RSS Feed

Movie Crash Course: Frankenstein

Image result for frankenstein film

This film made me think a lot about adaptations in general.

Both Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein had adaptations released one after the other in 1931, during the classic cinema era; and then both had remakes in the 1990s. First came Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Dracula in 1992, followed by Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Frankenstein in 1994.   Both the 1990s adaptations trumpted their faithfulness to the original novels; and now that I’ve seen all four, and have even read Stoker’s novel, I can confirm this is the case.

But “faithfulness to the source material” doesn’t always make for a good adaptation (remember: Coppola cast Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker).  Each director, each filmmaker, chooses to emphasize certain parts of the story, and cut certain parts they consider irrelevant – and the things you leave in, and the things you take out, can sometimes lead to the final story you tell being very different.

For instance:  In the original novel (and thus, the 1994 adaptation, with Robert DeNiro as the monster), the monster escapes from confinement and then spends several weeks hiding in a peasant family’s barn, learning to speak and teaching himself to read.  His cruelty comes from a place of intelligence and a desire for revenge against Victor Frankenstein; he is calculating, he is manipulative, he is self-aware. He knows he looks terrible and that he is therefore doomed to a horrific life; so much of his revenge against his creator is designed to force Frankenstein to create a wife for him, so he’s not totally alone.

Image result for mary shelley's frankenstein

Our 1931 adaptation, though, drops all of this.  The monster escapes confinement after only a couple days of being kept in darkness, and blindly stumbles to a peasant’s house where a child innocently invites him to play, and he throws her in a pond, as he thinks that is part of the game.  Then he simply wanders off.  The grieving father rallies a mob to pursue his daugher’s killer – whom they all somehow know is Frankenstein’s creature – and they pursue the monster in the mountains, with Frankenstein finally confronting him at the head of the mob.  The monster attacks him, takes him hostage and barricades them both inside a windmill, where he and the mob have a final standoff.  But this monster cannot speak, and seems to not even recognize Frankenstein; he’s just a creature following a survival instinct.

Image result for frankenstein film

This adaptation also gives Frankenstein a much happier ending than the original book – the monster interrupts Frankenstein’s wedding to the lovely Elizabeth, but with the monster defeated and Frankenstein rescued, this film ends with Frankenstein’s father enjoying a champagne toast to the honeymooning couple.  The original novel has a much bleaker end for Frankenstein, and Elizabeth fares even less well.

Actually, Elizabeth’s fate is one of the few places that the 1994 film differs from the novel, which simply has the monster kill her off.  In the 90s film Frankenstein takes the freshly-dead Elizabeth and attempts to re-animate her as he did with his monster. He intends to revive her for himself, but the monster thinks that Elizabeth is to be his.  Elizabeth, however, wants nothing to do with either of them and kills herself almost immediately.

Image result for mary shelley's frankenstein

In 1931, though, Elizabeth only gets a brief scare when the monster breaks into her bridal chamber right before the wedding.  He chases her around the room a bit, then simply leaves again, leaving her shaken, but alive, and able to marry Frankenstein the next day.

Image result for frankenstein film

Now – in general, there are a lot of reasons why filmmakers can omit things from adaptations. Sometimes it really is for dramaturgical reasons; movies are very different from the printed word, and audiences need things to be a little more streamlined as a result; you can go back and re-read things you don’t understand in a book, but you can’t ask the projectionist to “rewind that last two minutes so I can watch that again”.   If you’re working wtih an especially long novel, you may also need to make some cuts so you don’t end up with a seven-hour marathon of a picture; and as beloved as some of those elements may be, if they don’t contribute to the whole of the story they may need to go (all y’all missing the Tom Bombadil sections from the Lord Of The Rings movies, take note).

But taking away the monster’s intelligence, and giving Frankenstein a happy endingprofoundly changes the story being told.  Frankenstein does have a line or two about how his “madness” caused him to do terrible things, but effectively all he has to do is make his creation go away.  He suffers no real comeuppance – not from his fiancee, not from his family, not even from his former teacher, from whom he stole most of his equipment.  He’s injured by the monster, but recovers.  It’s like he simply let a couple petri dishes get contaminated and just had to clean the lab out a little more thoroughly.  He’s “created life”, but that “life” doesn’t really seem to impact him at all.

Shelley’s original story was a warning against science going too far, and a call to scientists to be prepared to face the consequences of their actions.  But this film is all about how creepy the monster is, and how the scientist won in the end so it’s all okay.  That is a very, very different message; and it’s one I’m not entirely certain we can chalk completely up to Hollywood needing a happy ending.


Movie Crash Course: Dracula

Like I said with Nosferatu a while back: it’s a vampire story, you know the drill.

Although in this case there’s a bit more to it.  Nosferatu was originally going to be an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s original work, except that F. W. Murnau didn’t do the due diligence getting the rights, and Stoker’s widow sued.  So Murnau changed the name and some of the details of the story. In this case, producer Carl Laemmie was a bit more careful, and got the rights to the story of Dracula first before proceeding.

Even so, this isn’t a straight adaptation of Stoker’s book; instead, it’s an adaptation of a stage play, which was itself an adaptation of the novel.  This was probably a wise move – the book has a number of extraneous characters that would be getting in the way, while the play pares down the cast list considerably and streamlines the story, to its benefit.  I’ve read the book, and even seen the Francis Ford Coppola adaptation (which is a more faithful by-the-book version), and even with that reinforcement I still don’t remember any of the names of the extra characters; but Van Helsing, Mina, and Dracula, I know solid.  For this reason alone, basing the movie on the play was a wise move.

The film also owes a debt to the stage play in one other respect, however. Originally, despite rave reviews as Dracula during the stage production, Bela Lugosi wasn’t even under consideration for the lead role; Laemmie was considering a number of other actors instead. But while Laemmie was auditioning actors, a touring company of Dracula came through Los Angeles, and Lugosi was conveniently playing the lead here as well.  He all but dragged Laemmie to see the production, and campaigned hard for the role, going so far as to accept a pittance of a salary: only $500 per week for the two months of filming. Even though he came to regret it in later years, Lugosi became so associated with the role that it’s nearly impossible to imagine anyone else playing this cursed count.

Lugosi’s performance wasn’t the biggest revelation for me watching this film, though. Somehow, despite never seeing more than the occasional clip here and there, I found that I’ve managed to build up a version of the film in my head that was wildly different from the actual film. I was expecting a much more violent and frantic Count Dracula, and a wild orchestral score.  But instead – there is very little music, and Lugosi is much more prone to stony stares and languid, hypnotic pacing, and I’m not entirely sure how I got my previous impressions.

Dwight Frye, as Renfield, was another revelation. In the Francis Ford Coppola film, Renfield is played by Tom Waits, so you already know from the start that he’s a little nuts.  But here, Renfield is one of the first characters we meet – a spit-and-polish solicitor who bravely sets off for a meeting with the Count, poo-poohing the warnings from the villagers about Dracula being a vampire as he does.  He still turns into a madman in due course, but the contrast with the earlier sane Renfield is especially striking.

There’s some “special effects” moments that are a little laughable – the film makes frequent use of a bat flying around and menacing characters, and the bat in question is a little too obviously a puppet on a string.  I also raised my eyebrows a bit at an early scene in Dracula’s castle, when Renfield was timidly checking the place out and saw all kinds of creepy animals crawling around, like spiders and rats – and, strangely, he sees a group of armadillos nosing around some stairs.

Nevertheless, this is a film that has worked its way into our collective id, even if – like with me – the impression you have of the film is wrong.  It’s earned its way in there, wobbly bats and Lugosi’s stare and all.

Movie Crash Course: City Lights

Arguably one of Charlie Chaplin’s best-known films, City Lights is the tale of Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” falling in love with a blind woman whom he meets on a streetcorner, as she sells flowers to earn money. He is passing by just as a wealthy businessman is getting out of a car nearby, and she hears the car door slam – and mistakes him for the person who got out of it.

And…it was cute, but just left me….eh.

I am cringing typing that, because it makes me sound like such a cynic.  The film enjoys a reputation as a cinematic masterpiece, with critics and filmmakers alike heaping praise upon it over the years. The final scene has been copied, the audiences have swooned, and Chaplin himself apparently thought this was one of his best works.  And the arc of the love story therein is a sweet one, and there are some fantastically-choreographed moments of physical comedy.

But – dammit, the plot is just so thin, and some of that physical comedy is just so slapped in.  Like the very opening scene – we open in a city park where a crowd has gathered for the dedication of a public statue, and when the M.C. lifts the veil covering the statue we discover that the “Little Tramp” is sleeping there. Which of course shocks the crowd and angers the dignitaries; the Little Tramp is also surprised, and proceeds to climb off the statue and take his leave.  But “climbing off the statue” takes up a full two minutes of slapstick, as he tips his hat to each figure on the statue, catches his pants on things, gets confused about the best path down…I mean, it’s entertaining, but it could also have been cut from the film without the story suffering any ill effect whatsoever.

Shortly after he window-shops as he strolls through town – and we never learn what town – and stops to study a statue in a shop window, not noticing a trap door in the sidewalk directly behind him. And for two minutes he stops and studies the statue, narrowly missing the trap door opening and shutting behind him each time.  It’s brilliant timing on Chaplin’s part, but….it feels kind of schtick-y.

Other bits of schtick at least serve the story better. One ongoing subplot is the Little Tramp’s unexpected friendship with a millionaire, whom he meets by the city docks when he sees the man trying to kill himself. Chaplin convinces him to stay alive, and the man – who is incidentally wildly drunk – agrees, and brings his “new friend” home for a drink – but then declares they should go out on the town. There’s some fantastic fish-out-of-water schtick here, like a carefully-timed sequence involving Chaplin, costar Harry Myers, and a pair of cigars.

Another sequence later in the film sees our Tramp try his hand at prize fighting in an effort to win some quick money; the Tramp’s efforts to stay just out of reach of his opponent were fantastically choreographed.

Then again – there’s a lengthy sequence before the match, as the Little Tramp is in the locker room with the guy who’s due to be his opponent.  The Tramp is trying to be friendly to convince his rival not to rough him up too much, but Chaplin’s body language in this scene comes across as strangely flirtatious – simpering smile, crossed legs, hands demurely folded.  I wasn’t sure whether he was trying to do some kind of three-dimensional chess thing and seduce the guy out of fighting him.

So I dunno. The plot is sweet, the physical comedy made me chuckle in places, but the whole thing just didn’t seem to really hang together as a full story so much as it was a small framework hobbling under the weight of bits of extraneous “funny stuff.”

Sorry, Charlie.

….I have a bonus round today: I’ve seen three of the current Oscar nominees so far, and can offer some guaranteed non-spoiler reactions.

  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri: Frances McDormand is a damn force of nature and she is currently very high on my guess list for “Best Actress Winner”, playing a tough-as-nails, take-no-prisoners grieving mother trying to solve her child’s murder.  All the characters are wonderfully nuanced, and the story is more so about people redeeming themselves than anything else.  My one complaint is that a couple of the characters’ “redemption” moments seem to come along a little too easily.
  • The Shape of Water: I’ve heard this described as an “adult fairy tale”, and that is indeed true – both the “fairy tale” part, and the “adult” part (there is not only female nudity, but also depictions of a woman masturbating; a whole family sat in front of me when I saw this, including a pair of teenagers, and I wondered how their parents were feeling during those moments).  Sally Hawkins is my other strong contender for Best Actress, as the mute janitor who falls in love with a creature that’s basically a sea monster.  But Michael Shannon gives an equally compelling performance as the creepy government operative who wants to dissect the creature.  I would have preferred if Olivia Spencer’s character was a little more distinctive, too.
  • Get Out: I somehow missed this in theaters, and only just saw it last night. …..Holy. Mother. Of. God.  If Jordan Peele does not win for Best Direction, and this film does not clean up, I am going to be very disappointed indeed.

Movie Crash Course: Tabu, A Story of the South Seas

It’s a relief getting back to something with a plot, I’ll tell you that.

Set in the South Pacific – and cast entirely by Pacific Island people – Tabu is the tale of a pair of sweethearts, Matahi and Reri, who at the start of the film are living an idyllic life on Bora Bora – Matahi is one of the best fishermen in the village, Reri is the chief’s daughter, and they have loads of friends with whom they can cavort in the lagoons and play among the waterfalls.

Their bliss is disrupted one day when a schooner arrives bearing Hitu, an emissary from the nearby island of Fanuma.  Hitu is there on a serious mission – Fanuma’s sacred virgin has died, and they need another maiden to take her place. The chief of Fanuma has chosen Reri for the job, and Hitu is there to collect her.  He also declares her tabu  – “Man must not touch her or cast upon her the eye of desire.”

Matahi and Reri are understandably devastated at the news. So that night – after the big feast Reri’s family throws for Hitu, and before the schooner sets back out – Matahi sneaks out to the schooner and gets Reri to escape with him, on board his canoe.

Eventually they make their way to one of the more Westernized French Polynesian islands, where Matahi gets work as a pearl diver.  He’s great at the work, but a little fuzzy on the concept of money – one night after a great catch, Matahi is in a celebratory mood, and the Chinese merchants who run the company store take advantage of him by hauling out tons of food and tricking Matahi into signing I.O.U.’s for it all.

The past looms over them both, however. Soon after they arrive, the local police chief receives a telegram about the fugitives, but Matahi bribes him with a pearl he’s saved from one of his dives. Still, they’re spooked enough that Matahi looks into the possibility of buying passage on the next ship to Tahiti so the pair can go on the run again.  But when he ponies up the fare, the merchants instead choose to collect on their I.O.U.s, leaving Matahi broke and with no ticket.  Matahi has only one option – to try pearl diving in a part of the lagoon that’s supposed to be unusually rich, but is guarded by a Great White Shark.  Not wanting to worry Reri, he doesn’t tell her of the plan.

Meanwhile Reri gets a surprise visit from Hitu, who has somehow tracked them down. He warns her that she has three days to turn herself in to him and come along willingly, or else he will kill Matahi and take her by force.  And – you guessed it – she doesn’t tell Matahi because she doesn’t want to worry him….

It’s a pretty simple and straightforward story, and almost feels old-fashioned. Technically, it was a bit old-fashioned for its time – it’s still largely a silent film in an age where many people were turning to sound.

The production backstory is a hell of a thing too.  This was actually F. W. Murnau’s last picture – the same Murnau who did Nosferatu, The Last Laugh and Sunrise, incidentally. Murnau had recently befriended Robert J. Flaherty – the same Robert J. Flaherty behind Nanook of the North – and they hatched the plan to do a similar docu-drama in the South Pacific. They came up with a script treatment – which was initially very different from the story that now stands – and head to Tahiti and started location hunting.

But the pair ran into trouble almost immediately; Flaherty’s camera kept breaking down and ripping the film, and Murnau learned that some of the funding fell through. To save money, Murnau gave a bunch of Tahitians a crash course in camera operation and made them the crew.   This tied Flaherty up in the lab developing the film each day – he wanted some professional hand involved in that step, at least – so he didn’t know until it was too late that Murnau was changing the script.  When they were done shooting, Flaherty sold his share of the film to Murnau for $25,000 just so he could wash his hands of the whole thing as soon as possible.  This left Murnau to edit everything; he went nearly broke paying off all the creditors.  Then a week before the film’s release, Murnau was killed in a car crash.

Despite the drama, the film looks gorgeous; the film’s cinematographer Floyd Crosby won an Oscar that year, and it seems well deserved.  Not that it’s hard to take good-looking footage of the South Pacific. But Crosby used a number of other eye-catching details; one that especially caught my eye was a sequence from a party at the pearl colony, where all you see is everyone’s feet as they dance.  The camera held down there long enough for me to reflect on the variety of feet – some dark, some fair, some with shoes and some without, all these pairs of mismatched feet coupled up in a foxtrot. It really drove home what a chaotic Babel of a place Matahi and Reri had found themselves in.

Movie Crash Course: Limite

….I think this is comeuppance for everything I’ve ever said about Soviet films being hard to understand.

Limite was the sole work by the Brazilian Mário Peixoto, a member of one of Brazil’s high society families.  Peixoto apparently was inspired to produce Limite as a very young man visiting Europe on a college summer break; he saw a perfume ad bearing a image of two handcuffed man’s hands, with a woman’s head poking up between the man’s arms and facing the camera. That image nagged at him to the point that he got a movie camera, enlisted friends and made a whole movie around it, and even recreated it as his first and last shot.

The film had an extremely limited release in Brazil, and didn’t do that well. Peixoto gave up filmmaking almost immediately after and became a poet instead.  But he kept talking about Limite, and copies of Limite kept circulating among collectors and filmmakers – Orson Welles apparently saw a copy in 1942 – and it developed an underground cult following. Its cult status got a further boost in the 1950s when historians discovered the original print had decayed in storage, to the point it was no longer screenable. That gave Limite a reputation as a “lost classic”, with its very scarcity spurring cineastes to seek out a copy and see it somehow. In time, film preservationists have been able to create a screenable copy, by painstakingly photographing the original print frame by frame and stringing it together. There was a screening of this new restoration of Limite at a theater 20 minutes’ walk from my apartment, about eight years ago.

But you all must be wondering by now: why am I talking so much about the production history and the film’s reception? What of my opinion of Limite?  What did I think of it?….


 *shuffle feet*

 *nervous cough*

 ….I spent two hours feeling like a stupid doof because I had no idea what the hell was going on.

In my defense: Limite is very experimental. There is no real plot as such; the only characters are a pair of women and a man who are somehow all trapped on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, and over the course of the film a series of flashbacks show us bits of information about each of their lives, kind of like what they did with the castaways on the show Lost. But these flashbacks are more impressionistic than informative: we see things like one woman sewing in her house, with the camera showing us a series of still close-up shots of her scissors, her tape measure, the buttons in her button box. Or the man walking on a beach.  Or the other woman walking down a city street with a basket of groceries.   Or one of the women reading a newspaper.  Or an unknown man playing piano as the movie theater accompanist for a Charlie Chaplin film.  At no point does the film inform us how these people ended up on the same lifeboat, or what tragedy befell them to require it.

There’s very little action in the flashbacks, and practically none in the lifeboat; the characters seem to have mostly given up hope of rescue, and mostly just lean on the gunwales of the boat gazing at the horizon.  I got excited when one of the women stood up and started flailing one of the oars in the water, but the other two characters just stared at her dumbly, and they weren’t going anywhere, and she finally gave up and sat down.

Sometimes we don’t even see that much.  Much of the last five minutes is footage of churning waves and roaring surf.  Periodically throughout the flashbacks we also get lingering shots of surf or wheat fields or landscapes or slowly-shutting doors.  It wasn’t until my traditional post-screening Google surf that I finally learned what was supposed to be happening.

I will grant that some of the shots are beautifully set up and make pretty pictures. The sequence with the sewing woman was strangely fascinating in and of itself, and the segment with the pianist in a movie theater was pretty eye-catching; the camera kept cutting back and forth between the Chaplin film on the screen, the pianist’s hands, and the audiences’ laughing mouths, in a series of quick cuts.  But then a couple cuts later we were back in the life boat staring at the back of one of the women’s heads or something and I was lost again.

It is a personal quirk of mine, though, that I simply just need more of a plot to hang my hat on.  I can handle some opacity – I’ve actually enjoyed some of director Terrence Malick’s work for its meandering poetry – but there has got to be some kind of a plot to follow, or at least things have to happen. Here, the film swings between impressionistic snapshots of the castaways’ lives and shots of them sitting still in a boat, and ultimately I ended up feeling just as adrift.

Movie Crash Course Contemporary Studies: 2018 Oscar Nominees

So each year, by the time the Oscars are awarded, I try to make sure I’ve seen all the Best Picture Nominees.  Last year I had to scramble to get a bunch of films in because they were all still in theaters; it looks like this year there will be some that are on Netflix (I hope, anyway):

“Call Me by Your Name”
“Darkest Hour”
“Get Out”
“Lady Bird”
“Phantom Thread”
“The Post”
“The Shape of Water”
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

…And also, just like last year, there’s a film that I really didn’t want to see and may save to last.  Not gonna say which one.

Incidental To The Crash Course

Check out the Google Doodle for today: it’s Sergei Eisenstein’s birthday, who you’ll recall was the director for Strike, Battleship Potemkin and October.

Sergei, I didn’t quite get your plots, but you did stuff that was pretty to look at, I’ll give you that.

Edited to add:  Well, look at this! A whole video explaining Sergei Eisenstein’s theories about film montage.  I understand a lot more now.