Thursday, November 19, 2009

Why Le Fanu was a genius.part two

Stoker pretends his heroes have altered nothing in their journals.
“there is throughout no statement of past things wherein memory may err, for all the records chosen are exactly contemporary, given the standpoints and within the range of knowledge of those who made them.”

There is to be no retrospective rearrangement. This is one of the ways he ‘guarantees’ the “authenticity” of the story. Laura, however, is writing eight years after the facts she relates. The game allows her to tell us what she knew at the time as she unfolds the story, but it also allows her to have the benefits of hindsight.

And that’s exactly what she avoids. ‘Carmilla’ is in many ways much more opaque than ‘Dracula’. Exactly what her relationship to Carmilla was remains vague. It’s vague because Laura keeps it vague, but why she does so is what leaves the text open. The vagueness gives the story its slightly dream like or out of focus quality.
After eight years, what are her final words on the subject?

The following Spring my father took me on a tour through Italy. We remained away for more than a year. It was long before the terror of recent events subsided; and to this hour the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations-sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church; and often from a reverie I have started, fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing-room door.

“The light step of Carmilla” is suggestive; not only of familiarity, but of someone who listened eagerly and cared enough to distinguish footsteps so she could identify the ones she wanted to hear. ‘Ambiguous alterations’ are an apt description of her portrayal of Carmilla’s behaviour and her reactions to it. Throughout the story she alternates between fascination and repulsion. And then there’s “reverie” and ‘fancy’. A reverie is a waking dream but without negative overtones. What does she dream that leads to the sound of those familiar footsteps. And is she frightened or hopeful? It’s impossible to tell.

Something very strange happens towards the end of the story. For most readers it’s become obvious that Carmilla is a vampire, and she is the same young woman who destroyed the general’s ward. The general tells Laura what is obvious to everyone else:

"She called herself Carmilla?" asked the General, still agitated.
"Carmilla, yes," I answered.
"Aye," he said; "that is Millarca. That is the same person who long ago was called Mircalla, Countess Karnstein.

However, that night Laura can still record:
and I was glad, being unspeakably fatigued when we reached home. But my satisfaction was changed to dismay, on discovering that there were no tidings of Carmilla.

The story wraps itself up in a sudden orgy of explanations which might signal that Le Fanu had lost control of his material. But there’s enough evidence to suggest that Le Fanu knew he could play his narrator off against what she was narrating. When the Countess Karnstein’s tomb is found and opened and the body destroyed, Laura’s language becomes uncharacteristically factual. What she doesn’t say is louder than what she does.

The next day the formal proceedings took place in the Chapel of Karnstein. The grave of the Countess Mircalla was opened; and the General and my father recognised each his perfidious and beautiful guest, in the face now disclosed to view.

What follows is a series of declarative sentences with subjects like, the face, the body, her eyes, the flesh, the head. But who is this happening to? “The vampire”. A “guest” perfidious and beautiful. Nowhere in the description is Carmilla’s name mentioned. Either the thought of her friend being hacked , burnt and scattered is too much, or she is simply refusing to accept that the body in the box was Carmilla’s. It’s no wonder she’s still waiting for her step at the door.

In The Conclusion that follows Laura reverts to being vague.

I cannot think of it without agitation. Nothing but your earnest desire so repeatedly expressed, could have induced me to sit down to a task that has unstrung my nerves for months to come, and reinduced a shadow of the unspeakable horror which years after my deliverance continued to make my days and nights dreadful, and solitude insupportably terrific.

That “It” floats. What is the unspeakable horror? What happened when Carmilla stayed with her, or what was done to the Vampire’s body? ‘My Deliverance’ suggests she is saved, but from what? From Carmilla the vampire, or Carmilla the devoted friend? From being vampirised or from being in love with a vampire?
Before the reader can stop to ask, she breathlessly rushes on piling up bits of vampire lore and quaint antiquarian details. Hidden in the pile:
The vampire is prone to be fascinated with an engrossing vehemence, resembling the passion of love, by particular persons. In pursuit of these it will exercise inexhaustible patience and stratagem, for access to a particular object may be obstructed in a hundred ways. It will never desist until it has satiated its passion, and drained the very life of its coveted victim. But it will, in these cases, husband and protract its murderous enjoyment with the refinement of an epicure, and heighten it by the gradual approaches of an artful courtship. In these cases it seems to yearn for something like sympathy and consent. In ordinary ones it goes direct to its object, overpowers with violence, and strangles and exhausts often at a single feast.

Is that the unspeakable horror? That what she took as genuine was something “resembling love”, “an artful courtship”; that the predator wanted sympathy and consent. Is Laura appalled at how close she was to being consumed or appalled that she was seduced by something that saw her as a meal? OR did she offer sympathy, consent, love even and regrets that Carmilla was taken from her?

She babbles on and “tidies up”, explaining the already obvious, but the narrative suspends the real questions and leaves them unanswered.
Would the sound of Carmilla’s “light footsteps” at her door terrify her or make her happy?

The story lives in an artful refusal to close.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Why Le Fanu was a genius.part one

In writing Dracula as a series of journal entries Stoker set himself two problems.
The first is that in a journal which has not been retrospectively tampered with, you can’t have prolepsis. Stoker handles this impressively and I think there’s only one place in the book where he slips up.

His other challenge is that he has focalised his story though the limited perspectives of the participants. Along with the problems of creating separate voices with differing attitudes and characters, he still has to find a way to give the reader essential information so the story can move forwards. When Harker records that Mina is growing languid and pale, and Mina records bad dreams and bad sleep, the reader knows Drac’s got to her, but since this is ‘revealed’ in a dramatic sequence later, the heroes seem slow in noticing the obvious significance of what they are recording. Stoker's clumsiness makes his heroes seem dim witted.

Le Fanu, on the other hand, exploits the problems a first person narrator creates for the writer, to create a character, Laura, not only in what she does in her story, but in the way she tells it.

We play the game: Laura, the narrator of Carmilla, is a real person, telling us about events that happened to her eight years ago when she was nineteen.

We know nothing about Laura except what she tells us. The paratext sets up expectations which the story seems to frustrate. All we are told about Laura is that she was: “a person so clever and careful ….. Much to my regret, however, I found that she had died in the interval.” Her narrative of events is described as being told with such conscientious particularity.

The Laura of the story does not seem clever. She goes out of her way to show she isn’t. I’d argue she is ‘careful’ in what she reveals. If the story exhibits “conscientious particularity” it does so in what the narrator hides and fudges. 8 years have passed since the story ends. We are explicitly told this is being narrated retrospectively at someone else’s request. But from the start of the story Laura exonerates herself and muddles the issues. She does it surreptitiously but consistently. She has two strategies that can be described as characteristics and once established are then exploited by Le Fanu at the very end of the story.

The first, used to exonerate herself and excuse her lack of comprehension, is her insistence on how isolated she and her father were. The isolation of the schloss is partly the trappings of the gothic story and serves its own function in the narrative but the geographical isolation bleeds into racial isolation, (her father is English) which exonerates her from not knowing the local stories about vampires, which would have rung the alarm bells much earlier. (Not that Laura has much to do with alarm bells). The geographical distance from “society” allows her to repeatedly tell her addressee that she has to accept Laura’s naivety as the result of her upbringing in such an isolated spot. Carmilla’s behaviour, beliefs, etc would be judged differently by a more worldly wise person. Though how such a person might have judged her is never clarified.

Her second habit is that when reporting what happens she relies heavily on phrases like “It appeared” or “apparently” or ‘what looked like” where straight description would be justified. For Laura, things aren’t simply what they are; they are always potentially something else. However, she never seems to want to cut through “appears to be” and reach “was”. Her description of Carmilla’s behaviour is therefore nebulous. Laura insists on its ambiguous nature. And given the fact that she has had eight years to think about it, she’s either very confused, or out to obfuscate.
Part two later.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Free advice for anyone wanting to film Bram Stoker's Dracula

(2002: “starring” Patrick Bergin. Here after “Dracula the Dumb version”)
This film is awful. Moved to Budapest and translated into the twentieth century, it dribbles along, trying to be some kind of fable about moral choices and moral strength and blah blah blah. The dialogue is awful, the special effects are comic and the acting stilted. The central characters are unlikeable and the ending is just naff. Whoever wrote it must have known it didn’t work. They must have looked at it and thought, gawd, what a mess.
You know something is wrong when one of the selling points for the film, the triumphant climax of the blurb on the box, is that in this version Dracula is played by an Irish actor, and according to the blurb this is significant because Stoker was Irish. (The fact that Stoker lived most of his life in London, and Bergin is done up to look like Billy Connolly doesn’t help their case.)
Actually the fact that the music was co-written by one Thomas Wanker doesn’t help either.
So, for all those people out there who are thinking of making yet another film of Stoker’s Dracula, here’s what you need to know before you start. If you want to film the book, there are some problems. They should be obvious, however, here, in protest, on behalf of all those people who keep thinking that someday someone (other than Herzog) will do the story justice, and who keep forking out good money for dross, is a list. It’s yours for free.
If you can’t solve them yourself watch Herzog’s version. Following Murnau, he sidestepped them.
Thesis statement:
Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ is “unfilmable”. There are problems of narrative logic, there are nineteenth century assumptions driving the plot, and while bits of the story are memorable and dramatic, lonnnnnnnnng stretches of it aren’t. Most people who try to read the book don’t finish it. It has to be adapted, and adapting it requires solutions to these problems:

1) If Dracula is a threat to the world as we know it, why is he beaten so easily by such a bunch of hearty dim wits? Drac in his castle at the beginning of the book is frightening. Drac in London is just out of place. What “powers” does the dead Lucy have? She nibbles children and is easily staked. Drac only preys on women and runs away at the first resistance from the boys own heroes. So first choice. Is Dracula a genuine threat to the world? Or just a deluded anachronism. You could write him either way. You could even see his anachronism as a reason why he’s a threat. But you need to decide.

2) Exactly what is evil about Stoker’s Drac apart from his dietary habits and the fact he’s “undead’? Stoker’s version of evil is based on a comfortable binary resting on a Christian framework. Since he wrote his book the binary has been dissolved. We’ve had the ugliness of the twentieth century: the first world war, the holocaust, the atomic bomb “ethnic cleansing”. Compared to this, sucking someone’s blood doesn’t seem that bad. If your Drac is evil then he has to be based on a modern understandings of “bad”. Read American Psycho first. Then imagine an undead Bateman with a political agenda.

3) There’s a lot of nineteenth century stuff in the book you should ignore unless you’re going to set it in the nineteenth century; the misogyny that runs through it, the way Stoker uses his female characters to denigrate women etc etc. but in ignoring it you need to alter the story. Mina is the most intelligent person in the book, but she stays at home while her dim witted husband and his band of brothers race around doing the heroic stuff and leaving her in danger. In a modern film this just makes the band of brothers look even more dim witted. If you haven’t woken up to the fact that there your average intelligent, resourceful modern women would be far more useful than Stoker’s male heroes, then you might want to leave your crypt and walk around in the daylight a bit.

4) It’s really about time the vampire brides were liberated and got to do something other than simper and hiss. Equating female beauty with stupidity and female sexuality with evil is a ……limiting….. view point and the fact that Drac seems to want to spend eternity with the lead characters in a blonde joke is another strike against him. I vote they eat Van Helsing, who should die screaming: Stop it I like it!

5) Van Helsing is another problem, but you can work that one out yourself. Also, in a twenty first century film, there is something deeply incongruous if not actually risible about characters who are obviously not in any way religious defending themselves with religious symbols. If you don't believe in a Christian soul, being a vampire wouldn’t be that bad either.

6) What you cannot ignore is that at the heart of the novel is a perverted eroticism. Bram stoker was pushing his own buttons. What ever that first note book recorded dream of the vampire brides meant to him, it drove the best part of the novel: a darker, disturbed and disturbing version of sexuality. You can ignore it. Or you can run with it. But you must choose and stick with your choice. If you ignore it you may as well not make your film. If you run with it, then for god’s sake, having actresses in night dresses pulling faces while some aging actor gums their throat is funny, not disturbing. In Dracula the Dumb Film I just watched Harker says, ”he seduced me”. Mina replies “in what way?” A sexual seduction it wasn’t; but it should have been.

7) This is a supernatural story. Please carefully consider any special effects. Tod Browning’s film demonstrated that a sparing use could be…effective. The first few minutes of Suspiria which are so unsettling don't use any. For an audience bought up on Star Wars and beyond, cheap special effects, or ones that don’t work, are embarrassing. Relying on them instead of good acting and a good script makes for a silly film.

8) You need good actors. Not famous names (see the Keanu Reeves as Harker disaster for proof) but competent actors who can play characters the audience can care about and believe in.

9) Casting Drac is your main problem. No matter how you envisage him (see point one) the actor has to carry the film. Even if you follow the novell and leave him off stage Drac has to be WRONG: terrifying, mysterious, powerful, sexy, attractive, repulsive, and disturbing. Above all he has to be convincing in all these roles. Playing Hamlet is probably easier, I’d go for one actor to play old Drac in his castle…and then a cast of several Dracs: Lucy’s lover is not Mina’s seducer, nor Jonathon’s, nor Van Helsing’s nemesis.

10) You have to scare and disturb us. (And we have seen so much faked blood and dismemberment that it really doesn't shock anymore). That means you need a good script. Characters in horror films, especially the characters we’re supposed to relate to, should not be more stupid than real people would be in that situation. Would you really go exploring the spooky castle after dark? On your own? Without a torch? When someone tells you “it’s not safe, stay in your room” would you go for a wander to find out why it’s not safe? “Threats to the world as we know it” should not make statements that would cause embarrassed giggles at a dinner party and twentieth century heroes should not be expected to say “Vampires. They are just a myth” in a vampire film. On the other hand, being ignorant of vampire lore in a film set in the twentieth century is also unbelievable.

11) It would be both terrifying and disturbing if the heroes did what seemed absolutely logical, having intelligently considered their course of action, so the audience thinks, I wouldn’t have thought of that but what a good idea, and THEN bad things happened to them.

12) For the length of your film the audience has to believe that this is the real world. What makes Harker’s Journal so effective is that he’s a drab, unimaginative clerk, and his flat factual account of what happens at Drac’s castle is, while you’re reading it, credible. That’s what makes it scary. One of Stoker’s successful choices was to situate the rest of the story in the world his readers knew.

Unless you can solve these problems please leave the book alone. Should you be thinking of filming it, I volunteer to read your script, for free, and will comment on it to prevent yet another waste of time from making it to the screen and into my DVD collection.