Saturday, May 26, 2012

Some Thoughts on the Crypt Scene in Dracula (1931)

Notice that the vampires don't exit their coffins by simpy pushing the lid open with the palm of their hands. Rather, they stick their hand out first, contorted and menacing, almost as if, in a friendly manner, they're warning anyone present, "I'm coming out now."

They have pets, kind of. How awesome that there's a possum. There could be bats or a feral cat or a wolf or a snake or some massive spiders.  Instead, a possum and a bee. And the bee get its own coffin. Is the bee undead? Possibly, there's no evidence of a hive and it's waking at the same time as the other vampires.  I have no idea what the implications of an undead bee are.

I want to know more about her. She seems interesting, vampire-wise. I wish Browning had done just a little more with the vamps.

She scares our little possum friend back into this coffin. I like that there's a dead vampire here. It signals that Dracula has had some close calls before but he got them before they got him, but not before they got one of his vamps. It also shows Dracula isn't much into disposing of bodies.

And then there's this: One of the greatest entrances in all of movie history, still. And the movies weren't even 50 years old yet when this was done. Damn.

One final thing. I've always loved that bat logo behind the credits but there's no place where it is free of said credits. They fade into each other. I took several credit screens, including the last which merely has the directing credit, and isolated it. Why? Why not?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

History and the Movies: The Hindenburg

When making a movie about a historical disaster, the disaster remains the focus.  There can be plenty of fictionalized plot around it, but the disaster itself is in the forefront.  With the Titanic, most movies based on it (the notable exception being A Night to Remember) create mini-melodramas around fictionalized characters that make up the story (the lovers in the 1997 version, the divorcing couple in the 1953 version, etc) while the audience awaits disaster to strike.  The Titanic makes it even easier by the historically valid fact that the ship, in fact, took three hours to sink.  The airship Hindenburg, on the other hand, went from mint condition to burning rubble in less than a minute, 75 years ago today.  That means any theatrical movie needs to fill roughly 99 percent of its running time with fictional characters engaged in fictional melodramas.

Of course, for any other fictional narrative, this isn't a problem but when the event the movie is based upon is what people are coming to see, it's a huge problem.  Unfortunately, the movie The Hindenburg (d. Robert Wise, 1975) doesn't counter the problem by giving the audience a very compelling story.  George C. Scott, Anne Bancroft and William Atherton (among many others) all do admirable work in the service of a tepid plot about spies and sabotage, none of which ever seems very urgent given the fact that we know the outcome.  That sounds like the same problem as any other historically based disaster movie but actually, it's not.

With the story of the Titanic, we know it's going to sink but we don't know the outcome of the fictional narrative.  Will Julia (Barbara Stanwyck) and Richard (Clifton Webb) reconcile and make it to the lifeboats together with their children?  Will Jack (Leonardo DiCiprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) drown in the bowels of the ship or will they make it off safely?  And so on.  Their story is not tied directly to the ship hitting an iceberg.  In The Hindenburg, that is indeed what happens.

The story concerns possible sabotage of the ship with a bomb that the SS and George C. Scott are investigating.  William Atherton, as it turns out, is planting the bomb because he hates the Nazis and, well, who doesn't.  But, as you can see, the direct lines of the plot are tied to the ship exploding so while we may not know if Jack and Rose are going to survive together, only to have Jack die later (because from the flashback structure we certainly know Rose survives to the present day), we do know the bomb will go off.  It would be like making the story of the Titanic into a spy thriller in which one saboteur was determined to steer the ship into an iceberg.  Will he succeed?  Well, yes, obviously.  It's a stupid thing to tie your plot to.

Nonetheless, The Hindenburg ultimately fails due to a pacing that mimics the casual, lackadaisical air speed of the zeppelin itself.  The movie, despite some stunning visuals achieved with superb model making and optical printing and matte work, never achieves the kind of lift necessary to keep it aloft (sorry, couldn't help it).  The history of the Hindenburg and the mystery of what truly happened that day is better left to the documentary form where the short but tragic event can be rehashed and analysed all while giving a brief history of airships along the way.