Francis Coppola

An iris is a masking device, usually in the form of a circle or oval, that blacks out an area of the screen and permits only a selected portion of the image to be seen. It can be opened (expanded from a dark screen until an entire screen-size image is revealed) or closed (reducing the screen from full-size image to dark screen). If it opens to begin a scene, it’s called an iris in; if it closes a scene, it’s called an iris out. The device, we’re told in one reliable textbook, was “a favorite of early filmmakers that has now fallen into disuse.” When Orson Welles used an iris out to close a scene in The Magnificent Ambersons in 1942, he clearly intended it to be recognized as an “old-fashioned device [for imparting] a nostalgic tone to the sequence.”[1]

Needless to say, it was not a device to be used or taken lightly 50 years later, when Francis Coppola used it in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992; see Figure R5.1/Shot 1). As it happens, however, Coppola’s approach to filmmaking owes much to that of Welles. Indeed, his “personality and philosophy,” says his biographer, Peter Cowie, “share much in common with those of . . . Welles. Both artists adhered to the tradition of Méliès rather than Lumière—the fantasy approach rather than the realistic.” Coppola himself says that “I was always drawn to the kinds of things [Welles] seemed to have been interested in—the theater, magic, cinema—as having powerful illusion-creating abilities.”[2]

Fulfilling Desire across “Oceans of Time”

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One early scene in Dracula finds the vampire, Prince Vlad (Gary Oldman), on the streets of London in 1897, where he spies Mina Murray (Winona Ryder). She is the very image—perhaps the living avatar—of the beloved wife whom he lost in death centuries earlier. He has lived ever since in darkness, both literal and spiritual, but now it’s as if he is finally seeing her in the light of day after what he himself calls “oceans of time.”[3] Even he is in a state of wonder, entranced by the possibility that a dream can have been realized in so palpable a form.

Meanwhile, we hear an offscreen voice shouting about the wonders of “the amazing cinematograph! A wonder of modern civilization! The greatest attraction of the century!” Between the iris that opens the sequence and the voiceover call to experience the magic of the movies, we must acknowledge Coppola’s determination to present the cinema as a metaphor: if we wish to believe in some power capable of fulfilling desire and consummating love across an eon of space-time, we’re invited to imagine it as something analogous to the “illusion-creating” power of the cinema. At the very least, if we want to tell—or, as the case may be, retell—a story in which that belief is an abiding theme, the cinema is undoubtedly our most promising medium.

Vlad contrives to encounter Mina as she comes out of a chemist’s shop, introduces himself as a foreigner, and tells her that he is trying to find the cinematograph—“I understand it is a wonder of the civilized world.” She rebuffs him: “If you seek culture,” she says with cold irony, “then visit a museum.” She then moves off, clearly leaving him behind her and to her left, only to turn left at a corner and confront him again, standing now in front of her and to her right. The vampire, of course, has effected magic in his pursuit of Mina, and it’s exactly the sort of violation of spatiotemporal continuity that the cinema can effect so effortlessly (Figure R5.1/Shots 2-4).

Why does this sleight work for us? Because Mina’s point of view is violated precisely as the camera usurps it and gives it over to the audience: although we are as surprised as she is, we are also privileged to witness both her surprise and her seduction—the motive for this feat of spatiotemporal dislocation—as it now unfolds. Our point of view, then, has been aligned with that of the camera, and thus of the seducer. (Throughout the film, the camera tracks, cranes, and zooms to capture the point of view of the vampire, whose supernatural license can be matched only by the camera.)

The Insistence upon Demystifying Experience

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                           Bram Stoker’s Dracula:

               Dracula Visits the Cinematograph

Mina eventually apologizes for being rude and accompanies the Prince to the cinematograph. On the screen is a little vignette worthy of Méliès in a concupiscent mood: a couple of half-clad women sit in a man’s lap but suddenly, through the magic of stop motion, are transformed into one strait-laced wife. “Astounding,” says the Prince. “There are no ends to science.” Mina, however, considers the cinematograph a coarse amusement rather than a wonder of science: “How can you call this ‘science’? Do you think Madame Curie would invite such comparisons?” In other words, having already rejected the cinema as artistic medium, she now rejects it as scientific practice: she grants it no source of power for inspiring wonder or revelation.

In short, it holds no mystery for her rational mind, although, as Charles Musser suggests, the cinema in 1897 was not quite ready for demystification—it hadn’t yet asserted itself as the manipulation of reflection and optics instead of magic. Well into the nineteenth century, observes Musser, “mediums used projected images, concealed their source, and claimed these images were apparitions. Indeed, the potential for deception remained an underlying concern of early cinema.” Not until the projection device—and, by extension, the taking device—were thoroughly understood as mechanical advances indistinguishable from the systematic production of images would projected images be regarded as “art” rather than “magic”; only then would they be commonly described as “lifelike,” not as life itself.[4]


                  Bram Stoker’s Dracula:

                  Consecration in Blood

Ironically, Mina’s own rationalism—her insistence upon demystifying experience—prevents her from seeing the images on the screen as expressions of the desire to be free of the bonds of conventionally conceived space and time (and sexuality)—which is to say, as seductions to wonderment. Doubly ironic, then, is the vampire’s role in this film as a giver of “life itself”—of freedom from “death” in the merely “lifelike” world in which Mina is now incarnate (see Figure R5.2).

In Dracula, the cinema itself serves both as an invitation to wonder and as a metaphor for the desirability of release, whether in rituals of art or rituals of blood consecration, such as Vlad’s drinking of Christ’s blood as it spews from a cross or the sharing of his own blood with Mina when he consecrates the “marriage” in which the long seduction culminates. In fact, the two rituals—the ritual of art and the ritual of consecration—are explicitly conflated in the imagery of the consecration scene: making a slit in his breast at which she may suck, the vampire evokes familiar iconography from both medieval and later Christian art.[5]

[1] James Monaco, How to Read a Film: The Art, Technology, Language, History and Theory of Film and Media (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977), p. 190; David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction (Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1979), p. 112.

[2] Cowie, Coppola (New York: Scribner’s, 1989), p. 228. See also David Ehrenstein, “One from the Art,” Film Comment (January-February 1993), pp. 27-30.

[3] See Tom Whalen, “Romancing Film: Images of Dracula,” Literature/Film Quarterly 23 (1995), pp. 99-101.

[4] See The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1990), pp. 17-19.

[5] See Richard Dyer, “Dracula and Desire,” Sight and Sound (NS) 3:1 (January 1993), pp. 8-12. See also: Jacques Colardeau, “The Vision of Religion in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, or Religion in the Postmodern Age,” in Post/Modern Dracula: From Victorian Themes to Postmodern Praxis, ed. John S. Bak (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007), pp. 123-39; Katharina Mewald, “The Emancipation of Mina? The Portrayal of Mina in Stoker’s Dracula and Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” Journal of Dracula Studies 10 (2008), at (accessed June 19, 2016); Deb Verhoeven, “Coppola’s Dracula: Biting Off More Than You Can Possibly Eschew,” Scripsi 8:3 (1994), pp. 197-204, at (accessed June 19, 2016); Sigrid Anderson Cordell, “Sex, Terror, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula: Coppola’s Reinvention of Film History,” Neo-Victorian Studies 6:1 (2013), pp. 1-21; Carol Corbin, “Postmodern Iconography and Perspective in Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 27:2 (1999), pp. 40-48; Veronika Bernard, “The Language of Colors: A Semiotic Analysis of Colors and Symbolic Imagery in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992),” CINEJ Cinema Journal 1 (2011), pp. 7-63, at (accessed June 19, 2016); Jean-Marie Lecomte, “Postmodern Verbal Discourse in Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” in Post/Modern Dracula, ed. Bak, pp. 107-22.

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