Tag Archives: Roger Corman

Putting A Year To Rest

“Cinema also made the power of America abroad, its conquest of the world since the Second World War being due not only to military, technical and economic supremacy but also to the power of its cinema.” – Jean-Luc Godard, CINEMA: the archaeology of film and the memory of a century, 2000

“In other words, the validity and vibrancy of this important cinematic tradition depends upon a workable compromise between art cinema and popular cinema; between generic tradition and formal innovation; between political intentions and social fantasies; between private investment and public funding; and between a real appreciation for the local and regional and a critical examination of the national as a new/old  category of cultural identity within an increasingly streamlined global media landscape.” – Sabine Hake, German National Cinema, 2002

Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge

Introduction & Hacksaw Ridge

I have seen a number of blockbusters this Autumn.  Some were decent, some were terrible.  But each was indicative of the state of American cinema today in its own way.  Together these films provide a survey of the strategies and tactics employed by producers, directors, and studio executives in the effort to fill seats and entertain.

Of all of the films I have seen this Autumn, Hacksaw Ridge (2016) is by far the most indicative of America’s mass consciousness and how Hollywood chooses to address that mass conciousness.  Hacksaw Ridge is a return to form for director Mel Gibson.  Again he addresses the horrors of war, the morality of Christian duty and the circumstances that prompt Christian men to question their beliefs.  As always, Gibson does all of this at a fast pace, fast enough so that we the audience don’t have time to question nor ponder the significance of Gibson’s images.  Gibson’s film succeeds only in so far as it conveys his own Christian beliefs as well as serving up a violent spectacle so tantalizing to fans of Saving Private Ryan (1998) and video games that nothing else really does matter anymore.

That’s the issue at hand in American cinema today.  If a film conveys one articulate moral platitude and provides enough spectacle then nothing else really does matter.  This has been true of American mainstream cinema for sometime, though it has never seemed so blatant to me before.  The pretense of artfulness seems to have died in the wake of J.J. Abrams and Michael Bay.  Arguably the last really compelling mainstream commercial release with wide distribution in this country was Lee Daniels’ The Paper Boy (2012).  Since then, aside from some films released on the  “art-house circuit” (if one really can call it that), the best work available to American audiences is happening on television or online streaming platforms.  The cause of this jockeying in power and quality is inevitably born out of a competition between film, television and online streaming as well as a competition between the major entertainment conglomerates for successful branding or franchises (Star Wars vs. Star Trek, Marvel vs. DC, Harry Potter vs. Pixar, etc.).  Given this atmosphere  it isn’t any wonder why American media as a whole has stooped to pandering, placating and generally condescending to their audiences.

Blake Lively in The Shallows

Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe & Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows

In studying film history one tends to take it for granted that there can be innovation and controversy in B-Movies and exploitation films.  In the vein of exploitation films a number of remarkable filmmakers have cut their teeth.  One can often see evidence of this remarkability in the early exploitation films of such filmmakers as Jonathan Demme, Monte Hellman, Joe Dante, Robert Wise, and Abel Ferrara.  Regrettably, there is no evidence, as far as I can see, of any innovation or invention in either Don’t Breathe or The Shallows.

I saw both films at The Rave just off of UPenn’s campus with my friends Stephen and Virginia.  Virginia chose these films with our consent under the assumption that these films would somehow represent a contemporary manifestation of the kind of exploitative cinema that the three of us love (my expectations being set more specifically along the lines of Roger Corman’s productions in the eighties).

The experience of The Shallows certainly came closest to this.  As Virginia put it The Shallows was the first “serious shark movie” in a long time.  The Shallows was rather preposterous, a drawn out battle between Blake Lively and a CGI shark.  That was the film’s narrative; escape the shark.  The subtext of the film was that the love that Blake Lively’s character had for her deceased mother (a victim of cancer) could enable her to do anything.  This sentimental detail, designed to raise the stakes for the audience, really did nothing more than elicit a rather comical commentary from our fellow theater goers.

The true purpose of The Shallows though was to give the audience the opportunity to drink in Blake Lively’s body with our eyes for upwards of ninety minutes.  Don’t Breathe represents a similar impulse, though Alvarez seems to have run amok in creating images that sexually tantalize to the point that, due to the sheer volume and the inherent violence of these images, they become repulsive.

Don’t Breathe plays itself out as a sort of aesthetic marriage between Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978) and Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs (1991) with a sprinkling of Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark (1967) for good measure.  The narrative premise is wholly indebted to Craven’s film while the approach to sexual violence and retribution is that of Zarchi’s film.  However, unlike either film, though particularly I Spit On Your Grave, the phallic, and images representing the phallic, remain the brunt instrument of pain and sexual power.  The inverting of sexual dominance via castration that is the climax of I Spit On Your Grave is substituted in Don’t Breathe for a phallus in the control of a once female victim.  This is what was most troubling about Don’t Breathe.  The film lacked the audacity to empower the female protagonist on her own terms, thus subverting and disqualifying any claims to a feminist reading.

Tom Hanks & Aaron Eckhart in Sully

Cookie Cutter Perfection: Gavin O’Connor’s The Accountant & Clint Eastwood’s Sully

The Accountant is a troubling film.  It’s first act reads as the kind of genre-centric character study epitomized by Francis Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) while the second and third acts are dreadfully typical post-John Woo action spectacles.  The protagonist’s autism, initially treated with a sensitive humanism, metamorphoses into a kind of superpower or mutant ability with regards to how the script treats this condition.  In this respect the narrative design of the film implodes upon itself.  The latter half of the film eclipses the former, wiping away all of the nuance and subtlety.  In fact, the highlight of the film is right before this aesthetic shift in a short dialogue exchange between Ben Affleck and Anna Kendrick concerning painted portraits of dogs playing poker.  

Equally as generic, Sully represents the latest in a long line of films by Eastwood centering on a man fighting the system, though this time that man is played by Tom Hanks.  Hanks himself is no stranger to the “underdog” hero narrative as evidenced by last year’s Bridge Of Spies and The Terminal in 2004.  But Sully lacks the arbitrary whimsy and racism of Hanks’ collaborations with Steven Spielberg.  In the place of that whimsy Eastwood substitutes character.  The issue is that the script never really allows for the title character to exhibit more than one facet of himself, opting to play the same note over and over again.  The film can’t even bring itself to flirt with America’s post-9/11 paranoia or trauma concerning urban plane crashes, nor does it allow for the bureaucratic corruption to expand beyond three short sequences.

Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them

 Derrickson’s Doctor Strange & Yates’ Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them

I mentioned earlier how instrumental the successful franchise is to contemporary Hollywood marketing.  As a motivating factor as well as an aesthetic trend setter the franchise cannot be underestimated.  Consider the revival of the Star Trek, Star Wars, Transformers, and Power Rangers franchises.  Hollywood is franchise happy.

One such revived franchise is the Harry Potter franchise.  I have never read Rowling’s novels nor have I seen all of the original films.  However, I have been told that should not stop me from comprehending Yates’ Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them.

Immediately I was struck by a number of things in this film that are indicative of the Harry Potter franchise’s bankruptcy.  Firstly, another in a long line of nightmarishly awful performances by the acting atrocity Eddie Redmayne.  Secondly, the overwhelming number of jokes made at the expense of an overweight character.  Then finally the appropriation of the Marilyn Monroe type and of the early twentieth century period.  These first two issues speak for themselves.  The last two, at least in my perspective, represent an effort to establish familiar and marketable signifiers as well as lazy screenwriting on Rowling’s part.  New York of the twenties, as well as the twenties in general, have great currency with millennial audiences as they continue to fetishize the flapper era and its look.  The Monroe element is more elusive.  Typically an archetypally Monroe character is a sort of Janus.  The character will, to serve narrative needs, go from ditsy blonde sex object to an assertive and intelligent woman of the modern world.  This device has its root in the dispelling of the stereotype that Monroe was somewhere short of intelligence in the wake of her death and the thousands of ensuing biographies.  Popular films from the mid-sixties onward make use of this contradiction in a number of ways.  Rowling’s just doesn’t happen to be very interesting.

The construction of Rowling’s plot is a little less troubling in that it is generally so formulaic.  The hero is lost in a strange environment where he makes friends who can help him accomplish his task, save the world, and improve their own moral character.  The base approach to this structure and its literally magical charms allow Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them to fill the void left by Don Bluth so many years ago in the children’s film market (Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them is a remake of An American Tale right?).

Unlike the world of Harry Potter, the world of Doctor Strange is one that I know and love.  Rintrah is by far one of my favorite supporting characters in all of comic books.  I have two copies of the Amy Grant issue in my collection, as well as original trading cards of Kylian and Irish Wolfhound.  Not to mention my admiration for Steve Englehart’s groundbreaking run.  That said, I could rip Derrickson’s film apart from a fanboy perspective in a prolonged diatribe.  But I won’t.  I will stick to the film itself, dealing exclusively with it on its own terms.

Marvel/Disney has set out to create a universe in film that mirrors that in the comics; and it has.  The studio has produced about a dozen films that cross-reference and relate to one another at an alarming rate.  And it is into this universe that they have, with this film, introduced Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange.

Doctor Strange strives to inject hip and cool into the world of this often overlooked comic book character in the guise of visual effects lifted from Christopher Nolan’s Inception and the casting of Tilda Swinton.  Oddly, the film retains some of the jingoism of the comic.  The film’s structure itself is typical of the “origin story”.  The film is so remarkably mundane and familiar that there isn’t much to say other than that it looked better than Captain America: Civil War.

La La Land

Out Of The Theater And Back At Home

I opened this piece with two quotes.  One by Jean-Luc Godard and one by Sabine Hake.  I find both of their points to be valid and certainly true to an extent.  But are their ideas, their notions of what the cinema is and should be, applicable to the mainstream of Hollywood productions?  I don’t think so.  In the films I have discussed here there has been no evidence of a “workable compromise between art cinema and popular cinema” nor has the American cinema exhibited “power” as Godard puts it.  But I have seen such elements, components, and evidence in American films.  Though these films tend to be small, underground films playing regional film festivals.  Or, as is the case with Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, an rare exception that proves the rule.  

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Winter 2017

Anticipating Dunkirk

The history of the cinema is replete with instances in which filmmakers have gone to extravagant lengths to establish a credible realism.  The most extreme ventures of this sort often form the basis of early marketing campaigns with the intention of tantalizing an audience’s impulses with the promise of a “real” spectacle as opposed to a fabricated one.  Through history these spectacles have varied from the Belgian Congo locations for John Huston’s The African Queen (1951), the rumored on camera intercourse between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), to the physical aging process as captured in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014).The lure of the “real”, while elusive, is undoubtedly fetishized for its perceived scarcity in narrative films.  That is not to say that the emotional lives of characters in films are artificial, or that the narratives of most films take place outside of our own historical and socio-political context, or even that a large number of films do not make use of actual locations.  It’s a matter of special effects.  The simulated versus the documented.

The Train

A personal favorite example of this is the derailing of a steam locomotive in John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964).  The cooperation of the French government and the backing of United Artists afforded Frankenheimer the luxury to opt for the actual locomotive crash and not the simulated crash of miniatures.  What imbues this spectacle with the sense of the awesome is that it is allowed to interact directly with the film’s star, Burt Lancaster.  The gravitas of this sequence derives from the high stakes of Lancaster’s very real jeopardy; he could have easily been killed during shooting.  By releasing this information prior to release in the trade papers United Artists was able to capitalize on audience’s pseudo-sadistic desire to watch Burt Lancaster narrowly escape death.  

The sadistic voyeurism of audiences has been making hits out of unorthodox or simply unmarketable films for decades.  Once it was rumored that native people died during the shooting of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982) in the Amazon, Roger Corman was insured of recouping his investment.  Alex Proyas’ The Crow (1994) is another such film, albeit the death of Brandon Lee was no rumor at all but a very real tragedy.  However what unites these films is the reality of a life in peril and the audience’s intrinsic desire to see their own shared mortality put to the test from the safety of the multiplex.

Now enter Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.  Nolan is a master of spinning technical innovation as marketing strategy.  Inception drew audiences for its digital effects more so than for its cast and certainly more so than for its incoherent script (Nolan’s most prevalent trademark in my opinion is that none of his plots make any sense).  With Dunkirk he has done it once again.  

behind the scenes of Dunkirk

Analog special effects are now mostly the province of memory for audiences.  Gone are the heydays of Cliff Wallace and Chris Walas.  There is no disputing that computer generated imagery quickly came to dominate American cinema in the wake of Jurassic Park (1993) and Pixar, culminating in a pastiche of the “actual” before the cameras and the generated images from a computer that are all unified in a single shot during post-production.  It’s this very context that gives Nolan’s latest publicity stunt on Dunkirk any claims for notoriety at all.

Slashfilm.com revealed not to long ago that Warner Bros. spent five million dollars on a WWII fighter to be used in Nolan’s Dunkirk.  Nolan, rumor has it, will crash the plane for Hoyte van Hoytema’s IMAX 65mm cameras.  That is to say that Warner Bros. potentially spent five million dollars on a single special effect (quite a lot more than they spent on the very “real” planejacking in Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises).  It’s a sum that clearly can be seen as an investment.  Why not spend five million on a special effect or even the buzz around that effect that will save who knows how many millions on advertising?  

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Summer 2016

The Intruder: An Appreciation

Charles Beaumont made a career of writing macabre stories whose slight removal from the reality we know and share gave them a urgenency and horror that would influence a generation.  In popular culture he is most renowned for his work writing for The Twilight Zone.  Though his career spanned just less than twenty years Beaumont’s work provides today’s audiences and readers with a unique glimpse at the psychology of America at the height of its social and political upheaval.  In adapting his novel The Intruder for the screen as a project for producer/director Roger Corman in 1962, Beaumont has given us what may be the best account of the racial violence in the deep south of the time.

The Intruder

The film follows Adam Cramer (William Shatner), who arrives in a small town called Caxton.  Cramer is charming, intelligent, and does not appear at all threatening at the outset of the film.  But when it becomes clear that he has come to Caxton with the intention of halting the court-ordered integration of the local high school, a darker, hateful side of his character comes to light.  The ominous quality of Taylor Byars’ photography of Shatner clearly signifies that the audiences’ sympathies should not be with the pro-segregation characters.  This is reinforced by Corman’s choice of casting locals, and presenting African-American characters first within the context of a functioning family unit (a rarity at the time).  Later this will serve to dramatize the ramifications of Cramer’s allegations of interracial rape; a sequence whose macabre design, complete with Klansmen, foreshadows Corman’s Masque Of The Red Death (1964).

In the tradition of Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (1964) and Shock Corridor (1963), The Intruder packages its edgey social commentary in the vernacular of the B-Movie.  But it is Corman’s film that truly confronts the controversial issue of its day head-on.  What the B-Movies of the early sixties didn’t have to worry about, at least not to as great an extent, was the press.  Films such as Martin Ritt’s Edge Of The City (1957) and Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958) cost nearly three times as much as The Intruder and featured big-name stars like Sydney Poitier and Tony Curtis (William Shatner would not be a household name for four more years when he is cast as Captain James T. Kirk on Star Trek).  The mainstream could not afford to isolate its audiences with either the truth of racial violence or the bluntness of their liberal message.  What filmmakers like Ritt and Kramer could do was to suggest the injustice of laws such as segregation and allude to racial violence in their films.  The minute Corman shows us Cramer driving into the “black neighborhood” of Caxton with Klansmen in the back seat he has immediately surpassed these other films in terms of the directness of his political and social agenda.

William Shatner in Roger Corman's The Intruder

Though The Intruder can be seen today as a remarkable film for its time, when it was originally completed Corman had to struggle to find it distribution.  Even then audiences were not receptive to the films shocking portrayal of racism despite the fact that The Intruder was getting predominantly favorable reviews.  It’s been due to William Shatner’s and Roger Corman’s ever evolving cult statuses that The Intruder has remained in print and available for viewing in the years since.  Though it has been confusing at times since I have seen home video releases of the film under the three different names the film was originally marketed as, both nationally and internationally, including the comical title I Hate Your Guts!.  But that just goes to show that it is the film’s makers who are the selling point not the film.  Hopefully, that will change.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Summer 2015

Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance

Albert Brooks’ second feature film Modern Romance (1981) is a satire unlike few others in popular cinema. As the title suggests, Brooks’ has honed his comical eye on the conventions of romance, but the film extends into the realm of reflexivity as it parodies the directorial excess that marked the American auteur films of the early eighties. However, the primary concern of Modern Romance is in fact with modern romance. To understand the conventions Brooks’ rails against in his film it is, for better or worse, necessary to determine where contemporary notions of what is romantic derive from.

It is well known that until the First World War the intelligentsia was predominantly of the European aristocracy. The customs and etiquette of this exclusive world have been popularized by the likes of Jane Austen for over a century. In the aristocratic world of privilege education was taken for granted and marriage a means of securing position. In this environment, where women marry men of equal or superior social rank, a fantasy was allowed to evolve. This fantasy existed out of necessity, a coping mechanism to ensure individual emotional sustainability. A woman married to a man for whom she harbors no genuine affection or admiration is likely to fantasize about a suitor driven by his love for her. Likewise another scenario that is equally probable is that of the male suitor who is totally obsessed with his romantic fixation on a particular female. Both fantasies offer what in reality is sorely lacking.

Brooks and Harrold in Modern Romance.

Brooks and Harrold in Modern Romance.

These romantic fantasies have been permitted to permeate our popular culture since their conception, from Bronte’s Wuthering Heights to Walt Disney’s Cinderella. Though it is almost immediately clear that equating true love with obsession is in actual implementation quite unhealthy for all parties involved, relatively few artists have sought to discredit this notion. Surely Jane Austen felt it fit to weave a cautionary tale or two around this dilemma in both Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice. Theodor Fontane warns of the emotional death of a poorly made match in Effi Briest, in which the title protagonist’s obsession with another man causes irreparable damage to her relationship with her husband. Similarly, Goethe pinpoints the tragedy of romantic obsession with his bitter and tragic The Sorrows Of Young Werther, which ends in suicide. It is Brooks’ scrutiny of romantic conventions and expectations that place his film in the same critical realm as these novels by Austen, Fontane and Goethe.

Yet, Brooks is not particularly concerned with literature. His unique approach to discrediting popular romantic notions is certainly indebted, knowingly or not, to the novelists mentioned above, but his over all concerns are in the filmic tradition of narrative, which is by all means a direct descendant of the novel. Where Jane Austen’s protagonists were bookish and intellectually inquisitive, Robert (Albert Brooks) of Modern Romance is a neurotic film editor. The occupations and hobbies of Austen and Brooks’ protagonists pits them against the conventions of the mediums in which they exist by making them aware of the conventions of these mediums, either the novel or the film. The difference is that the proto-feminism of Austen’s protagonists places them in opposition of convention, Brooks’ Robert seeks to conform to the conventions of romance that exist only in the un-reality of film.

Robert’s obsession with his on-again off-again girlfriend Mary (Kathyrn Harrold) suffocates her identity and independence as much as it flatters her. What Brooks has done was to transpose the obsessiveness that is glorified as romance in films such as Richard Thorpe’s Knights Of The Roundtable (1953) and Robert Siodmak’s The Crimson Pirate (1952) into a contemporary setting. Where Robert Taylor’s pursuit of Ava Gardner was chivalrous in it’s context, now Brooks presents it as the fantasy fulfillment of a highly neurotic editor. Robert’s gestures of affection by no means match those of Taylor as Lancelot, but the parallel does point to the notion that such behavior is masculinely romantic. This parallel is successful in Modern Romance because like Gardner’s Queen, Mary is constantly smitten by such gestures. What Brooks does add to the equation in Modern Romance is the fruition of such behavior through to its logical course in the character of Robert. If a man is so determined and obsessed with possessing his partner as Lancelot is in our “modern” society, it only makes sense that he would stalk her and spy on her; Robert does both.

These romantic attributes of Robert’s character make him completely unlikeable. His behavior constantly jockeys Mary from intimacy to expulsion, break-up through to reunion. This kind of love affair, though exaggerated in Modern Romance, does in fact exist outside of the cinema in our reality. Even people I know conform to such behavior and some even go so far as to measure a lover’s commitment by their obsessive one mindedness as it pertains unto themselves. It is a sickness, and Brooks takes no prisoners in lampooning this sociological infection that began with the aristocracy so long ago.

Modern Romance does not, however, trace this conditioning as far back as that, instead settling on the cinema itself as the propagator of such immoral inclinations. Midway through the film Mary questions if Robert’s love for her is real or just “movie love”. This statement could very well be the thesis of Modern Romance, but Brooks takes his indictment of popular narrative cinema further in his scenes with Bruno Kirby editing a Star Wars (1977) knock off film featuring George Kennedy similar to the Roger Corman produced cult classic Star Crash (1979).

This George Kennedy science fiction epic signifies the uniformity of the Hollywood machine responsible for the sociological conditioning that has informed Robert’s romantic sensibilities. In Modern Romance, James L. Brooks plays the director of this sci-fi blockbuster, and voices all sorts of concerns from the sound of George Kennedy running to the use of the phrase “bowels of the ship” in his own film because the same phrase was used in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Similarly the 87-minute version of Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) is explicitly referenced at the conclusion of the foley sound sequence. These filmic reference points reflect the concern Hollywood has not only for mass-market accessibility, but intellectual closed mindedness. Both are symptoms of the same sickness that has contaminated Robert’s psyche and has shaped him into the neurotic mess that he is.

from left to right: James L. Brooks, Albert Brooks and Bruno Kirby.

from left to right: James L. Brooks, Albert Brooks and Bruno Kirby.

Albert Brooks manages to skillfully balance these allegations with the comedic scenarios he puts his character Robert in. Often Brooks’ criticism of our media addicted society into the subtext of scenes by allowing the scenes to play out a superficial surface comedy. This balance that keeps Modern Romance cohesive can be largely credited to the film’s co-writer Monica Johnson, a veteran screenwriter of the sitcom.

This is largely the reason why Modern Romance, along with many others of Brooks’ films, has been unable to find a long-term niche audience. Unlike a writer and director such as Woody Allen, Brooks’ films do not cater to one kind of comedic sensibility at a time. Allen’s films range from high brow dramas like Another Woman to a kind of low brow escapist filmmaking like Bananas (1971), with each film concentrating on its supposed stylistic elements. Albert Brooks’ fidelity is not to the elitist auteur notion of comedian, but seeks instead to mask the more pointedly intellectual investigations and satires of his films behind an easily accessible humor akin to that of Nora Ephron or Elaine May.

That the comedic sensibilities of Modern Romance should be so closely linked to the aesthetics of two female filmmakers is also rather telling. Quite like Elaine May’s A New Leaf (1970) and The Heartbreak Kid (1972) as well as Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail (1998), Albert Brooks’ comedy about the sexes does not align any greater degree of audience sympathy with either the male or female sex, opting instead to equalize the two by developing neither the male nor the female characters in a way that presents them to be morally correct nor more virtuous. The history of film shows that the majority of filmmakers who are male, from Woody Allen to Mike Nichols, will construct their relationship comedies to show either the male or the female is the “right” one, thus aligning the audience with either one sex or the other. In Modern Romance the male lead is despicable and needy just as his female counterpart is overly defensive and aloof, effectively negating the polarizing sexual politics of other film directors.

The sum of these various components is what keeps Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance from any kind of popular sustainability. The film, with its loud surface and intellectual subtexts, is just too dense to sit comfortably with most contemporary audiences. In America, audiences like to be told or shown who to root for, and to be instructed as to what intellectual notion is the most politically correct and acceptable at the moment. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why a new codification to romantic narrative seems so unattainable and distant.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Winter 2014

Coppola & The Dracula Mythos

By 1992 Francis Ford Coppola had become a director for hire, restricted by the financial debt incurred with the Zoetrope productions of One From The Heart (1982), Rumble Fish (1983), The Cotton Club (1984) and Wim Wender’s Hammett (1982).  With Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Coppola and screenwriter James V. Hart re-imagined the Gothic horror tale as the story of an anti-hero driven by true love and redemption.  The idea was to transpose the exploitation stigma associated with Dracula in favor of the commercially viable mainstream character driven dramas that defined Coppola’s work in the seventies (The Godfather and The Conversation).  Returning to his roots, Coppola filled out the cast of his horror blockbuster with a stable of stars ranging from the veteran (Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing) to the up and coming (Gary Oldman as Dracula, Winona Ryder as Mina Harker, Keanu Reeves as John Harker, Richard E. Grant as Dr. Seward, Cary Elwes as Holmwood, and Sadie Frost as Lucy Westenra).  However, it would be Coppola’s determination to reclaim his status as an auteur and as a blockbuster success that would be the debilitating factor in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

From the beginning of the film it is clear that Coppola’s objective is to create Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the expressionist form that defined F.W. Murnau’s classic Nosferatu (1922).  Every component in the film is arranged to signify various elements of the character’s psychology as they navigate the narrative of the film.  Most of these signifiers are referential of other Dracula films, most overtly Nosteratu (Coppola’s use of shadows and shadow puppets) as if to capsulate Dracula’s cinematic lore.  Other elements signify more obscure or less well-known films.  For instance, the design of Dracula’s castle recalls the set pieces of the Hammer films from the fifties, sixties, and seventies (specifically Freddie Francis’ underrated Dracula Has Risen From The Grave, 1968), the make up design for the younger Dracula recreates Christopher Lee’s make up in Jess Franco’s Count Dracula (1970), while the vampire orgy scenes with Keanu Reeves seem indebted to both The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Vampyros Lesbos (1971).

Drawing on film history, Coppola invents a vernacular specific to his narrative.  The downside of this achievement is that it complicates the reading of what would normally be a straightforward retread of a familiar story.  What makes this an apparent problem is the introduction of characters from the novel that rarely gets portrayed on the big screen.  When two components to a film run parallel throughout but in opposition of one another it becomes difficult to tell what is invention for invention’s sake and what is innovation out of necessity.

Coppola’s interest in presenting Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a kind of “compressed history of cinema” is further reflected at the cinema show in the film itself.  Mina (Winona Ryder) and Dracula (Gary Oldman) attend a screening of some of the Lumiere Brother’s actuality films.  This not only reinforces a sense of time and space within the narrative, but also within the context of the cinema.  Surrounding the scenes at the cinema, Coppola employs digital effects to recreate the look and texture of the Lumiere Brother’s films.  By doing this, Coppola reintroduces the audience to the importance of these earlier films as well as establishes the technological advance of the cinema.  The motivations of this display do not seem tied to the film’s narrative, they have more in common with the motives behind the film’s expressionistic tendencies, to put Coppola back on top as an auteur again.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula isn’t a bad film; it is simply convoluted in its cinematic langue, burdened by the heavy amounts of visual references and historical contexts.  Where it exceeds is in the realm of its cinematography by Michael Ballhaus.  Always concerned with new innovations and striking camera movements (the 360 degree pan in R.W. Fassbinder’s Martha, 1974), Ballhaus is able to breath into the film a level of elegance that the genre had been lacking since Roger Corman’s The Masque Of The Red Death (1964) photographed by Nicolas Roeg.  It’s to Coppola’s credit as a director that Bram Stoker’s Dracula presents a number of opportunities for Ballhaus to bring his unique visual lyricism to the screen (specifically the scene in which Ryder and Oldman waltz by candle light).  Ballhaus’ cinematography combined with the analogous effects intended to conjure expressionist forms make Bram Stoker’s Dracula one of the most fully realized visual extravaganzas of the early nineties.

Another key component to Coppola’s film was observed above, and marks a return to his earliest approach to filmmaking.  Casting relative newcomers alongside veteran actor Anthony Hopkins gives the film the fresh atmosphere that revitalized the gangster film with The Godfather.  The cast of Bram Stoker’s Dracula proves to be less outstanding than the ensemble of The Godfather, but manages to provide at least one remarkable performance with Gary Oldman in the character of Dracula.  Since the Hammer films it had become almost a tradition to cast a British actor as the Count, and an elder counter part as Van Helsing (Hopkins takes over the role Peter Cushing defined in Horror of Dracula).  Oldman’s work takes him from old age to youth, mutant bat creature to wolf man with a fluidity that is at once believable and fantastic.  Oldman’s prowess as a character actor, though only recently acknowledged, makes him equipped to transform himself into any role, so that he as well as the character are manifest simultaneously.  Unfortunately, Reeves and Ryder turn in unremarkable performances that, in contrast to what I consider Hopkins’ Missouri Breaks, seem timid and dull.  Perhaps the problem stems from the ensemble approach Coppola took during the film’s rehearsal stage.  Bram Stoker’s Dracula, though cluttered with supporting roles, is only ever really about Dracula and Mina.

The approach to the material Hart and Coppola employed was in many ways another step back for Coppola.  Not since The Conversation (1973) had one of his films charted the story of a lone anti-hero, which, upon examining the prologue of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dracula apparently is.  In many ways this is counter intuitive.  Most of Bram Stoker’s novel is more concerned with Dracula’s victims than analyzing Dracula’s motives.  Likewise, half of the film’s characters and scenes are concerned with killing the monster, while the other half approaches the legend as if he were a contemporary stand in for Travis Bickle.  Again parallel themes and devices run through out the film but contradict one another.  This prevents the audience from investing their sympathies with either side, a strange conundrum given the usual approach to the Dracula mythos.

It should now be taken into account that although Bram Stoker’s Dracula doesn’t work very well as a film (even with an end credit song by Annie Lennox), it represents some of the more remarkable ideas related to the horror movie genre to evolve in the nineties.  To classic horror fans it’s a cinematic almanac of previously made Dracula films, and to filmmakers it represents the potential of reviving the cinematic langue in a genre that is done to death.

-Robert Curry

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John Milius’ Dillinger: Legacy & Context

John Milius is best known as a screenwriter, having penned the scripts for Dirty Harry, 1941, The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean and Apocalypse Now.  As a director Milius is often overshadowed by his contemporaries George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, though his first feature, Dillinger (1973) is on par with both The Rain People (1969) and THX:1138 (1971).

Hot on the heels of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde (1967), Dillinger follows the formula almost exactly.  The main difference is in the style of Milius’ telling of John Dillinger’s story.  Milius colors his film with devices and techniques established in the early Warner Bros. gangster films like Public Enemy (1931) and Little Caesar (1931).  From the use of montage to the larger than life portrayal of Dillinger, Milius’ film behaves as a unique piece of film revivalism rather than homage.  Most films that employ such techniques cannot escape the homage, clumsily cutting from a modern film vernacular to an older one.  Milius blends the old Warner Bros. tactics with the graphic violence and manly machismo of a Sam Peckinpah film (even casting Wild Bunch (1968)co-stars Warren Oates and Ben Johnson opposite each other as Dillinger and G-Man Purvis).  The result is not just a modern reimagining of an often-told story, but of a genre of filmmaking.

A close examination of the violence in Dillinger is telling of two things.  First, the violence is realistically bloody, and the perpetrators of this violence are depicted as psychologically corrupt.  This places Dillinger firmly within the popular aesthetic dominating American cinema in the early seventies, the outsider anti-hero versus the establishment.  Secondly, like the Cagney films of old, violence is treated not just as tragedy, but also as comedy.  Richard Dreyfuss’ Baby Face Nelson brings a light air to his handgun violence, evoking the antics of a Looney Tunes cartoon.  Milius has played up the comedy of his violence beyond the expectations one has for a Cagney film to balance the amount of gore a film made in the seventies was allowed.

The main reason Dillinger is often overlooked is that it is an American International Pictures release.  Since Bonnie & Clyde, Samuel Z. Arkoff and Roger Corman had been producing a string of B-Movie imitations, of which Dillinger was, supposedly.  Unlike Arkoff’s other efforts, Big Bad Mama (1974), Dillinger has a distinct style.  Revisionist through and through, Milius set out not to reinvent the language of his genre (the gangster film), but to update it.

Dillinger may evoke classic film aesthetic tendencies and contemporary trends, but it also provides the critic with a blueprint with which to analyze John Milius’ later films.  Like all of Milius’ work, as both a writer and a director, Dillinger is a film about a singular man, who has surrounded himself with an entourage of friends, who endeavors to fulfill some other worldly objective, Dillinger and his gang wish to live as bank robbers, caught up in the romanticism of Jesse James and Butch Cassidy during the Great Depression.  The odds are against Dillinger just as they are against Lt. Willard in Apocalypse Now.  Both characters finish their journeys alone; their “gangs” having been killed along the way, reaching their objectives only to find out they have failed on some level (Dillinger literally, Willard spiritually).  This is the vital theme to all of Milius’ work.  In an America tainted by Vietnam and Nixon, Milius embraces the John Huston notion of masculinity with gusto, though Milius’ romanticism is colored by the tragedy of Peckinpah’s archetypal formula of a “man out of time”.  Like Peckinpah, and eventually Huston (Fat City, Under The Volcano), Milius does not believe there is a place for the “larger than life” male in the seventies.

Milius’ distinct perspective of the male image in American cinema reflects a trend in film.  As the seventies progressed, male figures who were once romanticized like John Dillinger and Billy The Kid fell from filmic prominence.  These figures of old were replaced by new and more sensitive models of masculinity, such as Sylvester Stalone’s Rocky, Warren Beatty’s John Reed, and Woody Allen.  It seems logical that feminism and other activist programs paved the way for this shift, causing a decline in pictures made in both the gangster and western genres, a symptom of sociological progress.

-Robert Curry

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