The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

I really wanted to love this movie, and instead I just kind of liked it. A lot. Guy Richie's re-invention of the Sherlock Holmes film has, at it's core, a great idea: let's re-examine the way Doyle might have written about the exact same character in a more permissive, action-oriented era. All the elements are there: For others' benefit, “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist”, “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty”, “Gloria Scott”, “A Study in Scarlet”, “The Sign of the Four”, and “The Adventure of the Empty House” all make reference to Holmes' skill as a bare-knuckle boxer, swordsman, stick fighter, and man of extraordinary strength and agility. Holmes spent much time in the seedier sections of London, often in disguise, and it is impossible to imagine a sane man doing this unless he knew how to handle himself. He studied "Baritsu" (apparently a misspelling of a hybrid style of Japanese-British boxing and wrestling techniques) and used it to overcome Professor Moriarty. So, from my position, the complaints about Holmes and Watson as action heroes is just ignorant. Ignorant not just of Holmes' actual history, but of literary conventions of the time.

For instance, we are to believe Holmes is Really? Why, because Watson talks about Holmes never being involved with, or not trusting, women? And exactly what Victorian era literary figures were presented as pre-maritally sexual? Are we to believe that 1890's London, with a knock-shop on every corner and the Hellfire club and its satellites notorious, was filled with prudes? I think not. Watson is an unreliable witness. He and Holmes could have caroused in every whore-house in London, and he would never have breathed a word of it. So as far as I'm concerned, the real question is whether a film is loyal to the essence of what Doyle actually created. And that makes it legitimate to re-examine the psychological roots of the character, and re-examine in terms of what we know of real, flesh and blood human beings.

I'm interested in Holmes as flesh and blood. And unfortunately, Ritchies's hyperkenetic editing style, as well as an oddly off-kilter dialogue rhythm, keep this from scaling the heights. Oh, there is much to enjoy, especially the performances. Jude Law is wonderful, and Downy Jr. no less so. But the story, dealing with a serial killer, a secret society, and a plan to steal the English government, just isn't particularly smart. You will guess the plot points way ahead of the Consulting Detective, and that just sucks. Ritchie's visualization of Holmes' mental processes (especially during a couple of combat sequences) is very nice, just not the blazingly brilliant deductive feats we expect from Holmes.

A wasted opportunity, but not a wasted afternoon at the movies. I'll bet I'll like it better the second time around. Give it a "B-" but a "B+" for effort.


Steve Perry doubted that I'd really refuse to dump my new business if Steven Spielberg got on the phone and asked me to do a project. Let me explain: one of the core principles of success is to have a definite purpose, a written goal read twice daily. The path to this goal has to be expressed in continuous action, so that every day you know what you have to accomplish to stay on the path. If you do this, strange things will start happening, including unexpected assistance from unforeseen well as distractions aplenty.

I remember years ago, talking to a student who had had serious weight issues stemming from horrendous childhood abuse. She was working to peel the layers of protection away, and I warned her about something: if she was ever successful, if she lost more than about 25 pounds, her career would suddenly take off. She would start being offered wonderful job options that would bring her more money and prestige. Why? Well, viewed from one perspective, the entire game would be to distract her from losing the weight. Her ego would be seriously threatened, and would fight dirty to trash her schedule and fracture her intent.

Here's another example: It is often said that those engaged in serious meditation activities will often notice what are called "siddhis" occurring. These are powers: precognition, telepathic effects, psychic dreams, etc. Becoming unusually sexually attractive is definitely one of these. Now imagine: a guy who has had a string of bad relationships decides to use the Soulmate process. His target surrogate tells him she wants a man with a deeper spiritual base (this happened to me) so he begins to meditate. He finds that after a month, attractive women are coming on to him, inviting him to long weekends of carnal delight.

What do you think would happen if he took them up, and stopped meditating? Right: immediately, the very process that created the attraction would stop working, and he'd end up right back where he was. Only a little older.

Well, that's where I am with Coaching. I've been a professional writer for thirty years, and I don't want this any more. Finding out that there was indeed a blacklist, and I was on it, and that race was a factor--that HURT. And the fact that the field doesn't grasp its parochial, tribal attitudes means that thirty years of my pushing against that rock has only moved it a few inches. I'd be an idiot to trust the SF field with my future. But nor do I want the assholes to win, by driving me out. What is my alternative?

I've been cogitating about that one ever since Octavia died. And finally came to a decision: I want to be an AMATEUR writer, a "gentleman writer", without so much pressure from the bills. Under those circumstances, I will do my very best, and probably most successful, writing. But what do I have to do to lift that stress? Create other avenues of income. And what is predictable? As I continue to build my coaching business, and my students grow by leaps and bounds and my business gets more secure: of COURSE Spielberg (or the rough equivalent) will call. It is frickin' inevitable. You know how when you don't have a job you can't get a job...but as soon as you have one the phone starts ringing? When you don't have a girlfriend/boyfriend you can't get one, but as soon as you have one everyone else seems interested? 100% predictable. It's one of the really strange ways the universe operates, a little touch of magic, or as close to it as you can catch in a bottle.

So no. I dare not throw away this structure I'm creating. A call from Spielberg would be a symptom that I'm heading in the right direction. If I chased after it, I'd lose everything. This is going to be quite an adventure.


Steve Perry said...

It's all relative, isn't it?

If Spielberg called and said, "We are kinda-sorta-maybe interesting in maybe-sorta-kinda doing something together." That's one thing.

If he calls up and says, "We want the rights to Street Lethal, my CFO just cut a check for a quarter mil, and we want you write the screenplay for another half a million, is that okay?"

Granted, neither scenario is apt to pop out of the aether like spontaneous generation of full-blown intelligent life, so it's maybe not so difficult to shrug it off and say you wouldn't do it, but ...

I just have a great deal of difficulty believing you'd say, "Sorry, Steve, but I've got a guy in South America I'm coaching to lose weight and get into shape, and I can't."

If you get that offer and turn it down, I'll be impressed. But given how you've spoken at length about taking care of your family and providing for them, making that choice wouldn't seem to be the way to go ...

Shady_Grady said...

"Finding out that there was indeed a blacklist, and I was on it, and that race was a factor--that HURT. And the fact that the field doesn't grasp its parochial, tribal attitudes means that thirty years of my pushing against that rock has only moved it a few inches. I'd be an idiot to trust the SF field with my future."

No one has the right to ask another to suffer on his behalf. And each person is obligated to earn his daily bread and provide for his family as best he may.

That said my selfish interest as a reader is that you do continue writing fantastic fiction, along with your other interests.

You write that you've only moved the rock a few inches. Well maybe it looks that way from your perspective and I can't gainsay it. But I don't think that without some of the work that you and others have done that a Brandon Massey or David Anthony Durham or Gary Hardwick or Malcolm Azania or Guy Johnson or several people would be where they are. Maybe that's cold comfort.

But in any event that's what I think. And at the end of the day, the rock has moved.

Marty S said...

Steve: I only know you through this blog and the books you have written. I can understand that you are hurt by this blacklisting thing both from an emotional and financial point of view. But, I think that you care about more than just money and that you should take pride in what you have done because your books are more than just stories that entertain, but stories that make you think and look at the world a little differently, and if you have inspired some young people to see the world and race a little differently in the long run you have moved the world more than just a couple of inches.

Steven Barnes said...

I didn't say I'd turn Spielberg down. I said that I wouldn't end my coaching business in order to chase that dream. At a full load of coaching, 20 clients, that's ten hours a week of solid phone time. While that would force me to prioritize tasks, pass EVERY piece of non-essential work to others, and focus like crazy, I believe I could still do it. If I had to cancel some calls for a couple of weeks in order to concentrate, I could do that too. But what I wouldn't do is say: "huzzah! I don't need this coaching stuff any more! I'm rich!" or something like that.

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,

Just wanted to write and say that this is the second post I've read in as many days on your site. I've never visited here before, but got linked to it from somewhere or another.

I like your writing style, and your self-disclosure is refreshing. Unfortunately (and didn't you hear that coming?), in 2 out of 2 posts you mention your race, or that your race was holding you down. I just wanted to mention that someone who reports himself as being as successful as you are certainly seems to take refuge in a surprising level of racial thinking. Hmm.. that's not really clear. What I mean to say is that most people (myself included) really don't care about skin color- it's character and willingness to work. I was a little bothered to see race come up as an excuse (or maybe "contributing factor") in both posts that I read.

I wish you success, but I hope you realize that most people honestly don't see race as an issue. An on the internet, skin color doesn't matter. Lose the chip, my friend. You've proven yourself.

Good luck.

Patrick said...

Steve Perry,

Figure the odds that Spielberg wouldn't want to tack on 20 minutes of triple distilled, concentrated schmaltz onto any production he purchased and then factor in the willingness to refuse that particular offer. Joe Galloway and LTGEN Moore got a movie made that closely resembled the original text in the last decade, but just about everybody else has their work sodomized by the Hollywood elephants. It strikes me as less unlikely that as time passes Steve is less flirtatious with Jumbo in word, thought, deed, and hypothetical deal. Consider it an aspect of the healing process.

Tom Perkins said...

"Finding out that there was indeed a blacklist, and I was on it, and that race was a factor--that HURT."

Hello Mr. Barnes, could you please respond with the link to the the post wherein you talk about that? It's the first I've heard of it.

I've searched Dar Kush, and only this post uses that keyword.

K T Cat said...

Re fidelity to the original Holmes - just because Watson didn't write about Holmes having sex with aliens from Saturn it doesn't mean it shouldn't be in the movie, right?

William H Stoddard said...

You're essentially right about baritsu. The actual name was Bartitsu, from Barton-Wright, the Englishman who invented it and brought in a Japanese jujitsu instructor to help teach it. Of course "bartitsu" doesn't work as a Japanese word, where "baritsu" seems at least possible; so I'd say that Doyle improved it, though perhaps purely absent-mindedly.

Unknown said...

Tom - Like you, I missed the post that initially discussed the black list, and was confused. You have to go back through about 2 pages of posts. Steve was having a conversation with a friend who had just left an editorial position with a noted SF/F magazine, and told him that the reason he'd had trouble getting reviews for Shadow Valley and Big Sky Woman was that the editor-in-chief had Steve on his shit list. There are some very interesting conversations in the comments about the racial, or possibly cultural (which depends on your definition, perhaps) causes for this.

Chip Ahoy said...

I see your point here. When Spielberg or his analog calls your position must remain firm. Your goal, read twice daily of being coach stays primary. So when that magic happens to distract you from coaching you'll find yourself saying something like, "Well, Spielberg, my good boy, I'm awfully busy these days but I do like to piddle with this silly science fiction. Tell you what, I'll give it my best shot in my spare time." (But you will not own, you being in the category of secondary interest, nor dissuade me from my primary goal)

Unknown said...

I believe it's "The Sign of Four."

Unknown said...

Dear Steve,

First of all, I want to wish you the absolute best in your new coaching venture. Moreover, I believe this decision will be a fortunate development for anyone who becomes your client; in fact, I may try to become one of them myself. At age 70, I am starting a "new life" as best as I can. I'm overweight, and I also have a dream of writing a science fiction novel. It is essential that I develop some new habits, and it is quite likely that I will be needing some help with this.

Now, (moving along to my main reason for commenting) about your bringing up race so frequently. Considering how successful you are, I believe it is even more important for you to discuss this issue. I think even more of you for doing so, especially at times when it is obviously heavy on your mind or when you are feeling pain, for yourself or for people you love. I am grateful to have the opportunity to see the "whole" Steve Barnes and to be able to contemplate your soul-searching. It is certainly not always comfortable to read, but it is a privilege to do so.

Who better to bring up race than a black person who *has* "got it made"? I am white, but at least *I* understand understand that the specter of bigotry must be always present and frequently causes anguish. How could it not? Even when one has achieved, is achieving, "success", how could it not. I think it is VERY important for us who are not black to cultivate some awareness and sensitivity to this tragic fact.

Steve, I think you are very brave to expose your painful thoughts so openly to anyone who visits your blog, no matter who they are or their reasons for doing so. You do not restrict such comments to "the choir." I am sure you are already very aware of the risk of being acused of having a CHIP on your shoulder!! (Damn, that makes me mad!)

Guess this might be a good time to draw this to a close.

Blessing to you.


Synova said...

"Watson talks about Holmes never being involved with, or not trusting, women? And exactly what Victorian era literary figures were presented as pre-maritally sexual?"

None of them, of course! People were expected to read between the lines, to grasp the euphemisms or else understand from their own experience what was going on behind the scenes. Because not only were literary figures not presented as pre-maritally sexual... they weren't even presented as POST-maritally sexual.

I've been looking forward to this movie ever since I saw the first trailer.

Mike said...

>Re fidelity to the original Holmes - just because Watson didn't write about Holmes having sex with aliens from Saturn it doesn't mean it shouldn't be in the movie, right?<

We know that 19th century Englishmen did not regularly have sex with aliens from Saturn. We also know that many of the regularly _DID_ have pre-marital sex (often with prostitutes - London in the late 19th century had a whorehouse scene unlike anything today outside of Bangkok). Supposing one happened behind the pages is different from assuming the other.

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