Monday, January 17, 2011


We caught 'Dracula - The Music and the Film' at the late show last Friday at Sydney's State Theatre, which defies classification except to say that it is late 1920s and decorated along the lines of nothing succeeds like excess.

(there's one of the many draculas on the landing)

(some had gone to a lot of trouble; not that's not us)

This music for the 1931 Universal early talkie early scary classic comes via Philip Glass with a Michael Reisman (director of the Philip Glass ensemble) arrangement written for the Kronos Quartet, all of whom - that's Philip Glass (keyboards), Michael Reisman (keyboards and conductor), David Harrington (violin), John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola) and Jeffrey Zeigler (Cello) - fronted the stage shortly after midnight. Mr Glass, facing the audience, looked rather in the mode of Friday-must-be-Sydney, but he made it through. Mr Reisman's back looked fine.

Anyway, it was the combination of Glass and the Kronos quartet which had flushed us out. The musicians were in front of the screen, unlike in some other cities where they had played behind but still visible, and the result was ideal - easy to watch both and easy to shift focus wherever, whenever.

(ten to midnight --- ooohhhhh)

I was absolutely convinced I'd seen it before, when actually this was pure construct, the result of having been made so familiar with the genre, seen so many stills etc that it wasn't till the carriage (with the rather handsome Renfield of Dwight Frye) rattled over the mountains that the penny dropped. I was a Béla Lugosi Dracula virgin.

It's a great classic and all the better for the absence of wizbang special effects and the use of pure craft to create some incredibly beautiful scenes and load up the atmosphere. Of course, Béla Lugosi of the hypnotic stare and heavily accented baritone dominates the film. With a voice like that it's no wonder he was plucked from the stage play and immortalised. But Dwight Frye's Renfield is something amazing, as he, still very much in the histrionic silent film style, deteriorates from innocent hapless victim to raving loonie, now riddled with guilt. And there's more than a touch of homoeroticism between the Count and his visitor, or maybe that's just me, rubbing my neck as I type. The film shows considerable restraint, at least by today's standards, and in a sure case of less is more, leaves to the imagination what today's directors indulge - there's not a fang or a bite to be seen.

I don't listen to much Glass, except with Ravi Shankar, which I listen to a lot. But Satyagraha is sitting in the vinyl collection, and some of his sound tracks I find especially memorable - Koyaanisqatsi, Thin Blue Line, Kundun, Fog of War - again all conducted by Michael Riesman. It's hard for me to have any strong feelings about whether the film even needed a soundtrack - I've 'fessed up - I was seeing it for the first time. And Glass's music was reasonably predictable in over-all style, arpeggioing its way along, interspersed with some haunting melodies (Verdi came to mind) beautifully articulated on the violins. Particularly early on dialogue was lost, and there were few, too few, moments of sustained silence.

The film ends rather quickly, as if they ran out of ideas, or time, or money. Glass tapers things out with a few minutes of middle register postlude, and then we spilled out back into the night.

Here, to give you some idea (I can't say how well the sound is matched to the film, which it certainly was live with Michael Reisman, facing the screen, frame by framing it) is the still sane Renfield, and later the first spooky appearance of the 'brides', only to be shooed away in a this-one-is-mine androcentric moment.

Later, Dwight Frye typecasts himself for life.

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