Monday, October 3, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: Watson's Gambling Habit, the Banking Crisis of 1890 & London Bridge

"Look at those towering structures. It's the first combination of bascule and suspension bridge ever attempted. Most innovative. What an industrious Empire. Hm? Oh, I have your winnings from last night." So goes a key dialogue between Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) in Guy Ritchie's 2009 Sherlock Holmes. The film is exceedingly rich in complex symbols which I will explore closer to the December 16 release of Sherlock Holmes Game of Shadows.
As they are in the carriage going to Lord Blackwood's execution (Mark Strong), Holmes and Watson fight over a waistcoat too small for Watson which he accuses Holmes of "stealing"; Watson wins the tug-o-war and throws the waistcoat out the window where an anonymous man picks it up from the street. The clothing symbolizes "putting on the new man," our clothes say a lot about us, who we are and what we value.
For Watson, that new man would be his marriage, and for Holmes it would be as a detective without his only friend in the world at his side. The carriage symbolizes their wills in life and the "force of direction" their destinies are taking them; the carriage window is their ability to "reflect" upon themselves and their circumstances and what it is they want out of life which is in conflict with what the other is wanting. The window symbolizes their meditations on the situation of their friendship, which throwing the waistcoat out the window is a "temporary fix" to the conflict between them, and, whereas the situation is too strenuous for these great men, the commoner finds it much easier to pick up and make it part of his own life, his own self. 
"Watson, what have you done?" Holmes asks Watson as a ship is released into the water and sinks, very similar to London Bridge, the ship is "incomplete" and foreshadows the finale on the still-being-constructed Bridge.The ship symbolizes England and the "ship of state" meaning that Watson's good intentions (trying to save Holmes) causes unforeseen destruction. Watson isn't Holmes. It's not that Watson is a bad character/person, but in the pecking order of super-heroes, he's a doctor, not a detective, which explains the opening when Watson nearly set off the explosion via the tripwire that Holmes "knew to look for" and which Watson does set off at the dock and the fire breaks out, resulting in Watson symbolically "getting burned" because he hadn't learned from Holmes as he should have.
The underlying reason Watson is upset with Holmes is because Watson is marrying Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly) and Holmes refuses to be happy about it; but Holmes is already married (and no, it's not to Rachel McAdams' Irene Adler), he's married to the woman whose initials he shoots into the wall of his apartment as he attempts to "develop a device to suppress the sound of a gunshot": "V.R." Victoria Regina," Queen Victoria. Holmes has sacrificed his life for the Empire, just as Watson sacrificed his in the service (where apparently he received his wound to the leg, translating, that his time in the service impaired his will, i.e., he is easily dominated by others, first by Holmes and now by Mary, and that's the nature of Holmes' dislike of her, he wants to maintain his "hold" over Watson). But Holmes' marriage to the Empire invigorates him so that he can fight the evil which must be defeated to preserve God and country, Queen and people.
Holmes enters "the fighting pit" after his failed dinner with Watson because he knows he needs to be punished for his behavior, yet he also knows that he was right about everything. Putting himself in the fighting pit is like the BBC's Cracker (Robbi Coltrane) going gambling (he's so good at what he does, only God alone can punish his ego with losing at the gambling table). Holmes fights against someone else so he doesn't turn his wrath against himself, but he's careful to fight a battle he still has a chance of winning.
We know that it's Friday, November 13, 1890 from the title page of the London newspaper Holmes examines (actually, that's a fictitious date, because in 1890, November 13 fell on Thursday that year).Why is that important? Because there was a depression that month: Barings Bank faced bankruptcy in the panic of 1890, so instead of a satanist's execution on the front page, it would have been the risk of insolvency because of "excessive risk taking on poor investments in Argentina."
Or is that the headline?
There's an interesting connection made between the sacred Scripture of the Bible and the Stock Market: reading the Book of Revelations and trying to decipher its meanings is like looking at the ticker tape of the stock prices and finding a good deal; we have Darren Aronofsky's Pi to thank for pitting God against math.
As we shall see in my next posting on James Bond: Beyond Boundaries, Casino Royale of 2006 is about Bond chasing the villains who played the stock market against everyone else and causes others to lose a lot of money; this is basically what happens in November 1890, so much so, that Natty Rothschild said if other banks hadn't come to Barings' rescue, it could have been the collapse of the private banking sector in London. The point is, it's a small group of investors potentially bringing about the collapse of the heart of the Empire, London, for personal gain by betting on investments; Watson does the same thing.
Is this satanic ritual designed to give them power and everything they want really any different than the meetings at five-star restaurants of stock brokers performing their rituals of checking who is doing what and "reading the numbers" as if they were consulting the oracle of Delphi?
"I made your customary bet," Holmes tells Watson in the carriage heading towards the London jail to see Blackwood, and he tells Mary that previous night, that Watson has a betting stub in his jacket because he's a betting man and to keep an eye on her dowry, because Watson had cost them the rent more than once; when Watson finds Mary's ring and still has some change, Holmes warns him against losing it to the street gamblers nearby. When Holmes is listening to Watson read letters about potential clients, Holmes characterizes one as "being an insurance swindle," because someone likes fast women "and slow ponies." Is this what Sherlock Holmes is really about? Is this the "evil religion" that men of finance have made of stocks and risk-taking, their own private gain being more important than the loss of all their neighbors?
Do we actually see London on the unholy altar of financial slaughter?
In the opening of the film, Lord Blackwood performs a satanic ceremony which Holmes stops. Is the girl symbolic of London, and the knife she nearly stabs herself with the banking crisis caused by zealous risk-taking in South American markets? Is London (the Hedge fund capital of the world today) being sacrificed on the "ungodly altars" of market speculation and greed? There is the secret society Lord Blackwood tries to gain control of and "secret societies in England" is also part of the newly released Killer Elite; similarly, James Bond battles Quantum in Quantum of Solace, a group trying to overtake the world's water supply. Remember in 2008, Ritchie directed the hit Rock N Rolla about the real estate markets in London, and Sherlock Holmes isn't that different.
This photo was taken September 1892, so the film's timeline is moved 2 years. In Sherlock Holmes, the Tower Bridge represents London and the Empire and, most importantly, the hand of justice.
What we have is a diametrical opposition, between the pursuits of individuals designed only to benefit themselves--Lord Blackwood wants power over the whole world and hence has the remote control invented--versus the collective unity pursuing  the greatest good together for the greatest number, like the risk of combining the bascule and suspension bridges for Tower Bridge (I think we're going to see these same conflicts in Margin Call, Ides of March and Tower Heist). The finale of Sherlock Holmes is on the un-completed London Bridge, which as Holmes says, is the sign of an industrious Empire, and innovative,... and Holmes is a part of that.
The symbolic reason the first hanging doesn't kill Blackwood is because he's not being hanged for the "real" crime he has committed against the Empire, but Holmes--who can discern what Blackwood really did--is able to carry out exact justice.
The death of Lord Blackwood--and the unmasking of all his "conjuring tricks"--validates that the collective of Empire is stronger than the strength and ambition of the individual, yet there is a darker side to it as well. Lord Blackwood is hanged, like the Judas he is because he not only killed his father (Sir Thomas) but attempted to destroy the Empire by taking over Parliament. Dante reserved the lowest circle of the Divine Comedy's Inferno for those who betrayed their masters, and that's Blackwood's fate.
Heads of enemies of the state displayed on London Bridge.
Another graphic reason why Blackwood dies on London Bridge is because it's a tradition: the decapitated heads of England's enemies have been spiked for show along Tower Bridge to demonstrate the power and might and justice of the Empire in putting down its enemies; England is worthy of the loyalty of her subjects because she protects them with her Justice. Whereas in his first "execution" Blackwood was hanged with mere rope, in the execution on London Bridge, it's with chains, symbolizing the "strength" of this stronger sentence against him and the chains of slavery to his sins which he will wear eternally.
Ambassador Standish from America engulfed in flames in the background.
In conclusion, we see that the Empire taking the risk of combining a bascule and suspension bridge for the first time is a good risk to take, because it's a risk for the Empire and all its people, and if it fails, all share a part of the burden in love for country, and if it succeeds, then all share in the pride of innovation. The risks of people like Lord Blackwood is the risk for self-gain and is volatile for everyone potentially having to pay for sins and crimes not committed. The future is most stable when it's built upon tradition. It's a timely topic, fitting neatly into a group of films preceding it and, I anticipate, those soon to come. There is a great deal more to write on this wonderful film, and it will come in December. For tomorrow, the conclusion to British Imperialism in Film, James Bond: Beyond Boundaries and then Monster Month begins!
London, one of the most ancient cities in the world.