strange_complex: (Vampira)
I'm off to the cinema with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan tomorrow, so that's a good incentive to finish off this film review catch-up project first so that I have a clean slate for tomorrow's new entry. The first three of these should always have been reviewed together in the same post anyway, as they were part of a series of Universal Monster Movies which the National Media Museum mounted on Monday nights during October and November.

27. Dracula (1931), dir. Tod Browning
I've reviewed this in excessive detail before, while for us this particular screening came fairly hot on the heels of our own viewing of the parallel Spanish version. But this was my first experience of it on the big screen, and it certainly deserves the detail and grandeur which that ensures - especially for the scenes set in Transylvania, in the darkened garden of Seward's asylum where Dracula lurks, and in his lair in Carfax Abbey. Everything is just beautiful, from the Art Deco bat which supplies the background for the opening credits to the gentle toll of the church bells at the end as Mina and Jon(athan) walk up the curving staircase out of Dracula's crypt. I will never quite be able to come to terms with the opossums running around in Dracula's castle, the piece of paper stuck to Lucy's bedside lamp which was obviously meant to improve the lighting for shots from one angle but was left very obviously in place for shots from the other, or the utter cardboard-cutoutness of Jon(athan) Harker, though.

28. Frankenstein (1931), dir. James Whale
This was the next in Universal's series, and in the National Media Museum's screening schedule. I've seen it before, but a long time ago and never on the big screen. Two main things to say. One, Boris as the creature is amazing. There is a real sensitivity in his performance, successfully conveying a living being with an agency and agenda of its own. His make-up is incredible as well. Forget all the clunky rip-offs and parodies of it you've seen. The original is actually exceptionally detailed and carefully-designed, with the hands and arms to me looking especially convincing as those of a reanimated corpse. Two, the way the human characters treat the creature is downright distressing, and indeed I found the whole moral compass of the film shockingly off-kilter. The biggest problem for me was that the in-story explanation offered for why the creature turns bad is that when Fritz (Frankenstein's assistant) goes to steal a brain for it, he comes back with what is literally labelled on the jar an 'abnormal brain', and which we have heard a medical scientist explaining accounts for the 'brutal and criminal life' which its owner had lived. I know this sort of thinking was rife in the early 20th century, and used to justify a lot of shitty oppression too, but it makes me so angry that I would struggle to overlook it in any circumstances, while in this particular film it anyway utterly destroys the potential moral nuances of the story it is trying to tell. Labelling the creature as an irredeemable criminal before it has even been brought to life quashes all chance of exploring the impact of Frankenstein's thoughtless act on his own creation, and also pre-excuses the appalling behaviour of the humans towards it once it has come to life. In fact, it means there's no real point portraying that behaviour anyway, as the motif of the brain means the creature was always going to 'go bad', however it was treated. So there are half-hearted nods towards exploring the creature's perspective, identifiable in Boris Karloff's performance and the scenes in which the creature is ill-treated, but in the end they have no moral weight because of the pre-destination symbolised by the brain. Meanwhile, the much louder message is the depressingly-simplistic one - "Look, you shouldn't try to play God because your creations will inevitably just be bad and go bad!" At the end, the poor creature dies screaming in agony in a burning mill (again played very affectingly by Boris), and we then just switch straight to the human characters unproblematically celebrating it all with a wedding party. Horrifying, but not in the way intended.

29. The Mummy (1932), dir. Karl Freund
The following week we had The Mummy, which I found much more satisfying. This time, its moral dimension is pretty sound, with some interesting commentary on the ethics of colonial archaeology in particular, and indeed a good understanding of how archaeology works in general (e.g. why simple bits of pottery are often much more important than golden treasures). Just one small complaint on the antiquities front - a priestess of Isis really cannot be described as a Vestal Virgin. 'Vestal' doesn't just mean generically sacred or holy - it means specifically consecrated to Vesta (the clue is in the name). This film boasts an unusually (for the time) autonomous female main character, Helen Grosvenor, who is the daughter of the governor of Sudan but has chosen to live quite independently from her parents in Cairo, expresses disdain for the various men who attempt to court or control her, and indeed ends up destroying the mummy at the end of the film in spite of the fact that she is his reincarnated lover. I've often complained about that particular trope (e.g. here re Blacula 1972), since it consistently strips women of their agency, but here far from it - instead, she actively decides that she doesn't want to be with Imhotep, and uses the resources which are her equivalent to his own magical powers (her connection to Isis, whose priestess she once was) to defeat him. All of this, of course, is pretty easily explained by the fact that story's original author was a woman. Visually, the film keeps up and indeed excels the standards of sets, make-up and costumes from the previous two films, including the wise / clever decision to show Boris in his full mummy make-up only on his first appearance, and after that have him looking more or less like a normal human being, but with a serious skin condition. He gets to speak properly in this film too, using the dialogue to infuse his character with a malevolent charm that I know well from Christopher Lee's roles. His performance is also ably supported by an adorable fluffy white cat - I wonder if he was the first film villain to have one? Finally, I was fascinated to note that in a flash-back sequence where Imhotep shows Helen scenes of their past together in a pool, the images are shot like a silent movie: less crisp than the surrounding footage, no use of close-ups, and the overlay of classic silent-movie style music (in contrast with almost no soundtrack music in main film). Like the white cat, I can't help but feel this must be a cinematic first, as the medium of film was still so new at this time that there can't have been many earlier opportunities to deliberately use the conventions of out-dated film technology to signify 'the past'. Very clever, and very creative.

30. Fear In The Night (1972), dir. Jimmy Sangster
Watched with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan round at her place. It's a Hammer production with Peter Cushing, Ralph Bates and Joan Collins in it, but not one of their horror films - rather, a thriller. That said, it does play heavily on the possibility that there might be something supernatural going on for a long time, which of course Hammer's reputation put them in an excellent position to do. The story is set in the time when it was made, which meant lots of very enjoyable Seventies clothes, cars and street scenes, and revolves around a young woman who is experiencing repeated and very unsettling nocturnal physical attacks. The male characters around her dismiss her experiences as symptomatic of an over-wrought imagination, and for quite a long time it looked like the grain of the story might be leaning in that direction too. I began to get fractious, and [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan had to convince me to stick it out. But then the real truth began to emerge, her experiences were entirely vindicated, and indeed the film proved to be very sympathetic towards those affected by mental health issues - not only the heroine but Peter Cushing's character as well. So a very satisfying watch after all, and I'll definitely want to see it again some time now that I know the 'twist'.

31. Night of the Demon (1957), dir. Jacques Tourneur
Seen with [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva, magister and Andrew Hickey at the National Media Museum as part of a series of ghostly stories screened in the run-up to Christmas. I've seen it on the big screen before, and reviewed the experience. Indeed, I see that I spent a lot of that review discussing how it sits alongside Hammer's horror films, and I had similar responses this time. The importance of the deceased Professor Harrington's diary account in helping the characters figure out what Karswell is up to reminded me a great deal of how Jonathan Harker's diary functions in Hammer's Dracula (and in neither case comes from the source text), while the way Karswell turns on and mocks his own mother also reminded me of the relationship between the Baron Meinster and his mother in Brides of Dracula. Since both of those films were made after this (though only just in the case of Dracula), the direction of influence would go from here to Hammer, but that's entirely typical of how they worked - soaking up contemporary stories and conventions and building them into their own productions. Meanwhile, Andrew noted that by making John Holden a sceptical outsider literally flying into an island full of superstitious believers in the supernatural, the story also had quite a Wicker Mannish feel. It is, of course, all quite a long way from M.R. James' original, but I am reconciled to that, especially on a second viewing. In and of itself it is a great movie which deserves to be regularly rescreened.

32. Rogue One (2016), dir. Gareth Edwards
And my last film of 2016, which I saw with Mr. and Mrs. [twitter.com profile] ZeitgeistZero. It was in fact my first experience of seeing a film on an IMAX screen, as well as being a 3D screening, so it was all pretty impressive and mind-blowing both visually and aurally. The story was great, and I've enjoyed all the fantastically detailed articles about its world which have appeared since, like this one about data storage standards and this one about archaeology. Three cheers for stories which inspire that kind of fan-work! It's true that it could have had more women in it, and let's keep demanding the best on that front, but it was certainly epically better for women than any of episodes I-VI, as well as being impressive on ethnicity and disability, so let's also cheer the direction of travel. Much discussion has also been prompted by its use of CGI to recreate characters from the original trilogy, but I'm afraid I found this only technically impressive. Peter Cushing's recreated face was pretty good, but of course CGI cannot capture the unique humanness of a real person's performance - indeed, even a very convincing impression will only ever be a pastiche, missing the unpredictability of the original person. Most strikingly, the voice wasn't his at all, and since that was always such a central part of what Peter Cushing had to offer, its absence was bound to disappoint. Leia I found less problematic, partly because her face was only on-screen for a few seconds, and partly because they had been able to use an old clip of Carrie Fisher's voice from the time - but of course it was also rather heart-breaking to see her at all so soon after Carrie's sad death. Meanwhile, Darth Vader of course did not need CGI to return to our screens, and it was fabulous fun to see him in full-on evil action again. That said though, part of the power and fascination of Darth Vader in the original films is discovering slowly and with increasing horror just what he is willing and capable of doing. (Even if you have seen the films before, the reactions of the characters within the story lead you through the process of discovering this all over again.) Here, he pretty much launched straight into evil machinations and force-choking, leaving no room for the suspenseful frisson of gradual discovery from the earlier films. Still, I guess that reflects the reality of a modern audience's expectations - you simply can't keep redoing the suspense if they're just going to be sitting their with their pop-corn going "Yeah, we know he's evil - cut to the chase!" It's just a pity Darth's character-development won't ever really work now if the films are viewed in story order - but then I guess that was already ruined fifteen years ago by the whole prequel sequence giving away his relationship to Luke.

OK, I am up to date on my film reviews! Now just gotta do the same for books... and Doctor Who... :-(

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
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 paedophile )

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 did )

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 omissions )

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 sources )

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

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 a poem written shortly after his imprisonment (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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strange_complex: (Corpus Agrimensorum colonia)
Ludicrous though this may seem, I am still working through my 2011 book reviews. So here's a review of a book I read a year ago. Yay!

I bought this after reading an enthusiastic review of it on [livejournal.com profile] nwhyte's journal, and was glad I had done so. It tells the lively, funny and yet also tragic tale of Zuleika, the daughter of Sudanese immigrant parents living in Roman London at the time of the emperor Septimius Severus. Spoilerific plot summary )

I was a little apprehensive before I started reading about the fact that the book is written entirely in verse, but I didn't need to be. This isn't the dull, pretentious poetry of school anthologies, but lively rhythmic stanzas which rattle along, sparkling with wit and infused with Evaristo's love of language and detail. A fairly typical extract runs thus )

That gives a pretty good idea of how Evaristo captures the feeling of a multi-ethnic empire, blending loan-words from Latin, cod-Latin and several other European languages into Zuleika's English, which itself expresses her unique blend of a street-urchin upbringing and the education which her husband has paid for. The balance varies from character to character, so that Zuleika's Sudanese parents speak with a more obviously exotic accent than she does, her bar-keeper friend Venus is a cheerful cockney who calls her 'ducky', and even the emperor himself uses the halting African accent which the Historia Augusta claims he retained into old age. And modern London is all part of the mix, with it night-life, its people and its place-names recognisable amongst the dinner-parties, amphitheatres and atria of the Roman city. It works well - not over-done or obscuring the differences between the two cultures, but helping to bridge the gulf between present and past, and revealing the cultural differences between the Romans and us all the more strongly for putting them alongside the similarities.

Evaristo wrote this book during a period as writer-in-residence at the Museum of London, and it's clear from the funeral instructions which Zuleika delivers to her life-long friend Alba as she dies that her character was inspired by the occupant of the lavish Spitalfields burial found in 1999. Actually this was recognised pretty much from the start as belonging to the early fourth century AD, rather than the early third when Evaristo's story is set, and DNA testing has also revealed that the Spitalfield lady's ethnic background was probably Spanish rather than Sudanese. But the third-century setting allows Evaristo to bring Zuleika, such a characteristic product of the Roman empire's capacity for enabling ethnic mingling and social mobility while still perpetuating huge social inequalities, face to face with the emperor at the centre of it (himself a product of those same systems), in a way that a fourth-century setting would not. And if the Spitalfields lady herself was not actually an African immigrant who had achieved high social status, then the Ivory Bangle lady from York shows that she had contemporaries on these isles who were.

Highly recommended for anyone who loves Roman history, the city of London, well-developed female characters and / or deftly deployed language.

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strange_complex: (Doctor Caecilius hands)
The Tom Baker era may be over for me, but there's a whole world of other Doctors out there still waiting to be discovered. As already stated, I'm starting my post-Baker viewing by catching up on Sarah Jane's adventures with the Third Doctor, because Sarah is the only person in the entire Whoniverse who can cheer me up in the absence of Four. In fact, in so doing, I'm picking up a thread I began in February with The Time Warrior, because even by then I loved her so much that I wanted to see where she had started out.

Third Doctor: Invasion of the Dinosaurs )

Third Doctor: Death to the Daleks )

strange_complex: (Belly Pantheon)
I don't normally comment about the reporting of my subject area in the media, because I've long ago accepted that it's bound to seem flawed from my perspective, and am basically just happy it's in the news at all. But since today the alternative is further work on my Teaching Portfolio, I will!

The item that's caught my eye today is coverage of a story about the Capitoline Wolf. Background on the statue's dating )

Today's news reports, and why they are clearly not telling the whole story. With Science! )

What must be missing )

I'm happy enough for the wolf to be medieval. In fact, I think that would be fantastically cool, since it would constitute a charming response to stories of the ancient past on the part of the medieval inhabitants of Rome. Good for them. But I am not happy that the general public should be asked to accept this redating on the basis of half-information.

Rant over. I guess I'd better get some work done.

strange_complex: (Clone Army)
Question meme from [livejournal.com profile] kkjxx:

1. Elaborate on your default icon.
Essentially, it's me doing something I love in spite of the weather, on a particularly significant New Year's Day. The full story is here.

2. What's your current relationship status?
Single and with no desire to change that.

3. Ever have a near-death experience?
No, and I don't think I've ever really been in serious danger of dying, either. I've been pretty ill a couple of times, including one quite dramatic entry into hospital, but that's all.

4. Name an obvious quality you have.
Not doing too badly in the brains department.

5. What's the name of the song that's stuck in your head right now?
Er, not too sure. I think it's an instrumental section from something by Handel, but I only really have one tiny phrase in my head - not enough to work out the rest of it.

6. Name a celebrity you would marry:
I think Stephen Fry definitely fits the bill there! I'm pretty sure it would be a non-sexual relationship by mutual agreement, but just generally getting to live with him and spend lots of time talking with him would be ace.

7. Who will cut and paste this first?
I'm not sure anyone will. Maybe [livejournal.com profile] captainlucy?

8. Has anyone ever said you look like a celebrity?
I was once compared to Siouxsie of 'The Banshees' fame - although that was ages ago, and I had black back-combed hair and was wearing black and purple PVC at the time. Then again, I've also been compared to Charles Hawtree... :-( If anyone has any more up-to-date / flattering suggestions, I'm listening!

9. Do you wear a watch? What kind?
Yes, a beautiful sparkly one covered in Swarovski crystals, which a lot of people don't realise is a watch at first, and think is a pretty bracelet instead. It looks like this, except that the crystals inside each link are lilac instead of clear.

10. Do you have anything pierced?
Yes - three holes in one ear, four in the other and one in my belly button.

11. Do you have any tattoos?
No, and don't want one. There's just no one symbol that means so much to me that I want it permanently engraved on my body - especially given that even the best tattoos do look kinda dodgy after 20 years or so.

12. Do you like pain?
Not for its own sake, no.

13. Do you like to shop?
I like the things I get by shopping, but don't particularly enjoy the actual process.

14. What was the last thing you paid for with cash?
An orange juice while out shopping on Saturday afternoon with Cie.

15. What was the last thing you paid for with your credit card?
My shopping in Sainsbury's this morning. Although strictly, that was a debit card - I don't actually have a credit card, because it's an extortionate way to borrow money, and a debit card offers the same convenience.

16. Who was the last person you spoke to on the phone?
Dad yesterday afternoon, about flat-buying stuff.

17. What is on your desktop background?
Lord Summerisle, speaking his "A heathen conceivably, but not, I hope, an unenlightened one" line in The Wicker Man.

18. What is the background on your cell phone?
Alessandro Moreschi, aged c. 25 - the second picture from the left on my colour bar, except not orange.

19. Do you like redheads?
Well, yes - if they're nice people. Not just because their hair is red, though.

20. Do you know any twins?
Er, I can't think of any just now. I've a vague idea that I know someone who has a twin, but I don't really know the twin. Obviously it's not had much impact on me, though, since I can't even be sure who that person might be.

21. Do you have any weird relatives?
Not outrageously weird - just normal-human-being weird.

22. What was the last movie you watched?
Farinelli: il Castrato, which BBC4 showed recently in connection with their documentary on the castrati. I'd seen it years ago and remembered it being dreadful, but thought I'd give it another try now that I know so much more about both Farinelli and Handel (who appears as a character in the film). My verdict? What a pile of unadulterated tripe - I was right about it first time round!

23. What was the last book you read?
A Short History of The British School At Rome by Peter Wiseman. Excellent book, really enjoyed it.

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