Sherlock

Posted by Liam Dodds on January 07, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , ,

Sherlock. BBC, 2010.

Reviewed by Liam Dodds, University of Stirling.

Disclaimer: this is not a review. I have not actually read any of Arthur Conan Doyle’s delightful tales of the gentleman with a penchant for mystery and a deerstalker, nor have I seen any of the many, many, many screen adaptations, besides Guy Ritchie’s popcorn-fodder, “all-action blockbuster”, adaptation starring the delightful Robert Downey Jnr., and the ever-so-less-delightful Jude Law. I don’t really know my Baker Street from my Abbey Road, nor the Hound of the Baskervilles from “Hounds of Love”. Therefore, I may not fully appreciate the lore of “Sherlock Holmes”. I may not appreciate the scrupulous reworking of the original texts for the contemporary setting, I may not notice that Dr Watson’s journals have become an online blog, or that Holmes’ underground network of homeless children has become an internet enabled phone, and an underground network of graffiti artists. Nor can I appreciate the precise, painstaking detail of 221B Baker Street, I failed to notice the jackknife on the mantelpiece transfixing unopened correspondence, I failed to identify the unframed picture leaning against a stack of books that represents Watson’s unframed picture of Henry Ward Beecher. In short, I might not “get it”. Yet, I do not think it really matters. This is a contemporary Sherlock Holmes, set in a contemporary London, this is different, this is Sherlock: “[t]he world’s favourite detective has emerged from the fog, this is Sherlock for a new generation”.

The fog, or lack thereof, is where my interest lies. Like I said, this is not a review, it is merely thoughts about fog.

Neil Cross’ BBC drama, Luther, I feel, shares more than a passing resemblance with Sherlock. Luther is set in postmodern London, against the backdrop of the hyper-visible London Eye, permeated with reflections, windows, and mirrors, which serve to highlight that the viewer is “viewing” an image. Detective Chief Inspector John Luther represents the postmodern detective of an hyper-visible “city of glass”. In a recent post on Luther, discussing the notion of the postmodern detective, I have written that:

Luther is not rational, Luther does not logically deduce the motives of the criminal, nor does Luther meticulously reconstruct the crime scene, rather Luther is impulsive, his judgements are made with a seeming predestination that demonstrates that knowledge is always available to him, always present at hand. However, if motives are readily visible, always available, if notions of interiority are rendered impossible, then the killer does not need a reason: motives are rendered irrelevant. There is nowhere to hide, so why hide? The hyper-visionary postmodern detective does not pursue psychopathic serial killers, the postmodern detective creates them.

The gaze of the postmodern detective reflects the hyper-visibility of the postmodern urban environment, in a “city of glass”, where everything can be seen, stared at, interiority is denied. The hyper-visibility of Sherlock’s contemporary London is demonstrated in the anatomy of the scenes which depict Sherlock in the quintessential London black cab which replaces the Victorian hansom. The scene, reminiscent of the Luther frame, depicts Sherlock in the extremes of the image, whereby the centre of the frame is absent, the lurid lights of vibrant city glimmer and fade like transient thoughts. The lucid reflections of London life, reflections of store fronts, Mulberry, H&M, shoppers, mannequins, overlay and dominate the image of the characters. The scene, therefore, depicts for the viewer the experience of hyper-visibility. The image, at once, depicts Sherlock, Watson, the interior of the cab, and the exterior of the cab, the city of London.  The absent centre is representative of Sherlock’s internal thought processes, whilst the image permits the viewer a voyeuristic gaze as observer of the city, an image which reflects Sherlock’s visionary gaze.

The gaze of Luther, however, is penetrative, destructive, and creative. The loss of interiority of the subject renders the subject incapable of hiding their emotions, their motives, their deepest desires. Therefore, the subject becomes creative, acting out their desires due to an inability to repress them, the detective creates the criminal. The creative gaze is demonstrated in Caleb Carr’s the Alienist. Prior to the twentieth century, persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be “alienated” not only from the rest of society but from their own true natures. Those experts who studied mental pathologies were known as alienists. Alienist Laszlo Kreizler determines the sanity of the inmates of the asylum through observation, “through the organ of sight”. Sanity, and insanity, is constructed through the gaze of the alienist. The threat of the alienist, therefore, does not lie in the confine of the asylum:

Decent people have no use for your work, sir, for your abominable opinions of the American family, or for your obscene probing into the minds of American children. If I were you, I should limit my work to the lunatic asylums, where it belongs.

The gaze of classification is constructed through experience, observation, and the reciprocal gaze of the inmates who make their “most emphatic pleas with their eyes, aware that it was only through the organ of sight that Kreizler would acknowledge them”. The gaze of the alienist meets the gaze of the alienated, their reciprocal gaze defining both the alienist and the alienated: “Kreizler’s reaction to the inmates’ behaviour was no less disconcerting, for one was left only to imagine what experiences in his life and career could have implanted in him the ability to walk through such a place without submitting to fear, repulsion or despair”. The threat of the gaze of classification, the gaze of the alienist which constructs sanity or insanity, lies not in the confines of the asylum, but to the American family, the American children, and the American way as the gaze of classification threatens to spill from the “safe” confines of the asylum. The alienist as flâneur threatens the American way of life as the alienist’s constructive gaze infects the crowded streets of New York.

Sherlock is a contemporary flâneur, a “passionate spectator”, “gifted with the capacity of seeing”. The crowd is his element, his passion and his profession are to “become one with the flesh of the crowd, in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite”. The contemporary urban environment, the vibrant city of London enables Sherlock’s profession: the experience garnered from observation of the city enables Sherlock’s “science of deduction”. Nevertheless, the distinction between Luther and Sherlock is the depiction of the chase. For the viewer of Luther the criminal precedes the detective: the criminal is overly visible to the viewer, thus, there is no mystery, merely pursuit. For the viewer of Sherlock, the victim precedes the detective: the criminal is withdrawn, absent. However, the mystery is also absent. The viewer is granted the hyper-visionary gaze of the detective: clues are portrayed on screen, internet search results are exhibited, Sherlock’s thoughts overlay the image. Thus, the “science of deduction” appears as mere observation of an overly available matter of fact, rather than a logical inference from clues only the detective can see. Returning to the scene in the contemporary hansom, the viewer is overly-aware of the connotations of the iconic black cab: “the knowledge”. The absent centre of the scenes depicted in the cab are occupied by the viewer’s awareness of “the knowledge”; this infects Sherlock’s observations, which, as the clues, thoughts, and cognitive process of Sherlock’s observations are portrayed, leads to viewer disenchantment from the concept of mystery. Luther, I have argued, creates the criminal through a penetrative, creative gaze. Unlike the gaze of Luther, or the alienist, Laszlo Kreizler, Sherlock’s gaze, although penetrative, is not creative: Sherlock does not create the criminal, merely pursues the criminal through experience and observation. Yet the conclusion, for the viewer, always appears predetermined. The inevitable capture of the criminal is engendered by the portrayal of the contemporary urban environment, the lack of fog in the vibrant, hyper-visible London city.

Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ BBC drama, Sherlock, stars Benedict Cumberbatch (Atonement, Starter for Ten) and Martin Freeman (A Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), and, I am reliably informed, is based on a series of novels by Arthur Conan Doyle.

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