Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Wolfman

A number of landscape shots in The Wolfman (2010, dir. Joe Johnston) seem derived from the 19th-century British painter John Constable. One in particular shows the skyline of London from a distance, and even though Constable rarely if ever painted cityscapes, especially ones suggesting the industry and smoke that characterize cities, this scene in the film has all the characteristics of a Constable painting. Along with the smoke and smokestacks that rise above the horizon, there is a strange sort of pastoral serenity. For some reason this particular shot of the London skyline reminded me of William Blake’s poem “”London,” especially the opening stanzas:

I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.

It’s tempting to say that Blake’s poem has nothing to do with The Wolfman, yet the film’s depictions of the city’s inhabitants and of the sordid city itself are consistent with the poem. The wolf man may inflict much of the suffering and carnage in the film, but he is in fact only an emblem, an expression, of the human world’s depravity and evil. I’m imposing these thoughts on the film as a viewer. The film itself does not ask for such ruminations. The serenity of the Constable-like visuals contrasts, of course, with the darkness that pervades the film.

As a wolf man film (there have been a number), this one is above average. Bernecio del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot, an actor called back to his father’s estate by the fiancĂ© of his brother, who has gone missing, and who by the time Talbot arrives at the estate has been found mangled and dead. The widow begs Bernecio to investigate, and he agrees. Anthony Hopkins plays Lawrence’s father John in an odd, cold, disaffected manner that is explained by later events in the film. For me Hopkins was the most interesting character in the film. Also notable was his personal servant Singh (Art Malik), a highly educated Sikh who, in the traditional manner of servants, knows more than anyone might expect about the family he works for.

The film interweaves the traditional wolf man narrative with dark family melodrama and a beauty and the beast tale.

Whatever interests these interwoven narrative elements might generate dissipate in the film’s final apocalyptic battle between two wolf men. It’s as if any conventional working out of the problems dramatized proves impossible, and the filmmakers resort to fire, supernatural transformations, battle, ultimate violence in order to bring it all to an end.

One of the most enduring images from a film seen in my childhood is in the 1941 film The Wolf Man (dir. George Waggner), in which Lon Chaney transforms from a man into a wolf man. The change is depicted with what I take to be stop-action photography, crudely rendered by modern standards, but utterly effective and convincing to my 8-year-old state of mind. The digital effects in this most recent wolf man film are serviceable but predictable—hair sprouts, limbs transform, and so on, but they lack the primal horror of Lon Chaney’s transfiguration.

The Wolf Man in general is a symbol or expression of the notion that beneath our decorous and civilized exteriors looms a bestial essence. The film Wolf (1994, dir. Mike Nichols), with Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer, investigated this notion in a literal manner—Nicholson never undergoes a supernatural transformation, but the wolf—his primal masculine fury and sexual anger—manifests in his character.

Implicit in the wolf man films is a fear of racial impurity, of immigrants from non-western and lesser known parts of the world. The wolf man comes to England with the Roma people (gypsies in the film). Their presence, and the wolf man contagion that accompanies them, endangers the purported racial character of the English.

No comments: