Reading Dracula 

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

As a Transylvanian, it's about time I read Dracula, watch the movie(s), and understand this business. You all know Transylvania is a real place; it's time I learned what the fantasy Transylvania is all about.

I am 100 pages from finishing the novel, first published in 1897, watched both the 1931 Bela Lugosi Dracula, as well as Werner Herzog's 1979 Nosferatu remake (the 1922 Nosferatu has long been one of my favourite movies). I also took out four books of Dracula literary criticism out from the library, to nail this bugger in the heart, for once and for all. And here I thought that I was forever converted to zombies.

So while the extraordinary shock that armadillos live in Transylvania subsides, I picked up the Annotated Dracula (edited by Leonard Wold and dedicated to Bela Lugosi) to backtrack through the footnotes. The discoveries, hitherto obscured by a century's linguistic and societal changes, stretch beyond the minor surprises at Dracula's mustachioed face and Lucy's brunette-ness.

Those of you who've yet to read the novel know the drill: spoilers ahead.
  • My first surprise was to finally be interested in Jonathan Harker's journal. Not in the narrative, but in the mechanics. The last time I picked up Dracula, in high school, I only liked the journal; when the action switched from Transylvania to Lucy and her beaus, I trudged on hoping that the story would return to Harker. After Lucy's Bloofer Lady suffered execution, I gave up waiting for the return to the fast-paced terror at the beginning and gave up on the novel. This time around, I've been intrigued that Jonathan Harker writes in shorthand, thus foiling Dracula, who most certainly rifled through the Englishman's papers. Leonard Wolf, in the Annotated Dracula, guesses that Harker uses the Pitman method. Of course, I've looked up this method and, should I ever have time to spare for shorthand, this will be the method I'll learn.

  • I also am curious as to the gaps in the diary: Jonathan Harker was in Dracula's castle for two months. There is a two-week gap when the imprisoned Harker writes nothing. Is this because there was truly nothing to tell? Or is it because the vampire hunters, later in the novel, omitted the irrelevant when typing up the various accounts about Dracula? What did Jonathan do during those lost two weeks?

  • Klausenburgh, which Jonathan Harker visited on May 2, is my very favourite Cluj! Cluj, overlooked by too many tourists, is a perfect gem of elegant architecture, in full colour as opposed to Bucureşti's blanched houses. Harker eats in Cluj some paprika hendl, which sounds like it might be our own tocăniţă.

  • Quoting Emily Gerard and the 1900 Baedeker for Austria, the population of Transylvania contemporary with Dracula is 1,200,000 Romanians according to the former and 1,395,000 for the latter, to the 652,221 and 765,000 Hungarians respectively. At two Romanians for every Hungarian and the numbers provided by foreigners, I wonder who took the census. Nevermind why I wonder - hey, look, both sources say there were 8,400 Armenians in Transylvania at the time! How'd they get to Romania?

  • The impletata, the "eggplant stuffed with forcemeat," may be patlagele impulute. Whatever that is. I'll have to ask my mother if I've ever eaten any.

  • Leonard Wolf points out that midnight marks the witching hour. But, again I'll have to consult with my parents, because I recall that either 2 am or 3 am was the really devilish time of the day in Transylvania.

  • The Stoker Dracula really said, "Listen to them - the children of the night. What music they make!" I had always thought it was a movie cliche, non-existent in the book. Indeed, its companion phrase, "I never drink wine," does not exist except on film.
That's enough for tonight. Halloween is almost over. My bat wings are off and soon my bat ears will come off. Good night!

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Alles klar, Herr Kommissar? 

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Though my French Revolution phase has abated somewhat, the new Marie Antoinette movie still inspires plenty of venom in me. Perhaps it's the fact that stupid little girls who watched the movie have vandalized Wikipedia with anti-Madame du Barry vitriol that has no basis in historical fact:
The young dauphine also faced the spite of the Louis XV's mistress, Madame du Barry. Du Barry was born Jeanne Bécu, a commoner who gained the notice of nobility as a courtesan. As Marie Antoinette felt it was beneath herself to associate with such a woman, Du Barry set out to make her life as miserable as possible, beginning by turning the king against his granddaughter-in-law.
The spite of Madame du Barry? Du Barry actually went to the effort of making Marie Antoinette's life miserable? She turned Louis XV against Marie Antoinette?

Fuck that. Madame du Barry, as all historians note - including Antoinia Fraser who wrote the biography on which this movie is based - was too nice to ever hold a grudge. Madame du Barry may have been a bimbo but she was not mean.

The mean little bitch was Marie Antoinette. I'm sorry, girls, but read some history. Sofia Coppola can blame du Barry (in the film, she depicts the courtesan rolling around in bed with the king then plotting to have the Austrian princess humiliated), but Marie Antoinette's problems were of her own making.

Perhaps it's because the movie stars Kirsten Dunst, a bimbo who can't muster much more on the screen than parting her legs.

Or perhaps it's the annoying soundtrack.

Hell, I don't care if the roles all went to American and British actors. I couldn't care less that they do not speak with a French accent. But hip hop? And they dance to it?

My disgust decreased somewhat when I read another review: "Some say the biggest offender was the application of '80s pop songs—the soundtrack to her own upbringing—to an otherwise detailed period piece."

Eighties pop songs might not be so bad. Not period music, but as least bad as you can manage if you were to mix up such disparate periods.

Besides, Sofia Coppola probably couldn't resist the apocryphal story of five-year-old Mozart proposing to little Marie Antoinette. For years afterward, Marie Antoinette, an undersexed wife in France, would masturbate with Rock Me, Amadeus blaring over her squeals of joy. So many eyebrows would have been raised in Versailles. Cut to Louis XVI out hunting, frustrated, as if he could hear his wife over the soundtrack as she joins in with "Baby baby do it to me rock me".

And then, during all those times when Axel Fersen was cheating on her, poor little rich girl Marie Antoinette writes homesick letters to Schönbrunn, it's Vienna Calling:
Ohoho, operator (so alone am I)
Ohoho, operator (I need you here tonight)
Hello, oho, Vienna calling, na na na na
Hello, oho, Vienna calling, na na na na
It's too bad that Sofia Coppola ended her movie before the French Revolution because that leaves out Der Kommissar for when Marie Antoinette finally ends her life of dissipation on the scaffold.

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Frankenstein with a Gift Shop 

Monday, October 16, 2006

More on Body Worlds:

Science World devoted some four galleries to the display, along with a Body Worlds gift shop. The full-body displays have no glass covers, allowing for close-up viewing, with a descriptive panel that labelled body parts and perhaps a short blurb on the plastination techniques used. The body parts lay in flat display cases and featured more information about bodily functions than the full-body displays. The much-discussed fetus display came at the end, with an alternate exit for those who can't handle dead babies.

While the audience was mostly adult, some parents brought their elementary school age, adorable little kids who were not squeamish about what they saw. "Mommy, why does that man have three penises?" asked one little girl, who was answered that the two penis-y things flanking the penis were testicles. Other groups of children sat down in front of the bodies to discuss what they were seeing. Near the end, some kids were begging their parents to hurry to the fetus section: "Let's go see the babies, daddy!"

As I walked through, I was too caught up in examining the bodies to think much about the museum practices behind the displays.

First of all, I am not entirely convinced of the educational aspects of the show. Then again, I have had friends in medical studies, so I've had the benefit of poring through autopsy books and fiddled with bones from UBC's bone library. The visitors yesterday were a mixture of those pointing out their ailments on the corpses - one middle aged man used his umbrella tip to give his two friends a description of his achilles heel problems; others claiming they will stop or avoid taking up smoking as attested by the guestbook at the very end of the exhibit.

While the display of organs in the flat display cases carried actual information, the full-body displays made much of the fact that they contained a certain amount of artistic flare, with very little biological information aside from the labelling of body parts. The flayed man has a Renaissance pedigree; the kneeling man in prayer harks back to the Medieval era.

Indeed, the exhibit gives prominent place to a copy of Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, with a line that Dr. Tulp alone wears a hat, defying contemporary manners. The Body Worlds website has a photograph of von Hagens himself wearing a hat during a dissection and he devotes a page on his website to that hat, bringing up German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys' name.

Von Hagens has exhibited many times in art galleries, instead of scientific museums. In the UK, he performed the first public autopsy for a paying audience at a London art gallery. The 72-year-old German alcoholic whose organs were removed is now in the Body Worlds 2 exhibit.

Part of the motivation to display the bodies artistically comes from copyright issues. With at least nine rival shows - some have counted eleven shows - von Hagens has gone to court to stop two of the shows, arguing that his poses have copyright protection as intellectual property (the plastination technique is patented).

In my opinion, with both a background in art history and in museum studies, I question the educational quality of the exhibit, as I see the full-body displays in stark contrast with the more "educational" isolated body parts. The full-body displays serve only a marketing value. Their short names ("The Skateboarder," "The Archer," etc.) sometimes carry puzzling names more suitable to super heroes ("The Star Man"), clearly meant to be memorable and generate talk that outlasts the visit for word-of-mouth promotion.

Though he claims to be a scientist and not an entertainer, von Hagens is no stranger to sideshow-era gimmicks: in 1995, his plastinate of a pregnant woman cut up to reveal a fetus travelled around Berlin on a bus to promote the first Body Worlds. Another time, Von Hagens took part in Berlin's Love Parade dressed as a plastinate. Von Hagens has been called a 21st century Dr. Frankenstein with a gift shop: to exit the gallery, one must walk through a gift shop selling cadaver fridge magnets, keychains, postcards, posters and books.

In addition, some controversy surrounds Body Worlds with regards to the displays of the female donors' plastinates. Some have said that the female poses are in traditional feminine poses, though my companion and I disagreed on this aspect. While I did find the poses were athletic for the most part, I have to agree that the females did fall into the more feminine camp: a trapeze artist, a gymnast, a dancer, and an archer (remember the Amazons?).

I was also annoyed that the females had nipples intact. None of the male bodies had nipples. My companion argued that female nipples are harder to remove and that their remains did not turn the female bodies into sex objects.

In the case of the gymnast, a full head of blonde hair remained attached to the scalp. Its presence, if from the original body, serves to make the donor's identity less anonymous, going against the exhibit's profession that the donors' identities or personal information be revealed. I found the hair also a sexualizing feature: it "humanized" the corpse, making it resemble a living woman and thus palatable to sexual tastes. Interestingly, in another case, a male body has had the remains of an dark upper lip dyed red; my suspicion is that the donor may have been black, though none of the "white" skinned donors have had the remainders of their light skin dyed.

Von Hagens has issued a questionnaire to current donors to ask if they would object to their bodies being used in sexual poses. Most men were delighted, the women were aghast. Though he has yet to create a tableau of the sexual union, near the end of the Science World exhibit was a pairing of a man and a woman in an embrace. I presumed they were dancers or figure skaters, though from a distance the action is hard to distinguish. This display's proximity to the reproductive organ display allows the viewer to come to the wrong conclusion.

An interesting observation regarding the female bodies comes from my male companion. After the exhibit, he told me that when he viewed the female reproductive organs, he was the only male at that display case. Later, when he came by the female table again to talk to me, he was again the only male in that area. The table with the male reproductive organs had both female and male audience members surrounding it.

In speculating about the lack of male viewers at the female table, I am guessing that either the men were too embarrassed to look at these body parts, too wary of being deemed lecherous, or simply not interested in female functions. If it is the latter, my question to male readers is why?

Finally, I am unconvinced by the claims within the show that all the bodies come from donors.

Until recently von Hagens used unclaimed bodies from abroad, certainly not the consenting donors purported by the show's copy. Furthermore two of his plastination factories are in China's harbour city Dalian and in the Central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan, where laws concerning the dead are not as stringent or, as in the well-documented case of China, unconsenting prisoners have had their organs removed.

According to former Kyrgyz member of parliament Akbokon Tashtanbekov, von Hagen's institution "obtained more than 800 dead bodies from prisons, psychiatric wards and hospitals, which hadn't always notified the families." Bodies from prisons sold for $13 to $15 each; the youngest body came from a 14-hour-old child.

One of the saddest stories was of Kishinbek Mamakiev, a 71-year-old from Bishkek, who died from a brain hemorrhage in 2000. He went out for a walk, collapsed on the street and was taken to a hospital. The family had no idea what happened, and spent three years looking for the man in hospitals and morgues. They put ads on tv asking for information. Three years ago Tashtanbekov found Mamakiev's name in the plastination center.

Though in 2001 van Hagens broke off with Valery Gabitov, head of the medical academy's pathology department and supplier of bodies, he continues to reap Kyrgyz corpses through another body donor program in the country. German prosecutors have found that all the bodies are accounted for, linking death certificates to consent forms. Still, how did Kishinbek Mamakiev's disappear for three years and why did his name end up in the paper work at von Hagens' centre?

The danger is, with an uninformed public, is that vast monetary support will go to Body Worlds knock-offs, who might not be as scrupulous as von Hagens or, not as documented.

For example, according to NPR, BODIES... The Exhibition (currently in Seattle), created by Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions Inc., does not hide the fact that they use unclaimed Chinese bodies. Spokesman Roy Glover says, "We don't hide from it, we address it right up front." Created by Dr. Sui Hongjin, a one-time student of von Hagens', I went to the BODIES... The Exhbition website to see how up front they were about the bodies' provenence. The faces were instantly recognizable as East Asian. The FAQ, however, did hide the questions about where the bodies came from. FAQ questions 7-10, which answer this very question, are linked to from the bottom of FAQ questions 1-6. The site warns that "It is important to note that the law prohibits he disclosure of any information regarding the specimen's identity and/or cause of death."

While some 30 Canadians have signed up to donate their bodies to von Hagens, I suspect the majority of viewers would be loathe to imagine their own dead bodies on a pedestal, twisted and sliced into artistic renderings. That some of the bodies are there without the consent of the donors ring a little too much of Burke and Hare, the nineteenth century murderers who sold 17 victims to the Edinburgh Medical College for dissection. That the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London to this day still dishonours poor Charles Byrne's - "The Irish Giant" - explicit deathbed wishes should be warning to those who wish to lay down rules for the fate of their bodies.

The attitude I hope you won't have is the following, from one of the comments left on the naysayer campaigners's site:
My friends and I went to the exhibit last week (thinking it was a movie) and I was having a great time at the beginning criticizing all the models until my friend read a sign saying that some of them were real!!!!
Sarah, Denver, CO

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A Meaty Day 

Sunday, October 15, 2006

For the last month and a half, I have become mostly vegetarian. Partly for health reasons, mostly for animal rights, I occasionally slip and declare a meat holiday. For example, in a schnitzel restaurant, how can my Austro-Hungarianess resist?

I planned for brunch at the Elbow Room, the bad service satirists who serve the best multiplex eggs in town. Vegetarian choices include the Thelma (poached eggs, sauteed spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms and avocado on a sour dough muffin topped with camembert and feta cheese) and the pesco-vegetarian Ted McLaren (poached eggs, baby shrimp, imitation crab, diced tomato and green onion with avocado, served on a croissant topped with hollandaise). I closed my menu and clasped my hands in front of me, waiting for my breakfast companion to decide.

Matt looked up at me from his menu. "Would you be upset if I order the Brett Cullen?"

The Brett Cullen. Poached eggs, sauteed spinach, bacon, avocado and blue cheese on a sour dough muffin. Topped with hollandaise sauce. The stuff of my daydreams during work meetings, during long commutes, while washing dishes, when I brush my teeth at night. The Brett Cullen.

"Well, if you're having a meat holiday," I said, "Then I can have a meat holiday too."

Confident that I could simply reach over to my breakfast companion's plate and sample the Brett Cullen, I decided to order something novel. The Bryan with two poached eggs on a Bavarian smokie, topped with BBQ sauce, sauteed mushrooms, onions, tomato and melted cheddar cheese on top of a sour dough muffin would round out my familiarity of the hidden corners of the Elbow Room menu.

Forty-five minutes later, as I waddled out of the Elbow Room, I contentedly proclaimed Meat Holiday a success and was ready to go back to ordinary vegetarian living until next year.

Forty-five minutes after that, my soggy self made it to Science World.

For those of you not from Vancouver, Science World is a children's science museum, well, science education centre. Science World is in a shiny metallic sphere full of hands-on exhibits about optical illusions, physics, human functions, animals and the like. Science World, though a non-profit, is one of the few, if not the only, Vancouver-area cultural institution to turn a profit. With Body Worlds, they've clearly met their 2006 budget many times over.

Operating under the aegis of education and health advocacy, Body Worlds 3, the exhibit Vancouver got, has some 200 body parts, sliced cross-section and entire corpses. Surely something someone of my morbid tendencies would revel in the sheer grotesquerie.

Having touched human bones before, the femur at the entrance was nothing. I stared hard at the red veiny things seeping on the femur's extremities. Then my first full corpse.

Well, I am more a fan of goriness in the fictional form, in particular on celluloid, in the guise of a good zombie flick. I've spent a night in Transylvania with a dead body in front of a graveyard, and that got acquainted with the superstition terrors of the night. Anything too nonfictional, however, and I get queasy.

So it was at Body Worlds. I felt weak, as if I couldn't lift my arms. Still I walked around each body, sometimes standing on my tiptoes to peer into cranial cavities and vacated abdomens. I began dissecting my reaction.

It wasn't the gross-out feeling one would get from, say, a burn victim. It was more of, this is meat.

The muscles reminded me so much of food. I kept thinking, I could never eat that. (I am a fan of emergency cannibal nonfiction; Uruguayan rugby players wrecked in the Andes, the Franklin expeditions, besieged Muscovites eating one another, Donner Party horrors, Chinese rumours of WWII-era kidnappings.) I mean, I've helped out at pig and chicken slaughters, and at the time I couldn't wait to eat my favourite parts. Looking at real human bodies reduced to mere meat, I was happy I've become vegetarian.

Then I further dissected my queasiness.

My stint in a law firm, looking at photos of liability claims, instilled in me an understanding that humans are fragile and anything - an escalator, a wedding ring - can become a weapon that tears the body asunder. I'd seen the pictures of a girl's face ripped off by an escalator and a woman's finger separated from her hand by a two-metre-long thread of tendon. I respect the dangers inherent in life, yet intend to live to 85 and pass away peacefully in my sleep.

Body Worlds reminded me that, though I may avoid sipping cyanide or signing up for mercenary service in Iraq, death might come riding as that extra doughnut or that third martini. Hell, I can limit myself to bran and lettuce; birth condemns all of us to death. Part of my fear of Body Worlds was that I began half-expecting that the ceiling would begin raining anvils to pulverize us the audience into snitzel pulp.

Halfway through the exhibit, there was a hands-on table, mimicking the children's displays elsewhere in Science World, only this time with a plastinated kidney, liver and two arm cross-sections. I flapped liver slivers, poked my finger into a gouged-out hole in the arm, and held up the kidney to my nose to smell it.

Beside the touchy-feelies was a book, How Do I Become a Plastinate? I skimmed over the table of contents, then turned to the chapter on reasons for wanting to become a plastinate. Selflessness was the main reason, to educate the lay public and to continue being of some use to society after one's demise. But also immortality. I want to be like the Egyptian Pharoahs, one said. Another, I worked hard to get my body into prime physical shape, I want others to learn from me.

Here's something I have never admitted until now: I have a deep-seated fear that, if I were to become an organ donor, my consent would give a modern-day Burke and Hare a pre-mortem carte blanche. Immortality would not be Pharaonic but meaty.

Other visitors felt the human body reverberated with the trappings of a meal. "The intestines look like sausages," said a young woman in her early twenties.

On the way out were cross-sections of the length of an obese man's body, a warning about the dangers of eating lest any viewers mull the meatiness of the human body too much.

Two hours after Body Worlds, I sat in a movie theatre waiting to see Jan Svankmajer's latest, Lunacy, a horror film about the two opposing methods of running an insane asylum.

The film is live action interspersed with stop-motion animation interruptions of ambulatory meat, the latter scenes accompanied by saccharine carnival music (photos here). The meat parallels the real actors, with tongues, slabs of meat, brains and eyeballs dancing out the travails of the humans. In the end, a hunk of meat in a supermarket pulsates against the confines of plastic wrap, mirroring the nightmare come true for the human protagonist.

"Repugnant palate cleansers," says one of Lunacy's critics of the parading meat. "A counter-melody reminding us that all is decay."

Tonight I ate bread with vinegar.

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Panda Opens Eyes to Injustice 

Thursday, October 12, 2006

36-year-old panda at Zoo Atlanta opens her eyes for first time

13:49:40 EDT Oct 12, 2006
Canadian Press

ATLANTA (AP) - Zoo Atlanta's panda opened her eyes to the world's injustices for the first time on Thursday.

Zoo officials made the discovery during a physical examination of the 36-year-old female when the panda was given a newspaper for a toilet visit to produce a stool sample.

"She's probably able to see the shitty state of the world at last," said zoo veterinarian Dr. Maria Crane, adding that no pun was intended. "We noticed she's paying more attention to the news now."

Crane said it is hard to know how much Lunch Lunch actually understands of world affairs. The panda appeared slightly startled at one point when she read the headline that 655,000 Iraqis have died since 2003.

Seemingly reassured by Iraq war supporter US President George W. Bush, the panda freaked out again when she read about North Korea's recent nuclear test claims. The panda reputedly fears for her family still in the People's Republic of China.

An intervention by the park's zoologists (complete with chick flicks and a truck of cupcakes) calmed down the beloved panda.

Parents once again are bringing children to see the panda. Visitor numbers had dropped in the wake of the panda's grief, as the public did not want to be reminded.

"I want to protect my children from the news," said Sandy Johnson, mother of four-year-old twins. "Seeing Lunch Lunch so sad just kept reminding us that other people in the world were dying because of our government's policies. Who cares? Our zoos need to remain family-friendly."

Now that North Korea no longer merits front page headlines, the panda has settled back into merely completing the day's sudoku puzzle. She seems to be ignoring the erosion of women's rights in Nicaragua, and a zoo official even reported that Lunch Lunch said "Armenia who?" when she overhead talk of new French laws regarding the Armenian Genocide.

"She's a very solid panda," Crane said. "Her mind is nice and placid, and that's really a testament to how well Lunch Lunch is keeping her pretty little head out of international matters. And just in case this happens again, we gave her a gift certificate to the Gap."

© The Canadian Press, 2006




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