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The fall of Francis Coppola.

THE RELEASE of Francis Ford Coppola's latest film, "Bram Stoker's Dracula," for all its box office success, is the last nail in the coffin (the bad pun is the only appropriate metaphor) for a director whose sagging career has been the subject of much speculation and concern for more than a decade. There has been the sense among critics for some time that there is a shallowness to Coppola, one of the stellar "movie brat" directors who gained prominence (with Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and others) during the 1970s. While his "Godfather" films quickly suggested that he was among the more serious of the lot, the notion that there might be less to him than meets the eye has dogged his career--and been reinforced with a steady stream of box office and critical failures. The Coppola story is important as a parable about the "New Hollywood"--a hyper-commercial industry that privileges spectacle over substance and confuses artiness with a genuine sensibility.

The decline of Coppola has been inexorable--grindingly slow, but always apparent. The "Godfather" films were championed mightily, and rightfully so, particularly by critic Pauline Kael, who termed them national treasures. "The Godfather II" in particular is a significant contribution to the world cinema, a poignant allegory about the immigrant experience and the betrayal of the American Dream.

"Apocalypse Now" began the Coppola controversy. Although the film found its audience amid very mixed reviews and has taken its place among the key movies about the Vietnam War (and even enjoys a certain kind of cult status), it was responsible for sowing doubts about Coppola as man and artist. The extended production through the mid to late 1970s seemed to be as much self-promotion and myth-building about the director as the legitimate consequence of a string of bad luck (typhoons that destroyed sets, actors who were fired or otherwise left the production, etc.).

"Hearts of Darkness," the documentary by Eleanor Coppola about the making of the picture, works to confirm many suspicions. Subtitled "A Filmmaker's Apocalypse," it is supposed to be a tribute to a rather crazed, larger-than-life artistic personality, with Coppola compared to kindred spirits like Orson Welles and Joseph Conrad. Instead of portraying a tortured genius ruthlessly pursuing his vision a la Poe or Van Gogh, his wife's film reveals Coppola as an adolescent, fumbling jerk.

It is after "Apocalypse Now" that Coppola began to drift, possibly because of all the critical attention in the wake of a project that seemed not worth the effort expended on it. (It almost bankrupted him, suggesting to corporate Hollywood the director's arrogance, caprice, and poor administrative abilities.)

Certainly his lousy management skills had little to do with the debacles of "One from the Heart," "The Cotton Club," and "Tucker: A Man and His Dream." In retrospect, these films seem to be about nothing and mark the director's increasing penchant for stylistic excess.

In "Bram Stoker's Dracula," the chickens come home to roost. The artistic and moral catastrophe of this film is covered over rather skillfully by the extravagant fin de siecle costumes, exotic musical score, special effects, and elaborate publicity effort that begs for this movie to become a "cash machine" with its spin-off products (books, trading cards, comics, T-shirts, calendars, posters) in proper New Hollywood style.

It has been difficult for some critics to notice that this film, where it makes sense at all, is amazingly offensive. Coppola connects Stoker's novel to the historical Dracula, Prince Vlad of Roumania. In Coppola's account, Vlad was a heroic knight of the church in the Middle Ages who, after stopping the demon Turks from ravaging Christendom, renounces God when he discovers his wife has committed suicide. In a cheap version of "Paradise Lost," Vlad (who, in reality, was one of history's most loathsome tyrants) becomes a fallen angel, Dracula, condemned to roam the centuries (how and why God turns Vlad into a vampire never is established). Dracula as a romantic hero always was implicit to the vampire myth, as was his status as a symbol of the unleashed libido. Coppola's taste for excess and grand opera makes him bludgeon us with these ideas until they have no rhyme or reason.

Most disturbing is the equation of vampirism with AIDS and female sexuality with death. When the female sexual urge is aroused in this narrative, the woman must be decapitated and butchered. The sex drive that Dracula unleashes is compared to syphilis and the plague.

While Dracula is supposed to be an incarnation of 19th-century Romanticism, most of his manifestations (as bat-monster and wolf-monster, a dessicated old aristocrat, and moldering incubus) are repulsive. The rigid Catholicism that informs Coppola's work never could be more manifest than it is here--follow the straight and narrow or God will condemn you for all eternity, probably via a sexually transmitted disease. Although audiences are asked to have sympathy for the devil, this Satan's personality is lost in special effects and a comic book script that parodies Stoker's novel, rather than interpreting it.

Coppola has been known as a generous man. He showcased the restored version of Abel Gances silent epic "Napoleon" in the late 1970s and has supported a number of beginning filmmakers. Occasionally, he makes a movie with flashes of real brilliance such as his adaptations of S.E. Hinton's "The Outsiders" and "Rumble Fish." Nevertheless, the record is now such that there is little reason to look forward with much anticipation to the next Coppola effort or figure that he deserves serious consideration in the American film pantheon.
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Title Annotation:film director
Author:Sharrett, Christopher
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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