June 27, 2007

Blood and Chocolate

So what do you do when one of your favorite books is turned into an awful movie? Well, with the LA Times noting that "there isn't enough absinthe in all of Romania to obliterate the taste of this clunker," and a NetFlix reviewer warning that "if you saw the movie hoping for a live version of the book, you will be sadly disappointed," you set your expectations accordingly.

In the trailer, Blood and Chocolate is touted as coming from the "same people who produced Underworld." At first that would seem a fine recommendation, but it also means it was produced by the same people who made Underworld: Evolution. So, yes, these are people fully capable of turning good ideas into crap.

All the more surprising because Blood and Chocolate is not a long or terribly complicated piece of narrative fiction. As my brother puts it, it's as if somebody told somebody else about the plot, who outlined it for the screenwriters, who then had too much to drink and woke up in Bucharest the next morning with a bad hangover trying to remember what it was about.

About halfway through the movie I still clung to the hope that the one remaining thread from the original bolt of cloth (the relationship between Vivian and Aiden) might actually be woven into something vaguely resembling the fabric from the original story. That was when the director decided that the movie she really wanted to make was Die Hard.

In Romania. With wolves. I'm not even going to try to figure that one out.

Even if the film hadn't turned into a train wreck, it was doomed from the start from being crammed into the crumbling mold of hackneyed, goth Euro-noir sameyness. (Does every rave/dance club scene in these movies take place on exactly the same set with exactly the same extras and exactly the same club band? Sure seems like it to me.)

The genre has been heading this direction for a long time. Every Dracula film you've ever seen--including the ones with titles like Braum Stoker's Dracula--are goth Euro-noir corruptions of the original manuscript. It's a problem that parallels somewhat the "Shakespeare syndrome": namely, Shakespeare didn't sound like Shakespeare to Shakespeare's audiences.

Now, I'm as much a fan of "historically faithful" productions as the next dilettante. I consider Branagh's Saint Crispin speech in Henry V one of the greatest masterpieces of English rhetoric. But I think it takes more contemporary reworkings like Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet or Ian McKellen's Richard III to capture the raw, original impact the plays.

Stoker wasn't trying to be gothic in Dracula. He was trying to be a post-modern. Writing today, he would best be compared to Michael Crichton. Dracula is chock full of bleeding edge science and technology: blood transfusions and telegrams that whiz around like email. You probably didn't know that the book includes an American cowboy armed with the latest Remington repeating rifles.

The only director who's gotten close to the spirit and pacing of the book Stoker wrote is Joss Whedon. Seriously. Buffy is the Dracula that Stoker intended all along.

The awful rendering of Blood and Chocolate is an additional indictment of the extent to which goth Euro-noir has taken over the theatrical horror genre, to the detriment of classic American noir. Which is odd, seeing that some of Hollywood's most successful television exports, from Twilight Zone to Miami Vice to X-Files, Buffy, Angel, and the CSI franchise, are American noir.

Noir originally arose out of economic expediency, shooting on black and white film with minimal lighting and sets. It reached its apotheosis as an art form with the Orson Wells classic, Touch of Evil. It wasn't really fully embraced again until Michael Mann brought Miami Vice to television, this time with cinematic style rather than economy as the motivation.

Goth Euro-noir arose out of the fall of the Berlin wall, after which producers realized that they could shoot in Eastern Europe for pennies on the dollar, getting a lot of bang for the production buck. Armed with a bunch of sepia and day-for-night filters, Romania and the Czech Republic and elsewhere become the universal stand-ins for the eternally gothic versions of wherever-you-want.

And there's nothing wrong with that. Except that Blood and Chocolate is a book written by an American that takes place in the modern American suburbs. As with Buffy, that's the whole point!

Simply put, Euro-noir is gothic, American noir is post-modern. Except for a few locations such as New York (Fox's New Amsterdam seems to be attempting a kind of crossover goth/American noir style), nothing in the U.S. is old enough to be authentically gothic. So American noir is all about the mood of the modern.

The Las Vegas of CSI itself is only a century old, and every building on the Strip gets torn down and rebuilt every twenty years or so. The ultra-new contrasted against the ancient night. The glowing Los Angeles cityscape in Angel. The perpetual sunsets in CSI: Miami. And in Buffy, Old Testament gods resurrecting themselves in the suburbs.

The short-lived Wolf Lake almost got it right (it got the wolves exactly right), but was sunk by an absurdly over-budget Hollywood cast. It should have learned from Buffy and stuck with Graham Greene and a bunch of up-and-comers. Wolf Lake suffered as well from the constrictions of "American hick horror," goth Euro-noir's diametrical opposite.

According to the typical American hick horror plot, take the wrong exit off the interstate and you'll find yourself at the mercy of some psycho sheriff and his slack-jawed cousins. Again, nothing wrong with that. Near Dark is a fine example of the genre.

But again, it misses the point when it comes to books like Blood and Chocolate and series like Buffy. These aren't stories about someplace else. These aren't stories about "I hope I never end up there" or "I wonder if it's in the travel guide." It's about right here. It's about the people next door. About finding the balance between light and dark, good and evil, so everything can get back to normal.

Of course it can't. But that's what the protagonists hope for. That's what gets them up in the morning. So they don't have to ride out of town in the last scene.

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# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
6/27/2007 1:17 PM   
Although I am an advocate of changing a book to meet the requirements of the movie medium, I really don't understand producers who purchase books that they then completely change. What a waste of money! I can understand writers being stymied for material. But when you consider the number of "free" books--not to mention fairytales, folktales and classics--out there, it seems more like a wanton lack of imagination than anything else. In which case, why are these people making movies?

Spoiler Alert!

I'm assuming that Gabriel and Vivian don't get together in the end, in which case, what's the point? I mean, if they are going to totally destroyed the theme of the book, why bother?
# posted by Blogger Eugene
6/27/2007 2:17 PM   
It's so much worse than that. Remember Die Hard? Okay, let's say that Alan Rickman is Gabriel and Bruce Willis is Aiden. Can you begin to grasp the sheer awfulness of it all?