Wednesday, April 04, 2018

In Mind of the Vampire, by John Vance

The protagonist of In Mind of the Vampire (2016), by John Vance, is Julian Hemmings, a man in his middle 30s who lives in London during the 1890s.  Although he had been a renowned surgeon, he lost his confidence when a young woman died while he was performing surgery.  Having heard about the psychoanalytic methods of Freud, he gives up his practice and travels to Vienna where he studies with the famous man for six months.  Based on these studies, and his own readings of Freud’s work, he returns to London and begins practice as a psychotherapist.

Like many converts to a new method or discipline, Hemmings is something of a fanatic about what he does.  He believes almost all physical ailments can be cured through psychoanalytic methods.  He regards himself as a man of reason, and psychotherapy as a science.  He carries on a correspondence with Freud throughout the novel.

Here are the problems with Hemmings, problems which Vance uses to create an unusual version of an unreliable narrator.  I have noted Hemmings’ fanaticism.  I should also note that he seems more shallow than deep, convinced as he is about the methods of Freud but not always seeming to understand them.  (It seems to me that one would need to study longer than 6 months to become an effective psychoanalyst).  He is a bachelor who lives alone and has never married—he doesn’t seem to feel loneliness or sexual frustration.  Yet he becomes infatuated with two young women, Lucy and Mina, who live several miles outside London.  He finds himself falling in love with Mina, but is fascinated by the sexual allure of Lucy.  He behaves in a friendly way to a young prostitute who warns him of threats to his safety.  He visits and wants to treat a tormented young woman in a nearby asylum.  And he is haunted by the memory of the young woman who died on his operating table.  Hemmings has a woman problem: he is obsessed with women, they haunt his memory, provoke his sublimated passions, cloud his mind.  His desire for Mina overwhelms his rational mind and his professional self-discipline. As a doctor who treats patients whom he believes to be victims of repression in one way or the other, he himself becomes its prime victim. Vance traces Hemmings’ problems back to his relationship with his father, who rejected him when he discovered his drawing of a nude woman.  His mother is notably absent.

To my mind, Hemmings is a dimwitted dunderhead who fails to recognize that the two women who most entrance him, Mina in particular, have become vampires. Vance thus sets his novel up as a conflict between reason and the supernatural.  The world of reason never recognizes that it is under assault. Throughout Hemmings encounters strange mists, oversized wolves, strange deaths, people with two small holes in their necks, yet he never suspects something unreal is occurring.  As a psychoanalyst who seeks to treat the psychologically disturbed by helping them understand and accept past trauma, he seems least understanding of himself.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Thin Man

The visual appearance of The Thin Man (1934; dir. W. S. Van Dyke), based on the Dashiell Hammet novel, is so stage-like as to seem static and artificial.  But this is simply a convention to which one can adjust, just as the ultra-realism of many contemporary films is a convention.  The hero, Nick Charles (William Powell), is a retired detective whose marriage to a wealthy woman, Nora (Myrna Loy), allows him to retire and live a life of leisure in San Francisco.  The film doesn’t look askance at his life style, which is simply part of what makes him interesting.  (Interesting in the same way one might read Fitzgerald without noticing, at least in his better stories, the undertone). During a visit to New York, the case of a missing scientist lures him back to sleuthing.
Powell isn’t the modern conception of a handsome leading man.  He is middle-aged, with a weak chin and somewhat dangling under chin.  He ranges from tipsy to more than tipsy throughout the film, as does his wife.  Rarely drunk, they are always drinking, and always in control.  What makes this film entertaining as well as interesting is the constant repartee between husband and wife, their sexy double entendres and wordplay and banter.  What also makes it interesting is the array of secondary characters: eccentric, quixotic, often inebriated.  During a Christmas party at Nick and Nora’s apartment, these characters show their stuff. When the plot occasionally falters, these major and minor characters maintain our interest.
I’ve always thought of Nick and Nora as a husband and wife team.  While they are married, they are not equal partners in sleuthing, and when dangerous work is to be done, Nora stays at home.  The missing scientist had been conducting an affair with his secretary, who is referred to as a girl, though she seems close to middle age.  The scientist’s ex-wife, always in need of money, is having an affair with a younger man played by Caesar Romero—he, as it turns out, is a swindler who is still married.
The Thin Man is far more comedy than mystery.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Black Panther

While it has certain original and distinctive elements, The Black Panther (2018, dir. Ryan Coogler) is a super hero story.  Unlike most super heroes, the Black Panther (T’Chalia, played by Chadwick Boseman) is the king of a nation called Wakanda, in Africa.  The kingship is passed down in patrilineal fashion, from father to son. The king owes his unusual powers to the element vibranium, which is the basis of Wakanda’s wealth and advanced technology.  But the Wakandan king is more a leader/hero than a super hero.  His character and force of personality form the basis of his ability to lead. He’s more like Beowulf than Superman.  The support of the people of Wakanda, and the cultural values in which they believe, also help make him powerful.

Wakanda is both a representation of African culture and traditions—an idealized utopia—and also of the western nations, especially the United States.  A basic issue argued out in the film is that wealthy and technologically advanced nations should share their fortunes with less affluent nations.  The Wakandans have resisted allowing outsiders to enter their nation, which is hidden from view by a force field.  The analogies to our present situation are clear.  The film is not especially friendly towards the US—at the end, when the King of Wakanda addresses the United Nations, he does so at the UN headquarters in Vienna, Austria—it’s been relocated. The political and human messages at the center of this film distinguish it from most other super hero films.

The film also dramatizes a conflict over whether people of color should use the wealth and power of Wakanda to wage a war of revenge on the white world, or whether an approach of constructive leadership is preferable. The Black Panther favors the latter approach, but the film does not dismiss the first one: if powerful nations do not share their wealth and knowledge with impoverished parts of the world, if economic and cultural disparities are permitted to persist, then a war of revenge may happen.

Ironically, an American CIA operative, played by Martin Freeman, befriends the Wakandans and assists in their battle against evil.  His role as an ally to the Wakandans is ironic because he works for and represents the very thing the film seems to criticize.

In developing the story of Wakanda and the Black Panther, the film makes use of African customs, religion, wildlife, and language.  It’s not a super hero film infused with white European/American traditions. Costume design based on African fashions make it distinctive.  The African setting is more vividly realized than in many Marvel films.  It’s truly envisioned.  The city at the center of Wakanda is imaginatively detailed DGI.

Although the Black Panther is a man, he is surrounded by women who hold important positions: the King is protected by a highly trained retinue of women guards.  Women are sent on missions and give advice to the King.  A woman leads the military forces. Women fight battles on an equal basis with men.  In Wakanda women hold equal or nearly equal status with men.