Really a part of me

Really a part of me – images of medical miracles and body parts in recent films

David Thomson

It’s Alive!” “I’m Pregnant!!” “I Haven’t Been Human for 200 years!!!”–all set to the swing of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” In fever dreams, these cries run together, challenging the dreamer to pick the most risible or horrifying. Or to give up sleep. Having been in a hospital recently–as an interested and billable spectator–I find it hard to forgive the extravagant bodily departures of such “medical” movies as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Interview with the Vampire, or Junior. How easily the butcher shop is presented as toyland.

In real hospitals, one finds prodigious technology, extraordinary human skill and dedication, and the eternal wondering as to how good one’s coverage is. Hospitals are set up to bring healing, cure, relief, and mercy. But everyone there will die, one day, even the newborn babies. Unless those babies are close enough to that Frankensteinian new world where life can be made fresh again. And again. Until we weary of eternity or go mad. We fear death, we fear pain, we dread extinction: so we entertain fantasies of remaking the body. There is at least a chance, one day, that medicine and fantasy will join hands and provide some escape from this fatality, life. But where will life be then? I would have more hope if these films had a place for the imagination in their Anatomies.

Why did Zoetrope think to intrude on our fondness for James Whale and Boris Karloff? The 1931 Frankenstein is a 70-minute fairy story of unshakable integrity. The remake is a travesty. Mary Shelley is up on the marquee, her plot line has been solemnly (and speciously) reaffirmed. Yet no one seems to have read the old book, or felt its curious nature; no one has seen that the Whale version was wise to change the story and melodramatize the situation. Kenneth Branagh the director treats his film like a drugged person who must not be allowed to sleep. So he shouts at it, walks it round the room, subjects it to the alleged frenzy of cinematics. Whereas, in Mary Shelley (and in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for that matter), there is a fascinating tension between meticulous, measured, not to say fussy, prose, and outrageous material and impossible invasive procedures. Like people who had never seen a movie, Shelley and Stoker conjured up bodies and pictures. From the stealth of their calm words there came bodies like steel engravings. In movies, the body is commonplace; but for those authors it was a divine mystery still.

Imagine Karloff’s monster naked–it cannot be done. He is not that human. But in M.S. Frankenstein we cannot take our eyes and mind away from De Niro’s bare back view when his creature is born. No matter the suitable slime of amniotic fluids, he/it is…solid, fleshy, thoroughly nourished. Has De Niro never lost all of Jake La Motta’s late poundage? Or has he been eating too much at his own Tribeca restaurant? Whatever the answer, this guy is hard to place as an alien creature.

De Niro’s back rashers are as nothing compared with the handicap of Kenneth Branagh’s face. I know there is often something uncomfortable about comments that brush away the artifice of character and bite on the naked helpless face itself. But Kenneth Branagh looks stupid. He can’t be, of course; he has done such wonders on the stage and captivated that nymph of the nervy gesture, his Emma. It must be an optical illusion (horrible thought: whereas once nearly anyone looked good in closeups, are we in an age now where just as many seem odious, bloated, dishonest, and dumb–dumb happens?). The problem is, as I look at Branagh–and he gives us too much opportunity–I can’t believe that the tissue behind so resolutely fixed a face could have dreamed or known how to make new life –let alone preside over a big movie. It’s so satisfied a face.

Give Colin Clive his due in the original. He seemed dotty, desperate, dangerous, and brilliant. He also seemed possessed by an aesthete loneliness that needed a monster for companionship. Branagh is so four-square jolly and dense. As a doctor, he is closer to those young interns from Doctor in the House, boozers and rugger players, touching up a nurse in X-ray, but hard pressed to locate his own vas deferens in the dark. As a doctor, Branagh has the look I expect in a vet and the disposition to talk to the animals. Anyone ready to remake Doctor Dolittle?

Frankenstein needs to be driven to surpass (and improve) the laws of nature and man. He must dread waste and extinction; he has to be an insomniac. Branagh has been heard to say on talk-fi8901101shows that, of course, Frankenstein is really very contemporary in that it’s a metaphor for gene-splicing “and that sort of thing.” (It was so contemporary, the film lasted one weekend before the world proclaimed piffle.) Branagh does “creative frenzy” like a humorless man trying to laugh at a joke he doesn’t get. You feel strenuous external effort but no inner excitement. It’s a mistake, I think, to show the young Victor as someone contentedly fond of and attached to his parents. (Victor should always have wondered if he wasn’t a foundling.) It’s disaster to have him joyously in love with Helena Bonham-Carter, the orphan who came into the Frankenstein household as a child. But who remained Helena B-C. I heard Emma Thompson telling Charlie Rose that she could hardly play the young virgin herself, so Ken looked elsewhere. Yet it’s part of Ken’s limits, I fear, that he chose H B-C. I’m going to be unpleasant again: there are valiant players whose retirement I would assist in a tactful way; you may put me down for $100 for a decent H B-C rest home, with horses and a workable garden (and I may be more generous still if room can be found for Greta Scacchi). H B-C is defiantly small (she could play with Danny DeVito), and nothing she does suggests the possibility of growth. She remains childlike, a careening mix of the lady and the shrew: she goes through octaves like Yma Sumac. But what Branagh revealed in Frankenstein is that she is the young Sybil Fawlty (the Prunella Scales wife to John Cleese in Fawlty Towers). There are moments in this film when she is running and screaming–there seem to be years and steeplechases when everyone is doing that, with the camera whirling around like a fly in the stallion’s nostril–when I saw the demon Sybil must have been on the hockey field, dribbling between bigger girls’ legs.

Victor’s intellectual daring might have had a boost if he and H B-C were siblings: unnatural urges need a little mutual support. But in the end it has to be the monster Vic has under his skin and really a part of him. I always felt with the 1931 movie that Colin Clive and Karloff looked a little alike: that suggested how remote Clive was as a human being you could have to dinner, as well as the absentminded trace of humanity in Karloff’s stricken zombie. These days, it’s too late for the monster to be just a brute. Despite the grisly cross-stitching on this monster’s face, it’s still the bitter suspiciousness of De Niro glaring out–this creep could have crawled from the swamp where last we saw Max Cady. And if only this guy had some of Max’s sick verve, his readiness to joke, and his accent. In 1931, Karloff was a surprise–not just in the numb, skull-like countenance, the huge ponderousness of his body, but because there was delicacy and pathos in the creature. Enough to float blooms on the lake–for a moment. The melancholy that Karloff brought to the creature was comment enough on Frankenstein’s transgression: a necessary sleep, a nothingness, had been violated.

But now, like kids upping the ante on each succeeding Halloween, we demand real fright. That reward seldom comes to those so eager and impatient –or on a cinematic style as deaf to dread as Branagh’s. When the monster is first seen as a cloaked but sentient being, he threatens to bring dignity and calm to the film: he shames Branagh into stopping throwing everything around–too often, Branagh assembles images with the panic of someone who has lost his car keys. But this monster lacks consistency: he is badly sewn, he has Stone Age teeth–yet he can read and he soon acquires the movie’s best lines. It would have been bolder to have made this new man altogether smarter, cooler, and more cutting (an Olivier, say, come back as Ken’s older brother, teasing him rotten, beating him at chess, and teaching him how to act). Why does the monster have to be as dumb as his Victor?

The vengeance this monster takes on Frankenstein could be so much more ingenious–establishing a charge of plagiarism before the Ingolstadt Committee for Good Science, or even Quilty-ing with H B-C. Instead, he rips out the lady’s heart (a rather hurried, snatched action–it could have been more languid and enquiring, with more amazement in her eyes) and then waits for her to be his remade bride. HB-C is affecting at that moment, but how can she compete in our minds with that hissing sexpot, Elsa Lanchester, who seemed greedy for lascivious touch so long as it involved a live and naked high-power cable, or a passing thunderstorm?

There is the North Polar stuff (which feels like one of those famously empty English movie studios in February), and there’s a fine idea for a last image of De Niro alone on an ice floe setting fire to himself. But the photography is not very sharp when the moment comes and–as ever–there is the glum feeling that Branagh just couldn’t get interested in the subject. I suspect he always felt the story was a bit of a giggle, and so he ran all the time in an attempt to forget his doubts. It’s a dreadful film, big, expensive, and hollow, without a spark of self-belief, never dreaming of the real intellectual terror and glory in Victor’s superior attitude to nature.

Whatever he says on talkshows, in the importance of being an earner, Branagh doesn’t credit the conceit in Frankenstein. Getting on for 180 years later, it’s still only a metaphor that the bits and pieces of man meat could be shazamed into life. But there are Frankensteins in today’s laboratories close to a more perilous knowledge. We may soon be able to look at our stories, or lives, from the end backwards and thus eliminate such villains as hideous death, or some kinds of egregious behavior–schizophrenia, alcoholism, or making movies in which the camera is like a demented kite. In that age, will people want to read the last pages of their script–or will we crave ignorance? Doesn’t story depend on being in the dark, hoping against hope? Surely Frankenstein now is not just a doctor, but a script doctor, someone seeking to restrain life, not liberate it. That is more horrific than hearts lifted, dripping, from the astonished body. It is not just an invasive procedure, but occupation.

I came closer to dismay at Junior than ever I did with Frankenstein. At this writing, it’s unclear how well Arnold-as-Mom will do with audiences. But at the movie, as at the previews, it seemed that there were queasy inhalations around the theater–like the men at a Lamaze class just beginning to realize what they had let themselves in for. The biology proposed in Junior, with Danny DeVito scheming over ultrasound pictures of Arnold’s embryo, is fatuous, and even offensive–for it can be taken as one more way of dismissing the female body. But the gravest omission is the true soul of parenthood–its dread, its ecstasy, its belated discovery that reality has shifted.

Junior is nothing but high concept, a way of doing something not done before (though Jacques Demy flirted with the idea, with Marcello Mastroianni, in The Slightly Pregnant Man, where the pregnancy proved hysterical). Nor is there much effort to make us believe that Arnold’s character would go along with DeVito’s scheme. (In more and more American movies, fundamental issues of motivation are being ignored. Is that weariness, lack of skill, or some rising disregard for rationality? Another strain of disdain for story?)

Arnold must be smarter than he looks, if only as an entrepreneur. But he can’t do much about those looks, or the monotonous impassivity that passes for “sensitive” in Junior. He doesn’t talk or think like a scientist, and his scenes with Emma Thompson (so clever and fussy a comic, she could vanish up her own tubes) seem enough to set of genetic alarms–INCOMPATIBLE! On screen, these two aren’t made for each other (though off camera, it is hinted, they got on–proof that life is still stranger than fiction, and superior). Let’s face it, after True Lies and the spooky uneasiness in his scenes with Jamie Lee Curtis, Arnold is having a hard time making out as screen date material. It’s always seemed possible that he came out of a laboratory rather than a mother’s body, and his most successful movies give a nod towards Karloff’s wistful alien state.

In Junior, he says he’s getting sentimental over silly TV stories; other characters tell him he’s looking radiant; and he is supposedly beset with wonder when his baby is delivered–by out-of-frame Caesarean: this is dangerous, DeVito has the grace to admit. Does anyone in the audience believe any of this? Or do the claims sound translated and delivered through some Alpha-60 voice? Arnold hasn’t yet learned to show there’s an awkward, doubting, or unrifled screw in his body. Imagine Junior with someone like Bill Murray and its Alpine concept might have bumped nicely into the solid earth of human ordinariness.

But the tanned, porcelain bowl of Arnold’s pregnant stomach is too close to horror for me–apart from anything else, how did it get so tanned? yet Junior has one scene of raw emotional force. It comes when Pamela Reed has her baby (there is this merciful subplot of a “natural” pregnancy). What looks like a true newborn is placed in her arms. I believe in the moment because the baby has that crushed, drenched motile resilience of the real thing (not cute, but savage), because I’d guess Ivan Reitman is too decent to have a four-week-old made up, and because of the wonder in Pamela Reed’s face. Reed is a real actress of an older school than Junior knows, but it’s a measure of such work that it can let wonder show.

That babe-in-arms in Junior is more momentous than the muddy scrum of deliverance in Frankenstein. Many people get a chance to witness the most lyrical surgery, childbirth; it is also one of the slowest, for it is an invasive procedure that leads to explosive liberation. The cliched cry “It’s Alive!” from Frankenstein sounds feeble in the light of any ordinary delivery. There are extraordinary unfoldings: the head changes shape at birth; the limbs–white as root vegetables–lunge out; the skin changes color as light and air meet it. The creature goes from being fish to animal. And the spectator is altered, too –as he and she feel the enormity of the event, they also know how infinitesimal it must be on the large scale. You feel grand and insignificant in ways that change you; and there is no stranger more immediate and known than the child. To see a human born is something that those who have no children should demand a chance of seeing–after all, you’d go a long way to see the Canyon de Chelly or Las Meninas. Why not avail yourself of this other wonder?

The real thing exposes something barbaric and unnatural in Junior–and surely that’s part of the artistic load of horror. That’s what you can still feel in the pregnancy and delivery of Rosemary’s Baby, or in the body work from Dead Ringers and that handful of movies where to be under someone’s skin (or to have them as really a part of you) is conspiratorial, seething, and infernal as well as a fucking dream. There are transcendent images of the imperiled body in movies, where the beauty is inseparable from damage and vulnerability: the way Scorsese makes a bloodied ring rope in Raging Bull look like an umbilical cord; Mother’s face, breathing in the swinging light of Psycho; the flicker of Hannibal Lecter’s tongue; Kane’s lips.

Such marvels are so rare amid all the contrived limb-lopping and the great corpus of sex in the movies. Special effects have made a plaything of the body: it might as well be rubber. The same processes mock and undermine actors. They are less and less required to behave like people, bound by the laws of physical possibility, and more and more employed as phantoms, halfalive or undead, figures in the flux of fantasy, images that will be worked on in Effects. There has to be some consequence to a spectacle, like cinema, that has glorified the body while denying pain, mortality, and physics for a hundred years.

When Tom Cruise’s foppish Lestat observes in Interview with the Vampire that he hasn’t been human for two hundred years, the actor gives the line an edge of gay bitters. And so, vampirism becomes a metaphor for gay erotics. But it’s hard to be provoked by a chronicle or even an empire of vampirism–aren’t all the people in movies undead, and a touch campy? Aren’t we accustomed to dwelling on imagery that would vanish in the daylight?

I have read not one word by Anne Rice, and I hope I’m too old to start. So Neil Jordan’s lush Masterpiece (Operating) Theatre style suits the newcomer as well as the BBC’s rendering of classic literature. The literature is decorized. People say the Rice books are foolish, yet possessed of an authentic emotional creepiness. Philippe Rousselot’s exquisite funerary photography may be its perfect equivalent, and more important than questionable casting. There were times when I felt a desert thirst craving for one shot of daylight. The faces are like candles that illumine the gray-blue-black range of silks, hair, wounds, and veins. You feel buried, or entombed.

But I couldn’t follow or find the plot –why does Louis want to be interviewed?–and I got lost in the Rice protocols of what a vampire can and can’t do. It’s hard to have a story when Brad Pitt’s Louis is at the heart of it. Surely this is the most depressed, depressing lead figure in an American movie since Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings. Must vampires have such gloomy lives? If so, is it because they are prototypes of a new breed of genetically controlled humans whose lives are endless and determined?

Surely the movie meant more to Neil Jordan, and to David Geffen, its begetter. It’s not easy to escape the gay subtext in Interview–the existence of a text might have offered some cover, but alas! Young men kiss and caress; they do exchange some bodily fluids; and the modern framework to the story is set in San Francisco–my home–so that I got a frisson (well, a freeze on) about how someone regarded SF as the embodiment of Halloween city, where the undead walk the streets and practice antic gestures while they may, sharing blood.

Or so a certain kind of PR goes–but Junior is all set in Berkeley and San Francisco, too, and it treats those locales as nothing but pretty tourist spots. Vertigo is still the best vampire movie ever shot in San Francisco, but it’s arguably the most resonant movie ever made about the appropriation of one human shell, or vessel, by another. It required no more sucking than the silent inwardness of voyeurism. And Vertigo was done in a time when the tourist dreams were unironic, James Stewart could park anywhere, and AIDS was not yet as sinisterly San Franciscan as the earthquake or Fatty Arbuckle.

As Interview with the Vampire draws to a close, somehow it becomes a movie. The Paris episode ends with a well-staged theatrical event at which a young, naked virgin is sacrificed to the church of vampirism–at least, I think that’s what happened, but I may be getting something wrong in the ritual. As this young woman collapses, so Jordan sees a circle of vamps, all in glossy black, closing over her, like black pansy petals. Where the hell has this director been? you ask–it’s not enough to reply that he was letting Rousselot strut his stuff. The one image makes the rest of the picture seem mannered.

Louis’s coming into the modern era is treated as a trip through film history. At last, someone has noted how well the great parlors of false light suit the vampire’s need for shelter. Maybe this is in Anne Rice, maybe it is Jordan, but the films Louis watches play upon the idea of “sunrise,” the emblem of renewed life and beauty, yet doom to vampires. There is a fascinating transition from Murnau’s American Sunrise back to Nosferatu, horrified to feel the light coming back. Then there are glimpses of Scarlett’s Technicolor dawn and Christopher Reeve’s Superman watching the sun wipe night from the pretty globe. Surprisingly, there’s no thought of a row of wan vampires enjoying Chris Marker’s Sans soleil. But a marquee gives a kind nod to Tequila Sunrise (better that than Sunrise at Campobello) before we’re restored to the triangular room in downtown San Francisco where Brad Pitt has been putting the lugubrious story on tape for Christian Slater.

The reporter retreats. He gets in his car and heads for the safety of Marin. But on the Golden Gate Bridge, Lestat rears up in the back of the car to stop the spread of the news. There is then that rare thing, a beautiful and necessary rising helicopter shot that soars above the towers of the bridge and turns back to see the city in the rising dawn that comes from Oakland, the Sierras, and the desert. This panorama isn’t just a fancy way of getting off, it speaks accurately to a sense of San Francisco that is held by more than locals. AIDS was not invented here, but gay men made the city a stage where they found ways of keeping the disease at bay. But now one hears in SF that some of those survivors have seen more death than they can bear with hope. Those deaths are not dramatic or epic, like Frankenstein’s monster ennobled in fire and ice. They have no evident solace in parable or metaphor. They are just grisly extinctions, too soon, a remorseless test of courage and character.

Valiant men and women who are HIV attend many funerals. A dozen a year; a hundred they can recall, measuring out their own years with platelet counts. In San Francisco, at Halloween, they make a fearsome vampire street theater in which the comedy and the terror are inseparable–real lovers. It is a kind of defiance. But the same people, in day-light, are crushed by the disease and the list of deaths. They find it harder, or more fanciful, to enter into friendships. And so they slip back into dangerous ways. But their ways. It is their skin and not much else is left to them. These breakdowns of the body are so resolute that our garish movies should curl up and wither in the plain light of their truths.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Film Society of Lincoln Center

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