Sunday, April 21, 2013

Tribute to David: Mark Clamen

David Churchill (1959-2013)

Given the sad passing of our friend and colleague David Churchill, we've decided to honour him in a manner totally fitting to our memory of him. Since he was such a strong advocate of Critics at Large from the beginning, he was quick to initiate ideas. One thing he was quite fond of were omnibus projects like the Remembering 9/11 collection (which led to our first e-book) and the Titanic 100th Anniversary commemoration. Therefore, we felt strongly that we could best salute our late columnist by creating an Omnibus of David. From April 16 until April 24, we plan to publish – daily – the best of David Churchill as chosen by our writers.

Today's piece is from Mark Clamen.

The Editors at Critics at Large.

When I first met David, he was sitting at a table with Kevin Courrier – I would quickly discover that this was exactly as it should be. This was three years ago. It was only a few days after Shlomo Schwartzberg had generously invited me on board to write for Critics at Large, and we all met at a Chinese restaurant on Yonge Street, in Toronto. It was actually at that same restaurant that the three of them had come up with the germ of the idea for the blog several months earlier: a project born from the love of, and perhaps even the need for, writing. Three years is not a very long time, but it is difficult for me today to imagine a time before that Tuesday night. David, Kevin and I would continue to meet regularly, ostensibly to manage the daily operations of publication and to brainstorm upcoming posts and projects but (as I would come to both expect and look forward to) most of our time was spent simply talking. David and Kevin had been friends for decades, and while they never tired of speaking with one another – eagerly beginning and finishing each other's stories – from the first meeting, I never felt like an outsider. The topics of conversation would vary (personal, political, currents events) but at the core was always the arts: movies, music, books and, the one topic I felt I could contribute to, television. David Churchill – a lifelong writer – had only recently returned to arts writing, but this was the only David I have even known: the one whose eyes shone with engagement when you spoke with him. I don't think I've ever felt quite as listened to as when David was on the other side of the table. These regular dinners (which continued until late December of 2012) remain the heart of what Critics at Large has become for me: a warm, inviting, sometimes hilarious and always engaging, inspirational space of friendship, ideas, and a shared love for the popular arts.

David possessed a fearlessness – in living, and in writing – that I’ve always wished to have. That quality of David has long amazed and inspired me, as a writer and critic, but it would be wrong to imply that David was a passive agent of inspiration. Always encouraging and positive, he would often pull me (it seemed quite literally) to produce what he seemed so much surer than I was I could do. Just one example: regularly, over a period of months, he would remind me – gently, jokingly, and always firmly – that I should write a piece for the 9/11 e-book he was editing from the blog’s writers. I had hedged and procrastinated for so long that it still amazes me that he could always find the energy to bring the topic up as often as he did. When I finally did do it (and it wasn’t even remotely the hurdle I had been imagining it was), David’s email response was immediate, unequivocally enthusiastic, and (due to some all-caps profanity) unprintable here. Later that evening, at our regular meeting, I was greeted by David’s wry, bright-eyed smile. Whether he said it out loud that night or not, the words I hear in my mind are all his (words I know I will hear for years to come every time I miraculously meet a deadline): “I always knew you could do it, brother.”

I’ve chosen David’s review of Sherlock’s second season as a tribute, not only because it displays David’s unique voice – that fantastic admixture of enthusiasm and critical attention – but because it reminds of precisely what David brought into my life, and what is now lost to me with his disastrously premature passing. One of the very first pieces I ever wrote for Critics at Large was a review of the show’s first episode. When David finally saw the show, he loved the series as much as I did but he came to it (as we all do) from a different place. Together, I like to see these two pieces as a conversation, a kind of tribute to the energizing space that David could create, just by sitting across the table.

Next year when Sherlock returns for its much-anticipated third season, it will be bittersweet for me. But I’ve already reserved a glass of wine with David’s name on it ready to raise up when the credits roll.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

Elementary: BBC's Sherlock – Season Two

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson

One of the great joys of writing for this website is discovering hidden treasures that you can share with the reader. Sometimes you can also warn folks, too, about the dreck that litters the popular culture landscape. But for me the biggest pleasure I get is when one of my colleagues unearths something, writes about it and turns me on to it. That is exactly what Mark Clamen did nearly two years ago when he reviewed the first season of the new BBC TV version of Sherlock Holmes, called simply Sherlock. Up until Mark reviewed it I didn't know it existed. And until that moment I'd also never heard of Benedict Cumberbatch (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; National Theatre’s Frankenstein) who was cast as Sherlock Holmes.

Because of his review (he'd seen it in advance of its Canadian premiere), I was able to keep my eye out for it when the first season was finally broadcast on the Canadian cable channel, Showcase (it played on PBS in several markets, but not on my Buffalo-based PBS station for some reason). I won't rehash Mark's review, but suffice it to say that adapters – Mark Gatiss (who also plays Mycroft Holmes on the show) and Steven Moffat (creator of another fascinating but finally unsuccessful updating with his version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, called Jekyll) – have brilliantly updated to our current era these stories based on Arthur Conan Doyle's. Some of the updating is inspired with twisty variations to the original stories. Some of the updating is incredibly simple, but very effective. For example, Dr. John Watson (a really good Martin Freeman) is a veteran of a war in Afghanistan, just as the Dr. Watson was in Doyle's original stories. Some things never change.

"I'm not a psychopath, I'm a high-functioning sociopath."

But it is Holmes, as played by Cumberbatch, who makes this so compelling. At one point last season, in the episode “A Study in Pink” (based on Doyle's novel A Study in Scarlet), Holmes said, “I'm not a psychopath, I'm a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research.” And that is exactly how Cumberbatch plays him. Very generally, a psychopath is someone who is callous, very manipulative and calculating, but also incredibly charming. They think nothing of hurting anybody. They are aware they are doing something wrong, but don't care. A sociopath is more likely to act out spontaneously in inappropriate ways without thinking of the consequences. They will also manipulate, but they tend to be much more careful around a select few people they like. They also tend to lack charm. Holmes has always been played as somewhat aloof and antisocial, but never as clearly sociopathic as he is here.

In Season Two (on BBC Canada, not Showcase), this interpretation of Sherlock Holmes becomes stronger and stronger. Each season is only three two-hour episodes (at least in Canada when you include commercials; in the UK, the shows were only 90 minutes because the BBC in the UK does not run commercials). Of the two second-season episodes that have run in Canada (the third airs tonight at 8PM EST on BBC Canada), the first, “A Scandal in Belgravia” (based on Doyle’s story “A Scandal in Bohemia”) is the best. Although never named, it is suggested that Queen Elizabeth II hired Sherlock Holmes, or rather “commanded” he come to the palace. (Remember my mention above of a sociopath acting out spontaneously? Well, when he's forced to come to Buckingham Palace, he refuses to dress and arrives wrapped in his bed sheets.) Just prior to being brought to the Palace, we see him bored out of his skull because he desperately needs a case to occupy his hummingbird-fast mind. Watching him dismiss potential client after client, in a fine rapidly edited sequence, because he finds their cases frivolous is hilarious. But those rejected cases come back, in a fascinating way, into the one he finally does take on, albeit briefly. Once he finds his interest piqued in the case – there are supposedly compromising photographs of a British princess (the naughty hints, never made explicit, is that it's perhaps, maybe, supposed-to-be Kate Middleton) – he quickly determines that his prime suspect is Irene Adler (wonderfully played by Lara Pulver), a dominatrix who took the pictures. That is just the starting point though for an episode filled with political intriguing and machinations. (Incidentally, Irene Adler is the same character Rachel McAdams played in the two Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes films).

Lara Pulver as Irene Adler
There's one other thing about Irene Adler (which is true of the original story and in the Downey Holmes): Holmes is instantly smitten with her. And you can see why, even if Holmes is pretty incompetent in the ways of men and women. She is appealingly strong, forthright in her sexuality, her mind is as quick as his, and she too is a sociopath. (She has more charm than Holmes, but, like him, there are few people she likes with Holmes being one of the few). There are so many moments in this very dense, much layered episode that I could go on and on about, but just a couple more. The plan that the government has come up with that Adler (and Holmes' arch nemesis, James Moriarty) uncover is creepy, but plausibly effective. The show-runners even get little things right. For example, Adler steals Holmes' cell and replaces his ringtone with a woman sighing in orgasm (like so much else, something funny pays off in a very touching way at the episode's end). I don't want to spoil anybody's fun, so I'll stop there. It's just so wonderfully good. By the way, if you PVR it when BBC Canada starts repeats make sure you let your recording go five minutes past the top of the last hour. I didn't and missed the last minute. A friend had to tell me the completely satisfying final seconds.

The second episode, “The Hounds of the Baskerville,” is a little bit more of a ... erm ... shaggy dog story that finally rights itself in the last half hour. There are terrific ideas at play here, but it lacks focus. In the original novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, the Baskervilles are a moneyed family on the moor who are supposedly cursed and doomed to, one by one, be slaughtered by a devil dog on the same moor. In this modern retelling, Baskerville is a military base doing chemical weapons research. A lot of their research requires experimentation on animals, including dogs. A rich man (Russell Tovey, George the werewolf in the British Being Human), who lives near the base, hires Holmes and Watson to help him track and destroy a giant hound that he believes, many years before, killed his father while he watched. It is suggested that the dog escaped from Baskerville, but all is not what it seems. The episode lacks the flair and complexity of the first episode, but it does have a wonderful moment when Holmes' “perfect” psyche starts to come unravelled. And watch for the sequence where Holmes goes to his “mind palace.” Again, there are many humorous touches, such as Watson misinterpreting an odd Morse code message, but the sombreness generally takes precedence.

Andrew Scott as Moriarty
Tonight's finale, based on Doyle's “The Final Problem,” is called “The Reichenbach Fall.” Moriarty figures prominently (unnervingly played by Andrew Scott; now he’s a psychopath). Anybody who knows their Sherlock Holmes knows what this will be about (but considering the writers, they will likely provide some sort of “tricksy” curveball).

It is said that, after Dracula, Sherlock Holmes is the character that has been featured in the most movie and TV shows. Yet, this one is so inspired, so unique in its interpretation of the stories, so wonderfully acted that it feels like we are being introduced to the character for the very first time. I was most happy to hear that, after Freeman finishes shooting The Hobbit films (he plays Bilbo Baggins), they have agreed to do a third season. One word of warning: You might want to turn your subtitles on while you watch, especially during the scenes where Holmes dissects the clues visible on a person in front of him. He talks so fast – and with such elaborate language – that the only way to appreciate or understand what he is saying is by using the subtitles.

– originally published on February 16, 2012.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information. And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

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