The (often overlooked) importance of context

Published October 20, 2014 by Iphis of Scyros

Today, I went over to my parents’ house in order to watch a DVD my father had gotten out of the library.  The movie was Vampyr, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, from 1931 (or thereabouts).  It was only barely a sound movie, having been recorded without sound equipment, and when they dubbed in the voices, they rarely remembered to add in the sound of things like footsteps.  That, of course, added to the general “creepy” factor of the early section of the movie when it was only trying to be atmospheric.

That early part was really great, very effective.  The first really strong moment of weirdness showed the “hero” walking along beside a stream.  On the other side of the stream there was a reflection of a child running along…but there wasn’t anyone there to be casting the reflection.  There were a number of similar effects regarding shadows being cast by people who weren’t there.  Though the best shadow effect might have been the one of the gravedigger (or whoever) digging, because the shadow was being played backwards, so the dirt was flying back up into the shovel to be replaced in the earth.  (As my brother pointed out, “undigging” isn’t quite so much fun as “Unrumble!”)

Of course, eventually the plot had to start, and that was the movie’s downfall.  The movie was based on a collection of short stories by Sheridan Le Fanu, including his most famous work, “Carmilla,” which is currently the only one of them I’ve read.  (I’m planning on getting my hands on the others to check them out now, though, as I’d like to see if any of the cool atmospheric stuff came out of the other stories, or if it was all Dreyer.)  Anyway, the reason the plot was the problem was because it was basically just “Carmilla” with a side-order of “Dracula,” starring an actor whose only facial expression was 0.0 and whose minimal dialog featured as little actual acting as was physically possible.  Top that off with the fact that the character did almost nothing all movie but stare at his surroundings (his largest contribution to the plot was to leave a book open where the old caretaker of the manor could read it and thus learn how to defeat the vampire) and that the vampire, instead of being an alluring young lady like Carmilla or a charismatic Translyvanian nobleman like Dracula, was an old woman with no dialog and maybe five minutes of screen time.

However, moving on to the title of this article, as we were passing through the slow parts where the movie was actually trying to tell a story, I found myself wondering how the audiences in Germany and France in 1931 responded to the picture.  (When they dubbed it, they also dubbed it into French right away, for whatever reason.)  I don’t know how well movie-goers in the 1930s remembered older movies, without having the ability to re-visit them whenever they wanted.  Because I figured if they could remember some of the masterpieces of German silent cinema–particularly Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari–then I figured they probably didn’t think so much of Vampyr, since the overall visual style was relatively plain, as opposed to the extremely striking visual style of the silent classics.  On the other hand, if they only had strong memories of the movies of the talkie era, then it all depended on how it stacked up against the German cinema productions of the early 1930s.

I don’t think it would have been terribly well received in the US, however.  1931 was also the year of the Bela Lugosi Dracula, which was definitely the superior film, especially given that it was truly a talking picture, as opposed to an essentially silent picture with a little dialog dubbed over it.  Though, if I recall correctly, Dracula‘s atmospherics were at a lower level.  But it didn’t have to be so atmospheric, because it had Bela Lugosi carrying the picture.  The only other Hollywood movie from 1931 that I know of off-hand is The Public Enemy, the James Cagney film from whence comes the famous grapefruit in the face scene that everyone in the universe has seen at least once.  (Though if you’ve actually seen the movie, it’s the ending that really sticks with you.  Very powerful.)  While in a completely different genre, that one, too, shows just how different the American cinema at the time was from Vampyr.

Towards the end of the movie–or maybe it was actually after it ended–my mother suddenly says in her snarkiest tone (which is not, actually, all that snarky, because she’s not very good at snark) “Did people actually receive this well when it came out?  Because I know how I would have received it!”

I had to fight to keep my mouth shut.

She has no idea how she would have received the picture if she had been a German in 1931!  All she knows is that she didn’t like the movie now.  I doubt she can even be certain that she wouldn’t have liked it if she had seen it in college, let alone placing herself in the unfamiliar context of a foreign country more than a decade before she was born.

But it seems like comments like that happen all the time.  People look at something from within their own narrow world view, and assume that everyone in every place at every time would feel the same way about it that they do.  It’s not all people that do that, of course, but it seems like most of them do, at least some of the time.

It’s both frustrating and disturbing.

Frustrating because it’s why some people today look at the classics of literature and dismiss it as being “boring” or “terrible” because it doesn’t fit with the way they want their world to work.  It’s the reason why people dismiss older movies, even older games, as being not worth their time.  It’s a shallow way of viewing the world that should be easily rectifiable, if only people would stop and think first.

Disturbing because it’s why some people look at events in other places and assume the worst about why people are doing whatever it is they’re doing.  They look at behavior that mystifies them and instead of wondering what aspect of that other culture would make them do that, they think of the only reasons someone in their own culture would do such a thing, and assume that’s the reason, even though it’s undoubtedly wrong, and usually offensive.

I wish I could do something about it, but what can I do?  I can’t even get my own mother to wise up and stop coming to such ethnocentric misjudgments.  (You don’t want to get me started on how furious it made me when she came to her bizarre, offensive and deeply erroneous conclusions about the ancient Greek culture and why athletes competed in the nude.)  How could I possibly help total strangers to see the big picture if I can’t even get my mother to open her eyes?


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