sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2011-11-19 12:13 am

I am bound to this earth, I make it my domain

There were three good things about yesterday. New music via [ profile] handful_ofdust, Fox Barrel Apricot Pear Cider, and the BBC's Count Dracula (1977). The rest was not worth recording and almost all of today closely followed suit, which is why the remainder of tonight's post is about vampires. Mostly notes, taken last night when I thought my brain might still hold up to a review. Imagine it's about six in the morning, whatever your time is, and I haven't yet been to bed. It's nearly true.

I do not consider myself a connoisseur of Draculas. I've seen Dracula (1931) because it's a classic; Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) because I was lucky enough to have it assigned for a class in college; Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2002) because I'd never seen any Guy Maddin; and Horror of Dracula (1958) because I love Peter Cushing. I've heard recommendations both for and against Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) and I am trying to forget those five minutes of Van Helsing (2004) that my brother and I ran into on television once. I was shown the relevant episode of Buffy by way of introduction to the series, which may explain why it didn't catch on. The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) doesn't count. Considered only against Bela Lugosi, Max Schreck, Zhang Wei-Quiang, and Christopher Lee, then, all of whom made very different impressions on the role, Louis Jourdan is yet another kind of Dracula again. What surprised me is that I might like him best of all.

The first thing to notice about Jourdan's Dracula is how curiously unseductive he is—in fact, how very little about him is unusual to begin with. A beautiful man, not youthful, with a short-boned, saturnine face that has more of the cat in it than the hawk or the wolf, he greets his visiting Englishman so pleasantly than the ominous implications of come freely, go safely, and leave here some of the happiness you bring can be heard no more than God be with you in a contemporary 'Bye! He seems ascetic when he refrains from joining Harker at meals, insists on carrying in his guest's baggage—a featherweight to him, when we have just seen the lanky solicitor struggling with it across the courtyard—as if he were both servant and master in his own house, but his dinner conversation is skilled and ease-putting and he delivers lines like the one about the children of the night with a slightly apologetic irony, as if Harker must indulge these whims of foreign places. Having failed to reflect in Harker's shaving mirror, he drops the offending object out the nearest window with a careless, chiding smile for his guest's stricken look: "Stupid things. You shouldn't trust them. The trouble with mirrors is that they don't reflect quite enough, don't you think?" His teeth are only a little pointed, but the tips of his nails are sharp and the lines of his palms lightly charred with grey fur. He is the most purely predatory Dracula I have ever seen.

(His hair is the same neat black as his long, medievally buttoned coat, like a cassock: it gives him the air of a priest, but then a Satanic one. The allusion is consciously drawn: this is a Dracula that makes much of the unholiness of vampires, their essentially demonic nature. The use of the consecrated host to seal Lucy's tomb is taken from the novel, as is the reclamation of the coffin earth at Carfax with more communion wafers, but it is the scriptwriter's invention that Van Helsing should refer to Lucy's staking and decapitation as an exorcism or debate the efficacy of the cross with her master. "We must recruit disciples," Dracula says mildly, as if he were a kind of Antichrist, offering undeath instead of resurrection. "Just as your leader has done." Both visually and thematically, I couldn't help wondering how much of this version had gone on to influence Tanith Lee.)

We see the first hints in his interactions with Harker. Dracula instructs the young man as if he were the latest bride in a Bluebeard fable: do not open that door, do not fall asleep in this room, write only on this paper, leave only when I command. (I had never heard of Bosco Hogan, but he makes a fragile, tenacious Jonathan Harker, far more interesting than most takes on the character. His pointed face and his big eyes make him look like a prey animal: you see him shivering alone in the stone circle at the head of the Borgo Pass and think not of sharp London practices, but, "Poor little morsel!" He could be poised to become another Renfield, collapsing into horrified enthrallment as he sees that even a shovel's edge slammed down on the day-drowsing Count's face over and over elicits nothing more than a lazy blink of shark-flat, all-scarlet eyes and the same faint, inhuman trace of a smile, utterly undisturbed, recomposing itself for sleep.) By the time of the Demeter's disastrous landfall in England, we can anticipate the cool, amused arrogance with which he will approach the Westenra sisters and Van Helsing's cabal, moving confidently in on his prey with a singular attentiveness that might be mistaken for the pull of a lover's desire, except that there's no vulnerability in it, no humanizing need. "Do you know the significance of the kiss? You are nourishment to me," he tells Mina, tenderly stroking her spellbound face. "Blood of my blood. Flesh of my flesh. My beautiful wine-press. We shall cross land and sea together. Land and sea." And no sentiment, no solicitude for his own kind: warned off from new prey, the Count does not even smile to show his contempt this time. "Vampires are nourishment to one another. Beautiful, fundamental nourishment. And your wife, Mr. Harker, is mine already." He's a powerfully sexual creature and it's no more than a facilitating mechanism, a lure. Lee's Dracula was a daemon lover, satisfying his victims even as he killed them. Jourdan's merely makes use of their arousal, their helpless and perhaps incidental attraction, leading to the film's most perverse moment, nicely underplayed: when Dracula gives Mina to drink of his blood. In the book, their attitude is coercive and nonsexual, grotesquely infantile, a child forcing a kitten's face into a saucer of milk. Here he presses Mina's head to him, fingers in her hair, eyes closed, her face buried in his breast as she suckles in long, groaning gulps whose rhythm is the same as if he were licking and swallowing of her, not the other way around—bursting into the room, Dr. Seward and Van Helsing are stopped cold, momentarily unable even to process the appalled evidence of their eyes. If you've ever been burnt by trying to rewatch Gigi (1958) just for Louis Jourdan, his Dracula is the antidote for you.

I should therefore not be surprised that the other performance in Count Dracula that really got my attention was the other half of the predator-prey dynamic, the character played by Jack Shepherd. My notes on him simply begin, "Holy shit, Renfield." First seen through the fisheye lens in the ceiling of his cell, disheveled and distorted, groping singlemindedly after a buzzing fly like some compulsive fishing cat—directly viewed, he has what would once have been described as a thin, intelligent face, self-starved now to a scarecrow's stubbly pallor under his grey-ricked hair, and the jumpy, badly controlled focus of an addict in the presence of his fix. His tragedy is that, really, he's not. The blood may be the life, but not for Renfield, or at least no more than any other source of protein. Caught in the secondhand light of Dracula's hunger, unequipped by any closer relationship to satisfy it, he's between two worlds and they pull him apart. He rocks and tics and cowers in his doctor's arms, revolted by his own appetite, but he breeds flies for spiders and spiders for birds and begs Dr. Seward for a kitten for reasons we can easily guess and might prefer not to picture. He prays to Dracula in the middle of the night, gasps with a choked sexual rush under the vampire's casual, contemptuous caress. He breaks an orderly's wrist to get at the blood inside. He quotes from Blake with the bitter aptness of a crazier man, tartly denies the responsibility of the soul and sacrifices himself for Mina, finally unable to countenance his longed-for change of states if the cost is this particular woman's death-in-life, but he dies for her like any mortal thing, messily and without ceremony. He's not a giggling maniac; he's a haunted man who wishes he were possessed. There are no points to his teeth, however eagerly he bares them.

(He is the only other character who understands what's happening to Mina. Their scenes together are brief, but powerful: Van Helsing knows the theory of vampirism, but not how it feels to be magnetized to something so fearful and repellent, Mina believes she must have sinned in some awful, unknown fashion to have made herself vulnerable to it in the first place. The substance of their conversation is dreams and philosophy, but what they are really deciding is whether Renfield is an ally, however risky, or merely another step in her damnation. Neither Seward nor Harker, jealously observing, ever truly perceive this.)

And Frank Finlay makes a fine Abraham Van Helsing, even if Peter Cushing has become, oddly, non-canonically, my preferred interpretation of the role. He's not a vampire hunter, because the original character never was; he is the novel's magus-holy fool, a doctor of medicine and philosophy who practices by the Holmesian theorem that the impossible is always a possibility to be considered. He has a long, Mozart-ish face and a colorfully imperfect command of English (which he may sometimes exaggerate to put the English at their ease), a wry sense of humor and the sometimes abstracted and sometimes abrupt manners of someone whose brain is running faster than the rest of the room. The actor isn't Dutch, but at least his accent is trying to be. Most importantly, he's neither all-knowing nor invulnerable. In the Transylvanian night, surrounded by Dracula's brides, he makes a circle of consecrated wafers and branch-scratched symbols around himself and Mina, his hands shaking badly. It holds only so long; he's reduced to kneeling by their extinguished fire with Mina in his arms, sheltering her with his body and a broken host. We never really know if it keeps off the vampires till dawn, or if they simply tire of the game. We never know—the way Judi Bowker's Mina trembles in the protective folds of his coat, tense as a hunting animal—how close she might have been to turning, then, and rending out his throat. I have rarely seen her played that dangerously, either.

There are flaws. About half the production is shot on video, meaning it cuts unpredictably between the ordinary slight fuzz of 16mm and the grainy tinniness of a much cheaper, soapier show; none of them are in Jimmy Sangster's league, but the script makes some recombinant choices I can't explain. (Lucy and Mina are now sisters; Quincey Morris and Arthur Holmwood are replaced by the composite "Quincey Holmwood," an American diplomat courting Lucy alongside Dr. Seward. He's unobjectionable once you get over the actor's distressing idea of a Texas accent, but he doesn't have the presence of either of his originals.) The use of special effects is very strange: sudden drenches of video monochrome, red and violet and blue, complete auditory drop-outs or a clicking, looped reverb on certain lines, a single image held in a dragging black-and-white blur; they are clearly meant to represent mental states, not real-world visuals, but it took me most of the two-and-a-half-hour runtime to determine whether I thought they worked. (There is a recurring, sometimes superimposed image of Dracula's face, not quite photonegative, silver-skinned, with eyes the black and stained copper of a harvest moon, that decided me.) And the ending is a little fudged, but since it doesn't involve hand-to-hand combat or combustible photophobia, it's significantly more faithful than most versions—anyway, I approve of Mina being allowed not only to carry a rifle, but to use it to save Jonathan's life. About most of the important things, Count Dracula is one of the more accurate adaptations of the novel I've even heard of, let alone seen. My mother had remembered it since its original airing, vividly and with some unease. She was right to do so.

There were good things about today. I should remember them. The Weird seems to have broken the Guardian. After some truly stupid shenanigans with Barnes & Noble, my copy of Gabrielle Safran's Wandering Soul: The Dybbuk's Creator, S. An-sky (2010) arrived with the late mail. It turned out the director of The Man Nobody Knew (2011) was answering questions after tonight's first-run showing at the Kendall Square Cinema.

And apparently I've sent [ profile] handful_ofdust to hell. It's a gorgeously paved road, though.

On that, I'm going to bed.

[identity profile] 2011-11-19 05:45 am (UTC)(link)
I want the book of your film essays, and I want it now.

Dream well.


[identity profile] 2011-11-19 06:36 pm (UTC)(link)
Me, too.
genarti: woman curled up with book, under a tree on a wooded slope in early autumn ([misc] perfect moments)

[personal profile] genarti 2011-11-21 05:21 pm (UTC)(link)
Agreed, in spades.

I don't even particularly care about Dracula, [ profile] sovay, and you make me want to see this film.
gwynnega: (lordpeter mswyrr)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2011-11-19 06:48 am (UTC)(link)
My notes on him simply begin, "Holy shit, Renfield."

Indeed! It's the performance that's stuck with me most strongly since I first saw the film when I was a teenager.

I don't think I've ever seen Bosco Hogan in anything else, but you're right, his Harker is way more interesting than most portrayals of him.

I'd forgotten about Quincy's truly terrible Texas accent! I really must watch Count Dracula again. Fortunately I have it on DVD...

[identity profile] 2011-11-19 07:23 am (UTC)(link)
I'm glad for the good things.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Dracula. As always, I love how you write about films.

I've had cause twice in the past few days to speak of A Mayse-Bikhl. I think a lot of us in the Irish music community are quietly fascinated with klezmer.

Speaking of which, here's a song from John Doyle which I think you might like: Selkie. John says it's inspired by a dream he once had.


[identity profile] 2011-11-19 07:25 am (UTC)(link)
I wish you pleasant dreams and restfull sleep.

[identity profile] 2011-11-19 11:17 pm (UTC)(link)
...but I'm curious: do you know why?

I'm not sure, really. I suppose, for myself, that it's fascinating because there's... not a resemblance, exactly, but a parallel feeling, somehow. I'm having trouble articulating what I'm thinking about. Will try later--I'm for a concert shortly. I don't think it has anything to do with why somebody in a shop asked a friend and myself if we were speaking Hebrew when we were speaking Irish, except perhaps it does, somehow.

Thank you! I can always use more seal-songs.

Most welcome! I'll try to think if I've any more of them to give you.
(deleted comment)

[identity profile] 2011-11-20 08:18 am (UTC)(link)
I found 'Gone' to be a particularly good gateway drug for Buffy.

The BBC 'Count Dracula' is certainly the most faithful adaptation of Stoker's novel that I've ever seen: the only significant omission is the character of Quincey Morris, who didn't appear in any film until 'Francis Ford Coppolla's Bram Stoker's Insert Your Name Here's Dracula' (which had merits as well as flaws - Keanu Reeves was miscast, but Gary Oldman was a great as Dracula in the first half of the film, Tom Waits the best Renfield since Dwight Frye, and parts of it are visually magnificent).

[identity profile] 2011-11-19 03:53 pm (UTC)(link)

Gary Oldman will always be my Dracula, no matter how many flaws the film may have.

[identity profile] 2011-11-19 06:42 pm (UTC)(link)

There is a lot of brilliance about the film. It's truly beautiful. But some of the screenplay and casting is awful. Keanu Reeves is simply laughable. I love Tom Waits' Renfield, though, and Anthony Hopkins' Von Helsing. Winona Ryder has her moments as Mina.

[identity profile] 2011-11-19 06:41 pm (UTC)(link)
Gary Oldman is great in that film, even though I generally dislike the film as a whole quite a bit. He and Tom Waits as Renfield are the only reasons to watch it, as far as I'm concerned.
Oldman is also great in the otherwise wretched Immortal Beloved - he's an absolutely convincing Beethoven.

[identity profile] 2011-11-22 03:24 am (UTC)(link)
He could be poised to become another Renfield, collapsing into horrified enthrallment as he sees that even a shovel's edge slammed down on the day-drowsing Count's face over and over elicits nothing more than a lazy blink of shark-flat, all-scarlet eyes and the same faint, inhuman trace of a smile, utterly undisturbed, recomposing itself for sleep.

See, the thing about reading your reviews is that it's **exciting**. I can't say it's like experiencing the film itself, because it's not quite that--but it's just, you bring such drama to what you're saying. I love it.

He's not a giggling maniac; he's a haunted man who wishes he were possessed. That's an excellent distinction.