The Sound of Monsters

Seeing as how we’re between the Dracula post and the upcoming Nosferatu / Shadow of the Vampire post, let’s talk about talking.

Something I didn’t realize until I started preparing for these posts was how close we came to not having the silent film era. For as much as the silent era is disregarded in most current discussions of movies, I want to explore an alternate history with you.

(The extrapolations I’m making here have their root in the history of movie technology from the fourth edition of James Monaco’s How to Read a Film. That book provides the factual basis for where I’m about to go.)

Why didn’t we have talking movies in the first place? Sound recording was possible through phonographs and other techniques by the 1870’s. In fact, phonograph-based recording was so popularized by the 1890’s that Dr. Seward in the Dracula novel keeps his diary by phonograph. Motion picture cameras had also been developed by the 1890’s. However, among other issues, keeping a phonograph – with its playback based on a mechanism and disc unconnected from the film reel – synchronized with the picture proved very difficult.

The eventual solution depended on the shift away from mechanical recording devices like the phonograph to electrical audio recording that could be more easily synchronized with film and more easily amplified. Monaco suggests that, had electrical recording received the early attention that mechanical recording did, the “talkies” might have arrived much earlier, or perhaps simultaneously, in the history of commercial movie production.

This is not an outlandish possibility, either. After all, audio transmission by electrical means was spreading after the work of Alexander Graham Bell and others in the mid-1870’s. It’s not unreasonable to speculate that, had mechanical recording via phonographs and similar techniques not emerged at the same time, the energy that went into further developing mechanical techniques may have instead gone into electrical recording.

This is where the real extrapolation begins.

In our timeline, we get a generation of silent films, including significant work on the non-textual parts of movies. Movie production is essentially a new development in photography, and the people making movies put lots of energy into adapting existing photographic techniques and developing new ones. The influences of other arts, including the production elements of the stage, are brought in as well, but the art of performing on a silent screen is by necessity very different from the art of performing on stage.

Particularly notable for our purposes is the work of the German expressionists on films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis, which drove huge advances in production design, effects work, and cinematography. Many of the people who worked on those films wound up in Hollywood in time for the early days of the talkies, and they brought the knowledge they’d gained from the silent era with them.

Now imagine a timeline where audio recording keeps pace with motion picture development. Rather than being an art form that requires the development of entirely new visual storytelling techniques, film now allows us to replicate the world’s best stage performances and bring them to any community with a movie theater. Movies allow for the democratization of the stage.

A parallel from our real timeline, also described by Monaco, becomes relevant here. Once still photography became practical, one of its dominant uses became portraiture. Where personal portraits had historically been almost entirely exclusive to the wealthy, who could afford to commission a painter to spend hours on the piece, now they became much more affordable. Experimentation with photography was possible, but much of its commercial use went into replicating and democratizing an existing art form.

Or think of the primary commercial uses of audio recording, which allowed anyone a modest income a chance to hear the world’s greatest music performed by the world’s best musicians.

The same logic could have led to a world where the primary focus of movies was to record stage performances and bring them to the masses. No longer would access to the best theater be limited to those with money living in a handful of large cities. Instead, the greatest plays, musicals, and operas of New York, London, Paris, Vienna, and Venice could come to a theater near you.

In that timeline, developments in cinematography, lighting, and makeup would be those that best served the recording of a stage play. Direction for the camera would still happen primarily in the context of the stage. Actors’ performances would remain calibrated for a live audience.

Sure, eventually someone would probably get around to staging productions without an actual audience, the better to allow for close-ups and more nuanced performances that often come across as faintly ridiculous when the actor is performing for the balcony rather than the camera. People might experiment with compositing performances, taking the best renditions of key moments or songs from multiple stagings (as is sometimes done with stand-up specials in our timeline).

Yes, in our actual timeline, some great stage performances are recorded and brought to movie theaters. However, movie production as an art form today differs greatly from theatrical production. I would argue that a key factor contributing to our reality is that movies had to spend a couple decades having to figure out how to tell stories in an entirely new way. Then, once sound became a real possibility, it was integrated into the existing framework built during the silent era.

Dracula illustrates this well. Bela Lugosi had been a stage performer, and had in fact performed the Dracula play from which the movie was adapted. A stage performer’s skill set was very valuable in the early days of the talkies, when most screen actors were not used to delivering their lines for a listening audience. Lugosi’s nonverbal performance remains very broad, reflecting years of performing for a stage audience, but there’s no question that his line delivery and embodiment of the character are distinctive, and indeed, definitive of the character in the popular imagination.

Beyond the actual performances, the movie takes nearly full advantage of the fact that it is in fact a film rather than a stage show. The cinematography, by Karl Freund, was clearly informed by his formative work in Germany, where he had done cinematography for Fritz Lang’s tour de force, Metropolis, among other films. For example, Dracula features several instances where the camera moves toward a character or around the set, an area where Freund had worked to develop not just techniques, but also the necessary physical tools.

(The previous paragraph uses “nearly full advantage,” as there are still some areas where the movie Dracula steers clear of the full potential of a talkie. Notably, it does not have a real score, using music only over the credits and as diegetic sound at a symphony performance. You can read more about music, movies, and studios’ concern that audiences would be distracted if music played “from nowhere” while actors spoke in this article.)

In our alternate timeline, one can still imagine a version of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, but there’s a good chance it would have been a recording of a stage performance rather than the more original work we have in our timeline.

Just some interesting thoughts to ponder before we dive into Nosferatu and Shadow of the Vampire in a couple days….

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Penny Dreadful, S01 E01: Night Work

I decided to pair the monster movie watch with some monster television, starting with the relatively recently departed, and much mourned in my household, Penny Dreadful. The show got three seasons on Showtime, and included in its ensemble Timothy Dalton, Josh Hartnett, Billie Piper, Reeve Carney Harry Treadaway, Rory Kinnear, and (for two seasons) Danny Sapani. If there could be said to be a single star of the show, however, it would have to be the incomparable Eva Green as Vanessa Ives.

The show’s pilot episode, “Night Work,” introduces us to a Victorian England populated with some familiar archetypes. We have the retired explorer and his manservant in the form of Dalton’s Sir Malcolm Murray and Sapani’s Sembene. We have the brash American gunslinger in Hartnett’s Ethan Chandler. We have the prostitute with the heart of gold in Piper’s Brona Croft. We have our straight-up characters from literature in Carney’s Dorian Gray and Treadaway’s Victor Frankenstein. And we have our psychic connected to the uncanny in Green’s Ives.

In terms of the classic monster stories, this first episode starts us off with the same two that really kicked off Universal’s monster movies, Dracula and Frankenstein.

Dracula

Penny Dreadful brings an alternative take on how Dracula’s story turned out. Sir Malcolm and Vanessa begin the series with a clear bond, rooted in their shared love of Mina (a.ka. Mina Harker nee Murray in Stoker’s Dracula and Mina Seward in Universal’s). In this version, however, Mina appears to have succumbed to Dracula, with Sir Malcolm and Vanessa now trying to find her.

This is an intriguing approach that lets the show use new characters to explore its Dracula storyline while maintaining obvious roots in the original tale. Rather than be shackled to the familiar beats of Jonathan Harker, Dr. Seward, Renfield, Van Helsing, etc., the show carves out fresh space for itself and, by establishing a fate for Mina decidedly different from the novel’s, leaves us uncertain as to how this story might play out.

Frankenstein

At the outset, the primary updates to Frankenstein are placing Dr. Frankenstein in Victorian Britain and making him apparently English. These changes are largely matters of convenience for the story. As discussed in the Dracula post, the actual novels for Frankenstein and Dracula were separated by nearly eighty years. Moving Frankenstein’s story up to Victorian times allows him to be a contemporary of our other characters, and making him English facilitates his connection to the other characters.

That contemporaneousness allows Dr. Frankenstein to be roped into the Dracula plot when Sir Malcolm and Vanessa ask him to examine the body of a vampire they’ve killed. His enthusiasm puts him on their radar for further recruitment.

As will be seen in future episodes, there are some additional deviations from the original story, but those are for a future post….

Other Goings-On

The show opens with an attack in the night that leaves a mother and her daughter gruesomely dead. While the newspapers speculate about a return of Jack the Ripper, we’ve seen that the culprit was something of a more supernatural bent.

If the show can be said to give us a viewpoint character for this episode, that character would be Ethan Chandler. A performer in a cowboy-themed traveling show, Ethan is revealed to have a harder edge than that of a simple showman with a pistol. He is recruited by Vanessa to help her and Sir Malcolm as they investigate a lead, culminating in a fight in a vampire nest and leaving Ethan with the very reasonable question, “Who the fuck are you people?” Nevertheless, there’s something about the adventure – or perhaps just Vanessa – that keeps Ethan around. And so it is with us, the audience. We, like Ethan, are trying to figure out what exactly Sir Malcolm and Vanessa are up to, and while the better part of judgement might recommend fleeing, there’s something magnetic about Vanessa in particular to keep us coming back.

Preparing for the Road Ahead

This post was mostly character description and brief plot summary. There’s much more to be said about so many aspects of this show, from production design to recurring themes to some truly great performances. For now, though, best to leave with a sense of promise for what is to come, as the show itself does.