Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bride at the Alamo

My last evening in lovely Austin, TX was spent at one of several Alamo Drafthouse locations (this one known as the Alamo Ritz), watching James Whale's 1935 Bride of Frankenstein on the big screen, eating some pretty good food, and every so often getting annoyed by the audience laughter around me.
Before going any further, I have to say that this was, for me, a pretty great experience. I don't often get the chance to see revival screenings of any old movies, let alone Golden Age films, let even more alone Golden Age horror films. On top of that is the fact that this was a little bit more than just a screening, but rather the second edition of a new series at the Alamo Ritz called Cinema Club. Cinema Club is hosted -- or at least was hosted on Sunday -- by a couple of guys named Lars Nilsen and Daniel Metz, who introduce the film, and then are joined by a scholar and expert on that evening's selection. In this case, that expert was Dr. Thomas Schatz, of the University of Texas and author of The Genius of the System, among other books. After the film, the three of them got on stage to discuss the movie, and field questions and comments from the audience. All of this was great fun for me, and I would go back for Cinema Club every month if I could (next month they'll be showing Barbara Stanwyck in Night Nurse, with special guest Kim Morgan). So no complaints.
Bride of Frankenstein is, as you all know, essentially a horror-comedy, which is a subgenre of horror that is far more problematic than the seemingly endless contributions to the category would lead one to believe. The tone the filmmakers have to strike, and the line that needs to be walked, is very delicate, and most people can't hack it, largely because they don't know tone is an issue, or can't see the line. James Whale, screenwriter William Hurlbut, and the other collaborators on Bride do manage to make their crazy mix of mortality, philosophy, satire, Vaudeville, and bleak examination of loneliness work (even though I, like Boris Karloff, do ultimately think the film is too comedic) because, as Thomas Schatz said after the Alamo screening, it's hard to know what to do with film. It's so loony, but so well put together, with three great performances -- from Karloff, Colin Clive, and the indispensible Ernest Thesiger -- that I'm sort of left shaking my head afterwards, thinking "Okay, then. It worked, but I'll be damned if I can say why." I'd rather watch Whale's original Frankenstein than Bride, but I wouldn't give up Bride for anything.
During the audience participation section of the event, one guy said that what really mattered to him about Bride of Frankenstein was the deep sadness of it, and of the monster's rejection by his bride (Arbogast has written extremely well about this element of the film, specifically the Bride's reaction to her mate, and I commend this post to your attention). Dr. Schatz beamed at the guy who made the comment, and I would have too, were I the type of person who beams, because that's what matters to me, too. The last twenty minutes or so of the film is what really provides any significant impact for me, at least emotionally, and I feel it's often overwhelmed by the tongue-in-cheek lunacy of the rest. I mean, even Schatz didn't bring it up, and his love of the film was quite clear.
. But coming to Bride of Frankenstein seventy-five years late is going to jack with some people's perceptions of it, and that's not the fault of the film itself. At the Alamo screening, when O. P. Heggie's blind hermit first appears on screen, there was quite a bit of laughter. It was of the semi-quiet, polite variety, for the most part, but its connection with what was actually on screen was telling. Outside of the bit with the cigars, this, the most famous scene in the whole film, outside of the Bride's reveal, is not played for laughs -- it's really pretty heartbreaking in how quickly it provides both the hopeless, desperate, dumb monster, and the blind, lonely hermit, with a glimpse of happiness and companionship before whisking it away with sudden violence and rage. It, in fact, sets up the monster's self-destructive rage at the end, when his best hope, another creature like him, looks into his face and shrieks in horror. And yet people were laughing as soon as Heggie showed up. And I knew why, and I'm sure you do, too: Young Frankenstein.
Broadly speaking, audiences -- including the kind of "hip" crowd in the Alamo audience -- have a hard time taking horror seriously, unless it's of a particularly visceral and overtly disturbing nature. When you add on the often broad comedy of Bride of Frankenstein, and its various and abrupt tonal shifts, it's hard to ground yourself while watching. There were one or two condescending comments from Schatz and Nilsen about what in the world could audiences in 1935 have possibly made of this movie -- because even though a sophisticated guy like Whale lived in 1935 and made the film in 1935, it's hard to believe that the rubes in the audience could have possibly appreciated it on as many levels as we do today -- but I have to ask what could those laughing at Heggie's appearance during the Alamo screening have possibly made of it? To put it simply, Bride of Frankenstein was getting bad laughs, and it didn't deserve them, and in the case of Heggie's scene, it was all because Mel Brooks expertly spoofed the movie twenty-six years ago, and some members of the audience on Sunday night couldn't look past that. When Karloff is angrily waving away Heggie's burning stick, they were seeing Peter Boyle's burning thumb.
In the Q&A, another audience member actually put this pretty clearly, asking Schatz how he thought Young Frankenstein colored our perception of Bride of Frankenstein today. I could have kissed that guy, because I think he was a irritated by that laughter as I was, but Schatz, unfortunately, didn't quite hear his question, or lost the thread of his answer, because the only point he made that was germane to the question was that it's impossible nowadays to come to the film innocently. True enough, but also too vague, and too willing to accept bad laughs borne of lazy, above-it-all attitude to old genre movies as a given. Yes, the film's madcap tonal changes play a part, but being unable, or unwilling, to shed the spoofs and copies you grew up with trumps all.
Bride of Frankenstein is actually a tough movie, deceptively so -- you can't just let it roll meaninglessly over you and hope to get inside it, even though those new to it would probably very quickly assume otherwise. For all my problems with it, this fact is obviously entirely to its credit, and it's why the film was picked for the Alamo Ritz's Cinema Club, and it's why Schatz, and his hosts, love it so much. But the further away we get from this film, and others of its era, the harder it becomes to present it as something other than a novelty, or a time capsule, something to be bemused by, because those people in 1935 sure had a crazy idea of what constitutes a great movie.
I don't mean this as a blanket condemnation of the Alamo crowd with whom I saw the film. Far from it, though I realize it probably sounds as though I'm doing exactly that. It's just that those bad laughs really pissed me off. It indicates that some people went to the movie with a certain distance already set up between themselves and the screen, and they didn't want that distance shortened. They probably don't know it can be.


Krauthammer said...

I really enjoyed this article Bill. I've been lucky enough to see Bride of Frankenstein in the theaters too, and it is really powerful stuff. There may have been a few laughs, and I undoubtably would have been annoyed by them at the time, but I've forgotten. If I absolutely had to choose between the two Whale Franksteins it would probably be bride though only by a hair, and I feel the way that many people trumpet it actually seeks to diminish it.

It's not really the fact that Bride is an early example of horror-comedy that elevates it. For me the real genius of Bride is how it's able to mix moods. Most horror-comedies simply throw out different moments for you – a laugh here, a scream there – fairly haphazardly, but in Bride the two exist in the very same instant. The camp elements of Thesiger's performance have been so hyped over the years, for example, that few seem to notice how genuinely creepy he is, even at those times when he's at his funniest. I even hesitate to call it a “horror-comedy” as it's on such a different emotional plane. It is the sadness that elevates it, and whenever I see it praised primarily because “it's meant to be camp” I get annoyed.

There's really nothing that makes me angrier than derisive, above-it-all laughter at rep showings, unless it's something like Troll 2 where that's the purpose. I used to think it was just an unfortunate aspect of my generation but I remember Sarris deriding devotees of “camp pop and trivia” who were sullying Griffith revivals back in the sixties. The thing I really have a problem with is, and I'm sure I'll come off like a pompous ass saying this, how limited their perspective really is. Anything that differs from current cinematic tropes and styles is seen as somehow deficient, either some kind of relic or joke. A way to assert your superiority over “those simpletons” who lived before you. As you say there's a distance that they erect that never allows them to truly see the greatness that's in a film like Bride.

Also this is way too long.

bill r. said...

Yes, Thesiger is very creepy. He's frequently funny at the same time ("You're wise in your generation"), but he's always creepy.

This point:

Most horror-comedies simply throw out different moments for you – a laugh here, a scream there – fairly haphazardly, but in Bride the two exist in the very same instant

...is excellent, and that's what I should have said when talking about how difficult the film is. You say later that it's on another plane from your typical horror-comedy, and it really is. I talked about the tonal shifts (as did Schatz) being so rapid-fire, but I think you're closer to the truth: there are no tonal shifts, really (okay, there are a few), but rather the tonal variations exist at the same time.

This doesn't excuse bad laughs though (which you're not claiming, I understand). It comes down to, I believe, an inability to imagine a horror film that's 75 years old meaning to do to you what it's doing, and, more to my original point, that the emotional stuff is meant sincerely, and is created with great skill, and is not sappy simply by virtue of being old.

Mel Brooks wasn't spoofing the movie because he thought it was bad, or corny. He was spoofing it because it was so big that it made a really fun target. But Brooks got the movie, I think. His fans, maybe not so much.

OlmanFeelyus said...

I think you put too much emphasis on the influence of Young Frankenstein, probably out of a reasonable search for meaning and motivation behind the derisive laughter. I bet most of those hipsters hadn't even seen Bride of Frankenstein either. The fact is those people are annoying losers who need to be aggressively shushed and even confronted directly. I've done it myself many times and it's quite effective. Usually their courage comes from the darkness and the belief that they have the support of their peers. As soon as they hear the hint of confrontation, they silence right up. Don't hold back.

bill r. said...

Walker, the laughter wasn't always derisive. When it was inappropriate, it was either based on an inability or unwillingness to take note of when the comedy stopped, or, as was the case with the blind hermit scene, a disinterest in what was actually going on in the scene. What was going on for them was a replay of the Gene Hackman scene in Brooks' film. That's all they cared about. Really, in that case, the laughter began as soon as the hermit appeared on screen. "Young Frankenstein" had to be the root.

Neil Sarver said...

Great article. I think my feelings on Bride are essentially equivalent to yours. I fully recognize it's brilliance, but it's not my favorite James Whale movie or Universal Horror movie.

I haven't been to a Cinema Club screening yet, but I have similar problems going to the various repertory showings at the Alamo, which probably makes my goings less frequent than they might otherwise be, but then I might be partly be making excuses for my laziness/poverty.

Nevertheless, it is a problem in the experience of seeing these movies on the big screen with a crowd. There's always a weird mix of people, some of whom are like us who genuinely want an opportunity to connect even better with these movies and the kind of ironic viewers who are unable or unwilling to make that connection and choose instead to laugh at them.

Of course, it's a difficult line at times, as you note with Bride and others that have intentional laughs (and even intentional camp elements) along with genuine drama and sentiment, because frankly I think audiences are, as you may have intended to imply, are significantly less sophisticated today and vastly less able to recognize these kinds of shifts in dramatic tone. I think the audience that grew up on television is now so used to having their tones spoon fed to them with laugh tracks and clear boundaries between drama and comedy that these things outright confound them.

I just look at the basic audience understanding of Tarantino, who is contemporary, and not a camp or ironic moviemaker and how poorly that is understood by so much, not only of the modern audience as a whole but his audience, and I just have to throw up my arms.

bill r. said...

Thanks, Neil. I don't know that I intended to imply that audiences are much less sophisticated, although that may be true, but rather that they are more ironic. That may be the key. Irony rules all these days. It especially insinuates itself when modern audiences watch older movies. They may not mean their reaction to be derisive, but the amount of distance it creates can certainly make it seem pretty condescending. Many people just don't want to try to connect with styles of filmmaking they're not used to, or that they view as out-of-date, so they try to engage on their own terms, rather then the terms set by the film.

Sometimes, the film is just bad -- old films can be bad too -- and that's okay, or maybe they just don't like the film, and then it's a matter of subjectivity, but I don't think that was the case with some of the audience at the Alamo. It was a case of too much irony, and an assumption that BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN was best viewed as an artifact, rather than a film.

Neil Sarver said...

I guess that's just my inference then, I'm sorry. I will add, however, that I'm not sure that viewing only from an ironic point of view is inherently less sophisticated.

Mind you, I'm not taking down all modern audiences, all Alamo audiences or all members of any of those audiences... and I knew you didn't intend to either. I've had many excellent experiences as well with audiences that completely - or at least mostly - able to meet the movie at the movie's own level.

But I continue to find great frustration with ironic crowd, specifically because of what I see as that basic hypocrisy... A view that they are better or smarter than some other audience, be they of another time, place socio-economic class or what-have-you or of the moviemakers themselves. There always feels an implicit assumption - and maybe it's my own bias in inferring it - that they, the ironic viewer is smarter, and I challenge that they are not specifically because their view and appreciation is so narrow.

Tony Dayoub said...

You know I had the same experience in a college film class. It's been nearly 20 years, but I guess watching all of these Nicholas Ray films has brought it back to mind.

We were watching REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and a group of my classmates strted having a too hip, ironic laugh at Dean's emoting. I felt like, You guys should know better. The overwrought Method style of the fifties was in vogue and Dean's performance was perfectly calibrated to what was expected at the time.

I often wonder why so few can't simply switch off that misguided judgemental take on art, and recognize somethings are just endemic to the period or style, the way a certain technique of painting or musical composition is correct within the context of their respective movements.

bill r. said...

Neil - This is all getting a bit thick, on my end. I'm not sure I'm quite making the kind of plain sense I hope I made in the post itself. The reason is that I can't say for sure what kind of laughter I was hearing -- derisive, ironic, etc. -- and I'd hate to assume too much (which I may have already done). All I feel 100% confident about is that laughter was coming from a disconnect between the audience (some of it) and the film, and I believe that disconnect was there from the beginning, and those people had no interest in having it any other way.

But I am as frustrated with the ironic crowd as you are, and I love your points about Tarantino. My hands are thrown up right alongside yours.

Tony -

I felt like, You guys should know better.

Exactly. I always thought that was the whole deal with the Alamo crowd -- that they knew better, and had deep respect for the films that were shown (at least, those that were shown without the irony built-in, like it would be with Ed Wood's films, or ROBOT MONSTER, or THE ROOM, or etc.). And the event itself was deeply respectful of Whale and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. But some of the crowd didn't know what they were getting. Not to muddy the same things I just tried to unmuddy in my response to Neil, but I wonder if some in the theater knew so little about BRIDE that they just naturally assumed it was in the Ed Wood category.

Neil Sarver said...

Hey, I was trying to drink that water! What's wrong with you?

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