Vlad Songs Say So Much

Welcome to the final installment of THE VLAD TAPES, my commentary on Francis Ford Coppola’s commentary on BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA. I was several installments into this before it struck me that BSD was the first movie I saw at the cinema with Fiona. It wasn’t a date — there was a producer present — but it was the start of something. And the first time I saw Fiona wearing glasses. And at the end of the movie she said, “Now, we can’t discuss it until we’re outside,” which I thought very disciplined. Normally, now, Fiona launches into the post-match analysis as the credits are starting their rise, so I think maybe she was just showing off.

We begin with an elaborate explanation of the ongoing plot from Uncle Francis, which I’ll omit.

This is, you know, a glass shot, or some old-fashioned studio effect.

It would be nice if he was sure which.

I forget even now watching what we had built and what we added… I think my mind was going at this point.

And when did that start, exactly?

You know it was a lot of stuff to shoot in a relatively short time frame… this is for sure a glass shot, the road is real and then the rest is painted.

I guess with the passage of time, it’s less easy to tell when the film is being deliberately retro and when it’s just using the standard techniques of 1992. Plenty of films still used glass shots then, I think. But the lack of overt CGI certainly works against it dating.

And it’s snowing at Castle Sitting Down Dracula! They should show this movie every Christmas.

You begin to wonder why all movies look alike, and it’s because the solutions to problems are done a certain way and when you’re making a movie you have that stunt guy and he says “You fall off a horse this way,” and that’s the way they fall off the horse in every movie… I mean, good reason, it’s probably the safe way…

Wait, what are we saying, again? The real geniuses devise more painful and dangerous ways to fall off horses. That’s probably about right, I guess.

but it’s sort of an undertow when you make an industrial film, which this is, to do it the same way they’re used to doing it…

OK, yes, I get you. And it’s true. But to break through that you do need to offer a better way, don’t you?

If you have a photographer and you ask him to do something stupid or unconventional, he’s worried […] what his peers are gonna say, is he gonna be laughed at, at the Photographers’ Ball when they all get together…

Is there a Photographer’s Ball? Was Ballhaus scared of what they’d all say at the ball? I love this idea. I love the image of a shamed Ballhaus, his peers all laughing down their viewfinders at him, waving their light meters scornfully.

My daughter Sophia does it another way, she’s a tiny woman, she’s not a, she’s a very petite woman, very sweet and gentle, but she’s just hard as nails underneath, so she’ll just say “I don’t want to do it that way.”

Whereas Francis would kick holes in doors. We live in less romantic times.

Van Helsing uses a Gurkha knife to decapitate the brides of Dracula:

So much for the three Brides of Dracula, you cut off their heads and they’re finished.

True. But you needn’t feel so superior about it.

I feel a bit sorry for the brides. They seem to be conscious, but unable to move because it’s daylight, and here comes this gallumphing taff actor to decapitate them. Horrible! Think of it from their point of view and it’s the scariest scene in the picture.

Animated POV again —

That was to show that Mina had the pixilated vision so she didn’t need the binoculars.

Are you implying she’s squiffled or something?

It is remarkable that this chase has the variety it has, because it’s all shot in the same place.

Chases don’t work so well in the studio. What Uncle Francis is really saying is that this is pretty good considering it’s the wrong way of doing it.

But actually, it’s really quite accomplished. It’s the fight that comes next that’s kind of messy.

These blue rings of fire I do believe were done on an optical printer

Francis feels the in-camera tricks have a more organic feel. Possibly true. I like how they’re the same rings — positively the same rings — as seen when Mephistopheles appears in Murnau’s FAUST and the false Maria is brought to life in METROPOLIS.

Much of these shots are done by Roman because there were so many shots to get, a slew of them […] we were like a two-man team doing these things.

The epic battle just seems like a lot of thrashing about. The occasional wide shots, like this one, aren’t terribly impressive. It’s very much a sequence made by the cutter, using a lot of just-adequate material, and it never gets very involving or exciting, despite the music and the race-the-sunset concept.

Keanu seems slightly more on top of his accent at last. Like he’s delivering the lines, not the other way around.

And for the large, large, large part, all these lines are out of the book.

If Keanu Reeves swapped parts with Alex Winter as the author of The Vampyre in HAUNTED SUMMER, which film would get better and which would get worse? I think they might be about the same. Still GREAT.

And then, alas, there’s a series of morphs taking Gary through his previous incarnations, though he skips the big friendly dog and the green fart stage. Remember how excited everybody got about morphing for about five minutes? (David Lynch, on why he didn’t use morphs in LOST HIGHWAY: “It just seems like everyone and his uncle’s doin’ it.”) Lap dissolves would have been more in keeping with Roman Coppola’s old-school approach to the other effects, maybe with a slight, subtle morphing assistance. It’s the one jarringly fashionable effect.

I remember I showed it to my friend George Lucas, and he looked it and he said, “I think she should cut off his head,” and I said, “Well, that’s pretty disgusting,” he says, “Yeah, well, that’s the greatest act she could give him, to give him the peace and the moment of once again being taken to God’s breast can only be given to him by cutting off his head,” and I said, “Yeah, I hadn’t quite thought of it that way,” and I did it. […] George had thought that to REALLY be sure that he’d never be a vampire again… I thought it was pretty CLEAR… I did it the sparks went in, the thing went through his heart, like a stake through the heart, George says “She should cut off his head, that’s the greatest act of love she could do,” I said “Okay! If they don’t get it with the stake through the heart, we’ll cut off his head. Pretty startling thing to do.”

“I don’t think he should have listened to George,” says Fiona.

I point out that they had to decapitate all the other vampires. Van Helsing was very clear about that.

“I suppose so. You can’t have a special rule just for Gary Oldman, much as you would like to.”

Still, given all that’s happened since, maybe a good general rule would be, “Never listen to George Lucas.”

I guess Gary got to keep the head, but did they also give him the nipple from earlier?

Which actor of our times is closest to being able to assemble a full silicone Frankenstein monster of himself from all the bits he’s had done in different movies?

And such is the end. They go off to heaven as lovers always do. Paola and Francesca, Dracula and Elisabeta

Bert and Ernie.

Although waitaminute, Mina’s not dead, so can the woman she’s the reincarnation of be going off to heaven with Gary? Seems a tricky one. It’s kind of like the polygamy we have to assume exists in Heaven for all the people who were widowed and remarried and then died…

and on and on, the end.

Yes.

The credits are rolling but Francis shows no signs of stopping.

My idea was to make it with young people and to make it more romantic and in fact SEXY, the Brides of Dracula and the various scenes with Sadie and then combining eroticism when Mina begins to be infected by the blood of the vampire, she gets to be sort of provocatively sexy, and in fact she was pretty sexy in that scene with Anthony Hopkins, you know, she brings him down to her level and almost exalts [sic] in the fact that she has him stoked up.

Well, it is Bram STOKER’S — oh wait, I already made that joke.

So it was supposed to be a more sexy version. I don’t feel it’s so scary a version. Maybe a little bit.

Yes.

It’s my take on Jim Hart’s script, which I guess is all a director can do.

Short of getting a better writer.

I was able to achieve a final — hopefully final! — freedom from the film industry as an industry. As I continue now, as I speak to you, it’s 2006 and I am just recently sixty-seven years old, or as I like to call it, fifty-seventeen, and I decided to do what I always felt I wanted to do, which is to be an amateur

Which is lovely. And then he compares himself to Borodin, because Borodin was a doctor in his professional life and a composer on the side, and Tchaikovsky, because, well it kind of breaks down there. Maybe Francis likes hot baths.

I hope you have enjoyed these thoughts

“Oh we certainly have!” says Fiona.

Thank you so much.

You’re very welcome INDEED.

It’s not over until the thin Aberdonian lady sings, so here’s Annie Lennox. Remember not to start discussing the movie until she’s done.

8 Responses to “Vlad Songs Say So Much”

  1. Lucas’ comments are pretty interesting, especially considering the third Star Wars prequel (which I saw again at the start of this year and was quite impressed by) deals with the doomed romance. There’s quite a strong thread of silent film inspiration in the Star Wars prequels, and the third film has a Borzagean moment where the two lovers stare across the city’s skyscrapers that reminded me of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

  2. I could never believe any of the characters in the Lucas prequels: whatever gift he showed for casting earlier in his career deserted him there. And then to show Obi-Wan dismembering his foe and leaving him in pieces, still alive, does quite a bit of violence to the character Alec Guinness had played.

  3. Well the Star Wars prequels are being reassessed recently. There was this roundtable here (https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/star-wars-dialogue-ii-avant-garde-vs-classical) and by Richard Brody (https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/what-the-seven-star-wars-films-reveal-about-george-lucas). Speaking personally, the third prequel was the first Star Wars I saw in theatres and I always preferred that to the originals. And you know Alec Guinness was chopping up brutally the arms of bar patrons in the first film and visibly had aristocratic disdain for pond-scum like smugglers and others, bolstered no doubt by Guinness the actor’s own aristocratic disdain for the genre. And of course now that we know that the prequels had far more practical effects and miniatures than the originals did, and not as much CGI as advertised, it has a fair bit in common with Coppola’s film not conceptually so much as in its attempt to engage with silent film, props, set designs and background.

    And in any case, Lucas’ call about chopping off Dracula’s head in Coppola’s film was the right suggestion. I feel that its the right thing to do to offload the otherwise too sentimental and rosy portrayal of the Dracula-Mina romance. At the end of the day he was still a vampire, and that importance of separating the man from the vampire is key to that. As Lucas says, “greatest act she could have given him”.

  4. Is the commentary track just an audio track, or does FFC actually appear in a window on screen, in the pink shirt, when he’s talking?

  5. Oh, I wish! No, it’s just audio. But he wears the same shirt in the other extras, so there’s plenty opportunity to enjoy its retina-searing intensity.

    I’m a hardliner on the prequels, though I will say that, unlike practically all blockbusters, they do showcase an individual sensibility, with all the flaws that go with it, rather than being the committe-made things we’re used to in modern blockbusters. So they have the interest of answering the question, What if Ed Wood had $100,000,000 to spend on a film?

  6. Wasn’t Ed Wood’s whole problem the fact that he genuinely believed he had $100,000,000 to make low-budget shoestring movies, and made his movies under that belief against all existing reality? The authentic B-Movie masterpieces and great films are great precisely because the film-makers knew their material limitations and what they could and could not do, and worked that into their films.

    Lucas is closer to say Chaplin and Disney in terms of his endless resources and time to achieve his vision but without the authentic and consistent genius of the former and the entirely cold and cynical calculation of the latter, containing an admixture of the two. He fits with the pattern of what Jonathan Rosenbaum described as how American entertainers can provoke extremes from blind love to total hate (a pattern that afflicted Chaplin, Jerry Lewis, and recently Woody Allen).

  7. No, I think Ed Wood’s problem was one of talent and brains. He wasn’t as clever as he thought he was. So his most effective film is Glen or Glenda, where what he’s doing can’t be assessed in conventional terms. What he’s doing is inventing the avant-garde scene of the sixties, a decade early.

    There’s certainly a comparison to be made between Lucas and Chaplin and Disney in terms of level of artistic control. So that Lucas could set himself an unfashionably low budget for Phantom Menace, and then spend much more when he decided he needed to/wanted to. A studio would have asked him to spend more in the first place, then refused to let him raise the budget again.

    But Lucas isn’t anywhere near as talented as those guys, or as experimental as Ed Wood. And going by his dialogue and plotting in the later films, he’s not much brighter than Wood.

    I don’t think Woody Allen’s work really produces extreme reactions: it’s the interpretations of his private life that do that.

  8. I feel that the Star Wars dialogue is as good as it deserves. I mean the whole complaint about Star Wars was that Lucas took the first one too seriously. He made a bunch of B-Movie concepts and ideas on the scale of DeMille, without quite cottoning on that the whole B-Movie revival was all about how the classic B Movies were way better on its worst day than DeMille at his best. So to me criticising the Star Wars movies for dialogue only works if you entirely assimilate Lucas’ wholesale aesthetic revisionism. The original Star Wars movies have characters and sets that look like more polished and designed B-Movies but in the middle you have very A-Characters and actors, whereas the prequels are much closer to “William Castle if he had DeMille’s bank account” that the movies always promised.

    Coppola is an interesting point to consider since he was for all intents and purposes the left-wing Cecil B. DeMille of the 70s. And The Godfather movies are more or less Warner Bros. gangsters done on the scale of Visconti and David Lean. And yet Coppola never allowed himself to be typed and he used his money and fame not to make Intolerance but One for the Heart, and he became more marginal. And Bram Stoker’s Dracula is representative of that, it’s very much a ’90s Hollywood movie but it goes back to Cocteau, to the silent film, to his Roger Corman roots.

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