Wednesday, November 28, 2007

nadja, by michael almereyda

This week for Film Club, I chose to keep going with the vampire theme that we've been on for the past two weeks. Last week's choice, Blood for Dracula, was pretty offbeat, so I chose to follow it up with Michael Almereyda's 1994 postmodern indie film Nadja.

If you were watching postmodern indie films in the mid-nineties, as I was, you'll be familiar with the work of Hal Hartley, who during that time was using the techniques of early Godard to tell the stories of New-York-area outsiders and outcasts. Nadja owes a lot to Hartley —it's got the semi-philosophical digression, the genre riffs, the emphasis on artifice, the cute girls—heck, it even borrows key members of his (nineties-era) ensemble. Any fan of Hartley's early work will recognize Martin Donovan, who plays our protagonist here:

And Hartley regular Elina Lowensohn's exotic / skeletal good looks make her a natural casting choice for the vampiric Nadja:

As a vampire story, Nadja hits many of the marks of Bram Stoker's novel—it includes, for instance, familiar characters like Lucy, Renfield, Van Helsing, etc. How much mileage you will get out of Nadja, then, depends squarely on how much you'd enjoy seeing a Hartley-esque revamp of Stoker's tropes, set in the East Village of the 1990s. It's not going to be to everyone's taste, but I think it mostly works. How can you hate Peter Fonda as Van Helsing, playing him as the sort of guy you might move away from on the bus, a crackpot babbling on about "shadow zones" and using ridiculous sunglasses as a vampire-detection technology:

Curiously, though, Almereyda almost entirely steers away from representing Dracula himself: as the story opens, Dracula has just been killed by Van Helsing, and the vampires the film focuses on are his two children, Nadja and Edgar. We see him a bit in flashback, but this is about as close as we get:

Other times we see him presented as icon or cliche, represented through brief snippets of found footage:

Or as kitsch:

By representing Dracula only in these oblique or pre-digested ways, the film is maybe saying something about the difficulty of fruitfully reinventing the Dracula figure (or denying us the pleasures that inhere in the cinema that surrounds that figure?). The gesture gets more provocative when Van Helsing describes Dracula as "like Elvis at the end. Drugged, confused, surrounded by zombies. He was just going through the motions. The magic was gone. And he knew it."

The parallel between Elvis and Dracula is intriguing: it establishes a certain kind of basic continuity between disparate cultural icons. Sort of simultaneously over-known and unknowable? (This might go part of the way towards explaining the next film project that Almereyda took on: Hamlet (the 2000 Ethan Hawke version, which is more fun than many people give it credit for)).

There's a lot more that can be said about this film (I'd specifically like to say something about what the film is or isn't saying about the tension between heteronormative marriage and vampirism / lesbianism / polymorphous modes of interpersonal relationships) but I'm low on time. Next week we'll be looking at another vampire film, 1994's Aswang, a tale of Filipino vampires feeding on the unborn? Sounds great.


Kat said...

I wish that somehow all three of you film clubbers could accumulate your posts on this "too many projects" blog.

jpb said...

I could probably invite the others. That would be more of a proper "club" blog, wouldn't it?