Saturday, November 8, 2008

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson at Doyle symposium

This isn't experimental, but I presented this last night so thought I'd put it up on line.

Gerald Saul, presentation of films of Sherlock Holmes at the “Re-Examining Arthur Conan Doyle: An International Symposium” at the University of Regina, Friday November 7, 2008.
Introduction and acknowledgments.
Over the past few months, I have turned my gaze to the film and television adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. While this is certainly not a comprehensive study of all of the filmed versions and I have omitted the use of Sherlock Holmes as a minor character, I have looked at a fair cross section of portrayals from the past 80 years. I should admit that I am not tremendously interested in the Holmes character within the written stories and I read none of them in my youth. However, I was naturally very aware of who Sherlock Holmes was, the iconic nature of his wardrobe and deductive investigative style was solidly ingrained with everyone I knew through the myriad of filmic representations. He was as big a part of our cultural mythology as Dracula and Frankenstein (whom someone told me may also have been books in the bygone days). It was not until I met (my now wife) Margaret in 1991 that I turned any serious attention to mystery stories and films, as she is a veracious consumer of Doyle, Christie, Hammet, Stout, Chandler and their ilk.
Thus, carrying with me only the cultural stereotype of the Holmes character, but having neither scholastic nor nostalgic ties to the material, I became a consumer of the mystery films. What I discovered was that depictions of Sherlock Holmes do not vary far from what I always understood of him. However, it is the role of Dr. Watson and the relationship of Watson and Holmes which is most interesting. Now I am certain that some of you are already studying this relationship. The books reveal little about the two of them, yet the cinema obsesses over them.
Of course, we must first ask ourselves why is Watson in the story? In the books, he is an intelligent, educated man, trusted by Holmes, who acts as a middleman between the genius of Holmes and the average intelligence of the common reader. He is able to praise Holmes and TELL US how brilliant a detective Holmes is. However, a central tenant of the cinema is to SHOW, not TELL. Here is where the primary shift in the adaptation occurs.
Since Watson is at Holmes’s side, his actions, reactions, and interactions have been used to SHOW the audience the nature and genius of Holmes. The earliest clip I have is from the 1931 feature The Speckled Band in which Raymond Massey’s Holmes runs his contemporary agency like a machine. Watson’s role is to contrast Holmes’ cold, proto-computer nature with his own approachable, humanistic side. Women come to Watson for assurances, intimidated by the heartless Holmes. The pattern of using Watson as a sounding board for Holmes to spin out his deductions and for them to discuss the case is established here. These exchanges are infamously dry, amounting to nothing more than exposition contrary to the “show, don’t tell” strategy cinema attempts to maintain. The Speckled Band’s German influenced filmmakers finds an intriguing visual approach to this scene, using superimposed images of the characters discussed, but dramatically the role of the scene remains the same.
In 1932, the Sign of Four begins the rapid, downhill slide for the Watson character. Notice his blank stare in contrast to Holme’s intelligence and focus. Watson, in
addition to being a device for exposition, demonstrates Holmes’ intelligence through his own lack of such. The pattern is quickly established that Holmes proves his deductive prowess to Watson’s amazement. It seems that the filmmakers have decided that the dumber Watson appears, the smarter Holmes appears in contrast. Reaching the pinnacle of incompetence in the popular and well renowned series of films with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, Watson is a blithering idiot, his mouth hanging open and he’s never able to comprehend his colleagues conclusions. While these films were highly significant in establishing the Holmes mythology as a genius, it also places Watson as the proverbial fool. It was here where I always doubted the relationship of Holmes and Watson. While supposedly a competent doctor and world traveler, Watson is reduced to comic relief. How could Holmes tolerate living with and partnering with such an ass? Could his ego be so big that he’d want such an incompetent near him all the time to win bets from?
In the half hour British television series produced from 1954-1955, Watson becomes less oafish but continues to be intellectually limited. In these short episodes, the dialogue and occasional voice-over narration are important short-hand devices for story exposition. Otherwise, Holmes and Watson seem to behave like co-workers rather than roommates, let alone best friends.
From Hammer Films, a company best known for its lurid horror films, the 1959 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles presents a bold and dynamic Holmes played by Peter Cushing and a Watson whose dialogue seemed trimmed to the bare minimum and a performance, by Andre Morell, where he acts only as an observer, standing in for Holmes when he is absent, standing by his side when Holmes is present. Emphasizing Holmes adventurous side, Watson remains highly neutral. He is there as an accessory to complete Sherlock Holmes, but his role remains unobtrusive. I would suggest that the non-presence of Watson was an attempt to have audiences take Holmes serious again, cutting off the comic relief but not knowing what else to do with the character.
After nearly two decades in which Sherlock Holmes appeared rarely as anything but a parody, came the 1978 Canadian production of Murder by Decree. Audiences, although tainted against the character, remained aware of the Holmes genius and this deductive method; his character could not be reinvented. However, Dr. Watson, whose personality in the original stories was less clearly defined, was ripe for renewal. In this new story, Holmes and Watson are on the trail of Jack the Ripper. Finally Watson is able to think for himself and is revealed to have a better instinct for human nature than the detective; Watson takes action in situations where Holmes had less aptitude such as rallying a theatre audience to support the royal family. Holmes and Watson seem, for the first time, to be a well suited team in which Holmes has the intellect and Watson the heart. The conflict between the two reveals their differences, their failings, and their mutual dependence. The clip you will see from this film shows the recurring motif with Watson where he is more connected with food and human comforts than Holmes. I found this arose in many of the adaptations.
1991 brought us another Holmes and Watson, Christopher Lee and Patrick MacNee in BBC’s Sherlock Holmes the Golden Years. By casting two veteran actors of more-or-less equal stature, the story became a sort of buddy picture with the team of Holmes and Watson behaving like an old married couple, knowing each other much too well, squabbling and chasing after their lost youth (and a large stolen diamond). This
became more of a celebrity vehicle and lacked production values or a decent script. In the end, it did little to advance the myth or the genre.
To me, the most astonishing Holmes screen adaptations came from the BBC television series staring Jeremy Brett and David Burke. This series ran from the mid-80s to the mid-90, adapting most of the Doyle stories to the screen. While generally remaining accurate to the original text, a combination of good directing and performance brought a complex layer of subtext to these versions. These versions are not only the closet adaptation to the original Doyle but also contain the most “real” relationship between Holmes and Watson.
For example, in A Scandal in Bohemia, the adaptation retains the scene where Holmes shows the mysterious letter to Watson, asking him to interpret it. Watson makes good progress, reading what he can from the words, the handwriting style, and the type of paper. Holmes continues where Watson leaves off, finding even more discrete clues within the letter. This scene turns its back on the usual Holmes showmanship and demonstrates Watson’s intelligence rather than lack thereof. Holmes proves himself the genius without demeaning anyone, treating Watson as a trusted and intelligent protégé.
I would suggest that whenever Watson is used as a dramatic device for exposition, character defining, or comic relief, the stories invariably succumb to the artificiality that haunts the edges of cinema. With a relationship we can believe in place, the stories, regardless of how artificial they may seem, are imminently more believable.
This evening we will watch The Naval Treaty from this series in its entirety. While I have always believed that filmmakers should have license to modify and revise stories that they are adapting to screen, I cannot help but applaud the closeness of these dramatizations. I am impressed with them on many levels, from writing to acting to direction to art direction. You are brought into the world of Sherlock Holmes. These films do credit both to the producers of the films as well as to Doyle, clearly showing off the fine crafting of his stories. I would like to point your attention to the relationship between Holmes and Watson throughout the film. Rarely are they master and servant, nor is one of them definitively superior to the other. Their interplay is complex as we see their respect for each other, with occasional teasing, with trust mixed with uneasiness, with understanding going hand in hand with confusion. This is a portrait of two real human beings who are real friends.
Dr. Watson I Presume? Films of Sherlock Holmes
Presented by Professor Gerald Saul of Department of Media Production and Studies, University of Regina, November 7, 2008
Excerpt from The Speckled Band, 1931,
Holmes: Raymond Massey Watson: Athole Stewart
Writer: W. P. Lipscomb Director: Jack Raymond
Excerpt from The Sign of Four, 1932
Holmes: Arthur Wontner Watson: Ian Hunter
Writer: W. P. Lipscomb Director: Graham Cuts
Excerpt from A Study in Scarlet, 1933
Holmes: Reginald Owen, Watson: Warburton Gamble
Writer: Robert Florey Director: Edwin L. Marin
Excerpt from Dressed to Kill, 1946
Holmes: Basil Rathbone Watson: Nigel Bruce
Writer: Leonard Lee, adapted by Frank Grubber Director: Roy William Neill
Excerpt from Sherlock Holmes Tv series, Case of the Cunningham Heritage, 1954
Holmes: Ronald Howard Watson: H. Marion Crawford
Writer/Director: Sheldon Reynolds
Excerpt from The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1959
Holmes: Peter Cushing Watson: Andre Morell
Writer: Peter Bryan Director: Terrance Fisher
Excerpt from Murder by Decree, 1978
Holmes: Christopher Plummer Watson: James Mason
Writer: John Hopkins Director: Bob Clark
Excerpt from Sherlock Holmes the Golden Years: Incident at Victoria Falls, 1991
Holmes: Christopher Lee Watson: Patrick MacNee
Writer: Bob Shayne Director: Bill Corcoran
Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Tv series: The Naval Treaty, 1984
Holmes: Jeremy Brett Watson: David Burke
Writer: Jeremy Paul Director: Alan Grint

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Ian Toews retrospective at Saskatchewan Filmpool

Retrospective screening of films by Ian Toews at the Saskatchewan Filmpool, Regina, Saskatchewan, April 24, 2008.

I was asked to write something for the program for this screening.

Art and Outrage: the films of Ian Toews

Over the past decade, Ian Toews has created an impressive body of work which explores landscape, art, and American politics, using a sophisticated set of experimental film approaches. In viewing Toews’s films, a spectator is continuously aware of the act of watching and of the constructed nature of these films. Toews resists all urges to lull his audience into the artifice of a cinematic world. There is no entryway through which one might immerse themselves into the world presented. Instead, contrasting audio and visual elements and the distancing effect of his graphic studies of architecture, roads, monuments, and nature, keep the temptation for lazy viewing at bay. His films are further unified by powerful photographic/cinematic/graphic vision, by graceful pacing, and by passionate stands on US politics and policies. The value of Art and Art making, (with a capital “A”) underlies all of his films; initially as subtext but more recently as the text itself.

In his earliest film in the program, Window, Toews silently traces architecture and moments in the American Midwest. As each sketch is completed, movement begins, demonstrating that the past cannot be frozen or preserved and attempts to do so only result in rough shadows. Progress is relentless. A car which seems to surpass the camera, suggests that technology moves beyond our ability to anticipate its progress.

Four Corners (a student film created under the tutorage of Gordon Pepper), seems initially to be a study of landscape, barren and dry but beautiful. We look at the compositional style, the rhythm of the editing, and the flashes of rapid Brakhage-influenced shots which quickly return to the controlled examination of the desert region. However, this interpretation of Four Corners as a landscape film falls into question as the soundtrack, consisting of intermittent popping noises, escalates until we realize that it is the sound of a Geiger counter. A final title card confirms this reading and in fact makes us re-interpret the entire film as a critique of American internal politics.

This pattern of presenting visions of peace and order to an audience then surprising them with an eye/ ear/mind opening counterpoint through text and/or soundtrack elements continues with the exploration of the collision in Toews’s next film, Drive: automatic/standard. Lines are blurred between obsessive monster truck owners and the swarms of faceless drivers which fill the hive-like metropolitan motorways. The contrast between the reversal of soundtracks, the monster trucks with normal traffic and the normal traffic with monster trucks, is ironic but perhaps doesn’t pack as strong a punch as was intended. Toews’s travels to Japan and Europe beginning in 2001 resulted in a renewed bravery. His eye on architecture became even further sharpened and his films became bolder and less didactic. Japan Kesei Line Single Take is a relentless but beautiful image which subtly speaks volumes about culture shock. The subsequent Empire Studies series (from which only one is presented tonight) feature strong collisions between image and sound, between the promise and potential of a great America (utopic architectural projects) and simultaneously the grim and unconscionable truth of its arrogant and egotistical nature (voices on the radio smothering the nation). Toews’s film Opening of Japan also begins with the threat of American imperialistic bullying, but morphs into a mesmerizing study of Japanese landscape, architecture, art, and people. We are left to make up our own minds about the fate of this unique nation which simultaneously resists and embraces American influence. Of these political works of Toews, only this last one offers a potentially optimistic outcome.

Toews new work consists primarily of a series of television programs unlike any I’ve encountered before. Using a mixture of super-8 film, 16mm film, and video, Toews creates portraits of artists working within remote landscapes. While certain conventions need to be adhered to, Toews appears to have found a niche where he can maintain a strong creative voice with a commercial milieu. The program demands true interactive collaboration with each artist, for Toews to expand his horizons almost continuously to find the right artists and the optimal situation to place each of them within. Politics are put aside, art and nature are the sole concern. Nature is never untouched, it remains as with all of his previously films, inseparable from the human contact and alterations. Beauty is not in the landscape, be it a mountain, a tree, or a skyscraper, but rather within the way we look at it and interact with it.

“Through watching and observation comes consciousness. Through consciousness comes enlightenment and peace.” – Peter Von Tiesenhausen

In looking at these films, we are forced to remain active viewers, re-evaluating our perceptions of our presence in our environment and the world. Toews demands that we face the hope inherent in art and the despair inherent in politics. Passion and outrage bleed from the sprocket holes.
- Gerald Saul, April, 2008.

Program below: notes supplied by filmmaker.

Window (co-directed with Robert Pytlyk)

1997-8 , 3 minutes, 16mm, B&W, silent

A silent black and white study of the landscape of the American midwest

Four Corners

1998-9, 6 minutes, 16mm colour.

"Without using words or sensational imagery, this film makes a powerful statement in communicating the horror of environmental pollution."

- Jury, 30th Tampere International Short Film Festival

Drive: automatic / standard (collaboration with Andrea Spakowski)

2000, 10:30, 16mm colour.

A film about cars, monster trucks, and the North American driving landscape.

Japan: Kesei Line Single Take

2001, 5 minutes, DV Video

This film is part of an ongoing series simply called Japan. Kesei Line Single Take is a visual poem; its imagery, of passing Japanese landscape, is at times like that of Abstract Expressionist painting. This entire film is comprised of one take – there are no cuts, no camera moves, and no exposure, focus, or shutter adjustments.

“…a spectacular display of a "living" abstract canvas.” -- Stephen Lan, Take One Magazine

Empire Studies in Contrast. #2: Boulder

2004, 3 minutes, super 8/16mm colour.

Empire is an ongoing series of films studying the paradoxes in American culture. These films were shot in the US during the early stages of the latest US war on Iraq.

Opening of Japan

2006, 18 minutes, 16mm colour

This image driven film examines the history of Japan since American trade contact began in 1843.

THE FOREST with PETER VON TIESENHAUSEN (from Landscape As Muse, season 2), 2006, 24 minutes, D-Beta

Amid Alberta’s vast oil and gas fields and insatiable logging industry, Peter von Tiesenhausen’s isolated farm remains relatively untouched – except by his own hand. Using materials that the land provides – trees, wood, pulp, rock, fire, ash – von Tiesenhausen, his home, and his art demonstrate an inextricable link to nature:

I use the landscape and nature because its right here. I understand it better than I understand anything else. It becomes my philosophy. It becomes my artwork. It is co-creating with me.

ATACAMA DESERT (CHILE) with EDWARD BURTYNSKY (from Landscape As Muse, season 3), 2007, 24 minutes, D-Beta

There are few photographers today whose images summarize the ost imperative issues of our time while leaving gallery audiences aghast. In every image that Edward Burtynsky photographs there is something that speaks to what we are all thinking but are powerless to voice. His photographs of Sudbury’s nickel mines, Bangladesh’s shipbreaking yards, and China’s Three Gorges Dam are fast becoming icons that testify to the scale and scope of our legacy on this planet.

In this episode, Edward Burtynsky travels to South America and Chile’s Atacama Desert — one of the driest places on earth. Here he photographs mine sites: both derelict and active. The Chuquicamata copper mine in the heart of the Atacama is the largest open-pit mine on the planet. At over 800 meters deep, the overwhelming scale of this place is the focus of Burtynsky’s lens:

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Stan Brakhage, Mothlight

On November 21, 1997 I programmed a screening of silent, hand made films by Stan Brakhage to show at the Saskatchewan Filmpool in Regina. I just came across the program notes I wrote for the show and surprised myself with the central idea regarding "Mothlight" (one of my ten favorite films of all time). Here is what I said:

Mothlight (1963, 4 minutes)
This is one of Brakhage’s older, and best known films. It is also one of my favourites. It is composed of hundreds of moth wings, collected from the inside of lamps and windows. Brakhage painstakingly collected them up, pressing them together between two layers of tape. The strip of tape then became the film as he had it run through a film printer. The process gnarled the original beyond further use. Luckily none was needed. The resulting film is a magnificent view of moths dancing. In his catalogues, Brakhage calls it “What a moth might see from birth to death if black were white and white were black”. However, I suggest it might be described as what a light bulb might see, hanging on the porch all night, the object of this nocturnal insect’s desire – a tragic love story.