If one looks back on the halls of early ’90s cinema, a few trends emerge, but none stands more idiosyncratically than the sudden 50-years-late splurge of Universal horror films unleashed upon the unsuspecting populace, most of which are not, in all honesty, worth discussing in any serious capacity today. Mike Nichol’s Wolf is uncommonly interesting as a reflection of its time period and a commentary on gender and power in the modern world, even if it less of a film than it is a discussion piece. Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein is somewhat stodgily uncomfortable and beset by Branagh’s stilted reductionist theatricality.
There is one exception however: Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (a much better title than the ungainly Bram Stoker’s Dracula, despite the undeniable similarities between this film and the source material upon which it is based), now this is a film worth discussing, whatever you think of it. Gaudy and oppressive, garish and lurid, feverishly sexual and unwieldy and broad and blunt and devilish and all manner of other unholy, batty adjectives, it is undeniably the work of its auteur. It is, if nothing else, the most Coppola of Coppola’s films released in the past thirty years, and considering that this man was at one point one of the great filmmakers of the modern era, this is worth discussing. After a decade of artistic sycophancy on his part, and a decade of artistically aimless American genre cinema mostly playing ball with conventional Hollywood style, Dracula is Coppola’s phallus-waiving gambit to cinema-goers: watch my film, enjoy or don’t, I don’t care because I’ve bested you and you will be felled by its gigantism one way or another. All patchwork nonsense and scenes dripping sweat and blood from every unstitched seam unfurling and falling apart by the minute, this film is ironically not his Dracula but his Frankenstein’s Monster. It’s not a work of a filmmaker but a mad scientist, a film so committed to its own vision of life at any cost that it is willing to fall apart in front of you just to make its point. In oppressive lunacy and effervescent, exultant, unmitigated cinema, Coppola’s Dracula sacrifices everything at the alter of pursuing cinematic zest.
Update 2018: I know Coppola’s film is famous for its sound, but there’s an indescribably elegant moment in the middle of the film that not only encapsulates The Conversation but sums up the American New Wave. When Hackman’s character witnesses what he believes to be a murder after a drawn-out waiting game, a bloody hand lashes out at the frame, the film graphically matches to Hackman’s hand rising in terror, and the rest of a scene which had so elegantly wound-up its suspense in perfect continuity style now unwinds itself into a pit of abjection, the continuity of the editing ripping to shreds as if the film is scratching at its own celluloid in itchy paranoia. Hackman returns into his hotel, his fears clarified, but he can not ensconce himself in the safe haven of continuity cinema anymore. The film practically undoing itself before our eyes, it’s an incredible visual, and an even more incredible visual metaphor for the US in the ’70s.
Francis Ford Coppola arguably had a more sterling streak than any American director, or any director bar nation, throughout the 1970s. Partially, this is because he brought only four films to screen during that decade, but this argument elides the quality of those films. 1972 brought the most famous, the romantic, classicist The Godfather which moved with rhapsodic, soulful flourishes, and its 1974 sequel only went further by adding on narrative heft to the point where it functioned less as a film and more as American opera of capitalism and criminality.
Not content to release one of the grandest statements of all time on the American condition without also almost killing himself in the process, Coppola then had to set out to do exactly that on a four year trek that nearly claimed his sanity and the lives of many crew members. The production of Apocalypse Now famously became the story of the film, replicating the jungle-fueled haze of the narrative as Coppola and company became lost in disease, destruction, and their desire to put to rest the ultimate American story of the ’70s and to create and perfect the very of idea of opulently grimy filmmaking in the process. The voodoo of location worked its magic on them a bit too well, but the location was not the jungles of the Phillipines; it was the jungles of the mind. That mind was one of the most committed, perfectionist directors of the ’70s, a mind that almost got the better of him but one which took America to task in a way few other New Wave directors even attempted.
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1982 release, One From the Heart, was given a good long three year gestating period for Coppola to recover from the bowels of hell he’d thrown himself right up against while making his edge-of-sanity opus Apocalypse Now. That 1979 release itself had gone gaspingly over budget and seemingly came close to mangling, killing, or rendering insane every one who worked on it at one point or another, and Coppola himself lost four years of his life producing his stunningly indulgent rambling mess of a war film less interested in exploring war than in burrowing into our soul with some of the finest tone poem imagery the American New Wave ever saw. The film is regarded as a masterpiece, but having their pride and joy screw with their hearts and wallets so did not make our corporate masters happy.