Saturday, August 29, 2009

Mary Shelley’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Fulfilled the urge to read Frankenstein again. Pretty sure I read it in 8th grade, possibly at the suggestion of a friend. And it was not especially compelling, if by compelling I mean creepy with monsters, which I do. It wasn’t deadly, like, say, Last of the Mohicans, which I believe i tried to read about the same time (I have never successfully finished a book by Cooper). I am glad I came back to it.

Having read it twice now puts me two up on whoever wrote the screenplay for the original movie (I assume the Karloff movie was the original, but  have not performed appropriate Wikipedia research). Little in that movie pertains to the book. The book is not long but squeezing even that into 90 minutes of movie magic requires considerable cutting. Also, it requires the intention to follow the book.

Structurally, the book shows that freedom of form that early novels enjoyed. Three viewpoints are employed, that of Captain Walton (the Arctic explorer), Frankenstein, and the creature. These narratives do not overlap much but allow us different views of the characters.

Letters from Captain Walton to his sister comprise the first part of the narrative. He recounts his own history, which may not seem germane but that he too is obsessive like Frankenstein. His wants to cross the Pole to Asia. One can place that confrontation with boundaries against Frankenstein’s quest to create life.

Walton’s ship is stuck in ice when Frankenstein’s creature is observed distantly and Frankenstein himself is brought aboard. Branagh read this part of the book, tho he did not give any focus to Walton as a character.

Frankenstein proceeds to spin his tale, which is the second part of the novel. Branagh rearranged the facts whimsically, forcing Branagh to appear to be his mother’s age, and his brother about 35 years younger. Je ne comprends pas.

Frankenstein is a Byronic sort of hero, grandly obsessive yet fainting and undelivered. He’s a weird compote of energy and lassitude. One might see Percy Bysshe in the character, or possibly William Godwin. I do not offer that out of kneejerk expectation but that the familiarity with such motivations that Mary shows suggests a close portrait.

Given that the reanimation scene is central to the movies, Shelley spends little time describing the creation of the creature. And Frankenstein’s rejection of the creature seems like a snap decision. When he gets to the key point of his obsession, he loses interest more than anything. Psychologically, that is more interesting than the urge to revive the dead mother that Branagh builds his story on.

The creature’s narrative follows, as told to Frankenstein. The novel is only about 200 pages (I read the 2nd edition), short compared to the novels of the day, but Shelley manages to load it with what seems like a lot of extraneous matter. I do not really mean extraneous, the material all fits the story, but she delivers a lot of secondary material. The blind man’s family carries its own narrative that neither movie even alluded to. The creature is fascinated by the sense of family that he witnesses, envies that connection. He tells their tale in detail, which makes the sudden end of the creature’s connection with them the more poignant.

The 3rd part of the novel is the weakest. We return to Frankenstein’s narrative: guilt and lassitude. He promised to create a female companion for the creature, so we get a detailed description of his walking tour of the British Isles with his friend Henry Clerval. I assume that this is an overflow of Mary’s own excitement in her travels. Psychologically, one can take this extensive travelogue as a dodge by Frankenstein. He feels guilt for the vengeful murders that the creature committed yet he is not keen on taking direct action, and certainly not keen on creating another creature.

Shelley goes into next to no detail concerning how Frankenstein does his work. He creates another creature then destroys it, in about a paragraph. This puts the creature, or daemon, on a final tour of revenge. And then the two go globehopping as Frankenstein chases the creature, who leads him on. Thus they end up in the Arctic, where the ever-fainting Frankenstein succumbs to the final faint. The creature takes to a raft and drifts from sight. That’s a strong image.

The travels in the 3rd section seem so close to the author that one can infer that her excitement in her travels had to be expressed. Narratively, the racing around makes little sense. Clerval is charmed in his travels, exults in what he sees, while Frankenstein is all frowny face. I think Shelley was describing someone close at hand.

Review what the story of the Modern Prometheus is about. The life that he creates is not a person so much as a class. The creature is miserable and disconnected. Much of the second section of the book concerns him learning social ways, including language. He attempts to help the downtrodden family but is banished from them when they see him. Read the creature as a political mechanism, from which the family gains, but when they see what that mechanism is, they recoil. And recollect that the three books that the creature cites as having read are: The Sorrows of Young Werther, a socio-political piece by Volney, and Pair of Dice, Lost.

Really, the moral center of the book is much more about social ills than about the scifi theme of creating life. There’s no graverobbing, let alone hunchbacks, but there is a lot of out of balance reaction to the creature. Frankenstein turns away from the creature almost immediately. Everyone does.

The story, as we are told, came from a dream, and it was put forth at least in some sense competitively against whatever Percy, Byron, and poor Dr Polidori produced in their ghost story production (I think Bride of Frankenstein begins with our literary lions deciding to thus entertain themselves). The story bears a commitment, not wholly comprised by the author, to a singular vision. Clearly she was a proficient writer but in this novel she managed to open into dark, unexpected areas. In that investigation and delivery, and despite whatever awkwardness, she produced a marvel.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Gateless Gate, Joel Weishaus

Am reading this thoughtful piece, do so as well here. Verdana looks so good in Joel’s work.

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.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula

Watched this last night. Have seen it before but not in years. Hollywood at its Hollywoodest.

I have thought of this movie in comparison to Plan 9 from Outer Space. Two wound up auteurs. One has a budget, and one does not. For all its flaws, I think Plan 9 redeems the effort better than does Dracula. I am not claiming that Wood is a better film maker, but his obsession is more interestingly conveyed than Coppola’s. Not that Dracula isn’t an eyeful natheless.

Coppola follows the book pretty well, and well he should because (to my surprise when I read it), Stoker wrote a corker. I assumed it would be like Frankenstein, which is much dryer than the ensuing movies would lead you to believe.

The cast of Dracula is a clutter of familiar faces and varying efforts. Gary Oldham as Dracula overdoes it in a compelling way. His accent is impenetrable, but you cannot help watching him, even with his blood orgasms. Whoever did his makeup went the same route.

Anthony Hopkins hams it up something fierce. I think at times he got swept up into the vortex of Oldham’s version of an Eastern Europe accent. Keanu Reeves is stiff and unreactive. Weird things are going on around you, Keanu, just to 411 you. Reeves was in whatever Shakespeare play that Kenneth Branagh directed and showed a similar disconnection with the material. Not bored or disaffected, just not exactly present.

Like Reeves, Winona Ryder is stuck being British, and that means dull and precise. She is paired with Sadie Frost, who gets to be vibrant and playful and wild, which just makes poor Winona look bad. Cary Elwes, Richard Grant, and Bill Campbell are comic book characters. Coppola did not have time or inclination to develop the minor characters.

The movie, as already intimated, is lavishly laid out. I would have liked to see more of Dracula in his younger days, savagely warring against infidels, but that stuff just sets the scene for London bloodthirst.

Coppola does fun stuff like showing shadows of Dracula doing things other than what Dracula is doing. Reeves hardly notices. When Hopkins is about to kill Frost, who is in Nosferatu mode, she barfs blood in his face, wowzer! I mean it looks so silly, as if it were a low budget teen movie. That’s what the whole movie is about, disparate efforts and disparate approaches jumbled together.

The whole vampire meme is worth consideration. At least some pondering of the appeal of vampires is worthwhile. The idea that there is a crew of cannabalistic beasties that live forever either killing their prey or turning them into colleagues kinda evades logic. And thinking such creatures are cool is a stretch, if you think about it.

Well anyway, Hollywood supplies us with hokum to stare into and Coppola has given us a prime example of this work.