Archive for the Mythology Category

The Sunday Supertitles: The Yellowface Peril

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2018 by dcairns

I was mildly impressed by director Walter Forde when I first saw some of his thirties comedy-thrillers. None of these are at a Hitchcock level, although the comedy sometimes approaches the irksomeness of the worst bits of British Hitch. But his two INSPECTOR HORNLEIGH sequels (the original, confusingly, was directed by Eugene Forde) are witty and stylish — Forde could bring noirish atmospherics to his music-hall romps. ROME EXPRESS has some very inventive cutting and comes close to being a legit precursor to THE LADY VANISHES (Forde often worked with that film’s writers, Launder & Gilliatt, as well as other talents like Val Guest).

   

THE SILENT HOUSE is probably Forde’s most elegant piece of filmmaking, from an early tracking shot that passes ghostlike through the latticework of a window (surely Hitchcock was watching and nodding his chins in approval) to the use of big, frontal close-ups as shock punctuation. The plot lets it down — it starts as a simple but fun spooky house mystery, complete with will-reading, then plunges into a lengthy, hypnosis-induced flashback, then hits us with a flurry of reversals and suspense-menace involving hidden panels, apparent deaths that aren’t, and an actual snake pit. Yes, the villain has constructed a snake pit off his own living room, just in case he should need one.

The other thing that lets the movie down, or at least problematizes its simple pleasures, is the race angle. The movie is a colonial fantasy/nightmare, a bit like Hammer’s later ventures into this arena. Racism performs a queer sort of dance — at first, it looks like it won’t be as vicious as you feared, then it turns out to be much worse, then it unexpectedly backtracks, then lunges forward, and so on. We end up in a complicated place that does actually soften some of the most horrible aspects of the film. But they’re still there.

(Forde also directed CHU CHIN CHOW with Anna May Wong as an Arab along with George Robey and Fritz Kortner.)

The first hint of this angle is the appearance of Kiyoshi Tanase, an actual Japanese actor playing a Chinese manservant. The moody opening sequence, in which his master is flattened by a falling stone balustrade (a favourite country house assassination technique — see AND THEN THERE WERE NONE — probably never attempted in reality) seems to set him up as a villain. Still, it’s unusual and sort of cheering to see an actor who isn’t white given a substantial part in a Brit flick of this era.

Then Arthur Pusey, heir to the depleted estate, arrives, accompanied by his comedy relief chum Gerald Rawlinson. They learn that valuable bonds and a certain rare gem are hidden somewhere in the house. By curious chance, this is the exact set-up of The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will by Dorothy L. Sayers, a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery I had just read. This movie really is a mash-up of every mystery meme in the air at the time. Will the gem turn out to have been plundered from an eastern idol, like The Moonstone or The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God? It will!

Rawlinson’s effete pal, a sort of Cecil Vyse figure, reacts with superstitious horror whenever he sees a Chinese character — and it seems we’re supposed to share his anxiety. The next sinister orientals we meet DO provoke discomfort, as they’re played by white folks in wouldn’t-it-be-rubbery? false eyelids and yellowface. There are a couple of Portuegese-Chinese “half-castes” lurking about, and the respectable-seeming but obviously villainous Chang Fu, played by Gibb McGloughlin, a name which gives you some idea of how convincingly Asian he’s going to look, but that won’t stop me from inflicting his rotten face on you ~

Then we learn that Fu Manchu Chang Fu has an innocent white girl (Mabel Poulton, looking very innocent and positively pasty) under his hypnotic spell, the fiend! No suggestion of where he learned mesmerism, despite the lengthy flashback to the Mystic East — it just seems to be an inherent genetic trait he’s got along with the rubber eyelids and loose sleeves. And snake pit.

It is obligatory to mention that Mabel is one silent film star whose career really was derailed by sound — or, rather, by the class system. Cockney accent, you see.

Genuinely exciting climax, with the snake pit, a retracting floor, heroes in danger, and Tanase-san to the rescue. The one actual Asian turns out to be a good guy! And Chang Fu Manchu turns out to be motivated by religious passion — he’s relocated an entire Chinese temple (with a statue of some unidentifiable god, definitely not Buddha, but hey, at least he doesn’t have eight arms) to his English country house just so he can replace the stolen gem on its bosom as his dying act. A noble motive for all his perfidy, presented by the filmmakers with some awe and approval. But we have to think the whole kit-and-kaboodle’s now going to wind up in the British Museum, so was it worth his trouble?

And I guess the snakes will find a happy home in London Zoo, but the charming coda doesn’t tell us. Pusey and Poulton are married, Tanase is rocking the baby, and THE SILENT HOUSE is silent no more ~

I love a happy ending!

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Vlad to the Bone

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 5, 2018 by dcairns

Welcome back to Watch Bram Stoker’s Dracula with director Francis Coppola, in which Fiona and I watch BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA with director Francis Coppola.

We were talking about the intimations of homosexuality in the novel, and how the movies occasionally make this apparent. And, interestingly, the first line of the IMDb’s short plot synopsis reads “The centuries old vampire Count Dracula comes to England to seduce his barrister Jonathan” while the second line continues, “Harker’s fiancée Mina Murray and inflict havoc in the foreign land.” There it is — the flash of gay ankle followed by the chaste covering-up.

Now, let’s all don our pink shirts and join Uncle Francis.

I think a positive thing is that we told it as a love story. 

Coppola credits screenwriter James V. Hart (PAN) for “finding” the love story and “weaving it in,” and “finding” is in fact a very good word here as he’s swiped the reincarnation idea from Karloff’s THE MUMMY. But Coppola is talking about the story of Vlad Tepes’ love who killed herself.

I liked Sadie Frost, she was a very nice girl and appealing and pretty and sexy. I was sort of surprised […] we haven’t seen much of her.

We see quite a lot of her here. Including a huge close-up that doesn’t do her neck-wound make-up any favours, followed by a dissolve through the puncture marks to a wolf’s glowing eyes, which must be the worst transition ever (beating the cut to Jeff Goldblum yawning in THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK by a lupine whisker). Van Helsing himself, Antony Hopkins, once cautioned against attempting humour in a segue (in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) but I think he’s wrong. What one shouldn’t do is attempt a completely ludicrous segue without any trace of humour.

Rarely is a movie shot 100% in the sound stage and I think this is.

Well you ought to know. (Later, Unc Fran will admit that it wasn’t.)

Clearly Lucy is being affected by her encounter with Dracula and has been affected in a way and infected I should say because she has the metaphoric blood of a vampire in her, which means that she too will be a vampire.

And by “metaphoric blood,” I suppose we mean cum.

Here was a scene in which we tried, Roman and I were very pleased to do this, tried to portray an early nickelodeon and on the screen are some very early motion pictures

And we get TRAIN APPROACHING A STATION — sometimes called the first horror film due to the consternation it inspired in audiences — appearing in synch with Oldman. Only it seems to be being projected in negative — which connects it to the literal Phantom Ride in Murnau’s NOSFERATU (for which Murnau must have had Graf Orlok’s black carriage painted white, and the black horses replaced with white ones).

The supposedly early porn doesn’t convince — wrong body types — and the assumption that such films were screened openly, with ladies present, rather than at secretive “smokers” shows how the movie really doesn’t get Victorian England. Looking more closely, there’s a suggestion that the porn is showing in a back room, curtained off, but it’s a mere dolly-ride away for Mina and the Count. In principle it could be a nice metaphor for him taking her to the dark side (of the cinema).

This shot, of Dracula literally sweeping her off her feet of course was a mechanical effect, he takes her and then they’re on a little trolley that is pulled. It was interesting, when I did this shot with her, just to show the kind of kid that Winona was, she looked at me, I mean she was a little too smart for her own good in a way, as a kid. She said, “Well, I’ve already done this shot once,” ’cause this was a tricky set-up, they had to step onto this moving thing, I said “Oh really?” she said “Oh yes, I did it with Tim Burton.” But I have always felt that Winona had a deeper well of talent than she was willing to dip into.

Nice back-handed comment, and strange segue. Coppola is apparently still smarting from the suggestion that Burton had anticipated him in any way. It’s clear that she was a touch resistant to his direction, including that one time he yelled “YOU WHORE!” at her to help her get into character. I have to assume that, since she got him the job in the first place when his career was pretty ice cold, it wasn’t that she didn’t want to be directed by Francis Ford Coppola, she just didn’t want to be directed LIKE THIS by THIS Francis Ford Coppola.

I want to give Uncle Francis credit where it’s due (family loyalty) but I’m on Winona Ryder’s side here.

Don’t ever try this with a wolf, by the way. This is not something that you wanna do. Again, it’s used to show Dracula’s seduction of Mina, the sensuality that lay under the skin of the vampire legend, it’s so confused with sex and romance and love and death, the two sometimes are difficult to separate.

“Well, that’s not two things, Uncle Francis, that’s a whole long list of things,” objects Fiona. She’s right, I counted them, that was definitely either four or six things.

LOVELY transition!

Now we introduce essentially a new character, Doctor Van Helsing.

Yep, definitely new. Though he did narrate the captain’s log montage earlier.

One of the good things about James V. Hart’s script (and there ARE good things) is that the writer is aware of lots of different resonances the vampire myth has, and has researched the period enough to find things that connect with the Victorians and also with those of us watching in 1992. In Van Helsing’s lecture we get stuff about the spread of syphilis which we can easily connect to vampirism and thus to AIDS. The bad thing about this is that he just sticks it in, in the form of a lecture. It’s inelegant, but I’m still kind of glad it’s there.

Cut to Keanu Reeves looking thoroughly drained.

“Shagged out… after a long squawk,” says Fiona. And then: “You don’t have to be naked to drain somebody’s blood,” she says, referring to the naked, smoochy Bellucci girls.

“But it helps,” I suggest.

Watching this with the commentary, sometimes you’re mainly focussing on what Uncle Francis is saying, sometimes on the pictures, and it feels like when you miss bits of plot it’s because the movie really isn’t interested in those things. For instance, somehow Keanu is going to escape from Castle Sitting Down Dracula. But I have no memory of how he does it. Doesn’t he sort of jump out a window and then land back in England?

Hopkins turns up in a shot which seems to be nodding towards THE EXORCIST, which may be a bit on the nose, but so’s everything in this film. Apart from Sadie Frost, who’s bit on the neck. Coppola explains that his big idea was that anyone who’s devoted his life to the study of vampires must be a bit crazy, so he instructed Hopkins to play it that way. “Whadda LOON!” Coppola guffawed on the set after one particularly fruity take.

I think Coppola’s logic is sound, but that this is still not a good way to play Van Helsing. I think Edward Van Sloan’s method was fine. Peter Cushing’s was brilliant. Jack MacGowran, playing a variant on the character for Polanski, was just fine in context. The character seems a great way to explore, consciously or not, the unpleasantness of being in thrall to medical professionals, and there’s a touch of that here. But it’s dissolved in a welter of ham theatrics.

Coppola credits the big window Gary Oldman shows up at to THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN. I like how he’s basically providing the whole filmography of influences for us. It’s a good reference, since the dream sequence in Capra’s film also seems to refer to the idea of the vampire seducer from the East. It is quite a 1930s-esque window, though, but they get away with it.

We brought in a singer, a vocalist, named Diamanda Galas to provide some very orgiastic and other feminine sounds of intensity to help us with this sequence.

“She’s only a child!” exclaims Van Helsing, which might not be my first reaction to a tits-out Sadie Frost, but we’re all different, which is one of the themes of this film anyway. He prescribes an immediate transfusion, which is of course risky as doctors at the time hadn’t figured out blood groups. He gets every male in the neighbourhood to transfuse into Sadie and miraculously they’re all the same type (Type O). Sadie’s type. (In fairness: I think that’s the way it is in the book. Coppola once shows the Dread Pirate Roberts donating, albeit without a blood test. But I’m assuming Withnail and the Rocketeer also get in on the act. The more the merrier.)

Interestingly, blood transfusion, another example of modern technology at the time, and we did it as authentically as we knew how, we tried to find out how did they do transfusions, and we did it the way they did, however, shows what a pansy director I am, it wasn’t really a transfusion, it was just a movie scene, however, the great director Clouzot, in one of his movies actually had the character get a blood transfusion and the actor showed up and they began to shoot the scene and he had brought a doctor and they did a real blood transfusion while they were shooting, and so I realise I’m not as I like to think I am, and Damn, why didn’t I have it be a real transfusion? and Clouzot was Clouzot and I don’t think I would have gotten away with it.

“He would have liked to, though,” suggests Fiona.

Clouzot transfused Bernard Blier in QUAI DES ORFEVRES, and did it again to Brigitte Bardot in LA VERITÉ, or at least he certainly had the needle in her arm. And, having gone that far, I think we all know he would have kept going.

Bad nipple continuity here: Sadie’s bosom has a strange now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t approach. The trick with getting away with continuity errors is to calculate where the audience is looking. Hard to see how anybody could miscalculate the centre of attention when Sadie is writhing about in what I believe is known as deshabille.

Coppola starts to tell us about Byron and Shelley and the Villa Deodata set in his own unique manner ~

Now these people in those days were sort of like the equivalent of, you know, Snoop Doggy Dog. They were the hip people of the day, as when I was young it would have been Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer and what have you, going off to Switzerland.

BWAHAHAHA I just can’t

Jack-the-Vlad

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2018 by dcairns

Cast list for Mario Puzo’s DRACULA —

Al Pacino — Dracula

Diane Keaton — Mina Murray

Robert Duvall — Jonathan Harker

Marlon Brando — Professor Van Helsing

John Cazale — Renfield

Duvall’s Dr. Watson in THE SEVEN PER CENT SOLUTION is a worthy predecessor to Keanu Reeves’s Unconvincing Victorian Gentleman in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA. OK, on with our amazing journey through Francis Coppola’s director’s commentary, billed excitingly as Watch Bram Stoker’s Dracula With Francis Coppola. Let’s! Oh, do let’s!

A pause in the commentary allows us to enjoy Keanu’s accent. It’s not that the accent is awful, or even too extreme — some posh Englishmen probably talked much posher in Victorian times — it’s that the accent has taken over the performance and is occupying all the actor’s concentration. Plus, I guess if you’re known for being Keanu Reeves, which Keanu Reeves was at the time, your English accent had probably best be quite subtle and discreet, which this isn’t.

Winona’s “It’s just that I’m so tebbly worried about Jonathan,” could give Keanu a run for his money, though. The line is kind of pathetic (I’m guessing the film wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test — Winona & Sadie’s scenes are all useless drivel, women waiting for men to show up so something can happen) but the delivery feels positively parodic.

The garden is built into the swimming pool that was Esther Williams’ swimming pool.

OK, that clarifies what Uncle Francis said earlier. Suddenly it’s NIGHT, in the best Edward D. Wood tradition, and the girls are looking off camera, slightly upwards, and the sky is full of Gary Oldman’s eyes, and NONE of this works.

You know, he’s on his ship, in his coffin, buried in his soil of Transylvania, and it’s beginning to influence even those girls in England.

It’s hot, you’re sweating, now here comes Julius!

Now Francis embarks on a stream-of-consciousness monologue in which what he’s trying to say keeps getting interrupted by what he’s looking at, because he can’t help say what he’s looking at, like a child going “Dog!”

This is a sequence trying to express the crates of boxes of Dracula’s belongings, including himself in a kind of almost embryonic state in the box and of course the movement of the ship on the water is now translated even to the girls in their garden and maze trying to unify the turmoil of storm that is about to, um, reach them… […] As though the earth of this English estate is moving, and the animals in the zoo are all becoming like a boat. […] All hell is breaking loose in the asylum because the coming of the boat again the metaphor is that the boat is expressed by boat-like movement even in a rock-solid place like an asylum.

The Joycean quality of the above does kind of suit the sequence, which is a very exciting one. John Boorman praised it for being a new form of cinema… Coppola admits he got it from Abel Gance. I think the few static shots here are a shame though. Ken Russell would have found a way to keep the madness going.

He’s getting so stoked, Renfield.

Well, it is BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA.

Coppola credits the pixilation shots, like a speed-freak version of the EVIL DEAD’s shakicam, to his son Roman, and speculates that the technique may have been developed and named by experimental filmmakers in the San Francisco Bay Area. As far as I know it’s Norman McLaren’s term, but I may be wrong.

Please, this isn’t what it looks like!

Then Dracula in the form of a big werewolf is shagging Sadie Frost and even Coppola seems bemused.

I’m a little surprised by this movie, I haven’t seen it in such a long time, but… it never stops doing stuff. It’s hard for me to talk about it, because normally, doing a commentary — oh yeah, he’s actually seeing the blood coursing through her veins — these are all ideas that we hoped to do when we planned it out and then of course we had to find ways to be able to do this imagery… and some work really very, very successfully, and some, uh, not at all, but you can see that it was a production that was full of ideas…

I like that he’s on the point of explaining why the film is hard to commentate on because crazy shit keeps breaking out, when he has to cut himself off because some more crazy shit just broke out. He then invokes Cocteau’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, a mistake, I feel. Surely he’s thinking of Charles Band’s PHANTOMS.

This sequence is actually shot with a Pathé camera, hand-cranked camera. I wanted to shoot much more of it with the camera but the photographer was less than interested.

Michael Ballhaus is emerging as a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, isn’t he? It’s a lovely moment, and for once, it DOES feel like we’re back in the past.

Maybe the British actors and Ballhaus and, oh, everybody else who wasn’t a relative, was having trouble figuring out what this film was supposed to be because Coppola, as we’ve seen, doesn’t express himself very precisely with words. But he does express himself expressively. I recall Clive James quoting, I think maybe it was Bruce Beresford — “There’s an interview where Coppola says he doesn’t make films for the hoi polloi, when he means the intelligentsia.” Coppola would naturally want to use the term hoi polloi because it sounds snooty, something a toffee-nose would say, even if it doesn’t mean what he wants it to mean.

Well hello.

Coppola points out the clever effect where Oldman seems to catch a falling medicine bottle at knee level, then all at once has it at eye level — in an unbroken shot. THIS is the kind of “Did I see that?” sleight of hand that’s perfect for making the character a touch uncanny but not obviously strange.

(My friend Kiyo said “But… he’s obviously strange,” as Jude Law romanced the heroine of TALE OF A VAMPIRE, and then Fiona and I use it every time a Gothic movie attempts to sell a character as seductive when in fact you’d run screaming into the night if you ever met him.)

Fiona points out that Oldman is unlikely casting as a sexy Dracula, but admits that he is rather splendid in his man about town garb and shades.

I’ve always had the theory that a man loves the same woman all his life even if she takes the form of different women but ultimately from Day One a man loves the same woman and she is him.

Does this line work on the long-suffering Eleanor, I wonder? Oh, I’m such a bitch.

TO BE CONTINUED…