Observing: Part Two

August 22, 2011 Movies

The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes… — Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Hound of the Baskervilles”

Yesterday was a slow day, and while flipping channels, I stumbled across “The Zero Effect.” I enjoyed the film in its all-too-short theatrical release about thirteen years ago, and enjoyed it again, but I had forgotten the whimsical insights on the art of observing and deduction. The parallels between Daryl Zero and Sherlock Holmes are obvious. The story itself is almost a re-make of  “A Scandal in Bohemia.”  But my interest is more in the observational techniques of Detective Zero, self-proclaimed as the “greatest observer the world has ever known.”

“I always say that the essence of my work relies fundamentally on two basic principles: objectivity and observation, or ‘the two obs’ as I call them. My work relies on my ability to remain absolutely, purely objective, detached. I have mastered the fine art of detachment. And while it comes at some cost, this supreme objectivity is what makes me, I dare say, the greatest observer the world has ever known.”

Zero zeroes in on important details when he goes people watching. He also consumes large amounts of amphetamines to enhance his concentration.

Proof of this fairly egotistic claim comes in his first meeting with Gloria Sullivan. He correctly deduces she is a paramedic. He explains that he smelled iodine on her and that inferred working in a hospital or ambulance. Almost the identical deduction was made by Holmes of Watson’s profession in “Scandal”:

“As to your practice, if a gentleman walks into my rooms smelling of iodoform, with a black mark of nitrate of silver upon his right forefinger, and a bulge on the right side of his top-hat to show where he has secreted his stethoscope, I must be dull, indeed, if I do not pronounce him to be an active member of the medical profession.”

I could not help laughing at the ease with which he explained his process of deduction. “When I hear you give your reasons,” I remarked, “the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours.”

“Quite so,” he answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.”

Both Holmes and Zero chastise their assistants for seeing but not observing. Observation is the key to both characters who then use a type of deduction to make brilliant conclusions. Here is Zero’s description of his technique:

“I can’t possibly overstate the importance of good research. Everyone goes through life dropping crumbs. If you can recognize the crumbs, you can trace a path all the way back from your death certificate to the dinner and a movie that resulted in you in the first place. But research is an art, not a science, because anyone who knows what they’re doing can find the crumbs, the wheres, whats, and whos. The art is in the whys: the ability to read between the crumbs, not to mix metaphors. For every event, there is a cause and effect. For every crime, a motive. And for every motive, a passion. The art of research is the ability to look at the details, and see the passion.”

Zero is hired to find a set of keys lost by a very rich industrialist. Daryl paradoxically searches for them by not searching for them:

“Now, a few words on looking for things. When you go looking for something specific, your chances of finding it are very bad. Because of all the things in the world, you’re only looking for one of them. When you go looking for anything at all, your chances of finding it are very good. Because of all the things in the world, you’re sure to find some of them.”

I like this idea because this is how I do research. When I research for something in particular, I always seem to find something else more important that I was never looking for in the first place. I guess I am as confused as Daryl.

I love the conclusion of the film:

“After investigating her, I found myself in better shape than ever before in my life. To me, she will always be a singular unforgettable event, the only time I ever took leave of my objectivity. Perhaps the most able blackmailer of her time, she was at once the worthiest opponent and the greatest ally, and the only woman I have ever . . . the only woman, period. And though I never would’ve anticipated it, in the end she did for me what I have done for so many: help solve a problem, first by observation, then by careful intervention – in other words, the Zero Effect.”

So when you have a chance, catch this clever little film either on cable or DVD.