Thursday, January 31, 2013

Vindication of the Rights of Cartoons

Thanks to slamming doors outside really early in the morning, I didn't get a full night's sleep and have now ended a day of feeling like a struggling zombie by feeling like a corpse barely capable of enough animation to warrant the appellation of zombie. I am loving my math class, though, even though I still hate math. The teacher didn't even introduce herself at any point. It's all so wonderfully impersonal, I love it. It could be related to the fact that it's the lowest level class I've taken so far--it's the class before the transfer level class, so maybe they don't assign group work in these because it's better us deviants don't collude.

The teacher had to explain to one student to-day the difference between the brackets and parentheses she'd written on the board. No, not in terms of their functions in language or mathematics but in what way the two are visually distinct. "This one's more curvy," she said, "and this one's more square-y."

I love my British Literature class for completely different reasons, of course, especially now that my books have arrived in the mail to-day. It was lucky that nothing came of the fact that to-day I'd evidently read the wrong material based on the wrong table of contents I found online for the assigned page numbers. But is it ever really an error to read Mary Wollstonecraft? It had been some years since I'd read Wollstonecraft, and I liked this time how she criticised not reason but what was often erroneously being called reason at the time, specifically, of course, what had been written on the woman's supposed natural role in society.

Her brilliant discussion of what, exactly, is wrong with turning women into giant children both for women and men is sadly rather relevant to-day, though it helps me to marvel at how keenly she expresses the logical conclusion. I couldn't help being reminded of moé.

when [Milton] tells us that women are formed for softness and sweet attractive grace, I cannot comprehend his meaning, unless, in the true Mahometan strain, he meant to deprive us of souls, and insinuate that we were beings only designed by sweet attractive grace, and docile blind obedience, to gratify the senses of man when he can no longer soar on the wing of contemplation.

Though Wollstonecraft ascribes the tendency of society to do this to women to a desire for tyranny in men and I think when it comes to moé I think it's more about a male desire to escape social pressures. I'm reminded of the Japanese word yasashii (優しい) which, referring to a person, means "gentle" or "kind" while the same word can also be used to describe some activity or problem as "easy."

I'm not of a mind to condemn people for wanting gentleness and grace in their lives, but I agree with Wollstonecraft when she says this naturally gives way to prejudices and destructively capricious behaviour in the people who are left ignorant.

Of course, how much one needs really extend such consideration to cartoon characters is another question. Before we entered this era where cartoon women were widely considered sexually attractive, the sort of broad humour expressed in cartoons had much to with the simple-mindedness of the subject which also conferred upon them a lovability, particularly when their simplistic behaviour also happened to be insights into human nature. I'm thinking of The Simpsons, the second season of which I've been rewatching lately, and noticing how one feels simultaneously superior to the characters and yet oddly validated by and sympathetic to their endeavours.

I'm not quite on board with Wollstonecraft in her apparent belief that beauty in women is destructive to women. I don't believe beauty precludes applied intelligence--Wollstonecraft argues, "if we revert to history, we shall find that the women who have distinguished themselves have neither been the most beautiful nor the most gentle of their sex." Well, gentleness, maybe not. But I find most portraits of young Elizabeth I rather attractive. In fact, most of the accomplished women from the periods before which Wollstonecraft wrote were at least moderately attractive. Though, of course, this is all rather subjective.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Dish Best Served in Florida

What's the difference between a thistle in the heather and a kiss in the dark? That's the riddle from 1936's The Ghost Goes West. I can't find an official answer anywhere and every answer I can think of sounds a bit lame, like, "Kisses are fun more often than thistles are." Of course, that's the point, since it's posed as a riddle in the movie to beautiful young girls who must answer it before the gentleman posing the question finishes spelling "Killarney" or pay forfeit, which is a kiss. Despite the choice of Killarney as a word to spell, the gentleman who came up with this little scheme was Murdoch Glourie, a Scot, who dies within the first few minutes of the film in a manner playing off stereotypes of Scotsmen as small minded grudge-bearers and whisky drinkers. Heaven, apparently, is in agreement with this attitude as Murdoch is doomed to haunt Glourie Castle after his death for not repaying the insult of a rival clan, and must continue to haunt the Earth until the insult is repaid. This sets the stage for an amusing little romantic comedy, and in the United Kingdom it was the top grossing film of 1936.

Robert Donat plays two roles in the film as modern day (1930s) bachelor Donald Glourie and as Donald's ancestor and modern day ghost Murdoch. Donald's been compelled by debtors to sell Glourie castle, which he's unable to do due to its reputation as being haunted, until Eugene Pallette shows up as the multimillionaire owner of a supermarket franchise and he brings with him the film's female lead, his daughter, Peggy, played by Jean Parker, who happens to love ghosts and also happens to not be terribly great at riddles.

She loses the game when she meets Murdoch after midnight on the battlements, but accidentally pays the forfeit later to a flustered Donald, which is the sort of sweet, comical misunderstanding that reappears throughout the film.

Pallette's character decides to take apart Glourie Castle and rebuild it in Florida, taking its parts back on a cruise ship, unknowingly bringing Murdoch along too, who displays indignation for the treatment he receives upon inadvertently stumbling into a costume ball. Meanwhile, we're given some fan service of Jean Parker's legs as a little dog frustrates her attempts to play table tennis.

I love 1930s pretexts for surreptitious cheesecake.

When word gets around in the states that the proprietor of the famous chain of supermarkets is bringing a ghost, Pallette decides it's a publicity opportunity and invites the media into the reassembled castle along with a sceptical psychic played with more charm and air of wit than is necessary--but far from unwelcome--in the part by Elsa Lanchester.

The movie's portrayal of Americans, largely through Pallette, as a people who like to hide radios in everything from suits of armour to whisky kegs is pretty funny.

Hmm. The difference between a thistle in the heather and a kiss in the dark . . . I still don't know. Moisture?

Twitter Sonnet #472

Rings of slanted music notes stab the drums.
Porcupine Risk is a nightmare Tribble.
The mountain she's round will judge when she comes.
Stars are but the space dog's burning kibble.
Grey arched American cheese lips swallow
Grilled grease globules quickly at night.
Talking sandwiches are much too hollow
To ever confer condiment insight.
Surveyed hairlines reflect binoculars.
Sky banana Newton knows the star peel.
Organised slums forfeit particulars.
Only cruise ships know how castle ghosts feel.
Physics baptise the clay with touchy rain.
Teleportation cures just local pain.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

But Eating!?

I'm thinking like a Hobbit here. So far the biggest problem I've had with school this semester is lunch--when do I eat lunch? I have classes from 12:30pm to 3:15pm, I need to arrive at school by noon because I have to walk to class from off-campus. Maybe I should just have more than oatmeal with blueberries for breakfast. Of course, halfway through math class I was jonesing for caffeine, too.

My math class appears as though it's being taught by a twelve year old girl, or at least a tiny cute woman with youthful mannerisms. One student actually asked her, "How old are you?" which she replied to with a curt, "No," before adding, "I've been teaching this class for three years, so old enough, okay?"

Meanwhile, my British Literature II teacher, Anthony Ding, is in fact a British British Literature teacher, possibly from the same town Michael Palin grew up in because he sounds just like him, except much softer spoken. A gentleman of advanced years, I'm somewhat confused as to the state of his hearing as, although he's barely audible when he speaks, when he switched on a video of people reading William Blake he left the volume at a bleedingly high level.

But I really like Mr. Ding. He's a teacher who I had in my ill-fated grappling with college immediately following high school. I doubt he remembers me at this point, though. Anyway, he fits a lot of my conception of what I think a teacher should be and too often isn't--someone with great love for the material with an interest in actually teaching the ins and outs of it instead of attaining validation from the class.

Sounds like there won't be so much group work in this class, which is nice, though the students were obliged to do one of those silly, "Turn to someone near you and find out things about them," things. Of course, everyone sitting near me turned to talk to someone else, so I went to the back and found another odd person out, a girl named Siobhan who likes sci-fi/fantasy, has just read a book called Written on the Body by a writer named Jeanette Winterson, and is currently in the middle of watching the original Star Trek series. She told me how she was surprised to see Spock display emotion in one episode and I began explaining it's a common misconception--Vulcans actually have stronger emotions than humans but they suppress them. I started to explain the wars on ancient Vulcan led to the foundation of their philosophy of emotional suppression and I could see her eyes glazing over as I began to take her further into Trek space than she was interested in voyaging.

Looking over the authors from the 19th century we're going to be reading, I see we're skipping over Lewis Carroll, all the Brontes, Jane Austen, and Oscar Wilde. Which seems odd to me, but I guess maybe I should see it as a good thing we'll be devoting time to people I haven't read as much of, like Keats and Wordsworth.

Monday, January 28, 2013

"Here the Other Guinea-Pig Cheered, and was Suppressed"

I registered for Comic-Con this morning, which feels good. Now I just have to worry about starting school to-morrow. I still haven't gotten all of the obscenely expensive text books--the math books alone at 270 dollars are more expensive than it was to register for both classes I'm taking put together. Fortunately I discovered this year that they're a lot cheaper ordered from Amazon--as in 220 dollars cheaper. I wish I'd known this for all the other classes I'd taken.

I failed to note Lewis Carroll's birthday in my blog yesterday, but Huffington Post noted the day in their typical, sort of pathetically tacky fashion. They chose to post a series of quotes from Carroll's works and letters and I wasn't long looking through them before I realised Huffington Post had chosen terrible quotes. Mostly famous lines that aren't particularly interesting out of context like, "What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?" Or lines that seem to have completely different meanings out of context, like, "Everyone's got a moral, if you can only find it." I thought to myself, it's ironic Huffington Post has chosen Lewis Carroll's birthday to give the impression that he's very, very dead.

Most of the comments were predictably from people making snide intimations that Lewis Carroll's paedophilia is an established fact. Which, even if it were, goes to show the abilities of the average insecure internet user's confidence in his ability to judge art on its own merits. But I loved this comment;

My favorite: “If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn't. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn't be. And what it wouldn't be, it would. You see?” -- from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

Which is of course a line from the 1951 film and is not found in the books. Either this individual is content in his or her ignorance or has an extremely dry wit--either way it made me laugh.

Anyway, to show that the works of Lewis Carroll are very much alive, here are some quotes that are actually interesting outside the context of the book;

'O Mouse, do you know the way out of this pool? I am very tired of swimming about here, O Mouse!' (Alice thought this must be the right way of speaking to a mouse: she had never done such a thing before, but she remembered having seen in her brother's Latin Grammar, 'A mouse—of a mouse—to a mouse—a mouse—O mouse!')

. . .

Alice remained looking thoughtfully at the mushroom for a minute, trying to make out which were the two sides of it; and as it was perfectly round, she found this a very difficult question.

. . .

'I HAVE tasted eggs, certainly,' said Alice, who was a very truthful child; 'but little girls eat eggs quite as much as serpents do, you know.'

. . .

. . . suddenly a footman in livery came running out of the wood—(she considered him to be a footman because he was in livery: otherwise, judging by his face only, she would have called him a fish)

. . .

'Very true,' said the Duchess: 'flamingoes and mustard both bite. And the moral of that is—"Birds of a feather flock together."'

. . .

'How would you like to live in Looking-glass House, Kitty? I wonder if they'd give you milk in there? Perhaps Looking-glass milk isn't good to drink . . ."

. . .

'When you say "hill,"' the Queen interrupted, 'I could show you hills, in comparison with which you'd call that a valley.'

'No, I shouldn't,' said Alice, surprised into contradicting her at last: 'a hill CAN'T be a valley, you know. That would be nonsense—'

The Red Queen shook her head, 'You may call it "nonsense" if you like,' she said, 'but I'VE heard nonsense, compared with which that would be as sensible as a dictionary!'

. . .

Here one of the guinea-pigs cheered, and was immediately suppressed by the officers of the court. (As that is rather a hard word, I will just explain to you how it was done. They had a large canvas bag, which tied up at the mouth with strings: into this they slipped the guinea-pig, head first, and then sat upon it.)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Monster in the Dark is Better than Nothing

The night referred to by the title of Michelangelo Antonioni's 1961 La Notte seems to me in reference to primal fears and insecurities associated with the night as a time when one must seek shelter and protection from a vast space cloaking unknown dangers. This effective, cool film is a story of people finding themselves in a wilderness where animal instinct proves truer than the accumulated values and beliefs of a lifetime.

The film begins with a married couple, Giovanni and Lidia (Marcello Mastoianni and Jeanne Moreau) visiting a dying friend in the hospital shortly following his surgery. "The surgery was a success, but the patient has died," the man jokes. The group kids one another with strained gallows humour, feebly trying to keep the atmosphere light as the man's fear of his eminent death can't be disguised. He'd been living with the couple and, like Giovanni, is a writer, though not nearly as successful. "The advantage of a premature death is that you escape success," he jokes. He wonders aloud if it was fear that held him back all along.

Lidia leaves early and as Giovanni exists later, he encounters a beautiful, mentally disturbed girl who pulls him into her room and takes her clothes off, at which point Giovanni finally stops resisting and kisses her but is interrupted as the nurses enter and restrain the girl.

He confesses to Lidia about the experience later and discovers his wife isn't terribly upset--she says she understands; he was taken by surprise. She muses, "Maybe that girl's happy now . . . Because she's irresponsible."

There are occasional shots in the film of noisy aircraft passing overhead, as though a reflection of the inscrutable heavens. First a helicopter Lidia sees from the hospital window, then later a plane as Lidia wanders alone through her and Giovanni's old neighbourhood, a place of harshly modern but crumbling architecture, mostly eerily deserted.

She says later in a nightclub that Giovanni seems so "controlled" around her, appropriately enough as the two are watching a strange strip tease act, where a nearly naked man removes articles of clothing from a woman, dancing and contorting herself while balancing a full glass of wine on her forehead and between her legs.

It all adds to the impression of Lidia's life being one of going through difficult, stilted motions in imitation of former happiness. The reality of the dying man's agony both directly and indirectly casts harsh light on her situation--the man feels jealous of her husband, whose value Lidia sees as comparatively dubious, and the dying man is grieved by opportunities missed, which seems to make Lidia question the value of her own lifestyle.

The movie seems to tie the value of personal relationships with the value of artistic expressions, first in the dying man's jealousy, then in Valentina's feelings towards Giavanni. Valentina, played by Monica Vitti, is the woman Giovanni seems ready to leave his wife for at the party which takes up the bulk of the film.

It's Lidia who first sees Valentina, drawing her husband's attention to her as a beautiful woman who's absorbed in reading one of his books. Valentina later plays a recording of some of her poetry for Giovanni, which she immediately erases in an act of self criticism.

This party is not unlike the ones shown in pictures released by Fellini around the same time, also starring Marcello Mastroianni. The parties in Fellini's films, like the one in La Notte, portray rich people seemingly writhing in the torments of fundamental boredom. One wonders if the extraordinary thing about Giovanni and Lidia isn't their revelation of the hollowness of their relationship but that they have a frustrating sense or memory of having something better and truer, somewhere.

Twitter Sonnet #471

Tightened headbands squeeze the narwhal's protest.
Determined K9 continues through space.
Bladed oars to kukris give no contest.
Calligraphy is a dubious ace.
Translucent stones drip onto blank cotton.
Fictional nuance blurts the bad sign post.
Argyle gourmet merits no button.
A sun god makes a nuclear lunch host.
Sepia tangles crack cakey sperm whales.
Hollow bumpers belie an airy brain.
Finger coats convey barbarous fox tails.
Gum steals peanut butter from the pride's mane.
Two bit zombies stumble in moonless night.
Illusory goals preclude the punk fight.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Corellian Corvette is a Blockade Runner

This is the mouse I saw outside the Panda Express where I had lunch earlier this week. Where's Snow* when I need him to protect me from these thugs?

I'm sort of proud of having had a dream last night wherein I was afraid of Darth Vader. In my dream, he was in charge of a hospital connected to the shopping mall and his nurses kidnapped shoppers to take them back to the hospital where he would conduct medical experiments on them. I was with my mother and we were alone in the otherwise empty mall. I knew very definitely we'd die if we took certain routes, but we did make it back to the parking garage where we began a series of car thefts as we led the nurses in a dangerous chase throughout the county.

I suppose now might be a good time for me to comment on J.J. Abrams being named as director of Star Wars: Episode VII. He's maybe not what I would call the best possible choice, but he's far from the worst. Super 8 at least showed he has a real understanding for the kind of spirit that was behind the filmmaking of the era Star Wars came out of. At the very least, it's going to be fun hearing Howard Stern talk about the roles he could talk his friend J.J. into giving Eric the Actor (formerly Eric the Midget) as he did when Eric appeared on Fringe. Maybe now that Fringe is over I ought to start watching it.

*Snow is a cat.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Pure Quiet

It's here at last. I nearly cried just a few minutes in, watching the new Blu-Ray release of John Ford's The Quiet Man, which was released a few days ago along with a new DVD release. The difference here isn't merely from DVD to Blu-Ray quality. It's one of the most beautiful films ever shot and the 2002 DVD release, which has been the only DVD release until now, was a notoriously muddy, oversaturated transfer from VHS. The difference with this new release is so huge it's not even just a matter of aesthetics. There are shots where I was able to make out people's facial expressions for the first time.

These images are resized, so both screenshots have the same resolution, so the upgrade in quality you see above is unrelated to the fact that the new one is Blu-Ray. But on that note, here's a cropped portion of the image, unresized;

For the original DVD release from Artisan, the company was licensed the rights to the DVD release of the film by Paramount but for bizarre and complicated reasons I don't understand, were not given access to the original negative.

In his New York Post article about the new release from a few days ago, Lou Lumenick writes;

A few years ago I was interviewing John Ford's grandson and biographer, Dan Ford, in connection with Paramount's DVD reissue of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.'' Towards the end, I asked him about his grandfather's masterpiece "The Quiet Man,''' which Paramount owned but at the time licensed to Lionsgate. As soon as Mr. Ford mentioned his displeasure with the ghastly Lionsgate DVD of that movie and started complaining about Paramount's stewardship, a studio publicist quickly cut off the interview on the grounds that it had gone "out of bounds.''

So who knows what kind of arcane bureaucratic bullshit was at fault here. This latest release is from a company called Olive, who I've never heard of. It has few special features, so one thing the old Artisan release has over it is Maureen O'Hara's really charming DVD commentary.

But, gods, this release is unquestionably a great thing.

In other movie news, my German friend Ada has pointed me to this interview with Quentin Tarantino from a German movie site, the first interview I've seen where he talks about the Nibelungenlied influence on Django Unchained;

Candyland ist der Hindarfjall, der Berg der Hinde, Stephen, die rechte Hand von Plantagenbesitzer Candie, ist der Drache, und die Ketten der Sklaven sind das Höllenfeuer. In einem der letzten Bilder im Film muss Django buchstäblich durch Flammen laufen, um zu seiner Broomhilda zu gelangen. Die Siegfried-Sage ist ein Spaghetti-Western!

Which google translates as;

Candyland is the Hindarfjall, the mountain of the Hinde, Stephen, the right hand of plantation owners Candie, the dragon, and the chains of slavery are the Hellfire. In one of the last images in the film Django must literally walk through fire to get to his Broomhilda. The Siegfried saga is a spaghetti western!

How great would it be if Tarantino makes a Nibelungenlied movie? Though it would be hard to compete with the Fritz Lang version.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Old Man and the New Man

It was the first Dracula I ever saw and Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 Dracula is still the best Dracula I ever saw. One could argue the inclusion of a romantic plot between Dracula and Mina distracts from the purity of the old world versus new civilisation story but if it does so it does so in a really wonderful way. And even if that's wrong, which is quite debatable, there's so very much this movie gets right and goes above and beyond getting right that it wins the top spot for me.

Notoriously, Keanu Reeves delivers a perfectly wretched performance as Jonathan Harker. But he is at this point the only real complaint I have about the movie. Winona Ryder could have been a little more invested in the role, but mainly the movie is an exhibition of incredible casting.

Lucy's suitors, who in most adaptations are pared down to one or two, or combined, are here in full force and Coppola shows you can indeed make them interesting--Cary Elwes is the right combination of conceited and a genuinely honourable nobleman, Richard E. Grant infuses Dr. Seward with a nervous weakness of character that subtly supports the impression of a sinister reality, and even Billy Campbell as Quincey P. Morris presents an interesting prototype of the new western civilisation's animal man, who in many ways pales beside the old beast that is Dracula.

"You're such a beast, Quincey," says Lucy in this version, perhaps thinking she's found herself a good playmate. Sadie Frost gives us the definitive Lucy, violently horny and innocent at the same time, the impression of animal nature obliterating the weak veneer of Victorian morality is perfectly realised by her. She is, as Van Helsing says, "a wanton disciple".

Anthony Hopkins gives us the definitive Van Helsing, a slightly unpredictable, bohemian gentleman, carving himself out big slices of meat for dinner, unconcerned really if his words shock anyone, not really seeing a problem with aggressively sexual flirtation. Dracula versus the Victorians would seem to be setting the story up as dirty versus clean, but the truly heroic thing about Van Helsing is that he reminds the characters that realities of nature need to be respected and embraced in order to combat the worst parts of it. I love that Coppola preserves Van Helsing's speech about science--Van Helsing reminds Seward that science isn't about prejudice, it's not about adopting one dogma to stand against another dogma. As he remonstrates Seward in the book; "You reason well, and your wit is bold, but you are too prejudiced. You do not let your eyes see nor your ears hear, and that which is outside your daily life is not of account to you. Do you not think that there are things which you cannot understand, and yet which are?"

In the introduction of the romance between Mina and Dracula, perhaps we can see something of the sadness for the passing of society. Dracula wants Harker's wife because she was his wife first, and would be still if the world worked the way it ought.

Gary Oldman gives a delightfully intense performance. The church fostered sadism in him in his ancient battles with the Turks and when he turns against God he becomes a man who stands utterly outside morality. There is bitterness as he recites part of the Race of Conqueror's speech to Jonathan but, in this version, he seems much more confident that the carnal and chaotic reality still fundamentally ties the world together. Eating insects is "perfectly nutritious" the great Tom Waits says as Renfield.

Coppola wielded a vast number of tools in crafting this film, directed a diverse range of great talent, brought a great range of influences together in a work of singular, remarkable cohesion. Unlike Guy Maddin's ironic and superficial use of silent film styles and German Expressionism, Coppola understands and can speak the old language fluently. The shadows that seem alive in Dracula's castle, the inexplicable distortions of physical reality, the evident, strange life possessed by all manner of dead things who seem to express themselves based on dream logic but in the waking world. Like in Vampyr, which Coppola directly pays homage to in Dracula's independently moving shadow, there's a basic sense of wrongness permeating the living air in Dracula's domain. As Harker says in the book, "I am all in a sea of wonders. I doubt. I fear. I think strange things, which I dare not confess to my own soul."

Coppola avoids cgi and even blue screen, almost exclusively using physical effects like trap doors and forced perspective. He borrows a bit from Cocteau's Orphee tricking the viewer as to the actual orientation of the camera in order to make it seem as though a character falls sideways or climbs straight down. He uses a moment from Cocteau's Belle et la Bete when Dracula turns Mina's tears into diamonds, helping give the impression, as Cocteau gave to the Beast, that the limits and nature of Dracula's powers are beyond our understanding even as they seem to feed off our perspective.

The beautiful and strange costume designs by Eiko Ishioka confer an individuality to character and compliment the mood in a way rare for a period film. The beautiful sets and art direction are much the same way--stylised and lived in, clear reflections of an aesthetic will while also appearing to have been affected by time and use.

And then there's Wojciech Kilar's score, which would have been great even without everything else that's amazing about this movie, throbbing repetitions of themes itself like impulses to sex and war, pushing up the frail floorboards of modern morality, perfectly complimenting the story.

Twitter Sonnet #470

Dominant rhinoceros tobacco
Plugs the soil with the spidery comb.
Gelatinous clouds cram the Texaco
With the raindrops of an oily poem.
Pig shaped cases contain the brief bacon.
Graves are balded by the sudden wig ghoul.
Vegetable gods are too soon forsaken.
No no, the beet juice is the life, Dracul.
Naga's negligee grants gratuitous
Access for her languid tentacle twitch.
Snakes who cosplay as Scylla must practice
Robot humanoid Walt Disney face switch.
Vinegar storms enliven the soil.
Elephant pills are made without oil.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

TV's Dracula

Dracula has been adapted for television many times. In the best cases, the lower production values come with a more relaxed pace of story telling and less self-conscious experimentation. In the worst cases, we get schlock. I watched three TV Draculas over the past few weeks--I'll start with the worst first;

Jack Palance as the Count is the most interesting thing about 1973's Dracula, though he plays the role seeming at all times distracted and grumpy. There's still a quiet eccentricity to his delivery that keeps you watching him. The production's directed by Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis with a teleplay by Richard Matheson, the two of whom apparently decided the original story suffered from being too sexy and making too much sense.

In this version, Jonathan Harker visits Dracula's castle where the Count and he enter into a contest of wills over the letters Dracula wants him to write to London saying he's going to stay in Transylvania for a month, a relatively minor detail in the book that most adaptations get through quickly. Here Dracula gets increasingly angry with the solicitor he keeps imprisoned as the young man continually refuses to write the letters, calling into question why it's so important to Dracula. In the book, Dracula did it with subtle persuasion so he could keep Jonathan for a month to glean as much information as he could from him about England. Here, it's never clear exactly what Dracula wants from Harker after their initial interviews.

The movie also continually teases the audience with the beginnings of famous moments and cutting away from them before they get to fruition--Dracula only delivers a fragment of his Race of Conquerors speech and offhandedly, he sees Harker cut himself shaving, but responds to it only by turning away and leaving the room. The brides show up just to bum rush Jonathan while hissing, devoid of any sexuality, they function as foot soldiers here in this oddly chaste film. One of the significant contributions, which apparently inspired Coppola in his 1992 version, is the idea that Dracula is going to England to pursue his reincarnated love, though Curtis and Matheson achieve only a minimum of mileage from the idea--in this case, the girl is Lucy, who exits just as soon as she usually does. The love between her and Dracula is shown in wordless, misty 1970s flashbacks of the two waltzing in the park.

Harker never makes it back to England in this version, and Lucy's suitors are whittled down to just one character, Arthur Holmwood, and the absence of Doctor Seward means also the absence of Renfield. A title at the beginning establishes the story as taking place in 1897, but everyone's dressed like it's no later than 1850.

My guess is they were recycling costumes from TV westerns and figured no-one would know the difference. They might have overcome the problem by simply setting the story a few decades earlier.

This is the only version where I've heard Mina pronounced "Men-uh" instead of "Me-nuh". This is generally done by a rather dull Nigel Davenport as Van Helsing--maybe it's meant to be due to his accent but I doubt it. A baby faced Simon Ward as Arthur takes Van Helsing's word for it when he tells the lovesick young man that Lucy's a vampire, in spite of the fact that Holmwood hasn't witnessed anything vampiric about his fiancée except her resurrection. It's enough for him to help Van Helsing drive a stake through her heart.

This adds to the unintentional comedy when he and Van Helsing discover Dracula's brides sleeping in their coffins. "What are they, Doctor?" asks the young man.

They're called "women", Art.

A quick readiness to take Van Helsing's word on vampires is also a flaw in the most other ways superior 1977 BBC production Count Dracula. This one features Louis Jourdan as Dracula utterly failing to connect with the character in any way but around him is a mostly solid ensemble of actors, particularly Frank Finlay as Van Helsing and most especially the stunning medieval beauty Judi Bowker as Mina.

I mean, the slender body, long neck, and flat chest would have gone over great in any medieval court. Maybe her head would've been a little large for them but it looks great to me if oddly precarious. I guess Bowker was in Clash of the Titans but I haven't seen that since I was a kid and don't remember her.

Dracula starts as a young man in this one and doesn't seem to have a great deal of motive other than to be bad. But there are a lot of nice bits from the novel here which you don't often see, like Mina and Lucy taking the sights in the Whitby graveyard.

I was also delighted in this version by Renfield reciting Emily Dickenson's famous poem about a fly and death.

Renfield and Harker are interestingly merged into one character in my favourite television Dracula, the 1968 version from Mystery and Imagination with Denholm Elliott in the role of the Count. It features some of the most intelligent and provoking streamlinings and rearrangings of the novel I've seen.

I love Denholm Elliott, but I'm so used to seeing him in sensitive and nervous parts, I'd never have pegged him as one best suited for the passionate and violent Dracula, but he carries it off extremely well. The story begins with him in England, having worked his way into society, and we see him at a dinner party with Lucy Westenra and Dr. Seward, who single-handedly stands in for Holmwood and Morris. Lucy is drawn to Dracula through conversation rather than through wordless supernatural wiles, and I absolutely adored the fact that Elliott gives the Race of Conquerors speech--with brilliant ferocity--to Lucy and she's apparently seduced by it.

Dracula is shown to be less of a strategist in this version, clumsily not put on guard by the proximity of Harker in Renfield mode in the asylum after it's discovered the both of them were on the Demeter and Mina knows it was Dracula whom Harker went to visit in Transylvania. This doesn't seem like a flaw in the production, merely a natural aspect of Dracula as a bit of a fish out of water.

Seward thankfully needs a great deal more convincing from Van Helsing in this version before he buys this whole vampire business, and watching the two of them with Mina putting together Dracula's story and nature from a variety of clues is spun with satisfying, detective like threads.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Rights of Vampire Hunters

My award for "Most Adorable Dracula" goes to young Udo Kier in Paul Morrissey's 1974 Blood for Dracula, also called Andy Warhol's Dracula, but most reviews I see for the movie mention Warhol contributed little beyond his name. It's a far better film than I expected for its reputation as pure exploitation. It's a bittersweet, effectively funny and sexy comedy that also offers a view free of moral or political bias of a transitioning class system.

The movie bears little resemblance to the novel except it explores at great length a thematic aspect, Dracula as a representative of old aristocracy in conflict with modern civilisation. In this case, it's not sexually repressed Victorian England Dracula transports himself to in an effort to conquer the new era, but to 1920s rural Italy and the enormous estate of the noble Di Fiore family. The Di Fiores are falling into poverty, no longer able to afford servants, they retain only one, Mario, played by Joe Dallesandro--though he insists he's not a servant but "a worker". He has regular threesomes with two of the Di Fiore's four beautiful daughters.

This eventually presents a problem for Dracula, who's travelled to Italy under his servant's assumption that the devoutly Catholic country would be filled with virgins and Dracula needs the blood of a virgin to survive.

The opening shot shows Dracula painting his hair black while staring into a mirror which of course shows no reflection of him. Although he genuinely is a vampire, the movie has a great deal of fun showing how a number of Dracula's classic attributes are here aristocratic affectations, like his aversion to sunlight and need to sleep in a coffin. He has few useful powers, lacking any shape shifting ability and super strength, in fact he spends much of the film getting about in a wicker wheelchair, though how much this is due to genuine weakness or to affectation is left unclear.

He inspires only disgust in Mario, a communist who sees Dracula as a useless bloodsucker even before he finds out he's a vampire. Mario has no problem having sex with the Di Fiore girls but he sees their lifestyle and fundamental nature as repulsive, speaking to them always with undisguised disgust.

The ones he has sex with, Saphiria and Rubinia (played by Suspiria's Stephania Casini) don't seem to feel much motivation to do anything beyond have sex and are equally happy to use the handsome Mario for this purpose, despite his disdain for them. Mario says he'd also like to rape the youngest daughter, Perla, who's fourteen but played by an actress who's very obviously in her twenties.

The fourth daughter, the eldest, is Esmeralda, who's talked about as though she's already doomed to spinsterhood. However, after disastrous attempts at drinking from Saphiria and Rubinia, Dracula finds in Esmeralda a soul mate--the two understand and respect each other, and her notorious ineligibility has left her a virgin.

The Di Fiore parents wish to marry one of their daughters to Dracula to give their family a fresh infusion of wealth, and it seems almost as though everyone might be heading for a happy ending, since in drinking Esmeralda's blood Dracula makes her a vampire too. But of course, Mario won't stand for the aristocracy having its way. He rapes the fourteen year old after he finds out Dracula needs virgin blood, and one sees in this a metaphor for the Marxist revolutionary appropriating the homes and possessions of the aristocracy to use them with less sensitivity. Mario would rather destroy and abuse what he values, incidentally enjoying himself at the same time, than allow the aristocracy to perpetuate.

Yet, one can't argue when Mario says that Dracula is useless and that he exploits others. In taking Dracula as a representation of the absolute worst of the aristocracy and actually making you root for him a bit, the movie shows how the political struggles of the twentieth century were never morally simple.