Sunrise comes on strong in Kathryn Bigelow's 'Near Dark,' one of three vampire films at YBCA August 26-29.

A Vampire Weekend at YBCA

Max Goldberg August 26, 2010

That the vogue for vampire melodramas may have run its course is clear enough from the appearance of Vampires Suck (in theaters as of this writing, though not likely much past it) and the news that the American redo of the 2008 Swedish indie hit, Let the Right One In, will be titled "Let Me In." Just like that, a lovely slice of pop-baroque gets reprocessed as a pathetic whine. No matter: as long there is cinema, the vampire will reemerge. Ever since the twin pinnacles of Nosferatu (1922) and Vampyr (1932), in which two of early cinema’s visionary poets recognized in the vampire something of the medium’s invocatory (and erotic) essence, the vampire has remained a crucial figment of the cinematic imagination. Can this be any surprise, given the monster’s most basic rule? A searing sensitivity to light and power in darkness: with all apologies to Bram Stoker, it seems like it must have come of a cinematographer’s fever dream. There is a more obvious explanation for why vampire films thrive—in a word, sex—but Murnau and Dreyer both realized that the vampire’s seduction is of a piece with the camera’s uncanny bearing on reality. The lines between style and content are blurred, enough so that even through jaded contemporary eyes we might yet see cinema as a kind of black magic.

A three-film vampire weekend at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts may seem skimpy next to the 33-film gorge at the Brooklyn Art Museum,“Bela Lugosi’s Dead, Vampires Live Forever,” but the program nonetheless zeroes in on the vampire’s aesthetic mutability, as likely serving as a vessel for poetic ecstasy as for trash humping—and, as always, Joel Shepard’s unorthodox programming means having one’s taste hierarchies shaken up. Rather than screening Vampyr opposite an obvious descendent, like Guy Maddin’s Vaseline-smeared Dracula: Pages of a Vampire’s Diary (Dreyer famously used cheesecloth scrims to accentuate Vampyr’s otherworldly aura), the European art film is here preceded by a first-rate Hollywood genre conflagration (Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 breakthrough, Near Dark) and a nod to the less reputable, but no less robust tradition of horror-exploitation (schlock-meister Cirio H. Santiago’s Vampire Hookers, vintage 1978).

Obviously, the three films in "Dark in August: Rare Vampire Filme" (August 26-29) play at different registers—I’ll leave it to another critic to compare and contrast Dreyer’s searching close-ups with Santiago’s slow-motion soft-core montage. Between hiring John Carradine to recite Shakespeare, a surprising range of farting sounds and the aforementioned slo-mo, Santiago seems not to have left over any funds for ketchup-blood. Vampire Hookers is excruciating, if still good-natured in its weird excesses and sailor buddy number one’s earnest fear of cemeteries—alas, he doesn’t get laid. The nods to vampire convention (the first rays of the sun coming to the rescue; the arch references to historical events; the black capes) are strictly cartoonish, though Quentin Tarantino probably takes it all very seriously.

The sunrise comes on strong in Near Dark too, though here that slippage is less a narrative fix than a visual cue of the protagonist’s inexorable rush towards the high plains equivalent of Dreyer’s world of shadows. Cinematographer Adam Greenberg’s gorgeous color palette alternates radically between parched high-noon, gradated twilight and liquid night. Near Dark is full of stylistic splits, beginning with the opening shots of Caleb, your average handsome cowboy on the make, driving his pickup to the sounds of…Tangerine Dream? Bigelow courts such inconsistencies aggressively, incisively zeroing in on the moral dissonances underwriting all genre filmmaking.

With their ornate rules and regulations, vampire stories formalize the precepts of genre to an unusual degree, opening the way for both kitsch and subtle recalibration (e.g., Let the Right One In). But Bigelow takes a different route, cross-pollinating vampire conventions with motifs from westerns and action film. As a result, the conflicts that occur at the level of plot—Caleb’s divided allegiance between the vampire band of outsider on the one hand and his father and sister on the other ; vampire-girlfriend Mae playing both initiator and redemptive woman, while Caleb’s mother’s absence remains unexplained —are reflected in a more elemental struggle between story-types. The first third of the film channels the erotic energy of these push-pull dynamics with great style.

Take the first bite, for instance. After spotting Mae mouthing a soft-serve cone across a corridor of neon light, Caleb plays the good old boy, driving her around and taking her to see his horse. Naturally, the horse bolts at the sight of her, but the convention is given fresh life by a nervy camera angle. Fretting the coming dawn, Mae begs Caleb to take her home—typical chick stuff, it seems to him.  He stops the car and pockets the keys, triumphantly demanding a kiss. Cut to cobalt-blue close-up: she pushes him back into his seat, wresting physical control after his empty show of power. Even before she goes for his neck—which quakes vulnerably in the frame—Caleb’s passivity is clear. Instead of punctuating this gender reversal with a sharp turn for horror, Bigelow follows the swirling logic of a dream. Mae runs off; Caleb gives her chase but ends up walking back to the truck, dabbing his neck. Knowing the nature of that bite can hardly prepare us for the threat to rematerialize as a Winnebago careening across the full-sun landscape, a cloud of dust tracing the movement across Bigelow’s long-shot. Caleb is lurching across the same expanse—the dead man’s walk, in western terms—towards his property, where father and sister have just caught sight of him (the scene’s dissembling of wide open space is reminiscent of the famous crop-duster sequence in North by Northwest). At the decisive moment, the Winnebago cuts between Caleb and family, snatching up the freshly infected recruit. Inside the van are Mae and her folks: whooping roughnecks all, they’re like the Western's Apache filtered through Mad Max. The sudden collapse in space and visual temperature, from clarified distance to inscrutable proximity and baked day to smoky interior, plunges us headlong into Caleb’s transformation.

Although Near Dark remains visually interesting throughout, the business of setting up the inevitable confrontation between Caleb’s two “families” tempers Bigelow’s action fantasia. Vampyr, on the other hand, is the rare narrative film that never seems to touch the ground—not because the story itself is novel (like a million awful B-movies, Vampire Hookers included, Dreyer relies on a dusty book to disclose the vampire myth), but rather because the world in which it unfolds is at every turn formally constructed. If Vampyr’s unmotivated camera movements and obscure point-of-view positioning have been taken up by later auteurs, Dreyer’s supernatural (to say nothing of sensual) realism remains singular. Everything from a weirdly turbulent wallpaper design to the camera’s paradoxical tracking movements (paradoxical because they simultaneously reveal and obscure space) hovers ambiguously between phenomenal reality and psychological interiors. The shots from the perspective of a coffin are probably Vampyr’s most famous, though my favorite sequence is the lustful, bizarre set of eyeline matches between sisters, one of them under the vampire’s spell; her iconographic close-ups play as the demonic counterpoint to those in Dreyer’s previous work, The Passion of Joan of Arc. Vampyr’s characters are fairy-tale cutouts, to be sure, but the space between them crackles. The vampiric presence in Dreyer’s masterpiece is primarily ethereal, and after a weekend in the dark, you may well feel yourself in its grip.

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