Thursday 20 June 2013

Duking It Out With Coppola's Dracula

The TV was giving me two options; it was either this or Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and unfortunately I've already seen Fincher's overly-calculated women empowerment ad. Not that it's a bad film, just long and downbeat, not what the alternative offered: a "romanticized" version of the Dracula story. A book I admit I've never read; and after seeing the main story beats I doubt I ever will. Not that the word romanticized meant much to me at the time; I went in expecting a slow paced period drama told with the use of some British stage actors and a lot of boringly detailed olden day sets. How wrong I was.

So what did I think of it? Well it's films like this that make me agree with all those naggers and film-elite that putting a point-based rating on a film is worthless. Because in the end while not a great film, Dracula is such a damn interesting watch. Not to any casual viewers; who would probably find it even more boring than I did, but if you happened to have been nerded out by the filmmaking gods like moi then I couldn't recommend Dracula more highly.

I do understand that the comments above may seem a little strange but I'll try my best to justify them with the most eccentric glee possible; after all a film this batshit crazy over the top deserves nothing less. Where to begin? I'll start with Francis Ford Coppola; it was already well know by that point that the man was a hack. The man who had arguably the best decade any director has ever had in the 70s lost it all to the flashing lights and excess of the 80s, and as the 90s dawned not even a third Godfather could save him. After that the man descended into a mediocre hell towards the end of the 90s (bringing Robin Williams down with him) which is probably why everyone forgets about his Dracula; a decent enough film that isn't quite Apocalypse Now, but is something very special in it's own little way.

In terms of direction I don't think any film has ever used the "go for broke" mantra to the same level of insanity. Every area of the film pushes itself to the peak, but it's Coppola who pulls out all the stops. Every directional technique you can think of is used here. He uses a swooshing camera (at one point it literally flies in and out of a piece of railing for no apparent reason other than to confirm the madness of the plot) he uses weird staging (around set's as extravagant as they come) which have characters swooping in and out in front of the camera, usually in a very arch way like that of a stage play (reminding me a lot of Terry Gilliam's Brazil). Coppola's camera tilts and tracks, and all manner of effects (including fantastically cheesy CGI) cause shadows to come alive and move around in almost every scene while the sets light up and wind blows through each stage so much that eventually you just have to except what a tongue-in-cheek comic book you've gotten yourself into. I suppose some will complain that just like the new Gatsby this is taking classic texts into the stratosphere, but the imagery here; all of it very impressively put together and chucked at you at an irrational speed, cares more about honoring the books descriptions than actually answering to logic and reason.

But this endless barrage of over-the-top imagery is what makes the film so watchable. The story drags towards the end, mainly because we don't care about any of the characters, and the vampire is so overdone nowadays that the simple fact it's Dracula means very little; but at least the production team never give up. It all hits a peak about halfway through the film; I won't go into the unneeded details of the plot; just know that there is three story threads going on at the same time already when Coppola seemingly decided the audience would definitely be bored if he didn't rev things up. That's why we get sped up first person sequences of a werewolf-looking Gary Oldman stalking our main characters, only for the film to skip to unrelated images of Dracula traveling by boat (all filmed in Terry Malick-esque soul searching beauty) while one of the films many narrations guides us through. The film is littered with sequences like this where the contents of the story and the characters take second billing to Coppola's style frenzy.

And don't think thats it. From the opening of the film Coppola re-uses the same actors to play different characters from a different time period Cloud Atlas-style. And just incase the ending of the film with it's mess of characters and set pieces was boring you, the man throws in a full on old-fashioned cowboy shoot out-chase sequence out of nowhere; and if that wasn't enough for you he films it during a fucking snow storm just to make sure the camera crew and editing team can go as crazy as they want with that shit. In other words what I'm saying is: why would you want to watch one of those critically acclaimed Michael Haneke dramas that take minimalism to the max when you could be spending your time watching a film were every scene transition has some sort of special effect or visual transformation, because god forbid could one scene just change to the next.

Not that any of that makes the film that great, just as I say, interesting. I say Coppola does all that crazy stuff near the end incase your bored, but in truth I was bored. It all gets too much, and the story is too long and spiraling to allow for anything this over the top to be sustained all the way through, not to mention hold our interest. Maybe I would find the same problems with the book. Or maybe it was Coppola. Although I doubt it; my interest wouldn't have held if this was filmed like a stale period piece (which I assume many imagine the book as) my attention would have probably wavered a lot sooner.

So what? It was a waste of such insanity? It had potential before Coppola did three lines of coke before arriving on the set each morning? I guess all I can say on the matter of quality is that all of the things that should be terrible (and if you slow down to think for a minute; are terrible) work in a way here, possibly because it's impossible to truly hate something trying that hard for your love.

Take the acting for instance; I don't think I've ever seen a film before where every actor was working on a completely different playing field. Gary Oldman is method-ing it up, Winona Ryder is doing her whole innocent-sexy thing while not getting involved in much of the drama, Keanu Reeves is fucking everything up with one of the worst accents ever attempted (Keanu is actually trying to be on that half of the actors with Oldman who are just blending into the background, but he ends up sticking out more obviously than anyone else), Anthony Hopkins appears as Van Helsing, giving a solidly committed performance to a very comic-book adaptation of the character, and even Richard E. Grant, who was in his element at the time as one of many actors in a long line of stage-trained Brits who get tons of supporting roles with big American directors after one big British breakout (he's basically the early 90s version of Benedict Cumberbatch) adds a decent amount of sleazy charm (because doesn't he always?) to proceedings. A huge mess of a cast all operating on different frequencies, but all so determined and most looking like they're having so much fun that in the end they make it work as a sort-of disfigured family ploughing through the mess.

Then again I think it was Richard T Jameson (good critic; look him up) who said that the problem with Coppola's images were that they lacked any deeper meaning or purpose. He was talking about Apocalypse Now but his words make as much sense here. Not that I'm saying he's especially bad at his job; if your gonna fuck up a load of trees and wildlife you might as well have a film as good as Apocalypse Now to show for it, what I am saying though is that I agree Coppola's shots have little extra meaning. They're great broad strokes, usually packed to the brim with beautiful sights and quite a lot of them swiftly moving across huge set pieces, but the framing of them means nothing. And that's true in Dracula; there's hugely impressive shots here, but that falls to the bombast of set designers and costume guys who have clearly been instructed that subtlety is off the menu. The only instance of framing here that I thought brought any greater meaning was in a scene where Oldman's Dracula tries to vampirize (?) Ryder's Mina by making her drink his blood through a newly opened cut through his chest. Coppola frames it like a shy porn director would frame a blow-job. We know what she's doing, but I find it hard someone would not think of it the sexual way. It adds an element of romance to the relationship between these two; and as far as I could tell was the only frame in the movie where Coppola told me more than he was showing me.

But I'm not trying to knock the man's directional style, I mean he's probably had enough of that already (and if Pacino can get a hall pass then I don't see why Coppola can't). But I found something special in his Dracula movie; it was strange to see a director go all out. To see a whole cast and crew all individually decide that this was the only way to adapt a revered classic. It's pretty common knowledge that making a movie is a pretty hard business; with all the time and money it consumes, so I understand why movies like this aren't flung out of studios like hotcakes. Hell, maybe it's because I'm an "aspiring filmmaker" and if I ever managed to kiss enough ass to get a film crew and a budget together, then I would never dare piss it all away like this. So I see Dracula not as an entertainment product, or even the cash-grab or oscar bait a modern Dracula would be, but Coppola's weird experiment; most likely one he didn't know he was making. You may even debate this yourself, but as you soon as you see Gary Oldman's hair, this giant blonde monstrosity that looks so big it might eat poor Keanu whole any minute, then you'll know this movie can't be anything else.

And what a beautiful experiment. Maybe good ol' Francis had been waiting to do a film like this for a while. Maybe after dropping all that fire on the natural world while listening to Jim Morrison sing there was only one way up, and that was this. Some won't understand this; but eventually things that are good only give you so much worth. Go, watch the classics, learn some shit, but after that you'll be left dried up on land. That's when you start watching some real crap. You'll make mistakes, don't worry that's all part of it. You'll even go through a phase where you watch an Adam Sandler film, say Jack and Jill, thinking you'll gain something from the experience, only to find out what a mistake you've made. But don't worry, you'll find your way, and when you do the wealth hidden behind a film like Dracula will become clear. Only then could a film that's been pumped full of steroids and sledgehammered into submission like this be of any worth. I'm sure every film fan has their breaking point when they realise that crap that tries to do something is better than boring quality; mine came when I watched Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula.

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