The Conversation is a feature at PopOptiq bringing together Drew Morton and Landon Palmer in a passionate debate about cinema new and old. For their tenth piece, they discuss Guy Maddin’s fusion of silent-era horror and dance, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002).
Every autumn, I treat Halloween the way some Midwestern moms obsess over Thanksgiving or Christmas. Horror novels (last year, I finally read Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box and loved it), true crime documentaries, and an abundance of films make up the majority of my media diet for about six weeks. Over the past week, I’ve been re-reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula and re-watching the glut of adaptations out there. I think I’ve finally dialed in my three favorite translations…in no particular ranking! Obviously, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) has a certain advantage from being the “first,” but it has also sustained its status as one of the great horror films thanks in equal parts to Max Schreck’s portrayal of the lanky, rat faced, vampire and Murnau’s gift for imagery (from the optical tricks that define the carriage ride, to the wonderful sequence where Nosferatu’s dominance over the town allows him to strut across the square with a coffin without any concern whatsoever). Second is Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), which is both an incredibly “faithful” adaptation (if that means much to you – and it shouldn’t) in terms of plot and form – it is one of the few adaptations that foregrounds the the novel’s epistolary structure – and acknowledges its immense formal debt to Murnau’s film on its sleeve. Sure, it has its short comings (Keanu Reeves), but it also has a very established cast playing the hell out of the material (Tom Waits as Renfield!).
My third favorite adaptation is the lesser seen Guy Maddin’s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002). Like Coppola’s adaptation, Maddin foregrounds its ties to Murnau’s classic. Shot and edited in his characteristic style (a silent hybrid of Russian Formalism and the pacing of an MTV music video), Maddin is able to use our over-familiarity with Stoker’s material to produce a shorthand, almost purely visual riff on Stoker’s material. This approach allows him to jettison the plot-by-the-numbers casual chain, providing gaps and abrupt shifts in the narrative (especially in the second half, after the shift from Lucy to Harker and Mina – who are traditionally the main characters!) that give the film a dreamlike quality while underlining two of the key themes of the novel: the linkages between vampirism, xenophobia, and capitalism.
In the case of the the linkage between vampirism and xenophobia, Maddin gets a lot of milage out of his untraditional casting of Zhang Wei-Qiang as the antagonist. In Stoker’s novel, Harker’s initial accounts of the people in the East verge on condescending. Many of his anecdotes about local customs end with a hypothetical “Isn’t this quant?” Moreover, Stoker emphasizes the process by which Dracula must physically migrate and expand to the West (hence the details about shipping containers and the ship itself). Once the creature from the East reaches London? All hell breaks loose (wolves on the prowl, a ghost ship, assaulted infants, crazed asylum inmates, etc.). Hide your wife, hide your kids indeed!
This theme was largely jettisoned by both Nosferatu and Coppola’s film. In Murnau’s portrayal, the vampire is portrayed as being inhuman thanks to the use of make-up and Schreck’s performance. He doesn’t read as an immigrant as much as he reads as an inhuman creature. Coppola’s adaptation, on the other hand, allows Oldman’s vampire to almost seamlessly blend into the Victorian London milieu once he has rejuvenated himself through the crimson nectar. Maddin’s casting choice and the lack of makeup and other embellishments of mise-en-scene foreground both his sameness and otherness. As if his radical casting decision didn’t drive this home hard enough, Maddin’s feverish introductory montage links blood creeping across a map with superimposed titles like “Fear!” and “Immigrants!” The combination of casting and montage is so over-the-top (in the best way possible) that the film verges on satire.
Stoker links the immigration theme to capitalism. Yet, unlike Donald Trump’s nightmare of immigrants who come to a host country to leach off of the financial resources of the host country, the only natural resource Dracula is exploiting are London’s sexually repressed women. The Dracula of Stoker’s novel is a shrewd businessman, covering the tracks of his voyage to the West by acting through several intermediaries, killing off the original brokers, and expanding his real estate holdings. In Stoker’s novel, the fear of the immigrant isn’t based on the same presumptions that fuel our contemporary American interpretation. Instead, it’s based upon reverse-Imperialism. Dracula has the financial power and means to build an Empire and England will atone for its sins as a colonizing power. In other words, he is a form of competition that is dangerous because he is better equipped than the Europeans are (now that I think about it, this might be similar to how Donald Trump sees the Chinese, but I digress). This obviously doesn’t come through in Maddin’s film in quite so complicated of a fashion. The absence of dialogue and relatively short running time force the director to embed this theme into his imagery. When Dracula is superficially stabbed? He bleeds gold coins. When he tempts Mina to run off with him? It isn’t just his sexual potency but for his it chest of money as well. To add emphasis, Maddin “colors” certain objects in the black and white mise-en-scene: blood and money.
The form of my analysis indirectly returns us to the issue of a “faithful” adaptation. After all, I keep comparing the Maddin film to the Stoker novel. However, the problem with fidelity criticism rests not in comparison, but in the presumption that an adaptation must be faithful to be a good. Inherently, a film adaptation cannot be faithful to literature source (they are two different media with their own narrative and formal conventions). What does fidelity mean exactly? Fidelity to the plot? The characters? The theme? Moreover, who would want to see a “faithful” adaptation? They’re boring – I’m thinking of the first couple Harry Potter films – precisely because they chain the filmmakers to a text like a wedding ring binds two unhappy people in a fruitless marriage! The greatness of Maddin’s film lies not in his faithfulness to Stoker’s novel, but in his interpretation. As aforementioned, his formal eccentricities allow him to explore some of the themes of the novel while jettisoning characterization and the novel’s complex narrational structure. Moreover, and I’ve saved the coup de grâce for the end like a magician pulling a white rabbit out of a top hat, Maddin’s interpretation is an adaptation of an adaptation. Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary is actually a ballet version of Stoker’s novel that Maddin applied his trademark contemporary silent film aesthetic to. Thus, the finished product is “faithful” to the themes of Stoker’s novel while also being one of the most aesthetically unique interpretations of the text you can hunt down.
On that note, the greatest travesty is that the film is available on three formats in the United States, all of which have their own problems. The ten year old DVD has a non-anamorphic widescreen transfer, which is clear but takes up a sliver of the screen on a modern HDTV. The Amazon Prime streaming copy is murky and nauseating because of interlace artifacts (do not watch it this way – trust me). The best copy I found is on Fandor, which would mean you cannot watch it properly on a TV without Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV, or a laptop with a VGA/HDMI output. In any case, go with the Fandor copy or DVD if you have the means and, in the meantime, hope that Criterion – which has a track record with Maddin – puts out a proper Blu-Ray release. An aesthetic treat such as this deserves it!
When Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist was released in 2011, its form-meets-content dramatization of the latter days of Hollywood silent film came to be regarded as a self-consciously charming revival of the seemingly dead cinematic mode. Yet in its attempts to resemble a found object of the silent era – a work meant to masquerade as embodying an older style, not unlike Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German (2006) – it left me looking for cracks in its allegiance to fidelity, places where the gimmick’s charm broke by the inevitable seeping of otherwise invisible conventions of modern filmmaking. Along with the significantly better Blancanieves (Pablo Berger 2012) and the masterful Tabu (Miguel Gomes 2012), The Artist seemed the first – yet, frankly, least interesting – work in Western Europe’s quiet revival of silent cinema earlier this decade, as I wrote about in 2013. Yet the practices of early filmmaking never fully went away. And, if we are to have seen The Artist and other films as part of a return to this more purely visual cinematic mode, one whose results range from inspired invention to empty postmodern excursion, any declaration of a “return” (including the one leveled by this writer two years ago) must conveniently forget the astonishing career of Canada’s Guy Maddin. It is in this respect that I’d like to explore Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary‘s formal adaptation to complement Drew’s investigation of the film’s narrative adaptation.
What Maddin understands about silent cinema better than virtually any filmmaker who has attempted to revisit its modes is that silent cinema can hardly ever be declared any one thing. Maddin’s cinema certainly places him as more of an alchemist of the era’s many Vaseline-lensed experiments, namely (as Drew points out) Soviet collision montage. But Maddin’s career has embraced the numerous techniques of silent filmmaking, from color experiments including tinting and frame painting to erratic camera movements this side of Abel Gance, both of which are on display throughout Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary.
Yet what distinguishes the encyclopedic breadth of Maddin’s silent-era knowledge from his contemporaries is his understanding that what made silent cinema so unique from the stratified sound/image practices that followed is largely what resides outside the frames of the screen. Whether in the form of live musical accompaniment, lectures, live narration, or in-house proto-Foley effects, silent cinema was often a fluid practice between the attraction of the recorded moving image and the live spectacle of theater. Perhaps Maddin’s most dedicated exercise in this regard is his 2006 film Brand Upon the Brain!, which was exhibited in numerous venues accompanied by in-house sound effects and live narration featuring the likes of Crispin Glover, Isabella Rossellini, and the director himself. Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary resurrects a rather different connection between the shared spaces of the cinema and the early movie theater.
By incorporating the Winnipeg Royal Ballet’s blockbuster performance of Dracula into something more than a recorded performance, but a Guy Maddin film proper, Maddin’s work here revives the theater as a proto-cinematic space. In so doing, he goes further back to a silent era, before Eisensteinian juxtaposition, the elaborate production design of UFA, or the silent golden age of Hollywood, to turn-of-the-century recorded objects by the likes of the Lumière Brothers and The Edison Manufacturing Company, films that features star dancers including Loie Fuller and Anna Pavlova. As Maddin elaborated in an interview provided on the film’s 2004 DVD release via Zeitgeist Films, he loved the melodramatic effect of casting dancers for a feature film. In contrast to screen actors who know full well the power of the close up, these stage performers provided overt meanings in their elaborate movement via techniques that have long been scarce on the big screen. By reunifying the screen and the stage, Maddin’s film rediscovers certain qualities beyond camera maneuvers and colorization effects that constituted early cinematic practices. It’s in silent cinema’s relationship to other venues and artistic practices that many of its diverse and unique qualities reside.
Of course, unlike The Artist and very much like Maddin’s other films, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary is hardly a dedicated retread attempting to recreate a former film style, but instead presents a hybrid of approaches familiar to the silent era and its following decades (what Drew refers to as “the pacing of a MTV music video”), ultimately producing something remarkably idiosyncratic in the process. Take, for instance, the early moment to which Drew refers that establishes this Dracula adaptation’s themes of xenophobic fear of the Other. The bleeding map that announces Lucy’s nightmarish fear of immigrants revives familiar silent-era storytelling techniques, but its pacing exhibits a palpable energy (and an unmistakable aura of dedicated camp) that indexes less an earnest attempt at silent-era fidelity and more something that’s unmistakably Maddin. Indeed, beyond his perpetually underrated stature as one of contemporary filmmaking’s most innovative artists, I think this is why Maddin rarely came up in conversations around and emerging from The Artist. Maddin is rarely satisfied to simply stage a loyal homage to silent-era filmmaking. Instead, he uses the tools abandoned by filmmakers since the standardization of sync sound, and continues their work. Maddin’s filmography is less an archive of silent-era techniques and more a glimpse into an alternate universe of what filmmaking might look like today had “soundies” been marginalized as the gimmick they were first declared to be.
When sync sound threatened to become the norm in filmmaking, various practitioners of cinematic silence from Charlie Chaplin to Sergei Eisenstein bemoaned a portending dusk of visual artistry. Instead of nostalgically revisiting practices once seemingly lost, Maddin’s cinema explores what else these techniques might accomplish.