Location: Vienna, Virginia, United States

A graduate of Dartmouth College (2005) and Washington and Lee University School of Law (2010). These are my personal blogs, and the musings expressed on them do not reflect the positions of my employer. They do reflect my readings, thoughts, and aspirations, which I figure is good enough.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Russian Vampires

In the rather bland 1994 Alec Bladwin movie "The Shadow," the tagline and trailer kicker was "Who knows what evil lurks within the hearts of men?"

In contrast, one of the more interesting lines in the Russian film "Night Watch" is the concept that "it is easier to kill the Light within oneself, than to defeat the Darkness that surrounds us."

It's unfortunate that the movie itself is rather an incoherent jumble of mythologies and Hollywood special effects, because there would have been a good central premise around which one could build a Vampire Trilogy in there, somewhere.

"Night Watch" starts when a plain, unassuming man, Anton Gorodetsky, visit a witch in order to get his wife back - first by casting a spell to bring her back, and then by killing the illegitimate child she is carrying. Before the witch can finish the spell though, a trio of "Light" Vampires burst onto the scene and stop her. Anton witnesses all of it, and is shocked to discover that he too, is a vampire. For you see, everyone might be a Vampire, or an Other; it just take an act of will or a burst of adrenaline to trigger the change or the revelation. And then you have the choice to choose either the Light or the Dark. That's how the narrative appeared to go, at least.

The story then zooms forward twelve years, when Anton is working for the Light, stopping the Dark Others from preying upon humans. A dark prophecy, a Cursed Virgin, and some fights later, something resembling a civil war between Vampires is started anew.

I don't need to dwell on the story, because the filmmakers didn't really either. The conceit of the film, that Light Vampires protect the world from Dark Vampires, is made confusing by the moral ambivalence of both sides.

This would be a very compelling story if the filmmakers did not deluge the viewer with archetypal "Light" and "Dark" imagery, much of which comes from their Hollywood sources - X-Men, the Matrix, so on and so forth. The very tagline above, for example, locks the absolute "Good" and "Evil" sides into the viewer's mind, when the film's central message is anything but that distinct gradation of Good and Evil, Law and Chaos.

The film delivers the action extremely well, and often uses special effects to its advantage. The usage of subtitles is especially innovative. Just as often, however, the effects and narrative strategies stolen from the aforementioned movies detract from the rather brilliant social criticism that lies underneath the skin of the movie.

Just as Anton at one point sees a boy not as a boy, but as a series of blood vessels calling to him, calling to his desire to feed, there is quite an interesting premise dwelling under the glossy CGI effects of the movie.

Reading between the lines, it is evident that the Light Others, the ones who issue licenses, who spy on individuals, who run almost a police state, is a stand-in for Cold War Communism, or an Orwellian Big Brother. And the Dark Others, who are embodied by a twentysomething man who can come up with anything Anton needs, and a pop-singer, stand for materialism, counterculture, and primal drives.

The message, however, is not that one of the sides is better than the other, or that they are both, in fact, evil. No, the message is one that is buried within the vampire mythology itself, which is re-deployed in the society of post-Communist Russia.

The central image of the vampire feeding on the blood of the victim, in a primal satiation of both hunger and sexual desire, is a rather blatant attempt to locate that same urge in all humans - the id, if you will. At least, that is how our culture has developed the vampire mythology in the past century.

The message of "Nightwatch" is that rather than having a superego that prevents constant expression of the id, or a superego that balances the id, the "Light" or superego, is a subverted way to return to the id.

The Light Others can only feed on blood when they hunt Dark Others, and in all other times, they suppress this urge. This urge is satiated in the hunt, and the preparation for the hunt, and so the Light Others go so far as to provoke Dark Others into breaking the Truce.

The Dark Others, the materialists, the druggies, the pleasure-seekers, are directly tapped into the id, the self-centered desire, and they see it as a primary goal. But the Light Others are no better - after the Truce was forged between Dark and Light Others, they use the law, the social extension of the superego, to satisfy their own desires.

Rather than sublimate the pleasure principle to the reality principle, which in classical Freudian terms is what individuals do in order to function in society, the reality principle, or the Light Other in "Night Watch," is merely a path returning to the pleasure principle.

As a statement, I find it simply exhilirating that this, or a criticism of it, could be at the center of a silly vampire movie, and yet I see no other way of interpreting the movie. This then necessitates a re-reading of the tagline ""it is easier to kill the Light within oneself, than to defeat the Darkness that surrounds us."

What the heck that re-reading is exactly, is eluding me at the moment, but until I figure it out, or at least can whip something up that makes sense to me, here's the coolest video you'll ever see (click on WATCH).

Footnote: It's been about a year since I wrote anything about Freud, and I'm out of practice. Also, it's 1:00 AM and I have work in the morning.


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