Bats, Vampires, and What We Do in the Shadows

Dusk, and the screen is soon to be lowered at Shadow Electric. Then the bats come out, hundreds of them, flying overhead. Unfortunately, it was too dark by then to get an image. Picture: ©Caron Eastgate Dann 2014

Dusk, and the screen is soon to be lowered at Shadow Electric. Then the bats come out, hundreds of them, flying overhead. Unfortunately, it was too dark by then to get an image. Picture: ©Caron Eastgate Dann 2014

As dusk was turning to night around 9pm, the screen was lowered and lit up. At the same moment, hundreds of bats filled the inky sky above the outdoor cinema.
Apparently, this happens every night at Shadow Electric Outdoor Cinema and Bar at the old Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne, Australia. But the bats seemed double spooky on this particular night, because the film we had come to see was the New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows.
Spooky, funny and ironic—the bats AND the movie.
Directed by Taika Waititi (Boy) and Jemaine “Flight of the Conchords” Clement, who also star in it, the film has received rave reviews and has been acclaimed at international festivals.
If you don’t already know, What We Do in the Shadows is about a group of vampires who share an apartment (“flat” in NZ talk) in Wellington. Rather than on plot, the film relies on its quirky hilarity and the juxtaposition of characters from classic European horror removed to far-off suburban NZ.
It’s not often I laugh aloud at a film at all, let alone from start to finish. But barely a minute of this 90-minute film went by when I didn’t LOL. It has a Pythonesque quality in that its comedy comes from a combination of clever lines, strangely lovable characters and utterly ridiculous slapstick.

One of my favourite lines is when the vampires, out for a night on the town, come across a gang of their arch enemies, the werewolves. Riled by the vampires, the werewolves utter some expletives, but are quickly reprimanded by their leader and agree with him not to swear: “We’re werewolves, not swear-wolves”, is their mantra.

I can hardly be said to be an objective observer, however, since the main reason I went to the film is because one of my oldest, dearest friends has a role in it. The New Zealand actor Yvette Parsons plays a witch MC at the masquerade ball towards the end of the film. It was exciting to see her up there on the big screen, and to hear the rest of the audience laughing uproariously, like me, at her comedic performance.
What We Do in the Shadows premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in the US last year, and was named best comedy of the year by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian in November. Read his review here.
The film opens in Japan this week, and the producers are hoping to have it released in the US also. Good luck to them! There’s more on the film on their hilarious Facebook page.

Felix, that wonderful cat with his bag of tricks

There are some animated characters that stay with you all your life. I was never much of a Mickey Mouse fan. My favourite character was always Felix the Cat.

The cartoons were very old when I was a child, being made in the 1920s, long before even my mother was born, but great animation always remains so. The song was what got me, too, and the idea of having a bag of tricks that you could reach into whenever you got “in a fix”.

I went to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) at Melbourne’s Federation Square recently. Having an interest in the history of film and TV, I kept meaning to go, and never quite got there. Fortuitously, this outing was part of a class trip I had to take some students on.

ACM’s permanent exhibition, Screen Worlds, is free, and it is packed with films, sound, interactive opportunities and memorabilia. How delighted I was to come across this little fella, then. Yes, it’s Felix, and it reminded me that it was an Australian cartoonist and silent film maker, Pat Sullivan, who was one of the originators of Felix.


This is controversial: although Sullivan (c1887-1933) was the owner of the character and the producer, he always said he had originated Felix.  US critics have usually credited his American employee, Otto Messmer as the original animator, but an Australian Broadcasting Corporation show, Rewind, in 2004 seems to have confirmed Sullivan as the originator. Whatever, Messmer and Sullivan drew the comic strip, which started in 1923, with another American animator, Joe Oriolo, later replacing Messmer. It was Oriolo who gave Felix his famous bag of tricks.

Felix started out as a character in the silent film short Feline Follies (1919), before being adapted for print and syndicated in hundreds of newspapers. He was around long before Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse. Ironically, a mouse often being the target of a cat, it was the popularity of Mickey Mouse that led to Felix’s demise in the 1930s, before he was reinvigorated by Oriolo for US TV in the 1950s and given that magic bag of tricks.

Some trivia: the original voice of Felix in the 1930s was performed by Mae Kwestel (1908-1998), who also did the voices of Betty Boop and Olive Oyl. She appears to be the only woman to have voiced Felix, with at least eight male actors to have played Felix over the decades.

Interestingly, DreamWorks Animation acquired the rights to the character this month (June 2014), with CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg quoted as saying his company will make Felix into ‘one of the most desired fashion brands in the world.” Oh no! I was hoping for a new Felix cartoon series also starring Felix’s nephews Inky and Winky.

For the record, Felix the Cat was ranked number 28 in TV Guide’s list of the “50 greatest cartoon characters of all time” in 2002. Well, Felix is still number one for me.





Felix the Cat official website

The Wrap




Weekly Writing Challenge: the great ebook versus pbook debate

Over at The Daily Post,  They’re having a debate about ebooks versus printed books. There’s been so much talk about how printed books are doomed, that there’s a danger this  could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Now, I am both a bibliophile and a bookworm. I have loved books for as long as I can remember. I also love new technology and, since 2008, have made a concerted effort to keep up with it. I love my Mac, iPhone, iPad and Kindle and I learn something new about them every day.

Well, I don’t learn so much about the Kindle, because there’s not much to learn: and that’s the way I like it. I have the old-style one with the keyboard, bought in 2010, from memory. My husband has a new one with a touch screen and virtual keyboard.
I have to say, I like mine better. The touch screen is annoying because you can suddenly touch the wrong thing and lose your page. The virtual keyboard is harder to use. Not that I use the keyboard much. My Kindle is for reading—not for games, emails, Facebook or surfing the net. Just reading.
That pretty much makes my Kindle just like a real book, only weighing less. When I first got it, I thought I would miss the physicality of a printed book. But that’s only a peripheral thing. Once I start reading, and lose myself in a book, the medium doesn’t matter; I forget about the medium entirely, unless it’s obtrusive or clunky.
If I turn my iPad to airplane mode, I can read comfortably on it. Ditto, even the iPhone—excellent for commuter trains when you can’t get a seat and have to stand.
HOWEVER—and it’s in upper case because it’s a big however—I still like printed books. The book, to my mind, is one of few things in the world that I call a perfect invention: that is, it’s not necessary to improve upon it.
The printed book is portable (more or less, depending), doesn’t need batteries, and is very durable.

As a young journalist, I wormed my way into a position of literary editor of the then-Sunday Star newspaper in Auckland. I interviewed Jeffrey—now Lord—Archer (a hilarious story for another time). I asked him to sign my copy of his latest paperback, First Among Equals, which he did.
Then my flatmate asked to borrow the book and took it away camping. When he brought it back, he apologised for its condition, explaining that he’d dropped it into a puddle. Because of the autograph, I still have that paperback 28 years later: it is a wreck, but it’s still readable, and none of the pages is even loose.

Archer, Crayon Files
Another reason the printed book is a perfect invention, is that it’s not seen as a security risk. You can read it anywhere, any time (unless it’s a banned book, of course). I love my Kindle for journeys, because it means I can travel lighter—and buy more books while I’m away. BUT, I still have to take a book for planes, for landing and taking off when electronic devices must be turned off.
Another perfect invention that has not been superseded by new technology is the transistor radio. This is because the batteries last forever, radios are comparatively cheap to buy, and you can listen all day and night for free. Despite all my expensive, high-tech devices, I still have a portable radio in my bathroom. It’s simple, cheap to run and it always works.
It seems that whenever a new medium becomes popular, lots of people think the old medium will disappear. While sometimes this is true: the telegram, for example, was largely trumped by more convenient and cheaper phone and email services. I was surprised though, in the course of researching this post, to discover that some countries still offer telegram services, although Australia’s closed in 2011. New Zealand closed its service in 1999 but reopened it in 2003 for business customers: apparently, it’s useful for debt collection services.

But there are a lot of old media that have not been superseded by the new.  My mother says that when she was young, everyone thought TV would spell the end of films and that all the cinemas would close down. This didn’t happen.

Similarly, live theatre didn’t die when film came along, video didn’t kill the radio, digital music didn’t kill vinyl. The latter is the most interesting of all. It was said that cassettes and the “indestructible” (ha ha, what a lie) CD would put paid to vinyl records. But now, the cassette is dead, CDs are on their way out, and vinyl is back in a huge way.

What happens is that the old medium changes to accommodate the new. So, for example, we no longer have news reels before movies at the cinema.

I believe that ereaders and printed books can continue to exist side by side.
How great for students to be able to get electronic text books, which are so much cheaper and easier to carry than the printed versions.
For myself, I prefer text books and academic texts in printed form. This is because I’m constantly looking up notes, indexes and other references, and often have seven or eight books on the floor beside my desk, all open at different pages. Even though I’ve got a huge screen on my Mac desktop, I can’t quite emulate the convenience of my books-on-the-floor method.

Aesthetics is another reason printed books will remain: the world is full of collectors, and showing someone your collection of ebooks isn’t quite the same as showing them your collection of 200 vintage books on Thailand, as I have.

So let’s agree to live and let live: ebooks and printed books side by side in glorious harmony.

Bambi, the dentist and the Mona Lisa

How lovely it was for me when last Sunday, while I was on vacation in Fremantle, Western Australia, a crown on one of my teeth fell out during breakfast.  For the rest of our time there, mostly spent seeing family on both sides, I had to be careful not to smile too widely, lest I look like a pirate.
We returned to Melbourne in the early hours of Thursday morning, and this morning (Friday) saw me at my excellent dentist, Dr L., his able assistant, Ms K., and friendly administrator Ms V. “You’ve presented me with a challenge,” Dr L. said cheerfully. I won’t go too deeply into what had to be done, save that  it involved a “slow drill” and something called a “para-post”.
It’s all completely painless, of course, thanks to local anaesthetic. I read a lot of historical novels and it’s the one thing that makes me glad I wasn’t born before the 20th century. Anyhow, although dentistry doesn’t hurt now, it’s not particularly pleasant. So, I close my eyes and try to divert my mind. I used to think about a beautiful beach—white sand, turquoise water, a yellow umbrella. Then I played too much of an iPhone app called Distant Shore, and got sick of the perfect beach.
So, what do I think of now? Bambi. That is because Bambi is the sweetest little thing in the history of fictional characters, and Disney captured perfectly this essence of sweet innocence in its portrayal of the fawn in the 1942 movie.

I’ve been wanting to write a piece about Bambi for a while, because suddenly, everywhere I look, are images of him. The protagonist of one of the earliest anti-hunting pro-environmental novels seems to be making a comeback—if he ever went away, that is. My earliest memory of Bambi is probably the Little Golden book with the Disney animation characters, but the story was first published in German in 1923 as a novel,  Bambi: A Life in the Woods, by the Ausrian-Hungarian writer Felix Salten,  who sold the film rights for $1000 in 1933.

Just before Christmas, I saw a 1950s ceramic Bambi ornament for sale at a shop near me called Retro Active, which sells 20th-century memorabilia, jewellery and furniture. It was $30 but, it being Christmas and not my birthday, I thought it wasn’t good form to buy a present for myself. However, shortly after Christmas, it is my birthday, so when the shop opened after the break, I went back to buy Bambi. Guess what? Bambi was gone. I imagine that dear little deer sitting now on someone else’s mantelpiece. Since then, I have seen a Bambi lamp for a baby’s room, and a fantastic Bambi book sculpture, which you can see here.
So synonymous has the term “Bambi” become with innocence and goodness, that to say something is “like killing Bambi” is to brand it just about the worst thing possible. So I was horrified, while researching this piece, to come across a discussion thread on the internet which started with the question, “Is it illegal to shoot a baby deer?”

Perhaps Bambi is making a comeback because, in this commodified, mediatised world in which we westerners can have just about anything we want, limited only by the size of our wallets, Bambi represents what is seen as a simpler, more honest time in which the goodies and the baddies were clearly delineated.We tend to apply this sentimentality or faulty nostalgia for “a simpler time” to many long-gone eras:   I mean, it’s all very well, for example, to look back to the early 19th century through sumptuous TV mini-series of Jane Austen novels and envy the seemingly peaceful and uncomplicated rural lifestyles back then. What we don’t see are the realities of life without all we take for granted today: electricity, refrigeration, and modern medicine, for example; and anaesthetic for visits to the dentist. Before 1844, dental anaesthetic was unknown: routine, reliable local anaesthetic without too many nasty side effects was not introduced until as late as the 1940s. More about that here.

Lack of proper anaesthetic meant restorative dental work was extremely limited before the 20th century. So, if the heroine of  the 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, had toothache, she would simply have had the tooth pulled out. As my late father, a dentist, told me: a real Elizabeth Bennet would have lost many of her teeth by her 20s, and those she still had would probably have been brown with rot. She would definitely not have had a mouth full of white, even teeth. I never could persuade him from his view that period dramas should present characters with teeth like they would really have had.
He was always convinced he knew the secret to the Mona Lisa’s smile. “It’s obvious,” he said of the early 16th-century painting. “It’s because all her teeth would have been rotten or missing, and she smiles that strange way because she has chronic toothache.”

Mona Lisa

In Bambi’s idealised world, all the goodies, of course, would have perfect teeth and would never need to go to the dentist. I hope this is my last dental visit until my usual six-monthly check-up is due. Fingers crossed.