Thursday, May 16, 2013

In-Class Movie: The Strange Case of the End of Civilization As We Know It (1977)

“What had it to do with the crime?”
“That, also, is still obscure.”
--Watson and Holmes, “The Crooked Man”

Austin: One of my all-time favorite movies is Murder By Death, this goofy Neil Simon comedy where parodies of all the famous comedians are invited to a house to solve a murder organized by Truman Capote. It's a ridiculous spoof that ultimately doesn't make an ounce of sense where everyone gives a different ending and I think they are right. Or they're not. Who cares, Alec Guiness plays a blind butler.

I bring this up because The Strange Case of the End of theCivilization As We Know It has the same philosophy. There's no mystery, there's no logic and there's pretty much no reasoning. By the end, it's a crazy meta-explosion of the entire mystery genre. In modern day, the descendants of Moriarity is going to destroy the world in a few days until all of the continents agree just to give it up. So it's up to the descendants of Sherlock Holmes (John Cleese) to save the day.

So in order for any of this hour of silliness to work, the jokes have to be strong. Cleese remains a comedic genius so if you put him in a room, laughs are guaranteed especially if he is berating the impossibly dumb Dr. Watson. Scenes without him are a bit trickier because although there are some funny bits of wordplay, the tone is all off. Comedy directing is very hard to pull off and whoever was in charge of this made everything a bit too dark and dire when they're pulling off the political satire.


But like I said, this is all about the jokes. So here's the simple question: did you laugh at this?

Leigh: Writing comedy is a certain kind of talent that takes a lot of time to hone. I have certain jokes that I've been trying to finesse and tighten for a few years now and sometimes they still fall flat (in my defense my coworkers don't share my sense of humor even though Mick Jagger chicken walk/dancing is hilarious). You also have to know the subject of the joke. I was once working with someone who was trying to write a script about a bunch of geeks doing geeky things like playing DnD or video games and this man had never done either. He had only seen Star Wars a handful of times. So when he tried to shoehorn in jokes that didn't make sense or were completely off-topic (like a 3 page Billy Joel joke) they all failed. You have to be knowledgeable of the topic of the jokes for them to be funny. 

This is how I imagined "The Gloria Scott" was written.
So did I laugh? Sometimes. I laughed at the bits that who ever wrote them knew what they were talking about. I found many of the Sherlock Holmes jokes to be amusing. The impossibly dumb Watson was a great poke at what Watson is often times portrayed as. And that he kept repeating that he's a doctor is a fact that is usually beaten into the ground in most Sherlock Holmes adaptations. But that's where the funny ends for me. I thought the political jokes (satire?) were obvious and borderline racist. And I didn't understand the jokes about the President being a bumbling idiot either. This was released in 1977 and Ford was president at the time that they wrote this but I have never heard of him being a bumbling dolt. True, Nixon was before him and Nixon jokes are always ripe for the picking but this portrayal was just absurd but not funny.

So we don't have a mystery, we don't even have many jokes...What's the purpose of this movie?

Austin: I think you may be misreading what John Cleese and his writing partners were trying to accomplish with their depiction of the American President. This was not a parody of Ford, but of all of America. All of the nations had a leader depicted by the sterotypes England sees in them. America's leader was an arrogant obnoxious cowboy-esque figure. (Further American distain comes at the end with the reveal of Moriarity.) In that presentation, I was amused by the caricature but wished it had stronger punchlines. That goes for all of the diplomatic figures. I never enjoy stereotype humor because it usually is just racism without an actual joke. 

"Secret agent?! ON WHOSE SIDE?!?" (You may now start singing 'Proud to be an American')

As for what the purpose of this movie was I think they were going for a vulgar political satire about the state of the world. Perhaps a sillier version of Dr. Strangelove. Yet those were the elements that I thought fell the most flat. They didn't have a proper thesis with its stabbing satire, just tried to mock too much at once and with a tonally off director behind the camera.

Comedically the absurd moments worked the most, like how people kept being assassinated in decision room. I didn't laugh but I did have an amused smile during the sequence of thinking that doing nothing could save the world. I wish they embraced the hostility between Sherlock and Watson earlier in the movie because that was when John Cleese truly shined. Also he has wonderful banter with Connie Booth. By the end, those are the things that are on full display and that's when the movie is the funniest. I think it's mockery of the typical Watson performance is really funny, especially considering by the end he essentially destroys the world for being so dumb.

Now whenever we watch a movie like this, we have to discuss the man in the center of it. What did you think of John Cleese as Sherlock Holmes? I think Cleese is a comedic genius and he often makes me laugh the most when he is playing a variation of a straight man. In this he is confused on why he hasn't solved everything yet but can't seem to forsee the idiocy of everyone around him, which leads to great Cleese freak-outs. Honestly I would watch more takes on him as Sherlock Holmes, but just in a comedy setting.

Leigh: I guess I was just confused by the American President at all. I know Americans are seen usually as aggressive and dumb but literally falling over and unable to stand up on our own? That's a bit much, past the point of poking fun at and just becoming silly without being funny.

And I have to agree about Dr. Strangelove. The first thought I had about this movie was that it seemed like it was trying to copy that feel but was trying to be funnier and just failed on every front. (I should add here that I haven't seen all of Dr. Strangelove, just parts of it but have seen many presentations about it because of classes.)

"What did see mean she hasn't seen all of Dr. Strangelove? This is an OUTRAGE."

There is a soft spot in my heart for John Cleese and the rest of the Monty Python troupe. I fell in love with Monty Python and the Holy Grail at a very young age. My dad loves telling people the story of me, walking around the living room at about three years old, attempting to chant and then hitting myself in the head with a book. A family gathering just isn't complete until there is one re-enactment of a Monty Python scene. So even the bits that John Cleese did that didn't quite make sense didn't quite fit, I enjoyed. I would love to see him attempting to be Holmes again. I think he did a great job of being smart without arrogant which happens all too often (I'm looking at you, Tom Baker) and did a great job of playing the straight man to the idiotic Watson. If it weren't for Cleese, this movie would've failed completely instead of just mostly failing. Maybe next time they should pay attention to the mystery a bit more and then they'll have a really great movie on their hands. Okay, a more mediocre movie on their hands. 

Next time, we talk to a doctor who has a curious patient who could just be faking it.

And now Austin with the final words!

Austin: This movie’s not dead; it’s just sleeping.

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