5-1 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/10.17742/IMAGE.periph.5-1.9 | Reisen­leit­ner PDF

Guy Ritchie’s recent block­buster suc­cess with a revi­sion­ist Sher­lock Holmes is the lat­est in a series of pop­u­lar films and fic­tion to have rein­vig­o­rat­ed a nos­tal­gic imag­i­nary of London’s past that places the for­mer cap­i­tal of the Empire at the cross­roads of a per­sis­tent Manichean bat­tle between empiri­cist-dri­ven tech­no­log­i­cal progress and tra­di­tions of occult knowl­edge sup­pos­ed­ly sub­merged in the 17th cen­tu­ry yet con­tin­u­ing to trick­le into the heart of the Empire from its colonies. By trac­ing some of these his­tor­i­cal lay­ers sed­i­ment­ed into 21st-cen­tu­ry pop­u­lar imag­i­nar­ies of London’s past, this paper explores the mech­a­nisms of pop­u­lar culture’s pro­duc­tion of nos­tal­gia that medi­ate pub­lic mem­o­ries and his­to­ries and suture them to the imag­i­nary urban geo­gra­phies that con­sti­tute the space of the glob­al city through its metonymic sites and its mate­ri­al­ized histories.

Le suc­cès récent du block­buster de Guy Ritchie revis­i­tant la fig­ure de Sher­lock Holmes s’inscrit dans une lignée récente de films et de réc­its pop­u­laires qui ont reviv­i­fié un imag­i­naire nos­tal­gique du passé lon­donien dans lequel le cen­tre de l’ancien empire bri­tan­nique se trou­ve au croise­ment d’un con­flit manichéen entre un pro­grès sci­en­tifi­co-tech­nologique et les tra­di­tions d’un savoir occulte sup­posé­ment enfouis dans les siè­cles précé­dents mais qui con­tin­ue à s’insinuer au cœur de l’empire à par­tir de ses colonies. En retraçant cer­taines de ces couch­es his­toriques dans les recréa­tions con­tem­po­raines du Lon­dres impér­i­al, cet arti­cle explore les mécan­ismes de pro­duc­tion de la nos­tal­gie dans la cul­ture pop­u­laire en tant qu’ils font le pont entre la mémoire publique et la mémoire his­torique en rat­tachant celles-ci à un imag­i­naire de la géo­gra­phie urbaine qui pour sa part pointe vers la ville glob­ale d’aujourd’hui.

Markus Reisen­leit­ner | York University

It’s a Kind of Magic:
Situating Nostalgia for Technological Progress and the Occult in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes

In the 21st-cen­tu­ry com­pe­ti­tion between glob­al cities to estab­lish them­selves as cen­tral, Lon­don has emerged as a clear front-run­ner. Lon­don has been cement­ing its posi­tion, assert­ed since the open­ing up of its stock mar­ket in 1986, not only by eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal deci­sions but also through a slew of rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al prac­tices, most recent­ly through the glob­al media spec­ta­cle of the open­ing of the 2012 Olympic games (Reisen­leit­ner 2014). The very con­tem­po­rary imag­i­nary of London's cen­tral­i­ty to a glob­al sys­tem of urban nodes has rou­tine­ly been but­tressed by a par­tic­u­lar vision of empire, an almost des­per­ate attempt to cre­ate (or re-cre­ate) the col­lec­tions and con­stel­la­tions of col­lec­tive mem­o­ries that would oth­er­wise be rapid­ly oblit­er­at­ed in the con­stant need to assert glob­al-city sta­tus through “now­ness,” cre­ative destruc­tion and inno­va­tion. Medi­at­ed mem­o­ry of empire has been mobi­lized to pro­vide an imag­ined his­tor­i­cal con­text for the sin­gle-mind­ed “brand­ing” cam­paigns of ad agen­cies, glob­al media spec­ta­cles and sim­i­lar vehi­cles pow­ered by the engine of glob­al mar­ket fun­da­men­tal­ism, a hege­mon­ic prac­tice that impos­es sta­bil­i­ty and homo­gene­ity on a space (the urban) that, as Steve Pile reminds us, “… can­not be thought of as hav­ing one geog­ra­phy and one his­to­ry” (Pile, Brook, and Mooney vii).

In this arti­cle, I explore some of the his­tor­i­cal lay­ers sed­i­ment­ed into 21st-cen­tu­ry pop­u­lar imag­i­nar­ies of London’s past. I am specif­i­cal­ly inter­est­ed in a per­sis­tent dichoto­my of tech­nol­o­gy vs. occult knowl­edge that seems to be inti­mate­ly con­nect­ed to the per­sist­ing imag­i­nary of Lon­don as a glob­al city. I argue that this imag­i­nary has become the basis of a nos­tal­gia for the British Empire, one that medi­ates pub­lic mem­o­ries and his­to­ries and sutures them to the imag­i­nary urban geo­gra­phies that con­sti­tute the space of the glob­al city through its metonymic sites and its mate­ri­al­ized his­to­ries. I will explore how cin­e­mat­ic tech­niques, specif­i­cal­ly the pos­si­bil­i­ties of com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed images, nego­ti­ate the visu­al mem­o­ries of Lon­don as a cen­tre of empire in Guy Ritchie’s Sher­lock Holmes (2009). Plac­ing the movie in its genre con­text and explor­ing the lay­ered his­to­ries that inform the film’s take on the urban detec­tive can reveal the con­sti­tu­tive ele­ments that chal­lenge and inform the imag­i­nary of London’s cen­tral­i­ty in con­tem­po­rary Hol­ly­wood-medi­at­ed pop­u­lar culture.

Policing the Imperial Centre

The emer­gence of pop­u­lar cul­ture pro­duced for a mass audi­ence coin­cides with the emer­gence of the mod­ern city dur­ing the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. Euro­pean and North Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture devel­oped in con­stant dia­logue with the pro­found­ly unset­tling expe­ri­ences of moder­ni­ty, impe­ri­al­ism, and glob­al­iza­tion. The upheavals that accom­pa­nied urban­iza­tion result­ed in new ways of see­ing the city as opaque and poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous; an alleged illeg­i­bil­i­ty of the city and the urban mass­es trans­lat­ed into pop­u­lar fic­tion as crime and threat asso­ci­at­ed with the city streets and trans­lat­ed into the archi­tec­tur­al forms of gat­ed com­mu­ni­ties, ubiq­ui­tous sur­veil­lance, defen­si­ble archi­tec­ture, and all the oth­er accou­trements of a city of fear that Mike Davis so mas­ter­ful­ly con­jures up in City of Quartz (Davis 1990). “Mod­ern” ways of see­ing the city, and act­ing upon the city, arose with the nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry city of indus­tri­al­ism and its immis­er­at­ed work­ing class and result­ed in the city being seen as a “prob­lem” (sim­i­lar to the emer­gence of the “envi­ron­ment” as a prob­lem in the lat­er twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry). The neces­si­ty of ren­der­ing this prob­lem­at­ic city—the site of crime and ill­ness (often expressed through body metaphors)—administrable is pred­i­cat­ed on the vis­i­bil­i­ty of the city as an object. While urban plan­ners and reform­ers were busy re-imag­in­ing the city as a cleansed, con­trolled and san­i­tized machine for liv­ing (Cor­busier), work­ing, traf­fic flow, and com­merce, the fear of the irrup­tion of the uncan­ny into city spaces that defy plan­ning and descrip­tion has con­tin­ued to speak to the pres­ence of an elu­sive other—often a colo­nial other—in the West­ern metrop­o­lis. Pop­u­lar gen­res like detec­tive fic­tion and film noir have cre­at­ed topogra­phies of mod­ern urban­i­ty in which mon­strous spaces, char­ac­ter­ized equal­ly by the dan­ger and lure they pose for the metrop­o­lis, threat­en an assumed move­ment towards a well-ordered urban ratio­nal­i­ty, estab­lish­ing (at least West­ern) urban­i­ty as a struc­ture metaphor­i­cal­ly and lit­er­al­ly built on the (post-)imperialist para­noia about the presence/return of the alien and assert­ing a desire to estab­lish con­trol over fun­da­men­tal­ly unsta­ble spaces—precisely the kind of con­trol that also result­ed in the dis­ci­plin­ing nar­ra­tives of urban sur­veil­lance, sta­tis­tics and reform. Eugène Sue’s his­to­ries in the Mys­ter­ies of Paris are as respon­si­ble for Baron Haussmann’s reimag­in­ing (and redraw­ing) of Paris as John Fante (Ask the Dust; Dreams from Bunker Hill) was for Los Angeles’s “Bunker Hill Renew­al Project”—even Los Ange­les was, in Orson Welles’s words, “[1]n the begin­ning […] sim­ply a ‘bright, guilty place’ with­out a mur­der­ous shad­ow or mean street in sight” (Davis 2001, 33). Antho­ny Vidler draws our atten­tion to the his­tor­i­cal roots of sen­si­tiv­i­ties that have become com­mon­places in con­tem­po­rary pop­u­lar culture:

The con­tem­po­rary sen­si­bil­i­ty that sees the uncan­ny erupt in emp­ty park­ing lots around aban­doned or run-down shop­ping malls, in the screened trompe d’oeil of sim­u­lat­ed space, in, that is, the wast­ed mar­gins and sur­face appear­ances of post-indus­tri­al cul­ture, this sen­si­bil­i­ty has its roots and draws its com­mon­places from a long but essen­tial­ly mod­ern tra­di­tion. Its appar­ent­ly benign and utter­ly ordi­nary loci, its domes­tic and slight­ly tawdry set­tings, its ready exploita­tion of an already jad­ed pub­lic, all mark it out clear­ly as the heir to a feel­ing of unease first iden­ti­fied in the late eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry. (Vidler 3)

This feel­ing of unease and threat that accom­pa­nied the emer­gence of the mod­ern city, and its sym­bol­ic res­o­lu­tion through the re-estab­lish­ment and impo­si­tion of a ratio­nal order, is epit­o­mized by the emer­gence of the fig­ure of the urban detec­tive, arguably the most impor­tant fig­ure in the his­to­ry of urban per­cep­tion. Like the flâneur—detached, inter­est­ed, fas­ci­nat­ed, try­ing to make sense of the city but with what Sim­mel described as a blasé atti­tude (14)—the detec­tive has become a priv­i­leged site of West­ern urban per­cep­tion, the soli­tary (often staunch­ly mid­dle-class) male fig­ure enti­tled to move through the met­ro­pol­i­tan maze of illeg­i­ble, vio­lent and dan­ger­ous crowds to deci­pher what needs deci­pher­ing in order to tame, appro­pri­ate and con­trol. Tony Ben­nett, draw­ing on Ben­jamin, reminds us that “the devel­op­ment of a posi­tion of imag­i­na­tive spec­ta­to­r­i­al dom­i­nance afford­ed by detec­tive fic­tion was accom­pa­nied by, and cor­re­spond­ed to, the devel­op­ment of new mech­a­nisms of sur­veil­lance which—precisely through their bureau­crat­ic reduc­tion of indi­vid­u­al­i­ty to a set of know­able traces—rendered the city leg­i­ble to the gaze of pow­er” (215). The urban detective’s way of act­ing on the city is informed by the supe­ri­or insight afford­ed by the ratio­nal­i­ty that dis­tin­guish­es him from the urban crowd while also legit­i­mat­ing his exert­ing vio­lence on the city and its less desir­able ele­ments. The urban detec­tive has come to stand for the urban plan­ner and the bull­doz­er con­flat­ed into one, ulti­mate­ly con­tain­ing the unruly cityscape (and the unruly crowd mov­ing through it) by exert­ing some form of visual/semiotic con­trol. Detec­tive fic­tion has come to func­tion as a

fan­ta­sy of a spec­ta­to­r­i­al sub­jec­tiv­i­ty capa­ble of estab­lish­ing epis­te­mo­log­i­cal and aes­thet­ic con­trol over an envi­ron­ment com­mon­ly per­ceived to be threat­en­ing and opaque. By reduc­ing the city to a leg­i­ble mod­el or emblem of itself, and by demon­strat­ing his con­trol over its pro­duc­tion, such a sub­jec­tiv­i­ty assumes a pater­nal­is­tic or hero­ic role in rela­tion to an urban lit­er­ary audi­ence. (214)

Detec­tive fic­tion as “rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al forms of solu­tions to the prob­lems of social con­trol in a dynam­ic cap­i­tal­ist urban milieu” (Fris­by 58) draws atten­tion to the fact that the mean­ing of a city is pro­duced as a site of social nego­ti­a­tions (which are not pri­vate but col­lec­tive, sit­u­at­ed prac­tices), “an imag­i­nary space cre­at­ed and ani­mat­ed as much by the urban rep­re­sen­ta­tions to be found in nov­els, films and images as by any actu­al urban places” (Don­ald x).

Sher­lock Holmes, togeth­er with Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin, is the arche­typ­al detec­tive of the West­ern metrop­o­lis, on mis­sion after mis­sion to uphold the city’s ratio­nal order, mov­ing through the met­ro­pol­i­tan maze of illeg­i­ble, vio­lent, dan­ger­ous and exot­ic crowds, ratio­nal­ly deci­pher­ing what is illeg­i­ble in order to estab­lish a “ratio­nal” form of order and con­trol, often vio­lent­ly and through supe­ri­or phys­i­cal prowess. Holmes has recent­ly been res­ur­rect­ed in a vari­ety of fic­tion, film and TV adap­ta­tions that high­light London’s pres­ence on the glob­al media stage. Guy Ritchie’s 2009 and 2011 block­buster suc­cess­es (Sher­lock Holmes and Sher­lock Holmes, a Game of Shad­ows) with a revi­sion­ist Sher­lock Holmes as a down & dirty Iron Man-like action hero in what set out to become, accord­ing to pro­duc­er Joel Sil­ver, “an 1891 Bond film” (a sen­ti­ment that high­lights the con­nec­tion of the two major pop­u­lar cul­ture heroes to the vio­lence of empire), are major con­tri­bu­tions to a series of pop­u­lar movies and fic­tion to have rein­vig­o­rat­ed a nos­tal­gic imag­i­nary of London’s past.

The plot of Sher­lock Holmes (2009) revolves around the epony­mous detec­tive, played by a some­what seedy but super-fit Robert Downey Jr, and his stal­wart side­kick Wat­son, played by Jude Law, who pre­vent the mega­lo­ma­ni­ac sor­cer­er and magi­cian Lord Black­wood (Mark Strong) from blow­ing up Par­lia­ment and reclaim­ing and recol­o­niz­ing Amer­i­ca for the British Empire. They are joined by the feisty Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), remem­bered by Holmes fans from Arthur Conan Doyle’s first short sto­ry, the 1891 “A Scan­dal in Bohemia,” as the only woman able to out­smart Holmes. Togeth­er they pur­sue the evil mas­ter­mind in a ride that involves numer­ous action- and fight scenes in par­a­dig­mat­ic Lon­don loca­tions such as Bak­er Street, the Embank­ment, the ship­yards of the East End’s dock­lands, the sew­ers, and, in the cli­mac­tic finale, on a Tow­er Bridge under construction—a half-fin­ished sym­bol of the Empire’s tech­no­log­i­cal prowess that con­nects the pro­le­tar­i­an out­skirts of the river's south­ern bank to the met­ro­pol­i­tan cen­tre but also lit­er­al­ly con­trols the flow of ship traf­fic (by rais­ing the bridge) from and to its colonies around the world.

Guy Ritchie’s know­ing update of the Bak­er Street sleuth inserts itself into the gener­ic con­ven­tions of more than one and a half cen­turies of detec­tive sto­ries. Robert Downey’s char­ac­ter might be more phys­i­cal than pre­vi­ous ver­sions (enjoy­ing, not unlike the film’s direc­tor and lead, the occa­sion­al drunk­en brawl in an Irish pub)—something Ritchie has jus­ti­fied includ­ing in his film by point­ing to the orig­i­nal sto­ries, in which Holmes is often depict­ed box­ing, sprint­ing, and dis­guis­ing him­self on chas­es. How­ev­er, the lin­eage is very clear. Pack­aged into Downey’s char­ac­ter are not only Doyle’s and Sax Rohmer’s detec­tives but also Poe’s “Man of the Crowd” and Baudelaire’s flâneur—he is a dandy, a rag­pick­er, and a slop­py Bohemi­an. Ritchie’s pro­tag­o­nist knows his city—the Lon­don of 1891—so well that there is lit­er­al­ly no pulling the wool over his eyes: when tak­en blind­fold­ed to the Tem­ple of the Four Orders, an occult-dab­bling secret soci­ety head­ed by a promi­nent Lord, he “was admit­ted­ly lost for a moment between Char­ing Cross and Hol­born, but was saved by the bread­shop on Saf­fron Hill, the only bak­er to use a cer­tain French glaze on their loaves, a Brit­tany sage. After that car­riage fork left and right …”

Local knowl­edge and easy move­ment through every social lay­er of the city—including its under­ground, the sewers—make it pos­si­ble for him to keep at bay the forces that threat­en the metropole’s ratio­nal social order. Fol­low­ing gener­ic con­ven­tions, the mate­r­i­al city is pre­sent­ed as a semi­otic reser­voir to be deci­phered. Clues are spread through­out the urban land­scape, and solv­ing this puz­zle through pow­ers of intel­lect is the detective’s forte, but he is also in per­fect com­mand of all the oth­er insti­tu­tions of moder­ni­ty, par­tic­u­lar­ly those of movement:

The deep anx­i­ety of an expand­ing soci­ety: the fear that devel­op­ment might lib­er­ate cen­trifu­gal ener­gies and thus make effec­tive social con­trol impos­si­ble. This prob­lem emerges ful­ly in the metrop­o­lis, where anonymity—that is, impunity—potentially reigns and which is rapid­ly becom­ing a tan­gled and inac­ces­si­ble hid­ing place. We have seen detec­tive fiction’s answer to the first prob­lem: the guilty par­ty can nev­er hide in the crowd. His tracks betray him as an indi­vid­ual, and there­fore a vul­ner­a­ble, being. But detec­tive fic­tion also offers reas­sur­ance on the sec­ond point. All Holmes’s inves­ti­ga­tions are accom­pa­nied and sup­port­ed by the new and per­fect mech­a­nisms of trans­porta­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Car­riages, trains, let­ters, telegrams, in Conan Doyle’s world, are all cru­cial and always live up to expec­ta­tions. They are the tac­it and indis­pens­able sup­port of the arrest. Soci­ety expands and becomes more com­pli­cat­ed: but it also cre­ates a frame­work of con­trol, a net­work of rela­tion­ships, that holds it more firm­ly togeth­er than ever before. (Fris­by 58)

In the detec­tive genre, com­mand and con­trol of mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy are equat­ed with mas­tery of the urban. This is how crimes are solved, and order re-established.

Hermetic Historicities

The res­o­lu­tion of threats to the urban more often than not involves exor­ciz­ing (vio­lent­ly and phys­i­cal­ly) the threat of a colo­nial “oth­er.” How­ev­er, while a Chi­nese vil­lain does make an appear­ance in a fight scene—a clear ref­er­ence to Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu—, the threat posed by evil mas­ter­mind Lord Black­wood and his eso­teric cult do not fit neat­ly into the pat­tern of threats to the colo­nial cen­tre described above. With his vague­ly for­eign looks and sounds and ref­er­ences to old Egypt­ian and Cabal­is­tic teach­ings, Black­wood might be read as an ori­en­tal­ized rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a colo­nial out­side threat­en­ing the impe­r­i­al cen­tre, but this would dis­re­gard his being posi­tioned very clear­ly with­in an Eng­lish tra­di­tion of occultism. The fig­ure of Lord Black­wood is rec­og­niz­ably mod­eled after the influ­en­tial and con­tro­ver­sial Eng­lish occultist and magi­cian Aleis­ter Crow­ley (1875–1947),

Fig. 1 Aleis­ter Crowley

Fig. 2 Lord Blackwell

who was involved in a num­ber of ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry her­met­ic and eso­teric groups not too dis­sim­i­lar from Ritchie’s fic­tion­al “Tem­ple of the Four Orders” (see Pasi). While some of this occult prac­tice is pre­sent­ed as being of ori­en­tal ori­gin, it is all real­ly a quite sil­ly mix­ture of ele­ments from the Chris­t­ian, Jew­ish and Egypt­ian tra­di­tions, in oth­er words: a mer­ry gum­bo of “West­ern Civilization”’s past that has, mys­te­ri­ous­ly, left its obscure traces in the mate­r­i­al shape of the city. Holmes man­ages to make sense of this past, and pre­vent cat­a­stro­phe, by map­ping this “ancient” knowledge—manifested in London’s urban morphology.

Uncov­er­ing some past secret is, of course, noth­ing unusu­al for detec­tive fic­tion. What is, how­ev­er, sur­pris­ing in these twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry recu­per­a­tions of the his­tor­i­cal is that in addi­tion to pre­dictably hear­ken­ing back to the mod­ernist strands of the late nine­teenth- and ear­ly-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry that gave rise to a genre link­ing tech­no­log­i­cal ratio­nal­i­ty and empire, cur­rent man­i­fes­ta­tions of the his­tor­i­cal in pop­u­lar cul­ture seem to throw into relief what is per­ceived as an almost Manichean strug­gle between empiri­cist-dri­ven tech­no­log­i­cal progress and tra­di­tions of occult knowl­edge sup­pos­ed­ly sub­merged in the sev­en­teenth century.

What obvi­ous­ly springs to mind in this oth­er­wise mind-bog­gling denoue­ment of an ancient con­spir­a­cy man­i­fest­ing itself in the heart of empire is Dan Brown’s mega-hyped Da Vin­ci Code and the pre­vi­ous­ly writ­ten (2000), although only recent­ly filmed (2008) Angels and Demons. Like Guy Ritchie’s Sher­lock Holmes, the Da Vin­ci Code’s sym­bol­o­gist pro­fes­sor-detec­tive Robert Lang­don deci­phers his­tor­i­cal sym­bols to reveal ancient mys­ter­ies passed on through medieval and Renais­sance chan­nels of con­spir­a­cies and phys­i­cal­ly pre­served in the cities’ mate­r­i­al envi­ron­ments, breath­less­ly con­nect­ing dots on the maps of Paris, Rome and Lon­don in order to uncov­er Gnos­tic tra­di­tions pre­served in secret soci­eties. For Dan Brown, the his­tor­i­cal city also pro­vides the cru­cial clue for unrav­el­ing the ancient mys­tery. Much like Sher­lock Holmes’s deduc­tions or Dupin’s rati­o­ci­na­tions, the instru­ments of the professor’s intel­lec­tu­al tool­box reveal “cor­rect” inter­pre­ta­tions of those clues that ulti­mate­ly lead to mod­ernist ratio­nal closure—in Brown’s case, a deep struc­ture of an alter­na­tive nar­ra­tive of Chris­tian­i­ty, and thus Euro­pean civ­i­liza­tion, that does away with the con­tin­gency and mul­ti­fac­eted­ness of history’s relics and assigns, lit­er­al­ly, the right “place” to his­tor­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tions. Dan Brown’s sto­ry sim­i­lar­ly fol­lows the well-estab­lished gener­ic metaphor of the city as a his­tor­i­cal­ly lay­ered enig­ma whose under­ly­ing deep structure—the his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive that man­i­fests itself in high­ly vis­i­ble mate­r­i­al sym­bol carriers—needs to be deci­phered by the expert. The plot of The Da Vin­ci Code is struc­tured as a trea­sure hunt, with clues hid­den in well-known art works and tourist sites. The struc­ture hid­den behind all the super­fi­cial­ly con­fus­ing man­i­fes­ta­tions of his­to­ry is con­ve­nient­ly pro­vid­ed by the heavy hand of the Catholic Church—the most per­sis­tent, orga­nized and pow­er­ful Euro-glob­al insti­tu­tion in the his­to­ry of the West and arguably the orig­i­nary motor for the estab­lish­ment of glob­al dom­i­na­tion and empire, rep­re­sent­ed in Brown’s nov­el by its more recent hard­lin­er man­i­fes­ta­tion, the Opus Dei (estab­lished in 1928), and its equal­ly mono­lith­ic  “oth­er,” the secret soci­ety that pre­served the hid­den knowl­edge of the “sacred female.”

The metonymic Lon­don loca­tions that Dan Brown choos­es for resolv­ing the con­tra­dic­tions between sci­ence and reli­gion, such as West­min­ster Abbey, pro­vide clo­sure in ways vague­ly sim­i­lar to Dame Fran­cis Yates’ his­tor­i­cal tra­jec­to­ry of Eliz­a­bethan and sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry London’s role as a fun­nel for artic­u­la­tions of empiri­cism and occult knowl­edge cul­mi­nat­ing in both open and sub­merged agen­das of the Roy­al Soci­ety (Yates 1964, 1972, 1979). Accord­ing to Yates, the Renais­sance mar­riage of mag­ic and sci­ence, which was based on Cabal­is­tic and Her­met­ic teach­ings import­ed from Italy, epit­o­mized by the magi­cian Pros­pero in Shakespeare’s The Tem­pest, and which thrived dur­ing the for­ma­tion of the British impe­ri­al­ist tra­di­tion dur­ing Queen Elizabeth’s I. reign, was sub­merged by the insti­tu­tions of mod­ern sci­ence, yet con­tin­ued to inform knowl­edge pro­duc­tion in the impe­r­i­al cen­tre. Con­dens­ing this tra­di­tion into the role of Isaac New­ton, Brown effi­cient­ly mobi­lizes the rever­ber­a­tions of new-age inspired his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives that pick up on hypothe­ses of occult, sup­pos­ed­ly ancient knowledge’s lin­eages hav­ing been pre­served by secret soci­eties. The per­sis­tence of his­to­ry ulti­mate­ly guar­an­tees mean­ing and reveals its overde­ter­mined and wild­ly psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic ori­gin: the tomb of Mary Mag­da­lene beneath the Lou­vre. Brown’s nar­ra­tive thus oper­ates much like a tourist map: once prop­er­ly unfold­ed (and only a select few have access to this par­tic­u­lar gift), every­thing falls into place. The detec­tive unfolds the bizarre traces of his­to­ry in the mate­r­i­al urban envi­ron­ment into a lin­ear (albeit implau­si­ble and pre­pos­ter­ous) narrative.

Sher­lock Holmes in Guy Ritchie's inter­pre­ta­tion is very much part of the same tra­di­tion, but takes as its focus the strug­gle against and sub­mer­sion of ancient occult knowl­edge dur­ing the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion. The occult knowl­edge that threat­ens the metro­pole here is pre­sent­ed as already hav­ing been part of the Rule Bri­tan­nia lin­eage, and con­se­quent­ly the evil mas­ter plan is not an over­throw of the British Empire through some for­eign (pre­vi­ous­ly often vague­ly ori­en­tal) ene­my (as would have been man­dat­ed by gener­ic tra­di­tion), but rather the re-cre­ation of an author­i­tar­i­an-impe­r­i­al tra­di­tion that includes the Unit­ed States, pre­cise­ly by mobi­liz­ing the sub­merged occult. “It looks like he was attempt­ing to com­bine occult prac­tice with sci­en­tif­ic for­mu­la,” states Holmes when he final­ly fig­ures out Blackwood’s inten­tions, but “there was nev­er any mag­ic, only con­jur­ing tricks.” Ulti­mate­ly, it is tech­no­log­i­cal ratio­nal­i­ty that has the last say. The occult only con­sists of recy­cling ear­li­er sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge, such as an “ancient Egypt­ian recipe” for untrace­able poi­sons. In the final cli­mac­tic fight sequence, Black­wood is not killed by Holmes but by the half-fin­ished Tow­er Bridge itself: tech­no­log­i­cal sym­bol of the city’s con­nec­tion to the glob­al traf­fic ratio­nal­iza­tion of empire.

What Guy Ritchie is pick­ing up on here is the well-known Vic­to­ri­an pen­chant for the occult and the paranormal—after all, Arthur Conan Doyle was a well-known spir­i­tu­al­ist. In an exclu­sive­ly Blu-ray spe­cial fea­ture Guy Ritchie takes us through the movie like a bud­ding film pro­fes­sor, explain­ing that “the inter­sec­tion of this par­tic­u­lar time of sci­ence and super­sti­tion… is what this era is about.” While this com­men­tary seems to be stat­ing the obvi­ous, the filmic recu­per­a­tion of this his­to­ry also involves reclaim­ing the East End and oth­er places in Lon­don through rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the occult, a way to lay­er and deep­en the his­to­ries of many sites in Lon­don. Indeed, Ritichie’s atten­tion to sites is metic­u­lous, with a heavy empha­sis on the “authen­tic­i­ty” of the recre­ation of 1891 Lon­don. This cre­ation of his­tor­i­cal authen­tic­i­ty neces­si­tat­ed shoot­ing at non-Lon­don sites such as the dock­lands of Man­ches­ter, not yet gen­tri­fied into a Canary-Wharf like cor­po­rate Yup­pie-Town, and numer­ous dig­i­tal effects—in oth­er words, a cin­e­mato­graph­ic toolk­it bet­ter suit­ed to (re-)create urban his­to­ry than the irrev­o­ca­bly altered mate­r­i­al city. It is the role of the dig­i­tal in film­mak­ing that reclaims cer­tain his­to­ries that I would like to turn my atten­tion to next.

Role of the Visual-Digital

The visu­al design of Sher­lock Holmes is meant to painstak­ing­ly recre­ate the Lon­don of 1891, clear­ly along visu­al lines of rep­re­sen­ta­tion that take their cues from Sid­ney Edward Paget’s illus­tra­tions of Conan Doyle’s sto­ries for the Strand mag­a­zine. Ritchie is there­fore bypass­ing a long tra­di­tion of cin­e­mat­ic ver­sions of Sher­lock Holmes that have cre­at­ed very dif­fer­ent, cross-ref­er­enced imag­i­nar­ies of turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry Lon­don. The Sher­lock Holmes film com­ing clos­est to Guy Ritchie’s urban imag­i­nary is a Steven Spiel­berg pro­duc­tion of 1985, Young Sher­lock Holmes, which also fea­tures an eso­teric under­ground cult sup­pos­ed­ly orig­i­nat­ing in Egypt, and notable most­ly for its com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed effects, includ­ing the first ful­ly com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed char­ac­ter: a knight in a stained glass win­dow, cre­at­ed by Lucasfilm’s John Las­seter, of Toy Sto­ry (1995) fame.

Dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies in film-mak­ing have clear­ly come a long way since 1985, giv­ing film­mak­ers the means to gen­er­ate images and sounds of the past that are infi­nite­ly mal­leable and able to eschew the archival and mate­r­i­al traces of the moment of film-mak­ing, while at the same time mak­ing it pos­si­ble to cre­ate pasts remem­bered through a lin­eage of images. Films such as Sky Cap­tain and the World of Tomor­row (2004, d. Ker­ry Con­ran) and King Kong (2005, d. Peter Jack­son) were shot entire­ly against blue/green screen on sound stages in an attempt to visu­al­ly recre­ate pasts through their medi­a­tions by cin­e­mat­ic images (see Reisen­leit­ner 2012). Guy Ritchie’s film, how­ev­er, while obvi­ous­ly using com­posit­ing tech­niques and dig­i­tal spe­cial effects tech­nol­o­gy lib­er­al­ly for his streetscapes, fight scenes, explo­sions, etc., very delib­er­ate­ly includes “real places,” loca­tion shots which were dig­i­tal­ly enhanced but still meant to pro­duce a form of “authen­tic­i­ty” sup­pos­ed­ly denied to the pure­ly dig­i­tal. While the recre­ation of the Dock­lands was actu­al­ly filmed in Man­ches­ter and Liv­er­pool, Ritchie seems eager pre­cise­ly not to eschew the mate­r­i­al traces of the urban his­to­ries of the impe­r­i­al cen­tre into which his nar­ra­tive inserts itself. The mate­r­i­al rem­nants, the ruins of an empire dri­ven by mech­a­niza­tion and an indus­tri­al­ist ratio­nal­i­ty, make their way into shots of a huge ship­yard and a mech­a­nized slaugh­ter­house in the Dock­lands; the cen­tre of British rule—Parliament—is metonymi­cal­ly pre­sent­ed by Man­ches­ter Town Hall; and the occultist her­itage is present in a shot of Covent Garden’s Freemason’s Hall. The scenes most reliant on CGI are the panoram­ic views from Tow­er Bridge under con­struc­tion dur­ing the final show­down, when the visu­al ref­er­ents shift from recre­at­ing his­tor­i­cal­ly accu­rate con­texts of still exist­ing places through CGI to a visu­al­i­ty more rem­i­nis­cent of Gus­tave Doré’s and Paget’s illustrations.


Andrew Ross reminds us that it is not only space but also time that has become flu­id in tech­no-sim­u­la­tion (132). It seems to me that the cen­tral­i­ty of dig­i­tal pro­duc­tion meth­ods in Ritchie’s film is pred­i­cat­ed pre­cise­ly on this aspect of the flu­id­i­ty of time, its nexus to the mate­ri­al­i­ty of the phys­i­cal, specif­i­cal­ly urban envi­ron­ment, and a desire to ren­der the mem­o­ry images of the poten­tial­i­ties of the past, whose mate­r­i­al traces have been erased by nat­ur­al and man-made dis­as­ters. Like the com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed frac­tal weath­er maps and oth­er CG-gen­er­at­ed spe­cial effects through which movies like The Day After Tomor­row (2004, d. Roland Emmerich) have envi­sioned the weath­er, a sys­tem as unimag­in­ably com­plex as the past, and with sim­i­lar effects on mate­r­i­al envi­ron­ments, dig­i­tal­ly mod­i­fied images re-con­sti­tute his­toric­i­ties that have, pre­cise­ly because they have become dis­con­nect­ed from mate­ri­al­i­ty, tran­scend­ed expe­ri­en­tial thresh­olds. Dig­i­tal sim­u­la­tion, because it is infi­nite­ly mal­leable, visu­al­izes an approach to the past in which “chrono­log­i­cal topogra­phies replace con­struct­ed geo­graph­i­cal space, where imma­te­r­i­al elec­tron­ic broad­cast mis­sions decom­pose and erad­i­cate a sense of place” and allow us to come to terms with the dis­con­cert­ing con­se­quences of what Abbas (per­son­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion) describes as the “urban dou­ble-take,” the sen­sa­tion that when you look again, the com­plex­i­ty of the sys­tem has already changed your per­cep­tion, so the only thing you can see is the pre-con­ceived cliché—nostalgia—as the only, albeit alter­nate, chronol­o­gy pos­si­ble. Dig­i­tal cin­e­matog­ra­phy seems to man­age to cap­ture the oneir­ic qual­i­ty nec­es­sary to imag­ine (urban) pasts in their glob­al con­nec­tiv­i­ty and mul­ti-lay­ered tem­po­ral syn­chronic­i­ty, the mise-en-scène of past pos­si­bil­i­ties for the future.

The Tow­er Bridge sequence cap­tures the oneir­ic qual­i­ty of the Empire through what was one of its most promi­nent struc­tures. It becomes Ritchie's sym­bol of a Lon­don at the heart of a British-ruled world of tech­no­log­i­cal progress from which the eso­teric is (repeat­ed­ly) purged. But it is also a frag­ile, half-fin­ished struc­ture, and clear­ly a nos­tal­gic, visu­al­ly medi­at­ed mem­o­ry of an empire that nev­er was. The sur­viv­ing mate­r­i­al city that Ritchie takes great effort to include in his film does not seem to allow for the com­posit­ing out of pow­er­ful chal­lenges to the (West­ern) forces of ratio­nal­i­ty in the same way, and we are left expect­ing the unavoid­able sequel, which hit cin­e­mas dur­ing a hol­i­day that is sure­ly one of West­ern Civilization’s most pow­er­ful reminders of its pagan past: Christ­mas (2011).

Works Cited

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Doyle, Arthur Conan, and Sid­ney Paget. The Orig­i­nal Illus­trat­ed Sher­lock Holmes: 37 Short Sto­ries plus a Com­plete Nov­el, Com­pris­ing The Adven­tures of Sher­lock Holmes, The Mem­oirs of Sher­lock Holmes, The Return of Sher­lock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles. New York: Cas­tle Books, 2011. Print.

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Image Notes

Fig. 1 http://​en​.wikipedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​F​i​l​e​:​A​l​e​i​s​t​e​r​_​C​r​o​w​l​e​y​,​_​w​i​c​k​e​d​e​s​t​_​m​a​n​_​i​n​_​t​h​e​_​w​o​r​l​d​.​jpg

Fig. 2 Screen­grab from Sher­lock Holmes 

Clips 1 & 2 From Sher­lock Holmes

This arti­cle is licensed under a  Cre­ative Com­mons 3.0 License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.