This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Friday, December 30, 2011

Criticism: A Game of Shadows

            We went to see Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows on Christmas Eve and had a great time. Even Linda, who came along reluctantly, said she had a blast, and is now looking forward to renting the first Holmes film on Netflix.
            When I first heard that a Sherlock Holmes movie was coming out two years ago, with Robert Downey, Jr., as Holmes, my immediate, spontaneous reaction was, “What inspired casting!” Downey delivered the goods, but more surprising to me was the performance of Jude Law as Watson. He did a great job of capturing the essence of the character as Conan Doyle wrote him, and the interplay between Law and Downey was lots of fun to watch.
            That first film was hardly perfect (nor was Game of Shadows, for that matter) and it certainly took some liberties in turning Holmes into more of an action character. But some of that was to be expected, and compared to turning Holmes into a Nazi-hunter, as Hollywood did in the 1940s, with Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson, it was hardly an indecent liberty.
Both the recent films were good clean fun that left me feeling as if I’d gotten my money’s worth, and the ending of Game of Shadows, setting up the inevitable sequel in clever and witty fashion, was particularly satisfying. The public seems to agree, having made both movies fairly solid hits.
Neither film, however, seems to have received much respect from the critics, who have pretty much been outright dismissive of both of them. I’m not one of those people who belittles the critics out of hand; they often play a valuable role in drawing attention to films by lesser-known directors who don’t have the backing of the full-throttle Hollywood publicity and advertising machine. But the reaction to the Holmes franchise (and that’s what it’s becoming) strikes me as an example of what I would refer to as the O’Brien paradigm.
It takes its name from my dear friend and mentor, the late Bud O’Brien. In the second half of his life, Bud became a great opera fan, eventually holding season tickets for the San Francisco Opera and going to New York every few years to catch a couple of shows at the Met.
Being a newspaperman and avid reader, Bud always read the reviews and came to find himself puzzled by the fact that the critics rarely lavished more than lukewarm praise on a production, however excellent, in the standard repertoire, say Barber of Seville, Rigoletto, Marriage of Figaro. But when a contemporary opera came out, the same critics invariably hauled out the superlatives.
One day the penny dropped. Bud was reading a column by a long-time opera critic, in which the critic happened to mention that he had seen La Traviata more than 60 times. Suddenly it all made sense.
“The season ticket holders at the San Francisco Opera look at the schedule,” Bud told me, “and their reaction is, ‘How wonderful! We get to see La Traviata this year. It’s been a long time.’ This critic, on the other hand, is looking at the schedule and saying, ‘Oh, God! Not #&%$!!@&# La Traviata again!’ His reaction is in another world than that of the audience he’s writing for.”
Movie critics, I suspect, have developed the same lack of regard for conventional fare, even when it’s done very well, and a greater regard for something, anything, that’s new and edgy. When the third Sherlock Holmes film comes out in a couple of years, they probably won’t like it, and I probably won’t let their opinions keep me from the theater.