Friday, 30 November 2007

The Demotion of Dracula

The original Hammer Horror Dracula movie was re-released a couple of weeks back. When the film first opened in Britain at the Gaumont Haymarket on 22 May 1958 it was given an X rating but now almost 50 years later it has been downgraded to a mere 12A - something suitable for children's entertainment.

Dracula may have turned the blood cold in 1959, but these days it provides nothing but an amused smile in our more sophisticated world. And it pales into a very poor comparison in the jaw dropping horror stakes against the likes of SAW 1-4 or Hostel 1-3 and their siblings.

I was prompted to go back and look up those 1958 reviews just to see what people made of Dracula then. The Daily Telegraph was outraged. "The new version outdoes its Bela Lugosi predecessor in bizarre horror... This British film has an "X" certificate. This is too good for it. There should be a new certificate "S" for sadistic or just "D" for disgusting."

Of course one has to ask the question what has changed in those 50 years? Not the film that's for sure. The celluloid bears witness to the fact that every frame is exactly the same as it always was. So what has changed in us, that what we used to consider sickening is now considered children's viewing?

Financiers may worry about monetary inflation in our economy, but nobody worries these days about moral inflation in society. Call me an old cynic, but the currency of horror is no longer worth what it was and we have to buy our thrills at an ever increasing cost. Values become debased and our coinage is become worthless. That may not worry the movie moguls of Hollywood who can always rustle up some new porno-horrific tasty morsel for us to feast our desires on. But what does that say of us and our cravings for the increasingly sadistic? And what does it say of a society that has changed its appetite so dramatically over just a few decades?

Film and the media are often said to do no more than reflect what you already find society. But I hope you've never really fallen for that one. If anything we are the mirrors. We copy by instinct and by nature. It is society that morphs itself into what the media serves up. It's people who reflect what they see on the screen. And it starts with our children.

50 years ago we would have protected kids against what the Daily Telegraph called the sadistic and the disgusting. But now we serve it up without the smallest qualm. And we see nothing wrong because we have shifted en mass. We're no longer sensitive to the things we used to be. And once you have de-sensitized the conscience so it no longer feels anything, you're in danger of committing everything.

Van Helsing, Dracula's nemesis, knew that the best way to dispatch the blood sucking count was with one quick blow of a stout wooden stake through the heart (nearly always off camera). Society has had a similar stake driven through its heart but it didn't feel a thing. You have to be sensitive for that.

Friday, 23 November 2007

What's in a Name?

I was relaxing in the Diogenes Club the other day, enjoying a pipe in my favourite chair by the large window whilst watching the world go by along Pall Mall, when it struck me that I should give some thought to the question of my club name. Having been admitted in through the hallowed portals of the most exclusive establishment in the country, I needed to decide what name I should go under when on club business. It was a tricky problem. Something in keeping with the spirit of Diogenes himself seemed to be an obvious route forward, but what?

Whilst puffing ruminatively on my Meerschaum, I tried to dredge up what little I could remember of the Classics that I studied whilst up at Oxford. If my memory served, Diogenes was a pupil of Antisthenes, and was also said to have been the teacher of Crates of Thebes. Together they were regarded as the founders of Cynicism.

Crates was the teacher of Zeno of Citium, another great Cynic, and also the founder of Stoicism. I must confess that I initially confused him with the inventor of the famous Paradoxes, but after checking in the club's copy of Encyclopaedia Britannica, I discovered that the paradoxes were the work of Zeno of Elea, a different chap entirely.

I quite liked the name Zeno - short and simple, and you can spell it with a Z or an X, which is quite useful for confusing people - but I wanted to know more about him. One doesn't like to hide behind a chap's name unless one knows something about the chap in question. The Encyclopaedia was uncharacteristically terse on the old boy, so I wandered over to the dining room and scanned the tables to see if 'Buffy' Buffington was in. He's a decent sort who does something at the Foreign Office, but despite that he possesses a first rate mind. Got a first in Greek Philosophy at Balliol, so I thought that if anyone knew, it would be he.

And so it proved. Over a quick snifter in the bar, he elucidated the main points of the Cynic's philosophy:

1. The goal of life is happiness which is to live in agreement with Nature.
2. Happiness depends on being self-sufficient, and a master of mental attitude.
3. Self-sufficiency is achieved by living a life of Virtue.
4. The road to Virtue is to free oneself from any influence such as wealth, fame, or power, which have no value in Nature.
5. Suffering is caused by false judgments of value, which cause negative emotions and a vicious character.

In short, a Cynic has no property and rejects all conventional values of money, fame, power or reputation, as a life lived according to nature requires only the bare necessities required for existence, and one can become free by unshackling oneself from any needs which are the result of convention.

Well, as you can imagine, I was absolutely stunned. I've never really had what you might call a philosophy of life, but here was Buffy quoting chapter and verse at me, whilst talking about some chap who lived over two thousand years ago!

My search for a nom de plume was at an end.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

A House is not a Holmes

I was watching the new medical detective series called House. Hailing from our friends across the sea, House is very much an American product, though with an Englishman Hugh Laurie in the title role. He plays the curmudgeonly Dr Gregory House, every bit as much the detective as Holmes, he is presented with a new medical mystery to solve every week.

Much of the series is transparently modelled on Sherlock Holmes, not only is the name House-Holmes a give away but there are other clues too. House, like Holmes is a drug fiend depending on Vikaden for his highs as much as Holmes on his cocaine. He has one constant friend, a Dr Wilson as opposed to Dr Watson with whom he share his thoughts and there is also a bunch of three Baker Street irregulars, junior doctors in the case of House who he sends out to do his leg-work, breaking into houses and scouring for evidence. House too shares Holmes aloofness from relationships of the romantic kind, preferring instead a cynical view of human life. That has changed in recent episodes, probably due to the demands of Hollywood stylism which sees having a love interest as essential to broadening out the appeal. But the essential characteristics are all there. House, the brilliant diagnostician who's brilliance outshines all else with this powers of deduction and and forensic skill. Oh, and did I mention that he lives in house number 221b?

But there is one aspect of House which is very different from Holmes. And that is his ingrained indifference to convention, custom and tradition. And therein lies his connection with our friend Diogenes. The appeal of the ancient philosopher is in his is total rejection of the conventional and his own assessment of how he should live and what he should do. Once you go back to basics and think it through for yourself you find there are a whole pile of things that people do which have no meaning and no logic. Most of what we do is governed by convention rather than logic. But we all go along with it because we are too afraid to buck the conventions. But Diogenes had no time for that. And neither does House. And it is this, more than his brilliance as a medical diagnostician, that make him a fascination to his fans.