Judge Bill Gibron thinks that singing would tip off the perps.
All clues. No solutions.
For most of us, our past is what shapes our present life. It haunts us and helps us, heals us when we are frazzled and hits us when we least expect it. Our precedent is a series of file fables, quick snippets of memory neatly organized and labeled in the deepest recesses of our reality. Few of us chose to live through or because of them. We supplant the desire to dine on our ancestry in hopes that the future is far more nourishing.
But there are those of us who can't efficiently categorize our history. We explode and exploit it, using it as excuses or abuses for why we feel victimized. Indeed, our modern social stigma loves to turn the wicked or weird merely wounded because of unresolved issues in their own personal backstories.
For Dan Dark, Phillip Marlowe, and their creator, the enigmatic author Dennis Potter, the past was certainly the outline of things to come. Like clay to his artisan namesake, Dennis molded the reminiscences from his dire days in a war-torn England and let the terror and tithing spill out onto the page. He loved to delve into the dreariest areas of human recall, split open the sores that were trying to heal, and let the putrescence of the past pour out like wicked liquor. He got drunk on the drag of drama and inhaled the heady aroma of man's internal misery. But this was not some social sadist, some miscreant man of letters hoping to siphon of suffering for the sake of a story. No, Potter believed in healing, in finding a way to resolve one's prior with their now, before the life after came calling to cease the system.
Considered by many to be Potter's most magnificent, heartfelt work, The Singing Detective is such a study in stunted human growth. This acclaimed BBC miniseries has now been reconfigured as an American movie drama from Potter's own tortured hand. Sadly, it's a story told too quickly and arriving far too fashionably late.
Facts of the Case
The pulp novelist, Dan Dark, is a man in misery. He suffers from psoriatic arthropathy, a debilitating skin and joint disease that has ravaged his body. He is covered in scaling flesh and open sores, and his nerve endings are alive with indescribable pain. He is given to mood swings and violent outbursts, and has to be sedated for the doctors to treat him. He also has a tendency to hallucinate: events from his past; sections of his hard-boiled detective novels; portions of a new literary work in progress; himself as a crooning gumshoe, belting out catchy, campy songs from the 1950s.
Hoping to cure Dark of his agony-based psychosis, the hospital suggests he visit Dr. Gibbon, the odd duck head doctor on duty. Gibbon believes that the key to understanding Dark and his illness is the miserable madman's past. But getting to this torment will be tough going. Dark doesn't want to open up, and as his treatment progresses, his visions become more chaotic. Soon he believes in a paranoid delusion that his wife is trying to steal his work. As Gibbon uses all the tricks in his book of brain scanning, Dark stays in denial. A breakthrough is required to reach this sick soul. Will Dr. Gibbon achieve such a breakthrough, or is Dan destined to live in his mean-spirited fantasy world forever?
For many, there is only one international maestro of the medium called television. Sure, Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky wrote brilliant broadcast works of profound passion, but their legacy has dipped as the years have flown by. Other offerings, like Twin Peaks or The Sopranos, are known mostly for their impact and entertainment value, not as groundbreaking literature. That makes the universal affection for the BBC's 1986 miniseries The Singing Detective seem that much more atypical. Its author, Dennis Potter was, first and foremost, a wordsmith. Calling Potter a writer undermines a great deal of the depth and dynamics he brought to the lexicon of language. His TV work in Britain has been called visionary and profound, and he is occasionally lumped together with those other influential English authors, Shakespeare and Orwell. Even years after his death, Potter's works seem to resonate with personal tenets crafted out of years of private pain and pathos.
With such a huge body of written work to draw from—everything from other television plays and miniseries (Karaoke, Cold Lazarus) to some evocative, even odd movie scripts (Dreamchild, Track 29)—it's interesting how attention is always drawn back to the crooning flatfoot. The Singing Detective made Potter a household name, turned Michael Gambon from a character actor into an international star, and began a mythos that most boob-tube scribes can only strive for. Potter set the benchmark, and now his own adaptation of this seminal work is applying to be held up against it.
But don't mistake the 2003 version of The Singing Detective as a condensed, Americanized version of Potter's acclaimed masterwork. This is not Steve Martin in Pennies from Heaven (another Potter work adapted by Tinseltown that the author absolutely despised). Instead, this reinvention of the miniseries is meant to be a statement by the author that stands all on its own. This is Potter pondering his previous success and hoping to—dare one say it—improve on it. Only problem is, it's impossible to imagine how editing six-plus hours of riveting television into a 106-minute movie could even come close to accomplishing its task. And frankly, it doesn't. Whatever you think of the original, you will definitely come away from this update feeling slightly underwhelmed. Not because of the acting, nor the care taken to be faithful to Potter's final vision (he died shortly after this screenplay was written, in 1994). The Singing Detective Redux fails because it can't decide what story it really wants to tell.
As with the original, the film mixes the past, the present, and the pretend into a foaming brew of brain-bending bedlam that requires a great deal of attention to sift through and sort out. But instead of adding up to an epiphany, taking the audience on a jumbled joy ride that finds its satisfaction in how all the pieces eventually fit together, this new version feels like the incomplete novel nose-diving through Dan Dark's psyche. By turning his original, laconic, and logical bit of noir lore into a scattershot semblance of its former self, Potter has cheated himself and the audience. It's not that what he has to say is dumb or dull. But it's like listening to a lecture on a subject that still remains unfocused once the symposium is over. The clues may have been there, but the connecting solutions are a long way off.
The most discomforting facet of The Singing Detective is not the horrible lesions and weeping sores covering most of star Robert Downey Jr.'s body. It's not even the attitude he exudes, a misogynistic self-denial that's equal parts petty and disturbed. No, the most ugly aspect of the entire film is the mangled metaphor of internal pain manifesting itself in external torment. So obvious that it insults our intelligence the minute we learn of it, and so esoterically handled that you could actually miss it if it wasn't so clichéd, Potter's preference for this symbol is apparent—what better way to expose the inner turmoil of a tortured soul than to give him a sickness, fed by stress and psychological dysfunction, that actually shows up on the outside for all to see?
Instead of keeping the pain hidden and hampered, Potter plows our face right into it, hoping it makes us as uncomfortable as his fictional patient. Potter himself had a form of psoriatic arthropathy, and the notion that what we are seeing here has an autobiographical aspect is true. And maybe the mental mêlée was as wild as what is presented in Detective. But as soon as we learn of the symbol's meaning, the clearing complexion and healthy attitude become blatantly obvious and far too simplistic. And nothing undermines drama or tragedy quicker than telegraphing emotions. As Dan Dark heals, his headstrong battle at being a bastard becomes just plain sad. Not worthy of a tear, but only of irritated pity. The use of an external pain to reflect a mental one is just too routine, and too pronounced to make the proper dramatic splash.
Same goes for the idea of child abuse and sexual dysfunction. If anything, the 1980s and 1990s sounded a wakeup call to the world, a time when many media dramas traded on molestation, incest, and battery as a way of exposing the secret society of shame living out its wicked fantasies in suburbia. So for both the original and the new Detective to rely on such a subject for its story is not unusual. But frankly, it is no longer timely. Almost any movie, from The Prince of Tides to Mystic River, has relied on early age sexual assault or the witnessing of some seedy corporeal crime as a hook for its protagonist's host of present-day problems. Yet Potter's narrative is still trapped in the aforementioned age of discovery, wrapped in a time when you didn't have to be different with your awful events in the ether, but just willing to crime-check the newborn scandals.
The things that happen to Dan Dark are now fodder for sitcoms and Jerry Springer. The reason they work in the original is because Potter had six-plus hours to weave his wounded memories in and out of the characters and the conceit. Here, in the 2003 edition, these themes blare out like a tabloid headline, meant to mean something but never fully explored. Potter's take on the torment of youth is really nothing new or novel, and this undermines The Singing Detective's premise. When we finally figure out what all the flashbacks and feelings add up to, we shrug our shoulders and "So What?" starts to form at the corners of our mouths. If this was all that The Singing Detective was about, it would be derivative. But the film attempts to spice things up with songs, musical numbers, and a film noir thriller motif that, while brilliant eye candy, can't make up for the flimsy foundation the whole enterprise rests upon.
You really can't blame the actors here. Indeed, Robert Downey Jr. is so good at getting lost in the personas he must perform throughout the film that he almost single-handedly saves the project. There is not enough praise for his brave, bombastic, and bold turn as Dan Dark, in all his guises. Downey is suave when he needs to be, sickening when obviously infirm, and filled with a kind of literate vitriol that seems to seep from his many scaly sores. When he needs to be dashing, he's more magnetic than true North. In the many musical moments, his stage presence and sophistication make him a classic crooner, ready to woo the ladies with his devil-may-care class. This is, perhaps, Downey's best performance ever in a film, and he deserved an Oscar nomination for being so vulnerable and versatile.
The same goes for the barely recognizable slumming superstar Mel Gibson. It was actually the Lethal Weapon action hero who bought the script back in the early '90s. His take on Dr. Gibbon is a unique character study, mixing a bespectacled Barney Rubble with his own enduring mannerisms to play the balding calm to Downey's raging storm. It's a revelatory turn for Gibson, an actor never quite associated with subtlety and stretching as a full-blown movie star. Stuck somewhere between the two mighty acting men is Robin Wright Penn, making the most of what is a very underwritten role in the film. As Dan Dark's wife/ex (it's never very clear), she must balance a blatant distaste for her husband's antics while showing sympathy for his horrid predicament. Sure, she gets to open up in the fantasy sequences (both as herself and a mystery girl in the private dick's dilemma), but there is not the same verbal status in her character stature. The rest of the all-star cast (Oscar winner Adrien Brody, Jeremy Northam, Carla Gugino, and Alfre Woodard all make appearances) is magnificent, yet they tend to come across as cameos, not full-fledged ancillary characters. Only Brody and Miller's Crossing's Jon Polito, as imaginary agents of nondescript origin, get a chance to ham it up as hopelessly inept strangers in an even stranger land.
You might also fault some of Keith Gordon's directing choices. Obviously bound by budget restraints and a promise to be faithful to Potter's script, there is a definite "working with what I've got" ideal sweeping over the movie. Some of the subtle, sparse choices are excellent. Turning the urban nightmare metropolis of Dark's fantasy world into something merely suggested by small sets and mood lighting is a stroke of sketching genius, effectively selling the surreal quality of the dream world. The musical numbers are handled with skill and security. But the movie lacks a real cohesive vision, a way to sell all the hint-dropping and ethereal linkage without giving everything away or being too obvious. Gordon works well in the small moments and face-to-face intimacy. But when epic scope wanders into the room, he doesn't quite know what to do with it.
It would be interesting to see someone like Terry Gilliam or M. Night Shyamalan tackle this script. Both are known for planting clues and references throughout their compositions, trusting that, somehow instinctually, the hints will remain with the audience. By the end of The Singing Detective, we see how everything connects, but we are half-remembering the different items and ideas. Gordon doesn't do a bad job, just an incomplete one. Potter is not some God whose work is untouchable. Gordon should have taken the tale and forged his own signature all over the manuscript. He could have made Dan Dark and his weird world of bruised psychosis peal with a belfry full of bats. Instead, we are offered a conglomeration of competing sensibilities and styles that fail to resolve themselves. A good director knows when a storyline or situation is not functioning properly. Unfortunately, Gordon is merely a respectful journeyman filmmaker.
That's why this movie is so messy and maddening. It has Potter's pained spirit spray-painted all over it like a coating of chaos. This was a writer who used words as weapons, as salves, as balms and ballistic missiles. His targets were varied and his kills were as concise as he overshot his misses. So he can be forgiven for taking his most famous work and reformatting it for the big screen, wanting to see his take on things become part of that pantheon of the mainstream. But just like most people who are too connected to and familiar with the material they are focused on, Potter could see the forest for the trees but didn't bother to give us an accompanying map.
Indeed, The Singing Detective fails as a film because it never once feels like anything other than a terminally ill author's own inspired in-joke. Maybe it was Potter's intention to turn people on to his original miniseries by giving them a two-hour trailer, merely insinuating and equivocating on what the six-plus hour version is like. Maybe he thought he had found a way to condense long passages, relying on the eventual unfolding of quick cuts, sudden shifts along the plain of existence, and a formidable ability in using the English language to make it all mesh. And he's about half right. The Singing Detective is a frustrating work of well-acted anxiousness. It takes tired old precepts not even worthy of a three-hanky movie of the week, mixes them with a far too noticeable symbol of character corruption, and then, just for fun, introduces elements of fantasy and fatalism into the atmosphere to really shake things up. Unfortunately, the movie never settles down once it's been snow-globed. The Singing Detective is a hyperactive, half-successful take on a classic piece of well-timed television treasure. Sometimes the past can come back to the present—to bite you in the photoplay ass.
Paramount's DVD production of this independent title is very nice. The sound and image are outstanding, with only the extras coming up short in the satisfaction department. As for the transfer, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen print is pristine and ambient. Every aspect of Gordon's compositional palette—the vivid neon of the noir; the arid wasteland of Dark's desert past; the cold, calculated grimness of the LA slums; the overly bright staginess of the hospital—is captured in full detail. You can almost feel the scales on Downey's skin and smell the cigarette smoke curling around the people in the detective story. Sonically, the Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 are both effective. They offer a restrained aural atmosphere in the hospital sequences (with the dialogue occasionally being too soft) but it really opens up for the dream and musical sequences. Now, this is not the most immersive of environments, and there are limitations in the overall sound. But this is still a very solid audio offering.
Sadly, Paramount resorts to some of its previous bare bones tendencies by making a full-length audio commentary by Gordon the only extra on the title. No information on Potter or the original show. No guide to noir or detective fiction. Just the director discussing his movie. Now Gordon, a one-time actor (Christine, Back to School), has made a name for himself in independent cinema with such critically acclaimed works as A Midnight Clear and Mother Night. He has a wealth of knowledge about the original BBC series and has kept in contact with the Potter estate throughout his involvement in the film. He talks about the minor changes made to the original script (moving the location from Chicago to LA, updating the time from the late '40s to the mid-'50s), and how he tried to avoid improvisation among the actors to stay true to Potter's words. He reflects on how he came to direct Downey, someone with whom he had acted and stayed friends for several years. He has nothing but praise for Mel Gibson and his desire to get lost in a character role. And Gordon admonishes some of his own choices, lamenting how budget and set limitations hampered a few of his visionary ideals. Gordon is personable, never talking down to the audience, and his commentary is indeed wonderful. He may not have all the answers as to what The Singing Detective means, but he sure is passionate about his version of it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's important to note how badly a script doctor was needed for The Singing Detective. Now, before you scream blasphemy and head for the mental exits, pay attention for a minute. Potter forged his version of the theatrical Singing Detective in a completely different time and place. The early '90s were nothing like the current post-millennial malaise. People today are more jaded and less likely to be jolted, especially by something as simple as [WARNING: SPOILER AHEAD!]…a child seeing his idolized mother having sex with a stranger. There are hints of further, frightening abuse, and Dan Dark discusses the horrible vision of seeing his parent as a whore. But with every preteen nymphet shaking her moneymaker like a Girls Gone Wild camera is just around the corner, and the preoccupation with the occupation of sex, this idea just won't fly today.
Someone needed to sit down with Potter's ghost and explain that another pass through the inkjet printer was in order for The Singing Detective to appeal to a modern audience. Indeed, between the 1950s songs (so long ago that a present-day denizen of music considers such silliness like old sea shanties), detective fiction (which has long been usurped by serial killer chic), and child abuse, the ability for this film to connect to the Cineplex crowd is a hopeless cause. Had someone decided to spit on the master's grave and rework some of the situations, maybe a real classic could have been born. Potter may be a genius and his original Singing Detective one of the great works of television, but from this final overhaul of his classic story, one has to wonder how timeless it all really is.
Because its acting is so amazing and the images in Gordon's framing so fresh, it's hard to completely hate The Singing Detective. It deserves to be seen once, if only to see performers at the top of their game, reading finely honed words with amazing aplomb. But if you are a fan of the original work, or think that this version of Dennis Potter's paragon of personal exploration will match his mantle, you'll be sadly shocked. While not bad, the remake is not very good, leaving its audience more confused than connected.
The reason is quite simple. The Singing Detective Redux is stuck living in the past: a history of accolades and heralding; an ancestry of formulaic stories of abuse and sexual torment. It tries to sell its split personality photoplay with tricks, tempo, and wild tonal shifts. But it just can't break free from the chains of pedigree. Everyone who has seen the original BBC production expects this film to live up to the hype. Those without a clue about the basis for the movie will simply be baffled as to why it was made, and why the story had to be told in such a scattershot fashion. Keith Gordon can be forgiven for trying to make this dated, dynamic bewilderment into a viable dramatic tale. But the shadow of what came before keeps lousing up the ability to see clear and straight. Maybe, had the original Singing Detective never existed, this movie would be more malleable. But with such a bright birthright behind it, there's no way that it can live up to the expectations set by its older brother. The Singing Detective is, like Dan Dark, a victim of its past. And it's one stigma that it can never shake.
The Singing Detective is found guilty of being a less-than-successful adaptation of the 1986 version, and is sentenced to 10 years in the Senseless Remake wing of the Purity Preservation Prison. All the actors are acquitted and are free to go. Gordon is given a suspended sentence of two years for being too "hands off."
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Director Keith Gordon
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