Sympathy for the Vampire: On “Nosferatu”
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922) Dir. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau with Max Schreck, Greta Schröder, Gustav von Wangenheim Our Rating: 3 of 3 STARS
Kino Classics 2-Disc Deluxe Remastered Edition (Nov, 2013) now available on DVD. Other versions available via Amazon Prime and Netflix
PART I. An Introduction to The Film
There are ogres and villains, monsters and demons inhabiting the darkest corners of our collective imagination. Vampires are a case in point; they first became popular in the 19th century and they’ve never gone out of style. From Lord Byron and Bram Stoker to Twilight, True Blood, and the Vampire Diaries, bloodthirsty creatures continue to grace big and small screens alike.
In Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Nosferatu—the first and oldest vampire movie—Count Orlok of Transylvania plays havoc with a small [fictitious] German town called Wisborg. Dracula fans will recognize the plot: an ambitious young realtor, Hutter, visits the reclusive count in order to finalize the sale of a property in his hometown. Before embarking on the long journey into the heart of Eastern Europe, he leaves his lovely wife Ellen in the care of a friend. Orlok terrifies Hutter with his grim strangeness, and then he sails for Wisborg before the guy can recover. Meanwhile Ellen suffers telepathically alongside her husband and Orlok’s other victims. As you might imagine, she will eventually meet the count.
Although long considered a masterpiece of German Expressionism, for much of the twentieth century, Nosferatu was only known in fragments or rare prints and largely unavailable in Europe. The film is loosely based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but Albin Grau, the producer, never obtained rights to the novel. Suffice to say, his attempts to disguise the source did not impress Stoker’s widow. She filed suit, and most copies were destroyed in 1923 when a judge ruled in her favor.
Legality aside, Heinrich Galeen’s screenplay is a model adaptation. While Hutter channels Jonathan Harker and Stoker’s Van Helsing is reanimated in Professor Bulwar, other characters are admirably compressed and combined. The land agent who employs Hutter goes mad like Renfield, and Ellen embodies both Lucy and Mina. England becomes Germany, and Orlok’s arrival alongside an army of rats serves to explain a plague in the town. (In the novel, the rats found in Dracula’s cargo are little more than mise-en-scène.) Moreover, the sea voyage and the Transylvanian forest sequences provide some of the most brilliant cinematography in film history as well as a range of fascinating experiments.
Exteriors were shot in Slovakia and in various German towns, Wismar, Lübek. (The famous salt storehouses in Lübek serve as Count Orlok’s newly purchased home.) A truly spectacular mixture of realism and fantasy is the result. For example, in a recent documentary, members of the film crew describe their arduous journey through the Carpathian mountains to reach the Orava Castle, mirroring Hutter’s fictional journey. They also mention anxious reactions from the Slovakian raftsmen hired to ferry earth-filled boxes down the Váh River, and naturally those authentic emotions influence our own fears and doubts. Apparently the cameraman, Fritz Arno Wagener (or DP as we might call him today), and Murnau were tireless.
In the following sequence, shot on location in the Carpathian mountains, Hutter crosses over to the dark side, discovering vampire territory in a vast, eery wilderness. He wanders, his terror growing, until Orlok’s carriage appears mysteriously, to escort him. First you’ll notice the different colored tints distinguishing the Western world from the folkloric, Eastern one, and you’ll also notice that part of the sequence is projected in negative, intensifying the impression of Orlok’s supernatural powers. Finally, the film speed was decreased such that the carriage would appear to move more quickly than realistically possible.
A newly incorporated Prana Films produced Nosferatu, and here begins my discussion of the bizarre and disturbing ideas and events which inspired and shaped the film. Albin Grau, who founded Prana Films, was perhaps the strangest character involved in the production. A graphic artist, among other things, Grau was fascinated by the occult, and he admired the English magician Alistair Crowley. Some speculate that the idea for a vampire movie was his, and that he’d met a Serbian farmer during the war who claimed to have some undead among his relatives.
The early years of 20th century saw peculiar developments and transitions in art history and the history of ideas, perhaps especially in the German-speaking world. Idealism and Romanticism were crumbling, and nihilistic tendencies and aberrant forms and images oozing out. Hysteria and other mysterious psychological disorders—represented in Nosferatu through Ellen’s depressive affliction—had already fascinated Europeans since the 19th century. As early as 1901, however, Sigmund Freud expanded existing notions of pathological behaviors and attitudes when he published his work on the unconscious, the pleasure principle, and repression. Totem and Taboo, his discussion of the primordial pressures that civilization seeks to resolve, followed in 1913, and his work on the death drive, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, appeared in 1920. Meanwhile artistic expressionism combined a fascination with form and technology—typical of other European modernisms—with folklore and the unconscious.
Murnau studied art history at the University of Heidelberg, and his training for the cinema consisted of apprenticeships in theater and painting. He ran with an interesting crowd; the expressionist painter Franz Marc and theater personalities such as Conrad Veidt and Max Reinhardt were among his friends. Murnau’s admiration for Vasily Kandinsky and The Blue Rider almanac, an expressionist journal founded by Kandinsky in Munich, is evident in his chosen sir name. Born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe, he changed his name to Murnau in homage to “Murnau am Staffelsee,” a Bavarian resort town where Kandinsky and his lover Gabriele Münter often spent summers between 1901 and 1913. (The director was born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe.)
Kandinsky and his group were inspired by the colorful world of Slavic peasants, the Parisian avant-garde, and driven by a theoretical struggle with form. After the war, however, expressionism assumed even darker tones and characteristics. A brief look at any of Otto Dix’s drawings or paintings, especially those etchings collected under the title, Der Krieg (The War, 1924), will make even the hardiest among us shudder in despair. Like Dix and Grau, Murnau endured WWI as a soldier; he spent eighteen months in a trench in Lithuania and then flew as a combat pilot, surviving multiple plane crashes. During the course of the conflict, he lost his best friend (perhaps also his lover) and he contracted a serious kidney disease from which he never recovered.
It was after the war, during the era of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), that expressionism discovered the cinema. In addition to Nosferatu, cinéphiles recognize horror masterpieces such as the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (dir. R. Wiene, 1920) and Metropolis (dir. Fritz Lang, 1927) as the offspring of this weirdly fruitful encounter.
While other early modernisms (cubism, futurism, formalism, surrealism) were enchanted by mechanization, German expressionism remained as skeptical of the machine as it was of form, convention, and the body. In Dix’s drawings (see above), the guns, tanks, trenches and gas masks—all cutting edge warfare technology at the time—seem to melt into the mud while the men involved have become skeletons, or ghouls, and their bodies, disintegrating matter. Combining the psychopathology of everyday life with the gothic and the occult, expressionism turned a critical eye on modernity and its alleged achievements. (By way of contrast, see Italian futurist paintings or works by Fernand Léger, such as “Two Woman on a Blue Background” (1927) or “Untitled” (1925). Thanks to the experience of WWI, Murnau and his colleagues understood that nightmares and ghosts were as much a part of reality as were tables and chairs. Likewise they knew that both humans and machines could erupt into monstrosity.
In Nosferatu, human beings behave like mechanized creatures, and machines come to life in the monster. Count Orlok’s thirst is visceral, carnal, yet his movements are artificial, as if he were made of metal and hinges. Just as the vampire is vitalized by human blood, objects and things gain life while human beings are drained of it. The count’s shadow seems to have an existence of its own; it grows and intensifies, independent of the actor who cast it. (Schreck often remains outside the frame.) Doors and windows move on their own. As the count’s threat increases, Hutter and his wife are simultaneously weakened—she by a preternatural illness and he by fear and guilt. Hutter cowers and faints; Ellen seems to fight harder, but in her sleepwalking, she resembles an automaton, and she is often confined to her bed and bedclothes like a mental patient.
Early film theory imagined the camera as a microscope or scalpel and the cameraman as a surgeon, revealing new levels of intimacy with the human experience, capturing phenomena which could not be seen or understood with the naked eye. In expressionism, however, this translates into more than a desire to record reality or reveal the intricacies of matter. Filmmakers like Murnau were more similar to forensic pathologists or psychoanalysts; they wanted to see beyond, into, or beneath the surface of human reality. They aimed at cracks in the fabric of sanity, the fragility of perception, the arbitrary point at which the real becomes surreal, and those vulgar distortions which render the real more faithfully than any postcard could ever do. In the sequence below, we see a polyp through the microscope. But this is not mere scientific curiosity; it’s an analogy for the vampire. If you watch closely, the polyp captures and devours his prey. (The accompanying title card reads, “I should note that, in those days, Prof. Bulwar was teaching his students about the dreadful methods of carnivorous plants. One viewed with horror the mysterious workings of nature.”)
In sum, expressionism has strange designs on reality, and Nosferatu is no exception. Nothing is taken for granted here—mental sanity, architecture and décor, institutional relationships, and even plant life are subject to inquiry. Murnau focuses his efforts, not on capturing the world as it appears to the naked eye, but rather on bringing the latent, the unconscious, the nightmares—all that is lurking in the shadows, to the surface.
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PART II. A Theory Concerning Our Love for Vampires
What exactly does the vampire represent for us? Why this fascination?
When read alongside Freud, Nosferatu provides a few clues. Freud theorizes that three opposing forces motivate us on a primitive level: the pleasure principle (eros), the death drive (thanatos), and the reality principle. From infancy, just as we sought our mother’s breast, we continue to seek happiness, instant gratification and satisfaction, and this is tied up with our sexuality. However, as Freud shows in Totem and Taboo, Civilisation and Its Discontents (1929) and elsewhere, basic urges and desires are problematic for several reasons. Not least among these is that we require contrast and intensity in order to feel pleasure at all. Of course constantly seeking pleasure would also be counterproductive or even dangerous, causing us to starve to death or bringing us into conflict with our neighbors. The death drive stands for our purest aggressive impulses—toward others and nature as well as ourselves.
These primitive motivating forces are tamed, harnessed, and made useful by the reality principle, a repressive phenomenon. Hence repression, however unpleasant or difficult, is generally productive and creative; instead of seeking happiness through sexual gratification, we rear families, cultivate the land, build cities, make art, study and theorize, etc. Civilization is the result.
While the death drive is usually at odds with the pleasure principle, there are certain occasions in which the death drive can enlist eros for its own purposes—in war, extreme disillusionment, and mental illness, for example. And where the death drive is in control, the person (or culture) will seek an intensity that burns up life, an intensity always on the verge of exhaustion, of overwhelming or even overcoming life, evident in spasms, excessive passion, drug use, madness, and suicide. As Thomas Harrison shows in his study of expressionism, 1910: The Emancipation of Dissonance, that year (1910) saw a host of writers, artists, and thinkers committing suicide. Likewise, many have called WWI—the war that wiped out a generation of young men in several countries, a collective suicide. In the following clip, we see how eros and the death drive are linked in Ellen’s strange desire for the vampire. She senses his presence, and however frightened she may be and however destructive her impulses, she cannot resist the urge to go to her window, to get closer to him. She knows intuitively that he is coming, and she thrashes and moans ecstatically in her nightgown.
Perhaps Nosferatu and Dracula are so attractive to us because they escape the reality principle? Do we admire them for their wanton lifestyle, one that eschews civilization and all repressive efforts? In these singular creatures, eros cooperates with the death drive without consequence or harm to themselves or their kind. Further, vampires awaken a self-destructive instinct in their victims, making of their once healthy lust for life a gruesome downfall. Discovered by the Romantics in the universe of folklore and born into a world where Romanticism was no longer a tenable solution, vampires are at once a warning against and an outlet for our wildest and most brutal fantasies.
In this light, we might see vampires as a vestige of expressionism—that strange, disturbing early twentieth century phenomenon in art and letters—that has perdured into the contemporary imagination. The problem is that many of their signature traits, especially the disdain for repression, convention and civilization, have disappeared. The Twilight series for example, requires that Edward repress his instincts in order to protect his lady from a race of werewolves. In other movies and series, we are asked to sympathize with the vampire lot—it’s not really their fault after all!—or vampires become doubled and polarized into good guys and bad guys. In my view, sympathy for the vampire is just another way in which the postmodern imagination aims to sanitize and neutralize the unconscious and to deny the darker side of being human.
* * *
Other interesting vampire movies include Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) and Werner Herzog’s 1979 adaptation of the original, Nosferatu: Prince of Darkness. This last has an incredible cast, including Klaus Kinski, Isabella Adjani, and Bruno Ganz. Shadow of the Vampire is an entertaining film with a formidable cast, and Willem Defoe’s vampire is especially compelling.
References for this essay include Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents; Thomas J. Harrison’s 1910: The Emancipation of Dissonance; Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”— in which he imagines the camera man as surgeon; Roberto Rossellini’s discussion of the camera as a microscope in Il mio dopoguerra; Jean Epstein’s essays “Magnification” and “Senses;” Gilles Deleuze’s entry on German Expressionist Cinema in Cinema I: The Movement-Image; and a recent exhibition of pieces from the SFMoMA collection, “Flesh and Metal: Body and Machine in Early 20th-Century Art” (Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University November, 13 2013-March 16, 2014). A selection of works from the show can be viewed here.
Why We Should Tell Martin, Terence, Leo, and Jonah “No” at the Academy Awards
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) Dir. Martin Scorsese with Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Jean Dujardin, Matthew McConaughey, Rob Reiner and many, many others Our Rating: 0 of 3 STARS
All you need to see of The Wolf of Wall Street are the first twenty minutes. In the second sequence, we meet Mark Hanna, “the guru”: champion Wall Street warrior, shaman of stock sales, cool cat, high roller, alcoholic, coke addict, masturbation junkie. Played by the reigning cowboy of American cinema, Matthew McConaughey, Hanna takes our green recruit, Jordan Belfort (Leo), for lunch and proceeds to teach him the tricks of the trading floor: get off, get laid, get plastered, get high, get pumped, and don’t take no for an answer. As he delivers the monologue containing such wise counsel, Hanna orders the waitress to bring him two dry martinis every seven minutes until further notice, takes a bit of “snuff”, and then shares his insight into human psychology. McConaughey’s brief performance is noteworthy; he carries off the character’s eccentricity with perfect ease and just enough charm. Now, imagine his character multiplied by one hundred, and his chest thumping, powder snorting, cocktail binging extended over three hours and twenty minutes.
To be fair, we should add that Australian starlet Margot Robbie handles the Brooklyn accent admirably, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill perform as well as any drunken frat boy with a penchant for hedonism, exhibitionism, and leadership. We should also own that the soundtrack afforded us a pleasant reverie of parties past thanks to the inclusion Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Brain.”
I could end my review here but for an irksome question. Why make this film? IMDB reports that the production cost roughly $100,000,000, and there are obviously many talented professionals involved. Yet, though I endured all 180 minutes, I fail to understand the significance of Jordan’s character. If there were indeed is a good reason to represent his story, Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese have neglected to reveal it. (I suppose Leo does his best to gain our sympathy—I’ve heard many a respectable viewer admire his bad quaalude trip which includes rolling himself down the stairs of a prestigious country club while foaming at the mouth like a seizure victim. For my part, I can’t help but imagine a bizarre mash-up of Jay Gatsby, Bill the Butcher, and John Belushi in Animal House.)
The first problem with Scorsese’s film is that it’s a biopic, and the biopic rarely sees its characters as historical agents, suspending them instead among the finer particles of legend—far from time, place, and circumstance. In The Wolf, we never encounter the men and women Jordan cheats or the Lower Manhattanites he claims for rivals. The only glimpse of reality, of the world beyond his home and offices, is a brief, random shot on a New York subway at the end of the film. Suffice to say that this genre does not lend itself to critical conceit or a nuanced examination of character.
To understand Jordan Belfort’s weaknesses and his relationship to a world he ignored, perhaps we need to ask a more essential question. For all the filmmakers, writers and students of human nature out there—what is that appeals to us in representations of the human experience? Courage, fear, honor, disgrace? Friendship, love, compassion, joy, fun? Excellence? Stupidity? At the moment, we have a national passion for buffoonery, but Jordan and his friends are not stupid. I have a hunch that what we find striking in him are his audacity, incorrigibility, and doggedness. Are such qualities really so impressive? Boldness alone does not a courageous man make…and incorrigibility and doggedness are something else altogether. For the sake of good argument then, let us consider courage in some detail.
As it happens, I am reading Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim, a profound inquiry into strength and weakness in the human experience. In this tale, the narrator, Captain Marlowe, takes an interest in the fate of a young man, Jim, who loses his honor when a crisis overwhelms him. As he relates Jim’s fall and rise, Marlowe introduces us to several courageous men. There are an aging French lieutenant who rescues a badly compromised ship; Stein, a wealthy Austrian merchant, former revolutionary and all-around hero of adventure in the south pacific; and Doramin, a tribal leader in the pirate colony of Patusan. The way in which Conrad presents these minor characters and their exceptional qualities is worthy of further consideration.
The French naval officer sips cassis à l’eau while leaning against the wall of a café. In conversation, the man’s “ponderous immobility” is “profoundly responsive,” and somehow filled with wisdom and expression; likewise he utters slang phrases with “imperturbable seriousness.” Conrad sees him as a vestige of time and a testament to a life lived quietly but well: “the iron-grey hair, the heavy fatigue of the tanned face, two scars, a pair of tarnished shoulder-straps; one of those steady, reliable men who are the raw material of great reputations, one of those uncounted lives that are buried without drums and trumpets under the foundations of monumental successes”(111). Clearly Terence Winter and Jordan Belfort, with their pretense and ostentation, their shouting and flailing, inhabit another universe.
As for Conrad’s Stein, “His life had begun in sacrifice, in enthusiasm for generous ideas; he had travelled very far, on various ways, on strange paths, and whatever he followed it had been without faltering, and therefore without shame and without regret”(164). Yet, despite the accumulation of exciting happenings and illustrious companions, Stein prefers his butterflies, consuming the daylight and many candles besides to study and correspond with other naturalists. He is thin and tall with a serene and thoughtful countenance. While escorting the narrator to his guest quarters, “He walked slowly a pace in advance with stooping courtesy; there was a profound, as it were a listening, quietude on his face; the long flaxen locks mixed with white threads were scattered thinly upon his slightly bowed neck”(165).
During an attack on his enemy, the chieftain Doramin has himself carried up the hill in an armchair. “There he sat, moving neither hand nor foot, a flame of dry brushwood behind him, and lots of people rushing about, shouting and pulling round him—the most solemn imposing old chap you can imagine” (202). Doramin’s immense girth and silent gravitas constitute the pillar on which rests the fate of his village. Without him civilization would collapse and the surrounding world fall into chaos. Likewise, Conrad suggests that were it not for men like the white-haired Stein and the weary lieutenant, the same would be true in the larger context as well.
Conrad envisions courage as immovability, imperturbability; these men are all stillness and reticence. They listen and ponder, acting upon necessity (as opposed to whim). Fear, loss, and risk are their intimate companions—not enemy phantoms to be avoided, conquered, or purged. As a result, each of these characters is mysterious, and his economical speech both reveals and conceals a story that has not been fully told or not told at all. Meanwhile the man whom fear grips is hysterical; ignoble actions are the result of panic and frenzy, and tyrants are wild, mad, opium addicts. In contrast to the three noted above, the villains in Lord Jim are not mysterious at all. Their faults and weaknesses are obvious, their actions and reactions, predictable, and as a result, any extended treatment of their victories and mishaps would be monotonous and repetitive.
Jordan Belfort cannot be called courageous if he is always high, nor can he be considered imperturbable, since once again, he is always intoxicated. Instead Jordan behaves much like a tyrant, ignorant of courage and honor, cheating and swindling his customers, clients, and competitors. Nonetheless, the film exalts him; it asks us to identify with him through point of view and dramatic ploys. The voice-over and epilogue may aspire to critical commentary, but there is far too much sentimentality in the film for successful satire. Self-conscious shots and sequences are tacked clumsily onto the end. Likewise, it is too boring and poorly organized to be a farce. The melodramatic elements are superficial; Jordan’s authentic experiences and feelings (love, joy, fear) mingle precariously and indecipherably with the effects of chemical substance abuse and various other addictions. In fact, once he goes clean, he seems immune to feeling, fun, and principle alike. Moreover, there is nothing dynamic in Jordan’s characterization, no conflicts, ambiguity, or redeeming qualities to speak of. Even his beloved firm, Stratton Oakmont, his best friends, his wife and daughters, the people whose fortunes he made, have no claim on him. He easily betrays them all. Even sober, he remains as insensitive to the world as ever.
By contrast, Conrad shows that success, ownership, esteem, and admiration possess a man, making him as responsible to his creation and subjects as they are to him. A rehabilitated Jim “looked with an owner’s eye at the peace of the evening, at the river, at the houses, at the everlasting life of the forests, at the life of old mankind, at the secrets of the land, at the pride of his own heart; but it was they that possessed him and made him their own to the innermost thought, to the slightest stir of blood, to his last breath”(190).
My point is the following: If we are going to make this kind of creative and financial investment in a movie (and viewers have a stake too), why not consider more enigmatic characterizations, more complex treatments, and more interesting genre? Of course I also wish that we reevaluate those qualities which make a man like Jordan so successful.
The Wolf of Wall Street is an extravagant film. There are films that exist as homage to the medium, that stand as a testament to the filmmakers’ love for moviemaking. Although the best such films also have moral depth, artistry, or humor. Or, at the very least, a remarkable mise-en-scène! Excepting a few sequences—the underwear-clad marching band among them, The Wolf also lacks this. If you appreciate a movie about loving the craft, there are much better examples in Scorcese’s own oeuvre, voir Gangs of New York (2002), or in the work of Federico Fellini, the original extravagant filmmaker and much admired by Scorsese. If bacchanal strikes your fancy, try Fellini’s Satyricon (1969), based on a satire by the first century Roman author Petronius. For a more soulful example, that exposes the emptiness in ill-gotten gains and senseless revelry while also treating the eye to a lavish mise-en-scène, you might look to The Dolce Vita (1959).
In conclusion, the first question posed above—why make this film—is impossible to answer. One might look upon the best The Wolf has to offer as one of those videos you make with your buddies on a golf trip. You laugh at it together over breakfast, and then quickly erase it before wives, employers, or officers of the law catch a glimpse. It appears that the director and actors, at least, amused themselves greatly—which I applaud, however, I don’t see why I should have spent $12.50 to see their inside jokes—never mind why the American film establishment should distinguish their efforts with honors or awards.
Suggested viewing: For a contemporary example of the farce, consider The Hangover (2009); for a classic example, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). A Town Called Panic [Panique au village, 2009] is one of my favorite animated farces, and Margerithe von Trotta’s Vision (2009)—about Hildegard von Bingen—is one of the more interesting biopics I’ve seen. Quiz Show (1994) is an engaging drama that successfully integrates a critique of the media industry and American consumers while Winter’s Bone (2010) is a beautiful film about courage that features a female lead. En revanche, if you want to see how ugly doggedness can be—once you take away the Lamborghini, the mansion, and the designer suits, see Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties [Pasqualino Settebellezze, 1977]. If naked marching bands, outrageous sets, and large casts appeal to you, see any of Federico Fellini’s films made after 1959, but especially La dolce vita (1959), 8 1/2 (1963) and Amarcord (1973). If you want to know what a satire is, you should see Fellini’s short film, The Temptation of Dr. Antonio [Le tentazioni del dottor Antonio, in the collection Boccaccio 70, 1962] or read Voltaire’s Candide (1759).
Recovering the Muse: Ralph Fiennes’s “The Invisible Woman”
The Invisible Woman (2013) Directed by Ralph Fiennes with Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristen Scott Thomas, and Joanna Scanlan Our Rating: 1 of 3 STARS
Currently showing in theaters
I went to see The Invisible Woman with high hopes for an exciting period drama: beautiful cinematography, elegant costuming, and all the literary sensibility and gravitas that Ralph Fiennes can muster. I meant to indulge a weakness for the historical film genre with its ridiculous love affairs and well-dressed women; never mind the obvious clichés in silent muses, middle-aged men leaving their wives for younger women, or highly intelligent maidens coming to no good end in nineteenth-century Europe. I left the cinema feeling rather perplexed, and I can only conclude that it had something to do with the very clichés I’d meant to gleefully ignore.
Adapted from Claire Tomalin’s eponymous biography of Ellen Lawless Ternan (1839-1914), the film tells the story of Charles Dickens (played by Fiennes) and the actress who became his mistress in 1857 (played by Felicity Jones). “Nelly,” as she is affectionately called, was eighteen when she met the novelist, playwright and poet on the set of The Frozen Deep, a play written by Dickens and his friend Wilkie Collins. At the time Dickens was forty-five, married, and the father of ten children. The youngest in a family of players, including her mother (played by Kristen Scott Thomas) and two elder sisters, Nelly is the least talented among them. As her mother puts it, “Nelly’s talents lie elsewhere.” In fact, she is a voracious reader of novels and a passionate lover of Dickens’s fiction, not to mention thoughtful, eloquent, beautiful, and charming. Though the Ternan ladies are glamorous and sought after, we are given to understand through hushed conversation, and by way of sagging chairs and decadent panelling, that life as an actress is precarious. Mrs. Ternan is especially anxious for Nelly’s future, and to a large extent, this fact alone motivates the plot.
This production—Mr. Fiennes’s second feature as director—is remarkably concerned with the fate of women. The cares of the widowed Mrs. Ternan, a hard-working mother, coalesce with a number of troubled feminine portraits. There is Dickens’s wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), doubtless burdened by the aftermath of ten pregnancies and forced to endure public humiliation and private cruelty. There is Wilkie Collins’s mistress, whose brief appearances highlight her rebellion against convention. In a scene the purpose of which can only be to aggravate the tension surrounding Nelly’s prospects, Dickens is horrified to encounter a young prostitute in the bowels of the city. In the sequence that follows, together with the Ternans, he raises money to support the city’s hospital for wayward women and their children. And this brings us to Nelly herself.
Although she is initially quite taken with the charismatic author, her impression of the man himself seems to sour rather quickly. Following her mother’s advice, she consents to a clandestine relationship and a life in shadows—however reluctantly. But the director leaves the question of her true feelings to the eye and mind of the viewer for they are entirely unspoken. While Charles’s affection is articulated clearly, both verbally and via body language, Nelly never answers the question as to whether she loves him. In close-ups of her face, even in the tenderest of moments, her expression is, at best, ambiguous and more easily, impassive or indifferent. Except for a very brief and elusive memory of joyful companionship, shown via silent montage, she hides any authentic feelings, needs, or desires.
Has necessity hardened her? Was she disgusted by her paramour’s behavior toward his wife? Did the transgression of convention shame her in her own eyes? Does she begrudge the effacement of her identity? Was she lonely? To his credit perhaps, Fiennes does not resolve these doubts. Most of the story is told via flashback from the perspective of Mrs. Nelly Wharton-Robinson, a woman very much haunted by her past. Shunning company and confidences, she paces feverishly along the beach, under a cool gray sky—for miles. She often appears distant or lost in reflection, even in the presence of others. The story is thus set in a mental landscape, inspired by the vastness of the ocean upon which Nelly frequently gazes. Sounds are stupefying as they serve to transition us in and out of reminiscences. Crashing waves, pounding hooves, and rustling petticoats come on forcefully and abruptly, suddenly immersing us in another place and time. Vertiginous camera angles function similarly; in one example, Nelly suffers a loss. Shaken with sobs, she falls to her knees—cut to an extreme low-angled shot of Mrs. Wharton-Robinson’s feet and the hemline of her skirts as she marches on the shore.
The film’s epigraph, from A Tale of Two Cities, captures the argument: “A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.” This insight into human nature becomes more melancholy and less profound when we remember that Nelly dreamt of breaking down the inner fortresses that separate us from one another, rendering men and women unfeeling and incomprehensible. Her own view was much more hopeful; in an early conversation with Charles, she proposes that an exception might be found in certain loving relationships.
In sum, the film suggests that Nelly was not satisfied with the sublime, “so far refined love” (or her own sublimation), and she longed for a bit of that “dull, sublunary lovers’ love.” The story itself isn’t terribly compelling, and the treatment is inconsistent, but even still, the film is not wholly without merit. In particular, the punctured clichés and feminine perspective make The Invisible Woman worthy of further consideration.
Suggested Reading: Claire Tomalin, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens; George Eliot, Middlemarch; John Donne, “A Valediction (Forbidding Mourning);” Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations * Suggested Viewing: Jean-Marc Vallé, The Young Victoria (2009); Nikolaj Arcel, A Royal Affair (2012)
‘Talk to Her’: Spike Jonze’s New Love Story
Her: A Love Story (2013)
Spike Jonze with Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde and Scarlett Johansson Our Rating: 3 of 3 STARS+
Currently showing in theaters
Watching Spike Jonze’s new film, “Her” (2013), one is immersed in an ever-so slightly futuristic Los Angeles. The changes to contemporary urban life are so subtle that we are left with only the vaguest sensation of estrangement. The vibrant colors of the office décor and the protagonist’s cardigans, a skyline borrowed from Shanghai, the preponderance of the virtual and voice activated software stretch just enough into the fictional that the distortion of our normal is barely perceptible. A gutter-mouthed avatar, a ‘good mother’ video game, and beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, the protagonist’s place of employment, are uncanny precisely because they are as plausible as they are imaginative and ironic. We chuckle nervously, musing that nothing here is all that far-fetched.
Like the vast interiors and broad sidewalks, the story is minimalist but artfully arranged: Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely late thirty-something divorcé and his intuitive operating system (Scarlett Johansson) fall in love. Advertised as a “consciousness,” Samantha learns to feel the human way. Her ‘consciousness’ develops in response to Theodore, and when he describes the relationship first to a friend and then to an acquaintance, he says that it’s nice to be with someone who is excited about the world. Jonze, who both wrote and directed the film, appropriates the clichés associated with romantic relationships while transcending them: to love is to re-discover the world, the heart grows, people grow apart, communication can fail where it is most important, the past is a story we tell ourselves, loving is learning. In his depiction these observations and suggestions resonate sincerely, and hackneyed expressions regain their vitality. Likewise the commonplaces of science fiction, in the distinctions between ‘human being’ and machine intelligence, materialize as honest discoveries: being human is about spontaneous reactions—Samantha is proud of feeling suddenly annoyed, or the experience of inexplicable emotional phenomena—in spite of her impressive processing capacity and mathematical origins, the operating system admits, happily, that she cannot explain why she has fallen in love. And, perhaps above all, being human is about the embodiment that limits and tethers us to the material world, that conditions our consciousness and moves us through space.
“Her” explores empathy on several levels. Narratively speaking, Theodore writes meaningful letters for couples and families he doesn’t know; it’s his job. Perhaps his ability to imagine a stranger’s emotions predisposes him toward a love affair with a thoughtful voice? On a deeper level however, the director encourages an empathetic response from his viewers. Cultivating intimacy via close-up framing and soft lighting, he makes feeling and growing, both intellectually and emotionally, palpable. The protagonist’s friendship with a neighbor (Amy Adams), his awkward sexual encounters, a first date (Olivia Wilde), and his falling in love draw us in with striking intensity.
Finally, in this film, the future is as nostalgic as anyone who has loved, learned, and lost. Scarlett Johansson’s husky, playful voice resides in a phone that resembles a 1940s-era cigarette case, Joaquin Phoenix wears high-waisted trousers and shirtsleeves, los angelinos travel by train, and hand-written letters make for a profitable business. Memories appear as mildly over-exposed Super8 footage, and they mingle easily with the pensive close-ups, filtered light, and reflective surfaces in the mise-en-scène. There is no overwhelming or cathartic battle with machines, such as we find in the Matrix series or or the Terminator films; progress is, quite simply, a steady removal from embodiment and feeling. Yet, in spite of all this listless slumber, Jonze presents a film that is ultimately about awakening. “Her” is a beautiful love story that takes full advantage of the medium’s ability to engage us. The casting is spot on as the power of Johansson’s voice is matched by the expressive potential in Joaquin Phoenix’s face. Together with a delightfully unassuming performance by Amy Adams, they show us what being in the world is all about.
Suggested Viewing: “Her” recalls the science-fictional premise and themes of action films such as Mamoru Oshii’s “Ghost in the Shell” (1995) and Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982), but it also evokes the thoughtful mood, intimacy, and everyday enlightenment found in Sofia Coppola’s “Lost In Translation” (2003) or her “Somewhere” (2010). For an ‘art house’ experience, you might try Wim Wenders “Tokyo-Ga” (1985) or Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Nostalghia” (1983). Working with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze directed the strange and cerebral comedies “Being John Malkovitch” (1999) and “Adaptation” (2002). He also wrote and directed an adaptation of the popular children’s book, “Where the Wild Things Are” (2009), and he is a creator of the “Jackass” series for MTV and the Jackass films.
Vampire Weekend Video Review: Giving Up The Gun
Vampire Weekend has recently released a music video for Giving Up The Gun, the newest single off their second album. The video is filled with an all-star celebrity cast, including Joe Jonas, Jake Gyllenhaal, rapper Lil Jon, and RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan. It’s centered on a series of ironic tennis matches. The heroine of the video, Jenny, a friend of Vampire Weekend, plays everyone from Jonas, a samurai, a set of twins, and an alter-ego version of herself. Jenny is also matched against the comedic Gyllenhaal, a flask-drinking tennis player who rips off his pants before playing.
The visuals of this clip are both strong and perfectly choreographed with the light melodies of the song. The video effects are interesting too, like when the tennis ball turns into ball of fire or the official is able to teleport himself to the opposite side of the court and determine if the ball was ‘in’. The mise-en-scene of the video also compliments the light music, from the white clean background, to the patriotic-colored wardrobe of the performers. Vampire Weekend’s vocalist Ezra Koenig was quoted saying, “The heroine of the video isn’t an amazing tennis player, but she has heart. She stays calm despite the unfairness of it all.” The same can be said about this video. It may not be the most technically advanced, but there is a charm and originality present that only further enhances the enjoyment that comes from listening to the music.
The Great Debaters
Movie Review: The Great Debaters (2007)
After seeing “The Great Debaters” twice before, I sat down to watch the film once again for my Western Traditions class, and saw it in a completely new light. Directed by and starring Academy Award winner Denzel Washington, and former new comers to the business, Nate Parker, Journee Smolett, and Denzel Whitaker, the film (based on a true story) sheds light on the black college debating scene in 1930’s Texas. Denzel Washington plays Melvin Tolson, the harsh, but considerate debating coach at Wiley College by day, and southern farmer’s union organizer and advocate by night. The astounding Miss Samantha Booke is played by Journee Smolett. The first and only female member of the debate team, she captures audiences with her passionate and heart-felt delivery of arguments and becomes the love interest of Henry Lowe. Lowe, played by Nate Parker, is the stubborn and outspoken leader of the group. After he is basically forced to try out for the team, we quickly see his true talent as becomes the strongest member, able to think quickly on his feet and show the inexperienced, younger ones the ropes. Denzel Whitaker, plays the young (he is only 14) James Farmer Jr., son of respected, minister James Farmer Sr., played by another Academy Award Winner Forest Whitaker. James is disciplined and eager to learn and perform. Although he starts out as the researcher for the team, by the end of the film, he is the one who helps to lead his team to victory.
The team starts out debating other black colleges, easily defeating them, but they soon rise to debate some of the best in the country, catching the attention of larger all-white schools who challenge them to debates that they just as effortlessly win. They face real challenges when they witness the lynching and burning of a black person at the hands of a white hate-mob, but they channel the fear and anger they experience from this ordeal when facing their biggest challengers of all at Harvard College.
The film recognizes the plight of the black college student trying to be successful during Jim Crow segregation. Although it does all this while making debate team training look like army boot camp, muddle some of the actual events that took place for this particular team, for a Hollywood movie, the filmmakers do a very good job. The film is a mild tear-jerker, and very inspiring (as most films produced by Oprah are). I left both the classroom and movie theater feeling like I should be doing more with my life when people like the main characters suffered so much so that I might have the opportunities I do. In other words, great film!
This futuristic, sci-fi, film is based in an alternate Los Angeles and follows a chase between the highly advanced LAPD chasing a man known as the Raven. The film uses a brilliant combination of devices to bring a surreal, futuristic feel to the short film by director Ricardo de Montreuil. The first element that brings the film to the life is the music. Creepy progressions in the music cast a feeling of uncertainty and magic over the film. Directly at the beginning, a strange chord is struck leaving the audience wary and worried about the main character’s safety. The use of extreme close-ups on the Raven’s face also connect the viewer to the film. As he is being chased, frequently the director chooses to zoom in on his concerned expression. As the viewer notices his true fear, determination, and effort you almost feel like you too are being chased by this elite force. Also, the ominous cuts to an unknown floating craft above the city give the viewer a sense that this is the “mother” ship of the police force. In perhaps the most poignant moment of the film the police ask the Raven to come out with his hands interlaced behind his head. The camera cuts to a close up of his face as he exclaims “Whyyyy!”. This lets the viewer know that this police force is oppressive and overpowered. Plus they had just killed a homeless man for literally no reason. Overall, this is a very well done short film that is able to accomplish a lot in a short time because it brilliantly uses many devices to get its point across.
Film Review: Clash of the Titans
Action-packed blockbusters are a staple of modern American cinema. When audiences go to see these movies, they expect to become lost in the dazzle and spectacle of a fantastical world for about two hours of solace from reality. That’s exactly what my friends and I were expecting when we hiked down to the movie theater at midnight on a Friday night to see Clash of the Titans this spring. The movie was packed with plenty of action and the ambiance of the film was very entrancing, but the film’s plot was so disjointed that it was nearly impossible to understand and get lost in the movie.
Clash of the Titans follows the story of a young man in ancient Greece named Perseus. After his adoptive family is killed in a freak statue-related accident, Perseus is captured by troops from Argos and brought to their capital. The King and Queen have decided to stick it to the Gods simply because they feel like it, and the Gods decide to put Argos in its place. Hades comes to the capital and tells the King that he will send the Kraken to attack the city unless they sacrifice their daughter to the beast. Perseus is there at the time and manages to not be injured by Hades (along with the majority of the court), so the king logically concludes that Perseus must be a demigod. Perseus accepts this unquestioningly and decides to see the Fates to learn how to defeat the Kraken for the King. Along with a ragtag band of some random guys, he travels through the desert and encounters a nasty, deformed guy, who happens to be Perseus’ mother’s husband, whose blood can turn into giant man-eating scorpions. Perseus and his friends are almost defeated by the scorpions, but a band of desert-dwelling charcoal people emerge out of nowhere and defeat some of the scorpions. (It turns out that the charcoal people were able to successfully domesticate the other scorpions during the ten minutes the scorpions have existed.) The leader of the charcoal people joins Perseus, and the group reaches the Fates, who tell Perseus that Medusa’s head is the only thing that will slay the Kraken. The team crosses the River Styx and reaches Medusa’s lair. Most of Perseus’ men turn to stone at Medusa’s gaze… except for the charcoal guy. He was immune to Medusa’s powers. I know what you’re thinking: “Great! He can kill Medusa!” Or he can just explode for no reason whatsoever. Perseus, the lone survivor of his group, kills Medusa, only to leave Medusa’s lair and see Hades kill Perseus’ new girlfriend (who is immortal…so I still don’t know how she was able to be murdered.)
Perseus flies back to the capital on his Pegasus and, just as the princess and the city are about to be devoured by the Kraken, Perseus shows Medusa’s head to the Kraken and flings his magical glowing sword at the beast, slaying it. (That’s right, the Kraken was only in the movie for five minutes.) Hades, who had turned on the rest of the Gods, was defeated. After defeating his enemies, Perseus rides on his winged horse across a beach as the sun sets behind him. He meets up with his true father, Zeus, who congratulates him. Zeus offers to let Perseus become a God on Mount Olympus, but Perseus tells him that he wants to live a normal, mortal life with his glowing sword and mythical winged horse. Always a good sport, Zeus decides to give Perseus some company during his mortal life, so he brings Perseus’ special female friend back to life. Let’s back up a second. A long time ago, the girl resisted a God’s advances, so he cursed her… with immortality. She had been alive for hundreds of years and had to watch loved ones die. She expressed numerous times in the film how much this bothered her. Nothing ever actually happened between Perseus and the girl throughout the week they knew each other, even though they did almost kiss before she told him to “ease your storm.” Hades killed her – she had finally gotten her wish and died! And less than a day later, Zeus brought her back to life. I guess she just couldn’t catch a break.
Apart from the completely nonsensical plot, the film’s dialogue was so awful that it was hysterical. When I was watching the film, the whole audience was cracking up throughout the entire movie, which was supposed to be serious. The film was so ridiculous that we couldn’t help but laugh. Improved editing would have made a difference to the film’s logic; the action sequences were too rapid and disjointed, and it’s likely that there are scenes on the cutting-room floor that would have explained many confusing aspects of the plot. To give the film credit, the special effects were excellent and the authentic sets and costumes created a believable, captivating mise-en-scene. That’s all it has going for it.
In short, don’t go to this film if you’re looking for a legitimately good movie. You should see Clash of the Titans if you want to find some unexpected laughs and if you want to hear Liam Neeson yell “Release the Kraken!” at the top of his lungs. I happened to learn a new one-liner that I intend on using if an over-eager guy ever gets a little too close for comfort: “Ease your storm, buddy.”
Film Review: DEEP END (1970)
- John Moulder-Brown … Mike
- Jane Asher … Susan
- Diana Dors … First Female Client
- Karl Michael Vogler … Susan’s lover
- Christopher Sandford … Susan’s fiancé
Deep End is the rarely seen, second directorial effort from Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski. Recently, Turner Classic Movies screened Deep End as part of their TCM Underground series, which gave me the opportunity to finally view this cult classic. I had wanted to see this film for several months because I was a fan of Jane Asher (Alfie, 1966; Death at a Funeral).
Deep End is an ode to the dying Swinging Sixties scene in London. Instead of the glittering optimism and stellar youth movements celebrated in prior films about 1960s London, Skolimowski exposes the seedier side of the youth scene, the purposelessness of their decadence and the commonplace nature of obsession, betrayal, and perversion in their world. A study of unredeemable characters, the film probes into the emptiness people felt in their lives after the Sexual Revolution. In the final scene of the film, Susan screams, “What am I supposed to be like?” a line that encapsulates the struggle for identity during the tumultuous late 1960s.
John Moulder-Brown stars as Mike, a fifteen-year-old boy who has recently left school to start his first job as a bathhouse attendant in London’s dirty East End district at the Newford Municipal Baths. Mike is shown the ropes by his older coworker Susan, played by Asher. Susan is a femme fatale type, a girl out there for a good time and who has “been around the block” several times, despite being only nineteen-years-old. Her naturally flirtatious manner causes the impressionable and inexperienced Mike to quickly fall in love with her.
The objective of their jobs is to get the highest tip possible from their bathhouse clients, thus Susan advises Mike on how to deal with the occasions when he encounters lonely older women at the bathhouse: “You know old chap, ladies of a certain age tend to favor polite and obliging young boys. So do some gentlemen.” Susan does not view this behavior as a problem; rather, it is a way for her to get more money – she encourages Mike to switch clients so that they can get maximum tips from the opposite sex. “You don’t have to do anything for it. Just go along with the gag. That’s all they want,” she tells him nonchalantly.
As Mike and Susan work together on a daily basis, Mike becomes obsessed with her, believing his misguided affections to be an excuse to stalk her after work to her home and on dates. The film follows Mike as he wanders all over London watching his obsession from an uncomfortable distance. In a scene that comprises a large part of the film, Mike waits outside of a strip club in Soho until Susan comes out. It is both disturbing and comedic to watch him trek to find Susan, all the while carrying a life-sized cardboard cutout of Susan in her stripper guise ‘Angelica.’
The final sequences of the film show Mike’s obsession causing tragic results, with his object of affection as the main victim. Centered around the diamond from Susan’s engagement ring lost in the snow, the final scene builds up to the moment for when Susan finally surrenders herself to Mike’s obsession. The true climactic moment is completely arbitrary – like the death of Pina in Rome, Open City, nothing prepares the viewer for the shocking and tragic end.
What is most interesting about Deep End is its total lack of the typical “good girl/boy” characters of traditional Hollywood cinema. Mike is centered in the plot to be the “hero,” but his leading characteristics are that he is obsessive, controlling, and often delusional. Susan is not a girl one would consider to be respectable in any sense, as she not only juggles her time between her well-off fiancé and a married swim instructor, but by night she is a stripper by the name of Angelica. Susan’s fiancé, though well-to-do, is portrayed to be a sexual deviant in the film – he often takes her on dates (against her wishes) to pornographic films and swingers clubs. Susan’s lover, a swimming instructor who is a client of the bathhouse, is a pervert who seduces the adolescent girls on his swim team (it is hinted that Susan was once one of these girls). The clients of the bathhouse are mostly wrinkling, overweight women in their middle age who attempt to seduce the fifteen-year-old Mike.
Moulder-Brown and Asher shine in their respective roles. Moulder-Brown is captured at the delicate age between childhood and adulthood, perfect for the awkwardness and tortured longing of adolescent inexperience that the role of Mike requires. Asher looks stunning as Susan, the London dolly bird-gone-wrong. Her portrayal of the bad girl Susan is subtle yet complex – her gestures reveal a world-weary soldier who has seen too much in life, but combines this with the confident swagger of someone who knows they are irresistible and could have anything in life. As the femme fatale, Asher is the antithesis of her own public persona during the 1960s as Paul McCartney’s sophisticated, English Rose girlfriend. Also entertaining to watch is former screen bombshell Diana Dors as a sexually frustrated fading beauty who aggressively pursues Mike.
The direction and photography of the film are stylistically very interesting in their boldness. For instance, the harsh winter weather is contrasted against the brightly colored clothing that Susan wears. As the narrative becomes darker, the scenes become brighter. The last scenes of the film are the most disturbing, but they are set in a field of dirty white snow and then in the emptied, sterile pool of the battered-looking bathhouse. In both scenes Susan is wear a yellow trench coat, a brightly printed dress, and white go-go boots and Mike is in a full white outfit and white sneakers. Despite the disturbing nature of its’ content, the scenes look bright and clean. The cinematography acts as a counterpoint against the material. The film has a fairly bleak in its mise-en-scene. With the exception of Susan’s bright clothing and flaming red hair, the film is compromised of washed-out, decaying tones. Deep End was filmed using a handheld camera, and combined with the constant use of natural lighting, gives the film the look of an extremely low budget production. Skolimowski repeatedly uses the camera to steadily circle the actors in 180 and 360 degree shots, and edited the film to have the majority of its’ scenes be long takes without cuts.
The film dances between many different genres, experimenting with absurd comedy (the Diana Dors scenes in particular), melodrama, black comedy, and surrealism. Increasingly as Mike’s obsession grows, the surrealist tone of the film extends to match the blurred lines between reality and fantasy. Despite these various layers, Deep End is at its heart a raw tale of a boy’s transition into manhood, though it is unlike any other coming-of-age story of adolescent angst and love that I have ever before viewed. Its refreshingly unsentimental approach to the narrative story reminds me of the French New Wave films that preceded this film by a decade. Skilomowski tells the story of Antoine Doinel’s (of Truffaut’s 400 Blows) less self-assured and more sexually frustrated British brother. We watch Mike wander to and from his job aimlessly on his bicycle and stalk Susan and her fiancé on dates. The only thing that motivates the plot besides Mike’s obsession is the audience’s own voyeurism into their lives.