Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Getting used to decline

It was finally done right. Perfectly. My mother loved Basil Rathbone.
She just didn't live long enough to see it done finally perfectly right.

BRITS NOTWITHSTANDING. Okay. We're headed downward. No argument there. Something that's held up for the decades since World War 2, though, is the analogy between the Brits as Greeks and the American as  Romans. We had the Hollywood money, and they had Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton.

Time we started learning how to be our own Greeks. Hell,  even slave states can still have an impact. After the second Obama term, there won't be anything left of our our former economic might. We'll have to start excelling at the minor corners of life, which is to say, competing with the Brits at self-promotion of a completely fictional past via TV and the movies.

We may think we have a lead in this regard because American action movies still do well in international markets. But all that will be done when the 800,000,000 man Chinese army and its 8,000 ships rule the world. Unless we redefine our entertainment industry, we'll be looking at a billion reconfigurations of Bruce Lee martial arts crapolas.

Why it's instructive to look at recent treatments of Sherlock Holmes on both sides of the Atlantic. You know. The embodiment of objective western reason we credit with the advance of civilization in the known world.

Yeah. The Brits and the Americans have a feevah! Called Sherlock Holmes. What's it all about, and what do the permutations mean?

There are three principal entries: one Brit-American (hands across the sea if you will), one pure Brit, and one pure American. What they all have in common is an insistence on ripping Sherlock Holmes from his Victorian home into a contemporary context.

Odd, eh? Especially given that the Brits finally achieved the definitive rendering of Holmes only a decade or so ago. The grail was found and the cup was full.

What comes after completion? A kind of jeering. What is perfect in the past must be mocked, transformed, ridiculed. Decline is the order of the day. Hence the Anglo-American production of Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey, Jr. And its sequel. Holmes as a giddy, even hysterical, martial arts sociopath, abandoning reason for full-on action movie violence. Nothing is too much. The setting is still Victorian, but the psychology is pure present day, including Holmes in full drag as he karates his way to mystery's end. Awful.

Greeks pandering to Romans. I suppose you could call it whoring.

At the other end of the spectrum is the American TV series called "Elementary." Now we have a Holmes in latter-day Manhattan, a tattooed heroin addict saddled with a full-time nurse named Dr. Watson, who is in reality a failed surgeon played by Lucy Liu. What's the point? That a Sherlock Holmes would be regarded as dysfunctional in our enlightened society, that we might put up with him to a point, provided he doesn't fail his next drug test? I think so. A Holmes without real romance, brilliance, or charisma. He's just a round peg in a square hole, and Lucy Liu is the round hole we, and he, are going to be teased with. For years if the network gets its way.

American smugness and vulgarity.

Which brings us to the Brit version, called "Sherlock." Sometimes, not always, Greeks know how to be Greeks. Meaning, this series is a lesson for Americans on how to revitalize their own mythologies.

"Sherlock" is almost as good as the original scripture. Everything is true except for the characterization of Mycroft. Every episode is worth seeing, but none more so than "A Scandal in Belgravia," which is as clever and moving as anything in the canon.

Lesson? The Romans were ham-handed when they were in charge. The Greeks had to be subtle. Now that we're on the way out as a power, it's time we learned some of the arts of remaining influential and attractive when our power has evaporated.

A trick of charm the Brits have learned, no matter how much they hate themselves. It's called survival. Reconfiguring the past to make ourselves look better than the impotent weaklings we've become. Tricks of wit and architecture and landscape. Pretend we're on top of the technology that's burying us. Pretend in a crisp, strong voice. CGI a smarter not a splashier future. Use tits sparingly but ruthlessly. The one thing we have on the rest of the world. No matter who they are, they like our tits best. We have to figure new ways to be the new Greeks, powerless but still necessary.

Maybe it's time for a new generation of westerns. Or screwball comedies. Or anything that doesn't smack of self-imposed death. Or worse, contented mediocrity.

One more thing. In their contemporary interpretations, both Brits and Americans have done Sherlock a huge disservice. One I believe significant. All the contemporary Sherlocks treat women like swine. Sherlock Holmes may not have regarded female intelligence highly for the most part, but he was unfailingly polite and even courtly. He was a boor to men who undoubtedly deserved it; to individual women he was unfailingly a gentleman. Our need to disfigure him in this regard in the name of our own political correctness is more a reflection on us than him.

Think about that.

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