Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands

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The British Library knows how to do its exhibitions. It does them big. The latest, “Writing Britain: Wastelands to wonderlands” (Friday 11 May– Tuesday 25 Sep 2012) explores the literary history of Britain.
The first section “Rural dreams” immerses you in pastoral idealism from pre-Christian times to modern day. There are early symbols and stories from John Barleycorn to Robin hood, poetry inspired by myths, the Mabinoginon, and its progeny The Owl Service. Further on: “earthly paradise” fiction, (Winnie the Pooh) country house literature and protests against urbanization. look out for Tolkien, especially his lovely painting The hill: Hobbiton-across-the-water.

“Dark satanic mills” is a startling contrast after the first sections mix of pastoral idealism and charm. With an soundscape by Mark Peter Wright, you are immersed, not just with accounts of infernos-with the noise too. The literature is reactions to mines, mills and factories. The décor is impressive: black and white prints of industrial life, and mills that would look at home in Dante. Among Trollope and Elliot are surreal surprises; John Dyers The Fleece poeticises the wool industry. Wordsworth’s letter to P.M Gladstone objecting to Windermere Railway-angry sonnet included. Look out for Ernest-Jones’s amazing depiction of an English town-the striking style resembles the set-pieces in Metropolis. Elsewhere there’s George Orwell’s sketch map of his route in The Road to Wigan Pier. The poetry includes Ted Hughes and W.H. Auden (with haunting illustrations by Henry Moore.)

The countryside in “Wild places” is a world away from “Rural dreams”. The best and worst of emotional extremis is showcased, with Wordsworth’s intensely spiritual poetry alongside Gothic romances. Bronte’s Wuthering Heights features. So do the works of  Daphne Du Maurier, and generally any great writer who wrote about passion and peril in countryside. King Lear (look out for the striking illustration) and Dickens’s Magwich are cited as humanity overcome by wildness. Sole blemish on the section: post-apocalyptic novels by Richard Jeffries and J.G. Ballard.

“Beyond the city” explores ideas of the suburbs. Among printed images of the suburbs hung tapestry-style, are surreal, magical, and menacing discoveries. A suspension of disbelief predominates. In a Kafkaesque story The beetle (1897) by Richard Marsh, a shape shifting beetle represents foreign intrusion. Ralph Steadman’s gleeful illustration to Alice in Wonderland depicts the Rabbit as a bowler-hatted commuter. In pride of place was G.K. Chesterton, with  The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Man Who was Thursday. The crowning piece of the section is the striking publicity poster for Notting Hill. There is slight stress on his negative-the notes for  The man who was Thursday, describe the surveillance and paranoia in his books. True, but his books are also wild and funny. J.G. Ballard’s Kingdome Come and Crash are much darker. One unexpected inclusion was Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes is more associated with London, surely? He does go to the suburbs, but even so…Is he taking a holiday? If so he chose a nice location.

“Cockney visions” is one of the biggest, best decorated sections; The floor is covered with prints of Victorian and pre-Victorian maps. Others hang from the ceiling.  Showcased work stretches from Chaucer to the handwritten manuscript for Harry Potter. “In different voices” concerns different accents and dialects in London. Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and Angela Carter’s Wise Children rub shoulders with West Indian and Jamaican writers. In “City of Dreadful night” things get interesting. The dark side of London is explored, with Dore’s haunting engravings for London: a pilgrimage and Thompson and Blake’s poems to the city. The great villains of 19th century literature are displayed: Sweeny Todd, Conrad’s terrorists in The Secret Agent, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are there, plus a graphic novel based on the Ripper murders. Odd, among all these villains, is the absence of Conan Doyle; Surely Moriarty can stalk with the worst?
“Street haunting” is intriguing, because of the central idea: The wanderer who really experiences the city. This is certainly a diverse section, mixing sightseeing manuals with De Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Among this collection is a character who would be at home in “City of dreadful night”. Poe’s The Man of The Crowd is presented as a “city wanderer” story. In the beautifully illustrated copy on display, the narrators pursuit of an old man takes him through London’s underbelly. It is eventually revealed that the old man is so evil he cannot be alone with himself: he is “the man of the crowd”. Largely “Cockney visions” resembles this story: Interesting, intelligent, dark-and very colourful.

“Waterlands” is the exhibitions crown. Video installations dominate, with a soundscape by Mark peter Wright and archive footage of the Thames and the seaside.  Below in the display cases are the writers you might expect (Austin, Larkin, Greene, Dickens, Kingsley) and the writers you don’t (Stoker: The original illustration of Dracula biting a white-clad maiden certainly catches the eye.) Highlights include “Sweet Thames” poems: John Leland’s Swan Song, where the poet in no way sucks up to Henry the Eighth; Self dubbed “Water poet” and publicity stuntman extraordinaire John Taylor. Best are Edmund Spenser’s 1596 Prothalamaion and T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. Both poems are gorgeous, and it is interesting to see them together.
There are darker interpretations; In Du Maurer’s Rebecca the sea holds dark secrets. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness the Thames is a link British imperialism. However there are far lighter examples here than elsewhere: the original manuscript of Alice in Wonderland. The notes tell of  the boat trip that inspired the book;

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Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, a masterpiece of idyllic Englishness; Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows plus some rather unexpected illustrations for a scene in which Pan appears; different takes on the scene are compared, With Arthur Rackham winning out from sheer peculiar genius. To finish off the section is an artwork by Liz Mathews.
This is not an exhibition about Britain. This is an exhibition about writers, and their relationship with Britain. Perhaps there is a little emphasis on the negative, but “Waterlands” makes up for that. Overall, lovely.

Being Human series four

Ah, Being Human. The show with the most ridiculous sounding premise imaginable, that delivers such enjoyable content. ‘A vampire, a werewolf and a ghost share a house’ sounds like a cross between ‘Twilight’ (death to that terrible franchise by the way) and an unsuccessful seventies sitcom. But what it proved to be was greater than the sum of parts. It may be comedy horror crossed with domestic drama, but there is an underlying philosophy to this show. The central idea-that emotional connections are what make us human beings-is a good one. There are reflections on free will, redemption and isolation in between the jokes and the stakings. Russell Toveys’ career was kick started by his role as George the werewolf-though having seen him in Sherlock series 2 episode 2: The hounds of Baskerville, I fear he may be stuck with dog-related roles for a while.

I worried for the fourth season. Replacing half the cast was bad enough-but the premise of this season seemed dangerously over the top, a risky move in television. But like the scores of critics who were forced to rethink, I warmed to this season at the end.

It was a mistake to worry about the recasting. Damien Molony is a wonderful new vampire, and even better, is not attempting to imitate his predecessor. The first vampire, Mitchell (Aidan Turner), was a laid-back Irish charmer who reverts to his old violent tendencies at the end of series three. It would be a terrible decision to copy that character. And Molony doesn’t. His incredibly posh, uptight Hal is repressed and obsessive-compulsive. There is something very funny, menacing and tragic about his character.

Damien Moloney as Hal York

Michael Socha also gives a good performance as the new werewolf Tom. The actors have very good chemistry together, and do the ‘odd couple’ act convincingly. Sadly, there are fewer domestic scenes in this series, but we do get to see them discuss Antiques Roadshow, so not all domestic humor goes out of the window.  Lenora Crichlow is her lovely self as the ghost, but it looks as though she will be replaced for the fifth series. If so, let’s hope her replacement proves as likable in the long run.

The main fault lies with the writers. In any series of Being Human, the storyline is very important. The writers work hard on a structured story arc that throws some terrible moral dilemma at the characters, but still allows for some fun. But in this case, they made the wrong choice: ‘The vampire leaders will arrive in two months and begin world domination.’ is just a little too big and silly. One main draws of the show is the focus on small, domestic problems, not big apocalyptic ones. To keep everything on the human level was a good decision, and should not be abandoned. The moral dilemma the group is presented with also has a try-too-hard feel to it. Worst of all, there is not very much for the characters to do while they await the vampire leaders, so there are a lot of one-episode story arcs rather than a build up to the climax. There are drop-ins from a serial killer, an  old character, a troublesome journalist and a sub-plot involving werewolves. Which brings me to this series’ main villain, Cutler the vampire.

It’s hard to know what they were trying to do with Cutler. This show is known for its big, bad villains (Herrick in series one and three, Kemp in series two) and Cutler immediately comes across as a lightweight. He is that most dubious of phenomena, the intentionally sympathetic baddie. His character reminds you of the overconfident twerp at the office who owns expensive desk toys and wants to be an executive. We are treated to his sad back-story, in which his life is casually torn to shreds in front of him. But like Alex in A clockwork Orange, this character is still a villain. This is someone who tears out throats absentmindedly. Were the writers trying to be ironic? Add depth to the character? Make some point about human nature? Either way, it is pretty underwhelming. The actor does his best, injecting a cocky, devious evil into Cutler, while also making him very vulnerable. He also has some pretty good lines.

It looked as though the show had gone the way of Torchwood and failed to deliver a big villain. But fans and critics were wrong to worry. At the end, Being Human finally picks up to its usual standards. This came partly with the action, but mostly in the form of the wonderful Mark Gatiss. He gives an understated and chilling performance as the sinister vampire leader Mr. Snow. Far from failing to produce a good villain, the writers gave us the scariest character Being Human has ever seen. With his blackened teeth and filthy fingernails, Mr. Snow is repulsive. He brings to mind the pre-Dracula stories, when vampires clawed their way out of graves, and didn’t bother to wine and dine you. Gatiss-last seen playing Mycroft Holmes in Sherlock-is one of the best actors around, and can make the smallest word or gesture stick in the mind.

Mark Gatiss as Mr. Snow

So what is the final verdict? This series overall has stumbled, but it has not in the end, actually failed. There has been a lot of changes, some pretty regrettable, like the leaning towards silliness. The underlying tone of the show remains, thank God, but it seems to lean further away from the domestic. This is a pity. If you change too much you could lose everything that makes Being Human what it is. The new cast is fine, and gives a new reason to watch the show. So shall we forgive the writers for this season? Well, redemption is one of the shows major themes. Let’s forgive Being Human, and keep our hopes up for season five. One thing this show is known to do is resurrect its more successful villains. Long live Mr. Snow! (But not too long, please.)

The cabinet of Doctor Caligari

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There seems to be a fashion right now for silent films with a live accompaniment. With a series of rather dull-looking blockbusters lined up for the summer, these silents are possibly your best choice. If you go to the right venue, you can catch some of the most interesting, imaginative films ever made. The picturehouse cinema chain must be one of the best things to happen to London recently. In a dimly lit room, with a real club atmosphere, we watched The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari with a live score from “Minima”.

And it is a twisted jewel of a film. A study in mistrust, paranoia and madness, it is set largely in the tortured mind of the central character. The atmosphere is very Germanic, with a sort of macabre playfulness that calls to mind Tim Burton. There are some genuine chills, and a plot wrong-foots you at every turn-including (apparently) the first twist ending in cinema.

The hero and his friends encounter Caligari (Werner Krauss ), an evil showman, who has enslaved a sleepwalker. As the group get entangled in the mystery surrounding Caligari, a story of madness and murder follows.

The most striking feature is the films astonishing visuals. The scenery is a Burton-esque fantasy of sharp planes and angles. The main setting-a small German town-is a hallucinatory tangle of twisted streets, filled with menacing shadows. The action moves from one fantasy to another, from the bleak countryside to the halls of a mental hospital, but in every scene, the backdrop is a labyrinth. The actors fit right into these twisted surroundings. The exaggerated acting style and Gothic appearances help create a perfect fantasy world that hovers between comedy and menace.

Overall, a truly brilliant experience. The mainstream run of cinema has little to offer right now. Don’t waste your money on a so-so horror flick. Go to your nearest Picturehouse and book something truly brilliant.

The tour dates of “Minima” can be found at www.minimamusic.co.uk

The Phantom in time

A masked Claude Rains; Lavishly staged opera scenes; Two Oscar wins. The 1943 version of “Phantom of the Opera” certainly has a lot to recommend it. Despite veering wildly from the plot of Gaston Leroux’s novel, this film is a brilliant reworking of the story. So lavish that one of the opera scenes featured a horse, yes, an actual horse on the stage, this version made the most of then-new Technicolor filming. But more eye-catching to those who know the various versions is the altering of the roles. Now, it is a mistake to object to reworking of a story per se. “Blade runner” would be a very different film had Ridley Scott stuck closely to the source material. But it is fascinating to see how reinterpretation of the characters has altered the films meaning.

At its heart “Phantom of the Opera” is a fairytale. Specifically it is a variation on “Beauty and the Beast”. A man falls into trouble, is cursed with physical ugliness and becomes bestial as a result. His only hope is redemption in the shape of a woman’s love. But in the Phantom’s case, there is no hope of a transformation. Beauty rejects the Beast, and is rescued by the handsome prince, Raoul. The Phantom may be redeemed by his love of Christine, but is denied a happily ever after.

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Gerard Butler as the Phantom

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In the 1940s version Claude Rains portrays a different Phantom to Leroux’s original. Rains’s Phantom is a gentle, humane musician, pining for Susanna Foster’s coquettish Christine. He is treated unfairly by everyone, sacked, berated, insulted and finally driven to murder before having acid thrown in his face. Because of his ordeal he becomes the Phantom, and undergoes a complete character change. From passive, gentle and benevolent he becomes menacing, murderous and crazed. His only link to his former life is his love for Christine. It is fairytale imagery, again, wrapped in the conventions of gothic drama. It is the transformation from prince to beast, with only the hope of having the curse lifted. Christine now takes the part of a would-be rescuing princess.

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Lon Chaney as the Phantom

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The film of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical has a different take on the transformation. Gerard Butler’s Phantom was abused as a child, and kept as an exhibit in a freak show. Like Raine’s Phantom, he is turned into a killer by trauma. Emmy Rossum’s Christine hits the nail on the head with her diagnoses:

Christine: This haunted face/Holds no horror for me now. It’s in your soul/That the true distortion lies.

But while the 1940s film focuses on the contrast between prince and beast, Lloyd Webber’s version is concerned only with the Phantom’s predicament. There is no lingering over the protagonists’ former innocence. As for the 1920s film, there is barely any mention of the Phantom’s past, except to link him to crime and black magic. But what all of the films do is emphasise the redemptive quality of the Phantom’s love.

The 1920s version starring Lon Chaney revolves very tightly around the central relationship. The Phantom and Christine are permanently locked in a power struggle. Christine has to throw off her early illusions, and her quite real love. She makes the decisions which drive the plot, choosing handsome, respectable Raoul over the tortured, murderous Phantom. She later plays the role of damsel in distress, but is still active and central to the plot. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version is similar. In the film of the musical, Christine (Emmy Rossum) even saves the Phantom’s life at one point. Both of these versions stick quite closely to the novel. Here is the deviation of 1940s version: Susanna Foster’s Christine is not in love with the Phantom, nor anyone else. Raoul is replaced by two young men, who she alternately flirts with, and discards at the end (the comic rivalry of her beaux is one of the films highlights). In a way Foster’s Christine is a more feminist portrayal, since she clearly needs none of these men (Christine’s real relationship in this film is with her career). But it does reduce her role in the plot hugely. It also weakens the power of the plot. The gesture of compassion crucial to the Phantom’s redemption comes only after his death-and in a very watered down form:

Christine: He was almost a stranger to me, and yet somehow I always felt drawn to him with…with a kind of pity…understanding…

Very mild indeed compared with this scene from the Lloyd Webber film:

Christine:  Pitiful creature of darkness/What kind of life have you known?/God give me courage to show you/You are not alone…(kisses the Phantom passionately).

In Webber’s version, Christine’s act of kindness comes as close to transforming the Phantom as the plot can allow. He lets her go and escapes, his good side having triumphed. The film even allows him a kind of marriage with Christine, when she gives him her engagement ring. Webber’s version comes closest to the formula of Beauty and the Beast; The lifting of the curse and the union of the characters both have a sort of parallel. There is no scene of retribution for the Phantom’s crimes because redeemed, he can be allowed to escape the mob.

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Claude Rains as the Phantom, with Christine

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The 1940s script gives just enough of a concession to Christine’s role as a rescuer to redeem the Phantom. Otherwise her active role is almost completely cut out. She is the only the object of an obsession. Having changed Christine into a passive figure, the film focuses on Raines’s version of the Phantom. This completely alters the story’s dynamics.  Rather than a passionate power struggle between characters, this is a character study. As the successor to Chaney, Raines is tasked with giving an equal performance in a totally different style. It is fair to say he succeeds. In contrast to Chaney’s grand acting, Rains is all nuance and convincing psychology. His version is a sympathetic anti-hero, who is trying to save himself. He pursues Christine, the passive object, a symbol of redemption. Part of this Phantom’s tragedy is his doomed attempt at self-rescue. This partly expresses itself in his crazed speech to Christine where he sublimates his life in the cellars:

“You’ll love it here, when you get used to the dark, and you’ll love the dark too. It’s friendly, and peaceful. It brings rest, and relief from pain. It’s right under the opera. The music comes down and the darkness distils it-cleanses it of the suffering that made it-then it’s all beauty. And life here is like a resurrection.”

Throughout his madness, Rains’s Phantom is always trying to recover something. Christine is clearly essential to his story, but only as a component. Apart from speaking the lines that grant the Phantom redemption, her only really active role is the unmasking. In the 1920 and Lloyd Webber films, the revelation of the Phantom’s hideousness is the catalyst. It causes the previously submissive Christine to disobey her “master” and choose Raoul over the Phantom. But this version serves a different purpose. In her new role as object and agent in the Phantoms story, she reveals to the audience the Phantoms real condition. The sight frightens her, but is not really a catalyst for anything. It is a revelation, and comes just before the Phantom’s tragic end.

Overall, I would say the Lloyd Webber version is the best, though all three films have their merits. The Webber version, somehow, it’s the only film which has properly looked at all of the issues; The fairytale plot of Leroux’s original. The suffering and transformation of the Phantom. The role of a female rescuer. The 1920s version is slightly truncated, in that it ignores or at least does not linger on the transformation. As for the 1940s version, it seems that female power just could not be acknowledged, even in a film. Why is open to speculation. Instead the film focuses on the male story, almost excessively so, in a depth the other two do not go into. Perhaps now, in a more equal society, all of the issues can be addressed. Lloyd Webber can and does address the story properly, with no need to alter the plot.

Unless you are in love with the original novel, it is possible to enjoy all of these versions for their own merits. And all of them are worth seeking out. Lloyd Webber may have conquered the west end with the musical, but as takes on a gothic fairytale none of these are to be missed. The 1940s take is a character study, not a love triangle, but there is nothing wrong with that. A fine story bears more than one interpretation. And it is nice to see a fairytale in which a woman rescues a man for a change. Just saying.

Three colors blue

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“Three colours blue” is the first instalment of Kieslowskis’ famous trilogy exploring the French revolutionary ideals. The other two films in the trilogy, “Three colours white” and “Three colours red” explore equality and fraternity on the personal level. Like “Blue”, they show their protagonists go though a long personal struggle to achieve the films ideal, often at financial or emotional cost. “Three colours blue”, being a story of personal grief, charts a woman’s struggle for emotional liberation, and sees her suffering horrors in the process. These three ideals-liberty, equality and fraternity-are portrayed by Kieslowski as pure, almost sublimated targets, which can be reached only through hard work. His choice to use these themes-themes an entire country fought over in a bloody revolution-can only make the trilogy public art, art intended to speak to and for France, and the rest of humanity.

The plot is reasonably simple; Julie, (Juliette Binoche), loses her composer husband and child in an accident. Traumatised, she leaves her home and tries to discard her past, rejecting all love and friendship, which she now views as “traps”. Gradually though, she re-learns how to live, and finishes her husbands final work, the “Symphony for the unification of Europe”. The work proves to be a healing force, and she can finally rebuild her life. Binoche is wonderful in the part, delivering one of her career-making performances, which won the “best actress” at the 1993 Venice film festival.

As with all Kieslowski films, the cinematography is beautiful, but in this case shows reality from the protagonists point of view; the repeated use of close-ups expresses Julies wish to limit the world to her immediate environment. The repeated motifs Kieslowski uses, of glass, water and reflections, are relevant; they reflect Julies’ mindset, namely her desire to keep the world at a distance; Glass allows observation without contact: Julie observes the world, and allows it to observe her, but she does not allow anyone emotional contact. Water is used in a similar way in this film, but also reflect her wish to drown her emotions; Julie repeatedly visit’s a swimming pool, where she often stays submerged for a long time.

The journey from isolation to social integration is ferociously difficult for Julie, and mirrors the idea of an eternal struggle for freedom; Julie fights hard against an oppressive emotion, finding recourse in creative work, which is eventually a healing force; the plot is the story of a fierce human struggle to throw off the past, and by hard work, create a future. However detached the story seems on the surface, these peculiarly French ideals run through the very heart of it.

One of Kieslowskis’ abiding interests is in human connections, which he identifies with the three ideals throughout the trilogy; Julie’s initial rejection of society is repeatedly challenged by the director; He uses various tricks and motifs to remind us of the interconnectedness of everyone in society; For example, in one scene a busker plays the very music Julies husband was composing; He later reveals that he made up the tune himself. This scene serves to remind us that different people from different backgrounds, for different reasons might have identical thoughts. Julies’ journey away from voluntary isolation, and return to love, reflects the directors beliefs: The individual must always return to society, because life outside society is worthless.

“Three colours blue” is certainly a masterpiece, and won unanimous praise from critics when it was first released. Quite apart from Binoche’s perfect performance, it interprets emotional freedom as a high ideal. Woven in with this ideal is Kieslowskis’ vision of society as a unified whole, which offers love in its various forms, provided you accept it. Kieslowskis’ film is certainly public art, speaking on the most personal level. It speaks very well.

Damnation

Bela Tarr has a tendency to be demanding and introspective as a director. Since his beginning in Hungarian cinema, he has been a revolutionary force, determined to present his own picture of Hungarian reality. His determination to scrap the “lies” being shown on screen caused him to create a complete manifesto with regard to his new style of film-making; his emphasis on the importance of black and white, close-ups and hand-held camera-work formed the basis of his distinctive style.

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Though “Damnation” is not half as complex as his later film  “Werkmiester harmonies”, it reflects the directors rather dark and pessimistic view of humanity. The story is about a romance between Kerrer, a listless, brooding man and a married singer. Kerrer finds life as it is unbearable, and hopes for escape . The film follows his pursuit of the singer, and his eventual betrayal and despair.

Tarrs direction is incredibly stylish, specialising in slow long shots and composition; Tarr creates an atmosphere of brooding menace persistent through the whole film, where he uses the “film noir” imagery for all its worth. The combination of light and composition makes the whole visually stunning, though the very slow long shots can be demanding of the audience.

One of the most effective devices in this film is the way the crime is treated: The singer (Vali Kerekes) is very much the femme fatale, capable by her own admission, of terrible things. There are references to violence and smuggling, but suggestion is always the primary tool. The film lurks on the edge of  the criminal underworld, affording the viewer a glimpse of what the characters could be involved in.

Vali Kerekes low-key performance as the disillusioned singer is one of the highlights of the film; she radiates listless menace, nearly upstaging Miklos Szekley, who plays the infatuated Kerrer. The singer is really the star of the film, not through what she does, but by what Kerekes makes us believe she is capable of.

 

 

Kerrers story is a story of  rejection of society; since he feels society has nothing to offer him, he seeks out something else, which he feels is embodied in the singer. At one point, the director provides us with a visual metaphor precisely to illustrate this rejection; while the whole village is gathered in a great dance indoors, one madman chooses to dance alone in the rain outside.

At the beginning of the film, Kerrer has already isolated himself from the world; he has no job, almost no human contact, and is flirting with crime. What he is seeking, quite deliberately, is to discard the values of a society he finds oppressive. His hopes for the future lie in his idea of what he might find outside society, if he succeeds in escaping it. At one point the confides to the singer that she personifies the amoral freedom he longs for;

“Between you and a world forever out of reach, there is a strange and empty tunnel. I don’t know anyone else who knows that road. You’re standing alone at the entrance to that tunnel, because you know something I can’t even put a name on, something deeper and more ruthless than I can ever understand. I realise that I can never get closer to that world, I can only long for it, because it is hidden by I light and warmth I cannot bear. I have never been able to believe in it, nor to renounce it…if I were to lose you it would  be the unforgivable end of me, because I know nothing about that unnameable world. Since you are part of it, you mean the world to me.”

Kerrers pursuit of the singer is the malcontents pursuit of a state of freedom. What the film is ultimately about is the decent into damnation, and the motives of those who reject social values.

Cronos

 Del Toros’ breakthrough film is a sophisticated take on a legend that remains unexhausted by endless re-interpretation. The themes of greed, temptation and international politics permeate this film; Del Toro turns a gothic yarn into a dark political fable, using the vampire as a symbol of destructive craving and isolation.

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The story is relatively simple: An ageing antiques dealer, Gris (Federico Luppi) and his little granddaughter stumble on a device that slowly turns the user into a vampire. A dying American billionaire and his nephew (Claudio Brook and Ron Perlman) are also in search of it, and try to terrorise Gris into giving it up. Gris, fascinated with the possibilities of the device, retains his hold on it. The story revolves around the conflict between temptation, addiction and fear of the consequences.

Visually the film is nearly faultless, especially the directors use of light, which is golden and misty in the domestic scenes. As the film grows darker, the colours are desaturated, and the lighting grows grimmer. Some frames are visually stunning, though others are a bit pedestrian, making the tone slightly uneven. The violence and horror is hard to bear, even if you allow that it makes the film more powerful, or brings the moral message home. As the device and the Americans infiltrate the protagonists life, the film grows correspondingly more violent.

On one level, the film is a clear allegory of U.S. Mexican relations, set firmly on the side of Mexico. The small shopkeeper suffers at the hands of heartless, wealthy Americans, who try to steal something valuable from him; Gris is a sympathetic representation of Mexico as the victim: He is the harmless, provincial family man, a personification of easygoing Mexican values. The American characters, by contrast, are a portrayal of a bad America, distanced from the Mexicans by repeated lapses into English. The billionaire and his nephew are brutal, greedy, materialistic and have no affection for each other whatsoever. Their emotional isolation from the world signifies the directors belief that wealth and greed can be fatal to human values. Their preoccupation with materialism reflects U.S. capitalism, which the film Del Toro portrays as potentially fatal to Mexico as personified in Gris. The more addicted he becomes to the device, the more Gris becomes a reflection of the Americans, who have lost their humanity already. In this way, the device represents wealth, in Del Toros’ terms, as a force which grants material well-being, yet destroys and transforms; by the end of the film, Gris has completely changed from a very human personification of the Mexican everyman to a reflection of the antagonists: Isolated, inhuman, and consumed with craving. The political narrative of the allegory has Mexico transformed by wealth into a reflection of America-and in the process lose its values and identity.

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On another level, the film goes further than political allegory; the narrative also represents the internal war in everyone between greed and innocence, which are portrayed as very much at odds. The granddaughter in the film personifies conscience, and the higher morals; She repeatedly tries to interrupt Gris’ addiction, which reflects the addiction of humanity to anything spiritually dangerous. As the film progresses, Gris first makes half-hearted reassurances to her, then shifts to wordless dependence on her forgiveness. The transformation Gris goes through, from man to vampire, is a shift away from humanity, towards the cruelty and brutality the Americans personify. As the narrative progresses, there is a reversal of roles: the first scenes are dominated by the granddaughter, and Gris’ home life; By the end of the film, the Americans are the centre of attention. The crucial moment, which decides Gris’ fate, comes at the end: Starved of blood, he comes close to killing the granddaughter. His choice-to die and thus protect the granddaughter-is a rejection of greed which we all have to make.

Cronos is essentially a dark fable, as well as a political allegory. But the presentation of it is very slightly unbelievable due to the symbolism-the Americans are so utterly, disgustingly foul it is hard to believe people like that exist. Overall, the film works, but the horror makes it hard to watch.