Friday, October 30, 2009

Vampires on Film

As part of our continuing look at vampires (Happy Halloween, after all), we've asked Mary Hallab, author of Vampire God, to take a stab (ouch!) at telling us what she sees, as a keen cultural critic, when she looks at a couple of classic vampire film posters. Okay, one is a classic, the other probably only ran on those 2:00 am up-all-night creature-feature TV shows. After each image below, Mary follows with her thoughts.

Mary says:

I have a t-shirt with this picture on it. I don’t wear it many places.

This is an ad for the 1931 movie of Dracula, with Bela Lugosi, as you can see, apparently strangling Mina, but of course, that is not what he is doing because these movie vampires bite—they don’t strangle—and no such picture appeared in the movie.

The poster is selling sex and violence--mostly violence, I would say, given the position of Dracula’s hands. But isn’t Dracula up to more than just sex and violence? Not that he isn’t having fun, but it would seem sad for a powerful supernatural being like Dracula to go chasing all over Europe just to grab the neck of an English bunny, desirable as she may be.

Or is he Death destroying youth—and life? He is perhaps a demon lover, only without bothering too much with the lover business.

What would this movie be like if we were to take away the vampire idea? Dracula would just be a dirty old foreigner skulking around after innocent English girls. Maybe it would be like The Lodger. The horror in both of these movies comes from the Gothic setup, the camera angles, the sharp contrasts, the mystery, the surprises (better, all this, in The Lodger than in Dracula).

But Dracula is undead—a supernatural being—and this expands the meaning of the movie. Dracula is, after all, Death itself—and so he includes us all.

Mary says:

Vampire Circus is a Hammer vampire film, but without Dracula. For a summary and favorable review, check out the Movie Feast blog.

This is not a very good poster, is it? Where is the circus? There is an actual circus in the movie, complete with vampires. It visits this isolated little town in the middle of a plague. Most of its citizens are dead by the end of the movie in addition to some vampires. All in all, it is a pretty good movie as vampire movies go. Very colorful.

It is true, as the blog says, that this film ignores a lot of Hammer Film vampire lore—or Bram Stoker or Tod Browning vampire lore. But it excels in Hammer sexiness and grisliness.

The film maintains the folklore idea that the vampires cause the plague or vice versa. Which is to blame? The vampires are the bringers of death. These vampires can flourish because of the general cowardliness and corruption of some of the community and because of the plague. And the circus suggests the irresponsibility and fecklessness of the town’s citizens in the face of disaster. All these motifs are integrated into a theme of life as a sort of circus of death (rather than dance)—which suggests, of course, that, ultimately, there is nothing to be done about it. But have sex. This is a Hammer film, after all, so there are lots of boobs and bottoms.

The poster is wretched. No one in the movie puts little people in his mouth.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Vampire Blues

So, in her last post, Mary Hallab discsussed vampires' sexiness, among other things. Today she explores how immortality also provides vampires a link to their pasts, which often causes them a great deal of sturm und drang. They can't seem to fully escape the past, nor do some of them want to. Why do audiences find this appealing? Read on...

Sexiness is not all that immortality offers. It also offers ties with the past. The more I read and watch vampire stories, the more I am convinced that one reason for their popularity is their constant movement back and forth between present and past—although admittedly the past is often quite fabulous. Early folklore vampires do not hang around very long, one generation maybe, at most, but scholars tell us that they serve to stand for family continuity within the system of belief and ritual associated with the dead. They are related to ancestor worship, and come from our past to reward or punish us. They remind us to respect our ancestors and our elderly.

Well, you might say, but modern vampires do not do this. And I might say: Watch some vampire movies and notice how the vampires live in the past, in recollections and in flashbacks. Dracula in the novel and the movies reminisces about his family and their heroic history, which he remembers perfectly, having been there. Have you seen the television series Forever Knight? We are constantly popped back into seventeenth-century France, with costumes and all. Buffy’s Angel and Spike are always repenting their historically disreputable behavior, amply demonstrated in flashbacks. They can never escape it. Is there a message there? Why would modern American youth care for such a message?

And do we entirely want to escape our history? If the past enters our modern world insidiously, affects us, determines our actions, will it be for good or evil? Should we love it or hate it? The nineteenth century admired and tried to emulate the Middle Ages. Dracula is a perfect villain from the Middle Ages and he teaches (unwillingly, of course) knightly heroism to Van Helsing’s band of vampire killers. In some works, the vampire is the Knight. In either case, he stands for traditional virtues lost or revived, perverted or ennobled. The vampire asks us: To what extent is the survival (or revival) of the past in the present desirable? What good is the past to us?

Order your copy of Vampire God today.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

From Oscar Wilde to Andy Warhol

Last week, Elisa Glick, Associate Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Missouri, read excerpts from her new book Materializing Queer Desire: Oscar Wilde to Andy Warhol at the Center Project in downtown Columbia, Missouri. Glick discussed the relationships between homosexuality and modernism through well-known icons, especially Oscar Wilde and Andy Warhol. The student paper covered the event:

Calling Warhol the "first great pop dandy," Glick said the artist used glamour, effeminacy and celebrity connections to advertise himself as an artist. But, she said Warhol might have just been reflecting what people in the world around him valued.

You can read the full article here.

Who Controls New York City Mayors?

With election day fast approaching, Lynn A. Weikert's new book, Follow the Money, is especially timely. Especially if you reside in New York City.

This book explores the leadership of government on the local level. What goes on between the financial elites who control the nation’s purse strings and the political leaders elected by us, the citizens of New York City? What deals are made that affect the lives of ordinary New Yorkers? What compromises do New York City politicians make when dealing with the most powerful people in the financial world?

That's from Lynn's recent feature article over at Rorotoko. In the piece, Lynn explores the major themes of her book and takes hard look at the powerful influences of financial elites over New York City’s mayors. Her book presents some staggering evidence regarding the extent to which these elites have exploited financial crises and crippled the power of mayors over the years.
Read the rest of the article here and order a copy of the book here.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Vampire as Metrosexual

We're back from our hiatus with another entry from Mary Hallab, who's new book, Vampire God, is out now. Today Mary looks at what makes vampires so sexy these days—is it just because they're dead? Or is it because they're dead and they all seem to dress so well and have ridiculously over-moussed hair? We'll let Mary explain:

Is Edward, from Twilight, sexier because he is dead? Well, yes. Anyone can be charming and good looking, but what counts is being a vampire. Just being handsome is not enough, especially with that silly hairdo. Early folklore vampires, of course, were not looking to be sexy, and anyway, everyone in the neighborhood could recognize them when they appeared, usually bloated and smelly, and just as unpopular as they had been in life. Moreover, no vampire folklore has these village deviants living forever (just till their flesh decayed). Forever came with Romanticism and the literary vampires who had Satan on their side or who were pretty evil anyway. (And we all know how the wicked live forever.) Polidori made his vampire from Byron so he had to be supernaturally irresistible (as Byron supposedly was, to Polidori’s annoyance and that of a lot of other men down to the present). With Byron’s wicked charm and stunning good looks to draw on, most subsequent literary vampires lived longer and got sexier and better dressed. Well, except for poor Varney the Vampire in the nineteenth century; he was a more “realistic” vampire, ugly and stinky though properly dressed. He never could seem to get the girls. But then, they did not know he was an immortal (like a Greek god); he just did not have the pizzazz, and finally he gave up and immolated himself. When a guy gets to be a god, he just gets more desirable (and so do the gals, apparently, and bustier). If properly managed, immortality has all sorts of side benefits. Envy. Didn’t the Greeks envy their gods? Didn’t they feel awed and joyful to attract their good favor (most of the time when it was not fatal)? Didn’t it offer them some interesting opportunities? Didn’t it raise them and make them special? Isn’t this after all what Edward is doing for poor Bella Swan (and all the female audience)? Isn’t this what even Bela Lugosi did? Or Lestat? Isn’t this sexy?

Tune in for more later this week. Go back and read parts one and two as well.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Some Die Just to Live: Vampires and Immortality

It's time for another installment in our series exploring the enduring appeal of the vampire. Once again we're sharing some of author Mary Hallab's thoughts on the subject. Mary's new book, Vampire God, is available now, just in time for some spooky Halloween reading. Today, Mary looks at immortality as it pertains to the vampire, and asks just how far you'd go to be like Nosferatu and the rest of the undead. Take it away, Mary...

The superstitions and beliefs attached to folklore vampires suggest their connection with ancient pagan gods and goddesses of death and the underworld, from where, of course, new life arises. Why did the folk retain these beliefs and customs, for example, in their burial rituals and stories even in the face of the church’s disapproval? And why, since the eighteenth century have vampires and their “lore” recurrently revived in literature to become a constant fixture in our modern pantheon of folk figures? Do they mean the same to us as they did to the peasant folk? Well, yes, because they have something to say about immortality, about the desperate desire of mortal beings to live forever, to hold on to their selves, on this earth, with their friends and family. And they allow us to contemplate all the ramifications inherent in this desire, from the scientific impossibility of its ever being realized to the ethical and spiritual desirability. I have a Richard III t-shirt that says, “How far would you go to be a king?” The vampire leads us to ask, “How far would you go to live forever?” Would you drink blood from your cat? Would you insult a priest? Would you sleep in the dirt? Vampire literature from Varney to Dracula to Edward asks these questions, including, Would you want to live forever anyway, and if so, why?

For more of Mary's musing on vampires, check out part 1 of this ongoing series, and scare up a copy (yes, we went there) of Vampire God.

We'll offer up more of Mary's vampire posts as the month rolls along. Check back often.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Going Blind, a memoir and meditation on blindness

Mara Faulkner grew up in a family shaped by Irish ancestry, a close-to-the-bone existence in rural North Dakota, and the secret of her father’s blindness—along with the silence and shame surrounding it. Dennis Faulkner had retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that gradually blinded him and one that may blind many members of his family, including the author.

Going Blind explores blindness in its many permutations—within the context of the author’s family, more broadly, as a disability marked by misconceptions, and as a widely used cultural metaphor. Mara delicately weaves her family’s story into an analysis of the roots and ramifications of the various metaphorical meanings of blindness, touching on the Catholic Church of the 1940s and 1950s, Japanese internment, the Germans from Russia who dominated her hometown, and the experiences of Native people in North Dakota. Neither sentimental nor dispassionate, she asks whether it’s possible to find gifts when sight is lost.

Listen to the podcast of a recent interview between Mara and Kathy Parker, head librarian at the College of St. Benedict, where Mara is Associate Professor of English. Mara's book is available at our website.

Mara will be signing books at the College of St. Benedict Bookstore on Saturday, October 24, from 10:30–11:30 am.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Twilight, True Blood, Vampire Diaries ... They've come to suck your blood

Seems like you can't turn a darkened street corner these days without running into a fanged creature of the night. With all the books and movies about vampires lately, it might seem like they are experiencing a renaissance in popularity. Actually, they've always been popular. After all, you were eating Count Chocula for breakfast years ago, remember?

We were partial to Boo Berry, ourselves.

Just in time for Halloween, Mary Hallab's new book, Vampire God, explores the timeless appeal of the undead. Mary sent us some of her thoughts on our long love affair with the vampire. Here's the first in a series of posts from Mary on the topic.

Vampire literature and movies have always been popular. In my book Vampire God, I wanted to see if I could find out why. I think I did, but doing so was more complicated than I had expected. Since then, vampires have become even more popular, especially after the publication of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books. And, guess what? This popularity has little to do with sex—or not sex directly, rather sex and death, the cycle, sex and death, sex and death, sex and death. I mostly skip the sex part; everyone knows about that. But I have a lot to say about death—that’s the focus of the book. Vampires are dead, after all. And that is why they are popular. Vampires give us the chance to contemplate death without really facing it at all—from all sorts of angles, personal, social, religious—and imagine different possibilities, in the various forms that writers have made available for us, including hot babes, cool dudes, vicious villains, femmes fatales, grubby kids, hillbillies, socialites, loners, groupies, even superheroes—all of them dead . . . but still alive. They usually don’t even stink, and they certainly don’t rot (unlike those disreputable zombies), and they frequently wear very nice clothes. Their double existences speak to our fears and desires related to questions about God, the soul, and the meaning of life, and perhaps most important: What is death and what can we do about it?

Tune in throughout the month of October for more of Mary's vampire-themed posts. In between watching your Buffy DVDs and taking the Are You A Vampire? quiz, of course.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Inaugural John G. Neihardt Lecture

On Tuesday, October 6 at 6:00 pm, join SUNY Press and the Albany Institute of History & Art for the Inaugural John G. Neihardt Lecture. The lecture will feature a talk by renowned anthropologist and historian Anthony F.C. Wallace. Wallace's talk will center around the Tuscarora Indian nation and include a tribute to John G. Neihardt and Black Elk. Neihardt was the celebrated author of twenty books of poetry, fiction, and philosophy, many of which are now available from SUNY Press. The John G. Neihardt Lecture was established by Coralie Hughes in honor of her grandfather. SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher will give a brief introduction.

Click here for more information and directions.