Robin Pen's
CRITICAL
EMBUGGERANCE


Stimulating the Simulacra

One notable achievement of contemporary mainstream English-language cinema is not the opening and development of new cinematic fields but the slick recreation - as new cinema - of the styles and techniques of the past. The really hot way to make movies today is to retread those well-worn cinematic pathways of yesteryear in the crimson Converses of state-of-the-art technology (taking care it's not too obvious you've simply run your digital sampler over the past and this is nothing but the extended dance remix - MTV has a lot to answer for).

So what's new? That's been a principal modus operandi of Hollywood since the Keystone Cops scraped metal with a speeding steam train and Lillian Gish skipped skilfully across fast-moving ice floes in the Klondike. Now it's Arnie's SPFX crew blowing the shit out of inconvenient black'n'whites and Costner showing off his stuntman's tush so an Italian-looking Maid Marian can smirk inappropriately for the camera. The difference is that Lillian and the Keystone boys actually had to do those things, whereas now the big names - with a little help from today's techy-tacky wonders - can just lie back and fake it (except Jackie Chan and the Hong Kong set - but that's another story). And the mainstream film industry has become so proud of how well they're faking it that they're doing it over and over again just to make sure everyone gets to see it at least three times (with different actors and titles), become real impressed and walk away muttering deferentially "now that's art for ya."

In fact, that's the very word they are using: art. It has become cinematic "art" to rehash old films with a modern perception and computer effects (replacing the old paint brush, rubber bands and string). But don't worry: this is all perfectly sound and politically correct. It's all just part of the "post-modern experience", don't you know.

Though the very phenomenon of film (like the genre of science fiction) can be legitimately classified as post-modern (subject, of course, to the fashionable definition-of-the-moment), it has become cool to recognise the more consciously "post-modern" experimentation in recent mainstream cinema: typically such things as the mixing of "olden-style" and period setting with a modern attitude or outlook, and the intentional juxtaposition of iconography in semi-fantastic productions. Though many such films have failed commercially, it must be acknowledged that they're culturally significant, if only for a relatively brief period - a very "pop" kind of significance.

Then again, there are numerous examples of such stylistically tangential films that have gotten reasonable press, and on the odd occasion a reasonable return as well: Batman Returns, The Naked Lunch, Rocketeer, Cape Fear, The Muppet Christmas Carol, Prospero's Books, Barton Fink, The Addams Family, Cast a Deadly Spell, Hook, 1492, Sneakers and Alien3, to list a few recent examples. And the commercial respectability these films have generated has, as we'll see, given rise to a quintessential example of post-modern wank in cinematic "art".

Of late, fantasy cinema has been getting onto a new track - or back onto an old one, depending on how you look at it - away from the seventies' and eighties' notion that fantasy constitutes only the obviously abnormal, like supernatural nasties invading suburban reality, space ships propelled by warp drives and political correctness, barbarians, space knights and spotty-headed cop buddies. There is an increasing acknowledgment of the old premise that dramatic film is fantasy by its very nature. Thus the filmmaker finds the freedom to escape an imposed realité d'cinematique and go the whole hog; freedom to distort the mundane into a bizarre and intriguing representation of unconscious fears and desires (something that both David Cronenberg and David Lynch have been building careers on). With this freedom, though, comes the freedom to really screw up, both artistically and commercially.

In this light, Bram Stoker's Dracula is an interesting and very recent example of this direction in cinema. Although it seems to be the most loyal adaptation of the Stoker novel, Francis Ford Coppola's Big Vampire Movie is also a synthesis of the ideas and intentions of all the "legitimate" tellings of the Dracula myth on celluloid. Its sources of inspiration and guidance begin with Murnau's silent Nosferatu of 1922, then the first official Dracula (1931) with Bela Lugosi, based on the very successful stage adaptation. These were followed by the seemingly endless Christopher Lee series that took the original concept further and further away from anything in the book, and the surprisingly loyal 1973 telemovie with Jack Palance that merged elements of both play and novel. Finally, the 1979 biggie in which Frank Langella played Dracula as a blood-thirsty but handsome romeo (as he had done so successfully in the Broadway revival) returned to the play's basic structure, but with a ludicrous ending just because it hadn't been done before. These films - and a spate of novels with vampires as misunderstood and persecuted creatures of the night who really just want to be loved - have led to an attempt at the ultimate remake: A Francis Ford Coppola Film of Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Bram Stoker's Dracula is a homage to the history of over-the-top cinema. In trying to be the definitive modern period-gothic-horror-romance it does an awful lot, and quite possibly too much. The style of Bram Stoker's Dracula shifts and changes according to the scene; it uses cinematic techniques that are sometimes very dated and sometimes quite contemporary; the mood can be hard-edged and then suddenly become so melodramatic it's like viewing high opera where the performers are simply too caught up in their acting to actually get up and sing; it will oscillate wildly from classical story-telling to avant-garde in the space of minutes; its techniques and use of technology straddle the length and breadth of filmic experience from in-camera editing to computer morphing. Sometimes it's too slick and sometimes it's too clumsy, yet all the time it feels wholly intentional. Too intentional. Enough to make a slightly paranoid critic wonder if he's being made fun of.

Now, it might sound like I'm suggesting that Bram Stoker's Dracula is a mess and a failure. On the contrary, this bizarre juxtaposition of cinematic bric-a-brac highlights an aspect that is second only to story in the list of what makes a particular film a significant piece of cinema: design. Bram Stoker's Dracula is a reaffirmation of film as design. From sets to costumes, lighting to composition, sound effects to soundtrack, on-set effects to opticals; whichever way you look at it, this movie is a smorgasbord of filmic delicacies, its tasty morsels laid out on the platter in a surprisingly spontaneous arrangement - but then the spontaneity is just part of the plan for this epic but tightly-crafted production.

It is an achievement in audacious cinema with few rivals: possibly the richest collection of horror and romantic fantasy images since The Bride of Frankenstein. Like that 1935 mainstay of gothic horror, fantasy and science-fiction, Bram Stoker's Dracula combines elements of both the traditional and the most recent in film - very interesting when you consider there's a time difference of 57 years. (Also interesting are the obvious links both films have to Wuthering Heights and Evil Dead 2, albeit from opposite ends of creative inspiration.) Both Bram Stoker's Dracula and The Bride of Frankenstein effectively balance melodrama and the darkly mischievous sleight-of-handling of semi-taboo concepts: the latter drawing the analogy between Christ and the monster, and the former addressing the unleashing of female sexuality and the "need" for men to subdue it or see crushed their own fragile egos (most obvious in the way Lucy must suffer for letting her sexuality get the better of her).

However, there is an important point where Bram Stoker's Dracula and The Bride of Frankenstein diverge dramatically, and that's in how much the filmmakers (James Whale and Coppola respectively) want their audiences to be intellectually "aware" of what they're watching. Whereas Whale uses intellectualism to bind together story elements which are predominantly emotional in nature, Coppola attempts the opposite and uses emotion and powerful imagery to seduce the viewer while he embarks on a semio-textual study of the novel, both as serious literature and as lucrative mass entertainment from the England of 1897 to the present. In other words, while Whale has been clever in his approach, Coppola's approach is to be "very clever".

Your personal response to Coppola's "oh, I'm so clever" attitude in Bram Stoker's Dracula is likely to go far towards determining whether or not you like the film. More importantly, it can determine whether you found the whole process of watching A Francis Ford Coppola Film of Bram Stoker's Dracula in any way a worthwhile emotional and/or intellectual experience.

Regardless of what you thought of this movie - whether you believe it deserves to be treated as innovative cinema or a true case of the emperor's new clothes - remember that it represents just one more in the ongoing cycle of interpretations of the myth; in this case leaning heavily on the past in film and the vampire's place in it. It is also a definitive step along those pathways of cinematic progression (or re-progression). Love it or hate it, it is cinema future, it is cinema past, it is cinema now. Bram Stoker's Dracula is a film that looks back to the future of cinema and points out that it is somewhere we've already been. It is a filmic koan to teach us not to give up our search for new cinematic directions as yet unexplored; just to hold out and wait for a few hip individuals to come along and truly expand our consciousnesses with filmic revelations on par with Watergate, drugs in Coke and Arnie's secret cross-dress lifestyle (oh sorry - you mean you didn't know?) But it now seems likely that when a cinematic Messiah does descend from on high, the movie that will blow the minds of film-going humanity will probably be a re-make of a film we had all forgotten anyway.





Originally appeared pp. 59-61, Eidolon 11, January 1993.
Copyright © 1993 Robin Pen.
Reprinted by kind permission of the author.


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