I’ve given myself a black eye, all in the interest of art! We’d already written that our story, With One Eye, Bright As A Star, will appear in the Air & Nothingness Press anthology The Wild Hunt. This evening we had some fun making a trailer for it. As main images I used the photo of my own grandfather, and an old photo of a farm, up in the north of the Netherlands. I imagine the story set on a farm not unlike this one.
Having raided Angeline’s make-up bag (Max Factor! We’re going up in the world!)…
…I went a bit further with the eye-shadow than would be usual for the Gothic vibe. A piece of blue paper, with a hole in it, then served as blue screen matte.
And then it was time for the soundtrack, made in Garageband, mixing my own voice, the sounds of the Midwinter Horn and footage of baying dogs and galloping horses. Then I combined everything in iMovie. And there we are: the trailer for With One Eye, Bright As A Star! I hope you enjoy it as much as we did making it.
The anthology can now be ordered via the Air And Nothingness Press website. It’s a limited edition, 158 pages perfect bound, with french flaps. A real ‘hebbeding’ as we call it in Dutch!
King Kong (1933) is my Ur-text. It was my gateway drug to Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Horror, from the moment I saw it when I was 6. I even wrote my own novelisation a few years later, based on vague memories. Now I’ve got access to an online archive of Dutch newspapers, it’s time to find out how the film was received in the Netherlands. The first mention of King Kong is in an advertisement on the front page of De Telegraaf, which was (and is) a popular (and populist) newspaper, on 26 April 1933. “Read this message.” it says, “KING KONG the great technical film miracle comes to TUSCHINSKI. THE MYSTERY KING KONG will surpass your expectations. (The script is by the well-known writer EDGAR WALLACE)”
The Tuschinski theatre had the continental premiere of King Kong, on Friday 28 April, at 2pm. Apparently, the board of the theatre had seen the film in London, saw the queues and decided to fetch this “great record breaker of London” to Amsterdam. On the stage, as supporting feature, “our Dutch star Fientje de la Mar (with a brilliant repertoire).” She was a bona fide diva, whose name lives on in the De la Mar theatre.
To announce the premiere, Tuschinski placed a large advertisement in the Telegraaf on 27 April. It’s a nice advert too; we see the giant ape and the blocky lettering, known from the film poster, however the great ape is not standing on the familiar half-globe of the Empire State, but on a flat-roofed building, below which we see a crowd of people fleeing. The work of a local artist, or a UK press kit?
Tuschinski was set to make the film a success in Amsterdam, and over the following days and weeks, several further notices and smaller ads appeared in the papers. King Kong could not have had its ‘continental premiere’ in a better theatre: built in 1921, the gorgeous theatre was designed in a mix of Art Nouveau, Ard Deco and Amsterdam School, and considered one of the most beautiful cinemas in the world. In the early 20th century it was renovated in its original style, and the original murals were once more uncovered. If you happen to visit Amsterdam: do visit the theatre!
But, how was it received? The socialist newspaper De Tribune is to the point:
“Well, what can we say about it? In America they found this horror film with prehistoric animals on an island somewhere near Sumatra so fine, that they thronged the cinemas. But we didn’t care much for it. On the whole it’s played well by Fay Way and Bruce Cabot. But there was not much play to be had in a film where the main accent was on the fantastic animal world. Technically, miracles have been done, and you do wonder how it’s been done. But well, the tricks are numerous. The supporting feature is as usual well provisioned.” (De Tribune, 2 May 1933)
The Telegraaf has more enthusiasm, and knows what the people really want. First, the writer of it all is introduced, Edgar Wallace, “the writer of hundreds of books, novellas, dramas and scripts died before the film King Kong was ready, and what would he have thought, if he could have seen how imagination and especially engineering made his ideas into reality.”
“In King Kong the film technology triumphs in mysterious ways, and all other tricks, even the separating Red Sea, seem like childish manipulatons of amateur filmmakers. Cooper and Schoedsack, the directors of King Kong, the builders of King Kong, had access to a number of engineers who have scratched the word “impossible” from their dictionary.”
Then follows an extensive synopsis of the plot. “Splintering trees and branches, King Kong approaches his present, and he is so horribly real, and so horrible of size that nobody will be surprised that the movie star gives a deathly shriek.”
“You remember the dragon from Siegfried – the ungainly moving cloth thing that already seemed a victory of film technology to us. Thou see then the prehistoric monsters who inhabit this landscape and destroy the expediton. From that moment you live in a constantly rising state of admiration of the magnificent results that technology achieves. I’m not talking about the story, or the sort of tension it brings, but accepting the sort of atmosphere brought by it, you cannot but admire the prehistoric strength which was, I don’t know how, created with such a horrific reality. The ape fights with other monsters and you can somewhat imagine what the world looked like when there was still so little of a world. In earlier years, there were clever reconstructions of this prehistoric world, but now they’ve been brought to life, because for the first time you can see them in the right scale to the smallest human.”
“You don’t need to mention names of actors or actress, because in this movie only the great work of technicians dominate. A writer can write: a 50 foot ape. Though to portray him, to make him live and move in his environment, with enemies of his own size and own valour, that is the work of master craftsmen, and this is how the biggest “thriller” of this era was made by engineers.” (De Telegraaf, 29 April 1933)
So, where the socialists wonder: “It’s very clever, but is it fun?” the populists conclude: “It’s very clever; what fun!” And the people of Amsterdam agreed. A photo caption in Het Volk on the 6th of May announces: “KING KONG. A scene from this movie, of which the script was written by Edgar Wallace. In the Tuschinski theatre in Amsterdam, the movie was extended for a week.” and in June the news followed: KING KONG JUNIOR. Meriam C. Cooper, leader of RKO Radio’s film production, has supplied the material for a film which can be taken as a sequel to the also in this country so successful film King Kong. To make it appear as clear as possible, this piece will carry the title King Kong Junior.” (Nieuws van den Dag, 10 June 1933).
This week as main attraction the most interesting film of this season. NOSFERATU THE SCOURGE OF MANKIND Mysterious movie play in 6 acts. Freely adapted from the novel “Drasula” by Bram Stoker NOSFERATU Does this word not sound like the midnight cry of the deathbird? Beware of speaking this thought out loud; otherwise images of life will bleach to shadows. The child of Belia was the vampire Nosferatu who lived off — and fed with the blood of mankind. Ghostly shapes arise from the midnight fog and stalk their prey.
This is how the Haagsche Courant of the 16th February 1922 heralded the coming of Nosferatu to the Dutch shores; in this case to the Flora and Olympia cinemas in The Hague. It should be noted that the premiere came before the German premiere. Either the PR man or the typesetter was not familiar with Stoker’s book, though “Drasula” has a certain ring to it. You had to be 18 to be admitted, and you wre encouraged to book your seats timely. The Nieuwe Courant gave the following review:
It’s a somewhat horrific film, which is the main attraction in the Flora and Olympia. “Nosferatu, the Scourge of Mankind” immediately awakens feelings of repulsion by his appearance, which becomes abhorrence when one sees his obscure practices. Like a shadow he haunts, the vampire, in the sombre-romantic castle in Transylvania, and then later extends his territory to bring his horror elsewhere, which he and his faithful accomplices, plague and death, spread. But, as it should, we will also see the end of his reign when he, surprised by cock crow, disappears in a phosphor flame. (Nieuwe Courant, 19 Feb 1922)
Very slowly Nosferatu made his way through the Netherlands, landing in the Amsterdam Luxor Theater in April that year:
Nosferatu, the Schourge of Humanity, the plague, the ghostly mystery, the bloodsucking vampyr escorted by scary rats and with coffins filled with cursed earth as luggage; see there the attractive-sensational image of this film. It’s true, with his excessive demand of increasing tension and emotion, the audience is making a difficult job for the screenwriters. Scary absurdities, deathly leaps and death defying stunts, unnatural things “that are not meant to be” and “easy girls” are always a good draw, in film and on the stage; serious pieces of art however give low box offices. But this ghost and horror story is of a whole differnent extreme, which the visitors did not know how to fully appreciate. After all, they had the best of time with this frightful ghost and took it more as a lugubrous-sinister joke. And that’s the sad think with this film. The subject could, with a somewhat less Grand Guignol-like approach, have yielded a gripping script. The locations chosen by the director contrast well with the corruption-bringing plague: the quiet-satisfied old-German city with the pittoresk houses and streets and the costumes of almost a century ago that fit so well with them. You could also not wish for better actors for a first class work: the estate agent, the young man and his wife, and Nosferatu himself all give outstanding and touching performances. But we are assured that a less outrageous topic would have given us a better result. (Algemeen Handelsblad, 11 April 1922)
Tittering in Rotterdam too:
A moving picture which because of its excentricity will draw lots of interest played for the first time in Pompenburg and W.B. Theatre. It is a collection of horrors, which so played on weak nerves, that a part of the audience appeared to have the urge to laugh away the unpleasant feeling; a proof that the superstitious practices, for which the Medieval times are preferably qualified as “dark”, have not yet lost their influence on the modern masses. For adults this picture, showing a period from a plague-epidemic, very enjoyable; not in the least because of the technical finesse and neat scenery. (Maasbode, 11 Aug 1922)
How much film art changed in the 1920s of the last century shows this article from 1927, when the cinema club Filmliga Amsterdam held a revival screening of Nosferatu:
With Faits Divers from the French cineast Claude Autant-Lara the Filmliga brought an avant-garde film as without them we would not get to see. It’s a short film, from 1923, but it still comes across as completely modern and pure, though four years mean a lot in the development of film art. The other film of the afternoon proved this: Nosferatu, the first film of the director Murnau, who afterwards made Faust, Der Letzte Mann proves completely out of date in seven years time. The Filmliga could have chosen a more typical and nicer specimen of the German film art of that time: Caligari remains unsurpassed as a whole: but with Nosferatu one gets an interesting look back on the nature of the first attempts, for the film to win an independent place on its own terrain. Nosferatu is “eine Symphonie des Grauens” and shows the typical characteristics of what was the crown of the German film in that time: the still hesitant balancing of a direction which had resolutely stepped away from imitating the stage, but did not manage yet to fill the now available possibilities with life. Film drama was forsaken and an independent script was sought, but such a script was also in horror films from that first time often completely depending of and guided by the film effects that were then seen as characteristic: the unreal, being able to realise the supernatural, the suggestion of environment and atmosphere. Nosferatu is still sketching this jump into the fantastic, with randomly thought up and spooky scenario; the best moments of the film which still are strong are mostly those who have a quite loose connection with the whole; a single nicely lit fragment in the harbour, the passing of a sail boat, the suggestion of a wall with closed shutters. The tempo is not really fluent; a few time when the ghostly is sped up it looks comical; and what especially disappoints in Nosferatu is the lack of atmosphere: the capricious clair-obscur that, discovered by the German film, seemed full of possibilities for a whole, has not yet been used significantly and the lighting remains stark and straightforward. A look back which creates distance. (Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant, 27 Dec 1927)
Remco told me of Aunt Auk, his father’s aunt. She was a tough but kind old lady who doted on his father when he was a child, and doted on Remco and his brothers too. She’d never had children herself. That is, until she got Alzheimer’s. One day, when Rem’s parents visited her, she was going to fetch her children, a boy and a girl. She was very proud of them; they liked drawing and reading, just like Rem and his brothers. She lived in a flat, but went out of her front door and called for them up the communal staircase. Rem’s mum got her back inside: “I’m sure they’re busy drawing. Just leave them at it, and they’ll come down later.”
We find a similarly confused old lady in Curse of the Cat People (1944), produced by Val Lewton and directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise. We feel sorry for her, as we feel for the little girl around which the film is built. However, we also need to feel sadness for the daughter the old woman rejects, and the little girl’s mother, who feels she’s competing with the memory of her husband’s first wife. And then her husband, the little girl’s father – he too is caught up in a cage of his own making.
Cat People (1942) gave us the tale of the tragic Irena (Simone Simon), whose hereditary curse was to turn into a panther when aroused sexually or in anger. In this sequel, we learn that after her sad, violent death, her widower Oliver found happiness with another woman, Alice. If the film drifts away from its predecessor tonally, it tells an equally atmospheric and moving story of the couple’s daughter, Amy. Brought up in Tarrytown on tales of the Headless Horseman, playing in Sleepy Hollow at recess, Amy is nevertheless “away with the fairies” in a way that causes conflict with her parents. This isn’t a film about autism, but its themes of loss, loneliness, and people who cannot see their children for who they really are will resonate for many of us who grew up misunderstood.
Amy is different from the other children at school. When she chases a butterfly she’s enraptured with, a rough boy grabs it to present to her, killing it in the process. Dismayed, she slaps his face. At a meeting with Oliver and Alice, teacher Miss Callahan is sympathetic, calling her “a very sensitive and delicately adjusted child,” but to Oliver, “sensitive” is a step away from “defective.” She’s also a child of rigid logic, who gets As in arithmetic, and believes exactly what she is told, to the letter. When her birthday party guests don’t turn up, it emerges that she posted their invitations in the “magic postbox”; a tree stump her father told her about when she was three years old. Nobody had considered that Amy would regard that as the only place to post things forever after. Oliver has a serious talk with her about being dreamy and wishful, then contradicts it by telling her to wish on her birthday cake candles.
Amy makes a serious wish: to be good and play with other children, as her father wants. But we can only control our own behaviour, and not that of the people around us, as many a lonely child has to learn. We see the other children torment a cat, crush a butterfly, tear up flowers and cruelly reject Amy, yet it is she who is viewed as the social failure, particularly by her father. Autistic people often spend our childhoods adrift from our peers, but develop friendships with younger or older people, via common interests or mutual eccentricity. We’re often honest to the point of our own detriment. Amy befriends an elderly, housebound neighbour, Mrs. Farren who has seen the other children refuse to let her play. But when she relays the story to her father, he only has to hear her say that a sweet voice called to her from an old dark house, and he assumes it’s a dangerous delusion, rather than waiting to hear the mundane truth of a neighbour’s kindness.
Oliver projects his fear and guilt about Irena – the last woman in his life to believe odd things – onto his daughter: “It’s something else – something moody, something sickly. She could almost be Irena’s child.” Ironically he hits on a refraction of the truth, because the spirit of Irena actually does give his daughter the tender attention she should be getting from him. After making another wish, this time on a ring given to her by Mrs. Farren, Amy’s loneliness seems to call up Irena’s ghost: a fairy godmother of sorts, whom only Amy can see. From now on, it will be Irena who fills her play hours, who comforts her when she has bad dreams.
The parents of unusual children sometimes prefer the appearance of normality to the truth, and Amy’s father is pleased when he sees her running around looking cheerful. She’s happy because she finally has a friend, one who her parents can’t see, and who has sworn her to secrecy. Her parents assume her previous introspective demeanour was the reason for her friendlessness. These are uncomfortable scenes to watch if you had the standard undiagnosed autistic childhood, but not only that – how many children of many kinds, rejected or bullied, are focused on as the problem, when they’re simply different from those around them? And how often does a child become the focus of their parents’ unresolved tensions?
Mrs. Farren is also wrestling with an absence. She treats her daughter – her sole carer and companion – as though she were an impostor: “My daughter, Barbara, died when she was six. That was long ago. You’re only the woman who takes care of me.” Barbara is hurt and tells her she was out of her head “back then,” suggesting some family tragedy for which her childhood self became the symbol, and beyond which there was no place for her to grow up, accepted. “My child is upstairs,” her mother says, to the daughter who is the scapegoat for her pain. To Amy, though, Mrs. Farren is a lucid and gracious host, telling her tales of Sleepy Hollow, and warning her that if she stands on its bridge at the wrong hour, she’ll be swept up in the Headless Horseman’s cloak, to ride with him forever.
Barbara has found a different fate, one of drinking and social isolation, due to the emotional and personal toll of being sole carer to someone who rejects her. People don’t understand her mother’s mental confusion – indeed, the neighbourhood children believe Mrs. Farren is a witch – but there’s also a shame, undeserved though it is, attached to being the child of parental rejection. So Barbara and Amy actually have a lot in common, but Barbara sees Amy as a threat, and tells her mother that she will kill the child if she returns. She claims that her mother is worse after Amy’s visits, and perhaps that’s true: the balm of a six-year-old, her age an unfortunate coincidence, might leave Mrs. Farren even more confused and grief-stricken after she leaves.
From an autistic perspective, there’s also resonance in the way that Mrs. Farren treats Barbara as a sort of changeling. A common theory holds that changeling folklore was a way for our ancestors to interpret changes in behaviour as autistic children grew up: social withdrawal and loss of acquired language, for instance. Amy’s tragedy is a little different, but still familiar to many a child whose guileless honesty has been misunderstood and punished. In Barbara, that child still exists, and comes out when Mrs. Farren opens a Christmas present from Amy, a 25-cent ring: “You didn’t even open my present, and I’m your daughter.” Once again, she gets only rejection from her mother: “My daughter died long ago.”
There is a thread through the film of Amy’s connection with animals, of a young girl’s growing understanding of the inevitability of death – while her parents still agonise about when and how they will eventually tell her about Irena. Mrs. Farren tells Amy a story of Herne the Huntsman, who walks abroad on Twelfth Night and leaves death in his wake, and when Amy sees a dead deer in the snow later, she is confounded: “But where has it gone? Where’s all the strength and the quickness?” Nobody has an answer for her, and she resolves to ask Irena, setting up the film’s final act.
Back home, Miss Callahan, Amy’s teacher, has come to visit, and as the Christmas decorations are being dismantled, talk turns again to Twelfth Night traditions and memories, and the photo album comes out. From it flutters the photograph of Irena, who Amy recognises as her friend, leading to an interrogation from her father, who sees this as evidence of a runaway imagination. After Miss Callahan witnesses the row, she tries to persuade the couple that Amy does not consider herself a liar: “She needed a companion, so out of her own hunger she created one. In her mind her friend was in the garden. In her mind her friend never leaves her. Right this very minute I’m sure she’s upstairs sobbing out her grief to a friend who exists only in her mind.” She says that once the “emptiness” in Amy’s life is filled by her parents, in the real world, the stories of Irene will fade away. Basic child psychology, in other words.
Persuaded to heal the breach between them, Oliver discovers that Amy is not in the house. She has gone into Sleepy Hollow in search of Irena – and there’s a blizzard. After a terrifying blunder through the woods, she somehow finds her way to the Farrons’ house, where Barbara and her mother are at loggerheads, and their fight reveals to us the truth: that when Barbara was six, Mrs. Farren had driven home on a similarly stormy night against all advice, that her car overturned, and that after the accident, her memory was gone for a decade. Even when she re-emerged, she would not accept the then sixteen-year-old Barbara as her own child.
And that night, as Amy finds her way through the storm to the Farren home, she arrives in the wake of a brief moment of lucidity and connection between the two. Barbara’s resentment of Amy has boiled over, and her mother believes her earlier threat to Amy if she visited again. Mrs. Farren tries to hide the child from her daughter, but her heart gives out. Amy, having so recently understood the permanence of death, realises that Mrs. Farren has died. Barbara is grief-stricken and enraged: “Even my mother’s last moment you’ve stolen from me.”
Irena appears to Amy in the place of this angry woman. Amy walks up to Barbara and embraces her, and Barbara’s hands, poised to crush her, melt into an embrace, the spell of her anger broken. We hear the dogs of the search party outside, and Amy’s and the police parents blow in with the snow. Her father realises what he almost lost. “Amy, from now on you and I are going to be friends. I’m going to trust you. I’m going to believe in you.” When he asks he she can still see Irena, Amy can, and says so. Her dad, playing along, says he sees her too. Or maybe he does see Irene, if only in his imagination – one last time, before she fades away.