strange_complex: (Penny coin)
I cannot remember the last time I did this, but allow me to recommend to my readers the journal of [livejournal.com profile] maryanndimand.

The author is a US-based former economics professor, and she has set up the account specifically in order to deliver regular bite-sized chunks on basic economic principles over the course of this calendar year. Her rationale is that most people claim to vote on the basis of economic issues, but don't in practice have the understanding of economic principles and reasoning which they need to evaluate politicians' claims in this area critically. She'd like to help with that and I think she's doing a good job.

Obviously if you're reading this, you can simply follow her account here on LJ, but she is also posting the same content to Facebook in public posts marked with the hashtag #2017econ.

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strange_complex: (Fred Astaire flying)
My first film of 2017, seen this afternoon with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy at the Hyde Park Picture House. They were, of course, showing it in tribute to the late Debbie Reynolds, and I'm pleased to say that she got a healthy audience and a round of applause at the end.

Ironically, having made a point of clearing my review backlog so that I could start my 2017 film reviewing with a blank slate, I find I don't have a huge amount to say about the actual film which I didn't already say four years ago when we saw it at the Cottage Road cinema. I can certainly say that I came out of the second viewing feeling just as enthusiastic about it as after the first, though. It is a bit bare-faced about crow-barring the song and dance numbers into the plot, but you forgive it anyway for doing so with a nod and a wink, and for being so consistently funny and beautiful the whole way through. And I think it's probably humanly impossible not to be just a little bit in love with Gene Kelly by the end of it all.

One thing I see I didn't mention in my last review (but [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan did in a comment!), and which deserves due tribute, is this wonderful Silent Movie Vamp Lady in her spider-web dress:

Singin spider web dress.png

Singin spider web dress 2.JPG Singin spider web dress 3.JPG

Simply, wow!

One more thing which should be noted here, and which I've only just realised while filling in the tags for this entry: I have now been reviewing all the films I see here on LJ consistently for ten whole years. Here's where it all began, with Metropolis in January of 2007. I have sometimes got behind on my reviews, and felt burdened-down as a result, but overall I am heartily glad that I have done it. It has definitely helped me to get an enormous amount more out of what I see, both at the time of viewing and while writing about it afterwards. I think it has also enabled me to home in more efficiently on films I will actually like. Whether I will keep it up for another ten years from now remains to be seen, but I certainly don't intend to stop any time soon.

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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: (Saturnalian Santa)
I have wanted to make this post for three days, but have been unable to do so until now because I could not load my LJ photo galleries. As multiple friends have noted, LJ has been shonky in a number of ways over the same period, and although it seems OK again now, the problems seem to be associated with a server move to Russia - and I must say I also feel very uncomfortable about relying on anything in Russia for the ongoing preservation of a journal I have been carefully curating for 13 years now. I've never felt so inclined to set up a Dreamwidth mirror... but then again something [livejournal.com profile] nwhyte said in an entry earlier today made me doubt that Dreamwidth has proper picture-hosting facilities at all. It's all sadly ironic that this should happen just when people are genuinely popping up on LJ again, thanks I understand to a FB LJ-nostalgia community.

Anyway, here's what I actually wanted to post - a few pictures of our Christmas. We booked a cottage in the Cotswolds village of Bourton-on-the-Water this year - 'we' in this case being me, my Dad, my sister and her husband and children. None of us had ever done Christmas this way before, but we decided to try it on the grounds that it would be healthier and cheerier to do something new and different this year, rather than try to re-create our normal family Christmas but with one person missing. It would also allow flexible levels of participation for each person, in that everyone could choose whether to hang out with the other cottage residents, go out for a walk or simply lie on their bed reading a book. And I'm glad to say it worked really well. We did remember Mum of course, and Dad had a couple of tearful moments. But for a first Christmas without her, it was actually really nice and enjoyable and nothing like as difficult as I suspect it would have been in the family home, or even my sister's home (where Mum had also been for Christmas day a couple of times in recent years).

We arrived in the afternoon of the 23rd, in pretty rotten weather, and got settled in. We had brought a LOT of food, which took quite a bit of unpacking and putting away, while Christophe admired the (fake) Christmas tree which the cottage owners had supplied, and Eloise enjoyed The Snow Dog.

Pictures start here )

Anyway, here we are in the Festive Perineum (h/t [livejournal.com profile] inbetween_girl), which I found boring as a teenager, but has now become one of my favourite times of the year. The obligations of Christmas are all fulfilled, my work email account is blissfully free of people demanding things, and it is genuinely OK to sit around in my dressing-gown watching a Buffy marathon on SyFy and ordering the unpurchased items on my Amazon wish-list. I wondered about driving up to Allendale for their New Year's tar bar'l procession this year, as 2016 is a year which I feel pretty strongly could do with a good burning out. But the weather reports say it will be raining pretty heavily there right over midnight, so maybe not. I am open to other suggestions, if anyone has any?

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strange_complex: (Claudia Cardinale car)
The other cool Dracula-related thing I did recently was to go on a little road-trip with the lovely [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan to see two exhibitions dedicated to our favourite kind of horror films: British productions from the 1950s to '70s, and especially those made by Hammer. As luck would have it, the exhibitions we were interested in overlapped by about a week (over Halloween, natch) and were both located in the east Midlands area. So although each was quite small and it would have seemed a bit of an endeavour to go to either one from Leeds on its own, between the two they made for a very agreeable day out.

Our first port of call was Northampton, where the city's Museum and Art Gallery was hosting an exhibition of film posters entitled 'Scream And Scream Again: The Golden Age Of British Horror'. It's actually a touring exhibition, put together by an organisation called Abertoir who run a horror festival in Aberystwyth, so although the Northampton showing has finished now, it's worth looking out for it at a museum near you in the future if you like the sound of it. It wasn't huge, consisting of probably about 25-30 posters plus some collected front-of-house publicity stills in a gallery about the size of a typical village hall, but it provided a very well-selected cross-section of some of the best films of the era.

2016-11-02 12.31.24.jpg

More pictures under here )

We also both really liked Northampton as a whole. Neither of us could remember having been there before, and we did see it at its best in lovely sunshine and still-mild weather, but it certainly struck us as worth visiting. In fact, a lot of people I know would enjoy the regular collections of museum itself, because Northampton has a proud history as a major cobbling centre, so basically the whole ground floor of the museum (apart from the temporary exhibitions gallery where the horror posters were) is entirely devoted to SHOES! Victorian lace-up boots, clompy glittery platforms, fancy stilettos, you name it. You can get a taste of the sort of thing they have from their Shoe of the Month blog feature.

We found lots of interesting architecture in the town centre, of which I made a particular point of capturing some of the Art Deco highlights )

Our next destination was De Montfort University, Leicester for The Monsters of Hammer: A Screen Bestiary. This is the work of the University's Cinema and Television History research centre (CATH), who now hold Hammer's scripts archive (as well as a growing collection of other Hammer-related material), and were also responsible for the unique staged reading of a never-produced Dracula script, The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula which I enjoyed SO MUCH last year. Needless to say, I've been following their activities very closely ever since (and indeed before), so I was very excited for this.

The exhibition had been set up in the University's Heritage Centre, and was physically even smaller than the Northampton one, but they had packed a lot in! We spent a good hour-and-a-half there, compared to about 30-45 minutes in Northampton, and although that's probably more than most normal human beings because we are so geeky about Hammer films and needed to examine each item in detail, discuss it at length and take loads of photos, it is still probably good for almost an hour's interest even if you just look at each item and read through the text once. First, some general pictures to show the overall layout, size and feel of it all:

2016-11-02 16.28.13.jpg

Again more under here )

What I'd really like is for them to start publishing some of this material. I see in my mind's eye The Ultimate Hammer Dracula Script Collection, including a) the shooting scripts from the movies that were actually made, b) any earlier variant versions of those and most importantly c) all the ones which weren't produced at all. I don't even know if that is possible - presumably even the unmade scripts are still in copyright, so I can certainly see that it would be complicated. But I think publication has to be the ultimate end-goal of the whole project. Otherwise, for the vast majority of the public the difference between the scripts just not existing at all and lots of time and money being spent looking after, researching and cataloguing them will remain barely detectable.

Anyway, for now I would definitely encourage everyone who loves Hammer films to get along to DMU's Heritage Centre, enjoy their amazing exhibition, and fill in enthusiastic feedback forms to help support CATH's work and enable them to secure more research funding. It's open until next May, so you have plenty of time. :-)

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strange_complex: (Ulysses 31)
Start of term = busy = also tired when not actually busy = still haven't finished writing up the Starburst Film Festival I attended in late August. Friday and Saturday are covered at the links; the schedule for Sunday is here, with what I did below.

Sunday schedule.jpg

Space-flight and puzzle games )

Interview with Toby Whithouse )

23. Aliens (1986), dir. James Cameron )

Red Dwarf series XI: exclusive first episode preview and interview with Doug Naylor )

Finally, it was time to depart, sad that it had already all come to an end, but already making plans for future fantastic film-related adventures as we bid one another goodbye. I'll certainly come back for another Starburst festival if they do it again next year.

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strange_complex: (Doctor Caecilius hands)
So! Film festival, day two. Here is the overall schedule for the day:

Saturday schedule.jpg


And here's what I did:

21. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), dir. Gordon Hessler / interview with Caroline Munro / Ray Harryhausen's Lost Treasures )

Interview with Katy Manning (aka Jo Grant from Doctor Who) )

Met Caroline Munro and got her autograph )

Doctor Who season 22 show-makers' interview )

Afterwards, I joined [livejournal.com profile] newandrewhickey, [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva and [livejournal.com profile] innerbrat for the first 45 minutes or so of The Rocketeer (1991), a sort of larger-than-life SF comedy about a US stunt pilot in the 1940s who finds a jet-pack, with Jennifer Connelly as his under-impressed girlfriend. I could see it was good and would have stayed to watch the whole thing if there weren't competing features on the schedule, but there were: two live commentaries from the Tenth Doctor era, marking the fact that his first full season screened ten years ago now. Ten is much more my thing than Six, so off I slipped...

Live commentary on New Who 2.3 School Reunion )

Live commentary on New Who 2.13 Doomsday )

All this time, Galaxy Quest had been playing in another room, which is a pity, because once the Doctor Who stuff was over and I went to join [livejournal.com profile] innerbrat, [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva and [livejournal.com profile] newandrewhickey in the screening, I realised what bloody good fun it was to watch at an actual con. But then again I have seen it multiple times before, and those live Doctor Who commentaries really were great, so I think I made the right choice.

After the film had finished, we went for food at a seriously good pizza / pasta place just down the road. It was nominally just a take-away / sit-in at fixed tables place, but the quality of the food was way better than you'd normally expect for a place like that, and along with the cute student room I was staying in and the well-appointed Co-op just below it, this was one of a number of things that really made me fall for the area where we were staying. Like, on one level, it was just edge-of-city-centre ring-roadish urban redevelopment, with a lot of medium-rise new-builds, but on another it did actually feel somehow quite modern and dynamic and nice to be in. In fact, hell, let's have a picture of it which fails to do justice to the intensity of the sunset on the Friday evening:

2016-08-26 20.27.12.jpg


22. Blood of the Tribades (2016), dir. Sophia Cacciola and Michael J. Epstein )

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
I spent last weekend in Whitby with various members of the Dracula Society - i.e. the same people I went to Romania with at the beginning of the summer. Back when I lived in Oxford, I attended the annual Whitby Gothic Weekend at least three times. As far as I remember they were the Aprils of 1999 and 2000 and the October of 2001, but I didn't have a livejournal back then to record the great events, so who knows! Anyway, between the fact that the WGW always falls during term-time, and that even from Leeds Whitby is still at least a two-hour journey away, I have failed to go again ever since. So when the Dracula Society chair let me know that a few members would be there in mid-September for a long weekend, it seemed like a good opportunity to put that right.

It wasn't a formal Society trip like the Romania visit - just a group of friends hanging out in a place of relevance to their interests, really. Most of the time we bimbled around the place, shopping, sitting in pubs and cafes, enjoying the local sights and so forth. But Julia (the Society chair) does like to look after us all, so she had recommended places for us to stay and made bookings at local restaurants for evening meals, while on the Sunday morning we all met up together and walked around some key sites of relevance to Stoker's novel and to the Dracula Society. For me, this made just the right balance, with plenty of opportunities to get together and do things, but also plenty of time to just wander, relax and bump into one another randomly.

I deliberately didn't take my digital camera, reasoning that I had been to Whitby and taken photos of it before, there are zillions of pictures of it all over the internet anyway, and I would prefer to just concentrate on being with people and experiencing the town. But of course once you get there, you get caught up in the beauty of it all, and our little walk around on the Sunday morning in particular brought up various things I wanted to photograph after all. So three cheers for smartphone cameras.

We began our walk by dropping in on the Great Man himself - or at least the guest-house where he and his family stayed when they visited Whitby )

Following the West Cliff round and turning as it does into the harbour mouth, you come to East Crescent, where this little row of houses looks out over the harbour itself )

Meanwhile, on the corner between the two where the cliff curves inland is the Royal Hotel, and in their lobby is a portrait of Bram Stoker donated by the Dracula Society on their first formal visit to Whitby in 1977 )

Actually, while I was in Whitby, Julia and her partner Adrian were kind enough to sit me down and show me a documentary made about the Society in 2003, its 30th anniversary, by one of its members who worked as an editor for the BBC. It includes interviews with the founder members, spliced together with a presenter's framing narrative, hand-held video footage of the trips they have taken over the years (including the earliest ones to Romania), and numerous spots on TV documentaries and quiz-shows. The Society was formed primarily to travel to Romania, but after a few years they decided to branch out and try some other things - hence the Whitby visit and the donation of the portrait in 1977. But honestly it was so funny hearing the founder members talking about the Whitby visit in the documentary, saying how obviously it had been quite difficult to plan it all from a distance. This from people who had already been to Romania while it still lay behind the Iron Curtain! Yes, Yorkshire is evidently alien indeed to people from That London...

By 1980, though, they had recovered enough from the experience to venture a return, and this time dedicate a bench in collaboration with the local council. I saw footage of the dedication ceremony too, in the documentary. In truth it is a bit of an Archimedes' bench by now, in that much of it has been replaced since 1980, including the dedicatory plaque. But it still sits proudly at the top of the Khyber Pass looking directly across the harbour towards the church and abbey on the East Cliff, and thus commemorating the various scenes in the novel when Mina and / or Lucy look in the same direction and see either Lucy and / or Dracula in the churchyard. The pictures below show both bench and view )

We gathered collectively at the bench at least twice for tuica brought back from the recent Romania trip and general collective toasting, as of course you would if you were in a town which contained a bench commemorating the Society you had come there with. Here, stolen from Julia's Facebook page (for which I hope she'll forgive me if she sees this!) is the group shot from the Sunday evening, taken before we all went for dinner in one of the restaurants on the west harbour pier.

DracSoc in Whitby.jpg

A lovely lot, all of them.

That was it for the (really very in)formal elements of the weekend, but while we were there plenty of us of course went up to the Abbey and inside the church )

It was strange all round, though, returning to the site of Whitby Gothic Weekends long past, and feeling the ghosts of that event and its people all around me. Even though it still goes on, for me it is something that belongs squarely at the turn of the century - and there I was again, doing almost the same thing, but not quite. Actually TBH one of the most striking differences was that back then I was a student, but now I have a salary, so that instead of staying in the cheapest places we could find, eating at takeaways and agonising over every tiny little purchase, I stayed in a luxurious room beautifully decorated in purple and gold, ate out at nice restaurants and Just Bought a pair of Whitby jet earrings (which I've always wanted) without worrying about it. Other than that, I hung out with people of a broadly gothic inclination, exchanged much the same kind of geeky in-jokes with them as Goths do, and enjoyed the Stoker-infused gothic atmosphere of the town. It was a little more about sharing a love of narrative and a little less about dressing up and listening to bands, but the lines are very blurry. Or maybe that was just all the tuica...?

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strange_complex: (Cities condor in flight)
Last week I wrote about [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan's and my visit to the Mossman Carriage Collection in Luton. That, though, was only the first leg of our Hammer-related weekend of adventure. After exhausting the delights of Luton, we continued onwards in a south-easterly direction, over the Dartford Crossing (which confused us considerably by turning out to be a bridge rather than a tunnel), and towards the pleasant sea-side town of Whitstable. Why Whitstable, you may well ask? Well, because Hammer stalwart and [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan's on-screen boyfriend Mr. Peter Cushing lived there from 1959 until his death in 1994.

We had booked ourselves into a nice little B&B on the edge of the town, where we arrived about 6pm on the Saturday. That gave us an initial evening to explore and have dinner, followed by a good full day on Sunday to complete our Peter Cushing tour. Equipped with maps and a list of places to visit culled from the internet we took in the following locations:

Peter Cushing's house )

The Cushing bench and view )

The Tudor Tea Rooms )

The Peter Cushing pub )

Whitstable Museum )

Not directly Cushing-related Whitstable experiences )

Even if you're not that bothered about Peter Cushing, I can certainly recommend a visit to Whitstable. And if you are, I think you will definitely come away understanding him quite a lot better than you did before. It is well-to-do, full of charming and welcoming people, and replete with a spirit and character all of its own. But it has the feeling of hailing from another age at the same time, and I can't imagine it has changed very fundamentally since Peter first moved there in the 1950s. And I can see all of that really suiting him, both in the early years with Helen and in his later life. A quaint and quiet retreat from the bustle of London and the film-sets where he worked; a genteel and unchanging world where he could be acclaimed and valued without being mobbed. Yes, I can really see him loving that, and being loved for it by the locals in return. The fact that some of them wrote this song about how cool it was to have him living in their town now makes complete and utter sense:


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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
Last weekend, the lovely [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and I set off on a Hammer horror-related adventure, the first leg of which took us to Luton. More or less every person to whom I mentioned the Luton part of this endeavour curled up their lips in disdain, from which I gathered that Luton's public image is more or less equivalent to Birmingham's. But, just like Birmingham, Luton is actually well worth visiting for the under-rated treasures it offers to the intrepid visitor. In our case, the main attraction was the Stockwood Discovery Centre - once the grounds of a stately home; now home to a multiplicity of attractions, including gardens, adventure playgrounds, a local history museum and the the Mossman Carriage Collection.

What was so exciting about the Mossman Carriage Collection? Well, it contains more or less every horse-drawn vehicle ever to appear in a Hammer horror film, not to mention at least 50 other films made between 1937 (Doctor Syn) and 1985 (Out of Africa) besides. Basically, if you have ever watched a British-made film or TV production from that period which featured a carriage, the odds are it came from this collection. The man behind it was George Mossman, a Luton businessman born in 1908, who realised just at the time when horse-drawn transport was passing out of regular use that it would be a) fun and b) a good idea to buy up and restore some of the many carriages which were by then languishing away in barns and coach-houses across the country. Lending them out to film companies was of course one way of helping to make back the cost of buying and restoring them, and on Mossman's death the collection passed to the Luton Museum Service in 1991.

Before we went, I spent the best part of every evening for a week screen-capping every single carriage to feature in a Hammer Dracula film, and combing through the pictures on the Mossman Carriage Collection website to try to identify them. I'm glad to say that on arrival, my identifications proved 100% correct, so below each cut which follows you will find historical information about the carriage in question as taken from the website, pictures of it as it appears today, and screen-caps showing it in use within the Dracula films. Any pictures with me in them were of course taken by my trusty travel companion and acclaimed professional photographer, [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan. Oh, and it's important to note that the paint colours on the carriages today don't always match up with how they look in the films, but as the website notes explain for the Private ‘Favorite’ Omnibus (first entry, immediately below), Mossman himself was quite happy to repaint them as required for film commissions. In most cases, I was able to confirm what previous colours each of the carriages had been painted by simply looking closely at the inevitable scratches in the finish to see the previous layers.

Private ‘Favorite’ Omnibus, about 1880 )

Hearse, about 1860 )

Town Coach, about 1860 )

Victoria, about 1890 )

Brougham, about 1860 )

Round Backed Gig )

So far, so lovely, then. But after this, things got a bit frustrating. Because on arrival, we discovered that a wedding reception was going on inside the largest room of the collection, housing on my estimation at least half of the carriages. And we were not allowed to go in. That's pretty damned annoying when you have travelled all the way from Leeds to get there, I can tell you - especially when there is nothing on their website to warn potential visitors that this might happen. I'm pretty sure that there were at least three more carriages in that room which were used in the Dracula films, but I could only see one of them well enough to get a photograph of. Thankfully, it was the carriage I was second-most excited about seeing after the hearse, but I would really have liked to see it a lot better than I did - to say nothing of the other two which I think were in there.

Travelling Chariot, about 1790 )

There are a number of other carriages in the Hammer Dracula films which I never could identify on the Mossman Collection website, and after having visited as much as I could of the collection and looked through their excellent souvenir brochure as well, I have concluded that this is probably because they never came from it in the first place. From about 1970 onwards, Hammer must have been hiring from somewhere else - or possibly even making their own replicas, which would of course have had the advantage of being able to be bashed about a bit in the course of filming if needed. Certainly, I can't identify the Hargood family coach in Taste, the coach which Paul falls into from the window of Sarah's party in Scars, or the coach from the famous opening chase-through-Hyde-Park sequence at the beginning of Dracula AD 1972.

Meanwhile, the Mossman Collection Carriages of course had a wide and varied film career which went well beyond the world of Hammer. On the whole, I didn't worry about this - indeed, I didn't even worry about Hammer films other than the Dracula cycle. There's only so much film-geekery one brain can manage, after all. But I was excited to stumble across a replica chariot which its information panel informed us had been custom-made by George Mossman for use in Ben Hur (1959):

Replica Roman Chariot )

The fact that I was able to stand in it was in keeping with the collection's general policy, which was that genuine antique carriages had 'do not touch' labels on them, whereas visitors were allowed to sit or stand (as appropriate) in the replicas. This seems reasonable, but on the other hand I'm not sure they have thought hard enough about the heritage value of even some of the replicas, especially where they have appeared in really famous films like Ben Hur. Certainly, they don't draw very much attention to it. Only one small section of the museum mentions it, and this was the only information panel I saw which linked up a specific vehicle with a specific film. Meanwhile, as you can see in the photos, the decorative detail on the chariot is badly degraded. At first we assumed that this was just because it had been made in the first place of materials which had naturally perished over the years, but this is a picture of the same chariot from the collection's souvenir brochure:

Roman chariot from brochure.jpg

And this is it again in a video which was playing in one of the rooms of the museum:

2015-08-15 15.43.44.jpg

Judging by the hair and clothes of the people in the video, it must have been made within the last ten years at most. And meanwhile, when we looked closely at the chariot we realised that all the damage to its decoration is concentrated on the side of it which faces outwards from the arched entrance-way where it stands, and hence towards the elements. So in other words, at some point in the last ten years it has been placed facing into an open courtyard, and the result is that an iconic prop used in one of the biggest block-busters of the 20th century, which was fine ten years ago, has degraded into the state seen in the above pictures.

This makes me feel really sad, not only because it is a neglectful waste, but also because it is surely very short-sighted on the part of the museum management. Film tourism is a real thing, as our own visit proved, and the value of a prop from a film like Ben Hur is only going to grow as time goes by. Imagine being able to say at the time of its centenary in 2059 that you have a chariot used in that film! You know, a film which is famous for its chariot races... Except that a prop which is rotting away in the rain is going to be a lot less of a draw than one which has been kept in good condition.

In fact, I think the Mossman Collection could do with getting some film specialists to collaborate with them asap to draw up a proper and comprehensive list of all the films its vehicles have been used in, complete with screen-caps of the kind I've done here for the Dracula films, which could be displayed on their website and within the museum. They could reach whole new audiences by publicising that information properly - but right now, it is acknowledged only fleetingly and incompletely. It is up to geeks like me to create their own guide to the carriages used in the films they are interested in if that's what they want to see - and while I will do it and enjoyed the results enormously, even I would have been glad of a guide which covered just the other Hammer films at least.

A bit of a sad note there at the end, then, and the wedding reception thing was annoying too. But on the whole I would very much recommend a visit to the Mossman Collection, especially if you are a British film geek. You just might need to be prepared to do your own research in advance...

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strange_complex: (Janus)
The Year of Augustus is officially over at last, and it's time to wish you all a happy and healthy 2015! May it be full of goodness and satisfaction for you all.

I spent my New Year's Eve this year seeing Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960) at the Hyde Park cinema with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan (both of which I shall write up separately), before returning to my place where we were joined by [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy and Mr. & Mrs. [twitter.com profile] ZeitgeistZero for champagne, canapés, a cosy fire and lots of wicked laughter. It was a lovely evening, and has only left me feeling moderately delicate today, so all in all just right.

Under strict instructions from [livejournal.com profile] glitzfrau, we made sure to compile the annual Death List and Scandal List, which we do most years and which I have occasionally published here (example), but which I don't think we got round to last year. The rules are that if anyone on the list dies or becomes embroiled in a scandal in 2015, we all get 10p, though I'm not sure from whom - ourselves, probably. Also, it's fine for people to be on both lists. Re the Death List, some people are on there in hope, others as a protective charm (since people on the list very rarely actually die), and some out of pure pragmatism, but I will leave it to you to guess which. And re the Scandal List, we have suggested specifics in some cases, in which case we get double points if those come to pass, but we still all get our statutory 10p if those people are involved in any kind of scandal, even if it's not the one we predicted.

So, without further ado, and in the utterly random order we wrote them down last night while drunk, here goes:

2015 Death List
Prince Philip (who has now taken Mrs. Thatcher's traditional place at the head of the list)
John Craven
Ex-Pope Benedict XIV (oops!) XVI (natural causes)
Current Pope Francis (suspicious circumstances)
Elizabeth Butler Sloss
Beryl Bainbridge (ah - actually, just looked her up on Wikipedia now, and it turns out she died in 2010. So nul points for us there I think.)
Katie Hopkins
Michael Heseltine
Kirk Douglas
Terry Pratchett
Alan Bennett
David Hockney
Mark E. Smith
Paul McCartney
Ken Dodd
Rolf Harris (in prison)
Stephen Hawking
Clint Eastwood
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran
President Muhammad Fuad Masum of Iraq
President Assad of Syria
George Bush Snr
Bruce Forsyth
Jimmy Tarbuck
Mickey Rooney
Maggie Smith
Paul Daniels
Any current Blue Peter pets
Mike Lee

2015 Scandal List
Justin Bieber (glue sniffing)
Nigel Farage (auto-erotic asphyxiation and / or found with an orange up his arse)
Boris Johnson
Katie Hopkins
Bono
Gary Barlow
Ed Miliband (turns out to be a LARPer)
Richard Dawkins (converts to Islam)
Jeb Bush
Jedward (it's possible that at this stage we were drifting into playing word association)
Any male BBC news reader
Lorraine Kelly
Neil & Christine Hamilton
Noel Edmonds
George Lucas
Damien Hirst
Paul Daniels
The McCanns
Noddy Holder

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strange_complex: (Saturnalian Santa)
Rewinding a few days here to the pre-Christmas period, I went to see this at Leeds Town Hall with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy, [livejournal.com profile] nalsa and Mrs. [livejournal.com profile] nalsa in honour of [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy's birthday. I've never been to a film screening at Leeds Town Hall before, so that was fun in itself, and nor had I seen Die Hard in spite of its classic status. It is an action film after all, which is hardly my genre, but going to see it in its reinvented pomo guise as a 'Christmas film' - now that, I could handle.

It is, of course, masses of fun. Indeed, I might well have gone to see it earlier if I'd cottoned on to the fact that it has Alan Rickman in it being deliciously villainous. His character even got in a Classical reference, too:
"And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer." Benefits of a classical education. [Source: IMDb]
Obviously, that actually boils down to your standard use of Classics to denote morally-bankrupt posh people, and is thus exactly the sort of thing which puts people off the subject, but never mind! It's still good to hear Alex getting a name-check, and it's not like it was a mainstay of the plot. Other things I particularly liked included McClane's message on the first terrorist victim's shirt: "Now I have a machine gun - ho ho ho!", Johnson & Johnson the ineffective FBI agents and Argyle happily living it up in his limousine while blithely unaware of the major terrorist incident going on in the building above him. I assumed for ages that he would spend literally the entire film like this, and just drive out the next morning wondering what was going on, but it was also cool that he got to play his part in overcoming the bad guys too.

I do realise that this bit is going to make me sound like Noam Chomsky on his day off, but gosh - you really couldn't present a more fully-developed fantasy of hyper-masculinity as a response to male anxieties about successful career-women than this film, could you? That is literally how McClane wins his wife back after their marriage has been broken apart by her promotion to Director of Corporate Affairs at the Nakatomi Corporation. But anyway! Helicopters and explosions and cool one-liners and stuff! Yay.

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strange_complex: (Lord S not unenlightened)
I had a pretty epic day yesterday, going down to London for a second crack at the British Library's utterly excellent exhibition, Terror and Wonder: the Gothic imagination, followed by giving a talk on Augustus in the medieval period to a 200+ audience at the British Museum as part of a joint Roman Society / Association for Roman Archaeology conference. Both of those deserve posts in their own right, really, but between them they left me knackered to the extent that I didn't wake up until almost noon today, and meanwhile what I actually want to do with the tiny fragment of the weekend which remains to me is write about this interactive film screening which I attended with the lovely Andrew Hickey and magister on Thursday. So there it is.

Obviously, I have seen this film a few times before (previous LJ reviews are collected in the 1970s section of my Christopher Lee film list), including four times on the big screen. But it's one I will never knowingly miss in any format, still less an interactive sing-along version. So it was with high excitement (and only moderate transport-related shenanigans) that I made my way to the Holbeck Urban Ballroom with two equally enthusiastic friends - and we were not disappointed.

The full experience actually involves quite a lot more than merely singing along. On entrance, we each received not only a pagan 'hymn book' containing all of the lyrics for the film's famous songs, but also a goodie bag containing a special selection of items for later use. The point of these was to eat or do appropriate things mirroring what was going on screen at various stages during the film, and as it happened I was accidentally given two of the bags as I went in. Although I declared this fact very honestly, the chap giving them out advised me to keep quiet about it and waved me through, so I was able to bring my second goodie bag home at the end of the evening and photograph its contents. In the order in which were instructed to use them (left-right, top-bottom), these were as follows:

Sing-along-a-Wicker-Man goodies

And their purposes were:
  • Smartie - communion wafer from Howie's scene in church on the mainland
  • Shoe-lace - the poor wee lass's navel string
  • Lollipop sticks - for re-consecrating the abandoned church adjoining the graveyard
  • Frog - for curing our / Myrtle's sore throat
  • Crispy bacon - one of the foreskins from the chemist (yum!)
  • Foam banana - the closest available approximation to the apple which Howie munches while Lord Summerisle is showing him around his gardens
  • Smiley sticker - for anointing each other ready for sacrifice in the Wicker Man
I think you can already see from the list alone a) how much fun that was but also b) how it actually really did work to blur the distinction between audience and characters, making us feel on some level like we were participating in the action of the film. The singing, of course, did the same - and that, too, was more than just singing. In a warm-up session beforehand our hosts, David Bramwell and Eliza Skelton (daughter of Roy), talked a bit about the film and some of its lore, and got us laughing along at some of the stories about it - like how Lindsay Kemp (who played the landlord, Alder McGregor), stormed off down to London part-way through the production, and had to be sweet-talked back by Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer. We then collectively learnt the right actions for the Maypole dance, and got our singing voices in gear by singing 'Gently Johnny' to their live accompaniment (on the grounds that it wouldn't be in the film itself, as we were going to watch the short version). Then, as the film played, David and Eliza held up signs telling us when to sing each 'hymn', when to eat our goodies, and when to hold up our hand-bags in tribute to Lindsay Kemp's flounce, as well as commenting on some of the film's incongruities (like the bizarre rock guitar music used during the cave chase scene), and prompting us to join in with some of its big iconic lines - like Howie's screams of "Oh God! Oh Jesus Christ!" as he perceives his fate, or the islanders' communal prayers as the sacrifice is prepared. Also, every time Howie got his photos of Rowan Morrison out to show to people and ask if they had seen her, Eliza and David came up to the audience with copies of the same image, asking us to pass them around. You might think on a casual viewing that Howie only does that a couple of times during the film, but actually when you get passed the picture yourself too on each and every single occasion, it turns out to be six - by the last of which the thing itself had of course turned into a running joke.

Basically, it was all about a collective celebration of a film which (nearly) everyone there knew incredibly well and loved dearly. Just being part of such a cheerful love-in, surrounded by people who greeted all the best lines with the same enthusiasm as me, was fantastic fun, but the immersive experience of participating in so much of the action really did offer a new way of engaging with the world of the film that went beyond the surface tongue-in-cheek tone of the evening. You feel something more of Howie's helpless isolation in the closing scenes when, like him, you have just had your neighbour stick a yellow circle in the middle of your forehead, and a disturbing complicity with the villagers as you are belting out 'Sumer is i-cumen in' while he burns to death. And coming still relatively fresh from my Wicker Man holiday in 2013, so that I have recent memories of having actually stood at more or less every location used in the entire film, the two experiences together combined to make it all seem very, very real indeed.

Me walking along the sea-break at Plockton
Me walking along the sea-break at Plockton
Photo by [livejournal.com profile] thanatos_kalos

Sing-along-a-Wicker-Man tours the country regularly and widely, and I thoroughly recommend looking out for it if you are a fan. It would probably be better to catch it in spring or summer than autumn or winter if you can - though cold days and dark nights are generally very conducive to the watching of horror films, this viewing did drive home to me that The Wicker Man really isn't a winter film, and works best when the sap is rising. But any time is very definitely better than none.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
I still have a veeerryy long list of book, film and TV reviews to write up, and maybe I'll get to some of those later today. But first, I want to write about the thing I saw last night while it's all fresh in my mind, and that is a contemporary dance production of Dracula by the Mark Bruce Company. As ever for these things, my companion for the evening was the lovely [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, and of course for both of us the obvious comparator was the recent ballet version by David Nixon which we also saw together at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. We were in no doubt that both were amazing, but found it much harder to decide which we thought was best. In the end, obviously, you don't have to decide (though it's a fun and often quite useful way to figure out what you think of two different performances individually) - you can have both! But their takes on the story certainly were different, and would appeal to different states of mind.

Where the ballet was very romantic, with a heavy emphasis on unfulfilled longing, last night's version was much more brutal, visceral and ghoulish. As it happens, both chose to open with scenes featuring Dracula on his own, introducing their take on the character, and the contrast between those two scenes encapsulates the difference very nicely. Ballet!Dracula rose smoothly from his coffin in a cloud of mist, completely naked apart from a very small pouch, and strode with perfect poise and balance away from the audience and out through a dark Gothic doorway at the back of the stage. It was basically all about the eroticisation of a supernaturally-powerful male body. Dance!Dracula, clothed in a slightly industrial-looking cropped-sleeved black shirt and trousers, instead performed a number which had him at times revelling similarly in his supernatural strength and power, but at others lapsing into the shambolic zombie-like movements of a reanimated corpse. Meanwhile, strong side-lighting cast dramatic highlights and shadows across his face and limbs, emphasising his non-human nature as a spectral creature of the night.

So, a very different take on the character which persisted and developed throughout the show. Ballet!Dracula was tormented by his own bloodlust, approached his victims like a fairy-tale prince, and had a (cheap, stretch-velvet) billowing cape which he used to convey the batlike side of his nature. Dance!Dracula preferred a trench-coat, didn't muck about when attacking his victims, and conveyed his bestiality rather through snarls and contortions. And obviously the same logic and feel applied throughout the show - for example, in the contrast between the ballet version of the vampire brides, who moved powerfully yet fluidly in fine billowing white robes, and the contemporary dance versions, who did much more snarling and clawing and wore ragged blood-stained dresses (with the obvious implication being that they were too monstrous and inhuman to care about the stains). In fact, there was a lot more blood all round in the dance version. I'm pretty sure we never saw any in the ballet - it was all allusive and impressionistic. But in the dance, punches were thrown, victims bitten and stakes hammered home, all to distinctly gory effect.

Both productions definitely maxed out on the Gothic aesthetic, with wrought-iron arches, dry ice, and a very great deal of black. But this one played around a little more with its temporal setting. The music used was from various different eras, ranging from the baroque to the modernist, while although the costumes centred around the Victorian / Edwardian, they nodded towards something quite modern for Lucy and Mina, and (along with the music) also switched into the early 20th-century jazz era for some scenes involving the vampires. The first of these happened when Dracula caught Jonathan Harker with his brides in the castle, whereupon the audience of course expects anger and fighting, but this was actually played out by the brides handing Dracula a top hat and cane, and him dancing to what I've worked out this morning was Arthur Collins' 1905 hit The Preacher and the Bear, while Jonathan cowered in the corner. This sounds kind of ridiculous, and I wasn't quite sure about it myself at first. But it did work as a way to convey the evil of Dracula - not just attacking his guest, but toying with him via the juxtaposition between the jolly song and his own incongruously brutal appearance, and through lyrics which make it apparent that he treats hunting his human victims as a game. And it really paid off in the second half, during Dracula's attack on Lucy, when the three vampire brides could be seen dancing the Charleston in the background. By that time, the motif had really sunk in, so that the spectre of these ghoulish creatures dancing a jazz number as Lucy died horribly had become incredibly effective and properly unsettling.

There were all sorts of other similarly clever, creative touches along the way as well. Like in the scene where the team of vampire hunters find Dracula's boxes of earth in the cellars of Carfax and crumble holy communion wafers into them. Here, the three vampire brides crouched at the corners of the stage - not really 'there' in story terms, but present all the same - winding up mechanical rats and letting them loose to run across the floor. As with the jazz dancing, on paper that sounds too silly to work, but it really did, conveying the feel of a dank and creepy cellar alive with vermin beautifully. Also very good was the handling of chase scenes, which were generally conveyed by on-the-spot running which was somehow done so effectively that you almost forgot that it was on the spot, and simply embraced the sense of movement. This was done for the carriage ride taking Jonathan to Dracula's castle in the first half, and Dracula's retreat back home with the vampire-hunters on his tail at the end - no mucking about with scenes on trains or boats here, but just a straightforward on-the-spot foot-chase, which nonetheless managed to stand effectively for an epic journey through the night across Europe. In both cases, wolf-headed dancers also appeared at certain points to run alongside the carriage or the vampire Count, helping to build the sensation of a high-speed chase in the same way that Roman artists would put in eagles or hares to show that a person was moving quickly.

Then at the end, the eventual fate of the brides was to be captured by a vampire-hunter each and strung up on the wrought-iron Gothic arches of Dracula's castle, in a way which visually resembled both the impaled victims of the real Vlad III Dracula, and (as [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan pointed out) the three figures of the Biblical crucifixion scene. Dracula himself, meanwhile, succumbed to the wiles of Mina, who embroiled him into an increasingly-frantic dance as the sun rose, so that eventually he could not escape its rays and crumpled defeated onto the floor. I always have a lot of time for Dracula productions which let Mina herself kill him (as for example in the version we saw at Kirkstall Abbey last summer the one I saw in Belfast in 2005 and of course the original 1922 Nosferatu), but with or without that the ending of last night's performance was certainly stronger than the ballet version, which I noted at the time slipped into a bit of an anti-climax after its wonderful love-duet between Dracula and Mina.

As for this production's take on the story, what I've already said above will indicate that it included some departures from the novel, but on the whole it was pretty true to the outlines of Stoker's novel. This is of course for largely the same reason as the ballet version - both stories were told silently through the medium of dance, so they relied on their audience knowing the basic story already, and any major departures from the original would be confusing. Like the ballet, though, it only had a limited time to get its story across, so some trimming was necessary. The Demeter was in this time (and was very well done), as was an excellent montage of vampire!Lucy feeding on little children, but Renfield and the asylum were out, and perhaps most surprisingly of all there was also no identifiable Van Helsing figure. Of course, this being a silent drama, none of the characters had in-story names, but the vampire-hunters were represented by three men - a doctor, a priest and a flamboyant wealthy gentleman, all of whom were suitors of Lucy and all of whom took a more or less equal role in the business of vampire-despatching. Obviously, the priest was the one whipping out crosses and communion wafers, while the other two map fairly closely to Dr. Seward and Lord Godalming, but Van Helsing was neither a priest nor a suitor, and also definitely was an outsider from the point of view of the rest of the group.

The dance style itself sometimes came quite close to ballet, including things like male-female duets in which the male dancer does a lot of lifting and supporting of the female dancer, dancing on pointed toes, etc. But there was a lot else in there this time - jazz-dancing moves, as I've mentioned, gypsy dances in a village on the way to the castle, ballroom-style dancing and all sorts of leaps and contortions which I suppose come under the general heading of modern dance. Like the ballet version we saw, this one also took advantage of the strength of its male lead to show the famous scene in which Dracula crawls head-first down the wall of his castle - but although it was clever and impressive, in all honesty this was something which the ballet version did better, both in terms of how the scene had been set up and the actual execution of the move. I think that is probably representative of the general difference between the two as performances, actually. I found myself more often wide-eyed in wonder at the technical skills and grace of the ballet performers than I did the contemporary dancers. But that is simply a matter of different genres, really, and both very definitely deployed the capabilities and motifs of their formats very well indeed to tell the sorts of stories they wanted to tell.

In the end, I mainly just want to see both of them again, which unfortunately isn't possible for live performances. I missed certain aspects of the ballet in last night's contemporary dance version - especially the homoerotic tension between Dracula and Jonathan Harker, and the vampire brides' sheer exuberance in their own femininity and vampirism. But I did enjoy the visceral brutality of this performance, and the clever creative touches like the mechanical rats and the impaled / crucified brides, while its Lucy was absolutely amazing and did get the exuberant enjoyment of her own vampirism which had rested more with the brides in the ballet. The romantic emphasis of the ballet probably reflects not only the tendencies of the genre (for all that it certainly pushed the boundaries of what ballet does very hard indeed), but also the fact that it was first developed in the 1990s, in the wake of Bram Stoker's Dracula with its Mina / Dracula love-story. By contrast, the Mark Bruce Company version is more obviously a product of the early 21st century, and reflects the grungy, visceral aesthetic which horror films have taken on in the interim (Hammer's The Woman in Black springs to mind, for example). I have room in my heart for both - though not, I should stress, for Bram Stoker's Dracula itself, which is Just Rubbish.

I included a trailer video of the ballet version in my previous review, so I shall finish by doing the same here for the Mark Bruce version:


See it if you possibly can.

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
I saw this on Tuesday evening with notorious Dracula-enabler [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, and it was absolutely captivating. I'm not a big ballet-goer - in fact, I think the last live ballet I went to was a performance of The Nutcracker at the Birmingham Hippodrome with my mother during my mid- to late-teens. But when [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan pointed out that this was on, recommended it highly based on having seen it previously, and suggested that we go along, I didn't take much persuading. Well, let's be honest, I'll find time for pretty much anything with 'Dracula' in the title right now. But I could see straight away how a ballet version of the story would have the potential to really bring out its fantasy, romance and visual spectacle - and I was not disappointed.

Ballet dancers, of course, can move in ways which most human beings cannot, and this is a great boon when playing supernatural characters. You can take for granted incredible feats of strength and agility and suitably animalistic movements on the part of all the vampire characters - Dracula, his three brides, and a transformed Lucy. More deliberately supernatural, and different from the human characters in this ballet or the supernatural ones in other dramatic performances, were two particular feats performed by Dracula himself - gliding side-ways, almost as though floating, and literally crawling out of a window head-first, exactly as described in the book. The latter can briefly be seen in this trailer video (at 0:25), which indeed is worth watching in full (it's only 1m15s long) for a good sense of the general splendour of the performance:


It was perfectly clear how both were done - the former by using the tight scuttling movement that ballet-dancers do (I don't know the technical term) while his feet were hidden below the length of his cloak, and the latter by supporting himself with powerful arm-muscles on two vertical bars running down either side of the 'window', while hooking onto the horizontal dividers of the frame with his feet. But still! I couldn't dream of doing either, and seeing another human being right in front of my eyes deploying what (to me) were effectively supernatural powers was an amazing experience. In these days of CGI special effects, it's easy to become blasé about seeing human beings doing apparently-impossible things, so that it becomes hard to relate to the combined fascination and repulsion which Stoker's characters experience on encounters with vampires. But seeing such physical feats being performed live gave a much more powerful sense of the strangeness of difference than I think any screen-trickery could ever quite manage.

Those weren't the only places where the strengths of ballet as a medium for story-telling were well-deployed, either. Other simple yet clever examples included the scenes where Dracula physically manipulated human characters like marionettes to represent hypnotically bending them to his will, or where Renfield's mental torment was conveyed through powerful contortions - not a case of supernatural movement this time, but another good use of a ballet dancer's exceptional physical capabilities to convey difference. And in a context where all of the characters were flowing and floating around the stage in a rather surreal fashion all the time anyway, and there was no dialogue, it also seemed very natural to convey one character's thoughts about another by having them appear at a slight distance. This was how we first met Mina, for example - as a 'vision' in a white dress dancing lightly across a corner of the stage, prompted by Jonathan's longing for her while he is imprisoned in Dracula's castle.

And oh, how well ballet conveys longing and yearning of all kinds! The absolute high-light of the piece was a love-duet between Dracula and Mina in the second half, which seemed to go on for ever, yet which I still wanted never to stop at all. But the early scenes in Dracula's castle of course offer lots of scope for homoerotic longing, too - "This man belongs to me!" and so on. There was some great business between Dracula and Jonathan Harker, where Jonathan would be sitting at a desk studying legal documents, with Dracula hanging over his shoulder on the brink of succumbing to the urge to bite him - but then Jonathan would notice and Dracula would shift smoothly into pointing out something on the page in front of him. Indeed, they had a proper male-male duet too, with Dracula guiding and steering Jonathan's movements in one of his mind-control sequences. That's something which ballet as a format, with all those finely-toned male bodies, has the potential to do incredibly well, and yet of course isn't common in classical ballet AT ALL because of the prevalent social mores at the time when most of it was developed. And much the same could be said for the vampire brides, where the strength of the dancers was used to show them as casually powerful, in complete command of their own bodies, and enjoying the hell out of playing around with a helpless Jonathan Harker. Sure, OK, so Dracula was always going to turn up at the end and tell them to quit it, but they got an extended scene of potent, jubilant femininity before that - a world away from the fragile characters female ballet-dancers are usually asked to play, and quite the most exuberant vampire brides I think I've ever seen.

As for how this ballet related to other tellings of the Dracula story, it largely follows the contours of the book, although it is inevitably impressionistic given the relatively short running-time (c. 1h 45m of stage time), emphasis on character moments and dramatic confrontations, and absence of dialogue. The perpetual dilemmas about where Lucy, Mina, Seward, Holmwood etc all live in relation to Dracula's castle become largely irrelevant when no-one in the story is speaking words like 'Whitby', 'London', 'Carlstadt' or whatever. Possibly Dracula travels to wherever-it-is by ship - but equally, the lashing wind and water which we hear may just be a storm outside Lucy's drawing-room window. It doesn't really matter. On this impressionistic level, the only identifiable 'departure' from the book was a party held to celebrate Lucy's engagement to Arthur Holmwood (at which she shockingly turns up on Dracula's arm!), but since that allowed for some very nice formal dancing scenes which gave roles to members of the company who otherwise wouldn't have been in the production at all, it seemed like a good inclusion.

The sets were probably closest to the 1931 Universal Dracula, in that they were neither realistic nor entirely abstract, so matched its expressionistic spirit. They were certainly really good, anyway - lots of broken castles and abbeys, but also lavish ballrooms and bedrooms, and an excellent carriage pulled through clouds of dry ice by burning-eyed horses. There are quite a few traceable footprints of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) here too - e.g. in Dracula's shoulder-length hair, the very Elizabethan-looking collar worn by Lucy after her transformation, the fact that Dracula and Mina's story is cast as a romance (though thankfully without any hints at reincarnation), and the portrayal of Seward as morphine addict ([livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan - I checked that one, and this is indeed where it comes from). But there was a touch of the rattish Nosferatu to Dracula's look as well, and of course the absence of spoken dialogue inevitably recalls the format of the 1922 movie.

Because nothing is perfect, I do have to note here that after the highlight which was Dracula and Mina's love-duet, the dancing did seem to fall into a bit of an anti-climax, especially as the team of vampire hunters dashed around the stage in search of Dracula with no obvious sense of purpose to their movements. And while the costumes were generally amazing (especially a long beaded frock-coat worn by Dracula to Lucy's engagement party), his standard attire of a long high-collared crushed-velvet cloak unfortunately looked very much like it had come from a cheap fancy-dress shop. But all in all, this really was a fantastic performance and a great night out. If you ever get the chance to see it, grab it with both hands.

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strange_complex: (Tonino reading)
Very neatly, [livejournal.com profile] wig tagged me for this meme on LJ, and TAFKAK tagged me for it on Facebook on the same day last week. So I shall answer it in both places, but obviously LJ lends itself better to nice formatting and having space to make some actual comments about the books. I have taken the concept of the books 'staying with me' seriously, and thus listed ones which both meant a lot to me at the time of original discovery and to which I have returned regularly since. They are listed (as best as I could remember) in the order in which I first encountered them.

L. Frank Baum (1900), The Wizard of Oz
This stands for the whole series, of course. I was certainly quite obsessed with them by the age of six, and indeed a picture of me reading one of them to my friends on that birthday can be seen here. The 1939 film was important too, of course, and I'm pretty sure I had seen it by that age, but there were more of the books, with far more wonderful characters and adventures than the film could deliver. Dad used to read the books to me as bedtime stories, I used to read and re-read them myself, and of course there was a great deal of dressing up, playing at being characters from the books and so on with the very friends shown in the picture, and especially [livejournal.com profile] hollyione. A lifetime love of fantastical stories was to follow...

Alison Uttley (1939), A Traveller in Time
Did loads of other people read this as children? I don't hear it mentioned very often as a children's classic, but it was another big favourite of my childhood, and has literally stayed with me in the sense that I still have my copy of it. I haven't done that for many of my childhood books - though the Oz series are another exception. Doubtless one of the attractions all along was the fact that the main character, a young girl from the 20th century, is called Penelope. But also, time travel! While staying in a Tudor manor house, she repeatedly finds herself slipping back to its early days, and interacting with characters from the reign of Elizabeth I. Clearly at the roots of my love of both fantastical time travel stories, and the real-life dialogue between present and past.

Bram Stoker (1897), Dracula
Ha, I hardly need to explain this one right now, do I? See my dracula tag, passim, for details. First read, as far as I can tell, in early 1986, when I was nine years old, on the back of having seen the Hammer film the previous autumn. Left me with a love of all things Gothic, which has waxed and waned but never really left me ever since. As the wise [livejournal.com profile] inbetween_girl once said, you never really stop being a Goth. At best, you're in recovery. Or perhaps lapsed, would be another way of putting it.

Diana Wynne Jones (1977), Charmed Life
Initially read via a copy from the school library aged 9 or 10, this came back and 'haunted' me with memories of a book of matches, a castle and a strange magical man in my early 20s. By then, the internet was advanced enough to have forums where I could ask what the title of the book I was remembering might be, and to deliver an answer within a few hours. So I bought a copy, swiftly followed by copies of the other Chrestomanci books, and then copies of multiple other DWJ books (see my diana wynne jones tag for details). As an adult, I can see that the real appeal of DWJ's writing lies in the combination of her light yet original prose style, imaginative vision and sharp understanding of human interactions, but as a child I'm pretty sure it was all about the unrecognised magical powers and multiple interconnected magical worlds. As per the Oz books, I really love that stuff.

Gene Wright (1986), Horrorshows: the A-Z of Horror in Film, TV, Radio and Theatre
In 2010, Mark Gatiss presented a documentary series called A History of Horror, during which he held up a book about horror films which he had owned since childhood, and explained how it was his personal Horror Bible, which had opened up to him the wonderful world of the genre. From the reaction on Twitter, it instantly became clear that everyone who had grown up loving horror films before the emergence of the internet had also owned such a book, and this is mine. I bought it at a book fair in about 1987 or 1988, devoured it greedily, and have been faithfully ticking off every film in it which I have seen ever since. Of course, the internet has long rendered such books obsolete, and insofar as this one was ever comprehensive at the time of original purchase, it certainly isn't now. So it is utterly meaningless to tick off all the films in it, as though somehow the end goal is to tick off every single film in the book - at which time, I don't know, a fanfare will sound and a man in a rhinestone suit will pop out to tell me I've won a prize, or something? But I still add a tick each time I see a new film from within its pages anyway, because heck I have been doing so for 25 years, and I'm not going to stop now. Besides, it's not like I care about horror films made after 1986 anyway (I struggle to care about those made after 1976, TBH), so it doesn't matter to me that it is enormously out of date.

Douglas Adams (1979), The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
First read c. age 11, and read at least another 8 times since. I know this because I have kept a tally of how many times I read it in the front of the book - classic geekish behaviour, of course. Once again, it's basically all about travel to wondrous other worlds, but this time instead of being magical (Oz, Chrestomanci), historical (A Traveller in Time), or supernatural (Dracula, everything else in Horrorshows), they are in space! It's not actually like I discovered adventures in space for the first time from Hitchhiker's, because of course I was also watching Doctor Who on a regular basis in parallel with all of this reading material, with which of course Hitchhiker's is intimately linked. But yeah - given everything else which has already appeared on this list, it is no big surprise that I loved Hitchhiker's.

C. Suetonius Tranquillus (c. AD 120), The Twelve Caesars
And now my list radically changes tack, because having established that I love stories about the fantastical, the rest of it is made up of books which mark key stages in the emergence of my academic interest in the ancient world. I am not, of course, unaware that this in itself also basically boils down to yet another interest in a wondrous other world, albeit one which actually existed in this case. Really, the mode of engagement is very similar - we have little snippets of information about the Roman world (texts, objects, places), just as we have little snippets of information about fictional fantasy worlds (texts, screen portrayals, merchandise), but there is also so much we don't know, and are at liberty to extrapolate from what we do. Plus the similar-yet-different qualities and the opportunity to compare and contrast can let us think about our own world in ways that just don't open up if we only think about it directly. And so I found a way to apply the thought-patterns and approaches I'd been developing from early childhood to something which grown-ups thought was admirable and serious, and which it was possible to acquire prestige and eventually even money through studying. As for Suetonius himself, he is here because he was one of the earliest ancient authors I really came to feel familiar with and fond of, mainly during A-level Ancient History. Tacitus may well be clever and sharp, but there is always a judgemental, sanctimonious undertone with him that I don't very much like. The things which interest Suetonius, by contrast, make him seem so utterly human - but there are also all sorts of clever structures and allusions to discover in his text on close reading, which together make him incredibly rewarding. I once literally hugged my Penguin copy of Suetonius to my chest as a sort of talisman when feeling alone, upset and in need of comfort. I can't really imagine anyone doing that with Tacitus.

J.B. Ward-Perkins (1991), Roman Imperial Architecture
One of the first books I bought about ancient material culture (as opposed to texts), in the context of a module on Roman architecture which I did in (I think) my second year as an undergraduate at Bristol. While strictly about buildings rather than cities, it nonetheless includes a lot of material about how those buildings fitted into the urban landscapes where they were located - unsurprisingly, since Ward-Perkins himself was really interested in cities first and architecture second, and wrote one of the earliest English-language books on the subject. So it is to this book which my interest in Roman urbanism can really be traced, and I still turn to it occasionally when I need to get to grips with a new (to me) city.

Christopher Hibbert (1987), Rome: the biography of a city
This one is from my third year at Bristol, and the best undergraduate module I ever did - Responses to Rome with Catharine Edwards and Duncan Kennedy, which was all about post-Classical responses to ancient Rome from the medieval period to the present day. I sat in those classes falling in love with Rome, and then went home to pore through this book and the wonders within. I still return to it in order to refresh my memory of medieval myths about the city's ancient past, Grand Tourism or fascist appropriations, all of which I have needed to do in the past few years.

Greg Woolf (1998), Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul
And finally, the book which I consulted most frequently while writing my PhD thesis. It had utterly redefined thinking about the relationship between Rome the state and its provincial populations, killing off tired old paradigms of 'beneficial imperialism' (think: What have the Romans ever done for us?) for good, so would have been important no matter what province I had used to look at the relationship between Roman ideas about the urban periphery and the reality on the ground in a provincial setting. But since I had chosen Gaul as my own main case-study anyway, it was gold-dust. Fifteen years later, it remains at the forefront of scholarly thinking on the topic, and thus still features regularly on my module reading lists, amongst my recommendations to research students, and indeed in the bibliographies of my own published works.

I'm not tagging anyone, because pretty much everyone in the world has done this meme already by now - but feel free to take this post as a prompt to do it yourself if you haven't and want to.

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Clean

Sunday, 31 August 2014 18:01
strange_complex: (Penelope Keith)
FINALLY, after several months of poor maintenance and two of total neglect due to Too Much Augustus, my house is once again in a sufficient state of cleanliness that I feel I could allow other people to enter it. Given that this morning it was still on 'Health Hazard - Keep Clear' status, this is a big achievement, and it has made me feel a great deal better about myself as a human being. Sadly, a few spiders were rendered homeless and / or underwent a vacuumy death during the process, but so it goes. It was a battle of wits in which only one of us could triumph.

Now, as my reward, I get to head over to Hebden Bridge for an evening of silly board- and card-games with miss_s_b, [twitter.com profile] A_C_McGregor, magister, [livejournal.com profile] matgb and quite likely some other Calder Valley types. A lovely end to my little post-Augustan holiday, which I'm very much looking forward to.

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
These were both re-watches, so I have linked to my previous write-up from the title of each, and am just noting here what struck me this time round.

25. Captain Clegg (1962), dir. Peter Graham Scott

This film depends a great deal on concealed identities, which of course means that the second watch is an entirely different experience from the first, since you know this time in advance who everyone is. It would be worth watching it a second time for that reason alone, in order to read the behaviour of the main characters in the knowledge of their secret identities before they are explicitly revealed, but I think this one would be worth watching a second time anyway.

Peter Cushing is genuinely magnificent in it, carrying the film with very much the same effortless authority as his character leads the village within the story. A 'making of' documentary on the recently-released DVD version which we watched first reported on how he had done things like consult a friend in the clergy in order to learn how to play his role as the Rev. Dr. Blyss convincingly, and it shows - as indeed the same meticulous approach usually does for all of Cushing's roles. He doesn't carry the full weight of the film alone, though. The story is rich with well-defined and well-played characters, each with complex agendas of their own, and much of the pleasure of it lies in seeing how they all play off against one another towards the dramatic climax.

The DVD also included a short documentary about the Mossman Carriage Collection (now housed at the Stockwood Discovery Centre in Luton), which provided most of the horse-drawn vehicles used in Hammer's gothic films, and often also their drivers in the form of collection owner George Mossman. [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and I both agreed that we would love to visit this collection, and also slightly scared ourselves by alternately exclaiming things like "Ooh, that's the hearse from Risen from the Grave!" and "I'm sure that's in Curse of Frankenstein!" throughout the documentary, only to have our identifications confirmed moments later by the narrator. We may just be a little bit geeky...

26. Vampyr – Der Traum des Allan Grey (1932), dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer

It was well worth seeing this a second time, too, as the surreal nature of the film and the way that characters drift in and out of it with little dialogue can make the story quite hard to follow. To some extent this stems from the deliberate concealment of identities, as in Captain Clegg - in particular, the identity of the vampire is revealed only slowly. But it is also a more general function of a dreamlike and fragmentary narrative. Even on a second viewing, when we knew in advance who everyone was, there were still several scenes which puzzled us, as characters went off and did things for no discernible reason that we could fathom.

But it remains beautiful and atmospheric and hugely worth seeing, and there are also definitely some aspects of the story which you can appreciate better if you are already familiar with the characters. For example, the story has no real 'Van Helsing' figure in it, but a book of vampire lore left to the hero by the deceased father of the girl who is being attacked plays the same role of informing previously ignorant and sceptical characters about what vampires are and how to fight them. At regular intervals, characters in the story sit down and read sections from this book, which scroll slowly across the screen so that the audience can read it too, and then in the next scene we see the very principles which we have just learnt about in action. For example, we read in the book about how a vampire was once helped by a local doctor, and then see the doctor in Courtempierre doing the very same thing. On first viewing, this is all supposed to help us work out who the vampire is and that the doctor is in league with her, but on a second viewing when you already know this it can be recognised as a nice piece of structuring with overtones of dramatic irony (since the characters are not yet in a position to understand what the viewer has realised).

I wrote in my last review of this film how it uses motifs which also crop up in some of Hammer's Dracula films, such as a woman at an inn greeting a late-night traveller from an upstairs dormer window (Julie and Paul in Scars (1970)), or an older, wiser man passing on a book of vampire lore to a younger man on his death so that the latter can take on the job of protecting his female charge (the Monsignor and Paul in Risen (1968)). Another one I would add now is the idea of vampirism as a compulsion which those in the grip of it cannot resist, even though they are revulsed by their own behaviour, which is explained in the book and is also very much how Van Helsing describes it in Dracula (1958).

The chain of links from one to the other need not be direct in any of these cases, especially since Vampyr was not exactly a huge hit in its own day, and I'm not clear that it even got a contemporary UK cinema release. Most of these motifs can also be found in other vampire films - e.g. vampires as revulsed by their own actions is in Dracula's Daughter (there, as here, applied specifically to a female character). But the similarity of the passing-on-the-book motif especially is so strong that it does make me wonder whether Anthony Hinds, who wrote Risen (and in fact Scars as well), had seen Vampyr and recycled the ideas directly. He would have been a bit young, I think, at the age of 10 in 1932 to see it on first release even if it had been available in the same country as him, but it's possible he got the opportunity at a film club or something like that.

Anyway, a most enjoyable afternoon, and long may they continue!

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strange_complex: (Eleven dude)
This is a BBC Eleventh Doctor plus Amy and Rory spin-off novel, which I read mainly because it was written by LJ's very own [livejournal.com profile] altariel. She has another one out now, but this was her first, and I remember her being pleased as punch when it came out. I've been meaning to read it ever since.

I have read a few of the Virgin New Adventures or Missing Adventures novels in the past (e.g. Lungbarrow, The Well-Mannered War and Human Nature), but this is my first experience of a BBC-branded Doctor Who novel (i.e. one starring the current Doctor and marketed as spin-off merchandising), so I don't have much comparable material to judge it against. But I certainly really enjoyed this book in its own right - which is lucky, really, as it would be a bit embarrassing having to write this review otherwise!

What I liked about it most was the meta-references to story-telling which are woven throughout the narrative - something which always presses my buttons, but I think was done especially well here. The book opens with an evocative snippet of the scary rumours which circulate around (what will turn out to be) the book's main setting, the city of Geath, using the opportunity not only to foreshadow some of the excitement and peril which will come later, but also to establish some important themes - particularly unreliable narration and the way that oral stories become embroidered in the telling, but also the way that they have the strongest power in the half-glimpsed semi-darkness and over people who are on their own.

Later on, as the story unfolds and the characters are getting to know Geath, we also meet a Teller whose stories have an inexplicable and politically revolutionary power over his listeners, and find the Doctor rigging up the alien equivalent of Renaissance technology to project cinematic images of ancient wars, and to beam TV-style communications into homes and public squares all across Geath. I very much liked the way all these different media - oral stories, films, TV - appeared together in a narrative all about the power of story-telling, and one which inherently bridges two different story-telling media in itself by virtue of being a novel about characters from a TV series. It meant that the central theme really was the power of stories writ large, rather than the power of stories told in one particular medium, which in this case I am able to add chimes strongly with what I know of Una as a person.

In much the same vein, I was also pleased but not surprised at the treatment of gender in the novel. Again, I know this is something Una feels strongly about in other people's stories, and it was great to see her getting the opportunity to Do It Right in her own novel. It's not just that as many of the major characters in the novel are female as male, or that the female characters have a strong sense of agency while also steering well clear of being tropish Strong Women without any meaningful flaws or dilemmas. What really told me I was reading a novel by someone who had thought about gender equality while writing it was the way that minor characters who were little more than the equivalent of extras in screen productions, and who so often simply default to being male in novels or on screen, turned out to be female. The example which particularly struck me was a knight who got killed when her horse bolted after being frightened by a hostile alien influence. It wasn't a speaking part, and of course the word 'knight' particularly invites a male-as-default reaction, but this particular character was quietly female. A nice touch, both in terms of portraying gender equality and prodding the reader to question their own assumptions.

I will admit that my attention wandered a while during the middle part of the novel, once the major characters had been established and there was rather a lot of impending war and capture-and-escape business to get through before everything could be resolved. But I get that that stuff is pretty much par for the course in this sort of fiction. Meanwhile, there was a lot more to enjoy than the two major points which I have outlined above - like the pre-industrial city-state setting, the central device of a gold-like substance called Enamour which has a hypnotic influence on those who come into contact with it, the strategies for dealing with a substance like this which are worked through in the story, some explorations of the disjunction between bureaucratic adherence to set rules and actual justice, and the fact that in the end the centuries-old alien conflict which constitutes the main drama of the story is resolved through discussion and negotiation, rather than fighting. I also thought the characterisation of the Doctor, Amy and Rory was very good, which is quite impressive given that I know from Una's LJ posts that she had to be given notes about what they would be like while writing the novel, as they hadn't actually appeared on TV yet at the time.

One slight 'Buh?' moment came from what appeared to be an extremely slashy scene between the Teller and the king whom he served, Beol, containing lines like "He rested his strong hands upon the other man's shoulders and smiled down at him", immediately before the revelation that they were, in fact, brothers. Come on, Una, spill the beans - was this originally straightforward slash which you were asked to tone down into brotherly love by a conservative editor?

Anyway, I don't know if I'm likely to read more Doctor Who spin-off stories for their own sake, but I'm definitely open to more by this author. ;-)

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strange_complex: (Mariko Mori crystal ball)
It's not every day you get to see a silent Japanese film from the 1920s, so when [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan said that she and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy were going over to the Media Museum to see one, and asked if I'd like to come along, I said "yes, please."

Crossways (aka Crossroads; original title Jujiro) was presented as part of the Media Museum's Film Extra series, which includes a talk before the screening, so we were well set up to understand what we were about to see. The talk (given by Keith Withall) explained that Japanese films in the pre-sound era had often made use of benshi - live performers who provided a mix of voice-over, commentary and music to accompany the film - rather than intertitles and a live musical soundtrack. This particular film, though, did have intertitles from the start, and what's more the copy we were watching was one which had been created for the British Film Society in the 1920s, for which the Japanese intertitles had been replaced with English-language ones, so in that respect the experience did not feel all that different from watching a European or American silent film. In some ways, of course, the silent medium (once you are used to it) acts to minimise cultural distance, because you are less aware of language differences than when watching a film with a foreign-language soundtrack. Similarly, the live piano accompaniment probably had much the same effect, since although the pianist clearly made an effort to weave eastern-sounding intervals and harmonies into his performance, he was still inherently playing from the western tradition.

The plot of the film was, as Keith Withall put it, 'pure melodrama'. It concerned the relationship between a brother and sister, and basically boiled down to him behaving like a jerk and her suffering as a result. He was a hot-headed young trainee Samurai, utterly infatuated with a totally unsuitable Geisha girl, and his actions in the film basically consisted of a series of naïve efforts to win her over, fights with his rival suitors, massively over-dramatic responses when those fights didn't go very well for him, and total disregard for his sister and anything that was happening to her as a result. Meanwhile, she made dresses in an effort to support the pair of them, and spent most of the film trying to mop up the consequences of his idiotic and selfish actions while simultaneously fending off a metaphorically-rapacious procuress and a literally-rapacious man pretending to be a police constable. Or that's how it all looked to our modern, western eyes, anyway. Apparently, in traditional Japanese culture, sisters are expected to have a special bond of care for their brothers, and clearly this story was a tragic idealisation of that role. But we all sat there basically thinking that the sister would have been a great deal better off without the brother, scoffing when he claimed that he would 'follow her to the ends of the earth' towards the end of the film without having ever given the slightest sign of doing anything of the sort, and cheering when he finally died (in over-the-top melodramatic fashion) at the end.

In many ways the plot, costuming and exaggerated acting style reminded me of a Kabuki play which I saw during a family visit to Tokyo in 1997. It wasn't actually the same - the make-up and costuming for this film was realistic rather than fantastical, and the silent medium obviously meant that there couldn't be any dancing or singing (though I don't know what live music might originally have accompanied it). But I could see how it drew on the same dramatic tradition, especially in its emphasis on heightened emotions and long-drawn-out scenes of suffering, conflict or tragedy. Yet, as Keith Withall also explained in his introductory talk, director Teinosuke Kinugasa was also very definitely drawing on emerging European traditions of film-making, for example in his use of expressionistic and avant-garde techniques such as double-exposures, deliberately disorientating footage of spinning lanterns and laughing faces, montage sequences, surprising camera-angles, use of contrasting light and shadow, etc. Meanwhile, despite the ostensibly-historical setting of the story, the depictions of the poor, cramped, leaking urban apartment where the brother and sister lived, and of the swirling lights and raucous crowds of the red-light district, Yoshiwara, where the Geisha girl operated, struck me as likely to be reflecting life in contemporary 1920s Tokyo rather more than the 18th century.

All in all, very visually-striking, and a fascinating insight into the evolution of film as both a Japanese and a global art-form. Perhaps the acting is a little too melodramatic for modern tastes, and the familial / gender roles downright annoying, but then again the past would be pretty boring if everyone there had behaved like and wanted the same things as us. I'm certainly glad I saw it.

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strange_complex

April 2017

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