Thursday, June 13, 2013

COMPARISON CONTRAST / DEFINITION ESSAY: SOCIAL CHANGE AND THE EVOLUTION OF VAMPIRES


Vampires have been an important part of various works of art since time immemorial. They have appeared in various forms and in various cultures throughout the world; stories of blood-sucking demons (thought to be the precursors of modern vampires) are to be found in very early folk myths in Asia and the Middle East. Vampires “reached” Europe in the early 18th century. Stories spread mostly from the Balkans where there was a tradition of vampire legends; the beliefs went as far as bringing on a case of wide-spread mass hysteria leading to public stakings. Luckily, as time went on and 19th century dawned, the age of reason and modern science disproved the existence of vampires. They did, nevertheless, continue to inhabit works of art; the most famous no doubt being Braham Stoker’s 1867 novel, Dracula. With the 20th century and the advent of cinema, vampires made an appearance there too, starting with such early works as F. Murnau’s Nosferatu, dated 1907. Today of course, various vampires are, quite literally, household names. William Compton, Eric Northman, Edward Cullen and Angel have made at least a passing appearance on most television sets and computer monitors around the world…
We are not sure how the myth of vampires first began, theories range from porphyria to premature burials, the fact is that we probably never will know; what we can quite clearly see though, is that they – or rather their cinematic representations -  have thrived and evolved a great deal. Indeed, the suave heroes of today are dramatically different from their precursors such as Count Orlok, the terror of the early 20th century… So, the question we must doubtless ask ourselves is what has changed? And what does this change mean?  It is the aim of this paper to take a chronological look at the vampire phenomenon in the history of cinema in an attempt to explain the dynamics behind this dramatic evolution.
The most basic tenet of a vampire is the fact that it is a monster, and it is frightening. This, if nothing else, is known by everyone; whether they are familiar with the concept of vampires or not. This made them ideal “targets” for the pioneer filmmakers who had to use certain “types”, types that everyone knew, that didn’t need much introduction. There were many reasons for this need that we may briefly dwell upon: first of all the lack of technical development meant that the picture was a far cry from the representation of reality we are used to today. Many details that are now used to give us insights into the character’s heart would be lost in early pictures. Secondly, the lack of sound naturally eliminated yet another source of information; intertitles help us along and a soundtrack (often by a live orchestra or piano) set the mood but that is all. Thirdly, the audience didn’t really expect it nor were they used to it as an idea. One must remember that the cinema was principally a spectacle for many years; especially in its early years, the cinema was less an art form and more entertainment, of the same ilk as going to a zoo or a freak show. And besides, the audience was very unused to this new form of entertainment; the cinema did not become a common form of entertainment until the middle of the 20th century, so no one had seen that many films and thus no one could have interpreted a very complex message or understood the intricacies of a very complex character through the technical disadvantages that we have already mentioned. Thus the filmmakers were reduced to using “types”. These cliché characters needed no real introduction, everyone knew them well anyway; the hero – always handsome and brave if in an adventure film, slightly dumb and clumsy in a comedy. Then there is a beautiful maiden, naturally, young, stunning and virtuous. Her hand must be won over by the hero. Then of course the villain, who is dastardly and will resort to anything to get his way, must  be overcome by the hero. In this furor, all we really need to know about a monster – be it a vampire or something else – is that it is out to get you and must be stopped. The rest is largely left to the viewer’s imagination.
Of course, given its popularity, Braham Stoker’s Dracula was a natural choice for an adaptation. The first loose adaptation of the novel to the screen was Nosferatu, directed by F. Murnau. Here our vampire is Count Orlok who lives in an eerie castle in Romania. Our hero, a lawyer, hails from a small village in Germany, and is sent for by the Count because he wants to buy a property in the village and move there. Here, there is almost literally no character development whatsoever. There is none needed, everybody already knows Dracula. Here, Murnau’s interpretation of him is rather grotesque, the count is ugly and eerie, making quite a passable monster even by today’s standards (though there is another school of thought that calls the count camp). However, as time went on, the vampire gained one quality – they were, for the most part, good looking, or at least charismatic. Years went by, and in the imaginations of generation after generation of audiences the story of Dracula lost nothing of its allure. If not a monstrous or dashing, handsome and hypnotic Dracula, various “vamp” and sexy incarnations of the famous gothic vampire Carmilla paraded on our screens. Neither of them needed any kind of character development, as they were already known to us, the villains that need to be destroyed.
Classical theory holds the “raison d’être” of both villains. From his very birth in novel form, Dracula actually represented the fear the individual felt of a totalitarian, paternalist state. It is small wonder then that, as the Cold War raged, vampires, threatening to devour us or to turn us into their witless slaves through hypnotism or various forms of mind control or even turn us into the” living dead” like themselves  with one bite paraded on our screens. It is interesting, as a parenthesis, to think of the sheer number of horror films where aliens “zapped the brains of” people or zombies bit people making them “the living dead” like themselves that appeared all in parallelism with the rise of tensions with the USSSR and the general fear of communism…  The incarnations of Carmilla have slightly different explanations. The main difference of these films is the sexual overtones often present in the films. The female vampires, ironically in exactly the same way the “femme fatale” in the film noir, represent the fear felt by mainstream society of the rise of women’s rights. Women were now, in the 60’s and 70’s a definite presence, gone were the pre World War II days when women were expected to stay at home and tend the hearth, they were out there, working alongside man and demanding equal rights. These changes were deeply worrying for some, especially the traditionalist streak of mainstream American and European society – the prime targets of these films. So the “evil women” appeared on screen, literally sucking the blood out of innocent passersby, taking their “livelihoods” and their very lives… Thus until the end of the Cold War, vampires were faceless monsters, representing deep set fears in the day’s society.
However, nothing is permanent except change itself, and as time went by, society changed, became more complex. Its needs changed as did its fears. The détente period and the general mood prevalent in the era was an upbeat one. The femme fatale was still dangerous, still present but people had got more used to her, she wasn’t such a great threat after all. As for the paternalist state… No longer a threat. The USSR was on the way to being (or in fact had been, depending on the year) defeated, she was no longer a threat. This is when vampires grew slightly, ever so slightly, more complex. They became a bit more than faceless monsters. They became funny.
True, the good old fashioned monster-movie was ever-present on the screens, all be it in diminishing numbers, but alongside them a new kind of vampire was born. I am talking about vampires like Eddie Murphy’s Vampire in Brooklyn, Steve Martin’s (???). One major characteristic of the vampires were brought into the foreground here: they are immortal – in the sense that they cannot die of old age. This makes them terrifying, yes, but why not a clumsy vampire, who for whatever reason cannot keep up with the times? This is the same brand of humor seen in some modern films where parents try to use technology (things like 3G telephones or computers and fail with comic results). The vampire is no longer suave and definitely not “hypnotic” in any sense of the word. This can also be interpreted as a sort of unconscious ritual for getting rid of the fear that haunted society previously. The ‘80s, do not forget, were the heyday of capitalist society. Not only did the economy seem to be going well, but the capitalists had “won” against the “reds”. Well, maybe the big old scary vampire wasn’t so scary after all then… Modern life, capitalism, the life of the ‘80s had got the better of it. And society was celebrating… For vampires on screens everywhere however, the change had begun. Now there were, evidently more than one kind of vampire. True, the division was a rather typical one of its day; the vampires who were good at being vampires and the vampires who were not good at being vampires. But even this was a touch more complex than the plethora of Dracula’s that had been invading screens before. The winds of change were blowing… In society, and on the screens…
The 1990’s brought with it a new decade and a society with even more needs. Vampires, having successfully made their way into mainstream comedy – and found a good place for themselves there – moved on to bigger and better things. Soap operas, more specifically teen soaps, basically aimed at being little more than good quality entertainment entered the scene. But these soap operas were in fact the in between stages of much more complex vampires to come. Two icons – still popular to this very day – were born in this era. One is a more romantic image of vampires, targeting a slightly older audience with its various themes – Interview with A Vampire, the trilogy written by Anne Rice and later adapted to the best-selling film starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. The second is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and her partner (and hero of the spinoff series) Angel; aimed at a slightly younger audience with overtones of a supernatural adventure story. Of these two, Angel and Buffy heralded a clear change and the massive popularity of Interview with A Vampire (no doubt bolstered by the stars who acted the lead parts) sealed the vampire’s fate. They were, without a doubt, still charismatic, very much a part of life and very, very complex creatures…
As we said, Angel (brought to life by David Boreanaz) is a more complex vampire than his predecessors. Unlike them, he has a conscience, and a soul. Now this, we may recall, came about because Angel is cursed. He angered a gypsy (in true Romantic style) who cursed him by giving him back his soul. Of course now he is no longer a soulless monster; Angel is tormented beyond belief by the memory of all the horrible things he has done in his vampire life. But that is not all, if he ever finds true happiness; he will lose his soul again, becoming a destructive monster. So therein lies the dilemma, Angel has regained “human” status in a sense, but he must labor on through his (endless, let us recall) life in an almost puritanical way, not indulging in any true happiness or risking “slipping back” to becoming a monster. This theme of prefering “eternal” values to pleasure and happiness has been picked up again and again (even made a theme) in more modern vampire films and series, but this we will look into in detail later. No doubt this was the beginning of the reaction to the more capitalist lifestyle and consumer society that was slowly taking over by the beginning of the ‘90s; the reaction would grow with passing time and developing technology. But the thing that must be born in mind that Angel, for all his sensitivity (and almost never-ending storyline) is in essence quite a simple vampire. This is due to the fact that the regaining of a soul, his remorse and his conscience have all been pressed upon him. He has done absolutely nothing to better himself; the breakthrough, some might argue the toughest bit of self betterment, has been done for him – via the curse. So in fact, Angel can almost be said to have an “artificial” personality. For all this though, as a series, the Buffy – Angel combination have some interesting redeeming features as well. Now, the natural enemies of Angel and Buffy are the other vampires and, generally speaking, demons. As the series continues, we see a plethora of different kinds of demons emerge. All are ugly (of course) but some of them are peace loving, others cowardly, some even make friends with the main characters… So, to be fair, a hint of actual diversity does enter the mix.
Then comes along Interview With A Vampire. Now, these books – and the film – are all in fact a romanticized adventure story, good guys against bad guys combined with the various values inherent to being a vampire; eternal life (as opposed to the transient lives of humans, the permanence, maybe, of the great battle between good and evil) , superhuman powers and, of course, the need for blood. In the story, Louis Point du Lac (Brad Pitt) is a young man living in New Orleans at the turn of the 18th century. He meets and befriends Lestat (Tom Cruise), and after a series of misfortunes where he loses everything ,he lets Lestat turn him into a vampire. However, the life of a vampire is not the romantic vision Lestat had painted. As time goes by, Lestat reveals himself to be cruel and manipulative, a side of him Louis had never seen. Louis refuses, (of his own free will mark, not through a curse) to drink human blood, lives (and almost starves) solely on the blood of rats and animals and tries to stop Lestat in his machinations. Further on in the film, Lestat turns a little girl for Louis to “play with” an eight year-old, doomed to be a living doll for all eternity. While the little girl proves as ruthless as Lestat in her hunt in some cases, this is partly cruelty and partly bitterness on her part because she will never really grow up, a woman trapped in a child’s body for ever… The difference is, quite obvious. For the first time, here are vampires making free choices, facing moral dilemmas (to kill or not to kill humans). We get insights into their pains and problems, get to understand why they are bitter and why they act the way they do. But more importantly than that, vampires are now capable of choosing good. They have depth and character, and artistically speaking this is an absolute gold mine; imagine, to take one example, the possibilities of having vampires thousands of years old (like some characters of the series True Blood) and examining their states of mind. Think how much a person changes in a lifetime, what if you had a couple of hundred years to change… And is change unavoidable? What about staying the same for hundreds of years? Laying aside the comic possibilities brought forth by the likes of Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy, the possibilities are endless… And these endless possibilities are used, and it seems they will be used for the foreseeable future, to realize projects that are a bit more ambitious in the messages they contained…
As certain parallelisms have already been pointed out, let us begin by analyzing some aspects of the popular television series True Blood. One of the greatest parallelisms that can be drawn is between the hero of the series, Bill Compton and Angel, the “father” of complex vampires. Both have had “wild youths”, both now repent about what they have done, both have romantic liaisons with women who are truly good (and necessarily so as they are the heroines of the series) with supernatural powers and very high moral values. There is one major difference between the two characters though. Unlike Angel, 60 or 70 years into his new vampire life, Bill Compton’s conscience begins giving him discomfort. He thinks back on his stormy “youth” and truly repents, of his own free will. He then cuts off all previous liaisons linking him to his previous evil life, lives on the straight and narrow, feeding almost exclusively on True Blood – the new blood supplement.  So, not only does he do all the work himself, he is not, either “good” or “bad” like Louis or Lestat in Interview with a Vampire. He used to be bad, now he is good. He is not the only character who uses his time on earth to evolve and change; Godric, a 2000 year-old vampire (with a rather important role in the series as a Christ figure that we will be discussing below), after spending a thousand years wreaking havoc all over the planet, in time and with age “quiets down”, reaches a level of wisdom unimaginable to the human mind and only attainable through 2000 years of experience. In the end, ironically perhaps, deciding he has had enough of this existence, he ends his own life. This does not mean, however, that all vampires are good guys; after all one of the most prominent traits of vampires is that they stay the same, untouched even by death, the most permanent of changes, in a world that changes constantly. Eric Northman, Godric’s henchman for about 1000 years, originally a Viking warrior chief who “died” circa 930 A.D., has basically remained the same. True, he dresses in modern fashions, uses mobile phones and runs a night club, but he basically is still a Viking; a canny businessman and trader who through his age and strength has the absolute run of his area and stops at nothing to get what he wants. As you can imagine, there exists between Godric the Christ figure and Eric the Viking warlord a whole panoply of vampires of all the different shades of race, character and sexual preference under the sun.
There are, we must profess, inherent difficulties to analyzing a series, there are many layers and different messages that are given in various episodes but there are some basic messages that “stick out” in certain seasons. And the main “problem” True Blood has with the world seems to be political. The first series, the underlying message is all about the fact that vampires “hunt humans”. One cannot help but ask oneself, what would happen if, one day when we woke up, we found out that there were such things as vampires? Even if these were people we had known for a while, our entire way of viewing them would be tainted by the fact that they could potentially kill and eat us. How would we feel about such a thing happening? It was while I was musing over this question over breakfast when True Blood’s actual message struck me: America post 9 /11. The vampires represent the Muslims. Naturally, people knew that Muslims actually existed, but the “war on terror” changed the way they were viewed forever as far as some people were concerned. I remember an article in a prominent newspaper where the reporter, who was of Asian origin, did a little experiment: He let his beard grow long, filled a backpack with a few books and went on the subway in London shortly after the bombings there… You can imagine the kind of reactions he got. Where people of all faiths once lived happily, now, in some cases anyway, a sense of “living with the enemy” has set in. And as True Blood is a complex series, there are good vampires and bad vampires, just as there are good and bad members in any section of society. The critique of the aggressive outlook steps up a notch in the second series; here the leading antagonists are Stephen and Sarah Newlin who are the leaders of the “Fellowship of the Sun”; a strongly anti-vampire church run by charismatic preacher Stephen Newlin, whose parents are suspected to have been murdered by vampires. The Newlins use their church to propagate strong “anti-vampire” sentiment and have paramilitary training camps with silver usage and staking as prime lessons. We all remember how, earlier this year, one preacher caused scandal by trying to organize a “Koran burning event”, and extremist churches that provide that kind of paramilitary training have been exposed on numerous occasions in documentaries. The public faces of the vampires are trying to push through a “Vampire Rights” treaty that would give vampires and humans equal rights; the similarity with the modern discussion over gay rights (especially in the light of the strong opposition posed by the church to both, in real life and in the series) is blatant. So, a popular television series can in fact become a way to pose stinging social criticism on very serious political and social topics.
Similar criticism can be found underlying many of the most innocent looking vampire films. Another good example is the Twilight saga that has taken the planet by storm. Twilight is, very basically, a teenage romance. It speaks of Edward Cullen the vampire and Bella Swan the human who fall in love, and all the obstacles they must overcome until they are able to get married – when Edward will turn Bella into a vampire too and their love will become eternal. The first noticeable thing about Twilight is the lengths to which its creators have gone to make absolutely sure we find the vampires approachable. First of all, the Cullen family, in the tradition of all truly “good” vampires, does not feed on human blood. They call themselves “vegetarian” and only animal blood will do. Secondly, they do not have any problem with going out in the day time, the reason they avoid the sun is that it makes their skin glow in a rather conspicuous manner – thus making them that little bit more approachable / like us. Another interesting trait of the Cullens is that they seem to come in pairs. Here we must explain that the Cullens are not an actual family. Carlisle Cullen, a doctor who was born in time immemorial and his wife Esme, go around the world, “collecting” youngsters Carlisle encounters on their deathbeds and is unable to save in any other way (funnily enough every single one of the “saved” are teenagers of about 17). There are five Cullen children in total three boys and two girls (which incidentally leads to the curious conclusion that Dr. Cullen, as a doctor practicing for hundreds of years, was only unable to save five of his patients). Two of the boys and two of the girls are couples, Edward is the only one who is single – and that, as we have just pointed out, is about to change. So the vampires level out into four rather neat little couples in a way that is pushing the boundaries as far as probability and the way things work in real life are concerned. When we turn to face Edward’s rival for Bella’s hand (for there always must be a rival), we begin to see the reason this turns out this way. Bella’s other suitor is a werewolf. While there is no real explanation for why vampires exist, the werewolves exist through a genetic mutation passed down through a specific Indian tribe. This means that they are able to change into wolves, when and if they feel like it. Again, all the members of the werewolf pack are young men (a single young woman joins them as a sort of afterthought in the third film) and theirs is a life of noisy camaraderie and flowing passions and they are sworn enemies of all vampires. As Jake, the werewolf – Native American who is vying for Bella’s hand points out, choosing him has infinite practical sides; he is actually alive, it is “natural”, she will not have to change, she will not have to say goodbye to her family (as she will not be able to  visit her family again after she has changed; and of course her family will grow old and die while she “lives forever”), it will be in his words “as easy as breathing”. Bella, however, adamantly only has eyes for Edward. In this, there is a clear favoring of the sentiment, the heart, the mystic and eternal over the “natural and instinctive”. Sentiment should be valued over base nature, and a girl’s most precious gift (needless to say Bella is a virgin just like Sookie Stackhouse, Bill Compton’s “true love” in True Blood – and she’s saving herself for her wedding night with Edward) must be saved for someone special, with whom the relationship will last forever and that is based on the mysteries of love, not pure passion. In an age when teenage pregnancy is rife, the population in the modern world is aging and one night stands are almost infinitely preferred over marriages – the “building blocks” of society as far as some circles are concerned - the reason for this critique is quite clear. And it is of course the attractiveness of a relationship that will truly last forever that makes this story so popular, especially among young people.
And if anyone thinks that these interpretations of the films are forced in anyway, the ?? Brothers make the point as clear as it possibly, physically can be made in the sci-fi horror film Daybreakers. If I call this film a horror film, it is more out of habit than anything else, I think vampires  left the domain of horror a long while ago, mainly due to the fact that they have been marketed into the mainstream; handsome / beautiful vampires becoming heartthrobs and subconsciously promoting “beauty forever” are far from being frightening to anyone. If anything, where our parents’ generation bit their nails wondering if the beautiful maiden would be able to escape from Dracula or not; we (or maybe our younger sisters) are actually rooting for Edward to bite Bella and turn her into a vampire so that their love may live forever… So let’s rethink that one. Daybreakers is a sci-fi action film. And the premise is in fact interesting. An epidemic has struck the world, turning most of the planet’s population into vampires. A small number of people remain human, living under the radars as fugitives, because the humans that are captured are taken to “blood farms” to be “bled” to sustain the rest of the planet. In the meanwhile, consumer society has adapted nicely, businesses have merely changed around their business hours and specialty shops, such as light-proofing of cars and homes and adding general security announcements about how many hours are left to dawn have sprung up. But there is a problem. Blood is running out. The world’s population is on the brink of starvation. It is at this point that the adventure begins, a cure for vampirism, big companies who are getting ready to market a blood substitute refusing, goodies against baddies with a romance thrown in, you get the picture. The way the story advances is not, in fact, that original. But the ideas it purports sort of are. I mean, the moment the “establishing” side of the film finished in the first 15 – 20 minutes, I had a big smile on my face, what is this I ask you, if not a simplified version of the situation of the planet today? The situation is simplified in that we are talking about one resource instead of many, but we are actually running out of many liquids and if the whole planet isn’t on the brink of starvation, a casual glance at the television will tell us that a lot of it actually is. And yet, the film tells us in a poignant fighting sequence between human soldiers and vampire soldiers, we continue “eating each other” in pointless wars, when we should be coming together to solve this problem. And the problem is the way we live. We should stop living like vampires, literally or metaphorically sucking the life blood out of our surroundings, and change. Find a cure to “vampirisim”. Live a more responsible life.
“Adapt or die”, if we cannot go as far as calling this a mantra for the entire planet, it is definitely a very sound principal to base one on. And vampires seem to have done just that; adapted and thrived. Gone are the mere monsters of yesteryear, gone are the vampires without souls hell-bent on destruction alone, they have shown us a different side to their character. The reason for this is no doubt, the changes in modern audiences. Gone are the days when films and cinema were mere spectacles and pure entertainment, we all want a bit more from our films these days. So now, far from being afraid of vampires like our ancestors who held public stakings around Europe a couple of hundred years ago, we now open fan clubs for them. We use them to discuss greater problems, problems we can transpose onto beings that “look just like us” but are not in fact human. We use them as metaphors for politics or social problems… Where will it all end? What will the future vampires look like (aside from rock-stars)? Is the whole thing a grand preparation for a revelation of their existence like in True Blood? Only time will tell…

Provided by: Essie; http://essiespeaks.blogspot.com

No comments:

Post a Comment