Monday, June 29, 2009

Rowing with the Wind

"Why can I never learn to swim?"
"Because you do not want to. You have only to throw yourself into the water and float, then learn to move your arms."


For years I've been fascinated by the Villa Diodati party of 1816-- that famous gathering of Byron, Shelley, Mary soon-to-be-Shelley, her sister Claire, and John Polidori. The party figures in a novel I'm working on, so recently everything I consume seems likely to be drenched in Romanticism. (Literally, my evenings are spent moving from reading THE MONSTER AT THE END OF THIS BOOK or whatever might be requested, to editing and listening to Rob Zombie, to reading Byron and Shelley.)

Curiously, the events of the Diodati Part-- which are told very well in the recent book The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein-- have been made into several movies, all of which came out in the mid-80s. Catch them if you can. The greatest and weirdest is Ken Russell's Gothic, which attempts to capture the fever-dream weirdness of the Haunted Summer. There is one I haven't seen-- Haunted Summer, starring Eric Stolz and Alice Krige, a film now so obscure it's apparently not even being bootlegged anywhere.

But up til last week I was completely unaware of Rowing with the Wind, a strange Spanish-produced (but English-language) version from 1988, starring Hugh Grant as Lord Byron and Valentine Pelka as Shelley.

Unlike Gothic, Rowing with the Wind is not a work of grand vision. (Russell's film is something I need to post about separately.) Rather it's more of a magical realist picture where fantastic and horrible things happen but we understand them to be visions. There is one persistent vision in the film: Mary Shelley's creature, which haunts her. Rowing with the Wind is actually pretty funny-- Hugh Grant was never my idea of Lord Byron but plays the part with deft ironic abandon. He's always either making a cruel comment or screaming to the heavens, and seems to be half-joking the whole time.




(I should note that "Byron's" hair is also quite strange, beginning with a sort of up do that would have made sense in a Thompson Twins video, and finishing the film with some luxurious rock star locks.)

Still, it's a haunting film in parts-- the idea of the movie is that the tragedy of Mary Shelley's life-- an awful parade of drownings, suicides and infant death-- are a curse, a cosmic punishment that follows her for reasons unknown. On this point I can agree; her life was full of most horrendous pain.

Does the movie work, as a movie? Not as well as it should; it drags from episode to episode, sometimes having the feel of a TV biopic. Several of the events are out of context or compressed, a side-effect of any biopic.

On the other hand, the conceit of the creature-- here seen as a disturbing ghoul fairly similar to his description in Shelley's book-- actually following these characters around and cursing them is an interesting one. For one thing, it lets the filmmakers quote liberally from scenes from Frankenstein, especially around the death of William, Mary's son, and the fictional William, Victor Frankenstein's young brother.

I liked seeing the Romantics presented at roughly the correct age -- in 1816, Byron was 28, Shelley was 24, Polidori was 21, and Claire and Mary were 18. Here, only Polidori, played by a late-forties Spaniard, is miscast. (By contrast, in Gothic-- which again is a way more interesting film-- the ages of the actors are completely wrong.) The record will show that after the Summer which birthed The Vampire, Childe Harold Canto IV, and Frankenstein, Polidori would be dead in five years, Shelley a year later, and Byron two years after that. Within eight years, all but Mary and her sister Claire were dead. In between were tragedies no parent should ever endure, and they endured them again and again. The darkness of these things don't play as well against the humor of Byron and Shelley, and it's possible this is on purpose.

See this one back to back with Gothic.

I'm going to post the trailers for each film, with a caveat. The only trailer I can find for Rowing with the Wind is in Spanish. The DVD isn't, but the trailer is. (The movie was made in Spain.) The trailer for Gothic, from the same period, is not in Spanish, though I guess it would have been fun to find a Spanish language version of that one, too.

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