by James Pate on Jul.29, 2012
These shifting and confused gusts of memory never lasted for more than a few seconds; it often happened that, in my brief spell of uncertainty as to where I was, I did not distinguish the various suppositions of which it was composed any more than, when we watch a horse running, we isolate the successive positions of its body as they appear upon a bioscope. – Proust, from Swann’s Way
Last summer, I watched Andy Warhol’s Dracula (aka Blood for Dracula) for the first time in about a decade. The previous time I’d seen it with Johannes back when we were room-mates in a mouse-infested house in Iowa City. And the time previous to that, I was a high school student in Memphis, living in a crack-infested neighborhood where gun fights and police helicopters were a common occurrence. And my reaction to the film every time I’ve seen it has been fairly consistent, despite watching it under incredibly different circumstances. I think it’s brilliant. One of the best horror films ever. And one of the best films from the 70s.
And yet I also always have a second reaction: by the standard of most films, I know Andy Warhol’s Dracula is not very good. The acting is stiff (with the exception of the great Udo Kier, and the cameos by Vittorio De Sica and Roman Polanski). The film is boldly careless with historical consistency: for example, though the film is set in Italy in the early part of the 20th century, one of the characters (Joe Dallesandro) has a contemporary New York accent. The characters are not complicated even by grade B horror films standards. They have as little back-story as figures in a landscape painting.
I find the film incredibly compelling, starting with the first scene. We see Dracula sitting in front of the mirror. A beautiful, melancholy piano piece plays in the background. He applies makeup to his face to make himself look lifelike. His hair is white, and he starts to paint it black with a brush. He’s not very good at it either. The edges remain white. The paint itself is as thick as tar. (Later in the movie, his hair will be normally black. How the tar-like paint turns into a more normal hair color is one of the film’s great mysteries.) Finally, there is no reason he should be sitting in front of the mirror. As the last shot in the scene reminds us, vampires cast no reflection.
Of course, the opening scene is a joke, literally. Why would a vampire use a mirror? And yet it’s also a toss-away gesture, an act of expenditure. The act of applying makeup in front of a mirror in which you cannot see your image is an act that shows disdain for purpose, for use value.
Why would a vampire use a mirror? To remind himself he isn’t there.
I really love this opening scene. First of all, the score by Claudio Gizzi is breathtaking. It has to be one of the all-time great film scores. Secondly, the shot has an eerie elegance. The credits are in bold red, and they contrast sharply with Kier’s pale, taut face. When I watch the scene I think of Proust’s Swann, and Mann’s Aschenbach, and I also think of Baudelaire’s famous writings on cosmetics, and the long historical link between cosmetics and death. Not that Paul Morrissey, the director, in any way meant to self-consciously refer to those things. Yet to me, the scene is dripping with associations.
The film is also gorgeous, much more visually alluring than the usual B film. Many of the shots look like they could have been paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In fact, just as this film is of a “low” and debased genre (horror), and yet still has real aesthetic power, so the Pre-Raphaelites are considered to be a low and debased form of Renaissance painting (albeit a few hundred years too late). And yet some of their paintings have a great deal of power.
And Dracula himself in this film is closer to the vampire in Nosferatu than the ones we see in most vampire films. He is not strong or eloquent or Byronic; rather, he’s sickly, weak. Udo Kier plays him as a drained, desiccated, though elegant figure. In fact, one of the most disturbing scenes in the film is where he convulses violently on a bed with Gizzi’s score playing. Kier is probably most famous, now, for his work with Lars von Trier. Yet even here, back in 1974, you can see the odd mix of black humor and pathos that he is able to bring to a role, a mix few actors would be able to pull off.
Why make it new? Why not make it old? Why not make it rot? Why not watch it fall apart? Why care about “the way we live now”? The way we live now is usually limited, circumscribed. I’m always surprised when certain critics say, for example, that we must read and respect Conceptualism (or writer X or movement Y) because it is a fundamental part of the zeitgeist. But, contrary to Hegel, the zeitgeist is only what we say it is.
Foucault’s interest in history was to use it to get out of the present. Not to return to the past or honor the past. But to use history to jolt us out of the stranglehold of the present. To make the present strange. To upset the smooth surfaces of the present with the jagged shards of the past.
Or the way Tom McCarthy talks about Joyce and Faulkner in certain interviews: with them, time is not a place, or a linear line, but a ripple effect that can go back and forth. Time, in other words, becomes a toy, a game. (He could also be speaking about Proust and Woolf here.)
I saw Andy Warhol’s Dracula around the time when I first saw Bergman’s Cries & Whispers, and I’ve always been struck by how similar they are. The grave tone. The elegiac soundtrack. The presentation of immense physical suffering (there are some scenes in the Bergman film of a charater with cancer writhing in agony that I still have a difficult watching). The black and red color schemes (Bergman once said in an interview he used red so much because he saw it as the color inside the human body). Both even involve the undead.
In Steve Shaviro’s The Cinematic Body, there is an interesting section where he talks about the similarities between early Warhol and Bresson: how they are both invested in a certain presentation of the body, a presentation based on materiality, on there-ness. (Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy with me at the moment, and can’t go into too much detail about it.)
In a similar way, Andy Warhol’s Dracula and Bergman’s Cries & Whispers are twins who stand back to back and yet face different directions. But they are still twins, and their backs are still touching.