Sunday, May 20, 2012

Tim Burton's Take on Dark Shadows

When I was a grade school lad back in the late sixties and early seventies, I remember I used to hurry home from school to watch Dark Shadows on ABC. Dan Curtis's supernatural soap opera was the kind of creepy fare that was perfect for a kid spending his afternoons alone while waiting for his parents to get home from work. It wasn't considered cool for a pre-teen to watch the other soaps on TV.  Nobody my age would have thought to tune in to General Hospital or As the World Turns, but Dark Shadows was different. It was a genuine horror tale tracing the misfortunes of the Collins family, setting the story in an old dark house with a macabre name: Collinwood.  I was too young to discern that the series could have been perhaps a Gothic commentary on the Vietnam War, or a social statement on the disappearing New England WASP upper-class. Whatever the cryptic undertones of the series, it was definitely scary business, and it was always played in earnest.  When Barnabas Collins, the patriarchal ancient vampire, (played memorably by the late Shakespearean actor Jonathan Frid) bared his fangs it was to satisfy an unholy appetite.  Nobody laughed, and everyone's eyes were glued to the TV set.  I always made sure that my rabbit ears were picking up the network's signal as flawlessly as possible.

Tim Burton's new film adaption of Dark Shadows is a camp creepshow. The film is not exactly a remake, but more a silly riff on the series.  If we're looking for a remake from the director, I guess we'll have to wait for Frankenweenie, Burton's upcoming stop motion animated full length film, about a boy and his dog, based on his own 1984 live action short.

Using some of the characters and settings from the original series, Burton has transformed Dark Shadows into a stylish vehicle for the talents of his muse Johnny Depp.  The actor plays Barnabas Collins as a resurrected bloodsucker -- his face as white as a Kabuki performer -- constantly marveling at the world of the 1970s where the movie takes place.  This Barnabas is certain that a McDonald's Golden Arches neon sign is a Mephistophelian signature, and that the image on a television set is a stage for diminutive performers.  Very little is played straight, and throughout most of the film the tone is very much tongue-in-cheek.  The film's prologue, which tells the backstory of the rise and initial fall of the Collins family, is the only segment of the movie that vaguely channels the spirit and atmosphere of the original series.

Also appearing in this film are Eva Green as a jilted witch out to get revenge on Barnabas, Bella Heathcote as Barnabas's true love, and Michelle Pfeiffer as Elizabeth, the matriarch of the Collins family.  Also hanging around are Elizabeth's daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz) who has a deep secret that I can assure you not a single intelligent viewer of this movie will care about, and Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Julia Hoffman (one of the most memorable and popular characters played in the TV series by Grayson Hall).  In this film, however, this character is a two-dimensional caricature who unfortunately has a death scene reminiscent of Shelley Winters's underwater demise in Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter.  This scene, right at the end of the movie, triggers the possibility of a Dark Shadows sequel.  However, since the film has gotten universal poor reviews and earned low box office I have the feeling that Barnabas Collins and company might be put to rest in the family crypt for many years to come.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, dead at 86

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's voice was one of my first operatic experiences.  Decca had repackaged the Sir Georg Solti Ring and was eager to sell it to a new audience of potential Wagnerites.  A colorful envelope containing a plastic disc arrived at my house.  It was a three minute commercial selling Richard Wagner's titanic music.  I must have been eleven or twelve years old.  The music blew me away.  I had never heard such sounds before.  Nestled among the more stentorian excerpts on the disc was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Gunther's entrance line from the second act of Götterdämmerung ("Brünnhild', die hehrste Frau, bring' ich euch her zum Rhein.") There was an effortlessness in his singing that was unique.  I was hooked on his sound.  Later on, of course, I learned about his incredible command of diction, breath control, and purity of sound, nurtured in years of studying and singing lieder, in particular, the songs of Franz Schubert.  Fischer-Dieskau's voice was a small instrument compared to the titans of his day, but he knew how to use it.  In the London/Decca recording of Puccini's Tosca, in which he is paired against the powerhouse singing of Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli, his reading of Scarpia's music leaves a lasting impression for its subtlety and aristocratic phrasing.  Even when he was miscast in a role, Fischer-Dieskau was memorable. However, when the role suited him like a glove as in Count Almaviva in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, he created an operatic triumph. 

I've no doubt that he will be best remembered for his extraordinary performances and recordings of the songs of Schubert.  His association with pianist Gerald Moore created some of the definitive readings of this genre.  Luckily, it was all recorded when they were both at the height of their talents.  Below is a film of the young Fischer-Dieskau, with Gerald Moore at the piano, singing the quintessential Schubert song "Der Erlkönig."  The way that he embodies the four roles in Goethe's poem (Narrator, Father, Son, Erlkönig) is a master-class in technique, and a fitting tribute to this amazing performer.