As you may or may not know, one of the reasons I’m not blogging as much or in such depth is that I’m back in Higher Education as a mature student doing Film Studies at the University of Iceland. Apart from the language barrier, such as the fact that I have almost no god damn idea what many of the lectures and discussions are about, I’m actually having a whale of a time (all the reading material is in English. fuk yeah!). Pretty much every moment is of the sensation of being a big, lumbering, bearded sponge trying to soak up as much theory and practice on culture as I can get my hands on, while also haranguing my teachers with numerous off-topic statements and sending in laborious epics for my final essays. I’m sure they love me really!
I’ve also been asked to contribute where I can towards Sirkustjaldið, the website and journal portal to the university’s Arts and Humanities dept. Of course there are some major teething issues, such as the aforementioned language problem (everything is in Icelandic, which raises the evil specter of translation, and comments such as “what the hell is a Cyclogammatron???”), as well as numerous cultural miscommunication barriers.
But my first piece (of my take on some films from the Stockfish Film Festival that happened in Reykjavik several weeks ago) is now about to be uploaded on site, so to reciprocate, I’m uploading the English version here. Enjoy….
Reality Bites: The Vampire film in an age of Transnational Postmodernism
The recent Stockfish Film Festival in Reykjavik provided two interesting additions to the moribund canon of the Vampire Film
By Bob Cluness
In her book on the cultural history of the Vampire, Our Vampires, Ourselves, Nina Auerbach claims that “Every age embraces the vampire it needs, and gets the vampire it deserves.” Since it was introduced as a folkloric abstract of pure evil in the high-Gothic drama of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire myth, thanks to the mass culture of Literature, Film and TV, has become fully integrated and propagated throughout the public consciousness.
The last few decades however has seen the Vampire become the victim of postmodernism and the capitalist culture of consumption, hollowed out and diluted by a series of dreary, bloated Hollywood and TV adaptations. Today, the vampire is no longer seen as an abject figure of transgression, but as a symbol of capitalist ideology, displaying the models of normative whiteness – young, cool, sexy semi-sociopathic characters with buff bodies and great hair.
As a form of riposte, Jim Jarmusch’s excellent 2013 film, The Only Lovers Left Alive, sought a different avenue to the vampire myth. An exquisitely shot and crafted movie, it starred Tom Hiddlestone and Tilda Swinton as two centuries-old vampires who drift through time like ghosts in their own world. Jarmusch shies away from violence and transgression, instead making his vampires ageless hipster aesthetes whose boredom of been-there-done-that has led to a high amount of self-reflectiveness. Civilised and refined figures who love the fine things in life, they valorise “good” forms of anglicised culture, such as vintage guitars and vinyl records, while sneering and turning their back on the ugly culture of the modern world (It’s worth noting that the only modern cultural figure they respect in the film is Jack White of all people). It’s an old school sensibility that while graceful and poised, occasionally slips into condescending snobbery.
It was The Only Lovers Left Alive that came immediately to mind as I watched two films about vampires at the inaugural Stockfish Film Festival that took two different views of the state of the Vampire in modern culture. The first film, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, is a US/Iranian film directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, her feature-length debut. Billed as an “Iranian Vampire Western,” the film is ostensibly set in an Iranian ghost town called “Bad City,” where even though the nodding-dog oil pumps work away day and night, it’s a place of unemployment, inequality and desperation. We see various characters try to do whatever they can to survive: The opening scene show a young man, Arash, lose his classic ’57 Thunderbird car to Sayeed, a drug dealer, due to the debts of his addict father. Meanwhile, we see a woman prostituting herself to make ends meet (with Sayeed as her pimp). But one night Sayeed picks up a mysterious young woman wearing a Chador, and takes her back to his apartment. This young woman however turns out to be a vampire, who immediately kills Sayeed before stalking the streets of Bad City at night, with many of the film’s characters coming under her ghostly spell.
The first thing you immediately notice about the look and “feel” of A Girl Walks Home… is the way it pins its numerous cinematic influences on it sleeve. While being a vampire film, it adds elements of the coming-of-age, neo-noir and western genres. With its lengthy shots, meandering narrative, gritty low life characters and settings, and expressive mise en scene (Alluringly shot in black and white by Lyle Vincent), it also owes a huge debt stylistically to directors such as the aforementioned Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch, as well as numerous European new wave cinema movements.
The other thing you notice about A Girl Walks Home… is how initially un-Iranian it looks as a film. Apart from a few posters and shots of Persian TV, Euro-US cultural signs and symbols pervade nearly every scene, from the character’s clothing (James Dean Americana, French synth-wave fashion), the music (Euro tech-house, post-punk and synth revivals), to the town’s architecture and landscape (anonymous suburban streets, rich mansions, rural-poor trailer parks). If it weren’t for the fact that everyone speaks Persian, you would think that they’ve simply made an American film with Iranian dialogue added for extra coolness.
But if you look past this, then you see that there is more going on in the film than just a mere transplantation/appropriation of Persian exotica onto Americana. The director Amirpour and the actors are all either Iranian born or 2nd generation Iranian-Americans, and like many émigré and diasporaic groups feel the pull between the culture they live in with the historical cultures of their parents, often falling in-between the gaps and becoming something else altogether.
As a result A Girl Walks Home… is like an Iranian translation of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, as Amirpour and the film’s actors take this clash of east and west and project a double consciousness onto their characters. They may look, dress and act western, but they still retain a sense Persian identity, a cultural bilingualism that offers up something new and interesting. These clashes of cultures are perfectly highlighted in scenes such as when The Vampire Girl and Arash (leaving a party in Vampire fancy dress) first meet, the French-Persian-synthpop vampire coming face-to-face with the Iranian-Rock-and-roll-rebel-Hollywood version, or the lovely shots of The Vampire Girl as she races down the street on a skateboard, her chandor flapping behind her like the wings of a bat.
A Girl Walks Home… is a wonderfully realised piece of intercultural cinema which turns away from the prevailing sense of whiteness and cultural homogeneity in Jarmusch’s The Only Lovers…, instead infusing the vampire genre with a transnational sensuality.
Revenge of the Undead Nerds
If A Girl Walks Home… Is all about drawing in and seducing the spectator, then What We Do In The Shadows does the exact opposite, as it makes its vampires horribly human with all our attending failings. Directed, written, and starring Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement (better known as one half of NZ comedy duo Flight Of The Conchords), the film is a comedy “mockumentary” that follows four vampires who share a flat in Wellington, New Zealand. The film crew observes their daily lives as they show what it’s really like living as a vampire in modern times, whether it be the endless bickering about house rules and the washing up, the difficulty vampires have in getting into nightclubs (the bouncers have to formally invite you in), to the pain of getting your bloodied clothes dry cleaned properly (decent slaves are hard to find these days). We also see how they deal with a local guy whom they have accidentally turned into vampire and wants to be mates with them.
The humour of WWDITS derives from the personalities of the vampires themselves. Like the stars of Jarmusch’s The Only Lovers…, the vampires here are centuries old (Petyr, the Nosferatu lookalike clocking in at 8000 years), but instead of being effortlessly cool and sexy, as if they were members of Singapore Sling, the vampires in WWDITS are total dorks, complete with gut fat, bad breath and flop sweat. Their attempts to pass off as cultured and cultivated dandies consistently falls flat as their lack of integration with modern NZ culture is painfully exposed at every turn. Scenes such as one of the vampires giving an “erotic” dance will make you chew your fist off, while the sight of them “performing” the music of the old country neatly skewers the scenes of tasteful music-making performed in Jarmusch’s movie.
While A Girl Walks Home… contains poised, textured cinematography, the camera work in WWDITS perfectly mimics the modern documentary style with wobbly, jerky movements, along with the classic technique of just holding onto the nervous subject for that moment too long. Meanwhile the night-time camera lights provide the harsh glare that allows you the filth and grime of their house. They may have been aiming for faded grandeur, but these guys are a complete bunch of filthbags.
From start to end, WWDITS is bloody (lol) funny with a constant stream of gags as the writing of Clement and Waititi taps a similar vein of eccentric comedy that you see in Flight Of The Conchords. The clash of the bloody and gruesome world of the vampires with the deadpan humdrum of their human friends/slaves provide the best moments, such as slave Jackie moaning “I’m stuck here ironing their fucking frills,” or when their mate Stu is asked “Are you a demon?” with his deadpan reply, “No I’m a software analyst.” There is also some great moments when the vampires run into a gang of werewolves, hilariously led by fellow Conchords alumni Rhys Derby, who are trying to come to terms with their inner anger (“We are werewolves, NOT swearwolves!”).
Even though A Girl Walks Home At Night and What We Do In The Shadows don’t truly revolutionise the canon of the Vampire film, but they both offer ideas that allow us new ways to views vampires as something other than pretty western boys who sparkle in the sunlight.