Recurring Nightmares #1 | Taxis to the Dark Side

[Editor’s note: Recurring Nightmares is a new, regular column concerned with teasing out those little connections that haunt our cinematic memories.]

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By Jonathan Bygraves

Bram Stoker’s vivid description of Jonathan Harker’s journey into the dark heart of the Carpathians, detailed in the opening chapter of his novel Dracula, remains one of the most richly evocative passages in literature, brimming with omens of portent and menace: those rugged landscapes engulfed in forbidding shadows, the visceral howls of dogs and wolves, the faint flames flickering against night’s encroaching darkness, all cumulatively symbolising the naïf’s Orpheus-like descent into an unknown otherness.

This powerful blend of imagery has found a natural home in cinematic representation, from the novel’s first adaptation, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), to countless successive re-imaginings in the ninety years hence. Yet the symbolic potency of Harker’s maudit voyage is such that it has been repurposed by other, non-Dracula films since: think of the progress of the eponymous protagonists in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982) or the escalating sinisterness in the opening train journey undertaken by meek accountant William Blake into the savagery of the Old West in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) – major works from auteurs who significantly, in the former’s remake of Murnau’s film and the latter’s recent Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), have addressed vampiric mythology more directly elsewhere in their filmographies.

The Count’s horse-drawn calèche – which becomes Aguirre’s raft, Fitzcarraldo’s steamer and Blake’s train carriage – is transformed into that familiar icon of New York City transit, the yellow taxicab, in two further films, Stanley Kubrick’s baroque final film Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Martin Scorsese’s nightmarish comedy After Hours (1985) which, despite their manifold differences in tone and style, both feature subtle transpositions of the near-mythical voyage of Stoker’s imagination to present-day, urban spheres.

Both films’ protagonists begin in the realms of normalcy. In After Hours, a jaded Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) returns from his mundane word processing job to his Upper East Side apartment, where the mise-en-scène emphasises his dull conformity: bright lamps, right angles, white walls bedecked only with comely framed art prints; in short, a world of domestic uniformity. The other side of Central Park, Eyes Wide Shut‘s Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) lives amidst an even greater degree of homeliness: his spacious, colourfully-decorated family abode reeks of intellectual refinement, taste, and order from every corner.

Both men, however, are dissatisfied with their lot, and promises of sexual adventure will lure them from their comfort zones into the realms of the mysterious: Hackett’s late night meet-cute with the kooky Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) prompts him to catch a ride down to bohemian SoHo. So too Harford, partially prompted by his wife Alice’s (Nicole Kidman) revelation of a lascivious sexual fantasy, is encouraged to venture forth into the unknown. Initially he heads downtown to a costume shop in SoHo’s neighbouring Greenwich Village, and then finally to an imposing mansion in a remote area of Long Island.

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Both men’s taxi rides are marked by an aesthetic shift from reality to fantasy, from the everyday to the irrational. As Hackett’s cab speeds away, external shots occur in sped-up Keystone Cops-style fast motion: a visual gag about New York drivers, certainly, but so too a reference to the distinctive undercranked shots of Count Orlok’s carriage in Murnau’s Nosferatu. Inside the taxi, meanwhile, Hackett is comically tossed about like a teddy bear on the spin cycle as loud flamenco music, replacing the austere classical cues associated with his home and work life, reverberates cacophonously around him.

Harford’s cab journeys, by contrast, are sombre in tone as he imagines his wife’s mental infidelity; cutaways whose blue hues seem to nod directly the tinting of Nosferatu‘s night-time scenes. Yet while differing from After Hours pacing, once again they begin to represent a move into the realm of the ‘other’: as the vehicle glides out of the city limits, a sequence of dissolves moves him from the mundane familiarity of highway signs and bright Christmas decorations to a haunting montage of the car’s stately progress along a forbidding, deserted wooded road, its headlamp beams straining against the enveloping darkness.

Neither journey might be considered, in physical terms, comparable to a nineteenth-century trek across the Carpathians, but in symbolic terms they carry similar resonances. Eyes Wide Shut, with its descent from the everyday into mask-clad baroque decadence, more straightforwardly mirrors Harker’s arrival into the feudal opulence of the Count’s surroundings. The SoHo of After Hours is also exotic and otherworldly, though perhaps only to Hackett himself, whose previous world of order stands in direct contrast to the gloom and divaricated lines of Marcy’s haphazardly unkempt loft apartment. Often codified as a ‘yuppie horror’ film, After Hours serves to illustrate how Hackett, as a banal, upwardly-mobile bourgeois, lives a life cloistered away from the majority of society and that if he perceives the residents of SoHo as ‘other’ from him, it is really he who represents the true ‘otherness’.

Harker’s initial journey in Stoker’s novel consists of travel first by train, then calèche, and finally in the Count’s own personal carriage a progression from modernity, industry and capital to the ancient and feudal. In Scorsese’s and Kubrick’s modern-day repurposings, there are naturally no such distinctions: their taxi rides are purely capitalistic transactions, as evidenced by the prominent role that money plays in both. In After Hours, Hackett’s sole $20 bill flies out of the window; by contrast, Harford smoothly tears a $100 note in half, on the promise that if the driver waits for him to return, the bill is his as a more than generous gratuity.

Suspension of disbelief in cinema has long made generous allowances for riders in taxis to disembark without recourse to gesture towards the matter of actually having to pay the driver before rushing off to save the world / rescue the girl / get the medicine to the dying child, so the fact that both films here foreground the necessity of the exchange of money is significant. For Harford, ostentatiously tearing a high-value bill symbolises his own financial dominance, (over-)confidence and a final gesture of the control in life which he will subsequently lose in Somerton. So too does Hackett’s own prior power gently fade, as he forlornly watches his solitary banknote gently pirouette through the air to rest on some anonymous, unlocatable patch of asphalt. Forced to leave his worldly goods behind him, Hackett, like Harford and Harker, must alight into the darkness.

Contributor Jonathan Bygraves can be followed on Twitter @iambags and runs the blog Serene Velocity.

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