About Cat

Writer, teacher, arts enthusiast. Lover of TV and sandwiches.

Like Sands Through the Hourglass

I have always been a time traveler.

It’s the way my brain works, constantly circling back through my history. Where was I a year ago? Two years ago? How have I changed? Where was I then? Every moment measures against the one before, even so incrementally—from now to yesterday, one month, a year, five years. How did I spend Halloween as a child? What was I doing a year ago today? And more importantly, have I grown?

meThis manifests in an uncanny mind for dates and occasions. I remember the dates of those huge relationship moments, my first kiss, first betrayal, first moment of soul-crushing “what am I even doing right now?”. Those are compared against each other every year (spoiler: for most I prefer where I currently am on that date). But there are less monumental moments that stubbornly resist slipping away. There’s the day a friend cancelled on a concert during a season of incredible loneliness, and I can’t forget the date when I sobbed on my dorm room floor over the abandonment. There’s the perfect day of napping on blankets in the park after camping, sun and water and the freedom of summer. There’s childhood and the formation of adulthood, all housed in some wrinkle or turn of brain matter.

It gets a little chaotic living throughout time. There’s a tension between how much attention I’m giving to the present and how much of myself is mired in the remembrances of the past.

I’m not the only time traveler. It seems like there are a couple different ways to manifest this fascination with what’s come before.

One way is to let the past consume you and to drag it like a fifty-ton albatross on your back. This type of time traveler is the over-enforcer, not learning from the magic of flying through the eons, but forcing the ages to bend to a personal view of what life should be. It’s Doc Brown going to the Wild West and putting flux capacitors on trains. Yes, let’s drag along all the accoutrements of what we want and completely debilitate any lessons to be learned in the time-hopping.

"Perfect on Paper" -- Ted (Josh Radnor) and the gang celebrates Halloween, on HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, Monday, Oct. 31 (8:00-8:300 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS © 2011 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.I think the perfect example of this is Ted Mosby in How I Met Your Mother, particularly in the Slutty Pumpkin storyline, a.k.a. the most anti-climactic payoff of a bit throughout the show (and that’s saying something for a program that regularly introduced great concepts only to drive them into the ground). After meeting “the Slutty Pumpkin” at a rooftop Halloween party and promptly losing her number, Ted becomes obsessed with finding this girl he’s pinned hopes and dreams and impossible expectations on. For the next several years, he shows up at the same place with the same stale hanging chad costume. Dated, hopeless, and obstinately past-bent, Ted encapsulates the danger of the wistful time traveler. Sometimes the machine gets broken, the expectations get too large, and they can leave you irreparably damaged. Or at the very least, looking like a fool in a costume of outdated cultural references.

This is like obsessing over that first kiss, or setting aside August 18th as a remote date because that’s when you got your heart broken. There’s joy in bittersweet look-backs, but there’s dangerous track ahead if that wistfulness gains control.

The best version of nostalgic  time-traveling comes when the moments and the weight they carry are allowed to coexist alongside each other, the sweet memories rubbing elbows with the present and making it all the better.

HereRichard McGuire’s comic Here shows this remarkably. Originally published as a six-page spread in 1989, then expanded into full color and 300 pages in 2014, Here breaks with linear development in favor of illustrating how time and space work with each other. Here takes place entirely in one space, showing one room (or, where one room will be/was), and illustrating its existence throughout hundreds and thousands of years. McGuire doesn’t tell a story through characters, there’s no connecting narrative thread, it’s just the space and whatever occupied it in 1963, or 1607, or hundreds of years in the future. Sometimes a single panel will possess several fractures, showing the different eras bumped up beside each other, a cut out of the 1930 surrounded by events from 2003, showing that age old tale—the more time changes, the more time stays the same.

It’s a view that could be interpreted cynically. That we as humanity are insignificant blips, that our actions don’t have repercussion, that, regardless of ambition or genius, we are all boats borne back ceaselessly against the tide of time. But there’s another, far more comforting view, the kind of lovely, hippie, metaphysical lens that indicates, hey, we’re all part of this tapestry. We’re weaving something. In the crazy quilt of life we are slight patterns contributing to a whole.

2001This is the time traveling I approve of, and the type I strive to do in my constant rememberings. I’m not trapped in the past. I’m whizzing past the wormhole of time, instances stacking on top of each other, connecting with my past, using the lessons in the present, and seeing them all as shades of the future. I look at the entirety and can’t help being awed.

Timey-Wimey Stuff

Time and space seem to be part of each other’s DNA, woven into the thought process. So when you have someone who travels through space, but is a time lord, you’ve got every cause for fantastical adventure covered. I’m one of those terrible people who came into Doctor Who with the series reboot, and I did not force myself to become a completist. Listen, there is a lot of media out there, and when I think of all the years of good TV throughout history my head explodes, and this is why I can’t handle watching Star Trek even though I’d love it, and also I don’t have to explain myself to you (although apparently I do). Anyway, I started Doctor Who with my first and still favorite Nine, and have kept it up to varying degrees of enthusiasm since.

Doctor Who is an alien, so a lot of the episodes have that space-oriented bent, but I love the time travel elements. Particularly when they go into the past—seeing the way the writers get to play with history, inserting the Doctor and alien elements and twisting these great events for modern storytelling, it’s a thrill. Doctor Who likes to play with the other end of the time spectrum, waging guesses on what the future might hold, but for now I want to focus on my personal favorite past-dated episodes. If that’s not enough to sate your Time Lord thirst, I’d highly suggest finding your own favorites on this ridiculously comprehensive interactive map of all the Doctor’s time travels. Welcome to your own lost time. But wait for that, because, and without any further ado, I present my favorite time episodes for each modern doctor.

NINE: “The Empty Child”empty

During his all too brief run as the Doctor, Christopher Eccleston had a surprisingly amazing selection of time traveling episodes. It might have been Davies coming out of the gate strong to reintroduce the character and concepts to the viewing public. Whatever it was, it was marvelous. I almost went with “The Unquiet Dead” here, out of Dickens love and how wonderful Eccleston plays in that time period. And “Father’s Day” is one of those thoughtful, heartbreaking pieces that majestically sets the tone of the Doctor and his limitations. But in terms of sheer staying power, “The Empty Child,” an eerie mystery set during the London Blitz, wins hands down. For one, it deserves major props for introducing everyone’s favorite scandalous chap, a certain Captain Jack. And for another, this had visuals and a narrative that established the new generation’s particular brand of doing good with a slight edge. “The Empty Child” changed the way I look at gas masks. I dare you to hear the phrase “are you my mummy?” without getting the chills.

TEN: “Blink”

blinkOh, David Tennant. The most beloved of all, his time larks were many and varied. Whether he’s charming Madame de Pompadour, infuriating Queen Elizabeth, or solving mysteries alongside Agatha Christie, Tennant’s Doctor has no qualms with sticking his nose into history and muddling around in the past. Which is why it’s so surprising that my favorite time episode barely features the Doctor. It might be low on the titular character, but “Blink” stands supreme as a great Doctor Who episode and a terrifying use of time travel. Even I can’t begrudge giving Stephen Moffat his due with this one. The man did good, even if he can’t carry a series-long arc to save his life. But this one-off is Moffat at his finest. There’s a crazy intricate premise, with the introduction of the time-distorting Weeping Angels. There are crazy high stakes, since one touch from the angels zaps a victim back in time, never to return. Together, those elements create a classic Moffat episode, a single idea just interesting enough to captivate and devastate anyone watching.

ELEVEN: “A Town Called Mercy”A_Town_Called_Mercy

There are better episodes and better uses of time—including the Weeping Angel-centric “The Angels Take Manhattan”—but it’s only natural that my list would navigate towards my own personal interests. After all, I was nearly tempted to call “The Shakespeare Code” a top Ten episode, my love of the Bard almost edging out my complete distaste for Martha (and seriously, how awful is her mooning over the Doctor in that episode?). I’m a complete sucker for Western aesthetics, so placing the Doctor within that no-holds-barred world absolutely delighted me. I thought it was a good way to show times clashing against each other, and the cyborg thing was pretty dang cool. But what I really loved about this was the way it captured the spirit of moral ambiguity that is the trademark of Westerns. In a wild world, who can truly judge?

TWELVE: “Robot of Sherwood”

robot-of-sherwood-pic2This is another example of my own personal biases tilting the scale towards this episode. I’m a complete Robin Hood fan. It was my favorite Disney movie growing up, I read the stories over and over until my copy was tattered (but I’d always stop before the end, while the gang was still fun and before sorrow and betrayal), and when the BBC made their own series I was an intense fangirl. So it stood to reason that I would love the Doctor facing off against my dear Sir Robert. I would also argue that this is one of the first episodes with Peter Capaldi that fell into a rhythm with his new Doctor, getting comfortable with who he was and how he interacted with the world. Everything up to it felt like introduction. This is how the age thing works, this is how he works with Clara, and this is how we’re going to use him and say goodbye to Eleven just a little more. But with “Sherwood,” we got a glimpse of a comfortably caustic nature and slight egoism that felt more lived in. All the reassertion that Robin Hood is no creation, but actually as lovely and brilliant as I always dreamed? Just the icing on an already wonderful cake.

Screen Suckers

I might have waxed poetic about the written vampire before, but as I said in that post, there is something to be said for the onscreen demon. Watching a vampire incarnate, all charm and danger and sex appeal on the television screen, well. It conveys this excitement that literature cannot always guarantee. Besides, the freedom of the camera allows for slightly more depth. Visual clues can hint at scope for evil in a mere camera pan, a twitching lip can signal eternal hunger, a twinkling eye can add personality to the tortured soul. That being said, there are favorites. Amidst the Dracula knockoffs, the Hammer films, the eternal sexiness of Damon and Stefan and Bill Compton, there are some celluloid vamps that deserve my special attention and love.

“Bad Blood”, The X-Files

vampireThis might seem like cheating, putting an entire episode of a TV show, one not even primarily concerned with vampires, on my list about favorite vampires. To those naysayers, I have one response: it’s my list, and if you don’t approve of including The X-Files at any opportunity we have some core fundamental differences, and I might recommend a different pop culture site. “Bad Blood” is one of the first things that comes to mind with vampires on screen. A lot of that has to do with its place in The X-Files canon, as this Vince Gilligan-penned* script shows a Mulder/Scully counterpoint that must be experienced, setting the two against each other as they recall the events in Cheney, Texas, adding their own peccadilloes and interpretations.** This is episode is also unique in its portrayal of vampires. Yes it’s humorous, a rarely seen trait I’ll touch on more in a moment, but it also plays up the stereotypes while keeping an underlying menace. These vampires seem campy but still pack a punch.

* Yes, that Vincent Gilligan

** “And it wasn’t even real cream cheese; it was light cream cheese!”

Viago, What we do in the Shadows

viagoSpeaking of the humorous vein of vampire screen lore, something we’ve alluded to but haven’t quite discussed, Viago is by far my favorite. A close runner up is Paul Reubens in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, with his extended death scene, but Viago wins the chuckle-off between the two. What We Do in the Shadows is a recent film, still in theatres near you if you’re lucky, but it’s well worth recognition. A hilarious mockumentary that gives Christopher Guest films a run for their money, Shadows follows vampire roommates as they traverse their afterlife. Viago is one of the youngest, a mere 183-years old, and still hangs on to some of the genteel markers of the Victorian age. A polite, fastidious vampire, Viago’s humor comes from his naturally sweet personality, especially as contrasted by the necessary bloodthirstiness of vampires. Watching him narrate his “hunting” process might have been the hardest I’ve laughed in a while.

Claudia, Interview with the Vampire

claudiaAll vampire stories tend to skew towards one type: young and sexy. With the promise of eternal youth, why wouldn’t vampirism be attractive? What a tempting offer, to be at your prime forever. Claudia, the scheming “child” vampire played by Kristen Dunst in Interview with the Vampire, disabuses viewers of that notion with remorseless efficiency. Killed by Louis and revived by Lestat, the five-year old begins her eternity simply enough, learning about the world and murder from her two older companions. But then she grows mentally throughout the years, entering maturity internally while externally remaining cherubic. The division drives her mad. Having the capability of an eternal being while trapped in the body of a minor leads Claudia to become one of the most vindictive, heartless creatures. Incidentally, that’s what makes her so fascinating to watch.

Nosferatu, Nosferatu the Vampyr (1979)

nosferatuNosferatu is the original on-screen vampire. F.W. Murnau’s unapproved rip-off of the Dracula story introduced viewers to a stalking menace. The original is a gorgeous movie, currently found on Netflix, and if you have the disposition to sit through silent films it’s well worth your time, building an astonishing air of menace that aged beautifully. But if silent isn’t your thing, consider Werner Herzog’s version, which more than preserves the fear and desperation of the original. Klaus Kinski is absolutely astounding as Nosferatu. While the original Max Schreck was rumored to actually be a vampire, I willingly believe it with Kinski. He achieves an entire era of hopelessness through one frame, the pale face and staring eyes striking terror and pity in the heart of any who look upon him. As he ushers in plague and walks suddenly into frame, Kinski’s Nosferatu is the epitome of ageless villain.

Spike, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

BuffyThe ultimate bad boy, the king of quip, the punk prince of darkness, and hands down the best vampire in the Buffy-verse. Eat your heart out, Angel (and Angelus, while you are almost interesting, you just don’t measure up to this amount of wonderful). Spike isn’t just the best vampire on TV, he’s the best vampire to watch. He fits all requirements a fan could possibly have: he’s totally violent and insane, and yet there’s heart. He has the slight stalker tendencies that make every Twihard’s heart flutter (I won’t elaborate further on those Buffy-bot years), but they develop into a rich tortured soul, the demon besieged by a bad case of the loves. Watching Spike progress throughout the seasons, all snark and sexiness, is enough to justify the vampire’s eternal life on screen. Writers take note: this is how you do a vampire. And trust me, with Spike, I’d like to.

 

Books with Bite

I love movies, and there’s something to be said for the actual image of sinuous vampires on the screen, but for some reason these creatures always felt more real to me when they jumped off the page. Perhaps it’s the whole “dark and stormy night” aspect of it, where the descriptions of night and terror leave more scope for my imagination. Perhaps, to get all snotty on you, it’s because this was a concept told through tales, an idea with such a rich literary history that I can’t help but nod respectfully to the works that came before (slightly covered in my Dracula piece) and the wealth of material that followed. Whatever it is, vampires and books go together like peanut butter and jelly, or monsters and disemboweling, and I love it.

Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-001

Right now, vampire lit is nearly over-saturating the market. Young Adult literature is stuffed to the rafters with books that have glowing eyes or pale-skinned beauties on the cover. Thanks Twilight! It can be almost exhausting to wade through the stack of Vampire Academy or Vampire Assistant or Vampire Gangster* books out there. Adult books are similarly plagued. Thanks, Sookie Stackhouse!

* I don’t think this one is real, and I’m claiming my intellectual property rights here and now.**

**Well, shoot.

Despite the abundance of vamp books, enough for anyone to fully gorge on whatever type of undead lover they fancy, it still takes finesse to get the stories exactly right. And even when the stories aren’t exactly right, there are only a finite number of ways they can be told. Vampires have been around for centuries. You’re not going to find an utterly fresh telling. There can be fresh stories, but the methods fall under the same basic structures.

1. Build off a previous story.

When in doubt, stretch out something that has been proven over time. Elaborately fan-fic the crap out of classic literature, and voilà! You’ve got a story cooking! In all seriousness, this concept can lead to some incredible reading. When done skillfully, continuing from the foundation of Carmilla or Dracula can allow for the author to get all kinds of creative, but within a limited structure. It’s been posited that the best creativity happens when there are boundaries, and these kinds of books can prove that.

One of the most successful versions of this is Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. Weighty, time-weaving, and at times a little lagging in the narrative, The Historian uses the Dracula myth to tell a story about scholarship, about history, and about family. Kostova used the legends of Vlad Tepes to jump start this, her first novel, but made the character of the Count a shadowy villain. The result is something that can appeal to fans of the books, because it still has that stalking terror just in the shadows, but the drama surrounding the decades of involvement between this one family and the Count is the main attraction. In this way, it’s a thoroughly modern book, expanding on an ancient premise.

anno_dracula

This is done even more joyfully in the Anno Dracula series by Kim Newman. Full disclosure—I have only read the first in this series, and even that was difficult at times. Newman’s prose is positively purple, a lush tone that fits the Victorian landscape, but you have to be in precisely the right mood to push through it. Once that happens, however, the story is thrilling. This also builds on Dracula (the book, not the legend), but in a “what if?” way. What if the heroes of Dracula failed? What if Dracula actually succeeded in spreading vampirism all over England? What would a society of humans and vampires look like? Newman fleshes this out with awesome detail and tells the story with all the Victorian luridness a vampire fan could want. Spiritual sister to Penny Dreadful, tone-wise. Also, Jack the Ripper. I’ll say no more, but check this one out.

2. Take the name but change the game.

This is what happens when the beasties are still vampires, but everything else has completely changed. This is definitely the Twilight category. They’re called vampires, but they sparkle. Or don’t drink blood. Or aren’t possessed by demons. Essentially, it’s the reverse of the last category. Results are the same (ish), but origins may vary.

Westerfeld_-_Peeps_CoverartI find that YA lit does this best. Scott Westerfeld, he of Uglies fame, played with vampires in two books: Peeps and The Last Days. I’m surprised that these books haven’t taken over the world, because they embody everything hot in teen lit. Smart,
sassy protagonists that speak with real but overly smart voices, a la John Green. Vampire monsters, a la everything. Set against the impending apocalypse, giving a slight dystopian feel, just like the Hunger Games. How is this not more well known? It’s all those things and readable to boot. Give Westerfeld a medal. Regardless of whatever YA bingo Westerfeld was playing when he wrote these, they are great vampire books, where the vampire is actually a human infected with a parasite. A secret society has known about this disease since Colonial times, fighting against the infected and keeping the world safe, but now Hell is about to break loose on earth with a sudden spike in infestations. Changing vampirism into an actual disease—one backed up with snippets of real parasitic science—is a cool twist and adds a new layer of depth to the vampire story.

In further YA news, Robin McKinley (you might know her from The Hero and the CrownThe Blue Sword, or Beauty) also got on the vampire train with Sunshine. These vampires are slightly more traditional, in that they are ancient beings created through trading of blood, but McKinley severely separates them from any human bonds. Her story is set in a supernatural other-world reeling in the wake of the “Voodoo Wars,” a magic monster v. magic human battle. Sunshine, a lovely baker of cinnamon rolls, is captured by vampires and escapes, but not before rescuing her fellow captive, who just so happens to be a vampire. They have a connection, she has power, but she also already has a boyfriend. Twist! Think Twilight, but if Bella had a personality and a life beyond her romantic entanglements. The most subversive part of Sunshine is how it establishes that vampires aren’t human. They might have the same basic shape, but the differences are tangible and noticeable. Placing the vampire inside a world that is already magical lessens the hyper-intense fear of the other, but the richness of the telling makes up for it.

3. Hybridize!

Just like the best stews, vampire books benefit from having a little bit of everything thrown in there. In this case, the most enduring books, the ones I find most fascinating, are those that keep the old but push forward into the new. It’s like Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles—there are aristocratic vamps, ones that date back to Drac and keep the same basic back story and structure, but the characters and situations she’s working with are so new and vibrant it’s impossible to look away.

American_Vampire_02_Cover_by_rafaelalbuquerqueart

My ultimate favorite example of this is a graphic novel series. American Vampire, by Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque (with a special assist from Stephen King in the first issue), tells one of the greatest vampire stories I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t hurt that the first issue seemed particularly tailored to my tastes. Cowboys? Check. The 1920s? Check. Hollywood? Check. Smart, capable female protagonist? Check. Gangsters? Check. Jazz? Check. Strangely magnetic bad boy? Check. Extreme gore? Checkity check.

The first issue of American Vampire tells the story of Skinner Sweet, an outlaw in the Wild West of the 1800s. A run-in with a train full of Romanians leaves him a new species—the first American vampire. This origin story is cut up with the tale of Pearl, a flapper and aspiring actress who gets embroiled in events way over her head. There are bad guys, semi-bad guys, and those fighting against the forces of evil. It has layers to the vampires, making some sympathetic while never forgetting these are beings with awful destructive power, power shown through gorgeous, animalistic spreads drawn by Albuquerque. It’s awesome.

I love it because it does seem so very written for me, but it’s more than that. I love it because it’s a book that respects the concept of a vampire, evil and fangs and all. I love it because it has that respect but dares to do something new. I love it because it has a sense of starry-eyed optimism (there is good and evil, and the forces of good battle tirelessly against the darkness). I love it because those set parameters get messy, there are stark contrasts but it allows the characters to blur and play with those lines. It manages to take the old Carpathian creatures (seriously, Dracula shows up in one arc a few issues in) and blend it naturally with bold myth-making of its own.

And that’s what the best books do. They create something new. Yes, films are doing this with vampires. Less often now, since even my favorite vampire films have roots in novels, but there are original vampire tales being told on screen. And yet, books are the source of the latest and greatest. Books are the things pushing the myths forward. Those pages give the undead life.

Oh Master, My Master!

nosfertuIt’s an autumn night, circa none-of-your-business, and thirteen year-old Cat is cowering in her bed. The covers are strategically pulled over her throat, creating a cave around her head. Her breath roars raggedly in the confined space, and her heart is echoing through the mattress and up into the pillow, an assault of noise that does nothing to conceal the infinitesimal creaks near her window. She knows that each groan of the house and sound of the street outside is the announcement of something coming for her. Suddenly she’s acutely aware of every entry point into her room, each crack beneath the door and just how level her windows are to the ground. On the nightstand beside her lay the culprit for such heightened paranoia, a fresh copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There’s a definite scratching on the window and Cat prays for sleep to come.

Dracula is a book that’s managed to retain freshness for over a hundred years. It’s the tale of a shadowy Transylvanian count, Dracula, a vampire who seeks to spread his reign of horror to London. In this process he traps and terrorizes Jonathan Harker, preys on Lucy Westenra (much to the chagrin of her three hunky suitors), and generally flies against the face of science and London’s new modernity.

It’s a fabulous book. And the most influential piece of vampire media, hands down.

In the end, nothing is as chillingly long-lived as Dracula.  There are older vampire novels—like John William Polidori’s The Vampyre (the original preying aristocrat), or Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (an exploration into female, and thus lesbian, vampirism). There are older examples of lurid Gothic Romanticism—like Horace Walpole’s spooky, mad, twisting The Castle of Otranto. Yet no other tale has become so synonymous with itscommunity central monster.  Vampires are Dracula. When I was a wee little child, there were essentially four monsters in all of existence: mummies, werewolves, Frankensteins (a fallacy for another day and another discussion), and Draculas. Not vampires. Draculas. It’s entered the lexicon. It is the legend. The idea has become one with the character.

With good reason. Stoker’s novel is absolutely captivating, conveying the villain in a way that is straight-forward and accessible while still delivering the spine-shivers. The other vampire tomes are delicious and taboo but err on the side of becoming lost in their own hype, as it were. The pages and pages of description and gore are titillating, but in the end leave less of an impression. They’re the slasher film equivalent to Dracula‘s classic jump horror. In the novel, everything is conveyed through letters, diaries, news clippings, so all the central action occurs on the periphery. It’s like seeing the alien for a split second turning a corner, or barely registering the dismemberment before the camera turns. Still horrifying, and arguably more so because the scenes are more disturbing as they sink in retroactively, but seen blurrily through a second lens. Dracula himself is only viewed through the eyes of others, so the reader is piecing together his power, his appetite, and his grand scheme as slowly and methodically as any film plotting.

I first read Dracula, when I was right on the cusp of wanting to become more well-read with the classics, but young enough to be intimidated by overly wrought sentence structure and the stigma of anything older than the 20th century. Color me shocked at how easily Dracula went down. My nervousness at the secondhand storytelling was abated as I became immersed in the story of our heroes fighting against evil. I had to make a personal rule—no reading after dark. Not so much out of fear over Dracula, but fear over his acolyte, Renfield. Renfield served as a reminder of how twisted humanity could be, the so-called “zoophagous” madness triggering the same personal panic and fascination that Hannibal Lecter would capitalize on years later. While the pure supernatural was unnerving, it was nothing compared to the cold hand of reality offered from Seward’s insane asylum. Dracula’s predatory nature did become more unsettling on future reads, when the full weight of his torture of Jonathan Harker and Lucy Westenra sunk in, but the tale of an ordinary person willing to trade humanity for the false power constructed by consuming others still takes the cake.

Since that first read, Dracula has remained with me, stalking in the shadows of my life. My first college paper was a five-page treatise on Dracula and sexuality. I talked about feminism, the New Woman, and how the vampire myth completely corrupted Christian ideals of intercourse. My last paper of graduate school was twenty pages on Francis Ford Coppola’s terrible film version, describing how it fit into the vampire myth as a whole (spoiler—it fits in rather well, paying proper credence to the novel’s themes and the cinematic tropes surrounding vampires. This fact doesn’t make it a good movie, not in the least, which we’ll talk more about soon). This book has been a beating heart at the center of my favorite literature, held up there with East of Eden  and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It captures terror and history and contains a labyrinthine exploration of religion, technology, sexuality, feminism, imperialism, queer theory…in essence, the rabbit holes of discussion in this book are many, varied, and enthralling.

BelaThe sheer scope of how many things people can discuss in the novel is part of why the specific Dracula telling of the myth is so tied up with modern descriptions of vampires. Sure, vampires have taken their own angles and shoot-offs, been twisted into new and sometimes baffling directions, but they all have this kernel of the Count. Dracula’s weaknesses have become every vampire’s weaknesses: his nocturnal activity translated into the familiar creature-of-the-night motif, thanks to him (and a certain Bela Lugosi years later) vampires became attractive foreigners, the copious amounts of garlic Van Helsing used to protect Lucy is now so well-known it’s almost a joke, and of course, the bat-morphing thing was all thanks to Stoker. These traits have become a shorthand for what the mind sees when it visualizes a vampire, and it all boils down to the novel.

When young Cat emerged from a rest full of nightmares, did she throw away her book? Did she run away from the fear that vampires instilled? No. Dracula merely planted a fascination with the myth, a deep love and respect for the tales. It’s a standard that every piece of vampire media has had to live up to. Dracula might not be the original vamp,  but he’s the king.

Vampire 101

We here at Most Worlds have dedicated April to a particularly tantalizing topic. For the sake of ease and convenience, we have prepared a handy how-to, strictly for optimum enjoyment of a delectable month’s exploration.

What are vampires (a.k.a. vampyr, nosferatu, nukekubi, упырь, etc., etc.)?

Varney_the_VampireVampires span every nook and cranny of this glorious globe, with each country possessing a unique take on the creature (some opt for chomping, bouncing heads, and some for angsty teens that sparkle; there’s no accounting for taste). But, no matter where they are located, each vampire has a few essential commonalities:

  • They are not alive.
  • They fly in the face of religious beliefs, representing some twisted inversion against societal niceties.
  • Most often their activity is nocturnal, though not always.
  • They deplete the energies of the living, commonly through feeding on their blood. In general, vampires are a blood-soaked lot.

When it comes to the brass tacks of defining vampires, it really depends on the area. Sometimes they’re reanimated corpses. Sometimes they’re demons, or witches, or any other wholly supernatural creation. Some legends discuss wounds or illnesses or even cats as responsible for spawning the beasts, and others conflate the entire concept with succubi. In general, vampires are seen as unnatural abominations against humanity.

Wait, so are vampires zombies?

No. Not even close. I mean, I suppose they both fit under the category of “undead creatures who must feed on the flesh of the living to survive,” but the reality is much more nuanced. On the one hand, there’s zombies. Shambling, brainless, degenerating creatures. They quest for brains with all the single-minded focus of traveling businessmen in hunt for a bar, but that is the utter sum of their existence. On the other hand, vampires. Smooth and scheming, a vampire does thirst for human blood, but has complex motives. Part of it is for survival. Part of it is to feel human again. And a huge part of their modus operandi is just for kicks and giggles. Some vampires stalk human prey because they can, and they torment their victims for the pure joy of it. To a zombie, the brain is the end game. For a vampire, the thrill is in the chase. They’re the bad ex-boyfriend, the douchey frat boy, but with a never-ending lifespan.

Should I ever engage with a vampire?

Short answer? Probably not a good idea. Long answer? It’s complicated.

As aforementioned, vampires are devoid of the typical human “soul” (e.g., religious/moral spirit imbuing the body, or even some ethereal code that keeps us to that moral path), and instead possess a sole purpose to feed on human blood. Under those parameters, it seems like vampiric interaction would be a bad idea, something akin to a gazelle chumming around with a lion. There might be some fun involved, some cavorting, some rousing games of tag, but, in the end, one is the predator and the other is the prey. There’s only one outcome. I don’t want to discount the so-called tortured vampire or those who have turned into creatures of the night against their will. They might make lovely companions. But even if the vampire is not about to feast on flesh, there’s still the matter of their undead status. What could be called the eternal life clause. Someday, death’s icy fingers will visit, and only the vampire will be left standing. Whether death comes through violent means or not, it’s still inevitable and still puts a damper on any association. Why cause the heart such pain?

How can I defeat a vampire?

BUFFYS4D3-1This is debatable. Common weapons include sunlight, chopping off the vampire’s head and hands, the ever popular stake through the heart method, or burning some or all of the body. My personal favorite method involves exhuming the corpse, stacking its bones like some morbid game of pick-up-sticks, and placing the skull and hands on the top of the stack. I think the idea behind this is that it thoroughly confuses the vampire when they awake, and, in their frustration at not being able to reassemble and mobilize, they just give up. Oh well, I can’t find the hip bone to go into the leg bone, might as well abandon my quest for mischief and blood-letting.

If straight-up annihilation of the vampire sounds unappealing or too involved, there are also safeguards one can take against them. Temporary distractions that can allow you to escape and leave other mortals to tangle with the foe. Crucifixes, garlic, wild rose, crossing running water, and climbing very tall trees can help protect against vampire attacks. A lot of those cross over into evading bears as well. The more you know!

Are vampires sexy?

VampireYes! Every vampire should be a little bit sexy. Sex is deep set in vampiric genetics—if there’s no erotic pull, the danger becomes merely terrifying (see again: zombie) instead of mostly alluring. But this is very important: the sexiness should have that raw edge of danger. And I’m not talking about boy-on-a-motorcycle danger, some kind of neutered kicking against well-established pricks. A motorcycle can be dangerous, but it’s still accepted by society. The leather jacket that accompanies it is still an accessory, to be taken off when the man underneath cleans up for some magical ball.

A vampire’s danger can never be taken off. It can never be accepted by society. The vampire sexiness holds the promise of pain, of suffering, but in the immortal words of John Cougar Mellancamp, it “hurts so good.” Without a surety of eternal damnation and torture, a vampire becomes Edward Cullen, which is to say, no vampire at all.

Hold on. If vampires were real, wouldn’t they have killed off everyone by now?

Oh, I see the logic behind that thought.  The whole ecosystem balance idea, right?  Where if vampires are the predator, and their only defeat lies in the soft squishy hands of their only prey, wouldn’t it stand to reason that they would have killed off their prey, that is to say, humanity?  Especially if one assumes that they feed and simultaneously create more vampires.

That’s some solid sciencing there. And I’m sorry to burst that safe little bubble, the comforting mantra that vampires can’t possibly be real because of that overpopulation risk, but here I go. Bubble bursting all over the place. Here’s the thing—no one is safe.  Seeking solace in numbers will not hide that. Vampires don’t create new vampires with every feeding frenzy, so that expansion of one vampire making one vampire a night, and then growing, does not work.  Sorry.  Vampires can sip a little here, a little there, with nary a new companion created. Also, vampires are pretty hardy, and can last days without sustenance. Sure, they’ll age a little, but, as far as predators go, they’re far from overrunning the planet. No, they’re far too savvy for that to happen.

Point? Math doesn’t prove that vampires aren’t real, so lock that window and pull that bed cover over your soft throat.

So, why vampires?

Because they’re just so juicy (please pardon any punning).

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The ideas behind vampires are fascinating. They often include some religious angle, born from someone fearing types of indecency. Vampires are seductive, willful, “unnatural” (there’s that word again), and fly against societal expectations. Something that takes pure, unadulterated joy from flouting norms—reveling in mischief and causing property damage, promiscuously entering other’s homes and exchanging fluids without remorse, indulging insatiable appetites, living forever in sinful pleasure and paying no obeisance to a higher power—that’s dangerous. In one sense, vampires are the other side of the line, the pit someone can fall into if they don’t follow the letter of the law, whatever that law may be. But even in that subversion, vampires are alluring. They are the ultimate outsiders, longing to come in. Isn’t that the goal with all the humanity terrorizing? To pull at the pigtails of humans until they are accepted back into the fold? So there’s the element of the outcast trying to re-enter something pure and good, and yet vampires look like they are having the time of their lives. Many times, they are unapologetic, making the debauchery of their lifestyle deliciously tantalizing. So in that sense, vampires represent freedom from expectation and rules, an irresistible but perilous alternative to humdrum normality.

Vampires are the ultimate representation of moral tug-of-war. They upset the balance of good and evil, they infect clear ideas of what’s right and what’s wrong. In that regard they’re fascinating. We here at Most Worlds love the idea of liminal spaces, the gaps in between thresholds, the crossover between what’s real and what’s magical. That’s where vampires reside, so that’s an idea worthy of exploration.

Animals Under the Martian Heel

Aliens may be awe-inspiring, but more often they play the terrifying threat to human tranquility.  All that power translates into impossible odds, and there’s nothing quite like watching the plucky underdogs of humanity standing against beings of arguably-higher intelligence. It gets our heart rate pumping and our superiority complex firing on all cylinders. But which invaders have proven the best threats? Are there aliens whose menace, to put it bluntly, rules?

5. The aliens in Attack the Block

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Art by Alex Pardee

 This is a case where the aliens are cool, but wouldn’t be anything particularly special. But the film they’re introduced in is so special, so glaringly unique and fun, that they demand to be included. If you haven’t seen Attack the Block, please remedy that, because this little British gem takes the invader alien trope and makes it a non-stop blast. With a rookie director and a cast of unknowns (save for Nick Frost), this story about a bunch of hooligans who start out mugging people and end up defending their apartment block from vengeful space creatures breathes life into a genre fraught with melodrama. What’s lovely about the film is the way it makes the awful sympathetic. The marauding street gang become the heroes. Even the invaders have a soft fluffy motive—it doesn’t take away from the terror of them stalking the apartment dwellers, but it adds depth to the heartless Earth-conqueror trope.

4. The Network, from The World’s End

This is another one where I’m including it partially because the film is so, so good. The grand finale of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy isn’t just an incredible alien story—although yes, yes it is—it’s an incredible story of human malaise, weakness, and the strange metamorphoses of self-esteem and friendship. Simon Pegg gives the performance of a lifetime as aimless Gary King, with Nick Frost as the perfect adult foil in Andy Knightley, all proper life experience and barely simmering rage.  When the chums face the Network, an evil alien collective hell-bent on”civilizing” humans by replacing them, their barbaric yawps against a relentless system capture the essence of humanity, stubborn and bullheaded as we are.  The World’s End succeeds not only in having a rip-roaring scifi adventure, but also in having a rawly human story about coming to grips with age and the passage of time.  A film that can combine space aliens with the alien parts of human progression is a winner in my book.

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3. The Vogons in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

My husband challenged me on the Vogon inclusion, but in the end I don’t care what he says, I’m counting them as invaders. At the very least they are eliminating human life and and threatening the existence of Earth, so even if they aren’t technically invading terra firma, they are absolutely invading humanity’s sense of safety and security and life.  So here they are, on the list.

VogonaieIt would feel strange to talk about alien lifeforms without some nod to Douglas Adams,* and, to me, the Vogons are one of the most delightful twists on alien threats.  It’s so bureaucratic, so droll, and their unseemly visage is just the wart on top of the boil. Making the otherworldly stand-in for unfeeling corporations, the humanoid embodiment of slugs is so on the nose and yet exhibits the Adams brilliance (and special shout out to Henson’s Creature Shop for designing something so beautiful in its grotesquerie). These invaders are wonderful because they encapsulate the regular invasions that manipulate our life—boring, staid, and often with terrible poetry.

2. The aliens from Independence Day

It’s impossible to talk about aliens with an agenda without bringing up the aliens from Independence DayID is the epitome of alien movies, and if you don’t agree let me show you the technological door, because you aren’t welcome here. Will Smith at the height of his powers. Bill Pullman as a president whose speeches make grown men break down and weep like the giant babies they are on the inside. And Jeff Goldblum. JEFF GOLDBLUM, rocking that intergalactic Mac OS like a boss. But the aliens themselves are the paragon of invaders. With an off-putting form, borrowing from xenomorphs and the mystical strangeness of the deep sea squids, those aliens inspired terror. I think that the moment when our heroes stumble upon communication with the beasts, via one unlucky scientist, is the first jump moment I experienced in a film (it’s either this or some scene in Jurassic Park: The Lost World. Or something from The Last Unicorn). No image instills terror quite like those large spacecrafts obscuring the sky, and no moment inspires patriotism more than their defeat. Welcome to Earth indeed.

1. Invader Zim

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Invader Zim has to be the number one. I mean, invader is in his name. Also, I think he’s by far the most ruthless invader of the bunch. Essentially, his only characteristic is his quest to destroy Earth and prove his worth to the rest of the Irken’s (an alien race determined to conquer the entire universe). The fact he infiltrates Earth by adopting the disguise of a poor, defenseless child is proof positive of his brilliant maliciousness. Armed with the insane robot Gir, thwarted at every turn by the giant-headed Dib, and only truly foiled by meat products, Zim is everything an invader should be—relentless, unhinged, and utterly awesome.

*Almost as strange as it feels realizing that we haven’t touched on Star Wars, Star Trek, or The X-Files in this alien-centric month.

Save Our Aliens!

So, the alien is the other, right?  All that’s implied in the name.  Alien = unknown, often scary, destructive, omnipotent, over-arching, all that jazz.  There are a ton of movies that cover the implicit terror of the aliens taking over.  The type of shows that thrive on large spaceships obscuring the skyline, on gray-green scales and tentacles and the sudden, spine-chilling gnashing of outcropping teeth.  When we talk about aliens in movies, more often than not they’re standing in for the natural human fear of things outside our control.  Something I cannot comprehend is out to get me.  Something greater than myself is taking away my hard-earned security, and humanity is powerless against it.

Aliens serve as a great MacGuffin for human insecurity.  Though that’s usually depicted with invasion, it’s not always the case.  Sometimes, instead of using aliens to showcase the indomitability of mankind’s spirit, aliens can show the depth of mankind’s tenderness.  Sometimes the alien is not powerful.  It’s merely other.  And in that innate otherness, it demands a protection.

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The Grand Poobah of this sort of alien movie—not the first, but arguably the best and the catalyst for an entire spate
of Peter Pan, starry-eyed optimist films—is undoubtedly E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.  E.T. makes the aliens so benign and so wise, that instead of a looming threat they become precious.  E.T. isn’t an eerie reminder of Elliot’s ultimate fallibility.  He functions as a treasured jewel, something to be protected and valued and cherished throughout the years.  He’s Elliot’s childhood, but with an elevation that serves to remind us of the power of innocence.

E.T. is not just otherworldly, he’s everything pure and good about humanity.  What are his most distinctive traits?

  • Curiosity.  This can be extended to his entire species, if that’s the right word for it.  (Civilization?  Does that work better?).  His kind are first introduced as scientists, collecting plants and functioning as passive but voracious learners.  E.T. himself exhibits these traits as he interacts with Elliot and the rest of the world, mimicking movement and learning from that television set as diligently as any toddler sponging up Sesame Street.
  • Innocence.  At the same time, E.T. knows nothing of the world.  The learning doesn’t happen with the edge of cynicism.  It’s not the scholar studying in order to tear down a schema of thought.  It’s the ingenue seeking to expand the limited knowledge of the world, and standing in wonder at it all.  It’s almost like Spielberg is harkening back to childhood, extolling the virtue of an unencumbered view, isn’t it?  Hmm.  Interesting.
  • Compassion.  Partway through the film, it’s revealed that E.T. has strong psychic connections, a connection he foists on Elliot now that his entire clan is far beyond the stars.  Now this might be a stretch, but stick with me here—I think that this addition of psychic connection is showing a type of superior community developed by the alien species, showcasing what might been seen as a childlike trust in each other and twisting it to make a strength.  Because of this mindlink, the aliens care more about the members of their society.  They’re fostering a utopia.  And because Elliott tastes a little bit of this union, he is more loving and caring towards E.T.  In return E.T. shares knowledge.  Heck, he makes Elliott so powerful he can fly!  Which leads to…
  • Powerful.  Just because there’s all this laudatory highlight of childish traits, doesn’t mean that these aliens are big ol’ dummies, or completely incapable and in need of humanity to show them the way.  No, these aliens are bosses, with powers and understanding that far outstrip our own.  They can bring life to that which was dead (smacks of some omnipotence there, eh?), make things float around, and essentially bend all the laws of physics to their will.  No slouching there.
  • Fragility.  In spite of all that ultimate power, E.T. has weaknesses.  He fades the longer he’s on Earth.  Without the support of his people, his system, he’s stripped of his life force.  It’s sort of a scathing commentary—the longer you live on the Earth, the more it robs you of those essential traits possessed in childhood.  In short, the world is a dark terrible place and can destroy you if you don’t hold on to what’s good and pure. Subtlety, thy name is not Spielberg.

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With E.T., saving this concept of the alien, which is really just the concept of childhood, becomes the ultimate goal.  It drew in kids with the Reeses pieces, the hilarious underage drunken-ness, and the madcap adventure. It drew in adults by reminding them of something long ago lost, and renewing them with a vigor to protect that in the next generation.  In the end, tears were had by all.

This are ideas developed and even mimicked in later movies.  The film Paul, that Simon Pegg-Nick Frost-Seth Rogen vehicle that is the forgotten nugget in the Pegg-Frost oeuvre, completely builds upon the foundation E.T. established.  And I even mean beyond the cherished joke that Spielberg has a direct line to captured alien Paul, and is using him to vet all his sci-fi movies.

Paul_iyyyNo, Paul takes all the premium placed on youthful innocence from E.T. and sets it in a millennial world.  Paul is the best (and most maligned) segments of humanity.  He’s forever juvenile, irresponsible, and fun.  He laughs his deep stoner laugh and bombs around the desert with nary a care, two nerds in tow.  And yet, even with all the trappings of the eternally adolescent male, Paul is still wise, resourceful, and ten times smarter than the oppressive government seeking to drain his life force.

In both films, the emphasis is placed on preservation of the alien traits, traits that aren’t so unfamiliar to us after all.  Elliott saves E.T., and Graeme and Clive help Paul elude capture, because they are all trying to preserve the best versions of humanity.  Or at least what humanity should be.  The impulse to protect the alien comes from the almost selfish urge to shelter our own promise, innocence, and instincts, long before the concepts of what we “should” be enter our lives.  Humanity’s greatest moment isn’t conquering the alien invaders.  It’s proving the goodness of humanity by recognizing and saving the best of what we are.

Higher Power

Let’s face it—it’s illogical to believe we are all alone on this pale blue dot in the grand masses of the cosmos.  That in the trillions and zillions of galaxies out there, stars and space innumerable, we are the only signs of intelligent life.  I, for one, subscribe to the belief that we are not alone.  Have we been visited by lifeforms?  I can’t say for sure, and I admit, as much as I love the idea of Area 51, I find it unlikely that the American government are the sole keepers of alien lifeforms (other secrets, yes, just perhaps not this one).  But is the universe full of possibility?  I, for one, believe.

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Why yes it is.

Still, whether the enigmatic “they” have visited us or not, the idea of alien life form is an indelible part of our mythology.  Who really built the pyramids?   What’s the deal with Stonehenge?  Or the Easter Island sculptures?  It’s easy to say there was some sort of divine interaction.

And that’s the point where I look at aliens and see a blurred line.  A fuzziness between extra-terrestrial and godly.  Think about it.  Aliens—beings from the heavens, possessing a power and knowledge beyond what we humans can comprehend.  After all, we don’t often get aliens that are “lesser.”  No aliens come to earth and stand in wonder at our technology.  Nope.  Not a thing.  They are always advanced.

So what are gods?  Omnipotent, all-powerful beings who influence humanity.  They affect how the earth runs, rule seasons, harvests, creation itself. Often, they will visit their chosen people.  Think Zeus and Apollo scamming on women.  Or Christ, the son of God, coming down to dwell with man.

If you stand back and squint, aliens and gods aren’t all that different.  Two sides of the mirror, tweaked ever so slightly.

Amber is covering more god-like creatures on Thursday, giving far more examples, but for now I want to look at one of the end-all be-all alien franchises.

alien

THE alien.

The Alien franchise.

The perfect blend of horror, action, and survival tale.  The Alien movies might not seem like obvious god-examples, but let’s begin by taking the last and making it first.  Let’s talk Prometheus.  Many people hated Prometheus, and many people were wrong.  It’s a killer flick, with a magnificent Fassbender the android, the deliciously icy Charlize, and Idris Elba.  Idris. Elba.

But it’s also film that fairly explicitly deals with the conflation of science and religion, all through the unknown question of other life, and how external influence could have changed our world.  This idea is discussed excellently here (and touched on here, and also here, although that last one is a bit out there).  Essentially, Prometheus sets up a clear mythology from the very first moments.

There’s the creation aspect. Greater life—in Prometheus, the Engineers—are responsible for cells, for DNA, for us being mere shadows of their glory.  It’s implied that Earth is an experiment, an attempt to create something new.  Then there’s the further implication that they kept checking in on humanity (the pyramids!), which, as a whole, disappointed.

This led to the vengeful gods, the destroying angels.  Those who came not with a plow, but a sword.  This is where the remaining Alien films sprout from.  Something only vaguely humanoid, but completely indestructible and awesome in its malevolence.  Acidic spit?  Unholy appetite?  A seeming lack of any weakness? This is where the xenomorphs come in, to become wrathful divinity.

The spectrum of aliens always shifts between savior and demolisher.  Most are either here to help or here to enact harm.  It plays on the mortal fear that whatever is actually in control doesn’t have clear motives.  That we are small, and here to act on the whim of those above.

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Men in Black, a documentary?

 

A Life Lived in Fear is a Life Half Lived

Glam music is not my forte. I admire it, what I’ve listened to I love, and I am a stalwart acolyte at the sacred shrine of Bowie, but beyond that I am an amateur learning about this shining world (hence the fact I’d never seen Velvet Goldmine until this month). So I might not be able to curate the glam experience as skillfully as Amber did earlier this week. But I can offer my newbie experience, and part of that has been observing the ways glam sinks into the outside world, how everything has a little sparkle.

Netflix recently announced a new original series for next year, The Get Down, a thirteen-episode musical drama helmed by none other than Baz Luhrmann. Is there a director more glam than Luhrmann? He’s a filmmaker known for his lack of subtlety, not in an aggravatingly-explosive Michael Bay way, but in an explosion of lush visuals and stagecraft as extravagant as any of Ziegfeld’s Follies. Luhrmann productions are bound to have a completely batty first twenty minutes (usually with a whirling, trippy party scene), some exquisite romantic drama, and a sincerity of motive that makes his movies simple, beautiful, and some of the most glamorous productions in the scene. Although his recent directorial outing in The Great Gatsby fits in with the greatest of glam, nothing shows the traits better than his first three movies, collectively grouped as the “Red Curtain” Trilogy.

28v837nTheatricality

Glam rock is heavily associated with elaborate theatricality—intricate, often sparkling costumes; impeccably planned choreography; exaggerated motions and expressions; and sets so towering and shiny that they would be at home in any futuristic space setting (or in the mind of a drugged-out fantasy author). These are all Luhrmann’s trademarks! What other director would insert a delicious drag performance right in the middle of Shakespeare? Or base a love song around a smoky, glittering dance sequence among a mini-scape of Paris? Even Strictly Ballroom, the most restrained of the trilogy (leave it to Luhrmann to make ballroom dancing positively mundane compared to one of Shakespeare’s worst plays), has elaborate dance scenes and a staged flashback that’s near pantomime. Naturally.

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He can’t escape delicious theatre imagery, showing a respect and fascination with the evoking theater visuals that would be absurd if it weren’t so perfect. The scene that really kickstarts the romance in Strictly Ballroom happens on a stage, the two characters dancing a romantically-charged rumba against a red curtain backdrop. Romeo is introduced smoking in the Sycamore Grove, a free-standing proscenium on the beach, a scene that makes the literature lover in me tingle with the layers of meaning—and, of course, that adds a dash of the theatrical to even the most serious proceedings. And Moulin Rouge is an actual theatre. It’s everything in the beating pulse of that musical. If a winking self-awareness of the theatricality of real life isn’t glam, what is?

Music

This is the point where I have to think that Luhrmann knows what he is doing. It’s hard to have glam without the music. It’s the pulsing heart of the movement, the rhythm underscoring everything. All the emotional beats in the trilogy—not just in Moulin Rouge, whose musical genre demands that payoff, but in every single film—are told with strongly accompanying soundtrack. Strictly Ballroom isn’t complete without the sultry Doris Day vocals slinking around romantic scenes, and even less so without the montage set to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” something that feels quintessentially exuberant. Romeo + Juliet has one of the greatest soundtracks of all time (ALL TIME!). It didn’t just recruit Radiohead for two songs (maybe not glam, but so freaking cool and worth mentioning), but also had the aforementioned dance number to drive the music home. But it was Moulin Rouge that hit it out of the park, opening and closing with none other than the Duke himself, David Bowie covering “Nature Boy.”

Androgyny

The blurring, or eradication, of masculine and feminine is a trademark of glam, a parcel of total embracing of what you love, regardless of gender norms. Luhrmann definitely sprinkles that into his films. There is nothing leaner and more lovely than a ballroom dancer, and don’t discount the head-on recognition of the male dancers being comfortable with makeup and glitter. We could discuss the beautiful, spritely, pubescent body of a still baby-faced Audrey_30Leo DiCaprio as proof of androgyny, but why would we do that when there’s a Mercutio in the scene? Harold Perrineau wears heels and a silver mini with more confidence than most of the world’s population, and is still the ultimate badass and best part of the movie. With Moulin Rouge, David Wenham deserves a special shout out for his all-too-brief portrayal of Audrey, artist and ultimate purveyor of bohemian ideals.

The Real Self

1223116612491_fAll of this—the theatrics, the singing, the identity—serves expression of the ideal self. To quote Moulin Rouge, it’s all about “Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Love.” Glam is kicking against the pricks, both literal and metaphorical. It’s why “glam rock” is so hard to pin down and encompasses everything from punk to baroque-inspired ballads. The musical style isn’t important. The quest is. The quest to be the most real self. Yes, expressed through masks and costumes and makeup, but expressed. Put out there, regardless of acceptance or societal expectations. Glam is a struggle to be heard and to embrace truth, to have the freedom to be whoever and whatever.

This is the central struggle in Luhrmann’s trilogy. Scott Hastings just wants to dance his own steps, and Fran just wants to dance. Romeo and Juliet want to defy their stars, to cast off the shackles of their names and families and decades of war, to love whom they wish. And in Moulin Rouge? Satine wants to be a real actress, because that represents freedom, but she also wants the freedom to love. Christian knows that he has an artistic voice, but needs to discover it, needs to find his truth. Together, they learn who they really are and what they really want. They are all stories of seeking for honesty in expression. A fight against oppressive reality, a yearning for something real. That’s the story of glam, and if it can be told with dance and poetry and song, all the better.