A Wanker’s Literary Reaction: Houdini

by thethreepennyguignol

Now, this week’s installment was going to be on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which was awesome and brilliant and had Titus Burgess in it (DID I MENTION I LIKED MUSICAL THEATRE), but I wound up writing that article for Popjunk, and I’ll link it in due course because I think it’s important that you know how fucking excellent that show was. In other news, I’ve decided to start sticking a “Watch of the Week” section down at the bottom of these articles, so even if I hated this show, I’ve still got some actually good TV to recommend.

I finally got round to watching Houdini, the History Channel miniseries about Harry Houdini starring Adrien Brody, which cropped up on Netflix a while ago and became something that I was saving for when I could really savour it, because it sounded precisely like something I would seriously enjoy. And there’s no doubt that I enjoyed it; it was also one of the most spectacularly shit attempts at a biopic I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing in my life. Let’s break this down.

1. The History

I have something to admit here: I’m currently three years into a joint honours history degree that I never intended to take. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed history in high school, but I thought I was signing up for modules when I was signing up for my degree, and turned up and sort of went along with things once I realized my mistake. Next year, I will be graduating with an honours in a subject I never planned to study at university, but stuck with for fear of causing a fuss, because I’m as British as they come. The one thing it did ruin for me, though? Houdini.

Do you want to know what they went with? They went with making Harry Houdini a spy for the American Government.

I didn’t know much about Houdini before watching this miniseries, but there was an immediate “here, naw” reaction when Adrien Brody signed up as a spy for the American Government, using his escape artistry as a cover for espionage. This is bullshit. As in, this is BULLSHIT. It was a theory put forward by ONE historian over ten years ago, who hasn’t backed up his theory with anything other than a message to an intelligence agency signed “HH”. This is a thing that basically didn’t happen. But it doesn’t end there! No, during his visits to Germany, Houdini uses a safe escape trick to break into the German ambassador’s office and steal the Schlieffenplan, which was a very real document that outlined how Germany would wage war against France and Russia by splitting troops across two seperate fronts. While this document would likely have been of interest to foreign intelligence agencies, Houdini didn’t fucking steal it, and he certainly didn’t steal it a year before it was written, as the show depicts. In his dealings with the Russian royal family, the Queen speaks broken English (despite being fluent), Rasputin is shown hanging around the family (he didn’t arrive till three years after the show had him there), and it’s common knowledge that Prince Alexi has hemophelia and that Rasputin is the only one who can ease his pain, which is why the Queen keeps him around, even though Alexi’s affliction was a state secret and not something they’d be discussing over dinner as the show has them do, and Rasputin’s reasons for being so close to the family were, likewise, closely guarded. MI5 turn up decades before they were formed. Houdini’s assistant, played by a wonderfully engaging Evan Jones, is shown to be from Georgia, as opposed to his real-life basis who was from England. They invented a conflict with his father despite the fact Hoduini spoke very highly of his Rabbi pop, and they even got the place he grew up in wrong. The writer of the first half- which was the most egregiously wrong of the two- apparently came out and said he took inspiration from the Guy Ritche Sherlock Holmes adaptations (which are execrable, but fine), apparently forgetting that SHERLOCK HOLMES NEVER EXISTED AND HOUDINI DID, and Stephen Fry’s backside wasn’t going to turn up anywhere to make everything seem alright again. The Sherlock Holmes series works because it’s set in a clearly pissed-around-with version of Victorian London, that features made-up characters doing things that never even became close to happening; using that as a justification for the pish present in Houdini is not that far from using Harry Potter as a reason to have Adolf Hitler shipped off to magic school in Downfall. If you wanted to make a show about an entertainer using his art as a cover for espionage, fine, but don’t attach it to someone who actually existed and didn’t do those things.

Jesus, I’m not demanding every single fact be checked by a thousand-strong horde of historians, and I know that things need to be compressed and elongated to fit a dramatic script, but this is the fucking History Channel. There’s a difference between artistic liscence and making bollocks up to fill space. You’d reasonably expect some people interested in history to be watching; maybe update your knowledge of history past what you remember from high school, eh? It might seem like a nitpick, but it became a hilariously distracting issue for me, and this isn’t even my specific area of study. It jars especially badly with the really well-realized and researched sections on his relationship with spiritualism and his strained friendship with Arthur Conan Doyle, and shows that yes, the writers do know their history as long as it suits their dramatic script. Twenty minutes of Wikipedia would have solved these problems, for Christ sake.

2. Stop Trying to Be Sherlock

I have something horrible to admit: I’m not that big a fan of Sherlock. I would never begrudge someone liking it, and I can see it’s a great show, but it’s never flicked by buttons for whatever reason (apart for that brilliant Baskerville episode with Russel Tovey in it). But it’s insidous influence has leaked all over television, with even Doctor Who absorbing some of the dregs of the show like a soggy biscuit (heh). Houdini so very clearly wanted to be Sherlock, it almost hurt; instead of letting us focus on the always-reliable Brody’s strong, slightly gamine, and uncanny performance, every time Houdini was unlocking a lock or getting punched in the stomach, we’d plunge inside his head (or, in some cases, spleen-seriously) to see how his fiendish brain was working things out. It was slightly interesting the first time round, but swiftly descended into crappy, repetitive showboating, especially when it so constantly interrupted the brilliant scenes of Houdini as an old-fashioned showman flogging his illusions to an amazed crowd. Sherlock is what it is because it doesn’t have to strain to get there; Houdini had it’s veins bulging out of it’s neck trying to prove how slick it was.

3. Kristin Connolly

Now, let’s get this straight: I dig the hell out of Kristin Conolly, who plays Houdini’s wife Beth in the series and who also starred in what is, for my money, the best horror film of the last five years (Cabin in the Woods). But instead of investigating her own interesting life (she worked in showbuisness before and after meeting her husband, and continued with vaudeville acts after his death), she appeared as nothing more than nag and a bore who was basically totally set against Houdini’s occasionally life-threatening acts, despite the fact that the real Beth was nothing but passionately supportive of her husband’s career. She did well with what she was given, but what she was given was little more than a shrieking harridan who’s mother didn’t like her any more because she married a Jewish man. Also, is Kristin Conolly contractually obliged to smoke pot in everything she’s in now, or what?

I guess the most jarring part of all of this is the fact that Houdini still had the potential to be great and indeed showed flashes of that greatness sporadically throughout the series. Houdini’s (real) deathbed conversation with his brother about his lifetime of fakery was powerfully moving, and Adrien Brody’s swagger and electric charm captured Houdini’s own showmanship and playfulness like a photograph. The lengthy exploration of Houdini’s work as a debunker of spiritual frauds was teetering on the edge of utterly excellent, because the show couldn’t rely on endlessly parading out Houdini’s greatest hits to tell a story. But, in coming so close to greatness, Houdini fell flat on it’s arse and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

Watch of the Week: In better news, I did discover the superb BBC series In the Flesh which I will recommend to everyone sick of zombie shows who still loves the horror genre. Set in the aftermath of the aftermath of an outbreak, the series follows attempts to rehabilitate zombies with prescription injections and creepy contact lenses. Following a gay teen suicide victim (teenage suicide: don’t do it) as he makes his way back to his rural, homophobic hometown that’s still firmly in zombie battle mode, it’s sensitive, disturbing, and genuinely fresh. Go watch it!