I posted a short review on this blog yesterday. I lifted it [after eliminating a few typos] from a comment I left on Amazon about the 1971 cult film They Might Be Giants, after which the band named themselves. I had watched the film earlier that day. Have watched it a few times since then. It remains full of holes that I still can’t quite plug. It’s not a perfect film, but I’m starting to home in on what I think the writer/director were trying to get at. Want to add a few more thoughts to what I posted yesterday.
This is not a film to be taken literally any more than, say, Alice in Wonderland. It’s very stylised. Full of symbolism. Coincidences stretch credulity beyond breaking point. It is a comedy, and quite a surreal one at that. But it does veer towards tragedy in places, and the ending is so ambiguous that it could be read as a comedy where the main characters walk into their deaths. There is no satisfying resolution, and that’s disappointed many, including me.
The first time I saw it I loved it. I may have waited two decades or more before I got a chance to see it repeated on telly. In the intervening years, I’d got interested in how films work. And on the second viewing, all I could focus on was the weaknesses. Felt very let down. When I watched it on Film4 the other day, I had an open mind. I had prepared myself to dismiss it as junk, the guilty pleasure of a naive young mind. But I’ve decided it’s much more than that. George C Scott is as great as he always was. And I’d forgotten how good Joanne Woodward was. The rest of the cast contained some great actors/comedians, but they didn’t get to do much.
They Might Be Giants is not cinematic. For the most part it works as a piece of comic theatre. But the structure is extremely interesting, the more so the more I rewatch it. This is a story about two lonely people falling in love. It’s about individuals unprepared to admit how lonely they are to others, unable to notice how they are drawn to one another. It’s a tragedy in that one of these individuals has quite literally lost his mind two years before the story begins. We feel deep empathy for Holmes due to what drove him insane in the first place (the loss of his beloved wife), and our warmth towards him is intesified by recognizing just what a caring person he was prior to his insanity, and how decent a person he remains despite his delusion that he really is Sherlock Holmes.
We feel for him for many reasons. We find out from the start that his brother wants to have him committed to an insane asylum simply in order to get his hands on the family fortune, and then to pay off blackmailers. We also know his brother is turning a blind eye to the blackmailers eagerness to have him murdered as they’ve lost patience in his ability to get the money by having him committed. We also know that the doctor charged with signing the papers to have him committed is under intolerable presure to sign those papers, and she sees no good reason to do this as he’s not a danger to himself or anyone else. And she is drawn to this sad man, this victim of a broken heart, surrounded by vultures, greedy individuals, and she sees his intelligence and skills make him better at doing her job than she is. She wants to learn from him as well as help cure him, or at least to stop him becoming a victim of a cruel system.
He admits to this psychiatrist that it is lonely for him to have no one call him Sherlock Holmes. We soon discover that he only has one friend left. The psychiatrist, we learn, in a very harrowing piece of psychoanalysis, doesn’t even have as many as one friend. Holmes challenges her to let him demonstrate how his method has penetrated her veil. She accepts enthusiastically, only to be shocked how much he’s managed to deduce:
This psychiatrist never knew her mother, brought up by a father, a tomboy who grew up to follow her dad into his profession of medicine. Her adolescence was utterly wretched. She suffered acne well into her mid twenties. She still suffers from insomnia, frequently drinking herself to sleep. She has never been engaged. Has no friends. And no one she has loved has ever loved her back…
She appears initially distressed to learn she is such an open book to a patient she knows next to nothing about. But on hearing her life summed up so brutally by a stranger who has bearly met her, her distress turns to anger, and in that anger she lets slip, for the first time, what her name is, and then everything changes.
This woman who is – apparently – pleased she’s getting old as this gives her an excuse for not looking for any romantic relationship is drawn, slowly, inexorably, into his world. When Holmes hears the name of this doctor is Watson, he assumes destiny must have handed him the Dr Watson he has been looking for all his life, that part of his life he still remembers. Then the romance starts to blossom on both sides.
The clues Holmes uncovers on his quest to find out about his brother’s blackmailer are like cryptic crossword clues that make zero sense. This is not a detective story. This is plot device, scaffolding upon which the writer and director constructs a very moving love story.
There is a scene as we move into the climax where we find all the eccentrics marching in search of Holmes’s Moriarty. But when they arive at the address, Holmes discovers that not one of these oddballs has a clue what they are there for. So only Holmes and Watson carry on with the descent into a tunnel searching for Moriarty by matchlight.
This is a story about romantic love with two lonely people for the first time professing their love for each other. And it can’t be a coincidence that she appears to have dressed for their first date that night in what looks like a wedding dress. If you listen carefully, it does sound to me like they’re making wedding vows. They sound like two children agreeing to play a game. Once upon a time, it was Sherlock Holmes’s game, and his alone. But it’s now one Dr Watson embraces. She’s resigned from her job, and she has finally found someone who loves her back – he’s already told her he loves her -, and we already knew he had fallen in love with her long before he admitted it to himself.
When Watson had originally rejected Holmes, he turned to his only remaining friend to ask if he really had gone mad, if this psychiatrist had been right about him merely being a mental patient who had deluded himself. His friend knew this was the truth, but he was far too kind to let him know.
But at the end of this film none of this matters. All we care about is that these two lonely people have found each other. And if they choose to give the name of ‘Moriarty’ to all the slings and arrows outrageous fortune throws at them, who cares? It’s their game. They can make up their own rules. All they need is love.