Clock Winds Down

As with every month, we reach the end feeling there are still too many hours of exploration left. Too many films and programmes and books and other distractions that are relevant to the theme, but with no time machine in sight to go back and somehow fit it into our schedules.

This is that end.

We leave you with lists!

Amber’s Top Time Travelling Teams (That Don’t Include The Doctor)

In order of cinematic release/initial air date, here are the five films (and one programme) whose travelling teams make me happiest or whatever-feeling-is-appropriate-est. And I spared myself some agony by making this specifically not about Doctor Who.

Time Bandits (1981)

The Time Bandits teamI first saw this film as a child, so I appreciated that one of our time travellers was, like me, a human child in the real world who got to escape into an adventure. Beyond that, this is a crazy crew who seemed unlikely to succeed (for so many reasons), but they do it anyway. They’ve got rough edges (and some rough middle parts) and might not be the team I’d want to travel with, but so delightful to watch!

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1985)

The Bill & Ted's teamSpeaking of delightful to watch, Bill S. Preston, Esquire, and Ted “Theodore” Logan are also that. For me, part of the appeal is that they remind me of skater boys I hung out with. Not the brightest, but good-hearted. I am a sucker for a good heart. The occasional presence of Rufus, Napolean, Billy the Kid, Socrates, Sigmund Freud, Beethoven, Genghis Khan, and (my favourite, played by the awesome Jane Wiedlin) Joan of Arc adds a sort of frantic fun to what could arguably be classed as a feel-good film.

(Arguably Keanu Reeves’s best performance, though I’m torn with Alex Winter because he got to be a Lost Boy…)

Quantum Leap (March 26, 1989-1993)

The Quantum Leap teamA lot of times, “odd couple” sort of situations don’t really work for me. But the nice mix of brilliant and kind time traveller Sam with irreverent and brash holographically-projected-into-the-past Al works well. Part of that might be that the framework here isn’t a sit-com but a drama. Add in the fact that, whilst they work to save the world over and over again, they are both striving to get Sam un-stuck from his time travel, and you’ve got a more interesting context for this team. I might have occasionally crushed on Sam or gotten emotional over his exploits and his situation.

Back to the Future (3 July, 1989)

The Back to the Future teamI couldn’t show my face certain places if I didn’t mention Doc and Marty. Fortunately, I’m happy to mention them, even without that threat. Whilst I think all the things in my list are important, this one was arguably the most important of the lot (and that release date tells me it was a summer blockbuster thing). The lunacy of Doc was great for laughs, whilst the “normal kid” character of Marty made it easier for us to non-mad-scientist types to feel connected to the story. Who didn’t walk away wanting a DeLorean and a hoverboard? Or maybe even a mad scientist friend to help change our present via a past adventure…

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

The Safety Not Guaranteed teamThis film wasn’t one I anticipated liking as much as I did. And the thing that really made me love it was the team of Darius and Kenneth. Honestly, I’m a bit of a sucker for weirdos and their budding relationships. Plus, I’m a sucker for the way Aubrey Plaza plays disaffected. And the character of Kenneth, whilst we have reason to suspect his sanity, is a likeable guy. Are you starting to see that I’m a sucker for good guys? Someone disaffected and someone good in a film that’s not exactly mainstream is a good start for me.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Our team here for the actual time travelling are Wolverine and Kitty Pryde (aka Shadowcat). I love superheroes, and I really love X-Men. (Being not-normal is a good thing? Tell me more…) Even if most of the action we see is Wolverine, what I love is that his big, tough guy self is only able to do this with the help of a smaller female. I wish we lived in a post-sexist world where that sort of thing wouldn’t matter to me, but we don’t and it does. And the way she pushes on and, in her own way, shows she’s just as tough as burly Wolverine? Yeah! Plus, thanks, Kitty, for having a power that lets us see younger Xavier and Erik (aka Magneto) and Hank (aka Beast) and and and…well, now that I’ve wandered from time travelling teams to pretty people, time to let Cat do her winding up list…

(Of note, though I’ve stuck with time travel and not just things where time is squishy, I do want to call out that Quicksilver’s speed allows him to interact with things in a way that would make him out of sync with “normal” time and certainly involved in some wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff…Just with a little more sneering than we’d see from the Doctor.)

X-Men from the past and the future

Cat’s Top Making-A-Change Time Travel Films

One of the greatest tropes with time travel is the desire to go back and change things. To make the small adjustment that will alter life for the better. In short, when faced with options to redirect the course of history, we suddenly all become the Doctor going back to kill Hitler. Usually anything with time travel brushes this off with dire warnings about not changing anything (think Butterfly Effect), but sometimes stories lean into that possibility, creating a narrative that cannot exist without that one express foundation: change everything. Here, following Amber’s method of release date, are some stellar uses of this idea in film (and one where I stretch the definition a bit to include a great movie). We’ve already covered some films that do this very well indeed: X-men: Days of Future Past12 Monkeys, most of the Back to the Futures. These are the ones without their own dedicated web space on our page.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

T2All of the Terminator movies follow the same trail. Save John Connor, save the world. It might be more appropriate to list the first film in that regard, because it introduced the idea and feels like the stakes were even higher, but I think the second movie is a little more fun. There. I said it. It’s not often I give James Cameron any credit for anything, but he can churn out an exciting action sequel better than most anyone. T2 also has fantastic effects, particularly groundbreaking for that time, and who doesn’t love using Arnold for good, not vengeance?

Groundhog Day (1993)

groundhog-dayIt’s going to be difficult to refrain from all-out fangirling right here, because this is one the best movies of all time. Actually, I’d wager it’s one of the most important movies of all time. Expertly crafted by the late, great Harold Ramis and screenwriter Danny Rubin, Groundhog Day manipulates time to teach greater lessons about humanity. When Bill Murray as Phil Connors, narcissistic TV reporter extraordinaire, is forced to repeat every Groundhog Day for what Ramis claims is anywhere from 10-40 years (and other folks have done more in-depth estimations with that timeline) he is strong-armed into examining the purpose of humanity. As part of that, he’s forced to change his self-centered ways. Groundhog Day uses time manipulation to stare down the barrel of what exactly us crazy humans are doing here on this planet. The results are staggering. Nothing religious, nothing preachy, but overall themes of love and service and decency resound against a backdrop of the most hilarious writing and acting you ever did see.

Midnight in Paris (2011)

midnightThis might be cheating, but Midnight in Paris‘s sojourn into the past is used to teach lessons and change the course of a life, so I’m keeping it. This is also a great example of a time usage we haven’t discussed too much, save for the sci-fi themes in my Doctor Who post: the modern man blasted into history. As one of the lighter and (in my opinion) less odious of Woody Allen’s movies, Midnight in Paris succeeds in crafting a beautiful history while gently explaining why that past isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Owen Wilson’s Gil might have completely romanticized Paris in the 1920s, but it soon becomes clear that his magical time traveling car is not there to solely indulge his whims and add fruit to his fancy. It appears to show Gil that not all that glitters is gold. Like Groundhog Day, this films exists to teach a broader moral to those watching. Those who always live at the mercy of past, even in positive ways, are doomed to ruin the present.

Looper (2012)

looper

Alright, let’s get off this touchy-feely theme of personal growth and get back to nitty-gritty time travel for the course of history. Rian Johnson is one of those ridiculously talented writer-directors (please watch Brick; it will blow your mind). With Looper, using time travel as a way to change the trajectory of the world isn’t good enough. No, he has to take the endless possibilities with time travel and couch the message of changing history within a mind-bending action flick that plays with multiple timelines, each one having weight in the current story. Maybe confusing, but since the results are so slick and, well, cool, it’s hard to complain.

I Can’t Trace Time

Grab your popcorn and settle in, because I’m giving you plenty to watch in this post.

There’s a lot to be said about cause and effect when we’re looking at time travel. For this post, the cause we’ll be focusing on is one small film. Specifically, the 28-minute, black and white, French film La Jetée, released in 1962. Whilst not the first time travel film, it’s certainly one of the earlier ones. And because it’s so short and, in my opinion, so important and enjoyable, I’m going to insist you watch it before you read on. Yes, really. You can find it on assorted paid services online, but I’m going to embed a copy I found on Vimeo and hope it doesn’t get taken down before you watch it. (If you speak French or Spanish, you can do a web search and find plenty of other copies posted online that are in French and—in some cases—have Spanish subtitles.)

1 la jetee from GCVA Manchester on Vimeo.

La Jetee promotional posterBecause of the impact of this film, you can search the internet and find many an essay on it and, in most of those, you’ll find mentions of the effects of this cause, aka the visual offspring of La Jetée. And, having drawn your attention to this film, I want to call out some of those offspring.

The most obvious to you will be the 1995 film 12 Monkeys. And it’s unabashed in that case, even acknowledging this heavy influence in the opening credits. Most striking to you may well be the method of time travel that both seem to share, and that cramped and gritty space from which the time traveller sets out on his journey.Promotional shot of Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt for 12 Monkeys

(You can also then argue that the TV programme with the same name and trying to make something of the same story ought to be listed as another ripple out from this cause, but the 12 Monkeys TV programme keeps making me wish we’d be done with Time Travel month so that I never feel like I have to watch it again. I’d apologise to SyFy for that, but I feel that the viewers—and the original film—are the ones owed an apology from them.)

You might also, especially once you’ve drawn the 12 Monkeys connection, have thought of the 2011 film Source Code. (Bonus Bowie connection: Source Code is directed by Bowie’s son, a talent in his own right, Duncan Jones.) Though it’s time travel cause was far less dramatic, as was the amount the traveller journeyed back, he starts from a space that reminds us clearly of that in La Jetée and 12 Monkeys. Arguably, the theme of people without control of their own destinies being sent back to change the destiny of all humankind is also a link here, and one which I might find fascinating to discuss if I weren’t interested in getting to what’s coming later in this post.

Snapshot of Sarah Connor that guides Kyle Reese in The TerminatorAssorted writers have noted that they see the influence of La Jetée in many other films. Oft-noted are things like Total Recall (the 1990 original), The Terminator, and The Matrix. (For at least a couple of those, it is the image of a woman for whom someone is searching that is the catalyst for the story.) But the connections branch out and include films less likely to have been seen by the general modern population. Films like Alphaville; Je t’aime, je t’aime; The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes; and 2046. (I haven’t seen all of these, so you’ll have to see and agree—or disagree—for yourself.)

Like any important film, it’s spawned at least one homage (Her Ghost, you can see the trailer here or watch this embed…I really hope to see this someday)

Her Ghost Trailer from MFO on Vimeo.

…and at least one parody (La Puppé, which you can watch here or embedded below).

La Puppé “Short Film” from WSF on Vimeo.

Now, before we get to the stuff that I am most pleased to include, I want to point out that La Jetée has also influenced books (or so claimed the blog that tells me Time Traveller’s Wife took cues from it…I haven’t read it…) and music (like Last Night at the Jetty by Panda Bear). I’m sure there’s other stuff I could point out, but once we get to the next bit, regular readers will suspect that we’ve finally reached the real reason I’m writing this post…

Though their lyrics aren’t necessarily about La Jetée, the film has inspired music videos for some songs, not just other films. For example, you can see the clear influence in the video for Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s Dancerama.

Or in the video for Jump They Say by David Bowie.

Yes, that’s right, I fit David Bowie into another month in a completely legitimate way. Plus, whilst we’re on the topic, I feel constrained to note that someone made a film that’s something of an extended music video homage to David Bowie and that uses time travel as one of its main vehicles to move the plot forward (though, sadly, there is no actual David Bowie appearance in it). The film is called Dave and its Bowie-ish protagonist ingests Chronomycin (“For convenient time travel”) to take care of business. Watch it here or embedded below!

RSWX presents Dave from Radio Soulwax on Vimeo.

Sometimes, when we look at time travel and see how worried people can get about changing the smallest thing, it can look silly. I step on a butterfly and destroy life as I know it? Really? But pause one moment…See how much one really short French film has impacted things and tell me that the small things don’t change the course of history. We’d be irresponsible traveller’s if we didn’t tell you about the butterfly known as La Jetée.

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.

 

There Is No Escape!

Count Chocula cereal box This month, we’ve covered films, TV, and books. But we also really love other things, like music, food, and games. And vampires have touched everything they could in our cultures. They’re not just limited to the fancies of goth kids or horror lovers. They even end up as breakfast cereals for innocent little human children to stuff in their faces whilst puppets teach them to count.

Sesame Street's The CountAs previously mentioned, I had a recurring dream about vampires when I was 3 years old. Not a nightmare, but a dream that I enjoyed. And I don’t know why it mattered to tiny me, but it did. Whilst my peers all through childhood feared vampires, I was intrigued and attracted. I ate that stuff up. Films, books, games, TV programmes, toys, breakfast cereal. And, of course, music.

But before we get to the music, we really do need to touch on gaming. Because I was raised on tabletop role playing games. Yes, like Dungeons and Dragons. And, though we haven’t yet talked about it, games of various sorts are one kind of escapism I enjoy, one way I like to find new worlds to be in. So you can imagine my joy when White Wolf came out with rules for a game that would let me play a vampire. Though I spent time revelling in the goth scene, I never felt right being one of the kids who pretended, in that context, to be a vampire. Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition Storyteller's Screen (an assortment of vampires look out menacingly)But in the context of gaming…Yeah! I was going to play vampires! Assorted vampires so that I could try different powers and flaws. And when they put out rules so that I could LARP (that’s live action role playing…like improv acting without an audience), I did that too. No shame.

Vampires are everywhere. Even, some evenings, in the park near your home, the meeting room at your place of employ, the red brick square in front of your university library. And, yes, definitely in your music. Not just your goth music, either.

Feel free to start the playlist of assorted, mostly-not-goth songs about vampires that I’ve created and embedded below. But do read the little more I’ve written, okay?

Animated gif of the sax player from Lost BoysThinking about vampires in music, my brain pulled out two categories that seemed relevant. Both are reflected in the varied but not comprehensive playlist that you’ve got playing now. One category is, obviously, songs about vampires. But vampires have also brought us great music via soundtracks. I’m definitely not claiming that all vampire film soundtracks are good, but some of my favourite films also produced great soundtracks (even if not every track is a winner or not every image of them is truly cool…I’m looking at you, Lost Boys sax guy). I’ve tossed a track each from a handful of them onto the playlist, which isn’t nearly enough. Please hunt down at least the following films’ soundtracks:

  • Lost Boys
  • Only Lovers Left Alive
  • The Hunger
  • Wir sind die Nacht

(Whilst, as noted earlier this month, we didn’t love Coppola’s Dracula, I included the Annie Lennox song from its soundtrack in the playlist. Best thing to come out of that film for me. Only good thing about trying to force it into that love story plot…)

Here’s your playlist. Thanks for taking this little tour this month through one of my favourite things!

Bloodlust (Most Worlds April 2015 Mix) from amberrockstar on 8tracks Radio.

Subtitles Don’t Suck

Keep Calm and Love VampiresSome of our topics are those we know we want to cover even before we sit down to map out each month’s posts. And some of them come as we look at what’s been left out and what, in the moment, we are saddest to leave out. This is one of the latter. To make sure that this and my other posts were made with the content fresh in mind, I watched loads and loads and loads of things. Aside from being awesome for its own sake, I learned a little about my own tastes and found some threads between things I might not have otherwise. No complaints here.

Last week, I told you a little about my tastes and I pointed you at some of my favourite English language vampire films that you might not have seen. I mentioned there that it was lacking a few titles to make it my comprehensive favourites list. Some of those missing weren’t major cinematic releases (at least not, as far as I know, in English-speaking countries), and those are listed here.

Today, I want to take a look at vampires through the lens of some non-English language media. Seven films and one programme…yikes! But still not every possible thing, because the whole world has vampire stories to tell. I find that the less culturally familiar expectations, ideologies, and thoughts of such films and programmes can increase the escapism of a piece. So, let’s escape with some bloodsuckers who don’t speak our language.

I’m going to opine a bit, so I ought to remind you that vampire stuff is a matter of taste. Last week’s post about English language independent vampire films I really adore should have given you a better idea of what I prefer. It may help you decide whether my tastes are applicable to your viewing habits. Most of what I’m including here is stuff I rather enjoyed. Some of it was…mediocre. I know myself well enough to have avoided things that I was likely to find thoroughly uninteresting.

Note: I would really have liked to have seen A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and include it here, but I haven’t had a chance. Good to have something left on my media to-do list though, right? (I also tried but failed to get my hands on Frostbiten with English subtitles, but it’s funny, so maybe for the best….)

Update: Just before the month ended, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night showed up on Netflix. Hurrah! I’m not going to bulk up an already long post, but see this one. (And find me the soundtrack, okay?) Another great female vampire in a Persian film. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Persian film before…

Let the Right One In (or Låt den rätte komma in): Sweden
Screenshots of the kids from Let the Right One InThis was one of the first few things that came to mind when I chose this angle on the topic. I loved this film. For those of you unfamiliar, this is, basically, a coming of age story—you know, the type where a young protagonist meets his first love…and she happens to be a young girl-sized vampire called Eli (pronounced like “Ellie,” English speakers). Re-watching this time, I was struck by Eli’s obvious upset after having to feed herself and the way that she knows better than to be involved with a human but can’t help herself. The film is broody and moody (and quite a number of scenes occur in places that are woody), and proves that I don’t need my vampire to be someone attractive to and age-appropriate for me. I normally wouldn’t care much for a coming of age film…but they put in vampires and made it something that I will watch on purpose and without anyone else suggesting it. Maybe because the normal adolescent feelings aren’t something I want to deal with unless there’s a supernatural angle to make the intensity and ill-fitting-ness feel like it’s appropriate to the situation. (Though I do love when a film manages to remind you that it might actually not be cool to live forever, especially if you had to live forever on the threshold of puberty. Ugh.) Or maybe I just can’t think anything is sweet unless it involves a bloodsucking creature of the night.

Vampire Princess Miyu (or 吸血姫(ヴァンパイア) 美夕): Japan
Vampire Princess Miyu and her friendI hadn’t seen this anime in years, but it was another that quickly came to mind for this list. I didn’t remember anything other than thinking Miyu, our vampire lead, was adorable and that she had a habit of giggling. The internet tells me that there were two versions of this made. The 1988 version, also known as the OVA (short for original video animation) has the giggling. It also has only 4 episodes and a less cute, darker story arc. I’m focusing here on the longer (26 episodes total)  1997 version, though I enjoyed and recommend both.

Miyu isn’t your standard Western vampire with your standard goals. It’s not spoiling anything if I tell you she’s a young girl (or appears to be) and she’s our heroine, fighting a different supernatural foe (that’s her fate) each episode. It starts out seeming pretty light, but takes some turns for the darker and more complicated. (I wouldn’t say this is for kids…teens and older, maybe? If you liked Serial Experiments Lain, one of the main creators of that was, apparently, a force in this as well. Though this doesn’t get nearly as surreal as Lain.) I don’t know that I think it’s incredible, but it was enjoyable and steps outside the usual in a manner preferable to some of the others I watched in this vampire binge. For those of you who love cute schoolgirl plots in your anime (plots that, so we’re clear, don’t get sexual), there’s some of that in here for you. Plus, here’s another vampire who goes out in the sun. Always a bonus for me.

We Are the Night (or Wir sind die Nacht): Germany
Promo shot of the faces of the 4 vampire womenAs with the previous two, this film was quickly added to my list of subtitled delights. I know I’ve (unintentionally) mainly stuck to female vampires so far this month, but for those of you who want vampires you can ogle, at least the vampires in this one aren’t kids. Though one of the things I’m sure I’m subconsciously enjoying is the way that being vampires finally seems to give some less-privileged people a chance at being empowered and not at the mercy of men and a male-centred society. Yeah, I went there. But I’m just dipping my toe in “there.” Unlike the four women at the centre of this film. They’re definitely enjoying the vampiric traits that helped them out from under the gender-based oppressions of the times they lived in. Which isn’t to say that this film is just for the women, definitely not, but that they might enjoy some bits of it a little more. That said, other cool features of this film…We get a glimpse at the world as if seeing it via a vampire’s eyes. We get to see the aspects that, as one character notes, every woman would kill for, but we also get to see some of the downsides (we aren’t being sold a feminist utopia). We get to watch them teach a newbie what she can do, so we get shots of fun abilities being tried out that might not have come up normally. This lets the filmmaker show us their vision of what vampires are like. I love little touches like seeing the transformation that comes from being turned into a vampire or the unique “kickback” from administering the changing bite rather than the killing bite. We get to see a range of personalities and levels of acceptance of their nature and their peers’ actions in our vampires. As a fan of individualism, I appreciate that each of our four vampires has their own personality rather than one homogeneous take on their species. There’s death, brutality, and a little gore right alongside beauty, yearning, and a glimmer of hope for the humanity of the inhuman. (This more than most others caused me to get really hung up on the question of how vampires would primp. Because I can’t buy into my own inevitable future as a vampire if I don’t know how I’ll keep myself made up the way I like.)

As noted last week, whilst they’re quite different films, I think this would pair well with Byzantium for those of you who like to do double features.

Night Watch (or Ночной дозор): Russia
Night Watch vampire says "You know what our Hunger is..."Before we get to the vampires, I want to make sure to mention the fine job done on the subtitles for this film. That’s not sarcasm, either. Having now watched quite a number of subtitled films all in a row, I’ve seen all sorts of good and bad examples. And they’ve made sure that the subtitles on this one are part of the film. They’re a bloody work of art, and I want you to appreciate that. So, aside from subtitles…This film is a sort of gritty, modern fairytale about power, on a personal and a societal level (but not in the sort of moralising way that will take away the fun). The vampires in this one are a mixed lot and commonplace. Few, if any, are living the life of pampered, superior beings. Plot-wise, it’s probably helpful to know that this is based on the first in a pentalogy of books. You are going to get something of a cliffhanger. In good news, the cinematic plan (and, no, I don’t know if it covers all 5 books) was for only two films. Hunt down Day Watch and you’re sorted. (I made sure to re-watch that as well to confirm there were no relevant, tasty bits for this post. There were not, but that doesn’t mean that I think you shouldn’t watch the film. You should.) The real stand out thing for me with these vampires is that they can send out a call for their victims so they don’t have to go hunting (somewhat similar to what the lead vampire in the second—and truly horrible—Lost Boys film could do). And they can see themselves in mirrors sometimes. For this one, even if you’re not huge on vampires, I’d say check it out to enjoy the larger supernatural world it shows is imposed on the one in which we live.

Rigor Mortis (or 殭屍): China
IRigor Mortis screenshot: a creepy face hung with coinsnitially, I wondered if I’d misunderstood and this was actually a ghost story. Instead, it is one of the most alien of all the things I watched or read for this month and probably also the grimmest. I’m sure my very limited familiarity with the culture made it creepier, but maybe there are creepy implications I missed because of that? Either way, I’m glad I watched…but I’m not sure what I can tell you without spoilers. A retired actor moves into (what seems to me) a run-down building where sinister things are afoot. Not a film for my easily scared friends, but I’m calling it a must-see for my other vampire-loving mates. And don’t be like me and multi-task, because you might miss some really well-done visuals, some of which are nicely subtle.

I should mention that the very end made me angry. Which makes me extra angry, because poor endings can ruin entire films…Though the way it’s described in the plot synopsis on Wikipedia, I might be reading the intent of the last scene incorrectly. Totally possible given my limited cultural perspective, so I’m going to believe that…(Check Wikipedia if the very end also made you angry because you thought they were using an over-used cop-out of a trope.) Wikipedia also tells me that this was an homage to the Mr. Vampire films, of which the lead actor in Rigor Mortis was the lead. So there’s likely loads more I’d have appreciated if I’d seen the Mr. Vampire films…

Strigoi: United Kingdom/Romania
Screenshot: young man Vlad considers himself in a mirrorThis one, I acknowledge, is a little bit of a stretch (strigoi aren’t technically the same thing as vampires and the film is written in English). But! Strigoi are vampire-like creatures from Romanian folklore and are one of the inspirations for Dracula, the film takes place in Romania and uses Romanian actors, and the writer’s husband is Romanian (and she wrote this in English because she knew her Romanian wasn’t good enough for the wordplay and slang that are such a part of the language). This film about a young man who returns to his village to find things aren’t quite right is billed as a comedy, but I find that aspect of it subtle and well-done, so don’t let that put you off if, like me, you find vampire comedies don’t often work for you. There are actually scenes that I wouldn’t think of as comic if it weren’t for the music during them. It was during this film that I finally realised that the thing where a new vampire who doesn’t know what they are but just feels hungry, so hungry, and doesn’t know why is one of the normal experiences for many vampires. They (vampires in general) are beings of hunger. Hungry for blood, often hungry for other corporeal delights (quite often symbols of sexual hunger), and emotionally hungry (for companionship or revenge or thrills if they’ve been around long enough for the boredom to kick in). For the strigoi, the only real benefit to their condition seems to be immortality. There are some interesting twists and definitely a perspective on the topic that’s not like the others I watched. One of its non-standard ideas (though not entirely unheard of) is that some are born vampires and others become vampires after they die. As in Night Watch, we have a range of types of vampires, mainly not living in anything at all near luxury.

Cronos: Mexico
Cronos screenshot: an old man considers a big, golden bugHere’s another unique take on what it takes to become a vampire and what it’s like to be one. It’s Guillermo del Toro, so you already know this isn’t going to be a suave and sexy kind of vampire story. And, really, when it’s a bug to blame for vampirism, can it be sexy? (And, really, when it’s Guillermo del Toro, a bug seems like a pretty unspectacular creature…) Extra un-sexy to me when it’s a bug that’s not biting anyone I’d consider age-appropriate. For me, this was enjoyable but not in a “you must see this!!!” way. Probably not something I’d watch again.

Thirst (or 박쥐): Korea
Promotional shots of the priest and a womanThis was the other film that I watched that was, for me, mediocre. A priest becomes a vampire due to a disease. He keeps the core of his personality and morality, but finds it challenged by the physiological changes and demands that come with being a vampire. It also has some of the least sexy sexual stuff that I think was supposed to be sexy. Maybe it’s a cultural difference. I don’t know…but the person who made these choices is definitely not invited to have sex with me (nor is anyone who finds these scenes sexy…we are clearly on different pages). Also possibly a cultural issue is that I kept wondering if some of this was supposed to be funny. I’m honestly not trying to mock it…I’m just baffled and, in spite of the fact that I feel like this had some promise, it didn’t really click with me. I watch plenty of long films, but something in this one (the erratic pacing or maybe just a story that wasn’t sufficiently engaging) had me feeling very done at only an hour in. (I looked at the clock, sure it must be wrapping up, found I had an hour left, and was filled with dread.) This one gets the award for Least Good Result In Spite Of Plenty Of Potential. Or something less wordy.

 

Lost in the Shadows

Lost Boys promotional shotOne of the first things I told Cat was that I had a list of films I loved that must be mentioned, especially as I thought they were less likely to be known by most people (and also a shame to be missed by those who consider themselves connoisseurs of vampire media). This isn’t my all-time favourites list, but it’s only lacking a couple things to make it that. Instead, I’m sticking to those films that didn’t get as much publicity, things I saw in smaller independent cinemas (and, for the sake of something like brevity, only English-language films for this post). So, whilst I love it, there’s no Lost Boys here. You already know about Lost Boys.

Before we go on, and in case you’re creating a list of films to watch based on our posts, I feel like you need to know that Cat and I have some different requirements from our vampires. As I understand it (and Cat can correct me if I’m wrong), Cat most enjoys the vampire things that show the brutality and the gore hidden in the human-looking beings.*

Promo shot of Brad Pitt as Louis in Interview with a VampireOn the other hand, I most like to see those supposedly-brutal beings who are struggling to find some humanity in themselves or who are dealing with the fact that their need for blood is like my need for air. (Is it immoral for me to breathe, for the lion to hunt his prey, for a vampire to eat the one thing that can actually sustain her?) Whilst I can enjoy a film that’s focused on hunting down or fighting the bloodsuckers (Lost Boys or Blade, anyone?), it’s not usually my preference. Reading Interview With a Vampire, I was all about poor, tortured Louis and was sure I’d hate Lestat…Until we got a chance to learn more in Vampire Lestat and saw his human side as well. It also takes a careful hand for me to enjoy comedic vampire films. (I do hope to see What We Do in the Shadows soon, so, as with my other vampire preferences, there are exceptions.)

I’m pretty sure my preferences are due to me having recurring dreams about being friends with vampires when I was a toddler and then me having a massive weakness for particular kinds of pretty. And, really, I’m a big fan of free will and have respect for anyone, human or vampire, struggling to use their moral agency for good. So, if what you prefer is a gore-fest, a brutal vampire…maybe ignore me? Or at least take my opinions with a grain of salt. I think these are incredible and stand behind them, but only for me. Just like some vampires prefer a certain blood type, I prefer a certain blood-sucker type

In no particular order, here are my top five vampire films that it seems not everyone has seen (aka proof that, in vampire films, I favour stories about how they relate to humans, to each other, and to what humanity they have left).

Only Lovers Left Alive (United Kingdom/Germany)

Promo shot of Adam and Eve from Only Lovers Left AliveFirst, yes, I’ve got the countries right up there. Films can be a production of countries in which they don’t occur. In this case, the events are split between Detroit in the U.S. and Tangier in Morocco. Now…I could write thousands of words about this film. I hoped to like it (Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as vampires? Oh my stars…), but had some reservations (the “sister” plotline was surely going to annoy me…). Within literally the first few minutes, sat in that big, empty cinema, I was in love and this film was one of my top films ever. I love Jim Jarmusch’s signature pacing, the sort of slow but inexorable forward motion. I love the obvious yin and yang of the two lead characters. I find some of myself in both of them, so I am given more than entertainment; I am given a catalyst for self examination. I love this very rare example in media of a healthy, if non-standard, relationship. And I love it more for being non-standard. I love seeing this world through the eyes of some vampires who are very different to each other and to what we tend to see from vampires in media. I love the Tesla love they show. There are funny moments, but in the very real-life way that humour happens. Even with a plot that isn’t all happiness and has quiet warnings about the world humans are creating, I find this moody, brooding, and hopeful. This is a unique, dense, and beautiful contribution to the vampire oeuvre, and I could write poems to it. If you don’t need a fast-paced gore fest, I hope you’ll at least give this one a try.

Nadja (United States)

Nadja promotional shotThis is David Lynch’s contribution to the vampire oeuvre. It’s a tale of family dynamics and relationship complications as they involve Nadja, a beauty of Romanian descent (the actress is actually Romanian), and Jim, whose crazy “uncle” just stalked and killed someone with a stake. They got Peter Fonda for this, which is kind of surreal to me. Because it’s Lynch, it’s unconventional and intense and awkwardly or darkly funny sometimes. Nadja is a moody black and white film that ignited my love of the band Portishead and almost made me want a cloak. One of its themes, as Nadja herself says, is “the pain of fleeting joy.” Depending on my mood, this film can either encourage me to keep fighting for the joy or give into the pain. (I saw it at a cinema as a double feature with The Addiction. I know some folks who adore The Addiction, but Nadja is the one of the two that struck me and stuck with me. Think I need to hunt down The Addiction and watch it with a little less competition…) Also, this film has a Renfield I adore.

Note 1: Yes, Lynch used a toy camera to shoot some stuff and get an interesting effect. Your copy of the film isn’t broken.

Note 2: Watch the credits to see which two parts Peter Fonda played. It’s worth a little laugh.

Immortality (aka The Wisdom of Crocodiles) (United Kingdom)

vampwk4-5I didn’t set out to have female vampires in most my top picks (really, in most the media I’m referencing this month); it just happened. But, as you can see from this, I’m also a sucker for a pretty boy (which you already know if you’ve read the blog before). Really, this is probably the role in which I most fancy Jude Law. Even if he’s an inhuman predator (human predators need not apply). Whilst watching this, I have no delusions about his nature. But it’s also achingly clear, in a way that I find more convincing than any other vampire film I’ve seen, that this isn’t a question of morality. This is another species and, just as I don’t love to watch a lion take down a gazelle but would never apply moral judgement to that lion, he is hunting because he literally needs this to survive. And there’s something about him that gets me on his side, rooting for him and just about willing to be his meal. This one has a unique take on the feeding and should speak to those of you who like your vampires predatory. Plus, hurrah for a vampire who can go out in the sun! There’s a whole other post‘s worth of reasons why that matters to me. (If you’re watching these in order, yes, you did just watch Elina Löwensohn play Nadja, play someone on the other team. Try not to mistake her species in this one. Additionally, one of the cops in this plays a cop in the UK TV serial Ultraviolet, which is also about vampires.)

The Hunger (United Kingdom)

Promo shot of David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve for The HungerYears before I managed to see this, I’d read the book and hunted down the soundtrack. Because, oh yes, David Bowie. And David Bowie as a vampire? This film was an inevitability. I only hoped it wouldn’t disappoint. Because David Bowie as a vampire. This film made me fall in love with Catherine Deneuve and with a haunting Schubert piece. It had love and brutality. Hunting food and hunting a new mate (hello, Susan Sarandon!). And there was that time I saw it in a cinema with some really pretty person softly kissing my throat all through the opening sequence of Bauhaus singing Bela Lugosi’s Dead whilst Bowie and Deneuve hunted. Yes, please. This film was the first film where I was introduced to the idea of something killing a vampire other than a human. And, yes, I swear that I’d have been just as upset if it hadn’t come at David Bowie’s expense. In this film, as in Only Lovers Left Alive, I appreciate the strong and silent power of the female vampires. I also, as you’ve seen me just say and as you’ll see me say again through the month , appreciate that these vampires can walk in the sun. This one is, in my mind, a classic. I always expect vampire lovers to have seen it, but enough of you have defied my expectations and this film is important enough (and so very good), that I am pleased to feel justified in including it here.

Byzantium (United Kingdom/Ireland)

Promo shot of the two female vampires from ByzantiumThis film starts off with a nice set of scenes that immediately differentiate the two main characters, a set of female vampires who aren’t quite a matched set. These vampires fall into my beloved “not killed by sunlight” category, which is handy as we see them stumbling over old memories set off by once-familiar places from their pre-creatures-of-the-night lives. We get to see both their origins and where that’s led them. There’s a nice, non-standard creation method in this one, like a few of the others I watched. The first time I watched this, in fact, I recall being eager for them to hurry up and make the process clear. This film is a reminder that, even for those who do best to keep their natures secret, some secrets do more harm than good. Also a reminder (and we’ll see more of them this month) that being a vampire doesn’t guarantee you a life of glamour or ease, especially if it’s not just humans from whom you’re on the run. I find it a nice complement to We Are the Night (which I’ll write about next week).

Honourable Mentions:

  • Tale of a Vampire – Young Julian Sands in a film that involves a reveal that not everyone will get but that caused me much glee. Loads of slow and quiet moments, interspersed with bits of action, blood, and exposition.
  • Nomads (The 1986 film) – Not quite vampires, but a mind-twisty little piece that should surely appeal to you who love vampire films. Maybe a nice pairing with Lost Boys, actually. Featuring a young Adam Ant.
  • Near Dark – Featuring a young Adrian Pasdar. This one tanked in cinemas but gained cult status, so putting it here in case you’re not already in the cult. Another to pair well with Lost Boys. It’s American Southern Lost Boys in some ways.

 

 *CAT ASIDE: yeah, that’s mostly right. I’m not strictly opposed to the humanity-prone vampire (in fact, I do kind of like it), but there does need to be some emphasis on the evil. This will become more clear when I talk about my number one on-screen vamp later this month.

Count Smackula

One conversation that Cat and I have had multiple times is one where we are mutually upset about what TV and films have done with Dracula. Whilst I think Cat’s enjoyment of the book is greater than mine, I do like the book and I do think it was an important point in the history of how vampires now exist in the public consciousness. Cat already covered that…so, today, we’re going to pretend to be restrained as we touch on the two adaptations (and we use that word with…well, with some looseness in the case of the film and with barely-repressed laughter in the case of the programme) that bother us.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992 film)

Cat: First off, I have to give some sort of credit: this is by far the most faithful film adaptation of Dracula the world has ever seen. It includes all three of Lucy’s suitors (even, as one of my film professors was always excited to say, the Texan! There’s a Texan in Victorian England!). It has both Mina and Lucy, not some strange amalgamation of them. And it includes the basic story beats—a sojourn in Transylvania, the long slow death of Lucy, and the final showdown. Yet somehow all that initial faithfulness just makes the film’s ultimate betrayal of story and tone all the more painful.

Coppola’s direction makes this far too lurid, and, as such, far too obvious. The book does have some moments of bloodshed and mayhem—like the staking of Lucy, which I have to say the film got spot on—but there’s nothing like the waterfalls of bright red corn syrup that constantly flow throughout the film. The same thing happens with the harkersexiness of it all. Three vampire brides hesitating alluringly at Jonathan’s throat become three Turkish belly dancers instigating an orgy. A tall hooded figure leaning over the prostrate Lucy becomes a werewolf going to town on her. Lucy herself goes from sweet bimbo to queen of innuendo. It makes her role way more slut-shaming than the book’s actual metaphor, which actually argues that anyone can fall prey to the unnatural appetites of the Count. The way Coppola portrays her, Lucy totally had it coming, I mean, did you see how she was dressed? And I’m not just being a prude. Obviously I’m of the opinion that vampires have an innate sexiness and brutality that make them interesting, and I’m all for that being used in the appropriate situation. But when you’re adapting Stoker’s novel? Not appropriate. The beauty of the novel is the subtle horror. Dracula is all the more terrifying for the things we don’t see. For the deathly promises he whispers in your ear, not shoves down your throat. Stoker instills fear by putting the reader on edge, building scenarios that are pieced together separately and made all the more terrifying for the slow reveals. In tone, it’s closer to a dry Brontë novel (the lurking fear in the pit of your stomach) than something by Stephen King (the car’s aliiiiiive!). Coppola makes everything so over-the-top that the film plays more as comedy than horror. A man turning into a humanoid structure of rats? That’s comedy gold!

But my main complaint is the damn framing device. Coppola decides to take an already-overloaded story and pile a pointless narrative on top—the narrative of Dracula as Vlad Dracula, the Turkish invader who only became a vampire after his one true love, Elisabeta, accidentally committed suicide. Thus, all his actions from that fated Turkish olddracbeginning are only motivated by him mourning his lost love. Who turns out to be reincarnated in Mina Harker! Twist! Again, this is all not included in the book, nor hinted at even, and works only to coat the entire story with a sickening veneer of saccharine. I won’t even touch the fact that Dracula was not Vlad the Impaler (though he wasn’t). Even without the historical inaccuracy, this convention doesn’t work. It makes Dracula a tragic figure, a man spurred on by love. It’s a modern vampire convention to make the beast sympathetic. We love that in our current vampire stories, but it’s not Dracula. Drac isn’t spurred to London in hopes of reunification with his wife. He doesn’t seduce Mina by dances and the floating candles from Hogwarts. He’s trying to seek fresh blood. In the book, Dracula is primal, not lovestruck. And making Mina a willing victim of Dracula completely destroys her significance to the story. Mina is supposed to be the perfect balance between modern and traditional. She’s the ideal. She’s set up as the ultimate woman: caring in a motherly way, intelligent and familiar with new technologies, a doting wife, sexually experienced, but religiously pure. Making her an ancient damsel-in-distress throws a wrench in all that character construction. In short, the whole “Love Never Dies” tagline of the film is a travesty and makes me want to puke.

Amber: Cat pretty much nailed it. But I want to make sure to point out that this film is basically a high budget fanfic of the type that’s supposed to tell the same story but in a way that we have sympathy for the villain. Look, I’m all about those, but why can’t you just make DRACULA? Cos this wasn’t Bram Stoker’s Dracula; this was Coppola’s Dracula fic. But at least this Dracula could go out in the day, which is canon, unlike the whole cool-but-not-canon plot about trying to address the sunlight issue in the programme…

Dracula (TV programme, 2013-2014)

The cast looking very sexy and promisingAmber: Initially, I was kind of excited. I’m a fan of Jonathan Rhys Meyers and had seen him do enough “sexy and dangerous” to believe in him as Dracula. Just look at some of his hungry and calculating moments in Velvet Goldmine. The trailers looked sensual and plush…And, here’s the thing, if they hadn’t called it Dracula, it probably would have been mostly okay with me. They had a reasonable budget (or the ability to fake it), some talented actors, some interesting twists (given my main interest on my current re-read of Dracula is the gender role stuff, watching them give some power to a woman, even if it sometimes felt a bit ham-handed…well, that was nice…also, as a big Tesla fan, I was into the technological innovation thing), and one of the few non-useless Renfields ever to grace the screen. And given one of the things I’m constantly annoyed at in terms of standard practices when people do adaptations is how they take away all the real power and intrigue of Renfield as Stoker wrote him, I was pleased with this capable and clever Renfield. Anyway, yes, they had good things here. But!

Dracula and Mina looking unflatteringly distressedBut this was not Dracula. They took names, they placed it in London, but they otherwise leave the book out of the picture, if you will. I know they wanted the name recognition, but vampires are big enough (and JRM isn’t exactly an unknown actor) that they might want to freak out a little less over that. I mean, really, I can sum it all up as: THIS WAS NOT DRACULA. This wasn’t even the character of Dracula in an alternate universe. This isn’t the same person. As I re-read the book last month, I was constantly pausing to shriek at things that prove that. My current big one is that Dracula makes it clear to Harker that he wants to blend in, calling out in particular his desire to have no discernible accent when he speaks English. So, yeah, the clear move for the programme to make was a Dracula who has a really huge American accent—look, I’m not asking for JRM’s lovely normal accent, but we know he can do a posh British accent—and couldn’t stand out more unless he wore a sequin-covered suit and was also a one-man band.

And, just in case they’re thinking they’re going to try to revive it…Listen, in addition to just giving the characters different names (which will appease me a lot), could you also try to get corsets that fit the women? There were times I was sure Lady Wetherby was going to lose her lovely breasts to some of the ill-fitting corsets into which they shoved her. And whilst the men’s costuming is pretty good, the women’s is not right for the period. If you’re making a period piece and asking me to suspend disbelief for the vampire-ness of it, which I will gladly do, please at least get things like costuming correct. And…well, now I’ll shut my gob and give Cat a chance…

(However, dear reader, I feel constrained to make a recommendation. If you’re looking for a TV programme with a dark aesthetic, set in Victorian times, and containing a strong female character and assorted other supernatural things– including vampires, I must suggest Penny Dreadful. That programme is brilliant.)

Cat: Amber has covered all my book whingings well, and seriously? Not using JRM to his full potential? What a travesty. My main complaint with this sad pile of drivel is that it was a waste. A waste of prime, Victorian vampire potential. I went into this willing to suspend my belief and my novel-loving soul. After all this was TV, my other main love, and I am not blind to the ways a story has to change to fit the television landscape. To make Dracula last throughout several season there would need to be more. So much more, in fact, that this is an area where all the exaggeration of Coppola’s version would have been a welcome addition. Instead of going full-vampire, this Dracula went full-business, and I went full-yawn. Boring subplots about financial intrigue, boring subplots about Mina’s medical career, and boring whining about Dracula’s lost love (oh yeah, don’t worry, the TV show took all that malarky from the Coppola film). Not only did this program fail as a Dracula adaptation, it failed as anything interesting.

Guiding Stars

I’m a little distressed at how few (too few) aliens and alien-related topics we can actually fit into one month’s schedule. And then I do the maths and see that the amount we each get to cover is half the size of “too few.” Which is why we’ve kept track of things we didn’t make it to and will likely have another Alien month some time. This is what we keep reminding each other as we, over and over again, realise there’s something we haven’t found a way to fit in that totally owns us.

Now, here I am, down to my last post for the month (thank goodness we’ve got a vlog coming next Monday!), and I need to make the most of it without writing a novel. To help me stay kind of concise and to hit on some aliens of import to me, I’m going with a Top Five. Except that I’m doing a Top Six (unless Cat catches me and protests…I swear I tried to cut it down to five).

Ziggy StardustObviously, aliens were a big part of my life from as far back as I can recall, so you won’t be surprised to learn that this is my list of my top alien role models. I’m focused on those from younger years and those that sprang to mind with no prompt other than the topic title. They’re presented in order of discovery, not import. Prepare for some potentially questionable choices!

Ziggy Stardust
(from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by David Bowie)

If you were with us last month for Glam month, you already know how important this particular David Bowie character is to me. But it goes beyond enjoyment and the glam inspiration. The first time wee Amber closed her eyes and imagined her future, it was the Ziggy Stardust version of her rocking out on an arena stage. In case you didn’t read the Glam month stuff or you don’t keep constant track of my thoughts…Ziggy helped set some of my ideas about gendering of looks and behaviours, about rigid sexualities, and about being imaginative with my own looks.

SpockSpock
(from Star Trek, the original series)

Can we all pause a moment to feel sad for the loss of Leonard Nimoy? So sad. You see, right around the time Ziggy was inspiring my passion, I was also acting alongside Star Trek (the original series) reruns. (By which I mean standing in front of the telly and mimicking the characters. I like to think my acting skills even then were sufficient to not make it entirely annoying.) Spock, and then other Vulcans, helped me to hold to some self-control and logic. Plus, he was this alien on a human ship. By this point, I knew I wasn’t just like the other humans, and I thought I could learn from him how to navigate that situation. I was also inspired by his friendship. Sobbing like a baby as he said goodbye to Kirk in Wrath of Khan helped me remember that I could have logic and also be a good, loving friend. That he was part human became important as I tried to make peace with my own humanity and the way it seemed to play against my desires to be so much more than human. (Special shout to Spock’s mother for helping me be more okay with my humanity.)

DianaDiana
(from the original V mini-series/programme)

I should explain myself. Imagine that you’re just starting to realise that men have more power than women and that your beloved scifi is, in fact, also similarly skewed. And then you stumble across this programme where the main leaders you see are female (if not at first, very quickly). And one of them is an alien scientist (you love science) who, like you, is dark-haired (you’re also starting to realise that blondes are privileged). And they really can’t seem to destroy her (even though she is a bad guy and can, therefore, never win). And she is in charge of spaceships. And she is strong. Yeah, instant adoration. Even after her true intentions were revealed. Especially once she booted out the man who was her boss. (Also, I haven’t always been as nice as I am and people who knew past-me aren’t surprised by this…Man, she was vicious, brutal, cunning.) And, yes, I shrieked with delight when she showed up on the V reboot…When I think of aliens I aspired to be, she is always first to come to mind.

DelennDelenn
(from Babylon 5)

After the last entry, you’ll be pleased to see that it’s basically benevolent from this point. Basically. Delenn is the leader of her species’s religious caste, and brings some serenity and some attempts to find peaceful resolutions. I was at a place where I was ready for some serenity and to see, as I saw in Delenn, someone who was also strong. As with Diana, she wasn’t cowed or kept down by the men around her. Important to the me that was struggling with hating that she was a girl was the fact that Delenn had all this power and was still very feminine and didn’t squash down her emotions. She also accepted a transformation that would make her more human-like in order to do some good in the universe, and this was key to me in that aforementioned struggle to make peace with my own humanity. I unabashedly admit that I have copied the way she holds her hands in repose for use when I meditate. When I first started meditating, she was one of two figures that I felt were good examples as I tried to find my serenity. (The other is farther down this list.)

The Doctor (Twelve of him)The Doctor
(from Doctor Who)

First off, I’m telling you right now that I’m not going to compare the different regenerations of the Doctor. I have a favourite, but that’s irrelevant, because he isn’t the only one who puts the Doctor on this list. I know it seems a bit obvious, but I liked the symbolism of how each Doctor looked differently and acted a bit differently, just as we humans are multi-faceted and capable of changing which facets are our most dominant, even if we only get one body to do it in. Again, timing was important. I feel like it took me into my late teen years to really embrace the greatness of allowing oneself to be multi-faceted, allowing oneself to explore new facets or to change when one you were putting foremost didn’t feel like your best fit. I’ve also always appreciated that the Doctor, in a violent and dangerous universe, is mainly full of wonder and tries to save people (and spare enemies) cleverly rather than going in guns blazing. A younger me had to put some effort into not going for the attack. And every age of me has loved this grown man who helped me maintain a sense of wonder.

ZhaanPa’u Zotoh Zhaan
(from Farscape)

Zhaan is another spiritual-ish figure. She committed a justice-inspired murder and ended up in prison. And went mad. And then turned to spirituality to pull herself together. She was, after that, a mainly spiritual and serene being with a violent current running through her core. Zhaan taught me, along with Delenn, to stand up for my spirituality. Taught me that the ugly bits in my core weren’t always just something to be ashamed of (they could even be useful). She made me ponder the strengths of my friendships and the causes I threw in with. And when she, a member of a plant-based species who are generally vegetarian, needed meat because she was starving…I know it will sound silly, but ceasing to be vegetarian was a big deal thing for me. And if the compassionate Zhaan could sometimes embrace her need for meat, maybe I wasn’t horrible for doing so. (That’s right: I unabashedly find my morality, among other places, in scifi programmes.) Plus, as someone whose very fair skin has resisted any efforts to even carefully enjoy sunlight, I envy her sunlight-induced ecstasy. And was inspired to see what ubiquitous things (like the sun, but not the sun) could move me deeply (though not necessarily to that level of ecstasy, because the last thing I need is one more way to be awkwardly, deeply FEELING in public). Also, honestly, how cool does she look? If I were another colour, blue like her would be one of my top picks!

Star Stuck

Let’s get right to it and see what happens when an alien finds themselves stuck with, well, another alien. No amount of stalling will spare you from the ending…

Everything I’ve chosen is old enough that I’m hoping my SPOILER ALERT is unnecessary. Really, I’ll be a little sad for you if you’ve missed any of the five things I reference.

Stuck With Them

The Last Starfighter promotional image (Alex Rogan gazes skyward)The first set of aliens marooned with aliens that I want to talk about are Earthlings (that’s us) suddenly among people not from Earth. The case where we are the alien and it wasn’t on purpose. In this set, we’ve got a token human as our point-of-view character to help us engage with the story. Once they leave the Earth, they might be our only point of familiarity (until we are shown the ways in which another species might have similar traits or concerns). I’m going to set aside the cases where the aliens are entirely malevolent or where we’re out there and know there could be alien life. For me, the fascination is with what happens when this wasn’t the plan. In the interest of brevity, I’ll talk about just two stories: the film The Last Starfighter and the TV programme Farscape.

In both, our token human is someone we might expect to adjust a little easier than the “average” human without being too different from average. In The Last Starfighter, Alex Rogan is a teenager who is really into trying to get a high score on a video game and who’s dreaming of bigger and better than his very-small town life. When he gets the high score and discovers—via being picked up by an extraterrestrial agent—that the game was a recruitment device to find pilots for an interplanetary war, he’s surprised but manages to get it together quickly enough to be helpful.

John Crichton, astronautIn Farscape, John Crichton is an astronaut who accidentally gets hurled through a wormhole during an experimental flight. Again, sure, he’s got some adjusting to do. But he’s an intelligent and capable guy who, obviously, already had his eyes on the stars. Fortunately for us, as he meets loads of different species over the life of the series, he’s one of those lovely open-minded humans. With Crichton, as with Alex, our experience is shaped both by their capability to survive and thrive and by their open natures. Their willingness to work through fear and surprise, to be open to the other species they meet, gives us a more positive window into their stories. (If they’d been full of fear and suspicion, acting in hate, we too would have hated the aliens and found the stories chances to feel superior to or afraid of Them.)

Aliens from The Last StarfighterBoth Alex and Crichton also meet multiple sorts of aliens rather quickly. The lone human scenario can be a great way to let us (and the writers) experience many species. I don’t know about you, but that’s got great potential for enjoyment and making my brain soar into its own flights of fancy. The Last Starfighter has the advantage of being so short that it avoids the pitfalls that arise when trying to build realistic alien cultures (something especially likely when trying to build multiple realistic cultures). Farscape mitigates this by keeping our main exposure to that of Crichton’s new crew. They interact briefly with other species, but we mostly get to know a band of self-confessed misfits and outcasts. From my perspective, and looking at this from the view of how the human’s perspective impacts our experience, this is also a great way to show us that, just like humans, some aliens are good and some aren’t. Again, no furthering of a xenophobic agenda. Hopefully, if humans ever do meet aliens, experiencing the stories of Alex and Crichton will keep us from jumping immediately to “kill ‘em all!”

Farscape aliensThe last part of this sort of scenario I want to touch on is the homecoming, because, obviously, that’s what those unexpectedly stuck outside their lives want. Again, seeing the stories through these two characters gives us a different experience than if we’d been on the run from dangerous predators the whole time.

For Alex, having completed the mission for which he was taken, he can now return to his home (easily dropped off) without any sense of guilt. We’re thrilled he’s won, but we’re with him in being a little unsure that going home is the best ending. So, rather than looking forward to him running away from the aliens and settling happily back into Earth life after the adventure helps get his hunger for something bigger out of his system, we’re hoping he makes another choice. Even though the writers gave him a human love interest that they’ve made us want him to stick with. Yeah, he left to battle an enemy and we know it’s not safe, but there’s got to be more to the story, at least for him. (There was actually a sequel scheduled to happen at one point, but I’m afraid this was all the story we got.) What happened to Alex? You really should go watch and satisfy your curiosity.

More Farscape aliensWith Crichton, he’d been through so much and had constantly been looking for ways home. We really wanted him to find that way. And then he did…and we realised that we had grown as fond of his new friends as he had and we kind of didn’t want to see the team broken up. We don’t forget the dangerous and ugly parts of his experience, but we also realise that the life he has out there is something we can’t really rival on this pale blue dot. (And the only way we get to keep sharing in those wonders is if he keeps experiencing them.) And maybe, just maybe, having learned this lesson through Crichton and Alex, it’s a little easier for us should we unexpectedly find ourselves on an interstellar adventure.

Stuck With Us

The second set of aliens marooned with aliens that I want to talk about are extraterrestrials stuck on Earth. They are the outsiders and, in the cases I’ve chosen, not invaders or actual threats. And here we have plenty of humans to relate to, but we might not like what we see. Just like we saw that, among the multiple species of alien Crichton and Alex encounter, some are good and some aren’t…It turns out that we humans aren’t all good. In fact, be prepared to see just how ugly we can be. In the interest of brevity, I’ll talk about just three films: The Man Who Fell to Earth, Escape to Witch Mountain, and District 9.

Bowie in human and alien formsThe Man Who Fell to Earth was based on a book of the same name (which I read ages ago but, as previously noted, my recall for books is rubbish). . The story is a grim one, centred on Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien posing as a brilliant, human inventor. He was heading to Earth to get resources that would save his own planet from dying, but he crashed. Now, he’s got to hide his identity whilst earning the capital to build a ship he hopes will get him home.

As long as humans think he’s just rich and eccentric, they’re intrigued but he gets the privileges of the rich, white, and attractive. However, in spite of him never doing anything harmful to humans, all it takes is the knowledge of his alien origin and the government moves in, with the help of a human who should know better but betrays him, and breaks him (physically, mentally, emotionally). He’s entirely rejected by even the woman he trusted most. This isn’t a happy film and, worse, his betrayals ring true. Faith in humanity battered.

Escape to Witch Mountain promotional picture (Tony, Tia, UFO)Did you laugh when you saw I’d listed a children’s film? Just enjoy this less-grim break, because the brightest point in this section shows up in Escape to Witch Mountain. (This one was also based on a book, which I haven’t read but might need to add to my reading pile…) I re-watched the original a few months ago (thanks, Netflix!) and found that it was far less cheesy than I’d worried it might be. Missed this one? Don’t worry; I’ll spoil it for you.

For the bulk of the film, we don’t know that Tony and Tia are aliens. In fact, we think they’re just charming orphans. And, as long as everyone thinks that, it’s fine. They’re well-behaved and cute and only the orphanage bully has an issue with them. But, once again, when they start to show their inhuman sides, it gets less cuddly. In fact, in this case, it’s almost worse, because the humans don’t see an alien threat; they think they’re just looking at fellow humans with unusual abilities. But none of us are actually surprised to learn that we’re willing to be horrible even if we just think another human is, in a non-extraterrestrial way, alien to us somehow, are we?

Escape to Witch Mountain screenshot: Tony, Tia, cute cate who looks beseechingly at the cameraLuckily for us, this is a children’s film, which means that not everyone is bad. There’s a kind older man with an initially gruff exterior who helps them escape the rich, old, white man trying to exploit the kids. Even when the pieces come together and we learn they’re aliens whose people crash-landed on Earth, gruff old Jason O’Day still thinks they’re the neatest kids. As he reunites them with their remaining people, it’s clear that everyone hopes to see each other again. Not all of us are horrible! The aliens are still marooned but reunited in a happy little valley with their people! All is not grim!

Did you enjoy that little respite, that piece of hope that maybe we wouldn’t be entirely inhuman should we meet aliens? Get ready to get over it, because I’ve saved the grimmest for last. (I’ve included an extra picture from the film, complete with a cat, whose beseeching look suggests he knows you need rescue too. You deserve a cat for all the horrors of humanity you’re reading.)

News clippings from the District 6 Museum with non-fiction stories of inhumanityDistrict 9 is the most contemporary of my examples, and we see that we’re as sure as ever that any aliens marooned here would be sorry. The film is based on a short film previously created by the director and quite unabashedly, for those who pay attention to human events, inspired by events in District Six, Cape Town during the apartheid era. So, to be clear, we start out knowing that this is definitely about how inhuman humans can be, even to each other.

In this case, it’s bad from the get-go. The poor aliens in this film look, by human standards, scary. Which means that, even if they were the sweetest beings and showed up with cancer cures and wealth for all, humans would treat them poorly. Instead, their ship is crippled and they’re stuck here. Stuck here and forced to live in a ghetto, experimented on, and seen both as a danger and as garbage. If you watch this and don’t feel horrified by humanity, I hope we never meet. Especially now that I’ve pointed out the very obvious fact that this is based on how actual humans were treated by actual other humans. Shame, shame!

District 9 alienBut, just to drive home the horror of humans, the plot includes a human who starts transforming into an alien after exposure to an alien chemical (that the aliens were carefully keeping away from humans, but humans came in and messed things up and brought this on themselves). And do you know what the other humans did as soon as they realised what was happening to their brave and, let’s be frank, injured-in-the-line-of-duty soldier? They decided to vivisect him. But, wait, we’re about to look even worse, because when this soldier escapes and goes to the very aliens he messed up for help? THEY HELP HIM. Are you ashamed of us yet? When the aliens find a way to escape Earth (the only actual bright spot in this film), I can’t be the only person not entirely concerned with whether or not they’ll do as they promised and return to heal the soldier. Faith in humanity destroyed.

Bowie from The Man Who Fell to Earth, in the torture chairI loved this film, but it’s so grim that it’s one I would own and never watch again. Unless I were already depressed and figured it couldn’t get worse. Seriously. (But you should totally watch it. Maybe it will shame you into being one of the good humans…)

And now that I’ve gotten myself down, I’m afraid I don’t have a pithy summary. I just hope, for the sake of everyone, that we’re the ones who get stranded. That we get a chance to show how big we can be instead of being likely to show just how very small we are. (Let’s end with one more relevant Bowie picture. That always soothes me…) Now, go out and be the best kind of human you can, whether it’s to other humans or to aliens. That will help scrub some shame off our collective souls…

 

Star-Born Shams and Saviours

Ancient egyptian image: Wisdom beaming down from spaceOne of the themes with aliens we see some people treat as both fiction and non-fiction is that of the gods really being aliens. How that plays out varies, and, technically, if God/the gods/the higher power of your choice aren’t from this planet, I guess it’s the truth. Whether we’re handling this belief as a fiction or a non-fiction, I suspect part of the appeal for modern man is that we know there are a lot of big problems that we are unable or unwilling to fix ourselves. But, surely, out there among the stars, someone has the capability to fix it for us. I want to call out just a few of the extraterrestrial god figures from TV, film, and books (though, for someone who has read so much and who loves reading, I have a rubbish recall if it’s been more than a month or so…sadness!). I’ll be dividing them into two camps: the ones who are just advanced and taking advantage of us, and the ones who seem to legitimately be gods (or at least Saviours).

Shams

Arthur C. Clarke, a great scifi writer, famously said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Now, this doesn’t mean all magic is technology, but the kind of technology advanced enough to look like magic is part of how this fake god ruse works. Throw in differences in physiology sometimes that make them seem immortal, and watch the primitive mortals fall! Don’t tell me, if you discovered you had the ability, you wouldn’t at least be tempted to pass yourself off as god-like to your fellow humans or other beings who aren’t as gifted.

Even in this group, you’ve got two main divisions: the intentionally and brutally exploitative deceivers and the ones who just don’t bother to correct the misunderstanding or to apologise once the humans get smart enough to know the truth.

Stargate screenshot: The Goa'uld who passes himself off as Ra.The Goa’uld in the Stargate franchise are obvious examples of the former type. These nasty parasites are all about universal domination. One of their usual ploys is to show up on a planet, use their technology to pass themselves off as gods, and then enslave the native population. Which, hey, is nicer than the ravages of war, right? Playing god lets them live in a little luxury instead. And, if they do it right, they manage to feign immortality. Of course, given they first showed up pretending to be Egyptian gods (I have a soft spot for ancient Egypt) and the actor playing Ra was a pretty boy (we covered this soft spot in Glam month), I wasn’t entirely opposed to them. (So, aliens, if you want to turn me against the rest of the humans, be pretty. That’s the lesson here. Also, I won’t pretend I think your tech is magic, but I’ll still be impressed.)

Promotional picture of Thor and Loki for Thor: The Dark WorldIn the other camp, and more familiar to most people these days, we have the Asgardians. It’s no longer just comic book lovers who’ve heard of this version of Thor, Loki, Odin, Freya, etc. Nor is it just those Nordic people whose religious heritage was an inspiration for those comic book characters. You’ve likely sat and cheered on Thor (whilst maybe secretly not being entirely against Loki). We haven’t taken the time to define what it means to actually be a god, and my tenure as a student of philosophy and my readings of assorted cultures’ beliefs as a child tell me that we could spend days on that topic and never reach full consensus. So, are Thor et al gods? They sure seem to think so, but they are also arguably just extraterrestrials with a better constitution, longer life, and more advanced technologies than Earthlings. Fortunately for us, they’ve mostly stopped meddling in our lives. Or had until Thor got kicked out and suddenly made our pale blue dot interesting again. (I’m not going to complain. I like the Asgardians, and not just because of Loki.) Of course, you can see in the reaction to Loki trying to get god-like on us that we humans are unlikely to actually fall for the sham gods again.

Saviours

The Day the Earth Stood Still screenshot: Klaatu and GortThe saviours are an altogether different group. In this group, whether or not they succeeded, I’m placing the extraterrestrials who show up with good intention and the ability to do some actual saving of humanity. For this, in order to narrow things down, I’m including those who worked their mission with what appeared to be “magic” (not just advanced tech). So, for instance, in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu came to save us from ourselves (arguably), but he came with tech. So, whilst I dig him, he can’t count here. Who does count? Well, here are a few different examples, each a little different from the other and each fitting a different definition of alien.

Animated gif: Leeloo shows us her MultipassLet’s start with an easy one to argue. In The Fifth Element, Leeloo is actually a saviour. The everyday man of that film might never hear about her (poor sods), but that Supreme Being came from the stars with a mystical power and one mission: to save us from a Great Evil that will, otherwise, destroy our world. Given her power is meant for that one purpose, and the Great Evil appears only once every 5,000 years, the power isn’t going to qualify her to be a superhero (though she’s got some fighting skills that might). She has her one moment of releasing divine light…Given her pose in that moment is arms out in an iconic Christ pose whilst in a cross of light? Yeah, saviour.

V screenshot: the Starchild saves the planetA step less alien, the original V TV programme brought us the Starchild, aka human/alien hybrid and product of crossbreeding experiments, Elizabeth Maxwell. We never got to see the full extent of what she could do, because this was TV and the story got cut off when the programme was cancelled (you can find what story we did get on DVD). But the message was clear: this rapidly-aging and powerful girl was destined to save us from the Visitors (the alien threat) and lead us to a peaceful future. There was an un-aired series finale where she was revealed to have a destiny to find an artefact of the Visitors’ gods and do just that. I’m going to call that a saviour, even if the network didn’t let viewers see the final pay-off of her mission.

Cover of Stranger In A Strange LandContinuing to get a little more questionable here in holding to straight-forward definitions of both “alien” and “saviour,” we’ve got Valentine Michael Smith from Stranger In A Strange Land, the influential book by Robert A. Heinlein. First, I’ll acknowledge that there are problematic things in this book (though I won’t get to read the uncut version until it shows up in the post…maybe that solves some of the philosophically problematic things I found in the cut version?), so this isn’t an endorsement of the philosophies that Heinlein is advancing here. No need to fire any shots in my direction. Now, that aside…Smith is a human, but he wasn’t born on Earth and he was raised by aliens (Martians). Arguably, he fits some definitions of alien. Smith is the first example listed that tried to bring salvation to humanity via religion. I’d say that the psychokinetic powers he developed when raised by Martians (and his ability to speak from the afterlife) add some credence to him as a saviour, not just a prophet. Though he manages to teach other humans some of what he can do and the god he brings us to is the god that each of us are, so that might weaken the case in some minds. It might also be harder to argue his case given the enemy he’s trying to save us from is less clear-cut than Leeloo’s Great Evil or the Starchild’s Visitors. I’d feel wrong leaving him out though, so, here he is…

Screenshot from David Lynch's Dune: Paul Atreides in a Fremen stillsuit and blue-in-blue eyesFinally, I’d love to put Paul Atreides in here, the Kwisatz Haderach, but I’m pretty sure that his humanity is part of the point of the books (plus, one of Herbert’s running themes in the 6 Dune books was the way that humans manage to cock it up when given great amounts of power, no matter their best intentions), so I might be stretching to wedge in one of my absolute favourites. Or maybe his son, Leto II, the God Emperor could fit here…But that would take too much explaining. Instead, look at me, managing to make a nod to Dune anyway! (If you haven’t read the books by Frank Herbert yet, I hope your curiosity is at least piqued enough that you’ll go watch David Lynch’s film adaptation of the first book or maybe even treat yourself to reading all those books. Then, come back and let’s talk about whether Maud’ib belongs here. Is he alien? Is he a saviour? What about Leto II? Is he alien? And is he a sham god or a saviour?)

Confession: This month is turning into a great excuse to re-read and re-watch a load of favourites. I hope you follow my lead. Let me be a saviour (or at least a wise sage) to show you the way out of grey reality and into the promised land of great media!