"Art is not a mirror with which to reflect the world; it is a hammer with which to shape it"

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Bela Lugosi's Dead

So, it’s another Hallowe’en; the one night in the year when the shackles can be shaken off and children can use threats of violence to get free stuff and adults can use somewhat ‘unusual’ ingredients in confectionary. In honour of this auspicious date I thought I’d share, and praise, some of my favourite vampire films. Some lauded, some derided; some good, some… not so good.

Nosferatu (1922, F.W. Murnau)
The father of a race of monsters, to purloin a phrase. Although there are references to a Roumanian film named Drakula from a year earlier this ‘lost’ film is apparently a biopic of the original Vlad. So Nosferatu is arguably the first vampire film. Illegally produced, we’re lucky to have this expressionist masterpiece. Refulgent with evil, disease and decay, 85 years old and still magisterially above all that came after. One tomb rose larger and more lordly than the rest and on it but one word, Nosferatu.

Vampyr (1931, Carl T. Dreyer)
Dreyer is now mainly praised for his later (and earlier) weightier films and Vampyr would appear to be an oddity in his canon. It is a genuinely odd experience. It’s supposedly a ‘talkie’ but the dialogue is so sparse as to make that a misnomer. I would argue it is the final European Expressionist horror, at the border with the American Universal horrors. It’s almost plotless, dreamy, almost hypnotic. The hero’s waking interment is perhaps the most notable moment. The curious pervasive bleached out effect was caused by the brief and deliberate opening of the film cans to the light after shooting.

Dracula (1931, George Melford)
Forget poor old Bela a while and track down a copy of this. During the silent era films could be exported round the world with only the inter-titles needing to be changed but as sound came the studios were posed a problem of exportability. The answer initially for companies like Universal was to make their films again in Spanish for the South American market. These versions were filmed using the same sets and often the same storyboards but they had one startling difference: they were exempted the strictures of the Hays Code. While Browning’s version is ponderously directed, restrained, rather slow and bound to the stage version and therefore stagy, this Spanish language version has a more spooky atmosphere, better acting, a looser feel (it’s half an hour longer), an eroticism entirely absent from the Lugosi version, heaving bosoms and an expanded climax (Lugosi’s demise is entirely off-screen and denies the audience resolution). The minor flaw is that this Dracula is only marginally better acted than Lugosi’s.

The Isle Of The Dead (1944, Mark Robson)
This is praised here. I suspect this is the best vampire film from the 40’s. By the time Lewton came along Universal were reaching the bottom of the barrel, packaging and repackaging their classic creatures in increasingly desperate ways. This was something else, something different, and it had Karloff.

Dracula (a.k.a. Horror Of Dracula) (1958, Terence Fisher)
One of the big ones and an obvious choice. Never mind that about the only thing it kept from the novel was the title, this is a good film of the old man. It’s well cast, well made, makes good use of this new-fangled colour thing and Christopher Lee surely makes one of the most imposing presences as Dracula. 1966’s Dracula, Prince Of Darkness is maybe, marginally, the better film with it’s widescreen and bolder conception but this has a much better ending… which harks back to the original Nosferatu.

The Hunger (1983, Tony Scott)
Alright, it’s more flash than real substance but is that a major problem? This has several of the same themes as brother Ridley’s contemporaneous Blade Runner: mortality, passage of time and memory, etc. This also seems to prefigure Anne Rice’s Queen Of The Damned. On top of this there’s the luminous Catherine Deneuve and a great piece of Schubert. Recent pictures of Deneuve would seem to indicate that she’s as ageless and timeless as her character here.

Hellraiser (1987, Clive Barker)
Hellraiser? A vampire film? The bad guy’s a dead man revivified with blood who then gains strength through drinking blood from the necks of his victim. This is one of the few modern horrors to actually take itself and the genre seriously: cinematic, intelligent and generally well-acted. The score is a marvellous work in itself. All of this is carried over into the sequel, which has better acting by the presence of Kenneth Cranham. Personally, I think there are unconscious references to Dracula, Prince Of Darkness even though Barker asserts that he doesn’t much care for the Hammer Draculas.

Near Dark (1987, Kathryn Bigelow)
Vampirism brought kicking and screaming into the modern age in a way that Dracula A.D. 1972 could only have dreamed about. This has a genuinely grimy edge of society outcast feel that is impossible when the bloodsucker is in a tuxedo. These are vampires that exude a sense of threat reinforced by the fact that it could be the guy next to you in the bus station.

Nightlife (1989, Daniel Taplitz)
A strange sad comedy-horror. It’s set in Mexico City which lends a new angle to the proceedings. The story is a love triangle: evil vampire and young doctor in love with the same vampiric Maryam d’Abo. Strangely, it’s quite melancholy for an ostensibly light comedy.

Sundown, The Vampire In Retreat (1990, Anthony Hickox)
Vampire comedy with everything thrown into the mix from mad scientists to cowboys. This is great fun. I initially watched this trepidation expecting something stupid but passable… then all of a sudden it’s excellent, smart, scary and funny. And it’s full of people that make you say ‘that’s what’s-his-name… you know…’

Tale Of A Vampire (1992, Shimako Sato)
An unfairly maligned, deeply flawed film. Deeply romantic, deeply melancholy. Virtually a three-hander from Kenneth Cranham, Julian Sands and Suzanna Hamilton. It’s a little slow, a little dreamy and very good-looking. It’s not a perfect film by a long distance but it has a certain something; a spot of imagination that is lacking in many films with many times the budget. And what happened to director? He apparently returned to Japan to continue making films.

Nadja (1994, Michael Almereyda)
A playful yet serious film, seemingly a deliberate return to the atmosphere of Vampyr with a plot liberated from Lambert Hillyer’s 1936 Dracula’s Daughter. This is from the days of American Indie cinema when there was genuine variety. Quirkily cast with memorable turns from Elina Löwensohn in a role she seems to have been destined to play as Dracula’s Daughter and Peter Fonda as a Van Helsing only eclipsed in eccentricity by Hopkins for Coppola. The chiaroscuro photography is radiant with a nifty trick of becoming ‘pixelvision’ for the vampire’s p.o.v. as filmed with a toy camera.

Interview With The Vampire (1994, Neil Jordan)
A fine version of Anne Rice’s only genuinely readable ‘Chronicle’. The tale of a strange and dysfunctional vampire family this film shouldn’t work: while the costumes and design are as sumptuous as would be expected and the direction is great, it does have Tom Cruise, a story told entirely in flashback narrated by a main character who’s clearly still ‘alive’ and a strangely enervated performance from Pitt. Strangely all the script drafts pre-release solely have Jordan’s name as writer by the time the film was released the sole writer was Rice. There seem to be few differences between the early scripts and the film. Quite odd.

Blade (1998, Stephen Norrington)
Portentous and groaning under the weight of it’s own seriousness it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable and very stylish action-horror-thriller. Del Toro’s sequel is interesting; Goyer’s isn’t.

Dracula- Pages From A Virgin’s Diary (2003, Guy Maddin)
Dracula the ballet. This is a wonderful dreamlike, mist-enshrouded film. Maddin is clearly indebted to expressionism and the black and white is only broken by the addition of vivid blood red. The music’s Mahler. That should have been enough to get it on the list.

Shadow Of The Vampire (2000, Elias Merhige)
How can you not love a film that has the central conceit that Murnau’s Nosferatu wasn’t fiction? This is more than just an interesting concept: this is a film about film. This is about the artist, about what or who they are prepared to sacrifice for the sake of their vision. Dafoe’s performance as Nosferatu is superb as is the make-up that renders him nigh-on unrecognizable. And that brings us neatly back to where we came in. Aren’t the cycles of life wonderful?

And that’s that. So, have a happy Hallowe’en and, should you observe such things, a contemplative, commemorative and comforting All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days. And the sun arose once more, shining its light and life across the land...

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Keep Talking

So, now we’ve all been put out of our misery, well, those of us who live in the PIRW*, the only part of England worth living in** and congratulations must go to Patrick Evans. Right so, not the end of the world… there’ll be other opportunities, other schemes and so on. Mind, I don’t want to scare anybody but SW got 129 entries and RP have had nigh on 2,000. I’m pinning my hopes on everybody else being monumentally bad… possibly illiterate… or probably Jack Torrance…

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
-Samuel Beckett

Such is life.

However, as I mentioned I went down to Bristol the other day to make sure that the Digital Shorts proposals made it in because the Mail was still looking ‘shaky’. In passing, I met other people handing their works in and was reminded of something. Accents. Or rather… a lack of accents.

I made a rather cack-handed attempt^ at the start of my last post to write closer to my native accent- though not very successfully I’m afraid! This was because I’d been genuinely surprised that for a place like Bristol, which has its own distinctive accent, in a wider area with another distinctive accent, neither the staff at South West Screen (who I have absolutely no quarrel with) nor all the people delivering their works while I was there displayed any accent. I mentioned this to someone a couple of days later and they said that accents were disappearing across the board. I’m not sure that’s really true: when I’ve been in Yorkshire, Lancashire or Wales I can hear very clear and distinct accents. I suspect it’s the West Country, in particular, which is losing the distinctive accent. I think there are several reasons for this, including but not exclusively:
-the influx of incomers buying second-homes which they only live in 2 days a week while displacing the younger members of the local community,
-the relatively dispersed populace of a wide area (a million people in Liverpool while there are under 5 million in the whole of the ‘six counties’^^),
-the lack of the accent to be heard in the media,
-the reinforcement of negative West Country (‘Mummerset’) stereotypes.

At this point you’re probably shouting what is the point of this diatribe?

So, how about some context. I was born in the West Country, I was brought up there and still live there. Consequently, I have quite a bit of an accent. Depending on who I’m talking depends on how strongly it comes out: with my relatives it becomes far stronger but when I was at University it was pulled back; of course, at times of stress it reared its head to much hilarity. When I was younger I was told by a careers advisor that I was ‘clearly intelligent but if I ever wanted to get anywhere I had to lose the horrible accent’. That sort of thing tends to stick in the mind. At the time I was only mildly miffed but now when I look back I realise that this ‘person’ wouldn’t have dreamt of saying similar to a Yorkshireman or a Scot. So why was my accent so off-putting? It served my family well for centuries (well, apart from the Irish and Welsh ones who presumably had Irish and Welsh accents!).

When you consider the accents on British TV there is clearly a wide variety and of those represented nobody would dream of removing them. Liverpool is memorably heard in Brookside and Boys From The Blackstuff; Manchester in Cracker and Life On Mars; Glasgow in Taggart; Edinburgh in Rebus and London is impossible to avoid from Eastenders through to Mockney. Would anybody dream of removing these accents?

On the other hand you have the West Country. And I should also mention Wales and East Anglia. Holby City and Casualty are set in a fictionalized Bristol-Gloucestershire and when the show started the cast attempted to get the accents right (particularly noteworthy was Cathy Shipton) and yet within a couple of series there had been a conscious decision to remove them leaving them solely to farmers with manglewurzle based injuries and council estates; Midsomer Murder is said to be set in the East of the West Country and amongst the concoction of accents it’s only the stupider types who get the local accent; the recent Murphy’s Law was set in Norfolk and mainly the accents came out as Mummerset (stage school ‘rural’) rather than the far flatter Fens accent. Only Doc Marten, set in Cornwall, tries hard and mainly succeeds; possibly Martin Clunes is nervous that he’ll return to his Cornish home one day and find a giant Wicker Man waiting for him!

The late great Ronnie Barker summed up the majority attitude quite well when discussing the ‘Two Yokels’ characters. Why did he choose yokels? Because he wanted someone readily identifiable as ‘thick’ and because ‘you can poke fun at yokels as nobody sees themselves as being one’. However, the accent was instantly geographically identifiable and reinforced a negative stereotype. How many media people in perceived positions of authority (newsreaders, weather presenters, current affairs presenters, etc.) have a West Country, Fens or Welsh accent (honourable exceptions: Huw Edwards and Phil Harding of Time Team)? The common consensus is that West Country is stupid, is uneducated, is for the ‘serfs’. Is it any wonder people chose to discard it? Ironically, Shakespeare is now thought to have had something akin to the West Country bur meaning that two of the four books every home should have were written with the accent: William Tyndale, translator of the Bible into English was from Gloucestershire (as were J.K. Rowling and perhaps the greatest British TV writer, Dennis Potter).

So, does any of this miscellaneous ranting actually matter? Obviously, I’d say yes but I’m terribly biased. I think it matters because, firstly, if the British can’t even respect the diversity of their own country how can there be real respect for those who have more recently chosen to call it home? Secondly, accents are an integral part of the culture of a country, a living history as valid as the exhibits in a museum; they are a living document not only informing us of where we have come from but also colouring the way we reference the works of the past. Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, Burns’ poetry or Potter’s screenplays would sound very different without the author’s native accent. Lastly, why does accent matter? Because it’s part of your voice, part of your style, it’s honesty and its part of you…

If anybody out there in the Scribosphere from the West Country (and a lot of you seem to be) or not, accented or not, has an opinion I’d be very interested to hear in the comments. Is the accent dying out? Should they die out? Does it matter? Should people feel ashamed of where they’re from?

“It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”
-Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw, 1913

*PIRW= the People’s Independent Republic of Wessex (or the West Country) which is part of my master plan to gain independence from the rest of England similar to Wales and Scotland.
**Or am I joking?
^Originally a West Country dialect word.
^^ Six Counties, an alternate name for the West Country, being Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Cornwall.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Digital Tension

So, I done gwain mi’ way down a’ Bris’l. Und oi presented them to mi’ works fer ther Digital Shorts, zo I did. None too major in general scheme o’ thing but o’ import to me, noneless. Journey o' underd mile starts wi’ a zingle step, so they do zay… ‘septin’ this case it were more a quick step down M5. Und this ‘ere Shorts thing been bein' a bit odd for me. After when it was firzt bein' announced I cudn think a zingle thing fer it. Nuttin’ come inta mi’ yud!

This lack of ideas continued for a couple of weeks. I noted, maybe, thirty different thought-trains but nothing like a full idea. I’d come settled for not entering anything. Then, with maybe ten days left, an idea came to me while I was asleep, fully formed with the structure, the characters, the dialogue, the whole thing in place. Of course, I was asleep at the time so when I woke up the next day there was a minor flaw: I could remember everything… except the dialogue. So, I wrote the thing (with rough dialogue) and prepared the entry from it, they solely wanted a synopsis after all, but I would have been preferring not to do it from something all arse-backwards! Then, I found a short I did a while back and prepared an entry from that too. I reckoned me it best to have not one good piece but two middling and get me a doubled chance of failure!

At the actual SW Screen office, there was a steady stream of entries coming in: I asked if there’d been many. There have. A lot. One bloke seemed to have a vast pile which either meant he’d not read the instructions or was handing in for a whole herd. Course, anybody with talent isn’t going to be posed a problem but I’ll wager that none of us really knows for certain whether we’ve been gifted this wise. Even if we had, would we really know? It’s one of those things that’s probably haunted every writer since the dawn of the chisel on the stone tablet… Ug the Caveman was heard muttering all day in his cave, ‘am I any good?’ Of the two submitted shorts, the older short was a take on horror and the brand-spanking new one wasn’t. The new one has a wonderfully pretentious Latin title that means ‘have mercy’. They’re both a bit (small ‘p’) political.

So, now I have four pieces lodged in various competitions for good or ill: Red Planet (like pretty much everybody), South West Screenwriter Development* and two for the Digital Shorts. Do I rate my chances? Not really but then I’m an eternal pessimist, so I wouldn’t! ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better’ as a great man once wrote. I have two longer and, in my humble opinion, much better short scripts waiting in the wings.

Now, for the first time in at least a couple of months I have some choices to make as to what to write next. It’s always slightly strange to have a freehand. The conspiracy thriller I mentioned before has gone west. I managed to get 40 pages in and realised it failed a simple test I have: would I actually watch this. Simple truth is I would have walked out after about fifteen minutes. The concept is not inherently bad, it’s just that it’s being written by some kind of fool who’s trying to bore the audience into submission: the start’s a bit dull, the middle is fine but the end is a muddled ill-thought through mess. I think the truth is that I’ve gotten too close to it so now is the time to set it aside and clear it from my head for a little while.

There are a number of things I’d like to write but I’m really not sure which: weird Vampire epic, Sci-fi Vampire Western, mad-cap comedy whatnot or a dark occult horror using a couple of characters from a previous script. However, I think my vote goes to the film about revenge. While preparing the Digital Shorts, bits of it seemed to rear their heads constantly telling me to get on and write them down. I’m not sure what details to mention about it so I’ll confine myself to saying it’s about a person who has a trauma and feels a deep need to kill some people: simple! The big problem is that the idea-monsters have demanded a stupidly complex triple three act structure all using the same character at different eras of their life at the same time to contrast against each other and all within a standard three act structure. I may be able to convince them that two are enough with maybe a flashback to the other. I don’t know whether they’ll buy it though. Cruel idea monsters!

I’ve also been maliciously neglecting to listen to a whole host of CDs I’ve bought over the last couple of months. Top of the pile would have to be:
  • PJ Harvey’s White Chalk (good West Country lass),
  • Siouxsie’s Mantaray,
  • Bat For Lashes’ Fur & Gold,
  • Maps’ We Can Create,
  • Skeletal Family’s Burning Oil,
  • Dot Allison’s Exaltation Of Larks,
  • Primal Scream’s Live In Japan,
  • Mahler’s Das Lied Von Der Erde (conducted by Karajan with Christa Ludwig),
  • Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (conducted by Solti),
  • Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 (Karajan again),
  • Gorecki’s Beatus Vir (and some other choral works on an unbelievably obscure Polish record label)

…and so on and so on…

There’s also a couple of DVDs but music is my first and abiding love; film is my cruel and unrelenting mistress constantly demanding my attention…

There’s also about three weeks of post to come… quite a lot I suspect as I pre-order the new CD and vinyl releases online… really hope the Pistols 7s are not monumentally screwed from sitting under a ton of junkmail in the sorting office!

So, there you go a brief précis of my rather dull week. Now, there’s the Rugby final, the last round of the F1 with Mr. Lewis Hamilton, the return of the right-wing programme I love to hate/ hate to love, in other words, the excellent Spooks and the new series of Top Gear to look forward to…

*Or whatever it’s called. I prefer functional titles for these schemes. Screen Yorkshire is wackily calling their Digital Shorts scheme ‘Caught Short’ which is probably an amusing pun the first time then gets progressively grating and albatross like as the months pass and people keeping asking what you’re working on. A talented friend of mine didn’t that he was submitting for the Digital Shorts scheme!

Monday, 8 October 2007

Isle Of The Dead

As I've been neglecting you recently I thought I'd just share something with you... because I like it. And because I care.

This is the Isle Of The Dead (1880) by Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin. It's been the inspiration for numerous painters, novelists, composers and film-makers. Those that stand out, for me, are Rakhmaninov's tone poem of the same name, H.R. Giger's Homage series* and, of course, the eponymous 1944 film.

The Isle Of The Dead (1944, Mark Robson) is a sadly neglected and under-rated minor masterpiece from Val Lewton's famous RKO unit. This genuinely spooky chiller starred the inimitable Boris Karloff as a hardened Greek Officer of the First Balkan War quarantined on the titular island with a mixed ensemble as a plague stalks them... the plague of the vorvolaka, vampirism. The basic material could have inspired a mediocre or melodramatic slice of hokum but in the hands of the Lewton team it becomes so much more than its inauspicious premise. While it could be considered a horror, the atmosphere conjured is something entirely different to the standard; dreamlike, almost ethereal, it conjures the feel of such horror aberrations as White Zombie (1932, Victor Halperin), Vampyr (1932, Carl T. Dreyer) or Lewton's own production I Walked With A Zombie (1943, Jacques Tourneur). Some 20 years later Karloff seemed to retread this territory for his segment ('The Wurdalak') of Mario Bava's unrecognizedly influential Black Sabbath (1963).

*I don't think it would be too great a stretch to see the influence of this painting on Giger's design of the derelict spacecraft in Alien.