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April 5th, 2019

‘Kay, so I’m on a train to London, and I’m going to try to use the time to catch up with some film reviews. We’re going back to January for this one, which I saw with [personal profile] glitzfrau at the Hyde Park Picture House. Anyway, I probably don’t need to say a great deal about it, given that everyone in the world has seen this one, and indeed that it has won multiple awards including an Oscar since.

Anyway, it’s great. It is a story all about women maximising the power available to them in a male-dominated world complete with explicit lesbianism, and everything about the production at every level is superbly well-executed. Olivia Colman deserved her Oscar for how well she acted having had a stroke alone. The moment we saw her, before anyone said or did anything, I recognise straight away what was supposed to have happened. The lighting was also brilliant – one of the most natural-looking depictions of candle-lit interiors I have ever seen, which are very hard to do on film. And Rachel Weisz looked so amazing in her breeches during the shooting scenes, that was worth the entrance price on its own.

As a historian, though, I think the thing I’ll appreciate it for most long-term was its overt creative anachronism, as seen in e.g. many of the clothes, the awesomely-funny dance-off, the music (Baroque Greatest Hits but with a modern twist), etc. No production is ever going to be 100% historically accurate – only actual history was ever that – and attempting to do so can ham-string a good story that would otherwise resonate strongly with its modern audience. So lampshading it by making it clear that for all the truthiness, this isn’t actually the ‘truth’ seems like a good solution. Maybe there’s a general drift in that direction in the creative industries at the moment? It’s certainly what the TV series Britannia has been doing for example. Anyway, I like it and I hope the immense success of this film will encourage more in the same vein.

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I saw this one with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 and planet_andy at the Howard Assembly Rooms. It is the second in a series of films about the character of Fantômas, a dastardly criminal, which were themselves based on a series of novels in the Penny Dreadful tradition. Not that I knew any of that when I went into the theatre, mind. I was like, “OK, this seems to be starting part-way through the story”, but now that I realise it was part of a longer-running sequence, I understand why. In fact I think these films functioned a bit more like a TV series than like feature films as we know them today.

The print was beautifully crisp, which paid off straight away with an opening sequence just consisting of close-up shots of characters’ faces – very expressive and detailed. The story was silent, although with a lot of inter-titles and letters between characters shown on screen to convey the plot. These made me realise that I can read the amount of French which the producers of a film expect me to be able to read in the time allocated perfectly well, and I can read the amount of continental cursive script which the producers expect me to be able to read in the time allocated perfectly well, but I cannot do both. Anyway, it didn’t matter, I got the gist – basically lots of murders, fraud and deception, with chases around Paris, explosions and a train-crash along the way.

The film was also accompanied by live music from an Icelandic band called amiina, who were apparently the string section for Sigur Rós. Not that that means a great deal to me, as I have never knowingly heard any of Sigur Rós’s music, but anyway I absolutely loved what we heard on the night – driving and hypnotic and well-attuned to the film without attempting to parody the music of its original era. I must check out a bit more of their stuff.

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4. Nosferatu (1922), dir. F.W. Murnau

Obviously I’ve seen this before, but I wanted to revisit it because I am going on this Dracula Society trip organised around its locations, studios and director in May / June (excite!), and [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 was very happy to join me in the enterprise. We found a nicely-restored version online, which was beautifully crisp and also contained several scenes neither of us could remember seeing before – e.g. the escape and pursuit of a prisoner from the asylum called Knock. It looks like quite a lot has been rediscovered and reinserted into the film since I last saw it, as the version we watched was about 1h30 long, whereas I’m pretty sure I only remember it being just over an hour previously. And it has gained a great deal in the process, with more time to establish the story at the beginning and all of the characters and the relationships between them coming across as better developed and more convincing.

We also attempted to match it up with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313’s blood-red vinyl copy of the soundtrack which Hammer composer James Bernard wrote for the film in the 1990s, but since that was about 50 minutes long and the film more like 90, it was never going to be a perfect match! Periodically we either paused the record or went back a bit, but most of the time they were well out of sync. It didn’t really matter, though, as both were just so amazing and while the music was clearly designed in the first place to match the tone of particular scenes, it was all broadly Gothic and atmospheric, so it was never really at odds with the action.

The special effects deployed in the grand finale, when Count Orlok fades into nothing in the morning sunlight, are famous – not least because this scene first introduced the notion that sunlight is fatal to vampires. Orlok rising up in his coffin on the Demeter, presumably done by putting him on a board which could be pushed up using some kind of hidden mechanism, is almost as well-known. But over the years that had meant I’d come to assume they were the only two special effects shots in the film, and actually on rewatching I was struck by how much more widely they are used. Others I noticed included Orlok opening a door without needing to touch it in his castle, similarly unrolling a tarpaulin without needing to touch it on the ship, suddenly appearing sitting on his coffin in the ship and passing through the door of the warehouse in Wisborg without needing to open it at all. Speeded up film was also used at several points to show the supernatural speed of his movements, and negative image when his carriage is thundering through the woods. This is all just one particularly good example of why film showed itself so early as a medium well-suited to fantastic stories. Even the simplest special effects can do such a lot to convey supernatural activity, and Murnau was right there on front line of the technology.

Though Nosferatu was famously pulled after Florence Stoker sued its producers for copyright infringement, and was supposed to have been entirely destroyed, it had already been distributed overseas before this happened, and as a consequence never really ‘disappeared’ in the way you might expect in those circumstances. Rather, bootleg copies continued to circulate in both the UK and the US (I would link to pages explaining this, but between how fiddly that is on my tablet and how shonky the train wifi is, I’ve given up – just Google Nosferatu bootleg if you want to read about it). With that in mind, I’m now pretty sure after having rewatched it that at least somebody involved in the production of Hammer’s Dracula (1958) had seen it. The destruction-by-sunlight ending is almost enough to guarantee that (and indeed the wider impact of that scene also shows how the film continued to influence storytellers despite Florence’s efforts), but in addition to that there are also scenes of Hutter (the Jonathan Harker character) looking at the bite marks on his neck in a mirror which match up well with Hammer, as does Orlok conceiving a desire for his wife (Ellen, the Mina character) after seeing a framed picture of her amongst Hutter's possessions in the castle. Dracula being able to open doors without needing to touch them crops up later in Hammer’s Scars (1970), as well. Love me an inter-text.

Anyway, I’m now very excited indeed for my holiday and will be sure to take many pictures when I am there!

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