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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

October 31, 2017: 7 Years of Scholarly Blogging: Emily Lauer on NYsferatu

[This coming weekend will mark this blog’s 7-year anniversary (my November 5th debut post on Du Bois has unfortunately vanished). In honor of that milestone, I wanted to spend the week highlighting some of the many wonderful academic and scholarly bloggers to whom this work has happily connected me. Leading up to a few reflections on my work, past and future, in this space!]
[Emily Lauer is an associate professor of English at Suffolk County Community College, SUNY, and Past President of the CAITY Caucus in NeMLA. Her academic publications include articles and chapters on Spider-Man, young adult dystopia, and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. She is co-editor of a collection of essays about the Harry Potter Generation forthcoming in 2018, and she is currently on sabbatical writing about adaptations of texts into and out of the comics form. Her PhD is from the CUNY Graduate Center. She has recently started writing and copyediting for This is her third GuestPost for AmericanStudier.]

Beauty, Fear and a Legacy in the Vampire Art Film NYsferatu

On Friday the Thirteenth, I went downtown to the Cantor Film Center at New York University and watched a beautiful monster movie and thought about how layers of history pile meaning upon meaning to create different versions of stories.

NYsferatu: Symphony of a Century is a highly intertextual film by Andrea Mastrovito. Projected at the rate of nine frames a second and accompanied by Simone Giuliani’s beautiful original score, “NYsferatu is a rotoscope recreation of Friedrich W. Murnau’s seminal 1922 film Nosferatu, itself an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Each background scene has been entirely redrawn to set the film in present day New York City. Taking the first step in a three-year process, Mastrovito and a team of 12 artists drew each background three times to replicate the beautifully eerie flickering shutter effect of early cinema,” according to the website, where you can watch the trailer and teaser clips online.

Stoker's classic novel is concerned with a British fear of infection, infiltration, and infestation. In NYsferatu, it is clear that our culture's current fears along the same lines - both Islamophobia and of immigration more generally - have their roots in scapegoating of outsiders in earlier eras. The rhetorical thrust of this movie is that ours are not new fears or old fears reborn: they are the same continuing ones, constantly being generated and constantly flickering into their next position.
There is a clear layering of eras in the website description: the flickering silver images of actors from 1922, depicting thinly-veiled versions of Stoker's Victorian novel, atop a fictionalized version of our contemporary New York City create a sensation of constant movement in which the past and the present and a possible future all mix. Because the music, the rotoscope and the grey palate unite the images, the current typographies and cars, machine guns and contemporary speech in the caption cards meld seamlessly with the old-fashioned clothes and hair and the familiar depiction of Nosferatu himself.

At the screening I attended, the movie was followed by a roundtable discussion titled "Our Vampires, Ourselves: Immigrants, Desire, Fear" drawing on the title of Nina Auerbach's book Our Vampires, Ourselves from 1995, in which she famously posits that "every age embraces the vampire it needs and gets the vampire it deserves." Even the titling of the event evokes layers of versioning, since Auerbach's book title refers to the influential "Our Bodies, Ourselves" from 1971, and Auerbach's work, is, of course, specifically about the versioning of the vampire figure which can reposition it in ways that will resonate in different times and places.

The roundtable discussion brought together the film's director with Angela Zito, a professor in NYU's Religious Studies department, and Simran Jeet Singh, an assistant professor in the Religion department of Trinity University in Texas. During the roundtable Mastrovito discussed how he wanted the film to address many refugee and immigrant stories. A native speaker of Italian, he workshopped NYsferatu with speakers of Chinese and Arabic, among others. "I tried to put all of their stories into the movie," he said, and he is now beginning the laborious process of translating it into Italian so that it can be shown at a film festival in Rome. This film, a reworking of a German film which reworked a British novel, not only brings in a multiplicity of voices, but will now be translated.

In Stoker's Dracula and in Murnau's Nosferatu, the vampire is indeed the monstrous murderer he seems. He is brought, with his coffin of dirt, into the Western World and there terrorizes the populace until he is destroyed. In NYsferatu, on the other hand, as Mastrovito pointed out during the roundtable afterwards, we never see the vampire commit any murders. Rather, a giant frightening shadow figure, a spectre of fear itself, is the one to actually commit the murders, but the vampire is the one to suffer for them.

In NYsferatu, it is monstrous fear that kills and that leads the populace to begin a wave of destruction purportedly to eradicate the scapegoat. During the roundtable discussion, Singh pointed out that NYsferatu is a film about how a society will tear itself apart trying to destroy whatever it thinks is persecuting it. Mastrovito furthered that while many people feel it is impossible that war would arrive in the United States, this is a movie about how it is, however, much more likely to arise here.

So, while NYsferatu is a stylized art film, intentionally a work of beauty, and while I enjoyed it as an aesthetic object, its function as a monster movie was also fulfilled: I was terrified.  

Next scholarly blogger tomorrow,
PS. Bloggers, scholarly or otherwise, you’d highlight?]

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