Game of Shadows and Lights.

January 9, 2012

Every now and then it becomes all too much to bear, does Christmas, so the Creator dissociates from the physical world and enters one of metaphor, symbol and spiritual transsubstantiatiation. Not having any appropriate recreational chemicals handy, this entailed going to the movies.

It’s easy to mock the Hollywoodelite, such as George Clooney who directed The Ides of March, and for that matter Leonardo diCaprio who stumped up some of the cash for it (“executive producer”). However, what they have come up with is a fairly interesting moviefication of what must have been a tolerably interesting play, one originally called Farragut North, which is a suburb ofWashingtonDC, supposedly where the lobbyists dwell (the flying monkeys of the Wicked Witches of corporate capitalism). It’s a low-budget movie; no special effects, no spectacular scenery, and the most expensive props are probably the ties worn by the George Clooney character, the hopey-changey Democrat primary frontrunner seeking the nomination via a mammoth triumph inOhio. If he wins big he will be a first-ballot victor at the impending convention, and then, because the Republicans are so disorganized, he will go on to be President. So he devotes his time to bold bloviation about his rejection of religious motives and calls for less oil consumption and more green activities – particularly, a pledge to discourage cars running on petrol.

The hero of the movie, however, is the candidate’s media specialist, number two to the campaign manager, a sleazy figure who leaks lies to the press, chuckling that he doesn’t think anyone will believe the lies – he just wants to hear the opponent spending a day denying them. (This is a quote attributed to Lyndon Johnson via Hunter S Thompson.) The media specialist purports to believe – perhaps does believe – that the candidate is the superman who will save America, but we the audience are at liberty to doubt his capacity to judge this, especially since he is effortlessly capable of manipulating the press into whatever posture he finds convenient for his candidate. (Incidentally, the opening of the movie includes a moving wall of imaginary press commentary, including a couple of faked political cartoons by the leftish cartoonist Ted Rall.)

The hero proves to be a dodgy figure, however. The campaign manager of his opponent invites him to a secret meeting; he does notinform his campaign manager, then or later – until much later. Obviously he is flirting with the idea that he will gain some personal advantage from this. The opponent’s plan is simple; he has promised the most powerful Democrat in the state a Cabinet position, and he has persuaded right-wing webloggers to urge Republicans to vote for the opponent because the George Clooney figure is considered more of a threat. (In Ohio Republicans can vote in Democratic primaries.) So this seems to reaffirm the situation; the baddies are sleazy and unprincipled, the goodies (with the exception of the media specialist, perhaps) are squeaky-clean. Of course, one side effect of this is the clear indication that the media are easily manipulated, indeed eager to be manipulated.

But then still sleazier things crop up. On one hand, the Clooney figure is shown to be a shabby, selfish liar and hypocrite. On the other hand, the campaign manager of the Clooney figure manages to use the meeting with the opposition to have the media specialist fired, on grounds of disloyalty – which is reasonable, but stupid at a time of crisis; it’s obvious that he, like everyone else in the system, is using the situation for private gain. The campaign manager has leaked damaging information to a journalist, who turns out to have no sympathy for the media specialist (he had innocently assumed that journalists were manipulable friends, rather like the tobacco lobbyist in Thank You For Smoking). Eventually, thanks to sleaze and blackmail, the media specialist manages to succeed despite all efforts and at the minor cost of destroying the Clooney figure’s political independence. There is a rather foolishly staged scene towards the end when the vicious journalist, implausibly, appeals to the friendship of the media specialist – only to be told, sardonically, “You’re my best friend”; the media specialist stalks off into alienated, pointless authority over a campaign which he no longer believes in except as a vehicle for private gain.

It does seem as if Clooney and DiCaprio have lost some of their former enthusiasm for Obama. (Some of the posters for the Clooney character are evidently derived from the low-res two-colour posters for the Obama 2008 campaign.) It appears, too, that there is no sense that the current formal political system offers any way of improving the conditions of the average American (who does not appear in the movie except as gullible crowds uncritically cheering the increasingly implausible promises of the Clooney figure). You might say that some alternative to the system should have been shown, but that would probably have made the movie less effective. Essentially it is a long riff on the subject of “We are so screwed”, and as such, not half bad. The Creator emerged looking for a double-handful of prescription drugs and a half-jack of whiskey, but couldn’t find a chemist and all the bottle-stores were closed.

So much for intellectuals. Now for a header into the cesspool. For various unspecified reasons the Creator was at a loose end last night and decided to believe what he had read in the Mail and Guardian, namely that the latest Sherlock Holmes movie is the very best movie that Guy Richie has ever made. Which it may well be, whatever that means.

This is not a movie about Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, of course. This is a new franchise, in which Holmes and Watson are two homoerotic eccentrics with none of the characteristics formerly associated with them, with the general demeanour and acuity of teenage American undergraduates. Nor is the movie based on one of Conan Doyle’s stories; on the contrary, it is fundamentally based on a vulgarization of The Seven–per-cent Solution, a popular book and movie of the 1970s. Of course, none of this means that the movie absolutely has to be worthless.

Of course. But.

The movie plunges us into the action at once; the gangster Professor Moriarty is slaughtering people (mostly his own agents) right and left in an effort to promote anarchist violence inWestern Europe, thus provoking war betweenGermanyandFrance. Why does Moriarty want to use anarchists, whom both the Germans and French cordially hated and whose behaviour would thus encourage unity between the two countries, to provoke a war which very nearly came off anyhow? It transpires that Moriarty has used the proceeds of his criminal empire to buy up the Schneider and Krupp armament concerns (presented here under false names, of course, but recognizable) and thus hopes to engineer a war in order to make money.

There is a trifling problem with this in the real world – in 1891 a war betweenFranceandGermanywould have ended within a month with Uhlans riding intoParis. Moriarty’s holdings in France would have been speedily appropriated by the German government, which would very probably have noticed his ownership of Krupps and acted accordingly to seize this foreigner’s holdings – especially since in this world-vision Moriarty is a personal friend of Lord Salisbury and a leading light in the British Foreign Office, which rather disqualifies him from owning the largest armaments firm in Germany.

It is, of course, true that armaments had always been transnational. During the First World War, British artillery shells were detonated by Krupp fuses, while German submarines fired Whitehead torpedoes at British cargo ships. However, this “merchants of death” theme remains rather dull.

Not, however, so dull as the actual process of the movie. For no particular reason, Holmes goes to see Moriarty at his university, thus triggering off Moriarty’s vanity, so that Holmes and Watson have to flee the country. They go toParis, where Moriarty also goes, for no actual reason since he does not have to personally oversee the assassination of the owner of shares in the arms firm whose death will give him control. They gad about with gypsies, providing an excuse for the display of a modestly attractive wax model of an actress wearing gypsy regalia, but fail to prevent the assassination, which they do not anticipate, and which is concealed by an anarchist bombing, all organized by Moriarty for no obvious reason. (It is by this time obvious that neither Moriarty nor Holmes nor Watson has a brain in their heads.) Thereafter, they assume that Moriarty will go to his new German factory, modeled on the Gusstahlfabriek inEssen. He has no reason to go there, but they find him there (helped, for no obvious reason, by the gypsies).

Holmes has a plan; he wishes to pick Moriarty’s pocket, thus obtaining the details of Moriarty’s bank accounts, which will of course have no impact on anything. Nor is it credible that Moriarty will be walking around with bank details in his pocket, or that Moriarty will allow Holmes to come that close to him. The whole project is absurd, and is based on the assumption that Holmes knows essentially nothing about Moriarty – which proves to be more or less the case. The fact that this absurd plan comes off (partly thanks to the improbable notion that artillery pieces will be stored fully loaded in an armaments factory) is thus untenable and embarrassing.

Holmes has another plan; he, Watson and the gypsy girl somehow manage to get invited to a peace conference (though, realistically, there should be no prospect of war) at which they will identify the gypsy girl’s anarchist brother who has been hired by Moriarty to assassinate someone (they are not quite sure who) thus somehow destroying the conference. (The idea that a country would send an ambassador on a mission of assassination is in itself quite absurd.) Since they don’t know who the ambassador-assassin is, Watson upsets a tray of glasses which somehow makes the ambassador-assassin reveal himself, although an agent of Moriarty’s murders the ambassador-assassin before he can be interrogated. (The ambassador-assassin has had facial surgery, which would certainly have been revealed in an autopsy, so Moriarty’s plan is doomed to fail once it becomes obvious that the assassin is not really the ambassador at all.)

Meanwhile, Holmes, for no reason whatsoever, goes out onto an open balcony overlooking a hundred-metre-high waterfall plunging into a rocky chasm with Moriarty. They play “blitz” chess, which did not exist in 1891 but never mind, and then Holmes tells Moriarty, for no reason at all, that he has stolen all of Moriarty’s money thanks to his access to the banking details in Britain. (How this would make Moriarty lose his assets inFranceandGermanygoes unexplained.) Moriarty becomes infuriated and attacks Holmes, and the two of them plummet off the balcony, falling a hundred metres onto rocks and then into a high-speed current which batters both corpses against more rocks, crushing them to a pulp which sinks to the bottom so that no remnants are recovered. Later, however, we learn that Holmes has a panacea against the consequences of a fall of this kind – a primitive oxygen mask.

Now, it’s all right that we have a Holmes and Watson turned into a thirteen-year-old’s vision of how humans behave. Raymond Chandler once remarked that it was remarkable how in just a few years the movies had evolved from being made for eight-year-olds to being made for thirteen-year-olds, and then stuck, and since 1943 nothing much seems to have changed except a greater exploitation of a thirteen-year-old’s sexual and emotional imagination. However, thirteen-year-olds are not so childish that they can’t recognize dumb ideas and dickheaded concepts when these flash across the screen. It becomes apparent, then, that when a flick purports to appeal to thirteen-year-olds, but actually appeals to thirteen-year-olds’ willingness to abandon all pretense at intellectual activity and instead embrace stupidity, then there is an agenda here. They are not just out to make us children, they are out to make us stupid children, ignorant not merely of history and how the contemporary world works, but of how the contemporary world could work; buying into a flat, inhuman vision of sensibility for the sake of a momentary thrill or an instantaneous laugh before one has time to realize that the joke has been repeated ad nauseam and is nauseating and wasn’t really funny at the beginning.

We can have halfway decent movies if we are prepared to demand them. It doesn’t take genius; George Clooney is probably considerably less talented than Richie or Spielberg (whose horrid abortion of Tintin was trailered at the Richie flick). All it takes is a willingness to require competence, and an unwillingness to pretend that flatulence is sweet-smelling. And yet Richie’s trash has been given a far more respectful hearing in the reviews than Clooney’s modest competence.

Can it be that the evil conspiratorial system is oppressing us in yet another way?