You Must Remember This: Meaning and Pop Culture Relics

The recent re-discovery of a Hollywood treasure once presumed lost, and an item up for sale in an upcoming auction of movieland memorabilia, have set the film world a-buzz.  Tara, the mythical home of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind”, was not a real place, but the stage set that was built for the 1939 film certainly was: in fact, it has been sitting in pieces in a barn in Georgia for decades, awaiting restoration.  Meanwhile, this November Bonham’s auction house in New York will be selling off a private collection of Hollywood history, which includes the piano on which Dooley Wilson played “As Time Goes By” in the 1942 classic “Casablanca” for Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart.

It may seem curious that these pop culture objects of little intrinsic value carry such excitement, when they come to light in news stories or auction catalogues.  After all, hundreds of movies, concerts, and sporting events take place every year, and the vast majority of them are quickly forgotten, the detritus of their production disappearing into basements or scrap heaps.  There is no museum containing the cast-off socks of basketball players from the 1982 Philadelphia 76’ers, so far as I am aware.  And even if such a thing still exists, I cannot imagine that there is a huge market for anyone to own something like Robin Williams’ furry hat from 1982’s “Moscow on the Hudson”.

The survival of any pop culture item often depends on who is entrusted with its care.  Somewhere in one of her jewelry boxes my mother has an old, yellowed lace handkerchief of her mother’s.  Back in the 1940’s, grandmother had gone to see the legendary Spanish bullfighter Manolete work his blood-stained magic in Barcelona.  Manolete was a handsome, hugely popular figure in Spain after the Civil War, who drew crowds of admirers because of his very reserved technique and persona, in which he never made a show of himself to the crowds, as had many bullfighters both before and after him.

My grandmother, being a very elegant and beautiful lady, happened to draw the matador’s gaze when he entered the ring, and she gave him her handkerchief to carry during the fight, an echo of the Medieval tradition of courtly love and carrying your lady’s favor into battle.  After his successful dispatch of the bull that day, he returned the handkerchief to my grandmother, who of course kept it as a relic afterwards.  It was an object which became the more precious after Manolete was killed in 1947 at the age of 30, when he was gored by a bull during a fight in Andalusia.

Why do we hold on to these relics of past popular entertainments?   One very obvious reason is that of trying to preserve our memories.  As we grow older, to be able to draw out some piece of ephemera which reminds us of another time, is to have a bittersweet way of remembering who we are and where we came from.  This is something which human beings seem particularly keen on doing: one does not see birds flying about carrying bits of previous nests, or snakes dragging their old skins along with them as they slither through the underbrush, each reflecting back to a time when they were just hatchlings.

However that sense of a personal, infused meaning which encapsulates part of who a person was at a particular point in their life does not last forever.  Grandmother could pull out that old, stained handkerchief in her declining years, and remember back to a time when she was the belle of the ball.  After her death, her daughter could do the same, calling to mind her glamorous mother and telling the story of that handkerchief to her own children.

Yet the significance of such an object changes, as it goes forward in time.  Today Manolete is merely a name, the bullring where he fought has been converted into a shopping mall, and long-departed grandmother is the haughty grand dame whose portrait gazes confidently back at the viewer above the piano in her daughter’s living room.  The relic of the lady and the bullfighter will retain a personal value for the descendants of the lady who owned it, only for so long as an interest in her life remains.  After that, the value will either disappear entirely, or it will change to become that which may be ascribed to something once touched by a famous person.

At that point, grandmother’s handkerchief becomes no different from Scarlett’s home or Sam’s piano.  The people who lived through the experience of that particular entertainment are no longer around to provide context or personal meaning for these objects.  Vivien Leigh and Dooley Wilson have been gone for decades, and as each year passes, fewer and fewer people directly connected to the making of either “Gone With the Wind” or “Casablanca” remain.  So while we may admire the achievements of those who made and worked with such things, we are rapidly reaching a point where we will not have any personal connection with them.

This is why pop culture relics often survive to go on into a kind of materialist afterlife.  Long after the people who are associated with them have shuffled off this mortal coil, we can tell the stories of who they were and what they meant to our culture, by looking to those objects which once meant something to them.  Thus, while there may be no significant monetary value in something like an old, upright piano, appreciation of that piano’s significance to popular culture far outweighs the monetary worth of the object.  Whatever becomes of grandmother’s handkerchief, I certainly hope we may yet get to see Tara rebuilt, and Sam’s piano sitting in pride of place at a public institution.

Sam Dooley, Humphrey Bogart, and Ingrid Bergman in a scene from "Casablanca" (1942)

Dooley Wilson, Humphrey Bogart, and Ingrid Bergman in a scene from “Casablanca” (1942)

Fangs of Steel: Is Dracula the New Superman?

The camera arcs slowly as we watch a man dressed in a shiny suit, making his way along difficult terrain.  His exorbitantly long red cape flaps in the wind, billowing out behind him like a sail.  We see him smash his fist into the ground until the surface cracks, just before he leaps into the sky and flies away…surrounded by a flock of bats.

No, this isn’t a story about the love child of Superman and Batman. Rather it’s the trailer to the forthcoming film, Dracula Untold, which purports to tell the legend of Vlad Dracul, the 15th-century Prince of Wallachia (part of modern-day Romania) known as “Vlad the Impaler”, and his transformation into the legendary vampire “Dracula” of the eponymous Bram Stoker novel.  The film will be premiering in U.S. theatres this October, and this is the first glimpse audiences have had of the project. As a friend commented in conversation about the trailer, “A LOT of bats. Bats everywhere. Far too many bats. You saw the bats?”

The film has been some time in the making, and did not finish as it began.  Alex Proyas, creator of dark films which fall into the broad category of sci-fi/fantasy, such as “The Crow”, “Dark City”, and “I, Robot”, was originally set to direct.   Proyas would have been a natural to explore how Dracul became Dracula, a subject which was presented but never fully explored in Francis Ford Coppola’s stylish but messy 1992 film version of Stoker’s novel.  Sam Worthington, an actor well-known to many in geekdom for his roles in films like “Avatar”, was set to star as the bloodthirsty prince.  In order to lower costs, Universal later ended up binning Proyas and Worthington, and sought out a new director and star.

Enter Gary Shore, an Irish director who has never filmed anything on this scale before, being known primarily as a director of indie film shorts and television commercials.  And in place of Worthing we have another “Avatar” alum, Welsh actor Luke Evans.  Although he has a far longer cinematic resume than Shore, Evans has never had to carry an entire film of this size, even though he has played a host of both lead and supporting roles in sci-fi/action/fantasy films like this over the years.

For both director and star the stakes on such a film are fairly high.  Shore has no track record at the box office to draw upon, and no string of previous films that have been the subject of university lectures and fanzine articles, so he’s not going to ruin his reputation if he fails.  On the other hand, if he does fail, he probably won’t get another shot: the fact that one instantly thought of Zack Snyder’s first trailer for “Man of Steel” on seeing this particular trailer is a bit worrying, even if many of the other scenes look interesting.  Evans, who is a rising commodity in filmdom at the moment, certainly looks more like a dark and dangerous Slavic warrior than does the laddish and wide-eyed Worthington, who would have been woefully miscast in the role.  Yet if he fails to draw the attention of sci-fi fans, he may not be offered another opportunity like this for a long time.

There’s also the rather prickly question of how you deal with the invasion of Christian Europe by a Muslim empire in a 21st century film.  Are we going to see a watered-down, politically correct view of the West vs. the East, such as in recent films like “City of God”?  Are the Ottomans going to be kept at arm’s length as a fairly faceless foe, talked about but not examined close up, so that the film doesn’t even have to address the issue of militant Islam?  How is the underlying conceit of the story, that in becoming a vampire Vlad is making a pact with the Devil, going to be treated given the fact that historically speaking, the real Dracul was an Eastern Orthodox Christian, who not only founded and endowed dozens of churches and monasteries, but enjoyed good relations with a number of Catholic rulers, including the popes?

With the superhero genre definitely in the ascendancy right now, it’s not surprising that a studio would greenlight a vampire movie that looks like a superhero film.  Right now vampires are not as hot a commodity as they were a few years ago, during the “Twlight” era, but on the whole they are a reasonably safe bet at the multiplex.  Of course, by trying to turn the story of Vlad Dracul into “Fangs of Steel” or “Bat/Man Begins”, one wonders what will we end up with.

It could be that we will have another roided-out, CGI version of a sword-and-sandal picture, rather than a historical examination of the life of a truly fascinating and complex figure tinged with some fairytale elements.  Or it could be that we have a real development of some of the ideas about obsession and damnation from Bram Stoker’s hugely influential novel, albeit in a fantasy setting.  Or it could be, which is probably more likely, that we get spoon-fed another dose of moral relativism, in which it turns out that a formerly squeaky-clean Kal-El and an undead creature in league with the infernal are both considered to be equally morally ambiguous.

That being said, will I still go see it? Probably – but I’m keeping my expectations fairly low on this one.

Luke Evans as Prince Vlad Dracul in a poster for the forthcoming "Dracula Untold"

Luke Evans as Prince Vlad Dracul in a poster for the forthcoming “Dracula Untold”

 

Review of “Le Corbeau”: Why Shock Value Isn’t Enough

A film whose central character is a philandering abortionist would seem to be too hot a commodity for mainstream cinema to attempt, even today. Yet Henri-Georges Clozot did so in his controversial 1943 work “Le Corbeau” (“The Raven”), which I screened over the weekend. While the film shows there really is nothing new under the sun, insofar as shocking audiences is concerned, I must confess that it left me rather underwhelmed: it is all crime and no punishment.

“Le Corbeau” is set in a small town in France, where all of the local residents have closely-guarded secrets. From the start, we are made very much aware that this is not a happy, peaceful town: long-standing hatreds are commonplace, and people are often very much less than kind to one another. The “hero” of the story, if we are to call him that, Dr. Rémy Germain (Pierre Fresnay) works as a surgeon at the local hospital, and practices illegal abortions on the side. He is carrying on an affair with Laura (Micheline Francey), the wife of one of his colleagues, and in the course of the film succumbs to the amorous advances of his landlady Denise (Ginette Leclerc).

As the story develops, a series of poison-pen letters signed by someone who calls himself “Le Corbeau” begin to circulate, accusing Dr. Germain and others of committing various crimes. The supposed mystery of the writer’s identity, as matters become more heated and turn to acts of violence, is what occupies us as the film gets going. Unfortunately for this reviewer, I realized who the author of the letters was almost immediately, and so the foregone conclusion turned the experience into something of a waiting game.

“Le Corbeau” is a film which is usually on the must-see list for those of us interested in the development of French cinema, and it is not hard to understand why. It is a something like a combination of Edgar Allen Poe and Alfred Hitchcock – in the French taste, natch. Parts of it are superbly well-shot, particularly in using empty space/silence and unexpected camera angles to create a threatening atmosphere. And there are a number of good performances from the cast, though throughout the movie I kept thinking that the character of Denise would have been played more convincingly by the great Jeanne Moreau, a generation later. Most view it today as a kind of veiled criticism of the atmosphere of distrust brought about as a result of the Nazi occupation, when neighbors would turn in their neighbors to the Gestapo.

However the real notoriety of the picture stems from its scandalous public history. It was produced by a German-owned company, and seemed to offend almost everyone across the moral and political spectrum – from the Church to the French Resistance to the Vichy Regime. The film was banned for a time, and Clozot himself was barred from working in French cinema for two years after the war. As we all know, anytime something like a book or a movie is formally banned, it is going to attract an audience keen on examining it for themselves, and this is one reason why “Le Corbeau” continues to be studied today.

This did not have to become the only reason to see the film, however, even though that is now the case, at least in the opinion of this reviewer. The poison-pen letter used as a plot device by Clozot can be a useful tool for ripping open the painted scenery and showing us what lies just behind. He could have allowed the possibilities open to him through the implementation of this device to lead him to create a script and accompanying film which captures our universal desire to see crime being punished. He would not have been the first Frenchman so to be fascinated, or successful, in considering the subject through the use of this plot device.

Perhaps the most famous French example is the 18th century novel “Les Liaisons dangereuses” by Choderlos de Laclos, which has been treated by cinema many times on both sides of the pond. Two examples with which my American readers may be familiar are the now-classic Glenn Close/John Malkovich “Dangerous Liaisons” from 1988, and the Reese Whitherspoon/Ryan Philippe reinterpretation “Cruel Intentions” from a decade later. In these films, crime has consequences that not only result in death, but in actual punishment.

The spectacular performance by Glenn Close in the earlier film as her world crumbles around her is made particularly satisfying because her own methods are being turned against her. We enjoy her punishment because it is part of our fallen nature to enjoy revenge, but more importantly because we realize, as she does, that she will go on experiencing a living hell on earth. She has ruined the lives and reputations of others, and now her life and reputation are ruined: the punishment fits the crime.

By contrast, in “Le Corbeau” the writer of the letters is punished, vigilante-style, but we are left unsatisfied by the outcome, thinking, “That’s it?” The doer of the deed comes almost out of nowhere; the story has become so convoluted by this point that we have forgotten about them almost entirely. And despite some last-minute “what ifs?” by Clozot there is never any doubt as to the writer’s identity or fate.

Clozot leaves us with important, unanswered questions. Are the townspeople just going to go back to being mean to one another? Is Dr. Germain still going to be committing infanticide and fooling around? Is Denise still going to be playing Potiphar’s wife to all of her husband’s lodgers? In other words: has anyone actually learned anything? “Le Corbeau” fades out on a beautiful shot, but the story faded long before we got to this point – and this is ultimately its greatest problem.

Making something shocking is one sure-fire way to gain notoriety, or at the very least some attention. Yet the real power of a well-written play or novel that also happens to shock its audience at the time of its initial appearance is its staying power to continue to shock audiences a decade (or a century) or more later. Certainly, there is much to like about “Le Corbeau”, if you are interested in the history of cinema. Yet those interested in really getting into the meat of man’s inhumanity to man, in ways that can be just as shocking to us today as they were at the time their works appeared, would be better served by reading Balzac or Camus.