Sherlock (analysis & review) & Detective Discussion

Before we get to the good stuff I want to quickly discuss detective fiction and its relationship to film analysis in general. It seems obvious to me that in order to be a good detective you have to be a bit of a paranoiac (although Sherlock complicates this theory). In order to catch the bad guy you have to accept the possibility of attributing just about anything to her. If Detective Kujan had been a little more paranoid and a little less convinced of his preconceived notions (that Keaton organized everything) he might have caught Kaiser Söze. Paranoia keeps Mr. Pink alive while conviction kills Mr. White (and others).

"But wait!" you say, "Those two movies—and in fact most detective stories that I can think of—actually do have antagonists! Are you really being paranoid if there are people like Kevin Spacey or Tim Roth on the loose?" Yes. Yes you are. (Sorry I just ruined those two movies, but is it really my fault you haven't seen them? They've both been out for almost twenty years. Get it together.)

As with most things, I feel (mistakenly) that a reference to Žižek will be helpful here. He explains a relevant idea from Lacan concerning jealousy in many places, but nowhere as clear as in an interview with The Believer Magazine:*

I would like to use the wonderful model of Lacan. Let’s say that you are married and you are pathologically jealous, thinking that your wife is sleeping around with other men. And let’s say that you are totally right, she is cheating. Lacan says that your jealousy is still pathological. Even if everything is true, it is pathological because what makes it pathological is not the fact that is it true or not true, but why you invest so much in it—what needs does it fulfill?

The point is thus not that there really is an antagonist to catch/fear so I'm being reasonable and not paranoid, but instead that the form of paranoia itself betrays an underlying need for something. In this case the most fundamental need I believe is the need to avoid an encounter with lack. This is perhaps why the denouement of most detective stories reveals the lack of the antagonist. It is not us (the protagonist; the audience) who lacks, but the other.

This gets even more interesting when we make the jump from detective fiction to film analysis. Reading a movie (as opposed to merely watching one—there you go, I've betrayed my foundations in lit analysis) can be seen without excessive extrapolation as performing a sort of detective work. You look for clues that might help you figure out where the director is going to take you next.

But why this belief in the vision of the director? Sure, up to a certain point we can rely on "good" directors to make "good" movies. But we've seen again and again that directors don't really know what they're doing regardless of how thorough a background their have in theory/analysis (take for example the statement by the filmmakers behind Zero Dark Thirty that their film doesn't advocate torture, an inconsistency that even Entertainment Weekly managed to pick up on). This is why "bad" directors occasionally make "good" movies and "good" directors occasionally make "bad" movies.

So again, why do we rely on what might end up being clues laid out by an idiot? Maybe (as can be seen in other areas of what might be called self-definition) we "like" certain directors or movies to create a fantasmatic identity to claim as our own and in turn to save us from encountering our lack. Maybe this is why it can be incredibly annoying to watch a movie you love with one of those people who take pleasure in pointing out minor inconsistencies.

But maybe not.

Before I completely alienate my audience I think it's about time I got to the part where I talk about Sherlock. I mean Benedict Cumberbatch is so wildly attractive it's really amazing I've resisted for this long. So here goes.

Lack, while being constitutive of desire and thus easy to analyze in subjects of desire, becomes more complicated when looking at subjects who seems to have passed through desire into drive. And in my initial experience of the show (I've only watched the first season so far), Sherlock seems to fit this description. While he does take pleasure/pride in his successful solutions to mysteries, The Great Game (season 1 episode 3) makes it clear that what he really values is the repetitive nature of being a consulting detective (most notably he worries when the psychopath who's been organizing puzzles for him doesn't call).

What I find even more interesting is the way that Sherlock resists the typical paranoiac construction of detective fiction. Especially in The Great Game, Sherlock doesn't seem to care who is organizing these puzzles for him to solve. He doesn't want to catch the mastermind behind it all. He just wants to solve some puzzles. It is instead those around him (most often Watson) who want to find Moriarty.

What has happened here? Is it simply that, in the same way that classic detective fiction attempts to displace the lack into the realm of the other, Sherlock is attempting to displace paranoia?

To answer this question I think we have to look back to the first episode. What is the first thing we see? Watson's dreams. We are brought into this new world through the body/eyes of Dr. Watson, not of Sherlock himself. Add to this the fact that Sherlock is a hard man to "like". Not only is he a "high functioning sociopath", but in one of my favorite scenes he basically admits to not caring about other people's deaths. I love this scene because it hints at the fundamental hypocrisy behind caring for the other. To return to my mainstay in this area, what is a single person's death to the mass deaths occurring daily in order to bring us our laptops and iPhones? (What will I ever do if someone fixes this situation? Pick an actually relevant example of ideological blindness?)

But that's not the point here. The point is rather that, as far as points of identification go, Watson is a much more likely candidate than Sherlock. For this reason I believe Sherlock is constructed in a doubly voyeuristic way. Not only are we watching Sherlock, but we're watching (as) Watson watching Sherlock.

And that's about all I have to say about Sherlock (so far). If I have to justify the following scores then you probably weren't reading (or my scoring methods don't really make sense, but let's say for argument's sake that it's your fault not mine).

*Read the full interview here.