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“David Bowie remembers Eno’s 1977 disco evangelism: ‘Eno came running in and said “I have heard the sound of the future.” He puts on “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer. He said: “This is it, look no further. This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next fifteen years.” Which was more or less right.'”
–David Bowie, quoted in David Sheppard’s On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno
Dan Curtis, the man who owned Dark Shadows, was an intimidating man.
He was, fundamentally, a producer, and a damned good one. He was able, by force of nature, to cause networks and movie companies to invest millions of dollars in his ideas.
He was also a director. And a writer.
And as he sat in a story conference, he would act each part out loud to decipher how each story beat should go. His Barnabas was more ruthless than gentlemanly. His Willy Loomis was particularly unforgettable– a miracle of craven wretchedness, somewhere between Johnny Karlen and Dwight Frye. He loved doing all the parts, but he had a special attachment to Willy– the most powerful man in the room fully inhabiting the least powerful character in the show.
And make no mistake– Dan was powerful. Barrel-chested, sharp featured, handsome in a blunt, taurine way. He was smart, he was funny, he had charm, he was often very kind, but most of all he had a force of personality which made him a natural leader.
He got things done. When we did the pilot for the 1991 Dark Shadows, NBC actually passed on it. They started to tear down the (very expensive) set; I left LA to go visit a friend in Oregon, a vacation before my intended return to New York. Dark Shadows was finished, over, done with, we’d tried our best, we’d gotten so close, but the network had said no.
And then Dan got on the phone. And I have no idea how, but he must have known what would work, because he did it and it worked. The show went on air as a midseason replacement. (My old line: ultimately it went up against the Gulf War and lost, but they had better production values and spent more per episode than we did.)
I’ve always felt that part of the mystery of the cultural gravity and longevity of the old Dark Shadows was this: for the kids who ran home from school every day it was awash in deep spooky sensuality, a brooding 19th century romanticism made palpable. To the high-school students and the college students and the stoned hippies and the adults, it read as pure camp. It had to be camp– didn’t it?
Here’s the thing: Dan didn’t have an ounce– hell, a nanometer– of camp in him. He was aware of camp, he understood the humor in it, but it wasn’t in his core. In everything he did, he was after an authentic, unironic experience. And every heartbeat of the old Dark Shadows reflects that striving for authenticity. The writers didn’t write it as camp. The actors didn’t act it campily. It was played absolutely seriously. That was one of the reasons it worked. And that came from Dan.
If he didn’t do camp, what, then, did he do? Well, Dan was restless, as the multiplicity of plots on Dark Shadows as well as the variegated range of his career will attest, but once he found something that worked, he tended to stay with it. Thus, when I went to LA to work on the writing team of the 1991 show, I found myself not so much rebuilding Dark Shadows as remaking it.
Working with Dan was an education– he was a marvelous storyteller, with absolutely sure instincts of what he wanted and what didn’t work for him. He also existed very much tied to the art of the possible– in order for him to shoot it, he had to see it, and in order for him to see it, he had to understand it inside and out.
Because of this I began to be aware of certain tropes that he relied on. There are certain moves in his work that are inimically his, and no one else’s. All directors have these; so, for that matter, do all writers and, no doubt, all painters and ballerinas. One example will be familiar to anyone who knows DS: he often puts the camera low to the ground at the end of a hallway, and then has a character walk toward it. It provides a dependably ominous feeling, rather like a trapped child being descended upon by an adult.
Another of his visual tropes: in one shot in the 1991 series, an attractive female victim of Barnabas’ is found in the morning, drained of blood, her body sitting up against a tree. During my time in LA, Dan had a new print struck of House of Dark Shadows, the first of the DS movies, and pulled several of us into the MGM screening room to watch it for flaws. I hadn’t seen it in years. And at some point, Carolyn, played by Nancy Barrett, is killed by Barnabas, and is found in the morning, drained of blood, her body sitting up against a tree.
I could not help but be quietly amazed. Same situation, same shot, twenty years apart. Dan knew what he wanted. Dark Shadows was, indisputably and in every grain of film, his.
But the thing is, Dark Shadows turned out ultimately to be bigger than Dan. And believe me, I say that with love for the man in my heart. Dan may have owned Dark Shadows, but the fans gave it meaning.
It took me a few days to realize why I enjoyed Tim Burton’s movie. After all, he does trash Julia into near-unrecognizability. (My mother, short and fat and drinking anything besides black tea first thing in the morning? Sorry, you must have the wrong Dr. Hoffman.)
To be absolutely honest, what I liked about it was this: it wasn’t Dan Curtis’s Dark Shadows anymore. The show had transcended its creator. The heart, the love, the passion that he had created, inspired and imbued were all there, but they’d been taken over by people who were obviously doing it because they were deeply committed fans.
Which is what I wanted to do with it in 1990, when I worked on it. And which I got to do a little, in bits and pieces, but not as much as I would have liked, because, well, Dan was Dan.
But Tim Burton got to do it, and Johnny Depp, and Michele Pfeiffer, and Eva Green and the rest of them.
And you know what I saw up there on the screen? A bunch of talented people doing Dark Shadows, and having a damned good time.
And in that way, at least, the new movie felt exactly like the old show. What they ultimately had in common was this:
They sure looked fun to make.
So I sent the family elsewhere, went downtown, purchased a single ticket, sat in exactly my preferred location (third row center, no peripheral vision off the screen) and watched Tim Burton’s new movie.
First, though, a story. My father, Sam Hall, was a writer on the original soap opera Dark Shadows, back in the swinging ‘60s. In 1990, Dan Curtis (who owned the show) got in touch with Sam to do the nighttime NBC version; Dan then read my first novel Nightmare Logic (which, shockingly, I just discovered a good review of here), liked it, and asked me if I wanted to work on the show as well.
So I did. And at the beginning Sam and I had a great many conversations about how we would like to see the new show evolve. The first decision we made was that we wanted the entire cast to skew young, and that we wanted 21 Jump Street star Johnny Depp to play Barnabas.
We fought hard to at least bring him in and have him tested. Dan Curtis nixed the idea. (He also nixed Iman, the fashion model and future wife of David Bowie, who screen tested wonderfully for Angelique the witch. Depp and Iman would have been a really interesting combination, but it was not to be.)
It must also be said that I have had, for many years, something of a Tim Burton problem. I long ago came to the opinion that with a strong script he is a good director, and with a weak script he’s a good art director. In essence, I haven’t really loved a Tim Burton movie since Ed Wood, in 1994, though there are many I have not seen.
So, with that backstory, and rather a personal stake in how they were going to treat Julia, I waited through the coming attractions open-minded but awash in a great many conflicting emotions.
I came out, two hours later, actually having enjoyed it.
What follows will contain spoilers, so consider this a spoiler alert. If you want to walk into the movie with no preconceptions whatsoever, stop reading now.
That said: I got a lump in my throat the first time you see the newly finished Collinwood, during the intro before the credits. And I got another one when the words Dark Shadows, in non-gothic font, not superimposed on waves crashing on a rocky shore, appeared on the screen.
And as we met the modern family I was delighted to feel intangible frissons, little whiffs of smoke that honestly did feel like the old Dark Shadows.
Having grown up with both parents involved with the show, and having actually spent a year of my adult life carpentering this material, I admire many of the structural decisions Burton and his writers have made. One of them was to conflate Julia’s knowledge of Barnabas’ vampirism with the Elizabeth Collins Stoddard role, here played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Structurally, given the truncation of time necessary in the movie, this made sense. And Pfeiffer actually reminded me more of Grayson Hall than Helena Bonham Carter did— the power, the dignity, the vulnerability, the cheekbones. Mom could’ve nailed that part. She never got to do the ass-kicking, Buffy the Vampire Slayer stuff that Pfeiffer gets a moment of, here, and she’d’ve enjoyed every minute of it.
Another decision was to conflate Maggie Evans and Victoria Winters. Again, a reasonable structural decision, arguable on the merits, but it didn’t bother me greatly. I liked the modernized Angelique, and I thought Eva Green was appropriately strong and evil. She’s beautiful, but she’s not as beautiful as Lara Parker, because nobody is; that can’t be helped. And I was expecting deeper use of Robert Cobert’s music; you didn’t get the main themes, but it was referenced in echoey flute touches throughout.
Further on music: I found the use of Alice Cooper forgivable because his Ballad of Dwight Fry actually addressed a plot point that would have been less explicable without it. And I was glad to see the musicians looked like the old Alice Cooper band–hair down to their asses, and a resurrected Glen Buxton.
Depp as Barnabas: once you get beyond the eye makeup and the Nosferatu fingers and his strange need to appear in at least one shot looking like late-period Michael Jackson in every movie he makes, I actually thought he took pains, and the script took pains, to reanimate the love-haunted vampire that made the original work. Not that he did Frid, though I actually thought of Frid in a few places. But his Barnabas is as much a gentleman as Frid’s was, and as ruthless as Frid could be. He filled those spaces nicely, I thought.
And at heart Depp was fundamentally protective of the love story, which is the real engine of Dark Shadows. And they didn’t lose that, thank God. Yes, it’s a pastiche, but losing that would have made it a sacrilege, and at least to me it is not.
That said: there are pacing problems—longueurs linger in scenes, a bit. The anachronistic jokes sometimes work and sometimes don’t. They play the Barnabas Doesn’t Understand Television beat later than they should; I expect it was accommodated in editing.
And then there’s Helena Bonham Carter, who suits up as my mother without necessarily inhabiting her. I was worried, going in, that they would trash Julia, and they kind of do, but not as badly as they do poor Louis Edmonds. Mom’s role in the original show was endlessly giving; she alone knew Barnabas’s secret, she wanted to help Barnabas because she loved him, and was unloved in return. But in this movie version Julia is no longer the single bearer of Barnabas’s secret, her centrality to the story thus immediately disappears, and her interest in him is ultimately proven to be selfish. This conspires to make her the expendable character that she was originally intended to be, and that mom kept her from being for years.
But even as they oversimplified Julia into a smoking, drinking floozy, there was some preserve of love and vulnerability at her core, perhaps merely because Burton didn’t want to utterly trash the mother of his children. Which thank God for that, even if it was a happy accident.
All of which is to say: I had half expected to spend the entire film wanting to climb under my seat in abject mortification, and I didn’t. I had fun. It was nice to be in some version of that world that felt weirdly authentic, even as it reveled in its inauthenticity. It’s not the old show, but I understand how it couldn’t be the old show. And it didn’t kill the franchise, which means Dark Shadows just might live to see another day.
Thunk Tank with Bronwyn C and yours truly. An hour-long radio interview broadcast on May 8, 2012.
If you’re expecting normal radio, it’ll take a couple of minutes before anything recognizable as such will begin to emerge. And then, because it’s FMU, it will continue to exist in a universe parallel to “normal.”
We had a blast, and I’d like to thank Bronwyn Carlton for her tremendous kindness in putting me on.
On Tuesday, May 8, from 7:00 pm to 8:00 pm, I’m going to be interviewed on Bronwyn C’s show on WFMU, 91.1 fm on your radio dial in the New York area. FMU has a strong internet presence, and you can hear the entire station live-streaming on the web at http://www.wfmu.org. I’ve known Bronwyn for years; she’s smart and funny and deep, and I’d tune in for her, and secondarily because I’m on.
We’ll be talking about Dark Shadows, the upcoming movie (which I have yet to see at this point—I look forward to blogging about it when I do), the semiotic meaning of Helena Bonham Carter’s red hair, the blog, the state of the world, and whatever else pops into our fool heads. There might even be music, though not made by me.
Recipe tips! Maybe.
WFMU, for those who don’t know it, is the best radio station on the planet. I’ve been listening since the ‘80s; it’s the model for the radio station Eric works at in my novel The Art of Breaking Glass. Totally freeform, no advertising, listener supported, not an NPR station. Once upon a time it was a college station, but the college closed years ago and WFMU recently celebrated its 50th year on the air. Delightfully anarchic when it’s not being irritatingly chaotic, DJs aren’t restricted to genres for their shows, and can and will play anything that seems to make sense at any time. They also have a lot of live music and do feeds from festivals all over the globe.
This won’t be my first time on it—I did late-night fill-ins way back when, and have been on Bronwyn’s show before. If you can’t tune in, the interview will be available on the on-line archives. But if you’re checking out the station for the first time, I would suggest ignoring me and just playing the live stream and slowly letting it take over your life, as it has mine.
Ted Mann. Cofounder of the Circle in the Square Theater. Producer. Director. Was at the epicenter of the Off-Broadway universe in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Was fundamental, along with Jose Quintero, in the rediscovery of Eugene O’Neill, at a time when his plays had long since been put away. A man who had the face of a gangster and the soul of a poet.
Those aren’t my words. James Earl Jones said them, about 7 hours ago, at Ted Mann’s memorial service.
Once upon a time, there were three families who lived in a New York apartment building: the Halls, the Gayneses, and the Manns. All the kids knew each other. We were in and out of each other’s apartments all the time.
Ted’s wife, Patricia Brooks, was an opera singer with the New York City Opera; she died in 1993. Ted’s sons, Andrew and Jonathan, were tremendous kids and have grown into interesting men with families of their own.
Mom did several plays at the Circle: La Ronde, The Balcony, The Last Analysis. Ted produced them all, and directed the last.
The memorial service took place at the current Circle, on Broadway, where it has been since 1972. Salome Gens, who worked with Mom in The Balcony, spoke of the plays she’d done with him. His daughter in law, Shondra Mann, sang a gorgeous gospel tune in amazing voice. Vanessa Redgrave, who used to stay in the Mann’s apartment when she came to town (and who became such good friends with one of the building’s doormen that she invited him to stay with her if he ever came to London, which of course he did, because wouldn’t you?) filmed a touching tribute. Robert Klein, best known as a comedian, got his break through Ted, who gave him a job when he was at Yale Drama, and when Klein said he didn’t want to go back to Yale, it was Ted who said: Don’t go, you’re good enough to become a professional, stay in New York. And he did.
Nice story. Another nice story, from Terrance McNally: Ted Mann produced his first play, And Things That Go Bump In The Night, at the Circle in 1964. Play opened to absolutely dreadful, show-killing reviews. McNally waited all day for the phone to ring, and finally it did, and it was Ted, who said here’s what we’re going to do. The show opened under budget, we’ll sell tickets for a dollar on weekdays and two on Saturdays, and we’ll see what happens. They kept the show open for three weeks, some people hated it, some people liked it. But McNally explained the real importance: if his first show had closed on opening night, he would have regarded it as such a catastrophic and humiliating failure that he would have never written another play. Ted kept that from happening.
And another, from James Earl Jones: when Jason Robards played Hickey in Iceman Cometh at the Circle, the great production that made his career, Robert Earl Jones was in the cast. Robert Earl Jones was James Earl Jones’s father (and thus Luke’s grandfather, but never mind). James Earl Jones saw the play a number of times, as one does when a parent is in it, and he was intimately acquainted with Robard’s performance as Hickey. So years later, when Ted Mann asked Jones to play Hickey, Jones was terrified he couldn’t do it—the Robards version was too ingrained in his consciousness. It was Mann who convinced him he could, and he did, and it worked.
And one more: not really an anecdote, just an image. Mann directing Glass Menagerie, with Tennessee Williams in the seats at rehearsals, accompanied by his sister Rose.
Now that’s a goddamn life.
As my dear departed mother used to say:
“Hurrrah, hurrah, the first of May–
Outdoor fucking begins today!”