Friday, August 17, 2012

It's alright, Bob (I'm Not There)

As most people who know me well enough are doubtlessly aware, around new years or thereabouts, I spent spent about two or three months of my sordid little existence indulging in a minor obsession over the music and persona of rock and roll’s self-styled poet laureate, Bob Dylan.

To me, Bob is really a musician like no other. When he was bad, and he had his lacklustre periods, he churned out some godawful stinkers. But when he was good, which he often was, he was so far ahead of the competition that it makes my head spin like a centrifuge - his mid-60’s beatnik lyricism, for instance, continues to twist my noodle each and every time again. Bob’s life and career contain so many contradictions that you could spend decades studying him and still discover new things each and every day. Like him or not, it’s undeniable that he’s a fascinating figure. There’s a reason that Dylanology is actually a thing, as stupid of a word as that is.

Thus, it's only natural that when I started reading and hearing all sorts of interesting things about I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’ 2007 biopic about Bob Dylan, it didnt take me long to hunt down a copy of the film to give it a watch. Just looking at the trailer got me interested, and the poster for the film would’ve raised an eyebrow even if I were not a Dylan fan. “Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Ben Whislaw are all Bob Dylan”? That’s the kind of tagline you need to sucker me in! I’m game! 

Be honest, you're just a little bit curious.

Yes, you read that right. Not content to have just one Bob Dylan in his movie, that greedy bastard Haynes casts six different actors to portray different iterations of everybody’s favourite sandpaper-voiced musical icon – including the Joker and the Batman, as well as a woman and a black kid. 

To non-Dylan connoisseurs I should explain this is not as bizarre a casting method as it’d seem. The above-mentioned contradictions that characterise Bob’s career are in no small part due to the many different public images he’s taken on during the last decade. His most enduring persona, the aloof rock star in shades of the mid-60’s, might be hard to reconcile with, say, the Felliniesque vagrant in white clown-makeup of the mid-70’s Rolling Thunder Revue, or the aged, dishevelled bluesman with the silly hat and pencil moustache he’s become in recent years. Todd Haynes tackles this multiple Dylan problem by using his six actors to portray six characters inspired by these different personas taken on by Dylan throughout the years. None of the characters are actually named Bob Dylan, but the intended parallels to Dylan’s life are obvious.

The results are interesting, to say the very least – though in all honesty, in hindsight I’m not entirely sure how well all of it works.

The film’s greatest performance is given by Cate Blanchett, who plays Jude Quinn, a former folk singer who went electric and became a rock star, infuriating his former fanbase. Quinn is the obvious parallel to Bob’s enduring mid-60’s persona: the haughty and sneering celebrity, constantly strung out on pot, sporting his iconic pair of dark sunglasses under a chaotic afro-like bob that looks like it’d break any comb in half that would as much as go near it. Quinn’s narrative evokes the infamous electric Dylan controversy, which started after Dylan played with a rock band backing him at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and released a trio of electric albums, creating an outrage amongst his fans and the Greenwhich Village folk circuit. In a surreal scene, Haynes portrays the Newport incident as Quinn and his band walking on stage, opening their guitar cases, taking out a bunch of Tommy guns and opening fire on the crowd. Blanchett’s part of the movie is shot in black and white, in a style echoing Felini’s as well as the 1967 Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back by D.A. Pennebaker, which portrays the same era of Dylan’s career. It contains a number of other surreal sequences, such as a short cameo of the Beatles as they roll around in the grass with Quinn in a cloud of smoke and chirp to each other in high goofy voices, eluding to Bob's historic meeting with the fab four during which he's said to've introduced them to marijuana. Blanchett’s resemblance to Dylan is uncanny, both in appearance and in mannerisms. Jude Quinn is aloof and rude, verbally sparring with interviewers and putting down friend and foe alike. At the same time however, Blanchett’s Quin brings something almost femininely frail to the mid-60’s Dylan, showing him to be struggling with the burden of his fame, his drug problem and people’s expectations of him. Blanchett is simply a joy to watch in the role, and her scenes end up becoming the best part of the film by far. 

Some of the shots and sequences in Blanchett's scenes are simply stunning.
The rest of the film is a bit of a mixed bag, though leaning towards the good. Marcus Carl Franklin plays Woody Guthrie, a black kid who hitches rides on trains and busses to travel across rural America, earning his keep by playing songs on his guitar at shows and carnivals. He’s named after the folk singer who inspired his Bobness during the early stages of his career, and is meant to evoke Bob’s youthful beginnings and his tendency to lie about his origins. The plucky Woody is seen telling various contradicting tales about his past to the people kind enough to take him into their home for a day or two. He’s a trickster, but he’s got a compassionate heart (boy, that sounded like the corny tagline to a family film), which we see as he visits the true Woody Guthrie in a hospital and plays him a solemn song on his six-string as the man lies sick and dying.

Christian Bale gives a convincing performance as the young and shy but extremely gifted Jack Rollins, a Greenwhich Village folk musician meant to evoke the early years of Dylan’s career and his involuntary stint as the ‘voice of a generation’. Later on, Rollins becomes Pastor Jack, a born again Christian, echoing Dylan's controversial religious phase in the early 80's. Bale’s segment of the movie is shot in a mock-documentary style, complete with a cameo of female folk singer Alice Fabian, who represents Joan Baez, the woman who helped make Dylan famous but was soon left behind by him as he tore himself free from the folk circuit. Jack seems to exist in the same universe as a fourth Dylan interpretation, Robbie Clarke (portrayed by Heath Ledger), an actor who plays Bale’s Rollins in a Hollywood film. Clarke is likely meant to represent Dylan’s reclusive period in the late 60’s and early 70’s after his famous motorcycle crash, as well as his role as a husband and father and some of his rumoured misogynistic tendencies. Clarke’s part of the film is essentially a love story, as we see how he meets his wife Claire (the film’s analogue to Sara Dylan), how the two get hitched and how, in a number of heartbreaking scenes, their marriage slowly disintegrates. 

The most enigmatic parts of the film belong to Richard Gere and Ben Whislaw. Gere is cast in the role of a friendly outlaw named Billy the Kid, who wanders through a small, picturesque nineteenth century American town and confronts a sheriff named Patt Garet. Both characters are named after the 1972 film Patt Garet and Billy the Kid to which Bob did the soundtrack, the source of one of pop music’s most frequently covered ditties, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”. Gere’s scenes seem highly allegorical, but their significance eludes me. They contain various bizarre elements, like many of the townspeople wearing masks and outlandish costumes and a band playing on stage with the corpse of a girl sitting in an open coffin. At one point there’s also a giraffe walking around in the background. Perhaps they portray the paranoia Bob's been accused of harboring, with Gere being a sort of eccentric outsider in a world of freaks? ("clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right", Stealer’s Wheel sing in their Dylan parody “Stuck in the Middle With You”) Do they signify the role of the artist as spokesperson and protector of the people? Or are they connected with Dylan’s fascination with old-timesey Americana on albums such as 1968’s John Wesley Harding? Ben Whishlaw plays Arthur Rimbaud (the name of a poet whose work influenced Dylan) and appears in a number of sequences without any real narrative continuity, as he is questioned by a tribunal and responds with quotes from mid-60’s Dylan interviews. He's likely meant to represent Dylan’s poetic qualities, spouting many mystifying one-liners which give some fascinating food for thought (“Silence, experience shows, is what terrifies people most”, he states at one point), but I’m not sure if he adds a lot to the film. 

Yup, this is a movie in which Bob Dylan is portrayed by a little black kid. If that don't beat all.

Scenes from the narratives of Haynes’ various Dylan interpretations intercut eachother throughout the film. Though I’ll give that a certain logic behind the choice of montage sequence might become apparent upon repeat viewings, my impression was that this was done mostly with little apparent rhyme or reason. After the opening credits (over which we hear Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues again”, which I have to say is a fantastic choice for an opening tune) we get a scene of Franklin’s Woody hitching a ride on a train and making conversation with a bunch of hobos, after which he’s seen staying at the home of an elderly colored couple and playing some Dylan songs with two guitar-strumming negroes out on the porch. Afterwards we suddenly cut to documentary footage of Bale’s Jack Rollins, then it’s back to Woody, then it’s over to Robbie Clarke and his marital troubles, and so on and so forth. 

The result of this is that I’m Not There ends up feeling like a very fragmented viewing experience. Of course this is likely part of the point that the film is trying to make. It’s quite clear that I’m Not There, much like Citizen Kane, is attempting to foreground the theme of identity through presenting us with these various Bob Dylan interpretations. We have all these images of Bob, all these ways he’s manifested himself in the public sphere, but which of these is the real Bob Dylan? Or are these preconceptions about him that we’ve constructed all incorrect and is he someone else entirely? Is he, indeed, Not There at all? Robbie Clarke, portraying Bale’s Jack Rollins on film, motions at a promotional billboard of Rollins on a nearby building and says: “It’s not about me anymore, it’s all about him!” Like Jude Quinn is struggling with the discrepancy between who he is and what his public expects of him (and I almost typed her there, stupid sexy Quinn), Jack Rollins is despairing at the fact that people only see him as this figure the media has built him up to be, not as who he really is (indeed, from the mid-60’s onward Dylan strongly rallied against being labelled as the prophet of his or any generation). The confusion here is deepened by the fact this isn’t Jack Rollins who’s speaking but Robbie Clarke, an interpretation of Dylan portraying another interpretation of Dylan. 
Through this fragmentation Haynes seems to be implying that it’s impossible to answer the question of Bob’s identity (and that it might indeed even be a bit of a silly question to ask). The real Bob Dylan will not stand up, so all we’re left with are these various fragmented interpretations of his character, a fragmentation that the movie further thematizes by presenting us with a disjointed mishmash of the various narratives of these interpretations interspersed with each other. Still I can’t help but wonder if this structure (or rather lack of structure) was really necessary, as it makes I’m Not There feel like a very disjointed movie. Without the switches between the different narratives being announced, framed or explained in any logical fashion (like Welles does in Kane, as I’ve described) the film just feels fragmented for the sake of being fragmented, experimental for the sake of being experimental, which might turn off a lot of viewers.

I never knew Christian Bale recorded Dylan's The Freewheelin' - wait, my bad, Travelin' On
As you’ve no doubt already guessed, I’m Not There ends up becoming a bit of a specialty event for Dylan enthusiasts. Todd Haynes has done his homework: the film is peppered with references to pieces of Dylan trivia. Woody’s guitar case has the text “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS” emblazoned on it in bold black letters, just as the guitar case of the young Bob’s idol Woody Guthrie. When Blanchett’s Quinn and poet Allen Ginsberg (portrayed by David Cross, and along with Guthrie the only historical character not given a pseudonym) are looking at a statue of Jesus on the cross, Quinn cups his hands and shouts at the statue: “How does it feel?’, a line from “Like A Rolling Stone”. This is probably a reference to a ‘66 live performance of the song, where Bob cupped his hands and shouted the “chrome horse” line into the microphone. There's a hilarious scene where Robbie Clarke goes out to buy a motorcycle, asks to take it for a test drive and promptly crashes it into a pile of discarded car tires - here Haynes is of course eluding to Bob's motorcycle crash in 1966. At one point Robbie and his girlfriend Claire are seen walking down a street arm in arm, Robbie wearing a brown leather jacket, the scene obviously evoking the cover of Bob’s first big album, 1962’s The Freewheelin´. The soundtrack is fantastic, with a smattering of Dylan songs, both originals and covers, often employed at just the right moment. To name just one example: as we see the cracks in Robbie and Claire’s relationship start to widen, “Simple Twist of Fate” plays in the background and I damn near cracked into a sniffle as well. Probably had more to do with the power of the song than the film, but a great choice of tune nonetheless. 

However, as Whislaw’s Rimbaud, quoting Dylan, says at the start of the movie: “a song is something that walks by itself”. And I’m afraid that this movie doesn’t walk without aid all that well. If viewed without the supporting crutch of a certain amount of Dylan expertise, it kind of stumbles and falls flat on its schnoz. I’m Not There does actually thematize questions of identity and fragmentation thereof in ways that might be interesting to those not familiar with the minutia of his Bobness’ career. The film opens with a scene of Blanchett’s Jude Quinn lying in a coffin, dead. A voiceover is heard: “There he lay. Poet. Prophet. Fake. Outlaw. Star of electricity.” A reel of mug shots of our six Dylan interpreters goes by, stopping at each epithet given by the monologue, implying that these six characters are all meant to represent sides of the same character. But the way in which the film unfolds itself, showing us scenes from the stories of these characters with no framing device or any sort of logic to explain the fragmentation, makes that those coming in without the necessary background information will likely walk out confused and baffled. I could excuse this if the film was explicitly framed as a Dylan flick all the way through, but the man's name never appears on-screen except in the opening credits: "inspired by the many lives of Bob Dylan". This implies that the film can be fully enjoyed and understood even if one comes equiped without the Dylan context, which to me simply doesn't seem true.

"There he lies. God rest his soul... and his rudeness."
Shame, really. By divorcing the film a bit further from the Dylan context and giving it more of a logical structure, I’m Not There could have been a fascinating experience for both fans of Bob and just fans of good film alike. Alternatively, by emphasizing the Bob minutia even more the film would have been even more of a treat to Dylan diehards, though obviously fully inaccessible to casual viewers. By straddling the fence the movie just kind of ends up falling between the cracks. That’s not to say it’s a piece of shit. Let me go on record saying that despite its faults, as a Bob fan I enjoyed the hell out of it and I’d heartily encourage Dylan enthusiasts to go see it. And if you’re not into Bobby Dylan, I suppose this flick can still be fun. How the entirety of the movie fits together will likely be lost on you, but the various narratives can be enjoyed in and on themselves (especially the Blanchett scenes). And who knows, maybe I'm underestimating the uninitiated audience: this film might tell those unfamiliar with Bob's career something about him after all.

In short: bit of a failed experiment, but a fascinating experiment nonetheless. To Dylan fans, this one comes recommended. To those not into Dylan, not saying you should stay away per se, but approach with caution.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why Citizen Kane is considered a Big Deal™

Citizen Kane. I’m sure you’ve all heard of it. Orson Welles’ 1941 directorial debut has been called a masterpiece, one of the highlights of early cinema, often even the best movie ever made.  

Of course that last one is rather an overstatement, not in part because such statements are, by and far, entirely subjective. I’ve seen a lot of movies and Kane certainly doesn’t make my personal top five (nor is it my favourite Welles film – that’d be his adaptation of Kafka's Der Proces, which does make my top five, incidentally). Top ten though, maybe, and top twenty, yes, quite likely – because while the praise often lavished on it does contain a fair bit of hyperbole, at the end of the day it is still a smashing piece of cinema.

On the second of January this year I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Citizen Kane at a small movie theatre in Amsterdam. And when I say pleasure, I mean it – because while it may not be the best movie ever made, I would certainly say it is a masterpiece. Seeing it on a proper film screen was a treat. And more to the point of why we’re here, it inspired me to again reflect upon what it is about the movie that makes it work so well and why it prompts such exuberant praise. I realize veritable libraries’ve been written about Kane by now and that I likely won’t be adding anything new to the discussion. Yet I can still give you an overview of what I think its merits and significance entail, so if you’ve always found yourself wondering what the big deal about this movie is, mayhaps I can get you on the Kane bus after all. 

First, for the uninitiated, perhaps a brief run-down of the story. The titular Charles Foster Kane (haha, I said tit again) is born into a poor and humble family which suddenly comes into an extraordinary amount of money when a guest to his parents’ boarding house leaves his mother the deed to a piece of land which turns out to contain the world’s third largest gold mine. Kane’s mother sends the young boy off to boarding school to be raised and educated in a manner and environment she is unable to provide for him herself. When the adult Kane (played by Orson Welles himself) comes into full possession of his family’s fortune he turns his eye to the newspaper business, with tremendous results. He quickly becomes the country’s most powerful media mogul and even runs for governor of New York state, with many believing him likely to make a successful bid at presidency next. However Kane’s success simultaneously plants the seeds for his downfall, as he becomes enamoured with his wealth and social status and turns into an authoritative, controlling, megalomaniacal figure. The exposal of his love affair with young aspiring opera singer Susan Alexander destroys both his first marriage and his chances at being elected for office. After his marriage with Susan falls apart as well Kane eventually dies alone and hated on his vast country estate of Xanadu, whispering the word “Rosebud” with his final breath. 

 Kane making a grand speech to win electoral support.

But hey, wait just a darn tootin’ minute! I’ve been telling you the plot in the wrong order! Because you see, while the death of Kane is chronologically of course the final event of the story for the man himself, it is with this occurrence that the film actually opens. As often is the case, with Kane it is not merely the plot itself what makes it work, but the way in which it is presented to us. So if up to this point Citizen Kane’s story hasn’t seemed particularly thrilling to you then don’t leave your seats just yet – this is where things start to get progressively more interesting.

Instead of being presented to us directly, the story of Charles Foster Kane is framed through several flashbacks to his life and career. After showing us Kane’s death, the film continues with footage of a newsreel reporting the man’s passing and giving a brief overview of his life. A reporter named Jerry Thompson is then sent on a mission to uncover the meaning of Kane’s dying word, as Thompson’s editor believes Rosebud might hold the key to uncovering what the wealthy newspaper tycoon was really all about. His quest leads him past several of the men and women who knew Kane during his lifetime, each of whom tell us a different story about the man. Thus we are offered glimpses into the remarkable, complicated and ultimately tragic tale of this great and influential media tycoon.

Through giving us these various snippets of Kane’s life the movie is foregrounding the theme of identity, asking us one simple question: who exactly was Charles Foster Kane? Roger Ebert remarks that “[t]he structure of "Citizen Kane" is circular, adding more depth every time it passes over the life”. This is an astute observation and very much correct. Each time we hear a different character speak about Kane we learn a little bit more about him, as if the film is busy painting us a picture of his life right in front of our eyes, adding little flourishes and details each time a new account of it is presented to us. We slowly start being able to pick out and identify the various sides of Kane’s personality, the various stages of his life. We have Kane, the ambitious, young, defiant newspaperman. Kane, the rising star of the American media and business world. Kane, the swaggering and boastful politician. Kane, the adulterous lover. And eventually Kane, the bitter, old, secluded millionaire. By showing us all these different Kanes the movie seems to be asking us to somehow create a synthesis of these representations, suggesting that in the midst of these different images the true individual, the true Charles Foster Kane can be found.

The full answer to the question is never outright given, which is as it should be. We get glimpses, we get snippets, we get clues, but the complete picture never emerges. Of course everyone knows the meaning of “Rosebud”, Kane’s final utterance, by now – it’s become as much of a ubiquitous movie spoiler as the guy who turns out to be the other guy’s father (Frank Vader, I think his name was?) and MY GOD, THEY BLEW IT UP, THE BASTARDS. Indeed, It Was His Sled, the sled he owned as a child growing up at his parents’ boarding house. For Charles Foster Kane, this was the last time in his life he knew true love and happiness – or so the film seems to imply. “All he really wanted was love,” his best friend Leland Palmer tells us. “That’s Charlie’s story – how he lost it.” But while Rosebud is certainly an important part of the puzzle it still does not suffice to give us the entire answer. If love was all Charles Foster Kane was looking for, that still does not tell us why he ended up spending his life trying to govern people, to control them. Why he seemed to wish for their affection and acceptance yet at the same time spent his days pushing them away, attempting to isolate himself from them. “I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life”, Thompson tells us at the end of the film, and of course he is right. A man is more than simply words, more than the collective sum of his deeds, of his experience. When a person dies all that is left behind is the memory, but memory is never objective, always distorted. It can never add up to a complete human being, which Citizen Kane quite succinctly demonstrates. 

This is not a spoiler. You know this already. 

However the nonlinear fashion in which the plot unfolds itself and the way it plays into the theme of identity is not the only way in which this film stands out from the pack. Orson Welles was at his young age (he was 25 years old when he directed Kane) truly one of the film industry’s most visionary directors. He seemed to have an instinctive understanding of the unique language of cinema, being well versed in the techniques film brings to the table for the practice of story telling and moreover for the creation of visual art. Thus the cinematographical qualities of Kane are truly something to be looked out for, something to be admired.

Many of the more imposing shots in Citizen Kane could quite easily be framed and hung on the wall of your living room without any amount of shame. The photography and shot composition is often, in a word, quite simply stunning. Much has been written about the film’s use of deep focus, a camera technique by which each part of the shot is equally clear. The result of this is that “composition and movement determined where the eye looked first”, as Roger Ebert tells us. This (at the time) innovative use of focus plays into the visual aspect of the film which always intrigues me the most, namely the use of the interplay between light and shadow to create striking lighting contrasts in shot composition. This technique, known as ‘Chiaroscuro’, was already a favourite of German expressionist films (the most famous example being The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). Citizen Kane took a big step in popularising it in mainstream cinema. Film noir’s love for playing with light and shadow can by and far be traced back to Kane: in fact, the film has been said to anticipate many of the stylistic staples of the noir genre. 

In Kane, Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland use Chiaroscuro to present to us many striking, captivating images. Several examples might be given. We have the small, shadowy figure of reporter Thompson sitting down at a table in a gigantic library hall to look over the diary of Welles’ foster guardian, Walter Thatcher, while a single beam of light streams down from a tiny window up above. We have the scene where Kane, his wife and his mistress are standing in the hallway to the mistress’ apartment, out in the light. They face mobster Jim W. Gettys, his face and figure dark and shadowy as he stands in the doorway, threatening to reveal Kane’s affair to the world. And of course we have the many shots of the cavernous halls of Kane’s palace estate of Xanadu, where the multitude of pillars, chandeliers and statues cast ominous and gloomy shadows into this veritable dungeon Kane has built for himself to wile away the last dreary days of his life.  

Another great shot, a maid reflected in the shards of a snow globe dropped by a dying Kane.

Of course there’s more to the cinematography of Kane than simply being nice to look at. As I’ve said, Welles seemed to have an instinctive understanding of the unique language of film. Language implies opportunity and intent to convey meaning, and indeed many of the cinematographical techniques employed in Kane are loaded with meaning. The composition of shots, the interplay between light and shadow, the editing, the angles, they often carry a thematic significance.

Examples of this range from the simple to the complex, from the obvious to the subtle. In a quick montage of Kane’s youth we find a shot of the young boy looking up at his guardian Walter Thatcher, the camera moving upwards along with the young Kane’s gaze, showing us the old man towering over the lad, signifying his dominance. A few scenes later this shot seems to be quite subtly reversed. The adult Kane is conversing with Thatcher, who is critical of his newspaper business, and as the two stand up we see Kane has grown to be somewhat taller than his guardian, looking down on him ever so slightly: he shall no longer be ruled. Later on we find a scene of Thompson inquiring about Kane in the offices of a man named Bernstein, Kane’s financial supervisor during his life. Bernstein, aged and diminutive, is sitting at a large desk, in a chair the back of which extends upwards at least half a meter above his head. This emphasizes the small stature of this man who has always been a friendly and loyal yet demure servant to Charles Foster Kane: a tiny old man, humbled by age and experience. As the shot pans out we see a large portrait of Kane hanging over the fireplace, appearing to be looking out over the two conversationalists with a smug smile, asserting his authority and taunting them to discover his secrets. The portrait however is shrouded in darkness, the real Kane already having passed on to that shadowy realm that is the afterlife. In yet another scene we have Kane signing a declaration of principles to be printed on the front page of his paper to prove his integrity. Yet throughout the entire scene of him signing the document his face is obscured by shadow, signifying a certain disconnect, perhaps foreshadowing (no pun intended) his eventual betrayal of these principles to the temptations of wealth and power.

Significantly, one character that spends the entire movie obscured in shadow is the reporter Thompson, who we follow throughout on his quest to find the meaning of Rosebud. We spend many a scene literally looking over his shoulder as he interviews the various important figures in Kane’s life, the shot angle emphasizing his role as proxy for the audience. We never see his face, and indeed there is no need to put a face to him. His face is our face, his words are our words. As he asks the same questions we ask, we join him in his attempt to solve the riddle that is Charles Foster Kane. 

The famous double mirror shot, the many Kanes signifying the many versions of the character we see throughout the film.

While Citizen Kane might not be the best film ever made, it is quite likely one of the most important ones. I’ve already underlined some of its influential and innovative aspects, such as its use of deep focus photography and its popularising of Chiaroscuro. Its use of nonlinear narrative structure was at the time also quite new and refreshing, being ground that not many movies had yet trodden. Of course it did not outright invent most of the techniques and features it is known for. What it did do however is synthesize and perfect them, popularizing them for a wider audience. To coin a fun little analogy, in this we might call it the Jimmi Hendrix of early cinema. Roger Ebert notes that it is “more than a great movie; it is a gathering of all the lessons of the emerging era of sound”.

In recent years, the wild praise Kane often prompts in fans of classic cinema has caused a certain amount of hype aversion to grow around the movie. People’ve described it as being overrated, pretentious, outdated and quite simply rather boring. Overrated? I’ll give you that: as I’ve said I do consider it a good, even a great movie, but it’s not exactly the holy grail of cinema it’s sometimes made out to be. Pretentious? Perhaps, but if so then that is quite simply the nature of the beast, and not something I think you should fault it for. After all, Charles Foster Kane is meant to be a larger than life figure as well as a deluded man with visions of grandeur, so the bombast and occasional over-important ham acting are nothing more than fitting. Outdated? Again, perhaps, but it is of course a film set (and of course made) in the first half of the previous century. It paints a picture of the times. And the way in which it does this to me does not feel archaic at all. But boring? I’m sorry, but I just can’t see it. I’ll give that it might be a bit long. Two hours is a lot to sit through for any movie and I can see Kane losing some people’s attention after maybe an hour or so. It certainly moves along at a leisurely pace. However, I consider it to be a very dynamic, engaging film. Sure, stuff isn’t blowing up every five minutes, but the way we constantly keep jumping back and forth in time examining different periods and aspects of Kane’s life certainly manages to hold my attention. I suppose I can somewhat imagine modern audiences not being particularly thrilled by an intimate, carefully constructed character portrait such as Kane, but if they're not, I have to say I think they’re all the poorer for it.

So in short, you shouldn’t believe the hype too much, of course, but also: do not buy into the anti-hype! Sure, if you go into this movie expecting it to be the best thing since buttered yak, you’re going to leave disappointed. But if you go into Kane with an open mind, not setting your expectations high as the heavens but still ready to appreciate its artistry and many intricacies, I daresay there’s a good chance you’ll leave at least somewhat entertained. It certainly has my recommendation.

Or you could just go back to standing in line to get tickets for Big Momma: Like Father, Like Son and waiting for the next inevitably awful Ben Stiller movie. Go ahead. See if I care.

Boy, do I sound like a bloody elitist right now. I know what'll cure me of it though. Next on the agenda: silly British detective drama!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The grandiose madness of Thick As A Brick

So there I was. It was a few weeks back, and I was slouching around behind my computer on a rainy Tuesday night. By all intents and purposes I should, as ever (or so it seems these days) have been working on writing a paper for one of my courses, but, also as ever, I was procrastinating the fuck out of it. So instead, I was absent-mindedly browsing upcoming concert dates for some of my favorite bands. After a bit of looking here and there I arrived at the website of Ian Anderson’s eclectic British rock outfit, Jethro Tull. While they only had a few tour dates for the UK for 2012, they did have one of those countdown boxes at the top of the page, usually used to count down the time left until some big announcement. Wondering what it was for, I decided to bookmark the site and check back when the counter ran out, and went on with what I was doing (which was mostly thinking of more ways to delay writing said paper for a bit longer).

Imagine my surprise when I loaded up the website about a week later and it contained not only an announcement that Ian would soon start touring Tull’s classic 1972 album Thick As A Brick in full for the first time since the year that record was released, but that he’d also be releasing a sequel: Thick As A Brick 2 (not exactly the most creative of titles, but hey, what’re ya gonna do).

Of course, I have to be a bit skeptical about the whole sequel thing; Ian is a talented musician and all ‘round creative guy, but doing a sequel to an established classic is always something of a risk – hell, one’d be tempted to call it a cash-in, but the guy really seems genuinely invested in the project. It’ll be another while before Thick As A Brick 2 hits record store shelves on April 2nd though, so in the mean time, I thought it’d be a fun exercise to cast our minds back to 1972 or thereabouts and take a look at the album that started it all: Thick As A Brick.

Thick As A Brick is one of those records that comes ‘round once in a blue moon, where no matter what sort of criticism one might level against it there’s something about it that works, something that clicks, a sort of energy and cohesion that truly make it into more than the sum of its parts. That’s not to say it’s a simple album. In fact, it’s exceedingly complex. Of course it is: this is a progressive rock album, a genre that developed at the tail end of the sixties and into the seventies. After The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper showed the world it could accept rock music as a full-fledged, independent form of modern art, prog rock arrived to take rock to the next level, incorporating incredibly long and complex song structures, intricately poetic and often indecipherable lyrics and, quite often, a range of instruments so diverse it’d have even the Fab Four bow their heads in shame. Thick As A Brick is usually considered one of the early masterpieces of the genre. In true prog fashion, the album is grandiose, majestic and intricate – and, frankly, kind of ridiculous.

It was also made in a basement.  

But let’s back up for a minute or two. Before talking further about Thick As A Brick proper, it’d be interesting to say a few words about the genesis of this album: for it is an interesting one. 

The band in '72, from left to right: John Evan, Jeffrey Hammond, Ian Anderson, Martin Barre and Barriemore Barlow. I hear the baby auditioned to be on bass but didn't make it.
It was 1972, and Jethro Tull was basking in the glow of the success of their latest album, Aqualung. A departure from their humble blues-rock beginnings, with Aqualung the band took a turn towards a more heavy and intricate sound, but it paid off, as the album was enthusiastically received. But something was bugging Ian Anderson. The critics seemed to be in agreement that Aqualung was meant as a concept album: a sort of parody on John’s Gospel centered around a straggly hobo named Aqualung who appeared on the album cover. Ian vehemently denied this, stating that the album was just a collection of songs with a few incidental links between them here and there. But no one would have any of that, and interviewers and fans constantly congratulated him on what a terrific concept piece he’d written. This pissed off Mister Anderson to no end – so much so, in fact, that one day he decided to gather up his bandmates in a dank, badly-lit Bermondsy basement that he’d rented from The Rolling Stones (who were probably laughing all the way to the bank) to record an album that would be “a mind-boggler” and “the mother of all concept albums”.

So if this is a concept album, what exactly is the concept? Basically, if this album seems kind of silly and overblown then that is by design, for it’s meant as a parody on the idea of the concept album. It’s also a giant put-on. Ian claimed that the lyrics for Thick As A Brick were an epic poem written by the eight year old Gerald Bostock, who even won an award for it… which was later revoked because psychiatrists found the child’s mind to be unhinged, the poem being a product of an “extremely unwholesome attitude towards life, his God and his Country”. That quote’s not from an interview or anything, by the way. It’s from a newspaper piece in the St Cleve Chronicle & Linwell Advertiser… a periodical that was about as real as little Gerald (read: not at all), but that didn’t stop Ian and his mates from concocting a twelve-page issue of it, complete with a review of the album itself and a rather disconcerting item about a fourteen year old girl who claimed Gerald to be the father of her unborn child. The newspaper served as the record sleeve for the album (one of the more creative ones I’ve seen in my life) and apparently took more time to put together than to record the actual music they laid down on vinyl. It’s only the hors d’ouevre though – it may be funny, sure enough, but the songs, boy do they kick ass.

Wait, my bad, did I say songs? I’m sorry, I meant song, as in singular, for Thick As A Brick contains only one song (named, well, “Thick As A Brick”). 

The record sleeve for Thick As A Brick, a fold-out version of the fictional St. Cleve Chronicle.
Of course at about forty minutes long, said song is certainly no slouch. While other prog rock outfits such as Yes had been experimenting with sidelong compositions at the time, to my knowledge Tull was the first to actually come up with (or at least, act on) the crazy idea to fill an entire record with only one track. Well, alright, it’s two tracks covering each side of the vinyl; but they’re acoustically and thematically linked into a continuous whole.

Lyrically, Thick As A Brick is about as intricate as they get – well alright, it’s not as inscrutable as 1973’s sequel A Passion Play or the metaphysical ramblings of Jon Anderson of Yes (no relation) but as far as albums with any kind of concrete message go it’s still pretty far out there. On a whole, it seems to be continuing the societal criticism featured on Aqualung in songs such as “My God”, "Wind Up" and of course that album’s title track, but conveys it in much more abstract terms. The poem being framed as little Gerald Bostock’s attempt to come to terms with the trials and tribulations of growing up in twentieth-century England, Thick As A Brick seems to thematize how modern society shapes its citizens’ lives and personalities through their upbringing (with particular attention to father figures). The singer asks the song to “spin me back to the years and the days of my youth”, recalling his birth and his upbringing through which he was enticed to confirm to societal standards, with even such seemingly spontaneous outbursts such as singing in the rain revealed as being taught as part of the process of instilling conformity:

See there, a son is born
And we pronounce him fit to fight
He’s got blackheads on his shoulders
And he pees himself in the night
We’ll make a man of him, put him to a trade
Teach him to play Monopoly
And how to sing in the rain

The singer is asking the masses, who through this process of brainwashing have become “thick as a brick”, to escape from the vicious cycle in which man has been trapped by society. But to do that, it is imperative that they learn to think for themselves, for as the opening verse goes, “I may make you feel / But I can’t make you think”. The young, in particular, hold the key to bringing about a change for the better, for mending our “rotten ways”, but can only achieve this if they pull their heads out of the sand and break free from the fantasy world they have willingly trapped themselves in. What is the following verse, set to John Evans’ ferocious Hammond Organ and Barriemore Barlow’s roaring percussion (and preceded by an ringing alarm clock, a literal wake-up call), if not a call to arms to bring about a change for the better:

So come all ye young men who are building castles
Can you state the time of the year
And join your voices in a hellish chorus
Mark the precise nature of your fear
See the summer lightning casts its bolts upon you
As the hour of judgment draweth near
Will you be the fool stood in his suit of armor
Or the wiser man who rushes clear

The young are called upon to step forward and take charge, to “rise up from the pages / Of your comic books, your super crooks / And show us all the way”. But any attempt at improving the lot of man in this context seems doomed to failure, for after this bombastic call to arms “Thick As A Brick” ends on a reprisal of the song’s opening lines, the singer informing us in a melancholy tone that despite everything, men still “make all their animal deals” and are still “thick as a brick”.

This central message is not remotely as straight-forward as I am here presenting it to be though, for Ian adorns his lyricism with a wealth of poetic imagery that often feels very symbolic, though I’m not always entirely sure what it’s supposed to symbolize exactly – the song even contains several verses driven by vague medieval British imagery a la early Genesis (think “Selling England By The Pound”, which came out after this album, but shut up, that's not the point). Compared to the relatively restrained Aqualung, Ian really let his poetic capacities flow freely on this one, and the casual listener might find himself lost trying to decipher much of his more enigmatic, ponderous poetic ramblings. Still, the imagery is well-constructed, evocative and oftentimes rather beautiful, and if Ian indeed aims to make us “feel” moreso than making us “think” then I would say he accomplishes at least that.

Ian playing an abridged "Thick As A Brick" in 1978: a magnficently fun, energetic performance that has to be seen to be believed.

And hey, I don’t mind an album having some lyrical chaff as long as the music is good. People don’t listen to prog rock to hear what it has to say, they listen to it to be blown away by intricate, rocking arrangements and exquisite musicianship; and musically, Thick As A Brick is no less complex than on the lyrical level... and more importantly, the entire record is just simply damn catchy.

Tull does prog rock tradition proud, as there’s tons of instruments on display here. The main one most of you’ll notice is Ian Anderson’s flute. Ian was one of the first people to really bring the instrument into rock music, and the way he plays it truly is rather unique (check out this seven minute(!) flute solo, it’s the craziest thing I’ve seen in a while). His prowess is on display in several sections of this album, such as the flute-driven marching music of the “So come on ye childhood heroes” section. But apart from the flute and the basics like drum and guitars there’s also harpsichords, pianos, glockenspiels, saxophones, a tambourine and perhaps even more instruments I’ve as of yet been unable to pick out of the mix. The musicianship is, needless to say, immaculate, or at least it sounds pretty excellent to my tone-deaf ear: all that rehearsing in that dank little basement sure did pay off, for the band reportedly finished the actual recording sessions for the album in little over three hours time.

And despair not: the fact that this record contains only a single song doesn’t mean it gets boring, for as the great variety of instruments employed would have you expect, Thick As A Brick is a magnificently varied record. George Starostin mentions that it could have easily worked on a short-song level, as the album’s various segments are quite different from each other and mostly linked through sparring instrumental passages. I’m not sure I’d agree with this assessment entirely: while an album like Quodrophenia by The Who is indeed a collection of quite distinctly separate songs linked together via instrumental bits, the aforementioned “So come all ye young men” bit or the “Poet and the painter” segment feel, despite their differences, like they are each part of a bigger whole. Still, I see what he’s getting at in underlining the record’s diversity this way, and it is indeed easy to pick out your favorite bits to go back and listen to after taking in the album in as a whole. Rather than labeling the “Thick As A Brick” composition as a song it might more accurately be called a suite, which would simultaneously underline its unity and the diversity of its various pieces, and would also be a nice nod to the classical influences displayed by the record and by seventies prog rock in general.

The album contains a wealth of musical ideas that make it simply a joy to listen to. There are tons of different kinds of tunes here that all flow perfectly into one another, each working in unison with the lyrics to underline the intended mood of the moment, be it calm and serene, enchantingly beautiful or energetic and urgent. Some of the more memorable bits include the exquisite folksy acoustic guitar section that starts off the album, with Ian’s flute poking in and out as the lyrics lay down the song’s central thematic premise (“And your wise men don’t know how it feels / To be thick as a brick”). The charming tune quickly turns somewhat dark and ominous, however, as the singer voices the call to be swept back to his childhood - then quickly develops into a fast ‘n furious rocker backing the aforementioned “See there, a son is born” section. The verses dominated by Ian’s medieval imagery are marked by bombastic and complex yet beautiful balladry, and there’s even something that sounds like a nursery rhyme in there, albeit with somewhat twisted lyrics that contrast amusingly with the upbeat tune they’re set to  (“You curl your toes in fun / As you smile at everyone / […] / And you laugh most ruthlessly / As you tell us what not to be”).

To underline the various sections’ underlying cohesiveness as parts of a larger suite of music, a number of tunes pop up several times throughout the record, though often in slightly different ways. After the split between side on and two of the original record, which is marked by a short sound collage reminiscent of some of Frank Zappa’s more abstract moments, a foreboding, howling wind gives way to a flurry of drumbeats and a reprisal of the “See there, a son is born section”, albeit with modified lyrics and set to a much more bombastic, percussion-driven interpretation of the original melody. The upbeat, keyboard-driven “So come on ye childhood heroes” section is featured near the tail end of both sides of the record, with its second appearance eventually followed by the aforementioned reprisal of the song’s opening lines set to a somewhat slower, more melancholy reinterpretation of the charming acoustic ditty that the suite opened with, bringing us full-circle both musically and lyrically.

Flyer for the '72 Thick As A Brick tour, the only tour on which the full album was played live.
It’s funny that despite its status as an overblown parody of the idea of concept albums in general, Thick As A Brick ends up, in my mind at least, being a lot more interesting, enjoyable and downright listenable than most serious concept albums out there – indeed, apart from Animals and Tommy (and maybe Joe's Garage), I can’t really think of any that come close. Then again, the parody aspect might actually be what salvages this record from seeming too overblown and pretentious for its own good. Sure, the music sounds so bombastic as to occasionally border on the ridiculous, and the vague poetic ramblings of Ian’s lyrics with their rather preachy underlying message (which I do feel is quite sincere and heartfelt) might be a put-off to some people. However, when taking the album as a whole, from the amusing story of its conception to the whole Gerald Bostock hoax and the absurd live shows, which featured set pieces like a guy in a gorilla costume walking on stage to answer the telephone mid-performance, you get the feeling that despite the serious edge to the album and its message a lot of it is part of a big joke that we, the listeners, are in on. 

The year after Thick As A Brick, Tull would repeat the one-song concept album stint with A Passion Play, which, while it did chart high on both sides of the Atlantic, was a rather resounding critical dud. While the album (good as it is - give it a shot some time, it's not as awful as people make it out to be) was simply less musically diverse and interesting than Thick As A Brick, I feel A Passion Play's failure and lack of apparent accessibility also has to with the fact that, while similarly overblown as Tull’s previous effort, this time the idea was executed entirely straight-faced, with no offbeat tongue-in-cheekness to offset Ian’s preachy and now entirely enigmatic lyricism and no upbeat, silly melodies to give any solace on an exceedingly pompous and pretentious seeming album.

Thick As A Brick itself, however, still stands the test of time on all accounts, and Ian sure has a tough act to follow up on with Thick As A Brick 2. There’ve been some reports here and there that the new album is pretty good on its own terms (the 5.1 surround mix is done by Porcupine Tree frontman Steven Wilson, who seems to be tentatively positive about the whole thing), so while I really can’t bring myself to be excited for it exactly, you can at least color me interested. So yeah, I’ll be there buying on the 2nd of April, and if old man Ian’ll be so good as to finally post up some tour dates for the Netherlands, I’ll gladly attend to hear his aging vocal chords struggle their way through a live performance of both albums (because really, comparing his old performances to some of his more recent ones I can’t help but wonder if he wouldn’t do well to just retire from singing at live shows). 
But whether Thick As A Brick 2’ll be any good or not, we’ll always have the original album to listen to. Don’t let the one-song format or the lyrical and musical complexity scare you away from this one. It might be hard to get into at first, but beat by beat, this is simply one of the coolest albums I’ve ever heard. “Really don’t mind / If you sit this one out” might be what Ian sings in the song’s opening line, but if you were to ask me, sitting this album out would be a dang shame.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The final problem (of Sherlock's second series)

Continuing my trend of bang-up-to-date posts on the BBC’s Sherlock, I’ve finally taken the time to get my ass in gear and type up a word or two (or more) on my opinion of the second series’ finale, “The Fall of Reichenbach”.  It’s four weeks ago since the thing aired on British television, but hey, better late than never – and I’m sure you’ve all been clamoring to hear this, right? …right? Don’t give me those dejected looks! Hey, anybody want to hire me to write timely reviews of prime time television shows for their magazine or website? I don’t have a problem with deadlines, no siree! I can be punctual with this stuff, I swear!

In my defense, I’m a busy man (those academic papers don’t write themselves, or so I hear) and I needed some time to mull this one over – because like it or not, you can’t deny this is an episode that left an impact. A word of warning, there’s going to be heavy spoilers around the bend, as it’s kind of impossible to discuss this episode without ‘em – so if you haven’t seen it yet and aren’t just reading this to enjoy my immaculate ability at writing criticism (haha, as if), I strongly urge you to go and give it a watch. Go on, I have a Game Boy and my trusty Tetris cartridge, I’ll be alright.

What, back already? Shit, I haven’t even scored enough points to see the rocket ship blast off! Well, I guess there’s more important things than Russian puzzle games from the 80’s – like silly British detective drama, for instance, so away we go!

While in television land it’s only been a week since we last saw our heroes (and yes, only a month on this blog, shut up), it’s obvious more time has passed in the Sherlockverse, for Mr Holmes and Mr Watson have been doing a good amount of legwork. After recovering a famous painting of the German Reichenbach Falls (the case referred to in the episode title, but I’ll get to that in a bit), Sherlock’s fame in Britain has steadily been rising. This is making it harder and harder for the dynamic duo to operate successfully, as reporters swarm the pavement outside their Baker Street apartment, ready to catalogue their every move. And that isn’t the only thing breaking the great detective’s balls this time around: for James Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’ arch-nemesis, is on the move again. After a series and a half of predominantly lurking in the shadows, Jim Moriarty finally takes center stage to solve the problem of his rivalry with Sherlock once and for all: their ‘final problem’, as he calls it, referencing the similarly named Arthur Conan Doyle story depicting the last struggle between the criminal mastermind and the illustrious detective. 


There's a smilie face in there though, so his intentions can't be that bad. 
In “The Reichenbach Fall”, Moriarty has gotten his hands on a string of computer code that’ll let him hack into any computer system in the world – say, kind of like the Konami code, only instead of getting thirty extra guys on Contra so you can finally beat the game and move on with your life, you get to do things like steal classified information, fire off nuclear missiles and break into any security system simply at the click of a button. Using his new toy, Jim sets out to rob the Bank of England, unlock each cell at Pentonville Prison and stage a one-man heist of the British Crown Jewels all at the same time (you know how it is: buy yourself a barbecue and you need to throw a few parties to convince yourself it wasn’t a waste of cash; be a self-styled master criminal in the UK and you gotta make a grab at the Crown Jewels sooner or later). He gets caught and jailed right away, and is subsequently put on trial: but Jimmy-boy was merely showing off, and he effortlessly bribes the jury and walks out with a not-guilty verdict without presenting a single shred of evidence or witness. Turns this was meant as a prelude to his real plan to crush his rival once and for all. Jimmy’s scheme is to turn the very press that has been singing Sherlock’s praises against him. Through spreading misinformation about the great detective, Moriarty has everyone believe that Sherlock has been staging crimes and pretending to solve them, and that he simply invented the Moriarty character to give himself a supposed rival and further bolster his reputation – in short, Moriarty sets out to "expose" Sherlock to the public as a fraud.

The rivalry between Sherlock and Moriarty is, as I assume you’ve figured out by now, at the forefront of the plot, and it’s what makes this one imminently watchable to me. Much of it has to do with Andrew Scott’s superb portrayal of the dastardly Jim Moriarty, without doubt the highlight of the episode. Initially, when Scott’s Moriarty showed up during the last few minutes of the previous series’ “The Great Game”, I wasn’t sure if I was gonna like him in the role. I was all fired up that the great James Moriarty was finally going to reveal himself, and then after all the build-up suddenly there was this scrawny-looking, tiny little guy, over half a head shorter than his nemesis, standing there slinging insults at the great detective’s face and walking around like he owned the place. He seemed not a year older than twenty, and his goofy, camp gay-ish mannerisms made it hard for me to take him all that seriously. A weird choice for the modern-day rendition of Doyle’s criminal mastermind. Of course, by now, my opinion on him’s pretty much done a one-eighty, though maybe he just needed an episode to himself to really get a chance to shine and have all the little nuances of his performance sink in. Andrew Scott’s Moriarty in “The Reichenbach Fall” is, in a word, simply terrifying – and that despite his slight frame, youthful appearance and goofy mannerisms, or, I’d venture, maybe even because of it. His faux-comical modus aperandi belies a volatile, malicious and downright nasty inner nature. Scott’s portrayal of Moriarty is magnificently disconcerting. After the unusualness of the performance wears off he quickly stops being silly and starts becoming, well, frankly kind of scary. His high, goofy voice is at the same time laced with venomous anger, and his creepy stares and sudden bursts of rage all underline how much of a complete and utter psychopath he really is. He's kind of like a ticking time bomb, with no one ever sure what exactly he's going to say or do next - he's got a lot of screen presence, and unless Cumberbatch is in the frame with him it's generally hard to look anywhere else.

And man, just look at all that bling. Hail to king Jim, baby!
While I wouldn’t say Moriarty and Sherlock are as similar as the dialogue sometimes makes them out to be (Sherlock has shown himself to be capable of empathy on more than one occasion, while Jim pretty much demonstrates total disregard for human life, for one thing), one can’t deny these two guys are in some ways shockingly alike: both have genius-level intellects paired with a general disregard for social conventions, two big kids who like to consider the world their own private playground. But while Sherlock is, as Moriarty sneeringly accuses him, “on the side of the angels”, Jim feels no such moral obligations holding him back, wreaking havoc wherever he sees fit for the sheer fun of it. While I jokingly referred to Holmes and Watson as the ‘dynamic duo’ earlier, I think we can actually draw some pretty profound Batman parallels here, for Holmes and Moriarty’s rivalry smacks of some serious Batman versus Joker overtones in this one. Two exceptional individuals with self-styled careers in respectively crime-fighting and criminal activity, operating according to their own moral compass and engaged in a battle of wits from opposite ends of the law, one with an overbearingly serious attitude and the other with a rather warped sense of humor? Gee, I wonder where I’ve heard that one before (hell, Batman is usually described as being more of a costumed detective in his operating methods than anything else). But unlike ol’ Bats and uncle Joker, who’re usually portrayed as being doomed to play their cat ‘n mouse (or bat and, uh, psychotic man in clown makeup, I guess) game for all eternity, the rivalry between Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty did, surprisingly, end up getting resolved at the end of this episode… and in a way that I think I can confidently say no one really saw coming.
If you’re scanning this thing to get an idea of the episode without ruining too much of it, this is the point where you should probably stop reading, ‘cause I’m pretty much going to spoil the entire thing from here on. After Moriarty’s plan to disgrace Sherlock and make him seem a fraud pretty much succeeds, the two meet on the rooftop of a London hospital. Here, Jim reveals that he has several assassins following Sherlock’s closest friends around the city, and unless Sherlock wants them all to bite the bullet, he’s going to have to admit his defeat at Moriarty’s hands… by jumping off the roof to his death. The two banter for a bit, with Sherlock convincing Moriarty that he hasn’t lost yet, and that he can convince Moriarty to call off the hitmen. Shockingly, Jim agrees – and at this point I can only assume writer Steven Thompson had just about downed his sixth or seventh whiskey of that particular writing session, for Moriarty proceeds to pull out a gun and shoot himself in the face. This leaves Sherlock with no other alternative than to make the jump, which will signal the hitmen to abandon their posts. Sherlock calls up Watson on his cell phone and bids him farewell – a spectacular bit of acting by Benedict Cumberbatch, who really shows the asocial, so unused to emotion Sherlock struggling to tell his only real friend goodbye – and jumps. He plummets to the pavement, cracks open his skull, and lies there. Dead.


Well, no. No, of course he isn’t. Don’t be silly.

To be fair, at first I wasn’t sure either. It seemed clear-cut enough. He dropped down at least four stories, with no apparent way to escape or switch the body, and that head-wound seemed nasty and real enough. Sure was a lotta blood. There’s this bit at the end where John is walking away from the grave and the camera swivels to show Sherlock standing at the foot of the tombstone, but I figured that was just symbolic or something. Of course, I was just being silly and got swept up in the moment. I figured this might be the show’s ending (y’know, British brevity being what it is and all), but when I read later that evening that Sherlock got renewed for a third series all doubt about the situation evaporated from my mind within a day or two. He tricked his way out of it somehow, of course he did. There’re some pretty brilliant fan theories about the incident floating around the net, for sure. John, who is at the scene of Sherlock’s jump, rushes across the street towards the body but gets hit by a cyclist and arrives dazed to find his friend dead – perhaps Sherlock somehow switched the body or pulled some other kind of trick in the meantime, and Watson didn’t notice due to the blow? A garbage truck is seen to go by at the same time, perhaps that has something to do with it? Maybe corpse-wizard Molly Hooper, a girl with a crush on Sherlock who works at the city morgue, had something to do with it? Earlier in the episode Sherlock’s shown to be absent-mindedly bouncing a rubber ball back and forth against a wall: apparently if you jam one of those things under your arm tightly enough it’ll stop the blood flowing towards your arm, making you seemingly without a pulse, dead.

 'tis But a scratch! ...what, that joke is worn out? Screw you, writing original material is hard!

At this point I could digress into an analysis of the ins and outs of the situation and try to come up with my own theory - but frankly, I’m not particularly interested in that for the purposes of this blog. I like to play the guessing game as much as the next twenty-something white guy who spends a lot of time on the internet, but I’m content waiting for the Grand Moff and company to unveil how shit actually went down when the show goes back on for its third season somewhere next year (as much of a fucking wait as that’s gonna be – c’mon, Moffat ol’ boy, you’re killing us!). What I’m here for is to give you my personal opinion and a critical analysis on the episode: I’m interested in the quality of the script, in the way the entire thing is built up on a narratological level, in whether I was properly able to suspend my disbelief and all that jazz. Basically, my ‘final problem’ is figuring out whether this episode worked for me or not and why.

So, did it work?

Well, yes and no – or rather, a fairly resounding yes, though with a few notable caveats.

While watching the episode for the first time and when considering it in its direct aftermath, I was quite positive about it. It certainly is a thrilling little piece of television if nothing else. It keeps a brisk pace through the entire ninety-odd minutes of run-time, and I’m actually kind of impressed with how much they managed to jam in there without making the thing seem bloated. If nothing else, this was an episode that certainly wasn’t at a loss for ideas. The whole “expose Sherlock as a fraud” part of the plot, while perhaps a bit trite (it reminded me in part of films like Face/Off and The Fugitive, with the whole unjustly accused man running from the law thing) was in my opinion very well executed. It raises issues of media misguidance and corruption and public perception, and underscores some of the validity of Sherlock’s paranoia about publicity and about interaction with other people in general: “alone is what I have, alone protects me”, he snidely says to John at a certain point, and in some points, indeed, it’s not hard to see why he’d prefer to fake his own death so he can go back to operating under the radar. Moriarty’s plan is of course all the more genius because it allows people to believe something they want to believe, namely that the brilliant, pompous Sherlock Holmes really isn’t possessing of such super-human intelligence after all. Moriarty is using Sherlock’s tendency to lord his superior intellect over his fellow human beings as part of his plan to bring down the great detective, and in this it’s actually a pretty clever and fitting plot idea for a Holmes story.

There are several great moments scattered throughout that I’m not going to forget any time soon. Both the rooftop showdown between Jim and Sherlock and an earlier scene in which Moriarty visits the great detective at his Baker Street apartment to gloat about his not-guilty verdict are fantastic. Cumberbatch and Scott have a great deal of acting chemistry together, with the tension as the two engage in their various verbal duels often being thick enough to cut with a broadsword. I once read a review of Quentin Tarrantino’s Inglorious Bastards that said that while making a thrilling action sequence that really manages to grip an audience and keep them glued to the screen is impressive in its own right, crafting a scene that evokes a similar level of excitement, tension and engagement by just having a few people sitting around talking to each other is infinitely more admirable. I’d like to think that at several points, this episode of Sherlock does exactly that. There’s also a hilariously bombastic montage near the start of the episode, with scenes of Moriarty’s break-in attempt at the tower of London interspersed with scenes of police rushing to the scene, all overlaid with the overture from Gioachino Rossini's Lagazza ladra which comes to its crescendo as Jim takes a few ballet steps and theatrically breaks the glass of the cabinet containing the Crown Jewels. Another montage, of the events leading up to Moriarty’s trial, is set to Nina Simone’s rendition of American jazz standard Sinnerman, which’d be a great theme song for everyone’s favorite master criminal. So yeah, plenty of fun to be had in this episode, for sure.

The deerstalker hat makes its triumphant return to the papers.

Thing is, however, that after seeing the thing on its air date I couldn’t help but wonder how well it’d really hold up under scrutiny, and how much sense some of it actually made – and after rewatching it and thinking it through a bit more, I did start noticing a few problems here and there.

One of the major ones has to do with Moriarty’s computer code that hacks into any computer system in the world. It’s initially presented as being the manner by which he managed to break into three highly secured institutions at the same time, and also the reason that Sherlock’s brother Mycroft held ol’ Jim prisoner for what was apparently several months on end before the start of the episode, as he wished to obtain the code to ensure it couldn’t be used to do any wrong. However, during the rooftop confrontation, Jim reveals to Sherlock that it was all a sham, and that the code doesn’t actually exist – moreover, that it couldn’t even exist in the first place. “You don’t think a couple of lines of computer code are gonna crash the world around, do you?”, he snaps, ridiculing Sherlock’s tendency to wish for everything to be clever. A cute little illustration of one of the great detective’s intellectual blind spots, but honestly, I have all sorts of problems with this. If the code was so obviously nonexistent, why did not just Sherlock, but everyone else buy into the idea? Surely Mycroft, with the combined intelligence of the entire British government backing him, wouldn’t spend many fruitless months interrogating Moriarty to obtain a code that, apparently, obviously doesn’t exist? And where did the idea that he had it come from anyway? After walking out of the trial of the century scot-free, Moriarty visits Sherlock and makes him guess how he managed to break into the Tower, Pentonville Prison and the Bank of England all at once, and Sherlock comes to the magical computer code conclusion all by himself. How did Sherlock arrive at the idea? How did Moriarty know he was going to draw that conclusion? I’m sorry, but as one of the main elements that drives the plot, this just seems a little wonky to me.

Also, while I’ve been praising the final rooftop confrontation between Moriarty and Sherlock, parts of it and of the conclusion did feel kind of artificial. Apart from the fact that I have to wonder why Inspector Lestrade gets to make Sherlock’s BFF shortlist as one of the three friends Moriarty’s hitmen are pointing a sniper riffle at (last episode he didn’t even know the man’s first name),  I really have to ask what the fuck was up with Moriarty blowing his own head off after Sherlock somehow convinced him that he hadn’t been beaten yet. What the shit exactly did he convince him of? Sherlock seems to be implying that he can get Moriarty to stop the assassins, but what’s he gonna do, torture him? Jim survived months of being big brother Mycroft’s personal whipping-boy, so I kind of fail to see what Sherlock could do to him that’d suddenly break him within those four or five minutes before the triggers’re pulled. He was obviously not afraid to die, with him blowing his own brains out ‘n all: if he had to go, why not force Sherlock to drop him off the rooftop himself, making the man into a murderer as well as a fraud while he’s at it? I get that it’s supposed to show us that Moriarty was going to stop at nothing in his quest to get the better of Mr Holmes, but it just feels like a very illogical decision to make. Moreover, it seems a waste of a great character. I don’t know what was going on behind the scenes: maybe Andrew Scott wanted out and they had to figure out a way to write him out of the show, but it just felt very forced to me. Also, while Sherlock’s “death” leaves lots of wiggle room for the writers to ninja him out of the ordeal, Moriarty’s death is presented to us in no such ambiguous terms: unless the man is somehow possessing of a bullet-proof brain, I doubt we’ll be seeing the consulting criminal make any more cameo appearances any time soon, and I find that a real shame.  

Speaking of Sherlock’s death, while a lot of the fan theories floating around the internet about how he managed to cheat his way out of it are quite brilliant, I really am keeping my fingers crossed that the official version of events’ll make as much sense as some of those do. It’s not that I don’t have any faith in the Grand Moff and company (Moffat hasn’t particularly let me down yet, though I’ll give that the way he wrapped up the last series of Who did feel a bit sloppy to me), but this is really a high-wire act they’re engaging in if you ask me. If it ends up being resolved satisfactorily it’ll be a pretty grand achievement, but if the solution to the problem is lacking then that’ll be a severe downer. And to give one more small nitpick concerning the final scene: did we really need a full-on shot of Sherlock standing beside his own grave, eliminating any doubt that he had faked his own death? In my opinion it would’ve been more fun if they hadn’t included that bit, maybe only shown a hand resting on the tombstone or a pair of shoes walking up from behind the tree, and, I don’t know, kept the fact that the show was picked up for a third series under wraps for a while. Woulda made it more ambigious and all that, y'know.

It was in the opening credits all along though, so maybe he just watched the DVD beforehand.
Lastly, while I argued earlier that despite its wealth of ideas the episode did not end up feeling bloated, certain bits of the plot did end up feeling a bit overly fast-paced. Some of this stuff I’d have actually liked to see more of, such as Sherlock’s run from the law and his attempts to figure out how the hell’s he’s going to beat Moriarty. Somewhere around the one-hour mark of the episode Holmes and Watson run into Moriarty in the house of a reporter, where Jim claims to be an actor hired by Sherlock to play the villain’s role, and he shows them his website and television programs he’s appeared in and everything. The scene almost borders on the surreal and existential, where not only does John starts to somewhat question Sherlock’s authenticity, but even Sherlock himself seems to go through a split second of wondering if he’s going out of his mind. It reminded me of the episode “The Schizoid Man” of The Prisoner (a show which everyone should watch right now – in fact, stop reading this and go watch The Prisoner, then come back) and might’ve been milked for a bit more, but alas, no time, gotta keep moving! The bit where it’s revealed that Mycroft actually had Moriarty in prison for rather a while also made me wonder how the shit they managed to capture the guy in the first place, and why exactly they let what Mycroft calls “the most dangerous criminal mind the world has ever known” back on the street. But again, no time to explore that. This isn’t severe criticism per se: in fact, saying I’d have liked to see more of certain things can be taken as praise in a certain way, but that was how I experienced it, 's all.

You know, to come back to the Batman comparison I made earlier, this episode kind of felt like The Dark Knight in more ways than one. Apart from the parallels that can be drawn between the Jim contra Sherlock and the Bats contra Joker rivalry, watching the episode itself is kind of like watching that movie. It’s one hell of a ride that sweeps you up and generally moves along at breakneck pace, leaving you thrilled and excited most of the way through – but if you start to consider it more intimately afterwards a few problems do start to show themselves. That’s not to say it’s bad, however. I love The Dark Knight and, conversely, I thought this was a fun episode. While parts of it don’t entirely make sense in hindsight and we’ll have to wait and see how much the gamble really paid off, it sure was a gutsy series finale.

Really, my main concern here is if they’ll be able to top the impact of this episode. Part of me thinks that after going as balls out as this there’s no way to go but down, especially if the next series ends up restoring the status quo that “The Fall of Reichenbach” so decidedly shattered. The more I consider it, the more I think that I would really be able to love this episode like no other if only it’d been the last episode of Sherlock, as I thought it might be before reading there was going to be a series three. It would be such a magnificently bittersweet ending. Now that would’ve been taken some guts. But the show must go on, so we’ll just have to wait and see where the BBC’s Sherlock is going to take us next year.