Thursday, June 17, 2010

Don't Let The Sun Go Down on Me

I had to turn off Neil Jordan's Interview with the Vampire (1994) about 20 minutes in. I wound up bitching about it on my Facebook account shortly thereafter. "Was it always this laughably bad?" I asked. Mind you, I haven't seen it since it was in theaters, so my memory of it is admittedly hazy. My memory of the novel is even hazier. I read the book long before Anne Rice turned it into a franchise, and I remember liking it a lot. I'm afraid to go back and re-read the book, truth to tell. I've since soured on Rice. The vampire books curdled on me about halfway through The Vampire Lestat, and of her other writings, I eventually gave up completely when I found myself throwing The Witching Hour across the room, never to be finished. Rice has a lot to answer for, not least of which is the current vogue for neurasthenic vampires that seems like it's spreading like a cancer throughout pop culture. It's hard to say if they're more ubiquitous than zombies; it's neck and punctured neck.

Anyway, I went back to it eventually, and it got better by and by. I didn't make it quite far enough in during my first attempt to get to the film's most arresting elements, which, coincidentally, begin to appear at about the 25 minute mark. But those first twenty minutes were a hard slog. Part of it was getting used to the actors in their roles. I mean, we're talking serious movie stars here, who are overlaying their own personae over the characters from the book. Part of it is that the dialogue doesn't sound right. If ever there was a movie that cried out to be made in French, this is it.

I remember reading an interview with David Cronenberg around the time that M. Butterfly came out in which he was asked about Interview with the Vampire. Cronenberg was linked to the movie in two ways: first, he was offered the director's chair at one point. Second: at the time, there was a lot of chatter about the alleged similarities between M. Butterfly and The Crying Game, which was the film Neil Jordan made immediately before Interview with the Vampire. At one point, Cronenberg was asked about the casting of Tom Cruise as Lestat, to which he replied: "I probably think the same thing you think about it, and I don't even know you." At the time, Anne Rice herself was sounding off on the casting of Cruise. She eventually recanted after watching him on set. Cruise seems an odd fit for the role, but Cruise has always been adventurous about choosing his roles and he's certainly up to the task of playing Lestat. Cruise has often had a trace of anger in his performances, and he gives it full reign here. He's fey, creepy, and all but unrecognizable with long blonde tresses and contact lenses. And yet, he fails to dominate the movie. The same goes for Brad Pitt as Louis. Pitt fares much worse than Cruise, in part because his character is mostly one note, and, as Lestat notes, he whines ("I've been listening to that for two hundred years," he says at one point), but also because Pitt himself, though an absolutely beautiful man, is just plain wrong for the part.

The story, narrated by the vampire, Louis, to a journalist, tells of his conversion to vampirism in colonial New Orleans. Once a plantation owner, he wallowed in despair following the death of his family, until the seductive, blond vampire, Lestat, offered him eternal life. Louis, for his part, accepts, and finds the world much changed afterward. Vampirism might be seductive, with it's promise of eternal youth, but the reality of actually drinking blood and killing people is one of nearly unending sadness for Louis. Lestat is less sensitive, though his perverse desire to create a family unit that will keep him company through the ages hints at a similar sadness. He still comes off as a monster. Also monstrous is the vampire child, Claudia, that Louis and Lestat make. As she is in the book, Claudia is the film's most audacious creation, an eternal child with the wants of a grown woman and the longing for a life she never had the opportunity to have. Everything else that follows Claudia's appearance in the film, from the Theatres des Vampire to Antonio Banderas's curiously ambivalent vampire regent, has been upstaged. Credit is due to Kirsten Dunst, who was eleven when the film was made, for managing a performance that goes from innocence to experience with nary a false note to break the spell. She has never been as good since. The movie itself isn't so lucky. Once the movie winds down, Jordan and Rice (who wrote the screenplay herself) make a change to the ending, and it's a change that wrecks the mood.

In addition to all of their other attendant allegorical possibilities, vampire stories are ideal vehicles for examining homoeroticism. Interview might be the first major vampire novel to frame that homoeroticism with male vampires. It's an element that is in the forefront of the movie. Between the publication of the novel and the making of the movie is the AIDS epidemic, and I think you can see some of the outlines of that in the desperation you see in its characters. It's hard for me to NOT see it in the movie's version of Lestat and Louis's last meeting, in which Lestat is a frail shell of himself. And yet, in one of the movie's more timid moments, it refrains from showing Brad Pitt kissing Antonio Banderas even when their lips are only millimeters apart, which is a pity for audiences (like yours truly) who like watching boys kiss. The movie retains a great deal of relevance in contemporary terms, as it allegorizes the kinds of families gay people struggle to form on their own in spite of the disapproval of the dominant culture at large, even as it hedges its bets with an ambivalence towards them. All of this becomes even more troubling when one accounts for the perverse relationship between Louis and Claudia, which has an inherent pedophiliac undercurrent. Given the possible interpretations of this imagery, you wind up with a very troubling movie. And that's not all.

Anne Rice's forays into BDSM erotica are spectacularly realized during the Theatres des Vampires sequence, in which audiences (both real and fictional--the movie turns meta here) watch the vampires gang-feed on a victim who has been stripped naked. This is totally outside the "safe, sane, and consensual" strictures of BDSM sex practices, but it's ridiculously common in BDSM literature. Vampire stories are replete with rape imagery, too, so it's an ideal mating. And that's how this scene plays: As gang rape. It horrifies Louis, and it ought to horrify the audience, but Rice knows full well that the kinkier members of her audience have entertained the same kind of fantasies and will surely groove on this scene.

The movie tries to have it both ways, horror and titilation, which is a flaw in the book, too. All of this begs the question of why the hell vampires have become anti-heroes in the popular imagination? I mean, I "get" that vampires are in the Byronic/Gothic tradition, but why has that archetype taken such firm hold in the myth pool? I can't say I like some of the answers.

As a side note: I've accepted a gig blogging about movies, trans issues, and feminism at The Second Awakening. My first introductory post is here. I probably should have posted this there, too, but I have something else in mind for my next entry. Have no fear, my legion of faithful readers, I should still keep up a blistering pace right here.


Jaye Schmus said...

I loved Anne Rice's vampire stories in high school, but I lost the thread sometime after "Queen of the Damned", which was made into a movie which is possibly worse than "Interview". One positive thing that came out of the original novel is Sting's song "Moon Over Bourbon Street", which is one of my favorites of his non-Police work.

Darius Whiteplume said...

I have only read Rice's "Ramses the Damned" and two of the three Sleeping Beauty books. I have a feeling Rice is incapable of getting around to a point, or making a statement. In the Sleeping Beauty books, the young nobles are sent to the Queen's palace to learn to be better rulers, but they are really just continually sodomized. The training idea does not seem to make it past chapter three.

I've watched bits of this film, but I have a serious aversion to Tom Cruise. I, proudly, have never seen "Top Gun."

Back to Rice; I read something (on her website, maybe) that now that she is a born again cHristian, she is telling her cHristian readers to not read her old books. That just smacks of... I don't know. Maybe revisionism? Cowardice? Hypocrisy? Some unattractive adjective.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I don't have any animosity toward Cruise--certainly not in the same way as I have animosity toward Anne Rice.

Rice isn't born again, per se. She went back to the Catholicism she was raised in. I'm not going to take her to task for warning Christian readers away from her BDSM porn. It's probably polite, actually. I don't think she's ashamed of it, though. They are still in print, after all, and if she was ashamed of them, she certainly has the clout to have them taken out of the marketplace.

But, yeah, she often seems like she's running in place.