DVD Review: Les Vampires

This brings me up to having watched number 4 from the 1001 Films to Watch Before You Die book. This is one I think I could have given a miss.

Les Vampires dates from 1915, and is a French serial, so all up, it’s something like 6 or 7 hours long. It consists of 10 episodes, ranging in length from 15 to 55 minutes in length.

They all revolve around a legendary gang of Parisian criminals known as The Vampires, and the dedicated duo of crime-fighters trying to take them down.

It’s not a continued story with cliffhangers as such, more just a series of episodes (much like a TV series) with a new predicament in each one.

I think the reason this one is on the list is because Louis Feuillade was one of the first filmmakers to use a lot of the cliches that went on to become, well, cliches of the crime thriller drama. There are role reversals, where someone good turns out to be bad. There’s people hiding behind secret doors. There’s chases across rooftops, and ropes down buildings. There’s even a few slightly more off-the-wall things like a portable cannon that gets assembled in a hotel room, then fired across the street to blow up a cafe.

On paper, this series has some clever ideas. But to watch it is painful. Don’t get me wrong, I love silent film. In fact, that’s partly the problem. The last one I watched was The Birth of a Nation which, despite its racism, is still pretty solidly entertaining. It has pace, it has drama, and it sucks you in.

But Les Vampires just becomes tedious. Partly this is due to the fact that most shots consist of a static camera in a room shooting the characters with no editing. This makes for fairly slow, clunky moments. (And I can’t even lipread it all, because it’s in French!) I kept hoping that the last episode would tie it all together and make it all worth while. Certainly, the stakes are raised in the last episode, but nothing to get too excited about.

Finally, the music on the DVD is atrocious. Silent films do often suffer because they get some dude with a synthesiser in to make the soundtrack, and this film is no exception. Hear me now – SYNTHESISERS KILL SILENT FILMS. I ended up playing spooky soundtracks over some of the episodes just to try and raise the tension levels. (It didn’t help much.)

So, yeah, film students only for this one. (And if you’re a film student, I’m putting it up on eBay soon, so keep an eye out.) For the rest of you, don’t watch it – it’ll put you off silent film. Which would be a shame, because the next film up on the list is the astonishing everyone-should-watch-it Intolerance.

1.5 out of 5.

Benjamin Zander Explains Music

A while back, I was posting about how to explain classical music, and I said that if we really want to help people understand the music, our explanations of music need to:

1. Be emotionally engaging.

2. Provide a complete end-to-end listening guide through the music.

3. Not use terms that people don’t understand (unless you explain them).

Have a look at this video by famous conductor Benjamin Zander, as he (among other things) explains a prelude by Chopin. he doesn’t do it in any academic way, and you may not even realise he’s educating you, but in the space of 20 minutes, he applies all three of the above principles to the music he’s talking about.

I thought it was really well done. See what you think.

One-Year War and Peace E1.8 – Fisticuffs and a Barren Flower

Reading for Monday, June 8

And here we see more of the domestic side of the Rostov home – but this time Nikolai’s fiery temper and his habit of getting into punch-ups with unruly peasants. Marya is horrified, but from memory – it’s been a while since we read that chapter – the way they first met was Nikolai punching up some peasants who didn’t want to help Marya escape from the attacking French.

So the very habit that sewed the seed of romance is now the seed of marital discord. But rather amusing marital discord (well, at least I found it funny).

What’s far sadder is what’s happened to poor old Sonya. She just seems to have accepted her place and lumped it. Despite what I (or any other readers) thought she might have deserved, she’s really turning into an old maid at the Rostov’s place . . . and that’s pretty much where this chapter leaves us.

There’s a certain worry about getting near the end of a book like this, because if you don’t like the state that a character is in, you know there’s only a few more chapters to fix the problem, and if they don’t get fixed – that’s it. Forever and ever, that character is going to be stuck in that situation. (A facet of fiction that is played with in a rather light-hearted and amusing fashion by author Jasper Fforde in his zany fiction The Eyre Affair.)

So if this is the last we hear of Sonya, that’s it for her . . . sigh . . .

One-Year War and Peace E1.7 – Nikolai as Tolstoy?

Reading for Sunday, June 7

I can’t remember where I read it, but I’m pretty sure that I heard that Tolstoy, in his later years, freed all his serfs on his family estate. Whether I imagined it or not, it feels very much like this chapter, where we read about Nikolai and how he manages his peasants, is very much Tolstoy’s view of how they should be treated.

Treat them like humans, put their welfare first, and lo and behold, you have well-managed estates.

Oddly enough, this is starting to be the mantra in the world of employment as well. Treat your employees well, and they just might make your business profitable.

But only Nikolai would pretend that he’s not doing this for any humanitarian reasons at all. Anyway, I must run, it’s time for church.

One-Year War and Peace E1.6 – Love Blooming

Reading for Saturday, June 6

We kind of all knew this chapter was coming – Marya and Nikolai finally get together. (I think that’s definitely the nail in Sonya’s coffin lid . . .)

It’s, of course, completely like Nikolai to be too proud to marry her for her money and also completely like Marya not to push him after he showed an interest in her.

I think the nice thing about how this panned out was that at least we’re pretty sure that they are getting together because they like one another – it’s not another Pierre and Helene we’re setting up here.

But still, I reckon she’ll have her work cut out for her . . . don’t tell Marya I said that, though.

And now for another installment of the Busoni. Despite the majestic main theme that the orchestra set up, you might have noticed (if you watched the video yesterday), that the pianist actually didn’t play around with that too much. Which is what a piano concerto is about, really. The orchestra plays a theme, the pianist elaborates on it.

But, from what I’ve been able to work out, there’s not a lot of that – at least in this movement. In this second video, the movement continues and we realise that yesterday the pianist was only warming up. In this video, Busoni flogs him within an inch of his life. There’s nothing quite like a pianist having to keep up with a monstrously complex piece of music – enjoy!

One-Year War and Peace E1.5 – The Decline of the Rostovs

Reading for Friday, June 5

And so at last Pierre and Natasha are married. Oddly enough, the wedding is almost an incidental event in this chapter (despite the long build up – we’ve been waiting almost the entire novel for this!).

Instead, it’s the decline of the Rostovs that we witness. Old Count Rostov dies from depression and the guilt that he squandered the family fortune. Then we’re left with Nikolai trying to pay off the family debts and gradually finding himself in trouble as well.

But possibly the darkest moment in this chapter is his relationships with Sonya. From one of the most innocent of friendships at the beginning of the book, there’s nothing there now. We kind of expected this, but it does seem a bit hard on Sonya. Still, there’s a few more chapters to go – something might work out for him.

In the meantime, while you’re waiting for the next post, I’m going to post up this YouTube – it’s not really a video, but it’s the only place in the world where you can currently hear this amazing performance by Marc-Andre Hamelin and the Tonhalle Orchestra of Switzerland of the Piano Concerto by Ferrucio Busoni. It’s an obscure piece of music, but it’s completely epic. It’s in eight parts and runs for more than an hour (and what piano concerto runs for more than an hour?), so we’ll just do it in parts. Here’s Part One:

Some Thoughts on My Favourite Movie

Martin Sheen as General Robert E Lee
Martin Sheen as General Robert E Lee

I hope the War and Peacers out there aren’t going to be beat up on me for blogging about other things, but I’ve had a few topics floating around in my head for the last few weeks, and I do really need to get them out of my head.

This is the first one. A few weeks ago, I took advantage of having the house to myself on a public holiday to invite some friends around to watch a movie that really did change my life back at the age of 15. That movie is a little-watched, but massively epic film called Gettysburg.

The film tells the story of the soldiers who fought for three days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War in 1863. It was the first “serious” movie I ever took myself to see at the cinemas, and despite its 4 1/2 hour running time, I saw it three times in a month, waited for what seemed like ages for it to come out on video at the video store, waited an extraordinarily long time to buy it on home video and was so happy when it finally arrived on DVD.

It’s always a bit daunting watching it with friends, because a 4 1/2 hour movie is a big ask of anyone. If it was only a 2 hour movie, it’s not so bad. If they don’t like it, then they haven’t lost that much time. But 4 1/2 hours is a commitment.

It’s a big leap from liking a movie to calling it your favourite. I’m trying to think exactly why it is my favourite. I don’t know if I can explain exactly, but here are some of the things I really like about this film.

1. The music. Music is usually going to be the first thing that grabs me about a film, and I think that’s what did it with Gettysburg. It’s sound a little dated now (too much synthesizer where they could have used an orchestra), but Gettysburg was very much in the tradition of Star Wars, Dances With Wolves and other epic films where there were themes. Melodies. Music that people could remember so that when they heard it at some other time, they’d say, “Hey, that’s off that movie.”

Gettysburg especially had an interesting (but perhaps not subtle) system of having a handful of main themes that when you slowed them down, created a sad atmosphere to the more intimate moments. When you speeded them up and added drum beats, they give a real oomph to the battle scenes – but at the same time, infuse those battle scenes with sadness. (This is quite different from typical Hollywood battle scenes, where the music is like a bit action film, designed to get you in a “rah rah” mood.)

2. “Men of Honour”. The one thing you come out of this film noticing is that these characters believed in things, and were willing to die for those beliefs. The beliefs may not have been right, and maybe it was downright stupid to choose death for them – but the convictions were that firm, that nothing was going to stop them. (This is especially so for the Southern Confederate Army in the mass suicidal charge that ends the film.)

It inspired me back then to watch characters like these, and it inspires me now still today. Maybe because I find it harder and harder to be like this. How many people do you know with the strenght of their convictions? How many who hold unswervignly to a course? How many who forgo the easy path to do what they think is right?

Certainly, I think it’s stupid to get caught up in something just because it’s a craze. But how many people do you know nowadays who don’t seem to stand for anything?

3. The spectacle. Gettysburg was really the last of the old-school war movies where they rolled out a whole bunch of real extras and shot the thing for real. Actually, that’s not quite true, there was Braveheart the next year, which re-invigorated the big battle film (it’s a much more pro-war film, though, compared with Gettysburg‘s rather tragic take on warfare), which I think did its battle scenes without CGI. But Gettysburg is a heck of a lot larger scale, and the 5,000 extras they rolled out to film it, really do bring a sense of hugeness to the ending. No matter how many times I see it, the last hour of this film always amazes me.

4. Martin Sheen. I would agree that President Bartlett of The West Wing is probably his best role – certainly, he’s given a lot of material to work with in that series, and he gets to demonstrate a huge dramatic range. But, for me, Martin Sheen’s role that I will always remember him for is General Robert E Lee. He makes a tragic miscalculation (I know, I know – all you Southerners out there think the movie is wrong on this point – I’ve read your stuff, okay?) and is privately haunted by what is going on. And yet, as we watch him interact with his generals and staff, Sheen easily conveys why this General was respected as one of the greatest men in American history.

4. 70 mm. Sadly, one thing you miss on the DVD presentation is that this film was screened in 70mm at the cinemas. There’s not many occasions where you get to see something in 70mm any more, which for those less technical, means that instead of seeing a 35mm film that is stretched on the screen, you’re seeing a negative that is wide to start with. It also means that the picture image is crystal clear and better than normal cinema quality.

You don’t really see that on the Gettysburg DVD because they haven’t cleaned it up that much and also the 70mm cinema version took the actual film and cropped the top and bottom off to create a 2.2:1 aspect ratio. Whereas on the DVD, the cropped bits have been returned (so you’re seeing more), but in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, you lose that epic widescreen feel that it had at the cinema.

Anyway, it was great to come back to it again, because I hadn’t watched it for a couple of years, and this time for me (possibly my 15th or 16th time through) was even more powerful than ever before. I’ll definitely be pulling it out again. If only they’d release the Director’s Cut on DVD (it’s half an hour longer again).

One-Year War and Peace E1.4 – Alexander and Bees

Reading for Thursday, June 4

Well, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that I will finish this by 30 June, and I don’ t think I will rush to do so, because it would be a shame to have read the first 11/12 of the book so slowly and then rush through the last 1/12.

But I’ll try not to have a massive long gap like this again . . . there’s a lot of things I couldn’t tell when I started this project – that I’d have a son, that I’d get a new role at work, and all manner of other things that go on in life – and certainly being this busy in June wasn’t one that I foresaw . . .

But anyway, back to War and Peace. This chapter wound up the Napoleon story, as he gets exiled, has a few things to say about Alexander and why he never went on to be the great leader everyone expected.

But my favourite moment is the analogy about the bees. In fact, I think I just like Tolstoy’s analogies in general. Certainly, when you’re trying to convey philosophical ideas, being able to present a good analogy is a great skill to have (I can think of a theologian or two who also do a good job at that).

Even when you’re not quite sure what Tolstoy is talking about, once he describes it with a word picture (like the bees), it all starts to make sense. It’s both sparkling writing and something thoughtful.

I think also what makes it stand out is that he wants to be understood by everyone.  He’s not deliberately writing prose that only hard-core readers who hang out in the “literature” section of their bookshop are going to understand.

Here’s to simple but profound writing!

One-Year War and Peace E1.3 – A Short History of Napoleon

Reading for Wednesday, June 3

A friend of mine told me that he has recently been listening to a series of podcasts about Napoleon by an expert on the man and he said that this particular guy hated Tolstoy’s interpretation of Napoleon in War and Peace.

I can kind of understand why. The guy who has been studied in all the military textbooks, and still considered to be one of the greatest military leaders of all time – is here reduced by Leo Tolstoy to merely a little tyrant who got to where he got by a series off good circumstances.

Whether it’s right or not is not for me to say, because I haven’t really studied enough about Napoleon to know. It does feel a bit simplified.

But what’s to enjoy is the sheer amount of Russian venom (subtle but direct) that Tolstoy inserts into his prose as he tells the story. Event by event, Napoleon’s life is re-written and reduced to a trifle. It’s the kind of thing that, if it was read out loud at a Napoleonic convention of scholars, would have them crying for blood by the end of it. Quite amusing.

One-Year War and Peace E1.2 – Chance and Genius

Reading for Tuesday, 2 June

And here we continue a bit more, as Tolstoy starts to remind us again about the idea that, really, no great person controls history. We only think that because we like to find a reason for anything.

If we just assume that the events we’re part of are part of some greater set of happenings that we don’t understand, then nobody becomes particularly outstanding. In fact, the way people act becomes inevitable, because circumstances make them the way they are.

This is all a rather unusual way of thinking, because Tolstoy has borrowed ideas from various philosophies and religions, but with a curious mix of his own.

While he doesn’t mention God too often, it reminds me very much of my own Christian faith, which believes in a God who controls all things. However, Christianity teaches of a God who expects humans to also take responsibility for their own actions. So thus, in that view, humans are in a strange situation – they’re consciously making decisions all the time (some of which can have huge consequences), while at the same time, the good and the bad are all controlled by God.

This idea has always been complicated to accept, because it requires you to hold two ideas together – one, God being in perfect control and two, man being responsible for his actions.

So thus, many thinkers split off into two extremes – on one side is our popular Western view of man, the autonomous being, conquering all things in his stride, as long as he can get his act together. Read any American self-help book, and you’ll pretty much get this message.

Then, on the other hand, there’s the fatalism that you see, especially in something like Islam. God is in control and you can’t do much about it.

Or the more secular version: people who just believe that they can’t do much to change anything, and so don’t really see much point in trying.

Tolstoy is more of a fatalist, in that we can’t stop history, and that no one person can make a difference, nor that we can necessarily understand why things happen – but he also has that belief in the motion of the group, which I think he explores a bit further as we go along.

It’s certainly an interesting thought question – if the world was as Tolstoy describes, how should we live? If history rolls on, what can we do? Is it a question that we can answer as individuals? Or do we need to answer it as a group? Does this kind of thinking explain why Russia has been Communist for many years, with a philosophy of the people united together?

Not entirely sure, but I’ll keep thinking about it.