Posts Tagged ‘vampires’

Warning spoilers

My rating: ****
imdb link

While on things vaguely religious, I thought I would post up another item from my now defunct film website. I originally wrote this review in 2002. I have made some very minor updates.

A New York doctoral student in philosophy, Kathleen (Lili Taylor), gets bitten by a female vampire in evening clothes and becomes one herself. Drifting aimlessly and neglecting her thesis, Kathleen stumbles across an ancient vampire called Peina (Christopher Walken) who promptly sucks all her blood and gives her a lecture on philosophy and literature which inspires her to finish her thesis. A post-doctoral party becomes a vampire feeding frenzy and Kathleen, having already infected the rest of her philosophy department, ends up in hospital. There she repents of her addiction to evil, dies and is saved. The film’s dialogue consists mainly of heavy duty quotations from, and discussions of, pre-1960s philosophy, mostly of the existentialist and Jansenist variety.

This is not a movie for the faint hearted. But then Abel Ferrara‘s films never are. This bizarre and intense film operates at a number of levels: first of all, as a suitably blood-festooned vampire flick (although the word vampire is never mentioned). Secondly, it operates as a philosophical and religious reflection on human evil and redemption and finally as an amusing take on certain aspects of university life, probably best appreciated by those directly involved in that venerable institution.

To comment first of all on its vampire credentials. It helps if one has more than a passing familiarity with the vampire genre in order to stomach the gore. The action is filmed in black and white which helps distance the viewer from the more graphic elements. Indeed in colour, the effect would probably have been unintentionally comic, evoking the lurid excesses of Hammer horror in its hey day. Even so, a vampire feeding frenzy at Kathleen’s post Ph.D party looks amusingly like some avant-garde actors’ workshop. Having said this, if there were such a thing as vampires, this would probably have to be the most realistic depiction of the sheer mechanics of their practices in all their repulsiveness. No romantic sparkling vampires of the Twilight variety here! But in the end it is probably the documentary images of the piles of bodies in concentration camps at the end of World War II which form the most disturbing visual material of the film. As for sound, the most disgusting scene must surely be the evil vampire Peina sucking Kathleen’s blood.

But the core of this film is its philosophical and religious reflection on evil. Clearly writer Nicholas St. John has been reading some heavy duty philosophy of the most gloomy existentialist kind: Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, Beckett, Baudelaire and theologians such as Calvin and J.C. Sproul are referred to and quoted at some length by the characters. It seems he wrote this film and Abel Ferrara’s The Funeral (1996) after his son’s death. No-one has a mundane or even a remotely cheerful conversation in this film and certainly no-one refers to any philosophy produced more recently than 1960. No Foucauldian, structuralist, or postmodern vampires here! The tone is reminiscent of such Catholic pre- and immediately post-war novelists as Graham Greene, Shusaka Endo, Georges Bernanos and François Mauriac – all heavily influenced by a bleak angst ridden Jansenist outlook. One is also reminded of the French film maker Robert Bresson’s approach –  another atheist/Catholic film maker who was concerned with showing how evil people could be and the grace of God that could save them in extremity.

The only people in the film able to resist the lure of the vampire are a priest and a young man handing out religious pamphlets in front of the building where the post-doctoral gore fest is about to occur. Kathleen, after having her vampire advances rebuffed by the young man, goes inside and starts screaming hysterically ‘I will not submit!’, an obvious reference to Lucifer’s ‘non serviam’. The whole premise of the film seems to be that if one does not recognise and face the evil within oneself and the rest of mankind and accept the saving grace of the Christian God, then one is controlled by evil, becomes addicted to it and is compelled to pass it on to others.

The nausea of existence à la Sartre is also much in evidence – quite literally as the newly made vampire Kathleen sits in a café and toys digustedly with her food. Nonetheless, for all its references to the philosophy of another era, this is very much a film of the 1990s with its passing references to AIDS and its view of postmodern social detachment and disconnection.

The philosophical dialogues and pronouncements of the various characters are anything but naturalistic and it helps to have some philosophical background to follow what is being said and the links between the action and the talk are not always clear. This produces a similar, but perhaps less extreme effect, to the one produced in Luis Bunuel’s film The Milky Way where characters from different periods in history conduct sword fights, drink in taverns, sing at school fêtes, all the while discussing the finer points of medieval Catholic doctrine or arcane heretical deviations. But the radical disjunction between words and things or actions is an attractive one and serves to emphasise the non-naturalness of all human words and actions.

Along the way Kathleen meets an evil and corrupt vampire who tells her his name is Peina and who is able to control his hunger and pass as human through a kind of asceticism of evil – a Nietzschean will to power. He has managed to make his evil mundane and almost invisible and he is able to control it for his own purposes which makes it far worse than Kathleen’s. Peina achieves a kind of perverse evil enlightenment and asceticism through the management of his addiction. Kathleen is more classical in her salvation but is far less interesting because we don’t see her involved in anything like the 12 steps to get to that point. All we see is the addiction and then the miraculous salvation. Peina on the other hand has a whole ascetic practice which is much more intriguing – but it is an asceticism in the service of darkness rather than light.

I would suggest that any postgraduate student who is having trouble finishing their thesis would probably benefit from Peina as a supervisor. He roars at Kathleen frighteningly: ‘You are nothing! You know nothing!’ gives her a reading list of French and German philosophers and Beckett then sucks all her blood. Prior to running into this vampire she had been neglecting her thesis. Afterwards she gets on and finishes it. Amusingly, by the end of the film Kathleen has turned most of the philosophy department into vampires. Some academics would no doubt feel quite at home with the whole notion of postgraduate students sucking their blood.

This is not a big budget production and the filming is rough and ready but it is the ideas that carry this work. Watching this flawed film, if not always a pleasant experience, is certainly a challenging and thought provoking one and as such well worth the effort.


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NB: Spoiler alert

Stephenie Meyer, Twilight, New York: Little, Brown and Co. Books for Young Readers, 2005.
My rating: *

Twilight (Twilight, #1) Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

I read this book to see what all the fuss was about, which has been further amplified by the appearance of the films. Twilight and its sequels have spawned a whole imitative sub industry in the form of other novels and television series. But for all the author’s claims of an original take on the vampire myth – it has all been done before and recently. One example is the True Blood novel series which appeared slightly before Twilight and which has been made into a currently airing television series. And of course there are the seminal late 90s TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff Angel. All of these series feature adolescent females and their troubled relationships with male vampires some decades, if not hundreds of years, older than themselves. What is new perhaps is the complete and utter complicity of the female in her eventual destruction.

Unfortunately, try as I might, I can’t think of anything positive to say about Twilight. There is little to recommend it either in terms of style or content. As numbers of others have remarked, it reads like bad fan fiction which has by some stroke of luck been published by a mainstream publisher. A couple of decades ago, it is the sort of material that an adolescent writer would have kept firmly under lock and key in their bedroom drawer so as not to risk the extreme embarrassment of it finding any other readers apart from themselves. One can also remark on the similarities with porn fiction in the way it is structured and written, but it is porn without the sex. Indeed one notable critique describes it as ‘abstinence porn’.

The story focuses entirely on the obsessive relationship between a 16 year old girl, Bella, and a self described ‘monster’, Edward, a centenarian vampire who remains physically fixed at the point of his death at the age of 17. Numbers of critics – from a feminist standpoint in particular – have pointed to the abusive nature of Bella’s relationship with Edward, the latter not only engaging in classic emotionally manipulative behaviour but also fulfilling all the criteria of a bona fide stalker. Bella occupies the masochistic female victim role – Edward’s appalling behaviour proves nothing more than ‘how much he loves her’.

The author, Stephenie Meyer, claims that the books are all about ‘choice’ and in a perverse and limited way this is indeed true. But most of the choosing is done by the male protagonist, Edward, and it all involves stringent self-denial – both in relation to his predatory vampiric desire to kill Bella (and all those around her) by sucking their blood, and also in his much vaunted sexual abstinence, given the contact of his strong vampire body with a weak human one could prove potentially fatal to Bella. As for Bella herself, her choice merely involves the complete and utter self-indulgence of her fixation on Edward and the annihilation of any separate identity in the process. She has no hobbies, no friends (in spite of overtures from others), no career ambitions and no moral or physical sense of self-preservation.

As critics have pointed out – all the agency rests with Edward. If Bella is the first person narrator, it is Edward who acts as subject in these novels. He makes the decisions which keep Bella alive and provides her with the emotional focus which gives structure and meaning to her existence. The decisions he makes not only involve making sure that he doesn’t kill her himself but also involve continually ‘saving’ her from car accidents, potential sexual assault by muggers and being killed by other vampires. When Edward disappears in the second novel, Bella goes into a catatonic suicidal state which lasts for months. This is matched later by Edward’s own suicidal condition when he mistakenly believes Bella is dead.

In the final novel, Breaking Dawn, Edward’s ‘noble’ self-denial – denial of himself as a vampiric predator is finally overcome by Bella’s own will to self annihilation when in the fourth novel, they marry, engage in one night of rough sex, which following the Gone with the Wind model results in instant pregnancy and no further sex. The pregnancy destroys Bella’s body and she has to be transformed into a vampire in order to ‘save’ her. The loss of virginity and pregnancy becomes a violent loss of purity which can only lead to death and to transformation into a monster – a problematic model to say the least. But perhaps one might argue facetiously that this might merely be designed to provide a bracing warning about the dangers of teenage sex and teenage pregnancy to adolescent readers of the series.

Numbers of fans have strongly protested at this (inevitable) outcome – even sending petitions to the publisher. Thus it would appear that what attracted them to the series was the odd stand off between two forms of self-destructive subjectivity – one of a most stringent and painful self-denial, the other of a complete indulgence in the dubious pleasures of emotional, moral and physical self annihilation. Teenage pregnancy and being turned into a vampire were probably not what they had hoped for their heroine.

The series, due to its immense popularity has also been frequently described as the ‘new Harry Potter’, but for all its faults the Harry Potter series did at least engage with a wider external social and cultural world with some historical depth. It raised quite sophisticated (if somewhat conservative) questions about social structures and ethical responsibility to others, both in relation to friends and to the broader community. At a literary level it also entertained readers with basic Latin magic words and intriguing neologisms such as ‘pensieve’, a combination of the French word ‘penser’ (to think) and the English word ‘sieve’, to describe a magical device which allowed a person to store their memories for future use either by themselves or others. There is none of this engagement with the social and political world or with language invention in the Twilight series.

If Twilight and its three sequels were not so overwhelmingly popular one could safely ignore them, but the question that has fascinated me is why have they become such a mass phenomenon? One reason perhaps is that they provide validation for the self-indulgences to which adolescence is prone, but I would like to suggest a further reason. Perhaps what attracts fans to the Twilight series is akin to the impulse that currently attracts people in such large numbers to forms of religious and ideological fundamentalism. In a cultural conjuncture which has seen the crumbling of rigidly defined social structures and belief in universal and socially well-defined paths to salvation of various kinds, it is endlessly difficult taking emotional and ethical responsibility for one’s own life and subjectivity.

For all the rhetoric of romance, the relationship between Edward and Bella is one that Jean Baudrillard would no doubt approve of thoroughly – it is all about the pleasures of seduction, power and self-annihilation, not about love. Making somebody (or something) else responsible for how we exist in the world is a welcome relief from the relentless day-to-day uncertainties and responsibilities foisted on us by the human condition. One can then wallow in the emotional opium of self-abandonment – temporarily at least – until it eventually, as it always does, goes horribly wrong. There are no shortage of warnings on the dangers of such a path, warnings which have been insistently repeated over millennia by countless social commentators and philosophers.

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