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7.-10. Rapid-Fire Film Review Club

I'm out campaigning more than ever now, and very much need undemanding downtime when I'm not if I'm to keep on top of my day-job alongside it. Watching films is a good way to achieve that, but reviewing them not so much. So the goal here is to rattle through four film reviews in a hundred words or so each - and I'm not allowed my dinner until it's done. With a bit of luck that will clear the slate for the time being, so that I can watch another one this evening!

7. The Resident (2011), dir. Antti JokinenCollapse )

8. The Vault of Horror (1973), dir. Roy Ward BakerCollapse )

9. What We Do In The Shadows (2014), dir. Taika Waititi and Jemaine ClementCollapse )

10. Nocturna (1979), dir. Harry Hurwitz (as Harry Tampa)Collapse )

Well, that'll be a slightly later dinner than I was intending, but hey - I'm up to date, and can happily watch one of the (classic) Hammer horror films I borrowed from ms_siobhan last night while I'm eating. :-)

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6. The Black Cat (1934), dir. Edgar Ulmer

People who don't have much time should probably learn how to write short film reviews. Let's see how I get on with that...

This was a recent purchase of ms_siobhan's, which has also been in the 'high priority' section of my Lovefilm list for a while, and which we watched together. It is a Universal picture starring both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and is based very, very loosely indeed on Edgar Allan Poe's short story of the same name. When I say loosely, I mean that it contains a black cat, and involves a dead wife, but otherwise it has pretty much nothing to do with the original whatsoever.

Stylistically, it is a Gothic horror, involving such motifs as a dark and stormy night, an innocent young couple finding themselves trapped in a dangerous situation, a hill-top house, an apparently-charming host with malevolent intentions, a decades-old personal feud, the supernaturally-preserved corpses of beautiful women, the afore-mentioned black cat, and some Satanic rituals. Yet at the same time it is more profoundly concerned with the issues of its present day than any other Universal film I have seen. It's often forgotten that Universal tended to translate their Gothic stories to a present-day setting, and it's forgotten for the perfectly good reason that apart from putting the leading ladies in 1930s frocks, this makes almost no difference whatsoever to the setting, action or dialogue. But this film is basically all about the hangover horror of the First World War, and the impact it had on the lives of those who survived it.

Thankfully, this aspect of the film is discussed in detail in this excellent blog post, saving me the trouble! But the executive summary is that Lugosi's character had suffered terrible wrongs at the hands of Karloff's during the war, they are both still psychologically trapped reliving their old feud and the horrors of the war, and the main setting for the film is a luxurious modernist house built directly over a concrete First World War fortress and only thinly veiling the horrors concealed below. It is also one of the first horror films to do any of this so clearly and directly, a full 20 years after the war had broken out, which says quite a lot about how difficult it is for any society to process and assimilate true horror on that sort of scale enough to weave it into its stories. Once it had happened, though, it was very powerful - or so we felt. Had the exact same story of personal feuds, dead wives and Satanic rituals been told in a more traditionally Gothic setting, it probably would have seemed fairly run-of-the-mill and unoriginal, but the engagement with recent history gave it an urgent emotive power which we were really struck by.

Other than that, the film's main stand-out features include some very beautiful frocks, absolute flying sparks in the confrontations between Lugosi and Karloff (an epic pairing which would make the film worth watching on its own, regardless of anything else), and some completely mad cod-Latin from Karloff in the climactic Satanic ritual, which is basically not a Satanic ritual at all, but a load of proverbs cobbled together with no concern whatsoever for what they might actually mean. This is of course an interesting insight into Universal's estimation of their audiences in the 1930s, who were clearly not expected to notice this. In fact, it reminded me of the All Purpose Latin After-Dinner Speech from Henry Beard's book Latin for Even More Occasions - and as such made the film a lot more fun than it would have been if someone had sat down and written a SRS BSNS ritual for the scene.

Only down side - our sympathies are clearly meant to lie with Lugosi's character rather than Karloff's, since Lugosi has spent 15 years in a Hungarian prison camp during which time Karloff has stolen both his wife and his daughter and built himself the luxury house where the action takes place. But this was scotched for me very early on by a scene set in a train carriage, which sees Lugosi reaching out to stroke the hair of a sleeping woman who is a stranger to him. This transpires to be because she reminds him of his lost wife, and seems to have been intended to convey the tragic suffering of his character - but for me it just set off Extreme Creep Alarms which meant I could never really fall into the role of cheering for and sympathising with him which the rest of the film seemed to expect of me.

Other than that, though, top notch stuff, and very definitely a must-see for anyone interested in the direction which horror films were taking in the mid-1930s.

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This is a good, solid Hammer production, shot when they were more or less at the height of their commercial success, and about a year before they moved out of Bray Studios. I'd vaguely seen bits of it before (mainly on the Horror Channel, I think), but decided it was worth watching properly - and ms_siobhan was kind enough to lend me the disc.

It has everything you would expect from Hammer in this period1 - ambitious sets, a coherent script, a reliable cast, some heaving bosoms and a few soft shocks. I also remember thinking while watching it that the editing was rather good, with some nice cuts from Scene A featuring one set of characters, to Scene B featuring another set doing something which either cast new light on the actions in Scene A or was thematically linked to it in some way. But that was a couple of weeks ago, I didn't write down any specific examples and I have of course forgotten them now. So we'll have to take that on faith.

Most of the zombie stories I have encountered in my time (some of which are gathered under my 'zombies' tag) have post-dated Night of the Living Dead (1968), and thus presented their zombies as brain-hungry corpses, reanimated by some kind of natural or scientific disaster which lies beyond human control. But this one belongs to an earlier phase in the evolution of zombie mythology, which engages directly with Haitian voodoo tradition. The zombies of this film are reanimated deliberately by a local squire, using voodoo rituals which he learnt during a spell in Haiti, so that he will have mindless slaves to work in his tin-mines.

This set-up actually makes zombies functionally very similar to vampires, and certainly this is how Hammer treats them here. The squire himself is a rather arrogant aristocrat who makes romantic advances towards the heroine, Sylvia, but turns out to have a dangerous and violent dark side. In other words, he is basically Dracula. Even more strikingly, he 'attacks' his victims by engineering situations in which they will cut themselves (e.g. on a piece of broken glass), so that he can steal their blood and use it later on to enslave them via his voodoo rituals. Once this has happened, they become pallid and sick-looking, begin to respond hypnotically to his will, and soon die, only to emerge from their graves again as full-blown, grey-skinned slaves to the squire's command.

Meanwhile, an eminent doctor is summoned to the village where all this is happening by the young male lead, investigates the phenomenon by opening coffins (only to find them empty, of course), and eventually manages to defeat the squire by setting his voodoo dolls on fire, which in turn causes the zombies they control to do the same. The doctor isn't quite the same as the original Van Helsing from the Dracula films, because he doesn't know about zombieism before the film begins, and thus has to find out about it from a book. But he is very definitely a close equivalent to the Van Helsing-type figures of Hammer's later Dracula / vampire films.

So, yes, a tried-and-tested formula is being applied here (Hammer had three Dracula films plus Kiss of the Vampire under their belt by the time they made this, whereas this was their first and only foray into zombieism). In fact, the Cornish setting also functions much like Transylvania - remote, rural and replete with superstitious locals. But at the same time, its tin-mining industrial history also offers the scope for approaching zombieism as an allegory for the aristocratic exploitation of the poor - something which vampirism can also do of course, but which wasn't particularly deeply woven into any of Hammer's Dracula films until The Satanic Rites of Dracula, in which he appears as a property magnate.

But while the squire's industrial slavery was clearly handled critically, no such critique is apparent in the film's treatment of race relations. This, of course, comes up due to the voodoo themes of the story, but all of the black actors who were cast as a result are either scary Others who bang drums and wear grass skirts, or a servant of the squire's who literally calls him 'masser' and tries to impede the good doctor in his quest to Defeat Evil. I'm not sure whether this is better or worse than having no ethnic minority characters at all, which is what most Hammer films do - probably worse on balance. But while I think it's important for 21st-century viewers to call this stuff, I also think it's pointless and blinkered to dismiss films from the 1960s for reflecting the social attitudes of the age. That, in fact, is part of their value.

Overall, then, a cracking little number which is a good example of Hammer's capabilities and very nearly an entry in their vampire canon, even while actually being an interesting mile-post in the history of zombie films.

1. Close chronological siblings include Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), The Witches (1966) and Quatermass and the Pit (1967).

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Gosh, I found this book disappointing. In theory, it should have been right up my street (whether that be total, alter or cross-hatched). It is speculative fiction about cities, majoring especially in boundaries. Man, I'm so into that shit that I've just finished the peer-review edits to one paper on urban boundaries, am starting to research another, and will be going on a walk about it on Monday. And I could swear friends have been waxing lyrical about this particular book on the periphery of my attention-sphere pretty much ever since it came out. Except that maybe I didn't listen properly to what they were saying. Because while I entirely recognise that its world-building is superb, and its plot is certainly perfectly competent, the fact is that it offers almost no characterisation or indeed human emotional colour whatsoever. And that doesn't half make for dull fiction.

Actually, I found even the world-building a little bit disappointing, because although it is certainly an outstanding example of what it is trying to do, that wasn't quite what I expected, or what tends to appeal to my tastes. Knowing in advance that the book dealt with two cities which physically occupy the same space, but whose residents are unable to see one another, I expected the relationship between the two to be supernatural - as for example between London Above and London Below in Neverwhere, the muggle and magical worlds in Harry Potter, or the parallel worlds in His Dark Materials. In fact, though, the division is legal and socialCollapse )

In all fairness, that is a brilliant concept, and Miéville builds it up beautifully from the first chapter onwards, dropping little hints of crumbs at how the city works into the narrative of his viewpoint character (a Besź police inspector) at just the right pace to intrigue without becoming tedious, and while also ensuring that his readers are entirely au fait with it all by the time it becomes crucial to the plot. But a) it isn't the magic I picked the book up hoping for (not at all Miéville's fault) and b) unfortunately the drab emotionless characters give us all too little sense of what a division like that would really mean to the people living it out every day (very definitely Miéville's fault).

The main viewpoint character I mentioned a moment ago, Inspector Tyador Borlú, came across to me as an avatar with no internal life. Some authors would have written deep inner conflicts into his psyche to mirror the divisions of the city which he inhabits, and explored them in depth, but as it was his entire function seemed to be to work his way through the plot like the sprite in a puzzle-based computer game. He learns some new things as the story goes along, of course, but does he experience any kind of emotional arc, or change in any fundamental way as a result? I don't think so. Since he ends the story doing spoilery thingsCollapse ), it is just possible that Miéville wrote him that way from the start to set him up as well-suited to that lifestyle. But if that's the case, then almost any of the characters Borlú interacts with could equally well do the same spoilery thingsCollapse ), because none of them seemed any more alive than him.

So, in short, I'm unlikely to read any more of Miéville's novels. But at least I've found that out now, and can thus target my meagre reading activities towards more satisfying objects in future.

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4. Dracula (1979), dir. John Badham

As mentioned previously on these pages, I have a Horror Bible, which I bought when I was about 11 or 12 years old. In it is a page which looks like this:

Horror Bible Dracula page

I had seen Christopher Lee as Dracula already when I bought the book, of course, and caught up with Bela Lugosi about ten or fifteen years later. But the other two have only become easily available to me now that the Golden Age of Amazon, Lovefilm, YouTube et al. has dawned. I saw and reviewed Louis Jourdan's Count Dracula in October (and am of course very sorry indeed that we lost Louis himself just this weekend). So Langella's performance was the last of the iconic Draculas which I still needed to catch up with. It hardly needs saying that I watched it with fellow horror aficionado ms_siobhan, but for once this time I actually have a live witness to her Dracula-enabling tendencies: rosamicula will testify that while discussing plans for our next film session in front of her, I asked what we should watch, and ms_siobhan gleefully replied "Dracula!" So it's totally not my fault.

Alas for us, though, Langella's Dracula is most definitely the weakest of the four. That's not to say it is an utter waste of time. Visually, it was stunningCollapse )

I quite liked the broad strokes of how the story was approached, tooCollapse )

Meanwhile, on the downside, no setting or scenery could possibly have compensated for the fact that Langella himself just was not DraculaCollapse )

And then there is the stuff that just leave you asking - WTF? Like the vampire-hunting horse, for example.Collapse )

Other points to note include Donald Pleasance as Dr. Seward and Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing, but both of them unfortunately pretty much dialling it in. Also, Unexpected Sylvester McCoy as an unconvincing and inept guard in Seward's asylum. Langella's Dracula, like Jourdan's two years earlier, dutifully scaled the walls of the asylum face-down like a lizard - though he could hardly not have done after such a recent example. And a climactic chase sequence involving Dracula and Lucy (or was it Mina?) heading for the coast to escape their pursuers by ship borrowed heavily from a similar chase at the end of Hammer's Dracula: Prince of Darkness, complete with visuals of a cloth-covered wagon containing a coffin bouncing up and down with the ruts in the road.

But now that I have seen this, noted down its key features, and (above all) ticked it off in my Horror Bible, I do not think I am likely to revisit it again.

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This is a Romanian film about the historical Dracula, which tells the story of his main reign from taking the Wallachian throne in 1456 to his arrest on the orders of Matthias Corvinus in 1462. It isn't legally available to buy in the UK, so I watched it on Youtube (complete with English subtitles), partly to see if it would help me in my current efforts to learn Romanian, and partly of course for its own sake as a portrayal of Dracula.

On the language-learning front, it wasn't a great deal of help, mainly because I just haven't learnt enough yet to be able to pick up new words or constructions from context, but perhaps also partly because the sound-quality on the Youtube video is pretty poor, making everything sound a bit distant and unclear. I'd say I was able to recognise something like about one word in a hundred, which obviously wouldn't get me very far in a real-life situation! But hopefully I will at least have tuned in to the rhythms and structures of Romanian just a little bit while watching it, and maybe if I come back to it shortly before actually going there, I will find by then that I can get more out of it.

On the portrayal-of-Dracula front, though, it was absolutely fascinating. It is, of course, a product of Communist Romania, released right in the middle of Ceaușescu's time in power, and needs to be understood in that lightCollapse )

That's not to say it isn't also deadly serious historyCollapse )

There was one scene which really jarred for me from a political / moral perspective, though, while not needing to be there at all from a historical one. This concerned the story from the pamphlets about Dracula and the beggarsCollapse )

I also noticed that there wasn"t a single woman in a speaking role throughout the entire 2hr15m filmCollapse )

Despite such reservations, though, I really liked the film as a piece of drama. The story is dramatically plausible, following a satisfying narrative arc from Dracula's noble aims at the start of the film to his tragic downfall at the end. And its star, Stefan Sileanu in the title role, is absolutely excellent. He really inhabits the part, endowing it with all the intensity, self-belief and sense of purpose which really have to be there for Dracula's actions to come across as convincing, but also showing us the moments of vulnerability and despair which also have to be there for him to appear human. I particularly enjoyed a scene in which some of his enemies fled into an Orthodox church for sanctuary, but Dracula ordered them to be dragged out and punished anyway, leading to a crackling set-piece between him and the priest about the rights and wrongs of what he is doing. Furthermore, he has fantastic eyebrows, wears excellent hats throughout (nicely modelled on the historical portraits), and looks good on a throne or a horse:

Helmet Intense With torch Enthroned

That said, if you weren't super-into the history, I suspect the 2hr15m running time and Romanian-language soundtrack would be off-putting. For me right now, though, it was great!

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The shuffle things meme

Cor, it's ages since I've done a meme! But this one is great.

The rules, as wildeabandon explains in this entry were originally "reorder, add one new item at the top and one at the bottom", but have mutated to "reorder, remove one item, and add three more, one at the top, one at the bottom, and one somewhere in the middle". Under either formulation, of course, the list grows by two items each time - it's just that you also get a bonus substitution under the mutated version.

I like the mutated rules better, so will stick with those, and I have taken my starter-list from the person whose entry in the meme I saw first, pseudomonas. He adds the important clarification that our additions at top, middle and bottom should correctly reflect how much we like them: i.e. they should be of a thing we really like, a thing we feel neutral about and a thing we really dislike, respectively. (I paraphrase - he actually said "preserving the sortedness, pedants"!)

(most liked)
Rose creams
Steam locomotives
Nessie Ladle
Undercooked Aubergine
Getting up early
Eating paper
Running away from zombies
Falling flat on your face while running away from zombies
(most disliked)

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6. David Pinner (1967) Ritual

I read this would-otherwise-be-forgotten 1960s novel for the same reason that everyone who reads it now does so - because of its relationship to the film, The Wicker Man (1973). The logistics of this relationship are set out in chapter 3 of Allan Brown (2000), Inside The Wicker Man, but for those who don't happen to have a copy to hand they go roughly as follows. In 1971, Christopher Lee, Peter Snell and Anthony Shaffer bought the rights to Ritual for a collective total of £15,000, with the intention of turning it into a film, but when Shaffer started work on the process in earnest, he realised that a direct adaptation wasn't really going to work as a drama, and gave the other two their money back. Instead, he began researching and writing his own story, and got Robin Hardy involved in developing it and turning it into a film in early 1972. Shaffer always adamantly denied that the resulting script for The Wicker Man had anything to do with Ritual, but Pinner has remained distinctly disgruntled about what he sees as extensive unacknowledged borrowing.

The truth is that although The Wicker Man is clearly a different story from Ritual, the thematic concerns of the two, their overall structures and many of their motifs remain very, very similar indeedCollapse )

So, yeah, Shaffer was pretty much lying to himself if he really thought there was no connection at all. There self-evidently is. But as I've said above, they are quite different storiesCollapse )

A novel full of unlikeable people coming into conflict with other unlikeable people doesn't have to be a bad one, of course. It could be hard-hitting, tense and powerful. But it could also be free of mannered, trying-too-hard writing like this:
Although the final blood of sunset is two hours in the future, already the sky is a glass of honey. A fringe of cloud haunts the skyline of the sea. And the sea is searching out the secrets of the shells on the wet beaches. Seaweed, the clutch of the crab, and the starfish wait for the next wave. With foaming claws, wave crashes on wave. Hear the shingle sing as the wave sucks and plucks, in his salt armour, plucks and sucks the shingles back. The green gauntlets are greedy for stones. They thrust starfish and seaweed home into the starving sea. This happens minute by minute from now until the end.
So much of that, at every available opportunity.

This isn't to say I hated the novel in and of itself. It was fine, I guess. OK. But The Wicker Man is well-paced, well-photographed, conceptually-strong and blessed with irresistibly-quotable dialogue, while Ritual just isn't the textual equivalent of any of those things. In my view, what happened in the early '70s was that Anthony Shaffer took Ritual and made it better. Much better. The result now is that although Ritual is very much worth reading if you are a Wicker Man fan, so that you can see the seeds from which the film grew, otherwise it isn't. Thankfully, if you are a Wicker fan, reading Ritual for yourself is now easy, because it has been reissued in a lovely paperback edition quite openly designed to capitalise on its connection with the cult film. I am only grateful to the bookshop at the end of the British Library's Terror and Wonder exhibition for getting in a lovely big pile of copies, and thus bringing the opportunity to my attention.

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2. Playtime (1967) , dir. Jacques Tati

Seen this afternoon at the Hyde Park Picture House with ms_siobhan. In one sense, it is another Monsieur Hulot film, and thus follows on from Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, which we saw at the Cottage Road almost (I am shocked to discover) five years ago now. Certainly, it includes M. Hulot as a character. But he is less prominent this time, and the feel of this film as a whole is quite different.

Les Vacances was already in part about vignettes of everyday life and capturing the character of the location, but Playtime is noticeably more concerned with both of those, and less so with M. Hulot himself and his antics. The farce and comedy also often require a pretty sharp eye to spot. In Les Vacances it would usually be the main focus of the shot, but in Playtime you are often looking at an extensive scenario with a lot of different things going on at once, and while things like chairs coming apart, people using a lamp-stand as a pole on a bus, people sneaking contraband glugs of alcohol etc. are there to see and are intended for comic effect, they aren't as in your face in this film.

In fact, it reminded me this time rather of Fellini's Roma (1972), which is definitely not a comparison Les Vacances would invite. It's the way both lack a traditional plot and instead just follow people around the city, documenting their strange little ways both individually and collectively. And, as I said to ms_siobhan, the way Playtime has a brief little scene of nuns with wimples that bounce as they walk, which took me right back to the clerical fashion parade in Roma, where the wimples do just the same - only more so. Now that I know about the similarity, I wouldn't be at all surprised if Fellini was deliberately referencing Tati there, in fact. This certainly seems much the sort of film I can see Fellini liking.

The big difference between Roma and Playtime, though, is that Roma is very much about Rome's many strange juxtapositions, and especially the contrast between different layers of time in the city. But Playtime is all about an ultramodernist Paris, in which the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré-Coeur appear only as reflections in plate-glass windows, and which doesn't actually exist. The Wikipedia article explains all about this - the locations are almost exclusively purpose-built sets full of plate-glass and tower-blocks, including photographic images for some of the buildings and cardboard cut-outs for some of the people (which I certainly noticed, and which adds to the surreal, inhuman feel). So it is not a biography of a real, living city like Roma, but an exploration of a particular kind of urbanism, and what it means to try to be a human being in the midst of it all.

As such, a lot of it feels quite muted, regimented and claustrophobic, because that is what Tati is basically trying to say about ultramodernism. But things become more exuberant towards the end of the film, when we spend a good half hour or more following the goings-on of the opening night at a new restaurant called the Royal Garden. This is full of disasters (lights shorting out, décor falling down, waiters' clothes getting ripped on chair-backs), but it doesn't stop the patrons having a rip-roaring time as the band plays and the alcohol flows. This was lots of fun to watch, and ms_siobhan and I agreed that there were some fantastic frocks on the lady patrons, too.

Earlier on, I also absolutely loved the man who is selling doors which close "in golden silence", gets really angry with M. Hulot, and launches into an extensive rant at him which includes several dramatic door-slams - but of course finds that his treasured product does not make the required noise. And, in a different way, the shots of an American tourist, Barbara, looking around at the posters in a tourist agency, and finding that every single one shows a nearly-identical tower-block with a small token image of an actual local feature or landmark shoved into one corner.

All in all, an interesting, enjoyable and often poignant film which is certainly beautifully shot, but is sometimes also a little slow, and definitely wouldn't make a good first introduction to M. Hulot. Stick with Les Vacances for that.

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Given my current obsession with Dracula and the fact that I am a historian, it's pretty obvious that sooner or later I would want to read up on the historical man behind the myth. I also wasn't going to be satisfied with one of the many popular works on the topic. I wanted Proper History. In fact, what I really set out in search of was an English-language translation of the primary sources. Some of these are available online, such as one of the German-language pamphlets about him printed in Nuremburg in 1488 here. But those are very obviously highly sensationalistic, to a degree which makes the Historia Augusta's Life of Elagabalus look moderate and objective. Meanwhile, I could see that better material must be out there, such as the official document which this image of his signature was taken from. And I wanted to read it!

So I did my research, and very quickly this book stood out from amongst a large and rather motley field. Online reviews and tables of contents confirmed that it includes some 50 pages of translated primary source material (about 1/5 of the book), including official documents and letters from and about Wallachia, Ottoman Chronicles, a Byzantine historiographer, one of the German pamphlets and a Hungarian court historian. This isn't an absolutely comprehensive collection. The official documents and letters are 'selected'; Treptow for some reason omits the Russian pamphlets also published about Dracula (which are as sensationalist as the German ones, but to different effect); and he also cites at certain points, but doesn't present in full, the observations of Pietro Tommasi, the Venetian ambassador to Buda. But I could see in advance, and can confirm now, that it is very definitely the fullest available English-language source collection for Dracula currently on the market.

That would have been enough to make me want to buy it, but meanwhile, my investigations had also made it clear that the other 4/5 of the book were the thing I wanted next most after the primary sources - a proper scholarly analysis of the historical Dracula. This Amazon review from a history professor planning to use it in their teaching sounded particularly promising, while I also found a syllabus for a college course at Rutgers in which it plays a central role (and which I think is taught by someone different from the Amazon reviewer), and a Masters thesis published online which cites it extensively and admiringly.

All eminently promising, you would think. Surely no reason to hesitate about buying a copy? Except that there was, and is, because the author is a convicted paedophileCollapse )

Thankfully, once I had accepted the stain on my soul by buying it, the book did at least turn out to be everything I was hoping it would be as a work of history. The first few chapters, which provided background information about Wallachia and its politics in the period when Dracula came to power, were relatively unexciting, as they were primarily synthesis, but then Treptow turned in earnest to the reign of Dracula himself, and I found myself reading a chapter which began like this:
Communist historiography created the image of Dracula as a class hero who struggled to curb the abuses of the evil boyars. This thesis has been repeated so often that it is usually taken for granted, without realizing the political motives that inspired it. Precisely for this reason the relationship between Vlad III and his boyars must be reconsidered. [p. 73]
"Aha!" I thought, virtually rubbing my hands with glee, "now we are about to get some proper history!" And we didCollapse )

That's not to say I think this is the most perfect book about Vlad III Dracula that could ever be written, and it certainly doesn't attempt to be the most comprehensive. Biases and omissionsCollapse )

So there is definitely more for me to read and discover about the historical Dracula than this book alone could tell me, but that's fine – that's how history is, and I'm glad I still have more to find out (and access to a University library to help me with it). Nonetheless, I think I was right in choosing it as my starting-point, because the historical analysis in the first 4/5 of the book was lucid, well-supported and above all transparent, while of course the translations of the primary sources in the final 1/5 now mean that I am very nearly as well-versed in the actual evidence for Dracula's reign as any expert in the field. Like most ancient rulers, his big attraction here is that the available evidence is so limited that reading it all doesn't take very long – and as I say repeatedly to my students, this means that you quickly can get on to the business of analysing and debating it, which is the really fun bit of history.

Of the sources themselves, the documentary sources (deeds, letters, decrees) are clearly the most useful for learning about the actual activities of Dracula as a ruler. Indeed, many of them are written (or dictated, or merely signed off) directly by him in the first person, which is the very best primary evidence you can ask for from any historical ruler. But I must say my favourite to read were the Ottoman sourcesCollapse )

After reading the collection as a whole, I also now feel much clearer than I did before on the whole issue of impalementCollapse )

I have certainly learnt a lot about late medieval eastern Europe from this book, which has in turn helped me think about various aspect of ancient politics and warfare by comparison and contrast. Reading about almost any monarch whose power essentially rested on military strength also helps me to understand Augustus better in the same sorts of ways, while one whose source-issues and reception history bear such close resemblances to Augustus' is particularly helpful. But of course I didn't just come here for a real-world history lesson, but also to flesh out the back-story for my favourite fictional vampire. I'm well aware that Bram Stoker knew pretty little about the historical Dracula, and was a bit confused about what he did know. But what if, in spite of that, you want to play the game of splicing together the two?

The truth is, it's difficult to do plausibly. The biggest problem is that the historical Dracula had at least two children between losing his throne in 1462 and regaining it in 1475, and then died in warfare only months after the latter event. If you assume both a) that vampires can't have children, and b) that his motivation for becoming a vampire would have been to achieve political success, then you end up stuck in a blind alley, because he can't have become a vampire until after he had finished having children, and by that point in his life his political successes were qualified at best. It also doesn't help that, like most Wallachian monarchs, he went round founding or granting bequests to churches and monasteries, and writing letters full of phrases like "by the grace of God", "we swear before God", "with faith in the Lord Jesus Christ", etc. - all of which would surely burn in the mouth of any vampire Dracula.

Then again, there are occasional phrases in the primary sources which leap out at anyone looking for a spot of vampirism. Like in Dan III's letter to the people of Brașov and Țara Bârsei, where he says that Dracula has broken faith with the Hungarians "following the teaching of the Devil", or the various references in the Ottoman sources to him flying through the battle-field "like a black cloud", or the story from the Russian pamphlets (annoyingly omitted from this book) about him dipping bread in people's blood and eating it. There is also the fact that one of his most famous military attacks took place at night. All of this is of course either perfectly easily-explicable in ordinary human terms, or probably made up – but if you want to, it does provide just about enough fodder to build up a story in which he dabbles with vampirism and / or is assisted by a vampire for some years, but doesn't actually become one himself until at or shortly before the moment of his (historically ill-documented) human death. That is good enough for me.

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The central conceit of this year's Christmas special was that Doctor Who is just as real, and just as unreal, as Santa Claus. In and of itself, I loved this. It was very meta, perfectly true, and extremely productive for bouncing the two mythic traditions off against one another. As the Doctor himself put it, "D'you know what the big problem is in telling fantasy and reality apart? They're both ridiculous." Maybe it was a slightly repetitive line to take, after having done much the same thing with Robin Hood earlier this year, but that's less of a problem for a Christmas episode than it would be a regular one, given that Christmas episodes tend to pull in a higher proportion of casual viewers who may not have seen Robot of Sherwood anyway. And there were lots of cool moments to enjoy, like the snarky Elves, Santa rearing up on Rudolph like a heroic knight, Nick Frost generally being completely brilliant, and everything about Shona.

But a week, much musing, and some re-watching of key scenes later, and I'm still both puzzled and bothered by the question of whose dream(s) we are seeing at any given stage in the episode, and where the dreams end and 'reality' begins. I realise that worrying about this at all is at odds with that central conceit, according to which it doesn't matter, since everything you're seeing is a story anyway. But the difference between Doctor Who and the mythos of Santa Claus is that Doctor Who is an ongoing, unfolding story presented by an identifiable single source (the BBC TV series), which purports to offer internal consistency of plot and character development. So while Santa Claus can merrily get away with being and doing many different and contradictory things, depending on who is telling him, Doctor Who cannot - or at least not if it wants to keep hold of viewers who care about what has and hasn't actually 'happened' to the characters they are following.

As far as I understand it, the official line on this episode is that everything we see is a dream (often within one or more other dreams), except for the final scene when the Doctor arrives at the large house in which a twenty-something Clara is now sleeping, rescues her from the last dream-crab, and they leave together in the TARDIS. This, at least, is what Moffat himself has stated. The problem is that this scene comes at the end of a whole story in which the Doctor has repeatedly insisted on applying critical thinking to determine the difference between dreaming and reality. "Trust nothing, interrogate everything", he says. But the 'waking-up' scene which Moffat insists is 'real' comes directly after the Doctor has voiced the wish to older-dream-Clara that he had returned to her sooner, so it is a wish-fulfilment scenario for him (the second chance he doesn't normally get, as he says), while the tangerine on the windowsill is a heavy hint that this is meant to have been set up for him by Santa. So everything that has gone before this scene should have trained us to spot the big red flags here, and recognise this as another dream. And yet Moffat is insisting outside the text that it is real, without having given us anything within the text to support that.

This feels lazy to me, as well as like Moffat is trying to have it both ways. Within the story he's saying that the distinction between dreams and reality doesn't matter, yet from outside the story he is still leaning in over our shoulders anyway to tell us which bits are dreams and which 'real'. If that distinction matters to him after all, couldn't he have put the effort into making it clear from within the story itself? Like a lot of Moffat stories in recent years, what this all feels like is that he had a promising idea for what could have been a really great episode, but in practice it didn't go through enough rewriting drafts, so that we have something nearly-brilliant, but which kind of flakes out at the last hurdle. And what really bothers me about all this as a viewer is not so much not knowing which scenes are dreams and which 'real' per se, but the fact that a knock-on consequence of this is that we don't really know whose dreams we are seeing at any given time either, and thus whose subconscious we are being granted an insight into. These are the various different possibilities which could apply, as far as I can figure them out:

1. As per Moffat's Diktat, "Everything except the very last scene is a dream". This means that dream-crabs really exist, since we see the Doctor removing one from Clara's face, and I think we're meant to understand that both were attacked by them (the Doctor in a mysterious cave and Clara in her equally-mysterious house), and were somehow experiencing a shared dream from their different locations. Under this scenario, then, the Doctor and Clara have both effectively told each other that they were lying about Gallifrey and Danny respectively at the end of season 8, because they did this in a dream which both were experiencing. Both have also effectively admitted to each other that they really just want to keep on travelling together. But, as I've said above, there are pretty hefty in-story reasons to view Moffat's Diktat as bollocks and read the last scene as just as much of a dream as everything else. In which case, they possibly haven't shared these emotional breakthroughs after all.

2. Even if we accept Moffat's Diktat, the roles of Shona, Albert, Fiona and Ashley remain unclear. By "the very last scene", does he literally mean the last scene with the Doctor and Clara, or does he extend that to mean each of the other characters' last scenes as well? (Well, except for Albert, who doesn't get one 'cos 'e snuffed it.) I.e. is it a shared crab-induced dream with input from all of them, which began for each character in the various different real-life locations where we see them waking up towards the end of the story? Or not? Do the other characters even exist, or are they dream-inventions of the Doctor's and / or Clara's? After he rescues her from her dream-crab, the Doctor tells older Clara that "The dream crabs must have got to me first and then found you in my memory. The others were collateral damage." But this doesn't really clear things up. Does it mean they were in his memory too? Or hers? And are they present in the dream as the Doctor and / or Clara's subconscious memories, right down to dreaming happy endings for them where they awake back into reality, or are they there as real people who are dreaming too, and really do wake up back in their own realities? When Albert, who put his hand on Shona's knee during the briefing process, is sucked into a security monitor and never seen again, is that Shona's sub-conscious wish-fulfilment? Or Clara's? Or the Doctor's? Or what?

3. Another approach is to ignore Moffat's blethering, and rewind back to the end of the last episode of season 8, where we saw the Doctor nodding off at the console of his TARDIS, before being rudely awakened by a knocking at the TARDIS door and Santa coming in declaring that he couldn't leave things with Clara like that. Everything Last Christmas has shown us should signal this, too, was a dream, and one which we never see the Doctor waking up from throughout the entirety of the Christmas special. Under this scenario, we can actually forget about the dream-crabs, and read the whole of Last Christmas as a perfectly normal non-crab-induced dream of the Doctor's, and his alone, within which he has presumably invented (or subconsciously remembered) a character, Shona, whom he imagined in turn inventing both the crabs and Santa Claus out of a combination of her favourite movies. This is actually what I think is the most plausible reading of everything we've seen on screen - but it does matter quite a lot for ongoing character development purposes whether or not it's correct, because under this theory, the Doctor and Clara haven't admitted to each other that they've lied, or that they want to keep on travelling together. In fact, they still haven't even seen or had any other kind of contact with one another since parting in the café.

I don't really know why I'm worrying or puzzling over any of this, because I am 99.9% sure that at the beginning of the next season, Moffat will carry on regardless. We'll never really know whether any of what we saw 'happened', and thus what the Doctor and Clara have or haven't said or revealed to each other, and it will all just become yet another unresolved plot string to trouble us vaguely in the background even while we're being asked to follow another. But the fact is that the weight of those loose strings is bothering me, and making me more and more jaded about each new one that follows. I wish we could find some way to cut free of them all, so that I can get on with enjoying what are otherwise still a lot of awesome stories and great characters.

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1a-c. A trio of short horror curiosities

I'm starting my films of 2015 as I mean to go on - that is with vintage horror, just like in 2014. steepholm's post yesterday about an Edwardian horror film reminded me that some time ago I had bookmarked an even earlier one, and the neatness of starting my year with what is widely considered to be the first horror film ever made appealed to me - especially since I knew I would be able to progress onwards to the Edwardian one afterwards. Thus my evening began.

1a. Le Manoir du Diable (1896), dir. Georges Méliès

The history of film begins, as we all know, in Leeds, with 1888's challenging and poignant Roundhay Garden Scene. Given that people had already been using all manner of special-effects technology (still cameras, lights, distorting lenses, paper cut-outs etc.) to create otherworldly vignettes for years, and that the Victorian fascination with the Gothic was at its greatest height yet, it is no surprise that within eight years, somebody had put the new technique to work in creating the world's first horror film. Nonetheless, we shouldn't let that inevitability distract us from how amazing it is that we can actually see this film, just over 118 years later. (I say 'just over', because it was originally released on Christmas Eve 1896, placing it in the fine and time-honoured tradition of Ghost Stories at Christmas.) To be clear about exactly how early we are talking, this film was released the year before Bram Stoker's Dracula was published. You may read more about it at Wikipedia, and indeed watch it for yourself right here.

It isn't exactly horror in the sense of 'intended to scare', of course, as the Wikipedia page rightly says, but then again neither are lots of films, books and plays which end up being placed in the 'horror' category. Like most category descriptors, the 'horror' genre falls down pretty quickly on close analysis, but we still stick with it anyway because it is simple and widely understood - so I'm not going to fret too much about all that. This certainly is the first film with fantastical, diabolical, supernatural, Gothic goings-on - and that's good enough for me. Indeed, it features a quasi-vampiric protagonist, who is presumably the diable of the title, but notably transforms from a bat into a human-like creature at the beginning of the story, and is defeated by a crucifix at the end (sorry if that's a spoiler for anyone ;-) ), which is very exciting.

Everything seems very simple to 21st-century eyes, of course, and yet at the same time it is surprising how much of what film can do has already been recognised and pressed into use only 8 years after its invention. We are basically looking at a theatrical vignette, filmed with a single static camera, but stepping beyond the constraints of live theatre by using the camera's ability to compress and edit time via cuts, so that people and objects can be made to appear and disappear. We also have special effects props hanging from wires (the bat), people appearing in puffs of smoke, and 2D mattes (the cauldron). As yet, though, there are no intertitles (which were invented in 1903, apparently), so the story has to be simple enough to follow without them. And of course Gothic melodrama lends itself well to that situation, since a basic battle of good vs. evil doesn't need to rely on deeply-felt personal emotions of the sort which need articulating via words or close-ups.

In short, a fascinating glimpse into both the early history of film and the evolution of Gothic horror - and since it's only three minutes long, you can be pretty certain that it will reward that small investment of your time.

1b. The Mistletoe Bough (1904), dir. Percy Stow

This is the film which steepholm posted about. It is a telling of a widely-known ghost story called The Mistletoe Bough, which you can read about here, and was most popularly known at the time when this film was made through a song by Thomas Haynes Bayley published in 1884, which the film seems to follow fairly closely. You can watch it for free on the BFI website, and it is only 5 minutes long - so again, well worth the investment.

We are only eight years beyond the previous film here, but the technological leaps forward are striking (as, of course, they also are between Roundhay Garden Scene and Le Manoir du Diable over the same time-period). Everything is still very theatrical, as cinema would continue to be well into the 1930s (and television the 1960s), right down to being able to see the shadow of the 'stage-front' on the back wall in the opening ball-room scene. But where Le Manoir du Diable had one location, this one has six (ball-room, house exterior, steps to the tower, tower interior, generic black background to seeking scene and house drive-way), and in one of them the camera-person even uses a panning shot to follow the bride as she comes out of the house and looks for a place to hide. Since this film is telling a known story, it is able to convey a slightly more complex narrative than Le Manoir du Diable, but technological innovation helps here too in the form of the newly-invented intertitle; one is employed to signal that thirty years have passed between the mysterious disappearance of the bride and the discovery of her terrible fate.

Even more strikingly, we have the appearance of a new special effect. While Le Manoir du Diable used cuts to signify appearances and disappearances, The Mistletoe Bough gives us the ghost (or a dream?) of the bride, slowly fading in the arms of her husband when he tries to embrace her. This really was interesting, because I have more than once heard it said that the scene of Count Orlok fading in the sun at the end of Nosferatu (1922) is the first use of such an effect in a horror film - which I now know is definitely not the case. I suppose it goes to show the folly of declaring anything the 'first' whatever in cinematic history, given how much of its early output is now lost or little-known. The actual mouldering corpse of the bride, as discovered thirty years later by her husband, is kept off-screen though - we only see his and another man's (the butler? a friend?) horrified reactions as they look into the chest. My guess is that this was done out of concern for what could and couldn't be shown on screen, rather than limited props / effects resources, since a skeleton in some rags isn't too hard to do. But either way it felt like a precursor of the later grand horror tradition of keeping shonky special-effects 'monsters' off-screen as much as possible.

As for the story itself, it is intended as genuinely tragic / horrific this time, and did indeed give me a horrified thrill as the bride met her fate, and again as her husband realised what had happened to her. The theatricality still gives it a strong melodramatic edge, though, which reduces the sense of realism, and the scenes of the wedding party utterly failing to find the bride in spite of there being only one very obvious place where she could possibly have ended up are more comical than I suspect they were meant to be. Meanwhile, the titular mistletoe bough itself doesn't actually seem to play any part in the plot - it is simply there to signify a winter / Christmas setting for the story, apparently matched by the real-world season when the film was made, to judge by the bare branches on the trees and what might be remnants of snow on the ground (or could just be unevenly-worn gravel on the drive). As such, then, this too fits neatly into the Ghost Stories at Christmas tradition, making this a good time of year to have discovered it.

1c. Cross-roads (1955), dir. John Fitchen

Finally, having arrived at the BFI website to see The Mistletoe Bough, I couldn't help but notice that one of the other features offered on the same page was this 20-minute ghost film starring Christopher Lee. This is exactly the sort of early / small-scale work from his filmography which it's generally very hard to get hold of, and I certainly hadn't seen it before. So I snapped up the opportunity to watch it, urged on by the information that it was one of his first forays into Gothic territory, and features what would soon become his signature screen trick of a portentous close-up into his narrowed, piercing eyes. You too may have the pleasure here, though I'm afraid this time you will have to pay one English pound for the privilege.

It's worth it, though - at least if you are a Lee fan, anyway. Because he is the ghost at the centre of the story, and because his purpose is to wreak horrible revenge on the man whom he considers responsible for his sister's death, there really is a great deal here which he would draw on again in his role as Dracula three years later - icy charm, supreme self-assurance, a menacing physical presence, a sudden switch from congenial politeness to cold anger, and of course those piercing eyes. Those are all in his performance, and could equally well occur in a story about an ordinary human being bent on revenge - but it does help, too, that the story imbues him with both supernatural powers (able to cut off a telephone line, prevent an unlocked door from opening and be unaffected by bullets) and limitations (he has only until the same hour as his untimely death to wreak his revenge). All very satisfactory indeed.

Cinematically, we're obviously in an utterly different world with this film from the two above, so I won't try to draw strained comparisons with them. But this one stands as an interesting insight into the nature of the film industry in its own time, all the same. I'm not quite sure what it was originally produced for, as neither my best Christopher Lee book nor the internet is providing any answer to that question, but I do know it came out of a low-budget operation called Bushey Studios, and my guess is that it was a B-feature short to be shown at cinemas before a main movie. The editing is abysmal, with multiple cuts between different camera-angles that don't follow fluently from what was happening before, most of the acting (including Christopher Lee's) is pretty mannered, and some of the dialogue is cringe-inducingly banal. I don't think audiences were willing to accept editing of this quality in particular for much longer, though it's not the only similar example from around this time I have seen (and I suspect the others may have had Christopher Lee in them as well). But the lighting is nice, and there's quite a pacey car-chase scene through central London at the end, too, which is not to be sniffed at.

All in all, a very enjoyable little adventurette through early horror film history, and certainly a great start to a new filmic year which I hope will continue in much the same vein.

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I saw both of these with ms_siobhan as a New Year's Eve double-bill at the Hyde Park Picture House yesterday, from our favourite seats on the left-hand side of the balcony.

45. Some Like It Hot (1959), dir. Billy Wilder

First of all, it does have to be acknowledged that this one particular film probably bears about 90% of the responsibility for the transphobic myth that trans women are really just straight dudes who want to infiltrate women-only spaces and ogle cis women. It didn't invent that idea, and nor is it now necessarily the direct cause of most people absorbing it, but it is a major theme of the film, and must surely have given it a very big cultural boost. So I think it's important to say that whenever talking about this film, as a small way of helping to chip away at the real-world potency of that very damaging myth. On a similar note, I also found the scenes in which Tony Curtis' character, in persona as Shell Oil Junior, coerces Sugar into sex by pretending to be sexually unresponsive and in need of 'help' to fix him pretty gross as well. I get that disguise and deceit are ancient staples of romantic comedies, and never more so than in this one, but she was totally into his Shell Oil Junior character anyway. She would very obviously have willingly and enthusiastically have had sex with him without that extra layer of lies and manipulation, so to me they broke through the romantic comedy genre conventions and out into some distinctly rapey territory.

But I am perfectly capable of separating out those things from the rest of the film in my mind, and seeing it for the of-its-time romantic musical comedy it is meant to be. As a star vehicle for Monroe it is magnificent, with her performance of "I Wanna Be Loved By You" capturing her appeal perfectly. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are perfectly paired as the two protagonists, the Chicago gangsters are brilliant, the music is great, the physical farce fantastic and the witty dialogue to die for. Plus, for all my reservations above, I also think that by showing male characters experiencing male treatment of women at first hand, and by including scenes with strong homosexual overtones (both lesbian ones between Sugar and Curtis-as-Josephine and the famous "Well, nobody's perfect" ending between Osgood and Lemmon-as-Jerry), it probably helped to achieve some social steps forwards as well as backwards. So, if the movie isn't perfect either, that doesn't mean it isn't still a great watch.

46. The Apartment (1960), dir. Billy Wilder

Part two of the double-bill was the next year's follow-up movie from the same production team, which brought back Jack Lemmon as the leading man. It's still a comedy, and starts out looking for all the world like a farce, but it has a dark undertone from the beginning, because of the way it portrays sleazy executives laughing it up together as they coldly conduct affairs in Lemmon's character's apartment, and him conniving in it for the sake of material promotion, while at the same time being very obviously strung along and exploited himself. Then, half-way through, the darkness bursts violently to the surface when one executive's to-him-casual (but to her serious) fling attempts suicide in the apartment. The overall arc is actually very moralistic - Lemmon discovers his moral compass and is rewarded with True Love, the chief sleazy executive gets his come-uppance, and the young lady (Miss Kubelik) rediscovers her sense of self-worth. But gosh, you do get put through the wringer along the way.

This made it a good second film for the double-bill, though. It felt a little more 'cerebral' than Some Like It Hot (if that's quite the right word), which worked well for its early evening slot once you'd been warmed up by the comedy first. It was certainly more moving, anyway - I found myself sniffing back tears as the end credits rolled, which you just wouldn't get from Some Like It Hot (unless, of course, Chicago mobsters had killed your grandmother, you insensitive clod). But it has in common with the other film all those classic qualities of slick pacing, seemingly effortless photography and of course a brilliant cast. Though his character isn't very nice, I actually thought Fred MacMurray was absolutely brilliant as Sleazy Executive Mr. Sheldrake, hitting that perfect note between oiliness and plausible charm which seems to be so characteristic of American Presidents (Nixon and Regan particularly spring to mind). It is essential to the whole plot that we should be able to believe Miss Kubelik might attempt suicide over him while simultaneously being able to see that he's a schmuck, so MacMurray had an important job to do there, and did it really well. I'd like to see more stuff with him in now on that basis. I also loved both the characterisation and the performances for the two Jewish neighbours, Dr. and Mrs. Dreyfuss - relatively small roles (especially hers), but ones which felt very human and three-dimensional al the same.

While Some Like It Hot has fun playing up the glamour of the 1920s jazz age, The Apartment is now just as fascinating for being set in its contemporary present day. I particularly enjoyed seeing how large-scale corporate office culture might have operated in 1960s America, complete with lobbies, elevators, desk diaries, rotary card index files, calculating machines and telephone exchanges. And I liked the insights into Lemmon's bachelor life-style as well, which was so close to and yet not quite the same as its equivalent today - frozen meals for heating up in the oven rather than microwave meals, a TV remote-control unit with a dial on it fixed to his table, and of course the time-honoured pokey apartment for one. In less cheery news from the 1960s, though, I was disquieted to realise that Miss Kubelik is obviously at risk of getting into trouble with the law for having attempted suicide, so that the whole thing has to be hushed up. We have moved beyond that, suicide-wise, in both the US and UK since, but that is still exactly where we are with drugs, leaving addicts unable to seek help for fear of punishment (not to mention at risk from unregulated products), and it's about damned time we sorted that out.

Back to The Apartment(!), it also turned out to be a Christmas / New Year film, which I guess was yet another reason (on top of release-date chronology and the tonal move from pure comedy to black comedy) why it needed to be the second half of the double bill. Miss Kubelik makes her suicide attempt on Christmas Eve, spends a few days recovering at Jack Lemmon's apartment, and then finally dumps her Sleazy Executive in favour of him on New Year's Eve. Not quite the Christmas-to-New-Year experience I would wish on anyone in reality, but still in its own way something to get us in the mood for our own NYE celebrations which followed.

Films watched 2014 round-upCollapse )

And now I believe it is time to get started on my films watched in 2015. :-)

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The Year of Augustus is officially over at last, and it's time to wish you all a happy and healthy 2015! May it be full of goodness and satisfaction for you all.

I spent my New Year's Eve this year seeing Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960) at the Hyde Park cinema with ms_siobhan (both of which I shall write up separately), before returning to my place where we were joined by planet_andy and Mr. & Mrs. [twitter.com profile] ZeitgeistZero for champagne, canapés, a cosy fire and lots of wicked laughter. It was a lovely evening, and has only left me feeling moderately delicate today, so all in all just right.

Under strict instructions from glitzfrau, we made sure to compile the annual Death List and Scandal List, which we do most years and which I have occasionally published here (example), but which I don't think we got round to last year. The rules are that if anyone on the list dies or becomes embroiled in a scandal in 2015, we all get 10p, though I'm not sure from whom - ourselves, probably. Also, it's fine for people to be on both lists. Re the Death List, some people are on there in hope, others as a protective charm (since people on the list very rarely actually die), and some out of pure pragmatism, but I will leave it to you to guess which. And re the Scandal List, we have suggested specifics in some cases, in which case we get double points if those come to pass, but we still all get our statutory 10p if those people are involved in any kind of scandal, even if it's not the one we predicted.

So, without further ado, and in the utterly random order we wrote them down last night while drunk, here goes:

2015 Death List
Prince Philip (who has now taken Mrs. Thatcher's traditional place at the head of the list)
John Craven
Ex-Pope Benedict XIV (oops!) XVI (natural causes)
Current Pope Francis (suspicious circumstances)
Elizabeth Butler Sloss
Beryl Bainbridge (ah - actually, just looked her up on Wikipedia now, and it turns out she died in 2010. So nul points for us there I think.)
Katie Hopkins
Michael Heseltine
Kirk Douglas
Terry Pratchett
Alan Bennett
David Hockney
Mark E. Smith
Paul McCartney
Ken Dodd
Rolf Harris (in prison)
Stephen Hawking
Clint Eastwood
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran
President Muhammad Fuad Masum of Iraq
President Assad of Syria
George Bush Snr
Bruce Forsyth
Jimmy Tarbuck
Mickey Rooney
Maggie Smith
Paul Daniels
Any current Blue Peter pets
Mike Lee

2015 Scandal List
Justin Bieber (glue sniffing)
Nigel Farage (auto-erotic asphyxiation and / or found with an orange up his arse)
Boris Johnson
Katie Hopkins
Gary Barlow
Ed Miliband (turns out to be a LARPer)
Richard Dawkins (converts to Islam)
Jeb Bush
Jedward (it's possible that at this stage we were drifting into playing word association)
Any male BBC news reader
Lorraine Kelly
Neil & Christine Hamilton
Noel Edmonds
George Lucas
Damien Hirst
Paul Daniels
The McCanns
Noddy Holder

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44. Die Hard (1988), dir. John McTiernan

Rewinding a few days here to the pre-Christmas period, I went to see this at Leeds Town Hall with ms_siobhan, planet_andy, nalsa and Mrs. nalsa in honour of planet_andy's birthday. I've never been to a film screening at Leeds Town Hall before, so that was fun in itself, and nor had I seen Die Hard in spite of its classic status. It is an action film after all, which is hardly my genre, but going to see it in its reinvented pomo guise as a 'Christmas film' - now that, I could handle.

It is, of course, masses of fun. Indeed, I might well have gone to see it earlier if I'd cottoned on to the fact that it has Alan Rickman in it being deliciously villainous. His character even got in a Classical reference, too:
"And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer." Benefits of a classical education. [Source: IMDb]
Obviously, that actually boils down to your standard use of Classics to denote morally-bankrupt posh people, and is thus exactly the sort of thing which puts people off the subject, but never mind! It's still good to hear Alex getting a name-check, and it's not like it was a mainstay of the plot. Other things I particularly liked included McClane's message on the first terrorist victim's shirt: "Now I have a machine gun - ho ho ho!", Johnson & Johnson the ineffective FBI agents and Argyle happily living it up in his limousine while blithely unaware of the major terrorist incident going on in the building above him. I assumed for ages that he would spend literally the entire film like this, and just drive out the next morning wondering what was going on, but it was also cool that he got to play his part in overcoming the bad guys too.

I do realise that this bit is going to make me sound like Noam Chomsky on his day off, but gosh - you really couldn't present a more fully-developed fantasy of hyper-masculinity as a response to male anxieties about successful career-women than this film, could you? That is literally how McClane wins his wife back after their marriage has been broken apart by her promotion to Director of Corporate Affairs at the Nakatomi Corporation. But anyway! Helicopters and explosions and cool one-liners and stuff! Yay.

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Geekdom is...

Just realised that my Christmas write-up did not include this classic exchange of dialogue between me and my Dad:

DAD [conversationally, in response to my various Christopher Lee-related presents]: I saw a Christopher Lee film on telly the other day.

ME: *instantly narrows down Christopher Lee's 280 screen credits to those which I know are shown regularly on satellite and cable TV channels*
*further cross-checks this list against my knowledge of films my Dad is likely to watch*
*says* Was it Battle of the V-1?

DAD [moderately, but not excessively surprised]: Yeah, it was actually.

Oh yes, I am that good.

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Last night's journey, as seen by the BBC

The news has been full of travel woes of all sorts today, but I was particularly struck by this picture, which has been featuring on various BBC News reports today:

That's the jack-knifed lorry I drove past on the right (southbound) carriage-way there, while the car in the middle lane on the northbound carriage-way could literally be mine. It's too dark and blurry to tell, of course, and the odds of it actually being mine in reality are low - but I think I was in that lane at that point, and it looks plausibly like the rear view of a red Honda Jazz.

Anyway, it's a striking memento of a situation I hope never to experience again. Feel free to imagine me sitting inside that car, saying words like "Jesus Effing Christ on a bike!" a lot as I took in the scene to my right.

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What fun!

What fun it is when you're driving along the motorway, and you can't tell whether or not you are properly in a lane because you can't see the white lines under all the snow!

What fun to discover that when you try to correct your position, the car starts skidding!

And to realise that all of the other drivers around you have no more control over their cars than you do!

And to gradually see the illuminated signs which are telling you that there are hazardous driving conditions and that a temporary speed limit of 40mph is in force disappearing behind a coating of snow!

And when what would normally be a 2h15m journey takes closer to 4 hours because even 40mph is in fact way too fast in weather like that, so that you have to do most of it at more like 20-30 miles an hour.

And seeing at least 15 vehicles at the side of the road with their hazard flashers on during that time, only one of which was being attended to by a repair van, and three of which were in actively dangerous positions.

And driving past an articulated lorry which had jack-knifed across all four lanes of the opposite carriage-way, complete with a van and a car smashed into the side of it.

What fun!

I'm glad to say I am safely back home in Leeds now, but that was easily the worst drive I have ever done. I very definitely wouldn't have set off if I'd had the faintest idea it would get that bad, but Birmingham was merely slushy, with the snow that had fallen earlier in the evening actively melting; and weather reports had told me the same was true in Leeds, which was perfectly accurate. It was just everything in between that was the problem - and by the time I discovered that, it was way too late...

Update: obviously I couldn't take a picture, as I was driving, but this person did:

They were clearly heading in the opposite direction to me, and didn't know yet about the jack-knifed lorry causing the jam. Just horrible, all round.

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43. The Awakening (1980), dir. Mike Newell

Borrowed recently from Lovefilm, and watched last night as a treat after a heavy day of Lib Dem Christmas card delivery.

We must have taped this off the telly some time in my early teens, as I clearly remember having a copy of it in the family house, really liking it and watching it quite regularly on boring Sunday afternoons. I hadn't seen it since I left home though (and heck knows what's happened to the taped copy), so I borrowed it to see whether it was as good as I remember. It was!

The story is based on Bram Stoker's novel, The Jewel of the Seven Stars, which I must confess I have never read. Wikipedia gives good plot summaries of both, though, so I won't bother repeating either, but will simply link for those who are interested:Judging from those, the essential elements of the stories are pretty similar, but The Awakening updates everything to the present day, and puts more emphasis on the personal and psychological troubles of the Egyptologist who unearths the mummy - his marital problems, his career obsessions, his weird relationship with the teenage daughter he has barely ever seen. And there is no doubt at all about what has happened to both Kara (the mummified princess) and Margaret (his daughter) at the end.

Wikipedia also tells me, in what is clearly a rather contested Reception section, that this film is apparently widely considered rather dull. Indeed, others seem to agree. It's a fascinating phenomenon, this one - you grow up with a film in the pre-internet age, form your own opinion of it, perhaps with input from one single review (my Horror Bible thinks it's great!), and only discover years later that you are utterly out of step with the majority consensus. But in this case I really cannot understand what the people who claim this film is boring are on about. From where I'm sitting, Charlton Heston does a great job as Corbeck, the lead Egyptologist, conveying very effectively the range from his buoyant exuberance when he first makes the find of a life-time to his increasingly-unhinged vulnerability as he begins to realise where it is leading him. And the plot builds just nicely from a straightforwardly-realistic depiction of an Egyptological dig at the beginning, through a series of strange and unsettling events which reflect the parallel development of Corbeck's unhealthy obsession with his find, and via a sequence of inventive and memorable deaths to a poignant ending in which he just has time to witness his own illusions shattering before meeting his own horrible fate. There is a strong sense of inevitability as the events march towards their terrible climax, and yet always tension too as we are given reasons to hope that the characters will manage to overcome the ancient evil and escape their fates.

Watching it now, what I really liked about it was its central concern with academic obsession, and the terribly damaging effect it can have on the person experiencing it and on those around them. I can definitely relate to that. In fact, in many ways Corbeck's character arc reminds me quite strongly of Stourley Kracklite's in Peter Greenaway's The Belly of an Architect, another film of which I am extremely fond. Both characters are obsessed with a little-known historical figure whom no-one else really cares about (Kara, Boulée), both have marital problems, both lose control of their big research projects, both put up undignified fights to get them back, both lose all sense of proportion in the process, both are aware of their own impending doom and helpless in the face of it, and both essentially end up causing their own deaths. It's just that in The Awakening, the drama and tension of this arc is manifested partly via supernatural happenings.

Obviously when I originally saw this as a teenager, I couldn't have related quite so profoundly to the academic-obsession theme, but I was of course already very geeky. I had definitely spent more than my due portion of hours shut away in my bedroom, reading about Egyptian mythology. So I think even then I would have found something that spoke to me in Corbeck's obsession with an ancient Egyptian princess, and his half-hope, half-fear that he might be able to bring her back to life. Certainly, I remember being very much taken by the climactic scene in which he carries out the resurrection ritual, at the end of which he breaks open the mummy's jaw so that she can 'breathe' again, only to first realise to his horror that the magic was all an illusion and all he has done is irreparably damage his precious find, and then realise to his even greater horror that the ritual has in fact worked, but not in the way he had imagined - Kara has indeed come back to life, but in the body of his daughter. This part, of course, is a classic 'be careful what you wish for' story - rather like The Monkey's Paw, for example.

Meanwhile, this is a surprisingly big-budget film for a British horror movie. Even the nay-sayers seem willing to concede that its sets and location footage, including extensive scenes set in actual Egypt, are superb, and the camera crew certainly get good value out of them. The early scenes on the dig are infused with a powerful sense of the close heat of the Egyptian desert - another aspect which had really stuck with me since I last saw this film as a teenager. There is some clever editing work going on as well, usually to suggest terrifying and supernatural things without actually showing them. For example, when Corbeck first finds Kara's tomb, the sounds of his hammer-blows as he opens the outer seal reverberate along the valley, where they are cross-cut with scenes of his wife back at the camp experiencing simultaneous spasms as she goes into a premature labour with their child. This is just enough to suggest, without actually stating, that there is a profound connection between the dead Egyptian princess and the new-born baby - just the right level to leave that suggestion on at this stage of the story, so that it can develop more fully and horrifyingly later on.

I will concede that the young lady who plays Corbeck's daughter, Stephanie Zimbalist, puts in a pretty unexciting performance - but even then, maybe that's only appropriate to the story, given that she is meant to be 18 years old and basically just a cipher waiting to be possessed by an evil Egyptian princess. It's probably a good thing the film ends just as that possession takes full hold, because I'm not sure Zimbalist could have carried full-on evil very convincingly. Other than that, though, I really can't see how or why this film deserves such mediocre ratings on the various review aggregator websites. That said, I note that many of the negative reviews (e.g. this one) draw their unfavourable comparisons specifically with Hammer's earlier take on the same Stoker novel, Blood From The Mummy's Tomb, and I won't dismiss that part of what they say. So it's onto the Lovefilm list with Hammer's effort, for future viewing and a comparison of my own.

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