Monday, May 7, 2012

Point of view, and watching Martin Freeman's butt

All right, I just put the word “butt” in the title to get your attention. But this is a serious-ish post, about a fiendish little experiment I conducted recently whose results surprised me.

I love my local public library. It has comfy chairs, wi-fi, and (most importantly) lots and lots of books I love to read. It also has a nice little auditorium with lovely acoustics and a Thursday matinee screening series. This month, they’re screening Sherlock Holmes flicks, beginning with “A Study in Pink,” the pilot episode of Sherlock. (Yes, purists, there are more traditional Sherlocks in the series, as well, including Jeremy Brett and Basil Rathbone.) I was quite excited when I heard about this, and rearranged my work schedule so I could attend. Not, mind you, because it was such a treat to watch “Pink”—I own the DVD and have seen it so many times I’ve accidentally memorized it—but because this was a chance to watch the episode in a room full of people who had never seen it before.

Why does this matter? One word: research! 

Okay, AND the chance to watch these guys on a big screen.
I first saw “A Study in Pink” online, ruthlessly edited down and streamed through the PBS website. Later, I bought the DVD and inflicted it on most of my friends, but I was always sitting right there next to them, nudging them and saying things like, “Okay, watch this bit, it’s the best part ever until the next best part!” We were also able to pause the episode whenever we liked and argue about what was really going on, which cut down on a lot of the confusion when Sherlock deduced things at a million miles an hour and someone needed the Cliff’s Notes.

Now that I’m planning the Street of Bakers project, however, I’ve realized that I lack what might be called a normal person’s perspective on the story. Remember, when I was a kid reading the canon, I identified with Sherlock Holmes, even though Watson’s supposed to be the POV character. I might enjoy the living hell out of those stories, but I don’t necessarily have a firm grasp of what everyone else likes about them. It’s a bit like going to a football game and admiring the marching band instead of watching the players. Maybe you’re having just as much fun as everyone else, but you’re not going to understand what makes football appeal to people who aren’t you. That’s okay if you’re just watching football, but when you’re trying to write a book for people who aren’t you, then it’s a real drawback. 

They're looking at a marching band, I swear.
So my goal in attending the screening wasn’t to watch the episode—it was to watch the audience. I wanted to see which moments made them laugh, or gasp, or blink. And I made a rather surprising discovery.

I couldn’t exactly listen to the audience’s thoughts, so I watched their faces instead, and listened for the telltale sounds of fidgeting in the dark auditorium. (Remember those lovely acoustics? They were a big help.) Everyone seemed deeply drawn in by the first meeting between Holmes and Watson; those characters’ big plot moments were attended by total silence as everyone held still and focused on the screen, momentarily forgetting to check their phones for messages or rummage in their bags for smuggled snacks. 

But their attention wasn’t evenly split. As brilliant and charismatic as Holmes was, and as well as Benedict Cumberbatch played him, he wasn’t nearly as likely to hold their focus as Martin Freeman, the actor playing Watson. Even at the climax of the episode, when Holmes was staring down the barrel of the serial killer’s gun, there were occasional rustles as people searched their pockets or crossed and uncrossed their legs. But a five-second scene where Watson pulled up in a cab outside the building where the confrontation was taking place? I swear I heard them stop breathing. That focus remained as the episode shifted back to Holmes and he deduced the killer’s motive, but I could feel the stillness around me grow every time the camera shifted back to Watson running through the building, searching for his friend, the camera following along behind him. It didn’t matter whether they could see his face, or whether he was talking. If Watson was on screen, and moving at all, the audience was glued to him.

Look! A guy with a cab! Everyone hold your breath!
Seriously. I don’t think I’ve seen this many people staring raptly at an actor’s backside since I walked in on a couple of preteens watching an Orlando Bloom movie.

The point of all this? Once the audience identifies with a character strongly enough, they’ll watch that character do almost anything, even if it’s just getting out of a cab. Steven Moffat went to a lot of trouble to make Watson sympathetic and heroic early in the episode, before Sherlock Holmes even appeared—he showed Watson’s military service in a flashback, showed him trying to put on a brave face in a therapy session, and then used Stamford to show that Watson had once been the sort of friend you’d recognize and call to across a park even if you hadn’t seen him in years. Even in the first Holmes-Watson scene, Watson shows himself to be both tolerant (going along with Stamford’s crazy roommate suggestion) and polite (lending Holmes his phone without being asked). 

Would you trust this guy with your phone? I wouldn't.
By the time Sherlock Holmes first dazzles the audience with his deductions about Watson’s past, we already feel like we know the guy we think of as the hero—and we’ll follow him even when Holmes is acting like a jerk. I talked to a couple of audience members after the screening and discovered that several of them had hearing problems and couldn’t understand what Holmes was saying; Cumberbatch talked too fast, and his British accent was a little too hard on damaged American ears. But Martin Freeman’s voice and body language carried so much of the story that they were riveted to the sight of him getting out of a car. Now that is audience identification.

This shot is only in here because it's awesome. Carry on.
Now, most of these viewers were considerably older than the prospective readers of Street of Bakers—I think I was the youngest person in the room, except perhaps for the young librarian running the projector. I’d like to repeat the experiment with younger viewers and see whether the results hold. But all in all, it’s a very promising bit of data. I have big plans for my own Watson …


  1. Totally love Sherlock. Finally got to see the first episode of Series 2. My dad doesn't care for it though. He's old fashioned, and thinks the new take is "crazy".

  2. To steal a line from Moriarty: "But then ... that IS rather the point."

    I think a lot of the earlier adaptations did viewers a disservice by taking out the weird, crazy parts of Sherlock Holmes. I mean, the guy's first mentioned as the weird guy in the lab who beats cadavers with a stick. And what does Sherlock do first in the pilot episode, to the horror of traditionalists everywhere? Beat a cadaver with a riding crop!

    I can only conclude that riding crops are somehow noticeably crazier than sticks. :)

  3. Btw, don't know if I ever mentioned: my dad knows your parents. Old ECC cohorts and what not.

    1. You didn't, but I guessed. And in fact he knows me--I used to work for him as his token female camera-monkey. :)

    2. You know, he may have mentioned that. I think he told me about your site after your mom told him about it.

  4. Replies
    1. You're welcome! I hope you enjoy the blog, and Bakers when it's done.