American Gothic Culture
There are questions and implications that I have left dangling during this survey of various aspects of American Gothic Culture. And undoubtedly I have left a few confusions uncovered. Since this has been essentially an introduction to a subject that doesn’t really seem to have been dealt with before I’m well aware of how many other examples I could pull from a hat. There many discussions left to be had about what is and isn’t American Gothic Culture. There is also a fairly serious delineation to be made between this nascent American Gothic sensibility and what is often called Goth. I will attempt a little of that now.
One question that has been left unexplored is this: Why did American Gothic Music take so long to come into being? The short answer goes like this. Music has always been a part of that which links people together. Thus there has often been an underlying sense of confidence that often pervades the music. Music often has a joyful component to it. Or at least a simulacrum of joy as in the sterile ‘fun’ of so much pop music. Even the blues, as painful as they can be, often has an aspect of hope buried in the implications: The idea that “the sun will shine on my back door someday”. Or even the notion that by hearing the pain of these lyrics someone will change somehow.
As a result music hasn’t been the best vessel for expressing real darkness… until fairly recently. After years of exploring various musical phenomena I think I can fairly confidently state that it wasn’t until the 1960’s that a certain kind of philosophical darkness entered popular music with groups like Love and The Doors. This existential dread festered into real anomie with Iggy and the Stooges. (It is curious to note that all of these bands were on Elektra Records.) And finally the music erupted into explicit rage with the Sex Pistols in 1976. And this rage was new. I don’t just mean it was a new musical trend. I mean in all of the history of music there was absolutely no precedent for such blood curdling scabrous anguish as to be found in, say, The Birthday Party’s Fears of Gun where Nick Cave vomits out the word ‘Love’ as if being disemboweled. You can search all you want, I have, for anything that sounds remotely that angry… you will never find it, prior to that point in human history.
It takes that sort of bleak intensity to comprehend the American Gothic vision. And it is not Nick Cave’s spewing forth that is his American Gothic work. It came when he started to try to find answers for the questions he had posed about the nature of humanity. And this is one reason why American Gothic Culture is vastly different than the usual Euro-Goth scene. Goth is about the darkness. Goth is about vampires, funerary motifs, ghosts. It finds these images to be helpful as some sort of anodyne to the blandness of contemporary culture. Goth also dips into fetishes quite liberally; leather, rubber, corsets, etc. Goth Culture seems to say I am the darkness. I want to be a vampire. I want to be as spectral as a ghost. I want to be cool. Don’t dream it, be it.
American Gothic Culture seems quite Other, by comparison. Even the darkest of the dark within the American Gothic spectrum, for instance Ambrose Bierce or Joe Coleman seem to have other fish to fry. Instead of being cool, their work seems to scream, “Why is it so dark? Huh!” Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a fever pitched cry of black despair fuelled more by cosmic anger at the insanity surrounding him than by any desire to laugh at the rubes. Even the extremely sardonic and gory humor of EC Comics can be seen as a series of serious questions. The man who pulls the face off of an ugly woman with a hot body trying to get her to unmask says more about the mysteries and problems of beauty in this dark world than has ever been written in a fashion magazine.
In fact the hallmark of real American Gothic work is a recognition of the evil, the bleakness, the absurdity, the darkness of the human condition. And that’s the answer to another implication: Why don’t folks with an American Gothic perspective sell out to the commercial forces the way Hippies, Beats, Punks, Rappers, etc ad nauseum seem to do? It’s because there is no point in becoming huge. There is no progressive utopian Romantic goal to achieve. The end is already seen in the beginning. That doesn’t mean that Tom Waits, Cormac McCarthy or other successful American Gothic folks aren’t happy to be selling a few books and discs. But the truth is they aren’t driven by commercial imperatives. If they didn’t sell a thing their viewpoint wouldn’t really change.
Fascinatingly American Gothic Culture houses both Christians and Atheists quite comfortably. But by Christians I don’t mean the contemporary commercial mega-church consumers. I mean folks like Johnny Cash, Flannery O’Connor, David Eugene Edwards. Nick Cave has been seemingly close to Christian faith at times. And by atheists I don’t mean the Richard Dawkins variety of confident hucksters, I mean the bleaker, more honest souls like an Ambrose Bierce or H.P. Lovecraft. And it was Lovecraft who admired the Puritans for their darkness.
But the point is this: These aren’t the gullible folks. These folks don’t seem to have nice positive attitudes. They aren’t trying to boost anyone’s self-esteem. They aren’t Romantic in any sense of the word. (Another big difference with Goth Culture.) There is no collusion between Disney and American Goth. There is no cute version of American Gothic Culture. And most interestingly American Gothic sensibility is in no way Postmodern.
Postmodern Culture thrives on postmodern irony. It lives on the deconstruction of Marilyn Monroe into Madonna into Lady Gaga. It lives on surfaces, since surfaces are deemed to be the only reality. It takes style as substance, content as merely social conditioning. It laughs at seriousness as pretension. The old Modernism was way too serious, though in disassembling everything they paved the way for the ironic hordes. Who to say that Beverly Hills 90210 isn’t as good as James Joyce?
American Gothic trumps postmodern irony with bitter irony. And bitter irony is fairly impervious to deconstruction. Who can deconstruct the Texas Chain Saw Massacre? I don’t mean you can’t make fun of it. Sure you can. But you have to get into the dark EC Comics mode to do it. But I mean put the DVD into your machine tonight. See who wins? Leatherface or postmodern irony? There is no contest. Your most postmodern child will wither before such an onslaught. Why? Because although there is humor to be found there, ultimately this thing is too damned serious to be turned into a deconstruction of itself. Tobe Hooper really believed in the power of the chainsaw. The same goes for The Road (film or book), Winter’s Bone (ditto), Nick Cave wailing Saint Huck or Tom Waits who uses humor all the time, yet really can’t be touched be postmodern irony.
The reason that academic theoretical babble about appropriation or deconstruction don’t get to far down the American Gothic road is because instead of ironic appropriation you have junkyard salvage, instead of deconstruction, you are faced with a much older stronger concept: destruction. American Gothic Culture is entropic. It sees the limits of a culture, our own, that is based upon endless progress and positive vibes. American Gothic Culture sees the good effects of negativity: The meaning behind the word No.
This isn’t to say that every artist I’ve mentioned was consciously saying No to the mindless optimism of the larger culture. But I do believe a good many of them have. There is a sense of realism in the face of the endless facades. American Gothic Culture is not an active movement. There is no town I could recommend for you to hang out in for American Goth trappings. There is intelligence, sorrow, black humor, history and even sometimes deeper strands of questioning and faith to be found in American Gothic outlook. At it’s best the American Gothic sensibility is a lot like the character of Ree in Winter’s Bone or even Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. It is grit and integrity in the face of the American nightmare, which it projects as the growing dimming entropic reality of the American future.
We’ll leave this introduction to American Gothic Culture here. But it is obviously one form of Anadromous Life being birthed in our times, one culture going against the stream of endless propaganda and the hype, a real question mark in the face the growing fiction of the 21st Century.
American Gothic Music
Now we come to the infant of this breed: American Gothic Music. Compared to fiction, art and even film American Gothic Music is a recent phenomenon indeed, going back at most to the late 60’s, and even then only as a hint in the musical wing of this American Gothic museum, which is still under-construction.
It’s interesting to ask why. Why would the music take such a long time to develop when the literature began in the late 1700’s? One would imagine that with all of the other work that had been done in American Gothic Culture by 1950 that there would have been a serious attempt to construct some sort of decayed variation on the themes in American Music. In classical music only Charles Ives Unanswered Question seems to have any Gothic links, yet that seems somewhat incidental. Certainly there are spooky blues and country tunes just ripe for use in an American Gothic context. Think of Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightnin’ or Hank William’s Ramblin’ Man or especially Tommy Johnson’s strange falsetto in Cool Drink of Water Blues. The context of these songs make them potent compost for the roots of an American Gothic Music, but they are only visions of personal trouble not the broader, sadder, vision of an America in decay. But make no mistake about it these are the roots of the tone of American Gothic Music to come.
Perhaps we can point to something in Screamin’ Jay Hawkins crazed Fifties sounds: Frenzy or I Put a Spell On You. He started his stage show by emerging from a coffin with a skull scepter and a cape. But this was more Halloween than American Gothic. He certainly is an influence. You can feel Hawkins in Tom Waits’ Eighties oeuvre.
The first real sense of American Gothic probably comes from what would also be considered the first band with real Gothic overtones: The Doors. Although one can indeed hear a Gothic funereal quality in their music, nevertheless most of the Doors references are philosophically European, only tinged by the blues. Nevertheless I think we have to consider their dark epic, The End, a true milestone in American Gothic Music. Lyrically Morrison refers to Greyhound buses, ‘the West is the best’, ‘weird scenes inside the goldmine’ all of which puts us directly in California and the ghost towns and hippie dreams of a golden consciousness. But the biggest shock in the song isn’t the Oedipal violence, rather it is the growing revelation that the singer is the killer and that the listener is the next victim of this Manson-like figure. The message of the song essentially boils down to this: Come to the West and be killed. And this was a huge record in 1967, during the hyped Summer of Love, two years before Manson’s cult followers would slaughter several Californians.
But musically the Doors are rarely American Gothic. They borrow from Modern Jazz, German Cabaret, Indian Ragas and Spanish Flamenco. And, of course, often borrow from the blues. But we will have to look elsewhere for a real American Gothic style.
The first American Gothic album has to go to the man who is seemingly so often first: Bob Dylan. After his motorcycle accident Dylan stepped back from the cultural upheavals partly unleashed by his own work. I have gotten the feeling that he never could quite stare into the heart of those changes. Many of them seemed repellent to him later on. So during the media fabricated Summer of Love Dylan hid out in Woodstock and played a lot of country-flavored songs with The Band. Eventually these recordings would come out in the 1970’s as The Basement Tapes. And one can hear a growing American Gothicism in songs like This Wheel’s on Fire.
But the real American Gothic Music was what came out next: his most enigmatic album, John Wesley Harding. An odd sort of country music, biblical allusions and a sense of humility haunted the album, which was released without much hullabaloo in December 1967. In a moment of psychedelic excess Dylan released this strange record of autumnally oblique fables: All Along the Watchtower, I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine and the extraordinarily puzzling The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest. I think we can call this the first true work in the musical wing of American Gothic.
The Eagles bordered on American Gothic territory with songs like the Hotel California, which has a bit more of a rootsy approach to the music than the Doors. And of course lyrically Hotel California is nearly as fascinating as The End, especially the lines about not having had ‘that spirit here since 1969’. But the Eagles are far too commercial a band to really be considered an American Gothic band.
A mention must be made here of Ry Cooder’s haunted slide guitar sound, especially as heard in his scores for films like Southern Comfort and Paris, Texas. This is not a sound found directly in the blues. Cooder’s specialty was to translate the older slide guitar sound into something much more capable of capturing the desolation of the vast American landscape.
Tom Waits, an Asylum Records stable mate of the Eagles, meanwhile had been known mostly for his songwriting skills and his neo-Beat persona on stage. But evidently something else had been brewing beneath the surface. In 1983 for his first recording on Island Records Waits came out with the LP Swordfishtrombones. This was something quite else with a vengeance. With Waits in a carnival scenario on the cover, complete with midget, the album was a new template for a new kind of music that would take years for anyone to really emulate: This was a fully realized American Gothic album. The sense of musical decay was palpable. The dark carnival pervades the album as well as a sense of undefined queasiness. The music hovers between traveling sideshow and film noir with bits of rural morbidity thrown in for good measure: 16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six. The album occasionally detours towards pop standards and odes to bacon and eggs yet the central impression is of a lizard’s blue belly to the American dream. ‘I’m goin’ to whittle you into kindling’!
From here on Waits is never far from the seedy vision of a carnivalesque American nightmare. Albums like Rain Dogs and Bone Machine are drenched in the same sensibility. His carnival barker introduction to The Black Rider is as pure American Gothic as Nightmare Alley or the art of Bernie Wrightson.
Another of the pioneers of American Gothic Music was Australian Nick Cave. After the demise of the rabid Birthday Party, Cave moved into a style all his own. One can hear Jim Morrison and Johnny Rotten in there. But one can also hear the deep blues and chain gang music as well. After songs like Saint Huck showed up on From Her To Eternity Cave then released The First Born Is Dead: Perhaps the least appreciated of his Bad Seeds albums. I find it to be an American Gothic cornerstone. Scarecrows, blind blues singers, Mississippi flood’s and the myth of Elvis Presley all show up in heartfelt and heart burnt songs ranging from Knocking On Joe, Tupelo, The Black Crow King and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Stunning stuff.
And Cave, like Waits, no matter where else he wandered was ever too far from Gothic Americana. Even his novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel, was pure American Gothic. That he would align himself with filmmaker John Hillcoat for Australian Gothic film The Proposition and later The Road underscores this.
The 80’s gave birth to another sound that would be instrumental to the growth of American Gothic Music. And that would be Folk Punk. What the Pogues glued together, traditional folk music and punk, has proved to be a rather hardy plant giving birth to bands like The Ukrainians, Gogol Bordello, Devotchka, and more germane to our point American bands like O’Death playing a kind of Country Punk. The fusing of traditional music with a punk spirit has done more than all the Folkies from the 1960’s to propagate the music of the past.
And in this spirit I think the work of Gordon Gano and the Violent Femmes deserve a special citation as well. Much of the current crop of American Gothic bands can be seen as a triangulation between Tom Waits, Gordon Gano and Folk Punk. Gano’s reedy voice and occasional forays into traditional American music played with manic acoustic guitars have been highly influential.
And yes, dear reader, there is indeed a current crop of American Gothic bands. And it is that fact alone that caused me to write this whole American Gothic series. In fact, for those with ears to hear this is the moment for American Gothic Music. No it isn’t flavor du jour at what remains of the pop charts. (Interestingly it does come during a period where Americana is also one of the reigning trends.) But much of the most exciting music of the hour is coming from a decaying vision of America. Artists like the Blind Willies, the Whiskey Folk Ramblers, Nicole Atkins, Liz Tormes, The Born Again Floozies, The Black Heart Procession, Harmonious Wail, Ezra Fuhrman & the Harpoons, the astounding Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas and the great Reverend Glasseye have been making vital music for this lost American time.
I believe it was the bands forming in Denver in the mid-90’s that kicked off this wave (the first wave really) of American Gothic Music. 16 Horsepower and Devotchka were both quite influential. David Eugene Edwards from 16 Horsepower and more recently Woven Hand deserves real recognition here. Like a circuit riding preacher in a storm, his musical talents connect the worlds of antique Western Music, Christian hymns, Johnny Cash, Nick Cave and the early American Gothic Music to the many bands of the present. His use of the unusual instrumentation, following Tom Waits, would become a hallmark of the new American Gothic bands. Listen to any of his versions of American Wheeze. Tubas, harmonicas, accordions, musical saws, trombones, violins and many other instruments not found in standard rock bands permeate the new music.
While all of these artists are worth a paragraph two stand out and need special attention: Reverend Glasseye and Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas. Glasseye has two albums to his name. His music is located somewhere between a Wild West saloon, a circus tent and a revival meeting. (Ry Cooder’s music for The Long Riders is a worthy antecedent.) His archaic lyrics and jaunty tunes have a demented Shakespearean grandeur to them. Sleep Sweet Countrymen is an American Gothic masterpiece.
Jessica Hernandez, from the Detroit area, is fairly obscure as of this writing. But I doubt she will remain that way. A combination of Mexican heritage (Detroit also gave us ? Mark & the Mysterians), a deep dose of Tom Waits and a swooping passionate vocal style, not to mention killer instincts in the dynamic tune department, cause Jessica’s music to pop out in 3-D. Find a recording of her singing Gone in Two Seconds or Moonstruck. She’s so good I hate to think of her getting discovered by the commercial machinery that so loves to suck the life from everything till dead. But I suspect she’s got as much musical integrity as she does talent.
Curiously not one artist who has ever made American Gothic Music has ever sold their soul for success. I wonder why? It might have something to do with the worldview that has to accompany the style to some degree.
Allow me the indulgence of trying to summarize this American Gothic sensibility… next time.
(Oh… I thought about connecting this to musical links. But you know your way around. Go listen!)
American Gothic Film
As one could imagine, after looking at both American Gothic Fiction and Art, American Gothic Film was a bit of a latecomer on the scene, a strange child benefiting from the depths of the serious works and reveling in the excesses of the style.
Although it takes quite a bit of cinematic time to get to an actual American Gothic Cinema, nevertheless the roots of the genre begin to poke out quite early in film history. The primitive cinema of Thomas Edison, William K.L. Dickson, Edwin S. Porter and D.W. Griffith is rife with imagery that easily corrodes into the American Gothic sensibility. Part of it is simply the way these pre-World War I films flicker and dance before our rather jaded contemporary eyes. Having seen everything, it seems, these motion glimpses from the furthest recesses of filmic memory show a very lost world: An America obsessed with cockfights and strangely hypnotic dancers, of boxing matches and circuses.
Electrocuting an Elephant (1903) is a very real and frightening bit of darkness for an amnesiac 21st Century America. Topsy, an abused killer circus elephant, is led to a large steel plate and then killed in plain view with 6,000 volts of AC current, supplied by Edison. The starkness of the scene and the carnival milieu are pure American Gothic, although unintentionally.
Lillian Gish still stands as an emblem of Gothic Americana with her haunted eyes and inner strength. And later when Charles Laughton chose to feature her in Night of the Hunter there was no denying her deep American Gothic Roots.
Likewise the early Westerns have crude qualities that speak in a way very different from mid-20th Century Hollywood Westerns. The films of a William S. Hart have a dark essence that is quite foreign in the Western until the 1950’s. Hart, an actual cowboy himself and an unromantic Christian who understood a West much closer to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian than Roy Roger’s Happy Trails, delivers a palpable sense of decay and necessary judgment in Hell’s Hinges (1916).
Lon Chaney, our great shape shifting character actor, often drifted towards the American Gothic when playing contemporary characters, as in The Penalty (1920). This is particularly true of his collaborations with film legend Tod Browning. Besides directing the 1931 version of Dracula, Browning directed several seminal pieces of American Gothic that deal with the darker side of the traveling carnival, a world he knew from inside out. Among these films are The Unknown, The Unholy Three and, crucially, the infamous Freaks (1932), which Browning stocked with every sideshow oddity he could get his hands on, including limbless wonders, midgets and a pair of Siamese twins. Tod Browning was indeed the man who truly opened the American Gothic door in film.
And it is this fascination with carnivals that ties Browning in with Gresham’s book, Nightmare Alley and the filmed version from 1947 starring Tyrone Power, which introduced the true meaning of the word geek to popular culture.
Nightmare Alley is also the intersection between American Gothic and Film Noir. And I believe a good case can be made that Film Noir is a variant of American Gothic, not just a neighbor. It is Gothic Americana in a dark urban setting. Here the paintings of Edward Hopper come back into focus. Compare his famous Nighthawks with the opening scenes of The Killers (1946): The emptiness of small town America as big city thugs enter their streets. Noir is much too large a territory to explore here and I do believe that it is difficult to see as American Gothic while it is still subject to postmodern irony (see Garrison Keillor’s Guy Noir). Yet I do believe that to see Film Noir and Hardboiled Detective fiction as a species of American Gothic is a rewarding avenue for further research.
Also bridging the world’s of Film Noir, German Expressionism and American Gothic, Night of the Hunter (1955) stands as a monument of this developing sensibility.
By the late 1950’s a quieter, more dramatically disturbing brand, of American Gothic had arrived at the cinema. Films like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Miracle Worker and especially To Kill a Mockingbird portrayed with great sensitivity a darkened world where often the crippled soul was put in direct contrast to the damaged body. Deaf, blind and emotionally broken, the mysterious characters who haunt these black and white films are often miraculous beings compared with the uncomprehending world, usually the degraded South of Southern Gothic Fiction. Boo Radley is the archetype here.
Then came the Sixties and an explosion of new cultural precedents. Easy Rider (1969) strikes me as American Gothic in the hippie mode. And in fact, the further we get from the Deadheads, who co-opted so much hippie imagery into a kind of collegiate cuddliness, the more freaky the original hippies will seem, and I mean freaky in the carnival sense. The original hippies themselves used the term ‘freak’ to describe themselves. Hence ‘freaky’. And the sideshow connotations were definitely still on their minds. In fact one could look at the 1960’s hippies as the point where the carnival sideshow and the Wild West collided, along with psychedelia and Eastern religion.
After the annus horribil1s 1969 Charles Manson then becomes the sine qua non of the American Gothic hippie archetype. And films quickly exploited that fact. But I sense that we really haven’t begun to see the real Hippie American Gothic fully bloom yet. More post-Deadheads are going to have to shuffle off this mortal coil first.
Then came the two absolutely seminal works of the true American Gothic spirit, films clearly in the EC Comics vein: George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). It is really hard to overstate the importance of both of these movies upon the culture of our own moment. Night of the Living Dead, simply put, invented the zombie image that haunts us at seemingly every turn in the early 21st Century. And in doing so Romero created both a new horror and American Gothic archetype: The mindless shuffling horde, an image not too distant from ourselves as mass consumers.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is another kettle of stewing bones entirely. Tobe Hooper’s magnum opus is definitely a winding down of the American dream, made during the first oil crisis, amid the dusty decay of hippie utopianism, where the Aquarian Age gives way to the malevolence of Saturn, and the noble rustic of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath has become the utterly degraded family in the seedy white house.
For the décor alone Texas Chain Saw would be a seminal film. Hooper took the stories of Ed Gein’s ghoulish human furniture, half whispered from his Wisconsin relatives during his childhood, and constructed a stunning nightmare tableau of animal, feather and bones. Starting with the real life story of the same murderer who inspired Psycho and Silence of the Lambs and an EC Comics aesthetic, Hooper embellishes the Western accoutrements far beyond the point of kitsch into a new species of American Gothic design. It is as if an Indian burial ground had been located behind a white picket fence and inside the house.
But, of course, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is not merely a home decorators night terror. The hulking figure of human skin mask wearing Leatherface holding a spitting, snarling, whining, growling chainsaw dominates the proceedings. Then there is his port wine stained brother marking the side of the hippie van with his own blood. Or try dad, a corrupt Andy Griffith-like escapee from a mental institution. Or take granddad, impossibly wizened and leechlike. Or what about that strangely defective guy at the gas station with the bucket? And by the time of the final scene, when blood drenched Sally has barely escaped yet surely has lost her sanity, Leatherface remains alone on the road pirouetting a stark ballet in the sweltering morning sun, chainsaw whirring as he whisks it round and round. American Gothic Cinema now had become something to reckon with.
From Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), to any number of slasher flicks, American Goth now dominated the landscape of horror. Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987) was a pitch perfect blend of vampire horror and contemporary Western. Who needed the old creatures of Europe anymore to find deep streams of fear?
And the American Gothic influence soon entered deeply into the apocalyptic phase of the Western. Clint Eastwood understood this best in films like The Beguiled (1971), true Civil War Gothic, High Plains Drifter (1973), an amoral 70’s take on Hell’s Hinges, or Unforgiven (1992), a stark masterful Western in high American Gothic. Gone was the optimism of the Western Epic. Gone was the High Noon hope of law, order and courage conquering the shady debasements of greed. All that remains is Eastwood’s ravaged visage stalking through rainy night; remorseless shark’s eyes. Unforgiven is an American Gothic masterpiece, a filmic cousin to Cormac McCarthy’s Western Gothic tales.
And it is in Australian John Hillcoat’s adaptation of McCarthy’s The Road (2009) that we encounter another seminal work of American Gothic Film. Which reminds me, obviously one doesn’t have to be American to create American Gothic works. And in fact many countries now produce Gothicized versions of their national zeitgeist: Australia, Mexico and Japan come to mind. Yet the same entropic spirit of loss and decay hover over them all.
The filmed version of The Road is especially pungent. Many post-Apocalyptic variations of the American Gothic nightmare have been produced (i.e. A Boy and His Dog, The Book of Eli) but The Road stands out for it’s hewing so close to the bone of reality. The cannibals in the film bleed of an actuality bred of a close observation of the human condition.
And finally I’d just like to mention one other recent American Gothic classic: Winter’s Bone (2010), directed by Debra Granik and starring Jennifer Lawrence. The film, based upon Daniel Woodrell’s novel, comes across like an earlier chapter in The Road, our moment, the moment before the apocalypse. The rural character of the Missouri landscape has been altered by meth labs and damaged human relationships. There is no longer a dream of progress to which one can aspire. Jennifer Lawrence is perhaps the perfect American Gothic actress. While visually flawless, she nevertheless conveys depths of loss and disillusionment beneath her pragmatic resolve. (Also check out her performance in The Poker House.) As Ree she moves invisibly from an unimpressible and prematurely responsible teen to Gothic apparition in a tar-black folk tale as she hovers over her fathers submerged body in the moonlight in a canoe. This is American Gothic filmmaking of the highest order; uniting the many streams into one shivering autumnal tale to be told around a campfire after the country has sunk into apocalyptic disarray.
Next: We cock an ear to the sounds of American Gothic Music.