Rightwing Film Geek

Mahler meets Murnau meets Diaghilev meets Dracula

DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (Guy Maddin, Canada, 2003)

Last night, I went to see for a second time DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (thanks for the link, Missy). In a generally very good review, Jonathan Rosenbaum accurately described this film’s formula, but draw a completely wrongheaded conclusion — “A silent black-and-white film of a ballet based on Bram Stoker’s novel and performed to portions of [Gustav] Mahler’s first two symphonies — who could possibly want to see that?”

Um … me. I dunno about you, but doesn’t that description practically sell itself? If nothing else, even if the movie turns out to be no good or the elements don’t mesh or whatever, wouldn’t such a film have train-wreck value? And wouldn’t there be some virtue in seeing some fine dancing or listening to Mahler’s music itself … even if the film as a whole didn’t work? But in any event, once you’ve seen it, these disparate elements in DRACULA really work very well together and becomes amazing (to me at least, and in retrospect) to reflect that nobody had thought of this strange marriage before.

Silent-cinema after all was born at more or less the same time as Stoker and Mahler were writing. But the media have some strong affinities. Even story ballets, like silent cinema, generally don’t use any words, instead using stylized movement and exaggerated acting to convey an emotion (rather than explain an event). The events in the Bram Stoker novel have the same feverish, dreamy, suggestive late-Victorian quality as Mahler’s floridly Romantic music, and (as my pinko friend Joshua has pointed out in a discussion group) ballet can convey that ethereal, sleep-walk quality better than more-realistic media. The stagy smoke-and-mirrors effects can shroud the Baroque stage design to create an overall atmosphere with fewer concerns about realism that sound and drama create.

But director Guy Maddin (I’d previously seen nothing else by him, and boy do I want to catch up on his work now) actually managed to make a movie, rather than a ballet musical (or an opera with defined arias, recitatives and whatnot). With the exception of a couple of pas-de-deux sequences, the dancers from the Royal Winnipeg ballet company were mostly cut off at the neck, the shoulders or the waist, rather than being framed in the Fred Astaire tip-to-toe, let’s-see-the-feet-doing-the-entrechat frame. But it’s not the dance steps Maddin is interested in — he’s interested in fusing his elements, not just using them. Ballet becomes a means to convey a kind of stylized cinematic movement, as if people were moving and floating through fevered dreams. In his review, Rosenbaum cites a Maddin manifesto on acting that includes the following: “Walking actors have forgotten how to walk. All actors should walk with latent or overt purpose, and cram a little poetry into their gaits while they’re at it.”

It was also obvious (as Missy pointed out to me afterward) that Maddin didn’t direct his actors in the “tone it down” mode, as most film directors do when working with stage actors. Instead, they kept their exaggerated gestures and larger-than-life smiles — one of my favorite moments was a sequence of Lucy choosing among suitors on a swing, with the camera moving out of and into a series of facial closeups. And you know what? When a film is a silent ballet, this exaggeration works just fine because we’re accepting the stylization and the anti-realistic, dreamy universe the filmmaker is creating.

The film, I should add, is also a lot of fun. There’s an (I think) intentionally funny moment when a group of four men carrying torches each do a spin and the beams of light spin along with them. Some of the silent-film title cards are quite witty. Maddin drops in expressionistic splashes of color for money, gold and blood — there’s a universe of longing in a barely-discernible pale-pink stain on Lucy’s white dress. And the film isn’t really silent, there are occasional sound effects, proving again that less is more — there’s a chilling-ick effect from a low squealch, uncluttered by other sounds, when a character gets beheaded with a spade.

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August 11, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 1 Comment

The Religion of Tolerance Update

No, this is not about Islam (that’s The Religion of Peace, for future reference). These are some of the latest exploits of the pro-gay yobbos in their tireless efforts to battle homophobic hate.

  • Disagreement over the U.S. Episcopal Church’s ordination of a homosexual bishop inspired a couple of Anglican clerics to give a Kenyan bishop an example of the warmth and hospitality that the English are noted for exhibiting toward Italian soccer fans.
  • Canada’s reputation for Tolerance marches forward, with The Latest Word being that no teacher may, in any public space, express any disapproval of homosexuality (or “two-spirited people” even). If the teacher had been suspended merely for graduating illiterates and innumerates, the union would kick up holy hell. Here, it’s his chief persecutor.
  • At the bottom of the Canada link (and it’s a sign of the times that this is now considered worthy of a mere aside), there is this: “Meanwhile, a Commons committee is considering a bill that would make the reading of biblical injunctions against homosexuality in a church a ‘hate crime’ under the Criminal Code.” This is a spreading phenomenon in the countries that used to be Christendom. Even if everything in THE MAGDALENE SISTERS were holy writ, it should have been long-ago obvious that Ireland is no longer your grandpa’s beloved Erin or the theocracy of Sinead O’Connor’s mind. Yes … the Catholic Church is being warned about the potential criminality of a Church document. We have seen the future.
  • This desecration of a conservative parish happened the night that the Episcopal church ratified Gene Robinson’s election as New Hampshire bishop. Perhaps it was just like ripping up a city block when your sports team wins the title. I should note that there’s no actual evidence that this was gay activists, but the details of the crime have to make that the default assumption for now.
  • At least these demonstrators were peaceful and stayed outside when ordered to (though some of the quotes in story are just sad … “this is my birthright as an Irish Catholic”). But I will never forget serving as a lay communion minister at a parish in Austin, Texas, during the heyday of ACT-UP and having a significant part of the training devoted to “this is what you do if demonstrators come to desecrate the Host.”

Does five in one week constitute something more than anecdotal evidence?

August 11, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Passion politics

If I’m gonna slag Michael Medved in my initial post, I’d better link to him when he says some wise things, as in this interview with the Washington Post Web site, mostly about Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION. To elaborate on a couple of points myself.

First, Medved says in one place that “Hollywood” is more anti-religion than specifically anti-Christian or anti-Catholic. I do agree that secularism and an associated set of anti-religion prejudices (“poor, uneducated and easy to command” and all that) seems to be the default ideology in the culture industries, rather than a specific and explicit animus against Catholicism or Christianity (and as an Orthodox Jew, Medved would know that).

But the fact that secularism is the greater force doesn’t mean that specific anti-Catholicism doesn’t exist. A film as insultingly ignorant about Judaism as PRIEST and THE MAGDELENE SISTERS (I have seen neither and will not do so merely for the debater’s right to make a point obvious from the makers’ own descriptions of their films) simply could never be made or distributed. The taboo against anti-Semitism is just too strong. The excellent documentary TREMBLING BEFORE G-D, about Orthodox Jews dealing with their homosexuality, at least presents the Jewish teaching against homosexual acts in a halfway-serious manner and by halfway-loving rabbis shown without authorial contempt. I don’t expect any movie to take the virtually identical Catholic doctrine on that subject for the foreseeable future as anything other than repressed-tight-ass caricature.

Second, I think Medved is right that the debate over THE PASSION is essentially deadlocked because Gibson now trusts neither the objectivity of the ADL/Jewish groups nor the religion scholars, and vice versa. I would go further: the battle lines already are set for a major public spat over charges of anti-Semitism, Christ-killers and all that next spring. Paula Fredriksen, who wrote the disgraceful, self-righteous attack on THE PASSION in the New Republic (now available at http://www.tnr.com, but a paid subscription is required) said on “Good Morning America” last week that she will not see the film, even when it’s released. Good for her (“play nice” ecumenism is overrated).

And if I were Gibson, I’d see no point to cooperating with her or the ADL, since they’re coming from a theological perspective that’s not mine and one I want no part of. But that perspective also has the gall and presumption to claim to be the arbiter of reason and to claim at least a moral right to be my editor and script doctor. (Is it necessary to do anything more than laugh at an essay in A.D. 2003 that claims to know, in some dispositive sense, about Pontius Pilate’s thought process, while slagging the Gospels as unreliable historical documents because their [disputed] date of authorship [supposedly] lags several decades behind the depicted events?) Did the makers of PRIEST or THE MAGDALENE SISTERS submit to Church censors in order to get its imprimatur on their movies? Or did they play up Church opposition as a box-office hype tool? To ask the question is to answer it.

August 11, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment