Saturday, August 27, 2011

Louise Clark: Peacemaker

The other day I performed a small but poignant task—removing the name of Louise Clark, who died early Sunday morning, August 21, from my e-mail distribution list for this space.

I married my way into meeting Louise in 2003 by way of the fair Elizabeth Wheeler, sister to Louise’s daughter-in-law, Margaret, wife of her son, Charles. Louise and her husband Johnson (who passed away in 2007), were active citizens of the East Bay city of Lafayette, as this recent video will attest.

To the end, Louise remained involved in her community and the world at large. She and Johnson, as East Bay residents and political activists well know, provided the property for the Lafayette Crosses Memorial, a tribute to the American soldiers who continue to sacrifice and die in our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Shortly after Elizabeth and I attended a Memorial Day Service at the site in 2008, I wrote this essay on my experience of it. She provided a lot of valuable background information for the article. I put Louise on my distribution list.

Louise became one of my more frequent responders. Like everyone who picks through this smorgasbord, she liked some articles better than others, mostly the ones relating to politics: “NASA's James Hansen can tell you why it [CO2 levels and global warming] is more important to blog about than yesterday's music,” she e-mailed after a series of recollections about the music in my life. On a certain level, she was right about this. Then again, I find my articles on social issues to be the weakest of the lot.

Otherwise, her notes to me were greatly appreciative. “DARLING!” she wrote in response to a Winnie-the-Pooh parody. She also sent me a touching note on my piece on the Tōhoku tsunami and earthquake.

In response to this Memorial Day Tribute parody on World War II movies, she commented:

“My participation in The Longest Day was a speech I made standing up during the intermission lamenting the futility of war - much to the embarrassment of my family sitting nearby.”

Surely, I’ve done more embarrassing things.

She informed me that she would pass on reading Dragon's Ark, but that's OK. It's not for everybody anyway.

She once sent a bawdy joke—a video fart joke in fact--via an e-mail list that inspired a mock blushing riposte from me, something along the lines of “Lou-ISE CLARK! Really! At YOUR Age! My word!”

Lifelong Democrat and forthright peace activist, mother of six children, and proto-hippie, Louise Clark remained indefatigable, and never let scorching opposition get her down. Whatever our nuances of disagreement, no matter her activism versus my recessivism, we always enjoyed each other’s company. It won’t be only her family and I who will miss her. The world will, too.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo by author

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Great Screen Draculas: Christopher Lee, Conqueror by Moonlight

Christopher Lee, Merciless Dracula

Hammer Films’ Dracula (produced Britain in 1957 and released in the United States as The Horror of Dracula) stars an actor I believe is the last great screen Dracula in that curiously small assemblage: Sir ChristopherLee.

Along with Bela Lugosi, Lee comes closest to the Dracula that wheels about my moonlit mind. Bela Lugosi captures my Dracula’s fierce deadly magic and parasitic otherness. Christopher Lee embodies his icy ruthlessness and thundering drive, his single-minded self-absorption, his arrogant determination to dominate. The screen splits apart, light and air gather around him, as he militantly strides along like a spearing conqueror, heedless of the terror, blood, and misery in his wake. As much as Lugosi, Christopher Lee makes the idea of being the Superman of Evil perilously appealing, a morally fatal male avatar.

I’d seen a few Hammer films during my boyhood, but this Dracula only flickered about the corner of my eye until I was as a college freshman watching late-night TV in a dorm basement in Platteville, Wisconsin in 1972. I’ve revisited the film often over the years. Repeated viewings have actually improved it.

Horror of Dracula booms with vitality from its first frame, the image of a fascistic stone eagle perched on a pedestal. From there, under crimson Cloisterblack-font titles and a hammering martial score by James Bernard, the camera sails away, cranes and tracks across the façade of Castle Dracula before slowly zooming down to the basement door, the Count’s sleeping chamber. Dissolve to a close-up of his stone coffin (stone lays heavy everywhere) into which his name has been proudly carved. Bright red drops of blood spatter on the lid.

We first see Dracula staring down from the top of a staircase, back-lit, faceless. He lives in an oddly ornate, but I gather real-life, mansion decorated with snake-wrapped columns, lush furniture, elaborate tile floors. It has a cleanliness that mirrors Dracula’s sterile heart (which, of course, beats only for him). It may be more English Edwardian than Mittel Europa, but it’s pleasing to see a Dracula with such ambitious taste.

In the simplest of black cloaks, Lee’s Dracula is a hungry wolf, on an eternal prowl, much like an especially capable serial killer, a confident monster of few words, the ultimate individualist run rampant.

The Transylvania sequence is a delight (though the village sequence was clearly shot in an over-lit soundstage, an approach Hammer Studios never forsook). It ends on a chilling homo-erotic note when Dracula finally, fatally, corners Jonathan Harker. Especially disturbing are the iron slaps that hammers and stakes make as the stakes are pounded into human hearts. The effect serves as both an effective motif and perhaps a statement of Hammer’s corporate identity.

Familiar problems arise when we are yanked by the collar back to “England” (though it seems we really go only as far as Germany—for one, the ship sequence is gone). The Renfield Problem is solved by simply writing him out, a certainly acceptable move. Still, we’re stuck with the usual dull, sappy pallid maidens and stiff-lipped stalwarts . . .

. . . with one notable exception and that is the presence of Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing.

Peter Cushing is far away the best Dr. Van Helsing Dracula ever fought in the movies (even better than Anthony Hopkins in Francis Ford Coppola’s muddled Macy’s-display-window version). This is not because of the flat clichéd writing, but because of how Cushing hurls himself into the role with dash, conviction, and color. Cushing creates a scrappy and dashing Van Helsing, on equal footing to his black-clad nemesis.

Director Terence Fisher, cinematographer Jack Asher, composer Bernard, and editor Bill Kenny conjure the best of all final showdowns between Dracula and Van Helsing, as Lee and Cushing dash like demons up long stairs, down long gleaming tables with springs on their heels, conjuring happy memories Flynn versus Rathbone. Clearly both actors were having a great time; it’s a joy to watch them clash.

Still, Horror of Dracula, for me, falls short of horror-movie greatness. Dracula is grossly underwritten, with startlingly few lines (something Lee found frustrating, especially in the sequels that followed). The expressive intelligence in Lee’s face is never put to use, leaving him a character without self-awareness or vision. With any other actor but Lee in the part, we would have been left with a weak villain, always fatal to a genre picture.

Crucially, almost all glimmers of the supernatural are doused: no shape-shifting or other outré powers. Some find a non-supernatural Dracula more credible, but without that magic, that ability to cheerfully, but coldly, toy with physical reality, Dracula risks becoming lead-footed, a common Snidely Whiplash, instead of an enchanting, but vile and threatening, trickster. 

When he attacks his vampire bride in one sequence, he laboriously flings her across the room like a sack of lead, whereas the Dracula dancing in my mind would have brushed her away like cotton ball with a simple red-eyed stare, or better, immolated her on the spot with a cheerful snort. This naturalism makes the movie more of a bloody suspense-action picture—and a good one—than a genuine horror film.

I’m also no fan of the Hammer house style. Hammer horror films were the first to defenestrate the rules on what could be shown on the screen in terms of blood and gore. Their Dracula received an X rating in Britain. Their snook-cocking was certainly fresh and called for, but this determination to be explicit, to show everything, was applied to all their movies.

My favorite horror films are poems of shadows, the elusive unseen we’re all afraid of. Producers such as Universal Pictures and Val Lewton grasped this well (even though budget also factored into their calculations). The shadows are what ooze and slip through our minds as we leave the theater or slip trembling into our lonely beds in the darkness, where dreams wait to surprise, confound, and terrify.

At its best, Hammer horror is more fun than scary. Real darkness seldom clouds the frames. No secrets lurk in shadows. The lights are always full on, every corner colorfully but plainly illuminated. The monster stands exposed completely, their costume's stitching nearly visible. Mystery, awe, enchantment—essential qualities of horror—are diminished. Things sometimes look cheaper than they need be. I always sense the crew and Klieg lights hovering nearby. My disbelief stays unsuspended: Yep, that’s only a movie. I don’t even have to repeat it.

Hammer Films faded away in the mid-1980s (though it seems to be making a comeback). Christopher Lee, we’re happy to say, has had a much more fortunate career, beyond his place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most prolific movie actor ever. Still active at 89, he’s been featured in such classics of our time as The Wicker Man, The Lord of the Ring saga and Star Wars.

After Nosferatu, Max Schreck remained a character actor and Bela Lugosi’s cape became a straitjacket, but Sir Christopher Lee has much to be proud of and, we hope, much left to bring to the movies. It’s hard to imagine them without him.

(Re-edited 8/26/11)

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo of Christopher Lee as Dracula from the Christopher Lee Official website.

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Great Screen Draculas: Bela the Greatest

 The Universal DVD--highly recommended

I’ve written before about the effect on me of seeing Bela Lugosi in the 1931 Dracula for the first time--creeping through ancient shadows down that cobwebbed staircase, his cape gleaming with starlight, he profoundly enchanted a fatherless eight-year-old.

I was transfixed by Lugosi’s piercing stare, strong but softly sculpted face, aquiline nose, like an Undead Roman(ian) emperor. Bela Lugosi's Dracula imprinted his thumb on my abandoned larva soul, the mark of a sinister and powerful outlaw, criminal, and dictator—the Superman of Evil before there was a Superman, and, I suspected, a much happier Superman, unbounded as he was by chains of love and morality.

Oh, how I skipped over the grass of our broad backyard as the red sun sank behind the blue Hudson Valley hills. I grew black wings and flew through clouds of fireflies in the humid summer dusk as the moonlit sky bristled with stars. I felt my skinny, clumsy body lighten, the earth draw away below as I became another child of the night. What music I made!

I didn’t see myself as foolish. I imagined I was free and powerful (until I became an easily mortified teenager). As time nudges me toward old age, any embarrassment I ever felt about this has long past.

Despite 80 long years and countless parodies on film, TV and print; despite—or because of—Lon Chaney, Jr., Count Chocula, and post-modernism, Bela Lugosi remains for many the definitive, and best, Dracula. Count me among them, Count.

Bela Lugosi’s Dracula is a powerful, obsessed demon. Look into his eyes (Look! Look!), especially in that electrifying close-up where he slowly sinks down out of the frame, fierce with hunger, going for Lucy Westenra's throat, eyes full of Hellfire mania, fevered bold sensuality. He is joyfully committed to conquer and feed, to use and throw away, to wrap the world in mindless thrall. Lugosi speaks and moves with the slow grace of a leech, a man so long among the dead, a foreigner among the living, he is only learning to speak again.

But for all Bela Lugosi’s talent and commitment, for all the affection the camera has for him, it’s a shame that the movie he plays in can’t keep pace and finally fails to cast the kind of shadow he throws just by standing there.

The Lugosi Dracula, the first official, approved adaptation, does open with great poetic promise. Following the general outlines of the novel, it neatly re-sorts characters by slipping in Renfield instead of Jonathan Harker as the deer-eyed solicitor who travels to the Count’s Transylvanian citadel. This makes the relationship between the two characters a little more sensible: Instead of leaving Renfield to be devoured by his blood-hungry brides, Dracula takes him along to England.

Side note: This solution to the Renfield Problem is only partial. Despite Dwight Frye’s wild chewy portrayal (topped by that great laugh), Renfield remains a useless madman stuck in an insane asylum, providing poor cover for his boss. What is it with Dracula that he seems incapable of hiring good help? He gets the most beautiful women—and men--in the world to turn their throats toward him, like moths toward the moon. But when it comes to employing someone to help him cope with quotidian matters of daylight—as he must—he picks bumbling crackpots. Sure, bug-eating Renfield is gross-out fun, but Dracula still needs an employment consultant.

As a cinematic experience, the first twenty minutes of Dracula drips with fine Gothic atmosphere. Except for a passage from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, the story unfolds effectively without music (though the latest DVDs contain an original, Phillip Glass score, whose agitated osstinato mutterings helps enormously later in the movie.).

The settings, the editing, coal-smoke atmosphere, Lugosi’s entrance from the crypt and the midnight syrup of his voice provide all the music needed. The movie brings us into this haunted world with both economy and verisimilitude. It unfolds like a dream, where screams of horror, loneliness, and despair remain unheard.

But then Dracula lands in London. Mystery and excitement drain away. The pace sputters, the magic fades. We meet a row of sentimental dullards, cardboard heroes and heroines from a fusty Victorian drawing room mystery (drawn from the Broadway hit play that made Lugosi a stage star). The movie sloughs along like a dust bunny blown along the floor by a distracted toddler. When the camera turns to Bela (and to Dwight Frye), life flickers. But then suddenly appears a ghastly technical flub—a scene-stealing piece of paper glued to a bedside lampshade, a magic-killing symptom of haste and carelessness.

The climax is hurried and lame. The camera throws up its skirts and scurries away from Dracula’s demise like a frail maiden. Even by the prudish standards of the 1930s, Dracula ends timidly, especially for a pre-Production Code movie.

There are many behind-the-scenes reasons that this Dracula, the first in Universal Studio’s great series of horror films, stumbles. The initial culprit seems to be the Great Depression: It hit Universal hard and forced them to abandon earlier plans for a much more elaborate production, adhering closer to the novel instead of the play.

From here, the web of cause and effect grows sticky and I again will point you to David Skal’s excellent cultural history Hollywood Gothic (which includes a section on the surprisingly imaginative Spanish-language Dracula, produced at the same time on the same sets).

As for Bela Lugosi’s life and career after, this unique, dynamic star truly suffered the Curse of Dracula. The thing that brought him success also ruined him. Again, for reasons that are fascinating, heart-breaking, and complex, success always slipped beyond his grasp. One anecdote, maybe apocryphal, has him staring bleakly into his makeup mirror before going onstage to play the Count for the thousandth time and sighing: “To think that you once played Hamlet!”

He played Dracula-like characters a few times. Oddly, Universal overlooked Lugosi to cast graceless lumbering Lon Chaney, Jr. in the otherwise good Son of Dracula in 1944, booting away the chance to create another horror classic.

Lugosi only actually played the Count once more, in what I think may be the best portrait of the Dracula myth—sit down, please—Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Whatever your opinion of Bud, Lou (and the “whatever” plot), Lugosi’s Dracula is the real star of this movie. And the production, this time, backs him up, especially with some captivating special effects (animation by Walter Lantz, creator of Woody Woodpecker) that capture the reach of Dracula’s power. Too bad this didn’t inspire Universal to do a Dracula remake starring Lugosi.

It was Lugosi’s last Grade-A picture of a tiny handful. The greatest Dracula, and one of the great film villains ever, died in obscurity in 1956, a story too well-known and sad to tell again here.

Vladimir Nabokov once wrote that “If I live to be a hundred, my soul will still go around in short trousers.” Thanks to Bela Lugosi, mine, I swear, will forever caper through glowering skies in a sparkling cape touched by moonlight.

Sleep well, my children. Keep your windows open to the moon. I'll be by soon.

(Re-edited 8/17/11; 10/28/15)

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Unfinished Business # 11: One-handed, One-man Band

[This first appeared as a guest blog on Joel Friedlander’s The Book Designer. It has been edited some. Many thanks to Joel for permission to repost this.]

Getting It Published

For those of you visiting for the first time, it happened like this: in December 2005, I began writing my debut novel Dragon’s Ark. In June 2009, I finally typed “THE END.” I then spent a year in grim pursuit of literary agents, knowing that, even if successful, my novel would likely not come out until 2012, or even later.

By April 2010, I’d nearly drained the well of available literary agents. During that month, I showed up at an independent publishing workshop, held at the Commonwealth Club of California, where Joel Friedlander, host of The BookDesigner, spoke. Nearly a year later, Dragon’s Ark is available to one and all, in paperback and e-book.

The path has been challenging but reasonably, even remarkably, smooth. The end result, the book itself, a POD edition printed through Lightning Source, is a lovely production, especially for an independent paperback from a shoestring company. The most stunning surprise was the cover by Cathi Stevenson of Book Cover Express, who fully grasped my intentions and delivered.

I encountered further success and encouragement with Joel’s excellent interior design, plus his kindness and insight (and, most significantly, patience), all based on his years in the publishing business. Long before any of us, Joel saw the new world coming and entered it fully, then turned and opened its door wide. If you’re starting there, you’re starting well.

Add to that some excellent blurbs from important writers such as David Corbett, Don Herron, and John-Ivan Palmer, and I wound up with a book with excellent literary and commercial potential.

The only major stumble was in the final editing, but even so, amazingly few embarrassments remain (though each one burns like a hot needle in my heart). For a rank beginner, I dropped surprisingly few stitches.

I named my imprint Ambler House Publishing, both after the pioneering genre writer Eric Ambler, and because the name evokes the era of publishing before conglomeration, when Alfred E. Knopf was an actual person who loved books more than he did a 15-percent profit margin. (That era may be returning in new form, but that’s a discussion for later).

Now I had the book. Next, I had to get it out into the world: market it, distribute it, sell it. That train rolls on, and miles and miles of track lies ahead.

Getting It Out There

One of my first marketing/distribution fantasies had me driving all over the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond, persuading bookstores to stock Dragon’s Ark. However, just getting to the stores in my own neighborhood was daunting enough. Here, I’ve been reasonably successful. Not every store said yes, but the ones who placed it on their shelves sold all of them . . . mostly likely because I snacked on the ear of everyone I met at my local watering holes, waving my postcards and copies of the book in their faces. (One customer was a hollering drunk whom, I swear, forgot he ever bought it.) I’ve actually sold 10 copies out of my own bag so far.

As for the hundred or so bookstores to whom I sent marketing e-mails—mostly silence. One bookstore invited me to do a “meet and greet” but seems to have forgotten all about me, despite repeated e-mail follow-ups. One lucky break: Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, now offers Dragon’s Ark online, though I’m not sure who to credit for that. After a few scolding e-mail responses from others, I’ve pulled my lowered my cannon a little on that front of my campaign.

Add to that a couple of mixed reviews. I worked hard pursuing these, but they turned out not be enthused about my eccentric approach to the Dracula myth. Lesson learned here: there’s a howling black chasm between fans of Stephanie Wright and fans of, say, Peter Straub. Search for and pick your audience carefully, especially if your book is a little more offbeat than what some folks are used to and expect.

Sales so far have been few, for both paperback and e-book. But instead of folding in despair, I drive on. Like it or not, this will take some time. When Joel announced that he was taking the “soft release” approach to the release of his own new book A Self-Publisher’s Companion, I took the cue: play to my strengths—the audience I already have on my three websites--and build from there.

The Inkspot Approach

I’ve been online for years and have built a small but loyal following. So, instead of trying to fly to the moon on my handsome, but tinny, jalopy, I’ve decided to keep working on the 400 to 500 or so weekly readers here on Earth and grow out from there, one or two readers at a time. (In counterinsurgency work, this is called the “Inkspot Approach.”)

The best way for Ambler House to sell more books is to publish more of them. Just last month, the company published the first in a backlog of Burchfieldiana—the comic screenplay Whackers. Over the next year, more will appear: three other screenplays, plus short, low-priced collections of humor pieces, critical, personal, and travel essays, and a smattering of short stories.

These will be available exclusively as e-books and all will be available at the low price of $1.99. Judging from this article by Laura Miller on Salon,  the 99-cent price recommended for most independent books may not work anymore, thanks to the spamsters who have been hijacking the KindlePad platforms with 99-cent ripoffs and knockoffs of other people’s books, including yours, mine, and the classics. “99 cents” seems to becoming shorthand for “spam.”

But that’s just another kink in the always-evolving world of independent publishing. Here, only the persistent, the patient, and the flexible survive; only they can hope to prosper.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by Author

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark is available right NOW, published by Ambler House Publishing. It can be ordered in both paperback and e-book editions through your local independent bookstore, through Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, Smashwords, and Scrib'd. His original comic screenplay Whackers  is now available in a Kindle editon, also from Ambler House. Other material can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. And if you're still not tired of him, he can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.