Posts Tagged ‘Steven Johnson’
The best of music writing has the keen powers of observation and deductive reasoning of Robert Downey Jr’s sweetly wild slapstick Sherlock Holmes.
William Gibson’s review of a Steely Dan concert:
“A Steely Dan concert is akin to witnessing the passage of a single multiplex vehicle the size of a motorcade or convoy, its various segments comprising limousines, ice-cream wagons, hearses, lunch-carts, ambulances, black marias, and motorcycle outriders, all of it Rolls-grade and lacquered like a tropical beetle. The horns glint, as it rolls majestically past, splendid, a thing of legend, and utterly peculiar unto itself.”
Alex Ross’s book on twentieth century classical music, The Rest Is Noise:
“At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Schoenberg’s music no longer sounds so alien. It has radiated outward in unpredictable ways, finding alternative destinies in bebop jazz (the glassy chords of Thelonious Monk have a Schoenbergian tinge) and on movie soundtracks (horror movies need atonality as they need shadows on the walls of alleys). With the modernist revolution splintered into many factions, with composers gravitating back to tonality or moving on to something else, Schoenberg’s music no longer carries the threat that all music will sound like this. Still, it retains its Faustian aura. These intervals will always shake the air; they will never become second nature. That is at once their power and their fate.”
The Way Holmes Thinks
One minute and forty six seconds into Guy Ritchie’s version of Sherlock Holmes we see Holmes thinking out loud, diagramming how he’ll take down a bad guy: ‘Head cocked to the left: partial deafness in ear. First point of attack.” And then he lunges, following through on his thought. Time has the tempo of jazz for him, shifting forward or in reverse for a few syncopated seconds then swinging sharply back to the present.
Holmes’s Home Laboratory
This is from the Kindle edition of The Complete Sherlock Holmes: “Holmes loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul, remained in our lodgings in Baker Street, buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature.”
Ten minutes and nineteen seconds into the movie, in his magnificently disordered study, clad in a motheaten smoking jacket, Holmes engages in tart banter with his landlady. With a Grouchoesque lift of his eyebrows he asks if she’s poisoned the tea. “There’s enough of that in you already,” she replies. She walks to the door past a bulldog stretched out on the floor. “Killed the dog,” a moment’s comic pause, “again?” she asks. It’s the setup for a running gag. Gladstone the bulldog will repeatedly be Holmes’s straight man, out for the count as the result of some wild experiment or other.
The snappy bickering between Holmes and Watson and Holmes and Irene Adler is like music to my ears:
Irene: “Why are you always so suspicious of me?”
Holmes: “Would you like me to answer chronologically or alphabetically?”
Actual London is set-dressed and populated with period-clad extras and carriages against a computer-generated London in a frenzy of industrial revolution construction, rendered with the hyperspecific granularity of Holmes’s own observations, an accretion of minute things:
Watson’s fiancee Mary. “You’re making these grand assumptions out of little details.”
Holmes. “That’s not right is it? The little details are by far the most important.”
A Real And Imagined London
Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes story is literally mapped onto London, the murderer geo-tagged his crimes, but it feels like just one path through this world. There’s a sense that there are other stories and other characters lurking in the shadows and around corners. It has the completeness of a child’s imaginary world. In the making of feature on the DVD Guy Ritchie says Sherlock Holmes stories were a reward for good behaviour when he was at boarding school.
This London – half-real / half-myth – brings to mind the game that Jim Rossignol wrote about in a guest post on BLDGBLOG a couple of weeks ago.
The Zone Of Alienation. This 30km area of Ukraine and Belarus remains poisoned and largely off-limits to mankind, thanks to the radioactive caesium that dusted it after the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986. While it has remained quarantined and closed to (legal) habitation, it hasn’t kept out sight-seers. The production team at GSC Gameworld, a games studio based in nearby Kiev, intended to use the derelict zone as the basis for environments in their action shooter, STALKER: Shadow Of Chernobyl. The team went into the zone and photographed urban dereliction: a snapshot of an abandoned Soviet Union. They would go on to fill their game world with the zone’s rusting fences and collapsing grain silos, but that was not all that came with the material: the landscape and its decaying architecture was already charged with mythology—with narrative. Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky shot a movie, called Stalker, which told a story based on that of Roadside Picnic. A glacially slow, almost event-free film about landscape and longing, it’s a work that lingers for long minutes over broken wastelands of abandoned industry. It encapsulates Tarkovsky’s style, as well as his interest in dereliction and decay—themes that would be revisited by the STALKER videogame, thirty years on.
A Bridge Between Worlds: Games And Movies And Art
The sky is not falling. In many ways, the weather has never been better. It just takes a new kind of barometer to tell the difference. Steven Johnson: Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Popular Culture is Making us Smarter. (2006)
The tracking shots in Sherlock Holmes feel like the way I’d move through a game world. I’m not looking at Victorian London, I’m immersed in it. The whole thing feels modern and sexy and effortlessly smart. I watched it again to concentrate on the characters, and then again to look closely at the engineering of the buildings and bridges. I want to re-read books set in the period – William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine and Steven Johnson’s Ghost Map - while I have Sherlock Holmes running on my computer screen, and have open the Museum of London’s iPhone app with views of Victorian London pinned to a street map.
The way that Sherlock Holmes is a traditional artform that resonates with an emerging artform reminds me of Animal Crackers, the second movie by the Marx Brothers. It was made in 1930. The first talking movie, The Jazz Singer, had been made in 1927. It was the last of their movies to be based on a show that they’d performed on stage. It was the last of their movies to be shot on sound stages in New York. It was structured like a vaudeville show: a slender story built from topical references from the newspapers, a bit of irony – the “strange interludes” Groucho spoke directly to the audience mimicking Eugene O’Neill’s play, the Pultizer Prize winner of that year – creaky light operatic songs and clunky choreography. But the Marx Brothers are in an entirely different universe, their performances are electrically fresh, their surreal idiocy and illogical wordplay and antic physicality are exactly right for this dynamic new medium.
Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of Sherlock Holmes is my proof that we’re already in a new world. People should be saying in response to a shocking or novel or intensely wonderful event “it was like a game.” We can stop wringing our hands over whether games are art. And wondering if e-books can deliver a satisfyingly undistracted literary experience. And hoping for a renaissance of long-form traditional journalism held tight within magazine-applications developed for tablet devices. And wondering if we are witnessing the slow march to extinction of publications on paper. And worrying, as film-critic Roger Ebert is, about whether Twitter is eroding our capacity to concentrate. These questions are irrelevant: the way we read and the way we watch movies has already changed, we just haven’t stopped to acknowledge it. We’re already on the other side of those divides.
“Homo sapiens are about pattern recognition” William Gibson writes, “Both a gift and a trap.” Steven Johnson observed four years ago that our television shows and movies are already complex and we respond to them by appealing to the “deep seated appetites in the human brain that seek out reward and intellectual challenge.” He’s already countered Roger Ebert’s fears. In his introduction to Everything Bad Is Good For You he doesn’t shy away from the poor writing and objectionable tone of some games and television shows. It’s a valid argument, he says, he doesn’t disagree with it. But he also sees a rising tide of smartness, a different kind of concentration. “Just as important – if not more important – is the kind of thinking you have to do to make sense of a cultural experience,” he writes. “Today’s popular culture may not be showing us the righteous path. But it is making us smarter.” Jim Rossignol’s book This Gaming Life picks up there and eloquently takes this argument to the next level.
Guy Ritchie’s presentation of Holmes’s mind recalling finely-observed details which spark together and explain how Lord Blackwood disguised his murders as supernatural acts reminds me of the diagram of an idea forming in The Invention of Air, Steven Johnson’s study of the amateur chemist Joseph Priestley.
Holmes: “There was never any magic, only conjuring tricks. The simplest involved paying people off, like the prison guard who pretended to be possessed outside your cell. Your reputation and the inmates’ fear did the rest. Others required more elaborate preparations like the sandstone slab that covered your tomb. You had it broken before you were buried and had it put back together using a mild adhesive. An ancient Egyptian recipe I believe, a mixture of egg and honey, designed to be washed away by the rain …”
Watson. “How did you see that?”
Holmes. “Because I was looking for it.”