Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Shadow of the Vampire


Today being the Fourth of July, Norman has a day off from shooting his new film, Waterworld II: The Gills Have Eyes . Therefore, I headed down to the San Diego location in order to spend a little quality time with him. We had a lovely little picnic lunch of barbeque and watermelon, marred only by constant interruptions from some weird little bald man with bad teeth. This individual, who kept insisting he had spousal rights to Angelina Jolie, Norman's co-star and a vial of her blood, simply would not leave us alone so I rapped him smartly over the head with my Fendi bag and had Sea World security take him off to county detox. The things we celebrities must put up with.

We plan to watch the fireworks later this evening. I remain a little leery of such things following my experiences with Mrs. Tuttle's Tapping Tots in Salina, so I've insisted we do so from the safety of Norman's hotel room. I want a good inch of safety glass between me and anything explosive as my scalp is just starting to recover, thanks to constant applications of Lesterene avocado/walnut scalp conditioner, Rogaine gel and Miracle-Gro. Norman is trying to persuade me to watch al fresco from the park instead but my mind is made up.

My new laptop (a necessity for busy business gals on the go like me) has the ability to play DVDs so I was able to take in a film while Norman napped on the lawn, only vaguely moving when a softball team borrowed him for third base. As it was a nice sunny day and I was in a sunny mood, I decided to select a film in which sunlight plays an important supporting role, Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire - an intriguing 'What If?' story about F.W. Murnau and the making of Nosferatu in 1921.

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau was one of the great filmmakers of the early century. First in Germany, and later in the U.S., he helped develop modern film language with his use of expressionistic imagery. Some of his films, such as Sunrise, Faust, and Nosferatu , are considered amongst the finest ever made. In 1921, he decided to make a film version of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula . Stoker was dead and rights to the novel had passed to his widow; she refused permission for the film adaptation. Murnau, not wanting to let something as mundane as copyright alter his plans, simply reset the story in Germany and changed the name of the central figure from Count Dracula to Count Orlock. Orlock was played by an actor named Max Schreck, about whom little is known. It's likely that the name is pseudonymous (Max = great and Schreck = terror in German) and that the actor was deliberately shielded by Murnau to help maintain the illusion of reality. The resulting film, Nosferatu was a resounding success and created much of the mythology of vampire cinema. Stoker's wife was not pleased (she thought Dracula should be a creature of the stage, not the vulgar film world) and sued Murnau and his producers, winning a judgment in 1924. Under the court ruling, all negatives and prints were destroyed and showing of the film was forbidden. Fortunately for posterity, a couple of negatives and prints were outside of Germany at the time of the destruction and survived.

Director Merhige and writer Steven Katz take the essential outlines of the making of Nosferatu (the unknown Schreck, the technical problems of early film work on location, the notorious perfectionism of Murnau) and spin an interesting what if. What if the mysterious Schreck were not a human actor, but an actual vampire, hired by Murnau, to help provide artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative? Murnau (John Malkovich) and his producer (Udo Kier) load up their film crew from Berlin for location shooting in Slovakia where the mysterious Schreck (Willem Dafoe) is supposed to be so much a Stanislavski method actor that he will shoot only at night and never appear to the crew out of make-up or character. Soon the cameraman falls prey to the vampire's kiss, Murnau needs to make ungodly promises to Schreck to get him to cooperate with the shots he wants, and the stage is set for a final showdown between Schreck, Murnau, his new cameraman (Cary Elwes) and Greta, the leading lady (Catherine McCormack).

The plot is not what is of interest here; what concerns the filmmakers is the contrast between the physical vampirism of Schreck and the mental vampirism of Murnau. Murnau is willing to suck the life out of his crew and his performers to get the images he wants - but these images are not real life, just a simulacrum of life. Much is made symbolically between the contrast of light and dark - whether this is sun and night, the black and white of filming, or the artificial light of the movies versus the real light of nature. These meditations are interesting but Merhige, although an intelligent and talented individual, does not yet have the skills to pull them all off. Certain scenes seem truncated and there are problems with some basic story exposition. The final explosion of violence, in which all the characters and themes come together, also feels tacked on and out of tune with the rest of the film. Merhige, however, pulls off the recreations of the Nosferatu sets and footage with great style. New black and white scenes blend seamlessly with Murnau's original footage and fade in and out of modern color with dexterity.

Willem Dafoe got an Oscar nod for his Schreck. Despite the fact that his make-up makes him look a bit like a green tinted Leonardo DiCaprio after a three-day bender, Dafoe creates an indelible character. Nonhuman and human. Vulnerable and inviolate. Pathetic and powerful with his own body language and take on the world. Malkovich is also terrific as Murnau. This is much more a Murnau of the mind than the historical man - a symbol for the artist who will go to any length to achieve art, no matter the cost. He's especially effective in his confrontations with Schreck. The supporting cast are all fine, especially McCormack as a Diva with a drug problem and Eddie Izzard as the not quite talented juvenile lead of the film within the film.

Much of the success of the film comes from the design, beginning with a handsome title sequence (artist John Goodinson) that combines Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Cubism, Bauhaus and other early 20th century trends into a theater of the mind. The compositions of other scenes are also well thought out in terms of color and style, such as a blood red cabaret which creates the entire world of between the wars Berlin in just a few minutes or a magical moment when Schreck discovers the sky projected from a film image. The failures come because, in many ways, the allegory and symbolism the film makers have tried to pack into the film overload it, leaving the final third, in particular, gasping for air.

The DVD is a decent transfer although the night scenes are a little dark. There are press junket interviews with the stars, director, and producer Nicolas Cage. There is also an exceedingly intelligent director's commentary from Merhige, which clarifies much of his intent. This man will make other, better films, if given half a chance. It's quite refreshing to listen to his passionate, literate comments. So many directors commentaries sound like frat boys explaining the plot after a couple beers too many.

Ozzy Osbourne imitation. Lesbian tango. Drugged kitty. Implied weasel munching. Flying coffin. Gratuitous fall from cliff. Scared extras. Primitive arc lights. Morphine syringes. Gratuitous symbolic steam locomotive. Melted film negative.

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