient” based on a passage that’s not in most U.S. versions of the story available today. What happened is that “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” was left out of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes collection, presumably because the controversial plot involved infidelity and severed ears. However, Doyle liked the opening scene, so to rescue it from obscurity, he stuck it onto the front of “Resident Patient.” “Cardboard Box” was eventually published as part of the later collection His Last Bow, but for some reason no one has ever bothered to restore the original opening to “Resident Patient,” resulting in two stories that have the exact same first few pages. The lost opening of “Resident Patient,” as originally published in The Strand Magazine, explains that the adventure takes place in October of Watson’s first year with Holmes. This puts it in 1883.

The Sign of the Four takes place in September according to Watson’s narration, although Mary Morstan (Holmes’ client and Watson’s future wife) presents a letter dated 7/07 that she received that morning…so the month isn’t quite clear. As for the year, Mary describes 12/03/1878 as “nearly ten years ago,” and 5/04/1882 as “about six years ago.” While the math might seem to indicate 1888, 1887 works better considering Watson’s married state in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” explicitly dated March 1888. And if The Sign of the Four takes place in Sept. 1887, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch that Mary is rounding the years up when she explains her backstory.

“The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” takes place in August. I place it in 1887, as Watson is still living the bachelor life at Baker Street, but has written The Sign of the Four (it’s not necessarily published yet, but Holmes has read it). Admittedly, this placement only works with Mary’s July date for The Sign of the Four, not Watson’s September date.

“The Five Orange Pips” is explicitly dated Sept. 1887. Watson states that he was back in Baker Street for a few days, as his wife was visiting her mother. “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor,” contradictorily, takes place in October “a few weeks before [Watson’s] own wedding,” and he is still living with Holmes. I surmise that in “Five Orange Pips” he is unmarried (using “my wife” in the sense that he is married to her as of the writing of the story), and that he was in the process of setting up a home elsewhere during this period, but still spending time at Baker Street. (I have no explanation for the fact that Mary Morstan was an orphan in The Sign of the Four, and has now suddenly sprouted a mother).

The Valley of Fear is dated 1/07, and the year seems to be 1888 based on the character John Douglas’ backstory (summer 1875 + some time in Chicago + five years in California + six years [“nearer seven”] to the present). Watson is seemingly unmarried and still at Baker Street, and several characters refer to him as a published author (one guy is hoping he gets into Watson’s next book! I guess it worked). The famous continuity problem in this story is that Watson is aware of Moriarty, whereas in “The Final Problem” (which occurs later) he claims never to have heard of him.


As of “A Scandal in Bohemia” in March 1888, Watson is definitely married to Mary Morstan, is practicing medicine, and has seen “little of Holmes lately.” This is the first case they collaborate on since the wedding.

“A Case of Identity” is problematic. The story itself doesn’t offer a year, but occurs after Watson’s marriage (placing it between 1887 and 1891). In “The Red-Headed League” (explicitly dated mid-to-late 1890), Holmes refers to “A Case of Identity” as having occurred “the other day.” However, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” also features a reference to “A Case of Identity,” and “Blue Carbuncle” can’t be any later than 1889 (see below). I stuck it after “A Scandal in Bohemia” because it contains a reference to Holmes having recently received a gold snuffbox from the King of Bohemia for his work on that case.

“The Adventure of the Stockbroker’s Clerk” is shortly after Watson’s marriage. He says that it’s June, and that he has been building a medical practice for three months. “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty” is the July immediately succeeding his marriage. “The Adventure of the Crooked Man” is the summer a few months after his marriage. This places all of them in 1888.

“The Adventure of the Second Stain” is first referred to in “Naval Treaty,” wherein Watson says that it occurred in the same month (the July following his marriage). However, when the story was eventually published years later, it didn’t quite match up with the details Watson had previously provided—including the season changing to autumn. Watson also appears to be living with Holmes in “Second Stain,” with no mention of his wife. Hm.

The murder in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” happens on Monday, 6/03. Based on the day-and-date information, that would place it in 1889. Watson is married.

The Hound of the Baskervilles, however, is another entry in the Case of the Missing Wife. It’s October. Holmes says 1884 was five years ago, implying the story takes place in 1889. Yet Watson is not only living with Holmes, but goes away on a two-week mission to Dartmoor and doesn’t seem to write any letters except to Holmes! Terrible continuity or a terrible marriage?

“The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” and “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” both include very similar conversations about how Holmes’ most interesting cases may not involve criminal activity at all. Both times, Holmes and Watson refer back to the same prior adventures: “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “A Case of Identity,” and “The Man with the Twisted Lip.” This places both stories later than the June 1889 date of “Twisted Lip,” but earlier than winter 1890 (see “The Final Problem”). “Blue Carbuncle” is two days after Christmas, so it must be 1889. “Copper Beeches” is spring, so it’s 1890.

Incidentally, in “Blue Carbuncle,” Watson refers to the adventures they discuss as “three of the last six cases which I have added to my notes.” This seems to imply that only five stories can occur between “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “Blue Carbuncle.” The real-world reason for the dialogue is that “Blue Carbuncle” is the seventh story in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes cycle, and Doyle was doing some self-promotion (“read my other six stories!”). I prefer to assume that Watson (like Doyle) was referring to the six stories he’s recently written up for publication, and not necessarily the six most recent cases they’ve handled.

“Copper Beeches” returns to the marriage problem. How is it that Holmes and Watson discuss three post-marriage cases, and yet Watson is hanging around Baker Street for weeks on end?

“The Red-Headed League,” like The Sign of the Four, features two conflicting dates. It’s even more embarrassing here, as it’s only a 20-page story, and yet no one caught the error. On the one hand, 4/27/1890 was “two months ago.” On the other hand, a sign is dated 10/09/1890. Either way, the year is explicit, and this is the latest case Watson chronicled before Holmes’ “death.”


In “The Final Problem,” Watson notes that he fell out of contact with Holmes, collaborating on only three cases in 1890 (two of which would be “Copper Beeches” and “The Red-Headed League”). In winter of 1890 and spring of 1891, he only received two notes from Holmes, who was apparently engaged by the French government in a matter of supreme importance. When Holmes eventually pops up in April 1891, he is at war with Prof. Moriarty and desperately fears for his life. He states that he is willing to die if it means bringing down Moriarty, and on 5/04 he apparently does so when the two seemingly tumble over Reichenbach Falls. Only later does Watson learn that Holmes killed Moriarty and faked his own death, in order to protect himself from Moriarty’s underlings.

It’s interesting to note that “The Five Orange Pips” (published in November 1891) is the first story where Watson’s narration refers to Holmes in the past tense, indicating that Doyle was already planning to kill him off two years before he actually wrote “The Final Problem.” Subsequent stories are inconsistent, some referring to Holmes in the past tense, some in the present.

“The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge” is an epic fail from a continuity standpoint. Watson states in no uncertain terms that the story takes place in March 1892, and yet this date is right in the middle of Holmes’ three-year absence. It’s worth nothing that Watson is unmarried, and this story was presumably meant to take place after Holmes’ return. It’s a great story, despite the careless dating.

During Holmes’ three years as a dead man, he spends some time in Florence, meets the Dalai Llama in Tibet, then visits Mecca and Khartoum (conveying his findings to the Foreign Office under the guise of a Norwegian explorer named Sigerson), before finishing up with a study of coal-tar derivatives in Montpellier, France. It’s April 1894 when he finally reveals himself to Watson and Scotland Yard, and helps them capture Col. Sebastian Moran, the last of Moriarty’s foot soldiers (“The Adventure of the Empty House”). Watson’s wife has seemingly died shortly before Holmes’ return, as Watson states that “[Holmes] had learned of my own sad bereavement,” and Holmes suggests that work will help Watson forget his sorrow. Mycroft, Sherlock’s only confidante during his disappearance, has kept the Baker Street rooms exactly as Holmes left them, so that he and Watson can conveniently return to status quo as if marriage and death had never happened.


“The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” is August “some months” after Holmes’ return, placing it in 1894.

In “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger,” Watson is living away from Baker Street in late 1896. Aside from this one story, he seems to live with Holmes continuously from 1894 to mid-1902. He was situated at Baker Street in November 1895 (“Bruce-Partington Plans”), and was back by early 1897 (“Abbey Grange”), so if he moved out it wasn’t for more than a year.

“The Adventure of the Dancing Men” is July, one year after Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, which was 1897.

“The Adventure of the Retired Colourman” takes place in the summer. The story occurs “within two years” of a marriage in early 1897, placing in summer 1898.

“The Adventure of the Priory School” definitely occurs after 1900, due to a date cited in Holmes’ encyclopedia. 1901 makes sense due to 5/13 falling on a Monday as in the story.

(It’s worth noting at this point that while I use day-and-date information to place years on “Boscombe Valley” and “Priory School,” several other stories indicate that Doyle rarely looked at a calendar when writing—particularly in the earlier stories. “The Man with the Twisted Lip” starts on Fri. 6/19/1889, “The Red-Headed League” on Sat. 10/09/1890, and “Solitary Cyclist” is Sat. 4/23/1895. No such days exist).

According to “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs,” Holmes refused a knighthood in June 1902, for services which Watson isn’t at liberty to describe.

“The Adventure of the Illustrious Client” takes place in September 1902. Watson has moved out (and, we can assume, remarried).

“The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” takes place in January 1903, and contains the only definite reference to Watson’s second marriage. (Holmes has abandonment issues: he refers to it as “the only selfish action which I can recall in our association”).

“The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone” takes place post-Return (Watson references “Empty House”). It’s summer and Watson has moved out of Baker Street, so it must be 1903. (Incidentally, Doyle adapted this story from a play he’d written, The Crown Diamond. This is why it’s narrated in the third person and takes place entirely in one room).

“The Adventure of the Creeping Man” takes place in September 1903. Watson is living elsewhere, and says this is one of the last cases Holmes handled before retiring. Holmes makes a couple of comments about retirement and mortality throughout the story.

“The Adventure of the Dying Detective” takes place in November of “the second year of [Watson’s] marriage.” He doesn’t specify which marriage, so it could be 1889 or 1903. If it’s 1903, that makes it the last case chronicled before Holmes’ retirement from London.

It’s interesting to note that Holmes retires about a year after being “deserted” by Watson. One has to wonder whether the two events are related. Near the beginning of “Creeping Man,” there’s a very cool passage where Watson compares himself to Holmes’ pipe and violin as “an institution.” He says that thinking out loud to Watson had become a habitual part of Holmes’ problem-solving routine, even though Watson himself rarely contributed anything.


Holmes’ retirement is first referenced in the opening paragraphs to “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” wherein Watson indicates that Holmes has taken to bee farming in Sussex Downs, and has forbidden Watson to publish any further stories due to his desire for privacy. That edict didn’t hold for long, due to Doyle’s (and possibly Watson’s) need for cash flow, and Holmes seems to have accepted the situation good-naturedly. He sends a telegram suggesting that Watson write about “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” and he even authors two stories himself!

In “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” Holmes describes the setting of his retirement villa in greater detail. It overlooks the English Channel from the top of a tall white cliff, with a pristine beach below, accessible by a steep slippery path down the cliff. He goes swimming regularly. There is a seaside village called Fulworth a little ways down the coast from him. (Watson’s introduction to His Last Bow further specifies that Holmes is five miles from Eastbourne). He has a housekeeper (who he tries not to engage in conversation); his only close friend in the area is Harold Stackhurst, who runs a nearby trade school. During this period, he hardly hears from Watson, aside from the “occasional week-end visit.” A bizarre death on the beach in July 1907 briefly leads to him putting his detecting skills back into practice.

By 1912, Holmes has written a Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with Some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen. He is called out of retirement by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, who visit his home, begging for his help in detecting and subverting a German spy working in Britain. Holmes goes to work establishing a secret identity: Altamont, an Irish-American bitter at the British government due to their hold on his native land. This process leads to Holmes spending time with subversive societies in Chicago, Buffalo, and Skibbareen Ireland before finally catching the eye of Von Bork, the German agent. (It also leads to him growing a goatee, which he despises, and speaking in a hilarious caricature of American slang). “Altamont” feeds Von Bork subtly false information and weakens his operation, before revealing his true identity on 8/02/1914, forty-eight hours before Britain’s entry into the Great War. For “His Last Bow,” Holmes can’t resist wiring Watson to join him for one last caper, and Watson poses as Altamont’s chauffeur. They haven’t seen one another for several years, and Holmes rather sadly indicates that their chat after Von Bork’s capture “may be the last quiet talk that we shall ever have.” Their final exchange is worth reprinting in full, as it’s one of Doyle’s finest moments, and the last words we ever hear from Sherlock Holmes:

As they turned to the car Holmes pointed back to the moonlit sea and shook a thoughtful head.

“There’s an east wind coming, Watson.”

“I think not, Holmes. It is very warm.”

“Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared. Start her up, Watson, for it's time that we were on our way. I have a cheque for five hundred pounds which should be cashed early, for the drawer is quite capable of stopping it if he can."

The last line, with Holmes’ characteristic dry wit, refers to Von Bork’s final payment to “Altamont.”

There’s no reference in Doyle’s stories to Holmes’ ultimate fate. Although new stories continued to be published up until 1927, they all took place much earlier. The latest we hear of him is Watson’s introduction to the collection His Last Bow, which informs us that he returned to Sussex after the Von Bork affair, and divides his time between philosophy and agriculture, “somewhat crippled by occasional attacks of rheumatism.”


Watson is living at Baker Street in “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet,” “Silver Blaze,” “The Adventure of the Yellow Face,” and “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter,” placing them sometime before his first marriage. Both “Yellow Face” and “Greek Interpreter” refer to Watson and Holmes’ relationship as “intimate,” so they’ve presumably been together for at least a few years. In “Silver Blaze” and “Greek Interpreter,” characters refer to Watson’s status as a published author.

Watson is living at Baker Street in “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton,” “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” “The Adventure of the Red Circle,” “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax,” “The Problem of Thor Bridge,” “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,” and "The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place," placing them either before Watson’s first marriage, or after Holmes’ return. “Lady Frances Carfax” is probably in the latter period, as Watson feels “rheumatic and old.” In “Sussex Vampire,” Holmes refers to Watson having published “‘Gloria Scott.’”

“The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter” takes place post-Return, referencing Moriarty’s death. It occurs in February “some seven or eight years ago” (it’s nice to know Watson was taking such precise notes). The story was published in 1904. While as a rule, I’ve deemed real-world publication dates inadmissible, common sense dictates that this takes place in the mid-to-late 1890s. (Sidebar: Watson claims that by the time of this story he had weaned Holmes off of his drug addiction, but still saw the craving in Holmes’ face during periods of boredom. This is the only reference to Holmes’ cocaine / morphine use in the post-Return stories).

“The Adventure of the Three Gables,” in addition to being the worst Sherlock Holmes story, is also the one story that could literally take place any time in Holmes and Watson’s association. No year is given, no month, no season…and it’s ambiguous whether Watson is living at Baker Street, or married, or what. (He says at the beginning of the story that he hadn’t seen Holmes for days, but he doesn’t explain why).

Well, that's it. More than you ever wanted to know about the life and times of Sherlock Holmes! Feel free to comment with any discrepancies or problems you can find in my logic. For instance, you might argue that Sherlock Holmes could not have retired in 1903, as he is a fictional character and did not exist. This sort of information will be very useful to me in perfecting future drafts of this timeline.

Friday, December 2, 2011

J. Edgar: Kiss and Make-Up

A week ago yesterday was Thanksgiving. (I'm sorry I didn't mention it sooner. I hope none of you missed it). What a Thanksgiving it was! Jason Witten tackled a cheerleader! President Obama sent this year's pardoned turkey to Disneyland! ("Courage the Turkey, you've just been given a new lease on life! What are you going to do now?!"). And everyone in the U.S. of A. was surrounded by family and friends. Everyone except me, that is. I was across the continent from my loved ones, in a sleazy L.A. motel near Filipinotown (I'm sorry...HISTORIC Filipinotown. Because nothing says "historic" like a Jack-in-the-Box). In lieu of loved ones, I shared my holiday with the couple in the next room. Or more accurately, they shared THEIR holiday with me, generously sending their outrageously faked orgasm moans through the paper-thin wall. They tended to do this most every night, but I think they went the extra mile for Thanksgiving. (Come to think of it, I wish they HAD gone an extra mile, so I wouldn't have had to listen to them). I did buy a can of cranberry sauce, but after opening it I realized I didn't have a spoon. So, I ate it Jell-O shot style out of a plastic cup.

The upshot of all this is that I saw J. EDGAR last Thursday. While enjoyable, it's definitely one of Eastwood's lesser works. I think a large part of the problem is that he let his politics come into play. Eastwood is fairly right-wing, and the film that he made is constructed as a love letter to a complex, flawed, but ultimately good man. It never quite makes Hoover cuddly (DiCaprio's fantastically guarded performance makes sure of that), but the main goal seems to be generating sympathy for the guy.

Generating sympathy CAN be a valid reason for making a film. I'm not really a fan of Oliver Stone, but I love NIXON. That was a movie where Stone put his politics aside and said, "Look. I hate this guy. I think he's trash. But he acted the way he did due to the same feelings of hurt and fear and love that we all experience every day." And he created a three-and-a-half hour portrait of a man, largely fantasy, but haunting and fascinating.

I don't think you can reasonably take that approach with Hoover though. While Nixon always came across as kind of pathetic, Hoover was the most powerful man in America for thirty years. You can't paint him as the underdog. You can't try to make me like him. I may end up liking him, but that shouldn't be the filmmaker's goal. While I'm sure Hoover did a lot of good in his early days with the Bureau, fighting actual threats, he also had more of a hand than anyone else in corrupting the U.S. government. He initiated the wiretapping, the illegal file theft, the planting of evidence, the blackmail. All of this stuff was previously going on in local police precincts, of course, but Hoover brought it to a federal level. Suddenly the President of the United States could be bought and sold. Suddenly a good man couldn't go into politics without making some compromises. If Hoover hadn't gotten this system in motion, someone else undeniably would have. But Hoover did it.

One of the great ironies is that while Hoover amassed files on the everyday movements of every politician and celebrity in the country, very little information exists on his own private life. He was in the perfect position, more than anyone else in the world, to keep his own cards face-down on the table. The result is that Eastwood is given lots of leeway to use his imagination. What he comes up with is, unfortunately, not all that interesting. An overbearing mother to explain his need for control and his withdrawn nature (as well as a touch of Norman Bates syndrome). Repressed homosexuality to explain his obsession with others' sexual deviance. It's all well-executed, but it's so cliche. Hoover was far too complex and divisive for such an obvious approach. He deserves a meatier treatment. Instead, what we get is essentially a fairy tale. (No pun intended). One of the cheesiest scenes is when young Hoover is mocked for having too many nicknames, and told to just "pick a name." He inevitably signs "J. Edgar" with great import, as if this was some life-altering moment. In reality, many men in Hoover's time used the first-initial-middle-name approach--there was nothing unusual about it. The fact that the film puts emphasis on such a silly moment, but doesn't even mention COINTELPRO, says a lot about Eastwood's priorities.

The most effective aspect of the film is the love story. As a filmmaker, Eastwood was sharp enough to see that, and he made that relationship the centerpiece of the film. DiCaprio takes off just enough edge in these scenes. Armie Hammer, who made an impression in THE SOCIAL NETWORK, really blew me away here as Clyde Tolson. The script doesn't give us too good a reason why this attractive, well-adjusted guy would spend more than thirty years of his life in a celibate relationship with Hoover; but Hammer's performance has just the right levels of confidence and fragility to make it clear that for Tolson, this is true love, and there is nothing else out there. The scenes between these guys are the best in the film, and the performances fill in any cracks that might exist in the script.

The title of my review refers to the two most talked-about aspects of the film. The man-on-man kiss has been discussed in every interview with the two actors, of course, because the idea of same-sex kissing still makes talk show hosts and audiences titter like schoolboys. The make-up has been universally derided as looking caked-on, with some comparing it to "old Biff" in BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II. Maybe I'm just oblivious to this kind of thing. I never even noticed how bad the BACK TO THE FUTURE make-up looked until I saw it in high def a few months ago. To me, DiCaprio's make-up looked fine. It was a LOT of make-up, yes. The older Hoover was quite a bit heavier than DiCaprio, so it would have to be a lot. But I could still catch the nuances of the performance. More of an argument could be made against Tolson's make-up, which did look ghoulish in some of the close-ups, but I didn't feel it inhibited Hammer's performance.

The framing device for the film is Hoover in his office, dictating his autobiography to a revolving-door of agent-stenographers. We see the flashbacks as he describes them. Near the end of the film, Tolson accuses him of fabricating large parts of his story, telling him (and us) that an important arrest we watched Hoover make was actually carried out by another agent. Hoover wasn't even at the scene. The "unreliable narrator" is a great underused element in literature. It's tough to pull off on film, although when done right you get some terrifically thought-provoking movies (see: RASHOMON, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, FIGHT CLUB, BIG FISH). In J. EDGAR, it's just kind of aggravating. All of a sudden, at the very end of the movie, the filmmakers decide to tell the audience that everything you've just watched may not have happened even within the reality of the film (never mind actual history). Maybe if a few seeds had been dropped sooner, a couple of conflicting versions of the same scene had been shown, it might have been more interesting. But suddenly dropping that information at the very end of the film feels cheap. I assume Eastwood did it for deniability, so that when people inevitably attack the precarious historicity of the film or his whitewashed portrayal of Hoover, he can point and say, "Well, I told you in the film itself that some of it was made up!"

Despite its flaws, I would recommend watching J. EDGAR, whether or not you have any direct interest in Hoover himself. It's a good piece of filmmaking from one of our great filmmakers, with some terrific performances. Just try not to come out of it thinking you've learned anything.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Pleasant DRIVE Through Familiar Territory

I think DRIVE is overrated. I only just finished watching it for the first time three hours ago, but I feel pretty confident in making this statement.

That's not to denigrate the film in any way. I also think INCEPTION is overrated, but it's still a fantastic film.

The main problem with DRIVE, for me, was the plot--the framework; the foundation. The execution was innovative. I wanted to love the movie so badly, every second that it was onscreen. I saw that it was fighting against mainstream cinema, and in all the right ways. But at its heart, the plot just felt like something I'd seen many, many times before. In fact, it felt like a plot I'd seen two seasons ago on BREAKING BAD.

The presence of Bryan Cranston may have been more of a curse than a blessing. He's a terrific actor, and certainly elevates whatever material he's performing. But in this particular case, the give-and-take-and-then-take-some-more mentor relationship with Gosling's character is really reminiscent of Walt 'n' Jesse, perhaps to the detriment of the film. The fact that Gosling's character is romancing a troubled lower-class gal with a kid (and ties to the Hispanic community and the criminal underworld) makes it feel even more like a retread of BREAKING BAD season 3. The filmmakers obviously wanted me to think of Gosling as the next Clint Eastwood (The Kid with No Name!). Instead, all I could think about was Jesse Pinkman, and the fact that Ryan Gosling, as good as he is, is no Aaron Paul. Paul displayed greater range in one scene of BREAKING BAD this year ("I made you my does THAT feel?") than Gosling musters in the entire film.

I do think Ryan Gosling is talented...but I think his career has been badly mismanaged. He's overexposed, for no good reason. All of a sudden, he's in one out of every six movies. It seems like he's trying to pull a DiCaprio.

Back in 1998, you couldn't spend ten minutes with any girl under 20 without hearing squeals of "Leo!" Leo, in turn, was despised by the entire male population of the U.S. Five years later, he underwent a tremendous transformation (largely thanks to Martin Scorsese), and today he is one of the most respected dramatic film actors alive. (Deservedly so, I might add.)

Gosling similarly came to prominence in a romantic adolescent melodrama, and in the last year or two has been trying to parlay that into artistic credibility with some daring, interesting roles. The problem is that Gosling hasn't been working with anyone of Scorsese's calibre (with the possible exception of Marc Forster).

The "less is more" approach to acting can be very effective (see Clint Eastwood in the Leone trilogy). But Gosling is leaning on it too heavily. His minimalist performance in LARS & THE REAL GIRL thrilled me for twenty minutes, but then started to bore the shit out of me. His DRIVE character kept my interest a little more. It's a credit to the performance that there could be a thirty-second scene of two characters staring at each other, exchanging only one line of dialogue ("I'm not doing anything this weekend"), and I was on the edge of my seat. I chuckled at the absurdity. I felt the guy's pain. I felt the GIRL's pain. If a moment like that is done right, the audience becomes a worm on a hook, waiting to be devoured by the film. It worked in that moment.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of other moments in the film where Gosling's wide-eyed man-of-few-words goes from intriguing to boring. At a certain point, you need to pull something else out of your bag of tricks. At a certain point, there needs to be some development. "The Kid" never quite seems to get there. He's always just the boy scout with a dark past.

Maybe if the pacing had been better, DRIVE could have disguised its script issues. Instead, it feels like two separate movies welded together. The first half is a tediously slow "forbidden romance"; the second half is an ultraviolent revenge thriller. It's like someone started doing an update of ROMEO & JULIET, and then Sam Peckinpah was brought in midway to take over the production. The Peckinpah-esque stuff is terrific (and much appreciated, being released the same week as the watered-down remake of Sam's classic STRAW DOGS). But the romance just feels belabored and obvious.

Some reviews have compared its dreamy quality to the love scenes in David Lynch's MULHOLLAND DR., probably due to the L.A. setting. But without Lynch's visionary weirdness, we're just left with two people who have a penchant for staring moodily into space. Reviewers often talk about sexual chemistry, but the so-called "sexual chemistry" between actors doesn't actually happen on the set. It's something that's read into the performances after the fact, by the audience. In this film, the first few scenes of Gosling and Carey Mulligan standing silently across from one another, sporadically throwing smouldering glimpses across the room, feel sexy. Really sexy. But after awhile, as human beings, we're supposed to connect. When two people are together for the fifth time and still can only say three words to each other, you start to wonder if maybe they just don't have anything in common. Or maybe they're both slightly retarded.

I think that if some of the violence had been bumped up to the first half of the film, and some of the romance pushed to the second half, we might have been left with a more balanced and less tedious film. The Kid's relationships with Cranston and Albert Brooks were the most intriguing parts of the film for me. I felt like his time with these men was far more important than his slight romantic entanglement with Carey Mulligan; and the ending of the film seems to bear me out on this. Unfortunately, there's a good forty minutes of the film's 100 minute runtime that seems to disagree with me.

To digress momentarily:

I love the Steve McQueen film THE SAND PEBBLES. The only part of the film that doesn't work is the romance with Candice Bergen, which feels completely tacked-on. Fortunately, that romance only takes up about 20 minutes of the film's three-hour runtime. Much more important is McQueen's love affair with the ship's engine ("Hello, engine. I'm Jake Holman").

Similarly, I feel that Gosling's love affair with driving (and particularly the stock car, which gets lost in the shuffle) should have received more emphasis. That stock car was the offspring of Gosling, Cranston, and Brooks' characters. The betrayals these three men inflict on one another would have meant so much more if that initial bond had been pushed on the audience a little more. Instead, the filmmakers elected to flesh out in painstaking detail a romance story that we GET almost instantly. It's important to the film, and to the Kid's character...but it doesn't merit the amount of time that's spent on it.

There are several terrific performances in the film, but I'm tempted to give Brooks the edge--if only for his complete defiance of expectations. The performance he gives here is the kind that can redefine a career. These days, Brooks is known for being goofy and intelligent. He's Nemo's dad; he's the author of a well-reviewed work of satirical political fiction; he's one of the funniest celebrities on Twitter. And in DRIVE, he's absolutely chilling. I think there are probably more than a few people who will hesitate to shake his hand after watching this film.

The highlight of the film is absolutely the pre-credits scene, which is one of the most intelligent and suspenseful car chases shot in the last twenty years. That ten minutes of footage is almost worth the price of admission all on its own, and could have made a terrific short. Maybe the film doomed itself by starting out so strong, when it couldn't possibly sustain that level of awesomeness for 100 minutes.

Would I recommend watching DRIVE? Absolutely; anyone who loves film should do so. However, I hope you won't be quite as amped-up as I was. It's a pleasant "artsy" diversion, but underlying the gloss is a worn-out storyline that needs every bit of polish the filmmakers have at their disposal.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Occasionally, Moore Is Less

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen have defeated Fu Man Chu, Professor Moriarty, and a Martian invasion. But can they overcome the greatest challenge of all: the era of copyright protection?

To briefly recap: This is the third volume of the LEAGUE comic. Volumes 1 & 2 took place in 1898, and were universally acclaimed. In fact, Vol. 2 won the 2003 Teen Choice Award for Best Non-Consensual Anal Sex (the category was discontinued in 2004, for rather obvious reasons). The original premise of the series was this: What would happen if one applied the logic of modern superhero team-ups to Victorian-era fictional characters? Since then, the series has kept growing and expanding, to the point that series writer Alan Moore now seems set on incorporating every single book, film, and television series ever made into his world, at least as an elliptical reference. So, what started as a fun, goofy side project from arguably the greatest comic book writer ever, has now become a (still utterly fascinating) act of complete OCD.

It’s worth noting here that the first two volumes of the LEAGUE each contained a backup serialized text piece. In Vol. 2, the backup text was a nearly unreadable piece called the New Traveler’s Almanac. The New Traveler’s Almanac was interesting for the way it expanded League’s world, bringing the story back into the 17th century and forward to the mid-20th. However, in between the few relevant tidbits were 40 pages’ worth of crap. That’s right -- FORTY PAGES of Bible-sized print, that essentially amount to Alan Moore showing off how much shit he’s read. The Almanac reads like an uber-dry, facts-only history lesson, except that it of course never actually happened. It’s a cool academic exercise, but it’s not a very satisfying read.

Okay, so the Almanac was a slight hiccup. But as I said, it served as BACKUP material to the LEAGUE Vol. 2, one of my favorite miniseries in the history of comics. As long as Moore’s giving us comics material as fantastic as this, he can be as indulgent as he likes at the back of the book. Right?

Then came the THE BLACK DOSSIER.

A lot of people hated BLACK DOSSIER and cited that as the moment Moore’s indulgence finally took control of the series. I disagree. Certainly, DOSSIER was a game changer. Unlike previous volumes, where the text piece served as peripheral material, DOSSIER alternated pretty evenly between the main comics story and the “dossier” text pieces, building a world where Orwell meets Orson Welles. It holds together brilliantly -- the idea of Harry Lime from THE THIRD MAN becoming M from the 007 movies is enough to send shivers up any film fan’s spine. While DOSSIER is certainly less engaging than the two 1890s volumes, it makes for solid entertainment, in my opinion.

That brings us to the current volume, CENTURY, which will ultimately contain three issues. Issue 2 just came out last week, and I caught myself up, reading both #1 and 2 for the first time on back-to-back days. #1 takes place in 1910, and #2 is 1969. #3 (which was originally scheduled for release in 2009, and will now come out sometime next year) takes place in 2009.

There seem to be two major running threads in this volume. One is the occult -- Somerset Maugham’s character of Oliver Haddo keeps reincarnating himself into different bodies, working over the course of the titular century toward his goal of creating a “moon child.” This seems obliquely apocalyptic, and will culminate in the 2009 issue. The other running thread is the fact that Moore seems determined to work songs (particularly spoofs of Weill & Brecht’s THREEPENNY OPERA) into all three issues, with the lyrics sometimes running through many pages of the comic as other action goes on. This was okay for me, since I have a passing familiarity with the major songs from THREEPENNY OPERA (especially the famous “Mack the Knife”); but if you don’t know the tunes, it just adds another element of obnoxiousness to the proceedings.

#2 is where I really started to feel that Moore was fingering his nose at us, though. Based on the obscurity of the jokes that I DID get (Doug Piranha from MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS is mentioned as a rival gangster, and Radio Jolly Roger from a DANGERMAN episode pops up in the background), I can’t imagine how many thousand more there must have been that flew right over my head. Apparently Moore hasn’t just read every book ever written; he’s also memorized every television episode ever aired on either side of the Atlantic!

For CENTURY #2, we don’t have much of a story, and we don’t have much of a “League.” We have three heroes: adventurer Allan Quartermain and DRACULA’s Mina Murray from the earlier volumes, who are joined by Orlando, the gender-shifting immortal (who has also granted Allan and Mina immortality). The problem is that none of the protagonists do anything interesting: they just run from place to place collecting clues and making obscure references. Yes, there’s a few acknowledgements of the fact that Mina is getting uncomfortable with immortality, but Allan and Orlando completely tread water character-wise up until the end of the book. In the first couple of volumes, Moore had fun with Allan’s overt racism, but I guess in the more socially-aware ‘60s he had to mellow, leaving him without much of a personality. It’s only in the last three pages, in a black-and-white flash-forward to the punk era, that we see Quartermain start to become an interesting character again.

And the story? It feels like Moore is stretching it out to three issues when it should have been one. #2 feels like a rehash of #1, told in a different era. A decent synopsis of both #1 and #2 would be: The League runs around trying to prevent Oliver Haddo from creating the Moon Child, then realizes that he’s not planning to do that until issue 3. The endless stream of fictional British gangsters made me frequently forget who was who, and feels largely like padding.

Another major problem is how oblique Moore makes his references -- often for copyright reasons, but sometimes seemingly just to mess with the reader. A terrific example of the copyright issue is raised when a certain HARRY POTTER character makes an appearance … except I completely missed it, since I’m not that into HARRY POTTER, and Moore can never really spell out who the guy is. It’ll be interesting to see how that particular thread develops. Moore seems to be setting him up as a major character for #3. But presumably, this unnamed character will have lost his nose by then, and will be pretty distinctly recognizable as a certain copyrighted property. As I said, I don’t care for HARRY POTTER, but I am sort of excited to see how Moore manages to skirt the legal issues.

One of the more successful elements of the story is the use of Mick Jagger’s character from the film PERFORMANCE as a stand-in for Jagger himself, building an alternate-reality Rolling Stones around him. This allows Moore to open the book with a (remarkably timely) re-imagining of “27-Clubber” Brian Jones’ death, and also leads to a cool “Sympathy for the Devil” spoof. Unfortunately, it then leads to a parody of the Stones’ tribute concert to Jones, where Jagger released a bunch of butterflies and read a poem. Moore writes his own morbid take on the poem that Jagger read, leading to more self-indulgence … the poem runs through the action for nine pages! No wonder there’s no character development, if this is where his priorities are!

Another aspect of CENTURY that I’ve found interesting is Andrew Norton, a bald man who pops up for a couple of pages in each issue. Apparently he’s from SLOW CHOCOLATE AUTOPSY, a book by a friend of Moore’s. The character of Norton can move through time at will, but CANNOT move through space. He is perpetually trapped in London, existing through all of history and experiencing it all simultaneously. He pops up to throw very oblique clues at our characters, and also to throw out a HUGE range of seemingly random references. Even more intriguingly, he seems to have a knowledge of our real world. While Moore’s universe replaces the Beatles with Eric Idle’s Rutles, Mr. Norton quotes Mark David Chapman’s request for John Lennon’s autograph. He also refers to Donald Cammell, the director of the aforementioned PERFORMANCE, and even informs the League that he “enjoyed that second volume” (!). Norton’s dialogue is more riddled with Arcanum than any other part of the book, but I find the character really fascinating. I can’t wait to see what Moore does with him in #3.

As with previous volumes, there’s a text piece at the back of the book. For the first time, in issue #2, I think I actually enjoyed the text piece more than the comic. It was actually EASIER for me to catch the references. The text piece is (according to an interview with Moore) an attempt to include EVERY SINGLE REFERENCE TO THE MOON EVER IN FICTION in a single story. Again … OCD much? In theory, that concept says a lot about what’s wrong with Moore’s approach to the recent material. He should let the story evolve, instead of shoe-horning in every esoteric reference he can think of. But actually, in practice, I really like the text piece so far. It primarily involves the “Galley-wag” going on a mission with Mina in 1964.

The Golliwog is both a literary character and a very popular doll from early 20th-century Britain. Appearance-wise, it’s a hideously racist caricature of a natty-haired thick-lipped black male. What possessed Moore to even ATTEMPT to include such a character is a total mystery to me, but he obviously had to be very careful about his portrayal. So, in his own deranged fashion, he decided to make the character a giant alien, made of dark matter, obsessed with two living sex dolls, and talking in the most out-there speech pattern imaginable, so that no one would ever confuse it for a black dialect – or ANY existing dialect. (From THE BLACK DOSSIER: “Bread and tits to you, gilded wasp of Elysium. Let the thrup of us entender withdoors, what cheer?”). Even better, whenever he speaks – in comic OR text – he does so in a bold, italicized font, implying (I guess) that he yells constantly. The voice that I hear for the character in my head as I read his dialogue is so hilarious that I wish he had a bigger role to play in the main story.

The main body of the text story, taking place on the moon, ties together the obelisk from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, Prof. Cavor from the first volume of the LEAGUE, and the AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON, amongst many other things. It links the obelisk with the pool that gave Orlando immortality. This honestly feels like a much cooler plot thread than the “Moon Child” storyline, and might have made for a better comic if Moore had made it the focus of CENTURY. Maybe it'll come into play next issue.

Anyway, I’ve babbled enough. Please let me know your thoughts, gentle reader, if you're brave enough to pick up a copy. Maybe I’ll write my next blog entirely in Moore's Galley-wag dialect.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Other Prepositional Phrases

I didn't intend for my first blog to be about a Planet of the Apes movie. No one ever does. At least, I ASSUME no one ever does. It's kind of like setting out to date America Ferrera. She's probably got a lot of money, and she seems like a nice down-to-earth girl. Ultimately, it might not be a bad idea at all. but it's not something to strive for. I don't know anyone who wakes up looking at their framed SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS poster and says, "Today, my goal is to hook up with America Ferrera."

(Aside: The SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS poster is actually just a giant ass in a pair of blue jeans. I'm not sure whose ass it is. I mean, I assume the actual ass belongs to an ass model, and not to any of the four lead actresses who starred in the film. But even if we're suspending our disbelief, and assuming it belongs to one of the leads, I don't think anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of anatomy and physics would think that it belongs to America Ferrera. But then again, we're three degrees beyond hypothetical at this point. I digress.)

Look, I'll admit it: When I was a kid, I liked the original PLANET OF THE APES pentalogy (that means a series of five! -- Word of The Day). I even own a six-DVD set copyrighted in 2000, so I must have had some fascination even at age 16. Don't get me wrong: As a ten-year-old, I KNEW how cheesy the later films were. But I loved the original film, and once my fanboy nature forced me to see the sequels, there were a few things that sucked me in.

One of the main appeals was the Moebius strip of a timeline. For those of you not familiar with the sequels, Cornelius & Zira head into space in the third one, following a nuclear destruction of their futuristic Ape-world at the end of the preceding film. Presumably taking advantage of the same time-dilation effect that brought space traveler Charlton Heston to the future in the first film, the filmmakers plopped the two apes into then-present-day LA when they landed (time travel! Always a favorite of mine). The following two films were mostly concerned with Caesar, their child, played by Roddy McDowall (who had also played the dad Cornelius). Caesar led the ape rebellion that ultimately led to Ape-ocalypse (and yes, I'm planning on trademarking that). To ten-year-old me, there was something undeniably cool about Heston's future actions setting in motion the events that actually led to Ape-ocalypse in his own present-day. There was an element of fatalism about it that I loved.

Another appeal was Roddy McDowall's tour de force performance as Cornelius / Caesar, the Michael Corleone of the simian set, turning from put-upon nice-guy to revolutionary kingpin. Even under super-cheesy monkey makeup, when McDowall set his sights on evil, he could give you chills.

And hell, in the fifth movie, you get John Huston in a career-low performance as an ape! Even as a ten-year-old, I knew Huston as the director of some of my favorite Bogart movies (THE MALTESE FALCON, THE AFRICAN QUEEN), and I don't believe I'd ever seen him act prior to that. To see this man who I'd only known in name--only known for creating high art--dressed in a bad Halloween costume and spouting a bunch of badly-written gibberish to six- and seven-year-olds (also in monkey suits) was a real eye-opener. That may have been the moment when I realized maybe Hollywood wasn't quite as glamorous as I'd thought.

So there you have it: My love-hate relationship with the Apes. Yes, the sequels suck; but no more than the thirty-odd FRIDAY THE 13th or HALLOWEEN sequels that gorehounds idolize and rewatch over and over. SOMEBODY has to be a Monkey Fan. It just fell to ten-year-old me. Sue me, okay?

(And before you ask: Yes, I saw Burton's version in the theater and despised it. The less said, the better.)

So that brings us to present-day, and RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, the rather interesting and surprisingly enjoyable film that you might call a prequel, or a reboot, or a remake.

Before we get there, however, let me just say that I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I loved the homages to the previous series ("IT'S A MADHOUSE!!!"). I loved the fact that there were loooong stretches of film that were just apes gesturing and posturing at each other, with no dialogue at all. It takes balls to attempt that in a major summer blockbuster, and it takes skill to make it interesting enough to watch. The filmmakers here have both, and the glee I felt at their rebellious act reminded me of Pixar's similar risk in WALL-E. Of course, it paid off for Pixar, and I hope it pays off for these guys.

I loved how sympathetic this movie made the apes. It was like a way better version of CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, where you start out feeling bad for Caesar, are rooting for him all along against the humans, and then are horrified when he actually succeeds. It takes a lot to get a film audience to root AGAINST humanity, and I think this film largely succeeds. The violent acts are spaced-out so that they keep their impact, and yet the film never feels slow. While the apes can be pretty terrifying, you can't help asking yourself whether you'd do the same thing in their place.

A lot of the credit goes to Lithgow, who proved what a national treasure he is a couple of seasons ago on DEXTER, and is brilliantly cast here. He's really the heart of the movie. Let's face it: It's not easy to make an audience sympathize with a mute CGI ape. And as for James Franco, well ... Let's just say the mute CGI ape might have made a more charismatic Oscar host. But because Lithgow is devoted to both of these characters, we somehow can't help caring about them, even when he's not onscreen.

And the pacing is terrific. I won't say that it's my favorite "big summer" movie of the year, but it is by far the most well-paced. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS and SUPER 8 were both phenomenal for the first hour, then lost their way when they started playing to genre cliches. RISE doesn't fall victim to that: everything that happens feels totally natural. What's more, it doesn't force the plot along just to play to audience expectations. It ends at a moment that feels natural to the story, leaving room for a sequel if box office returns allow.

And that brings us to my question: Is this a prequel? A remake? A reboot? RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, the preposition-heavy title in question, clearly takes place in a totally separate continuity from Burton's godawful that's entirely off the table. As far as the original pentalogy (something about that word sounds kind of Satanist, doesn't it?) ... I sketched out the basic plot of the original films above, and it clearly doesn't gibe with the story here. While Caesar still leads the rebellion, this Caesar is not the child of time-traveling talking monkeys ... he's a byproduct of science. Theoretically, this film is a prequel to the original 1968 PLANET OF THE APES, and if you watch those two films back-to-back you're in for a hell of a viewing experience. And I think it would work, more or less free of continuity errors. Once the DVD / Blu Ray of this film comes out, I'll probably give it a whirl. However, if you're an Apes enthusiast like myself, then you'll recognize that this film is essentially a remake of CONQUEST and BATTLE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. There's no denying that they borrow certain elements, although it's a way better experience.

What all this boils down to is: They can take this franchise ANYWHERE. They can do a direct followup to RISE that shows the next phase in the simian rebellion. They can skip ahead several hundred years and do a far better PLANET OF THE APES remake than Burton did. Or they can do some other, totally original story.

What are your thoughts? Have you seen the movie? Am I just far too intrigued by the idea of talking apes? Let me know in the comments section, by all means.

My next blog (maybe tomorrow?) will focus on the latest chapter of the LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN comic, taking place in 1969 and titled "Paint It Black." What happens when Alan Moore takes his brilliantly-conceived mashup out of the Victorian era and into the height of hippie counterculture? Find out soon!