Saturday, January 20, 2024

"A waking dream": Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1790. Image source: Freies Deutsches Hochstift / Frankfurter Goethe-Museum

Vampyr (1932), starring Julian West (Allan Gray), Rena Mandel (Gisèle), Sybille Schmitz (Léone), Maurice Schutz (the Lord), Jan Hieronimko (the Doctor), and Henriette Gérard (Marguerite Chopin); score by Wolfgang Zeller; cinematography by Rudolph Maté; screenplay by Christen Jul and Carl Theodor Dreyer; directed by Dreyer. Presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival at the Castro Theater with live orchestral accompaniment of Zeller's score arranged by Timothy Brock, performed by the SF Conservatory of Music Orchestra conducted by Brock, 12 January 2024.

With Vampyr I wanted to create a waking dream on the screen and show that horror is not to be found in the things around us but in our own subconscious. —Carl Theodor Dreyer

A traveler, Allan Gray, arrives at a remote chateau-turned-hotel in what seems to be a virtually abandoned village. He is surrounded by an atmosphere of uncertainty and dread. When he is finally able to rouse someone and is shown to a room, he looks out the window and sees a figure carrying a giant scythe ringing a bell on a jetty to summon the ferryman, like Death calling Charon.

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A print hanging in Gray's room shows a deathbed scene, with a skeleton holding a dagger poised over the stricken victim. And Death does indeed loom over the inhabitants of the chateau. A father and his two daughters, Gisèle and Léone, live there, but Léone is wasting away. The father has dark premonitions, and leaves a package with Gray to be opened on the event of his death—which indeed comes to pass almost immediately afterwards.

The package contains a volume on the lore of vampires and devil worship, and Gray is soon convinced that Léone has become a vampire's prey. A strange doctor who visits only at night may be the vampire's accomplice, along with a wounded soldier whose shadow seems to wander about without him. (Throughout the film shadows are seen without the presence of any substantial body to cast them.)

Events unfold with the logic of a nightmare, a feeling enhanced by the hazy soft-focus cinematography (some scenes were shot through a gauze scrim). In one of the film's most horrifying sequences, during a dream (or out-of-body experience) Gray looks into a coffin and sees himself lying dead.

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The point of view then switches to inside the coffin, as it is sealed by the soldier and carried to the burying ground. A glass pane in the coffin lid allows Gray (and us) the horror of witnessing his (our) own funeral.

In creating the screenplay Dreyer and his co-writer Christen Jul drew on elements from previous vampire incarnations. The vampire choosing as a victim a young woman living with her father in an isolated castle is taken from Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla (1872). The idea that the vampire commands mortal servants who are compelled to do its bidding comes from Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). And the image of the vampire as an aged and horror-inducing figure—rather than a seductive and alluring one as in Carmilla, Dracula or John Polidori's The Vampyre (1818)—derives from F. W. Murnau's film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922).

In composing shots Dreyer also drew on visual imagery. When Gray first sees the vampire feeding on its victim, the dark figure crouching over the young woman in a nightgown recalls Henry Fuseli's The Nightmare (seen at the top of this post):

The vampire feeds on Léone.

The musical soundtrack for the film was composed by Wolfgang Zeller, who had previously scored Lotte Reininger's animated film The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) and Louise Brooks' first sound film Prix de Beauté (1930). It is not a stereotypical horror-film soundtrack; in the versions of Vampyr that I've seen previously it is often an almost subliminal presence, an aural correlative to cinematographer Rudolph Maté's ghostly, indistinct images.

It was wonderful to hear the score performed live by the young musicians of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Orchestra at the SF Silent Film Festival screening of Vampyr at the 1400-seat Castro Theater. And that experience made me hear it differently. Dreyer's film includes intertitles and has minimal dialogue, and so the music is almost a continual presence. Conductor Timothy Brock reorchestrated some sections and increased the number of strings, giving the music greater volume and richness, and also making it a more prominent element than on the recorded soundtrack.

The SF Silent Film Festival showed the German version of the film that was restored in 1999 by Martin Koerber, curator at the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin, and Nicola Mazzanti, head of L'imagine ritrovato laboratory in Bologna. Dreyer shot three takes of all the dialogue scenes, with the actors speaking German, French, or English in turn (the sound was post-synchronized). However, the original camera and sound negatives have been lost, and the German version is missing footage. Censors demanded cuts, and Dreyer also probably re-edited the film after its disastrous Berlin première.

Despite these issues, the film looked great, and seeing it on the Castro's vast screen, as it was meant to be seen, was a true privilege. Many thanks to the good friends who gave us tickets to the sold-out showing of this horror classic with live accompaniment, and to the SF Silent Film Festival for giving us one last great movie experience in the Castro Theater before it closes next month to reopen as a music venue in 2025.

"The sleep of reason produces monsters," Plate 43 of Los Caprichos by Francisco Goya, 1799. Image source: History of Medicine Division, US National Library of Medicine.

Monday, January 15, 2024

In memoriam: Joan Acocella

Image source: New York Review of Books

Joan Acocella, a longtime writer for The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, died on Sunday 7 January at her home in New York City. She published several books; if you'd like a taste of her essays and reviews, I recommend Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints (Pantheon/Vintage, 2007), which covers her literary, historical and (especially) dance interests.

Image source: Biblio

It is as a dance critic that I think Acocella will be longest remembered. Dance is concrete, since it is made up of the movements of individual bodies, but is also abstract: what does a particular movement, especially in non-narrative modern dance, actually mean? Acocella had the rare ability to write descriptively and critically about specific dance works and their creators in a way understandable to those of us who haven't mastered technical ballet vocabulary. She had taken ballet lessons for many years, and later studied literature at university. As she said in a 2023 interview in the New York Review of Books,

. . .ballet, because it is fundamentally abstract, taught me to stay close to style and tone, and not always to be so intent on the story. Conversely, literature taught me to be concerned about the moral life, in dance, too—how people behave toward one another, and what they take from and give to one another.

Two examples will have to suffice, representing many. In her last review for the NYRB, of a recent two-volume biography by Jennifer Homans of George Balanchine, Acocella wrote of Balanchine that, "like Mozart, he often gladdens your heart in order, then, to break it, whereupon, in the next movement, he tells us that we have to go on living anyway." This is a brilliant encapsulation both of Mozart's work, and Balanchine's. And in her final interview with the NYRB, published in conjunction with the review, she was asked about special relationships between dancers and choreographers, such as that of Suzanne Farrell and Balanchine. She responded in part, "Mikhail Baryshnikov and Twyla Tharp. She made pieces that were about him as a dancer. The more she did that, the more he worked on those gifts, and she then carried that style—a combination of a kind of skepticism and thoughtfulness, extreme virtuosity combined with a certain declining modesty—over to other dancers, and indeed to her ensemble. You could say they were destined to find each other, and each brought a great deal that was fresh to the other."

The Acocella work that had the biggest impact on me was her critical biography of the choreographer and dancer Mark Morris, published by Farrar Straus & Giroux in 1993.

Image source: Biblio

At the time Morris was not an obvious choice for book-length treatment: he was only 37, and there were many other more established choreographers in the New York dance world who had not yet had full-length studies written about them. (To take a few names at random: Lucinda Childs, Laura Dean, Eliot Feld, Robert Joffrey, Lar Lubovitch, and Twyla Tharp.) Also, the Mark Morris Dance Group had recently had a setback: its contract as the resident company at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels was not renewed in 1991 after only three years. Morris's predecessor at La Monnaie, Maurice Béjart, choreographed there for nearly three decades; Morris and his dancers had been regularly and lustily booed.

We'd first encountered Morris as a dancer and choreographer for the White Oak Dance Project, where one of his collaborators was Mikhail Baryshnikov. My boss generously gave me his tickets to a November 1991 White Oak performance in Berkeley when it turned out that he was not able to go (afterwards we were so grateful we paid him in full). We were mainly eager to see Baryshnikov, who was indeed an utterly compelling performer. But Morris's work as a choreographer and as a graceful and charismatic dancer were the evening's greatest surprises, and my partner and I decided that any time Morris returned to the Bay Area we would buy tickets.

As it turned out, Morris came back the following season with the MMDG. We were astonished by the range of tone, movement, and music represented in his dances, from the urgent questioning of Gloria (set to Vivaldi) to the funny, lewd, and touching Going Away Party (set to the music of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys). Morris immediately became our favorite living choreographer.

Mark Morris Dance Group in Gloria. Photo credit: Stephanie Berger. Image source: Mark Morris Dance Company

Acocella's book on Morris came out the next year. It told the story of Morris's unconventional upbringing in Seattle, his early commitment to dancing and training with Verla Flowers, his tours as a teenager with the Koleda Folk Dance ensemble, his move to New York in 1975 at the age of 19, and the formation of his company in 1980 when he was 24. All of this was fascinating, but most remarkable was the book's description of Morris's time in Brussels. His work was rejected, even reviled, by Belgian audiences. As Acocella later wrote in the introduction to Twenty-Eight Artists,

. . .Morris was received with scorn. The reviews were sulfurous; the shows were howled at. When Morris came out to take his curtain calls, the booing practically raised the roof. And he smiled and bowed and acted as though the audience were throwing bouquets at him. Then he went back to his studio, and for the three-year term of his contract—which almost anyone else, in his situation, would have canceled—he created a number of the greatest American dance works of the late twentieth century. (p. xviii)

Among these works were L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (set to Handel's oratorio), Dido and Aeneas (a danced version of Purcell's opera), and The Hard Nut (Morris's highly entertaining—and funny, lewd, and touching—version of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker). Acocella described each of these works, and many others, in vivid and insightful detail. 

And thanks to Cal Performances' visionary director Robert Cole, all of these works (as well as Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice and Rameau's Platée, both operas directed and choreographed by Morris) were brought to Berkeley, along with other MMDG programs, over the next few seasons. After Dido and Aeneas we immediately determined that we would not only see every Mark Morris program, we would buy tickets to two separate performances each time (a practice we kept up for two decades). While our interest in Morris was initially sparked by my boss's generosity, Acocella's writing added depth and understanding to our enjoyment. Mark Morris changed our lives, and Joan Acocella helped us to see the full complexity, richness, and humor of his works. We will always be deeply grateful.

Jenn Weddel, Stacy Martorana and Rita Donahue in L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato.
Photo credit: Kevin Yatarola. Image source: DanceTabs

Friday, January 5, 2024

Haruki Murakami, part 6: Manga Stories

Image source: Tuttle

Haruki Murakami: Manga Stories (Tuttle, 2023) adapts four Haruki Murakami short stories as comics, to powerful effect. Comics are a perfect medium for representing the sudden shifts in Murakami's fiction between everyday life and an alternate reality.

But before going further I have to address the title: "manga" is a term that, outside of Japan, is generally used to indicate Japanese comics. However, Manga Stories is the English-language publication of Le septième homme et autres récits (The seventh man and other stories, Delcourt, 2021), a bande dessinée adapted from four Murakami short stories by Jean-Christophe Deveney and illustrated by PMGL (Pierre-Marie Grille-Liou). The distinction isn't purely academic: it is one more manifestation of Murakami's international appeal. To add a further layer of internationality, Haruki Murakami: Manga Stories was issued by Tuttle, which is now a Hong Kong-based publisher.

The four Murakami stories were written in the decade between 1996 and 2005, and were published in two English-language collections. "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo" appeared in after the quake (Knopf, 2002, translated by Jay Rubin), and the other three in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (Knopf, 2006, translated by Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin). All feature Murakami's trademark offhand surreality.

  • In "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo," middle-aged salaryman Katagiri returns home from work to find a giant talking frog waiting for him. Frog reveals that in a few days Tokyo will be devastated by an earthquake caused by a huge Worm. Frog will descend beneath Tokyo to battle Worm, and because the struggle will take place directly underneath his office building Katagiri has been chosen to help. But he has no idea how to go about it; meanwhile, the fate of Tokyo rests in the balance. . .

  • In "Where I'm Likely To Find It," a woman approaches a private detective for help. The previous week her husband was summoned for assistance by his elderly mother, who lives in the same apartment building. From there he called his wife to say that he would be back soon, and to ask her to make pancakes for breakfast. He then disappeared without a trace. The detective takes the job, but he isn't a detective (he just likes to hear people's stories and try to help them) and it isn't a job (he refuses to accept money). The search for the missing husband begins. . .

  • In "Birthday Girl," a woman recounts the story of what happened on her 20th birthday (the equivalent of turning 21 in the U.S.). At the time she was working at an Italian restaurant; on that day she was called by a sick co-worker asking her to take her waitressing shift. She agreed, and when the manager also became ill, it fell to her to take his usual place and deliver the evening meal to the restaurant's owner. Although the owner lived on an upper floor of the restaurant's building, the waitress had never seen him before. On learning that it was her birthday, he offered her a special gift: he would fulfill one wish, whatever it was. He warned her to choose carefully: he could only grant one wish, and once it was granted it couldn't be changed. . .

  • In "The Seventh Man," the title character is haunted by a day in childhood when he was caught in a typhoon. After raging wind and rain have battered his family's house, an eerie calm descends: the eye of the storm is passing overhead. The child begs his father to let him go outside, despite radio warnings to stay indoors. His father agrees but cautions him to come right back, and the child heads down to the beach. On the way a playmate sees him and asks to go along. When they reach the beach, it is deserted; the tide is far out, and a vast expanse of sand stretches to the horizon. The boys start to explore the treasures that have been tossed up by the storm—but then the tide starts to come in, quickly. . .

PMGL's drawings are vivid and full of detail; they are like the hyperreality of a dream. He changes graphic styles to match the tone of each story, as in the black-and-white renderings for "Where I'm Likely To Find It." In that story he also effectively employs cinematic framing, such as overhead, reverse-angle, and multiple-exposure views, to represent the protagonist's film noir fantasy. In "Birthday Girl" and "The Seventh Man," which are narrated by a character in the story, the sections in the present have a style different from that of the character's memories. But sometimes it is the lack of a change in style that is significant: in "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo" and "The Seventh Man," PMGL avoids signaling whether experiences that seem fantastical, or nightmarish, should be accepted (by the reader or the main characters) as real.

A second volume of Murakami stories rendered in comics by the same team is scheduled to be published in April 2024; it will include "The Second Bakery Attack" from The Elephant Vanishes (Knopf, 1993). Judging on the basis of this first volume of Haruki Murakami: Manga Stories, it will be well worth watching for.

Other posts in this series: