Thursday, August 27, 2009

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

As opposed to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In both cases, it is the director’s movie, with emphasis of auteur intent. Both of these movies stay within hailing distance of the books wherefrom they derive. Something to be said for that.

Still, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is really Kenneth Branagh’s and it came out about the same time as Coppola’s effort. Returning to the source of iconic movies, both movies are wickedly flawed but both are visually well turned out. One knows one is watching lame movies, but one is compelled even so.

It is hard to judge the original Frankenstein, as well as the original Dracula. I saw both movies first when I was young, and their scariness, as well as their weirdness, were incontrovertible. Dracula is a bit sluggish in parts, I realize now, but it initiates a visceral response. The original Frankenstein deviates greatly from the book, but hits on some archetypal concerns that resonate. Coppola and Branagh pull out the stops for their movies, resulting in flamboyant but finally stinky affairs. And away we go!

I do not know what Branagh is doing now, but he certainly has lost darling status. Frankenstein seems to be the tail end of his yeasty period, when he was freshening up Shakespeare and, I don’t know, E. M. Forster? I saw that clattering Shakespeare movie that included Keanu Reeves but probably nothing else by him.

So anyway.

The movie opens with a bang, a ship sailing in the Arctic Sea. It is in desperate straits, caught in the ice. Thus confounded, they discover Doktor F himself, driving a sled. This introduces the 2 hour flashback. It is not always a deal killer, but I am not enamoured of long flashbacks. In this movie, as in Heart of Darkness, one forgets that there is this narrative device working, and it is a shock of sorts when we return to it.

I do not know how old Frankenstein is supposed to be as we step into the flashback, but it’s a little embarrassing, like Mel Gibson as the 40 year old teenager in Braveheart. I know it is acting but there is a bit too much face time in both cases, the director presenting himself as a callow youth. Probably not a good idea for people to direct themselves, as a general rule. Brings in some less than salient motivations.

As I said, the movie is visually compelling. Geneva looks great, with hills alive with the sound of music, and the rendering of the period looks fine. A nice oedipal sitch percolates between Frankenstein and mom, with Helena Bonham Carter as a lively satellite.

Mom dies, alas, in gory childbirth, which presses Frankenstein to go on his devilish quest to create life. This comes to a head when Frankenstein’s professor, John Cleese, is killed by, hey, that’s Robert DeNiro!!! Frankenstein proceeds to piece together a body, churning in obsession as he does so. At this point things become rococo. In the big reanimation scene, Branagh inexplicably removes his shirt and dashes about. I get the icky feeling that Branagh buffed himself up for this scene. Thru out this scene he is drenched in amniotic fluid that he collected creepily in an earlier scene. There to make him glisten and glisk, I wot.

Frankenstein’s labouratory is gadget rich, including the de rigueur Jacob’s ladders zapping between rods, but lacks the drama of the original movie. No electrical storm! Still, Branagh bungling about amongst all that equipment looks crazy enough.

Okay, the creature is created and he manages to escape. I do not know what possessed DeNiro to take the role, except that it offered a chance to commit heavily, i.e.: a lot of makeup work. It is like Raging Bull, showing the lengths that he will go for his art. Uncomfortable lengths, I would imagine, judging from the amount of makeup he had to endure.

Boris Karloff’s monster is little like what Shelley wrote, as you probably already know. Shelley’s intention was philosophical, she was not trying to scare the bejesus out of you. The inarticulate creature with the bolts in his head and tendency to kill: that is disturbing. He also brings forth sympathy. The chatty philosoph is less interesting, tho the concatenated problems of the narrative are compelling..

DeNiro’s creature is more Shakespearian in tenor. He seems malevolent, tho greatly misunderstood as well. I do not really want to go in that direction with this sort of movie. Branagh plays it all at a high, phony pitch, so nothing that DeNiro could do would work. And heaven help us, sutures everywhere. I think Frankenstein was just practicing his sewing technique on the creature, which must have contributed to the creature’s angst.

Once the creature decides on revenge for the shitty way the world has treated him, things zip along. He murders Frankenstein’s very much younger brother, the one born as the mother died. The creature implicates I am not sure who she is, friend of the family, in the murder, and she is forthwith hung. Baron Frankenstein (who later steals our heart as Bilbo Baggins) is next. Finally, it is Helena Bonham Carter’s turn. The creature has the sort of nimble everywhereness of Jason, Michael, et al. Dramatic but pitched outside believable. HBC is the erstwhile adopted sister slash almost soon to be spouse of Frankenstein. I do not know what Branagh had against her but her last few scenes are unlikely to show up on her cv. The creature kills her by plunging his hand into her chest and pulling her heart out. She is then flung aside. The result of this is that her hair catches fire, which consumes her, as well as the Frankenstein homestead, which appears to be Versailes. At this point, Frankenstein calls a time out.

Well, he admits the hubris of his ways, and promises the creature a woman, which is what all of the creature’s restlessness is finally about. Frankenstein works his magic on Helena, but the work seems less successful. Maybe using a cleaver to detach Carter’s head, to be attached, I think, to the falsely accused woman, maybe that messed up some of the intricate machinery. She has even more sutures than DeNiro, and they do not seem to be logically placed. Whatever, Frankenstein realizes he still is charmed by her, and reneges on the deal with the creature. We plummet to denouement.

The denouement occurs back in the Arctic, with Captain Aidan Quinn listening to Frankenstein exhaust himself with the story, exhaust right unto death. The sailors set Frankenstein’s body adrift, and they invite the creature back to civilization with them. But the creature calls Frankenstein his father, swims out to the body, and sets the byre on fire. The End.

I think I was 13 when I read Frankenstein, found it dry. I want to read it again because I think it might be worth it. The philosophical quandary in the movie is just hokum and not worth a second thought. The movie might have been better had it stuck to the outlines of the original movie rather than the novel. The visceral impact of movies is interesting, and it is not based on articulated ideas. Think of those movies of the 30s: Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman, The Mummy: they stick with you, despite the staginess of them, and the lack of modern day cinematic firepower. They are not really thoughtful, they delve into emotional depths. Hollywood slop should stick to Hollywood slop. The poetry is in that very slop, not in huffy speeches and hyped sincerity.

All these movies play on dreamlike archetypes. The eager showmanship of Coppola and Branagh are interesting as human excrescence but lets don’t infer depth in the presentation. They harbour on the surface, which is fine and chilling, but poetry finds a word and turns it. The preposterous effort of these filmmakers is worthy of a sneer or two, if we can only think of poetry trying to establish a more solid stance in the worrying distance between us.

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