Addendum to The Original American Gothic Series
This is a list of films with American Gothic elements. Obviously there are a wide range of films here. Our basic criteria is that that the American Gothic Film is a dark take on America with special reference to traditional American images and activities. To understand the criteria for this list please read our original American Gothic series. Keeping in mind that American Gothic has little to do with ‘Goth’.
American Gothic History
Gone with the Wind
Grapes of Wrath
It’s a Wonderful Life
Last of the Mohicans
Civil War Gothic
Ride with the Devil
Vietnam & US Military Gothic
The Deer Hunter
Black Hawk Down
The Seven Faces of Doctor Lao
To Kill a Mockingbird
Cabin in the Cotton
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
O Brother Where Art Thou
The Night of the Hunter
New England Gothic
A Simple Plan
Storm of the Century
The Perfect Storm
New York City Gothic
Stranger Than Paradise
Requiem for a Dream
Last Exit to Brooklyn
Bringing Out the Dead
New Jersey Gothic
Being John Malkovich
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence
The Wild Bunch
Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Latin American Gothic
Men with Guns
From Dusk Till Dawn
Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door
Rebel Without a Cause
West Coast Gothic
The Big Lebowski
(See most Film Noir)
(Taxi Driver could easily fit here as well)
American Gothic Horror
Blair Witch Project
The Exorcism of Emily Rose
Jeepers Creepers 2
Homicidal Killer Gothic
Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Nightmare on Elm Street
Last House on the Left
The Hills Have Eyes
I Spit on Your Grave
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
American Gothic Vampires
The Last Man on Earth
Night of the Living Dead
Dawn of the Dead
The Walking Dead (series)
Science Fiction Gothic
The Book of Eli
Ghosts of Mars
American Gothic Docs
Definitely American Gothic
(But hard to classify)
The Reality of the Feral Child
(Continued from The Feral Life #2)
The Scottish actress Pollyanna McIntosh is a statuesque elegant brunette and evidently in interviews she is also quite intelligent, even witty. The Woman she plays in Lucky McKee’s eponymous 2011 film could not be more of a contrast. One of the younger actors in the film said that it was quite odd on the set. She would one minute be jocular, pleasant company, then the moment would come when she would hit some interior switch and you wouldn’t want to stand anywhere near her. In a brilliant performance, the kind never recognized by the gatekeepers of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Pollyanna turns herself into the embodiment of the feral being.
The film itself is filled with unresolved ambiguities. The family that ‘takes her in’ is eventually revealed to be a repository of psychotic dysfunction to the extreme. The father’s desire to civilize her would be comical if the mission were not taken on with such edgy sociopathic verve by actor Sean Bridgers. There is a scene where the Woman, is being baited and restrained in a dark shed. Pollyanna’s unnerving, tearful, tortured stare at the man, her captor, and his humiliated, yet enabling, wife (another stunning performance by Angela Bettis) is laced with pure venom with slightest trace of something that looks like sympathy for the battered spouse. But commiseration it is not.
But that nightmarish glower turns out to be the central image of the film. This Woman is powerful. But she has also been detached from civilization, completely. While the film clearly states that she is still human, yet in her feral nature she has reverted to a truly brutal state. Her language reduced to snarls. Her actions nearly all based on the purest animal instincts. When she is freed by the molested daughter, she surfaces into the light of day, meanwhile a hitherto unseen daughter caged as a feral dog girl, is torturing, and eating, a woman who has tried to intervene in the molested daughter’s situation. One half expects the Woman to rescue the other damaged females. This would be the false empowerment message so prevalent in pop culture. But the resolution is far more ambiguous than that. One thing becomes clear: Once you lose the civilizing of humanity it doesn’t come back. Or as in Apocalypse Now “never get out of the boat”.
And this observation holds up under deeper scrutiny. Jack Ketchum, the screenwriter of this stark opus, Lucky McKee, our director, and Pollyanna McIntosh have all done quite a bit of homework. There have indeed been feral humans, wild children who have lost their language, lost and found derelicts of humanity. As much as I enjoyed the film Road Warrior (Mad Max 2), one flaw was the conceit that that the snarling feral child would end up as the polished narrator of the film. As we now know such a thing is impossible. We have since discovered that there is a window in childhood for learning speech and and grammar, and if something interrupts that process you may learn words later, you may be human, but you will not be delivering a valedictory speech any time before your headstone is prepared.
Perhaps the most famous feral child was that of Victor of Aveyron; a boy of around 12 years old who was discovered in the woods of southern France at the end of the 18th Century. He had obviously been abandoned at some point and had been foraging in the wild. He was taken in and attempts were made to educate him. He eventually learned to live again among humans in a manner approximating standard living. But he could never really speak grammatically, though he could communicate in a form of sign language.
Another recent case had a sadder outcome. This the story ‘Genie’ (real name Susan Wiley), a girl discovered in suburban Southern California in 1970 at the age of 12, imprisoned in an empty room by her father and mother and strapped to a potty chair for her entire life. The father, who immediately committed suicide when the mother finally brought the girl into the open, would not allow the girl to be spoken to. Hence she lived in a strange decivilized, socially isolated state. Again she was nearly mute. Yet she radiated a certain kind of empathy, and had a great effect upon those that came into contact with her, even though her sanitary habits were quite appalling. Unfortunately most of those people were researchers who realized that they had discovered a rare specimen of what scientists call the forbidden experiment. For you see you can’t really experiment on children to see what happens when…
But here was a child raised without language. And who was adopted and abandoned by the scientific community, who I’m sure told themselves they had the best of intentions yet used her to receive grants to study human language. And when the grants ran out so did the commitment. The mother, not exactly a trustworthy individual, then resurfaced and took her back. Eventually Genie was placed into a home, where she remains today. To watch the old Nova documentary on her or read a book about her is to feel both the sting of regret for her pitiful treatment and to briefly come into contact with a strange luminous creature who sadly was dropped and discarded.
(Interestingly there is a girl who recently made a set of photographs of herself as Genie. She claims to not want to offend anyone. Yet in her erotic fetishization of Genie she clearly is romanticizing the wild child once again. Trying to tap into the unearthly purity of this misused human being.)
Another feral case from the 1990′s is that the dog-girl, Oxana Malaya of Ukraine, who was the product of such an abusive, rural, impoverished, alcoholic home that she simply crawled out of her home and lived as dog in the dog pen for years, and she took on many canine characteristics. A video shows her canine behavior in what at first glimpse seems kind of cute, then really is quite disturbing.
The most recent story from 2007 is the only one that might have a good ending. It is the story of Danielle, who was found in a suburban Florida home, locked in squalor for the first seven years of her life by a really stressed out single mother. She has since been adopted by a family that really tries to give her the love she needs, though the mother has protested that she was indeed quite fit to raise her. Again the speech capacities are severely diminished, again the sanitary habits beyond human tolerance. And again there is some mysterious kind of communication that is quite unique. Yet this family has really striven to show this wild child love, the crucial ingredient. Dani has been ‘house trained’ and is slowly learning to communicate. We will have to see if that makes a difference. I suspect it will.
There is much more to each of these stories and I recommend investigating them more thoroughly. Each story highlights what happens when a human is truly left to the wild, beyond the pale of humanity. Lucky McKee’s film The Woman clearly has reference to these, and many more stories. And while The Woman is a seriously intense horror film, it makes some very subtle points about human nature and our dream of a wild life.
Since the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, there has existed a dream of completely instinctual freedom and freedom unconditioned by civilization. In a recent book of edgy eco-politics, Derrick Jensen’s Endgame, he argues for the eventual destruction of civilization. He sees this as a good. Yes it will cost something. But it is a necessity to free ourselves from all of the corporate greed and technological enslavement. The book is fully supping at Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s table. He points out that we fear the end of civilization because we have been presented false fears of total barbarism.
Well breakdowns may come. But what Jensen has done is to equate the world we now inhabit with civilization. Lucky McKee and Jack Ketchum were much more equivocal about that. Essentially the question one is left with at the end of The Woman runs something like this. Can this family, the ‘civilized’ folks, in any way really be considered civilized? And fortunately the film does not present us with a romanticized view of Pollyanna’s portrayal of the Woman. Like the pied piper she leads the damaged children off into the woods. But whatever happens… it will not be pretty. The answer isn’t in the woods either. Humanity fled the darkness of the woods for a reason. Then we created the darkness of the cities, but we hoped they would provide security. And so we created the internet to help us mollify the perils of human society, and we created another stranger darkened realm. (Although one painted with smiley faces.) :)
Is the human being staring alone at the screen a ‘civilized’ person? Maybe the real question is this: Can the alienated 21st citizen, denizen, netizen, whatever we are in this 21st Century postmodern society, still find the means to be civil in the loneliness of cyberspace? C.S. Lewis is his book A Preface to Paradise Lost thought not. In 1942 Lewis wrote that indeed already by his time we had lost the decorum and dignity of true civility. That we had instead become the barbarians outside the Wall of true civilization. “Some are outside the Wall because they are barbarians who cannot get in; but others have gone out beyond it of their own will in order to fast and pray in the wilderness. ‘Civilization’ – by which I here mean barbarism made strong and luxurious by mechanical power – hates civility from below; sanctity rebukes it from above.”
Indeed too much of our civilization is a kind of high-tech barbarism. And yet to learn to read, to cultivate a sacrificial sense of the arts, to build more than sad bleached suburban huts, to have manners and a sense of real civility; Can we afford to dream of losing these altogether to remedy our ills? There is no remedy in the feral return to the wild. And there is little wilderness to actually return to. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s dream of a return to nature is over. The anadromous answer lies in the humble recreation of real civilization, a civil world in the small cracks of disorder.
John Donne said something in the early 17th Century in Meditation XVII from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.
“Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
And it is not only the toll of death we must attend to. The bell reminds us of a past when the sound of a bell itself held a very deep meaning.
The Dark Side of The Feral Dream
(Continued from The Feral Life #1)
When we think back on the actual Hippie dream we often imagine college aged folks prancing around in fields, flowers worn as ornaments, recreations of Eastern motifs, men’s hairstyles caught somewhere between a Native American tribe and the Wild West, women in long flowing ‘natural’ garments, stoned bliss, childlike and childish behavior. For many who weren’t alive then the drumming and mud fest as see in the filmed version of Woodstock often sums it up. (I had a few friends back then who did play in the mud tweaked as they were by their acidic visions.) For a few moments in San Francisco, between say 1965 and 1967, there actually was a dream, a fervent hope that through the use of psychedelics, free love (meaning whatever with whomever), and all that great new music, a neo-primitive community would be born, scrubbed clean of all of ‘the hang ups of straight society’. The Jean-Jacques Rousseau idea of being born free was taken quite seriously. It seemed to have bypassed most of the hip youngsters that all three aspects of this new liberated counterculture were based upon old school unfree major league technology. (Drugs, made in a laboratory. Sex, big thanks to the Pill. Rock, um, electrical amplification is indeed a key ingredient.) And not only that the ingredients of liberation were certainly not for free. You had to pay to get back to the garden. The return to noble savagery was merely a naïve dream or maybe just a pose.
And in fact well before the Sixties ended the bloom was off of those flowers placed into the barrels of National Guardsmen’s rifles. Already by the supposedly beautiful summer of 1967 the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco was infested by hordes of the most lost and searching children the country could produce. The media descended to play it up. They dubbed it the ‘Summer of Love‘. Meanwhile the overdoses mounted, the abortions flowed, the music was being packaged and sold, the hucksters arrived, the false messiahs found acolytes. (Jim Jones and Charles Manson both did their San Francisco time.) By the early 70′s more religious factions, sects and cults could be found compressed into the San Francisco Bay Area than any other place on earth. All to scoop up the youth of America who had suddenly come to the conclusion that rational thinking was over. “I saw the great blunder my teachers had made, scientific delirium madness.” (The Byrds – Fifth Dimension)
Did anyone in the media notice the burial of the Hippie in San Francisco in the Fall of 1967? Did the mainstream media notice that the good vibes had seriously ended by the time of the Altamont Rock Festival in December of 1969? Did Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison ever get any kind of mass media frenzy that Kurt Cobain did when they died? Did anyone observe that the royal bummer of a film of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival in England took 25 years to be released to the public? Did anyone apart from a few prescient individuals see that the Hippie dream of the psychedelic noble savage was over by 1970? The answer to all of these questions is the same. No. And so the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll dream continued. But something had to change drastically.
For one thing the very size of the movement of those influenced by the Hippie dream of a return to wild nature had swelled to global proportions. Yet what they were getting was something much more diluted, still filled with the basic gist of the idea, that rational thinking was fairly pointless, except perhaps in construction of our techno toys, and what everyone really needed in this massive chaotic world was ‘Fun’. And the very word Fun had been blown up into a teleological rubber dolly.
The real operative words became intuition and instinct, in other words to ‘trust your feelings Luke‘. ‘Thinking was stinking’ was the way Charles Manson put it. The general impression was that thought, intellectuals, book learning had poisoned the well of Western consciousness and one way or another we had to get back to our primal selves. We needed to just trust our intuitions, our hunches, our stream of consciousness. This sounds like every song by Bjork. But she wouldn’t be alone by any means. One could argue that since the Sixties a majority of the pop music world, regardless of style, has emphasized this basic principle. ‘It’s your thing. Do what you want to do. I can’t tell you who to sock it to.’
Of course, most of this hope in thoughtless intuition, or instinct (that word we use to describe animal behavior that we have absolutely no idea about why or how they do what they do), is based around contemporary concepts, or should we say deconstructions, of sexuality: The ‘as-long-as-nobody-gets-hurt’ (Yeah right.) school of human relationships. But at a certain point when hippie, singer-songwriter, new waver, punky mom and dad, who had sewn enough wild oats for their entire antecedent family tree were confronted by a child who might say, “But I am doing what I feel! I hate their guts! I want them to die!”, the elder partners in the family firm might simply have nowhere left to fall back. The concept that following your feelings might lead back to real primitive urges hadn’t crossed their minds. Yet it certainly should have.
In 1974 the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre was a harbinger of things to come. For Tobe Hooper it was quite clear that the Hippie dream had failed. He references the dark side of the Aquarian dream as Saturn in retrograde, not a good thing at all. And now this was what returning to the wild was really all about! A family left to their own devices reverting to cannibalism, ghoulish fetish art, a world where rational thought and language no longer apply. And though, despite the phony warning at the beginning of the film, this really was inspired by the such a reversion in the back woods, not of Texas, but of Wisconsin in the 1950′s, it was not merely as film critic Robin Wood suggested, in a brilliant 1978 Film Comment article, ‘a return of the repressed’ (again referring almost exclusively again sexuality). This was indeed more a warning that the dream of a blissful return to the garden was the pinnacle of delusion.
Not that anyone seemed to fully get the point. Whether in the commercially coy New Wave music of Adam and the Ants lauding a return to the ‘wild frontier’. Or in The Virgin Prunes Goth manifesto accompanying their 1982 album Heresie where they rail against the cleanliness of society, advocating a return to the dirt and go so far as to recommend correcting one’s civilized behavior by leaving used menstrual pads around. Later in RE/Search #12 Modern Primitives, (the book that gave every one on earth permission to get tattooed and pierced), it was clear that the answer to the dilemma of hypermodern society was a return to the tribe. And yet as Texas Chain Saw and dozens of other horror films had foreseen, this reversion to a dark tribal past would not result in a more meaningful life. By dampening our rationality, we would not find answers, we would perhaps find rage, or perhaps an inchoate howl of distress as Kurt Cobain specialized in, but we would also be opening a door that leads to madness, the kind of madness French philosophers like Michel Foucault or Georges Bataille had dreamt of. The kinds of transgressive acts that Bataille in particular believe all religions eventually led to. And my own feeling is that if, massive if, there is no God, then perhaps they are right.
Such troubling reversions to our primitive state are not isolated incidents. Hundreds of examples can be culled from the news and history: Whether in the cannibal witchcraft cult of Matamoros, Mexico, on the Texas border in 1989 or in the individual feral children found in various parts of the world. The beautiful dream of returning to a primitive state dies pretty hard in the face of the facts. And in Lucky McKee’s dark film The Woman we are confronted with a stark collapse of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Romantic countercultural Hippie dream. There is no escape in the wild.
(Next the Conclusion of the Feral Life. We meet the Woman, wild children and learn to lose our language.)
The Feral Dream
A woman, dressed in rags and furs, carelessly filthy, black stringy and presumably lousy hair, teeth unsubjected to any dentistry and poisonous as a hyena’s, her face cocked like a gun preparing to explode, enters the lair of a wolf. The animal growls. The human brute growls back even more ferociously. The camera does not show us but we hear the beating and the tearing of those human teeth. In a moment we see her running, perhaps it is a dream. But in this story the woman who runs with the wolves is no sub-Jungian New Age empowerment fantasy. This is a fearful thing.
The film is The Woman. It was released in 2011 and more recently for home digestion. Directed by Lucky McKee, who also directed the brilliant watch-at-your-own-risk May back in 2002, The Woman has been vilified as misogynist, far too gory and just plain nerve-wracking and simultaneously praised for it’s feminist undertones and unique character portrayal by Pollyanna McIntosh. It is indeed quite hard to believe that Pollyanna (Has anyone ever been more paradoxically named?) is actually a statuesque Scottish beauty. But all of this contradiction delineates clearly the manner of beast we have here.
And as I watched this grisly work of art I was struck by many details that resonated far beyond the confines of this inexpensive little indie film. The screenwriter, novelist Jack Ketchum, had continued his novel, The Offspring, with special emphasis on the Woman at the suggestion of producer Andrew van den Houten, who had directed a version of the earlier book. The film of The Offspring also starred Pollyanna McIntosh as the Woman, leader of a tribe of feral humans in the American Northeast. And it is in fact this notion of feral humanity that really jumped out at me with such force in both films.
Feral is a curious word. (By the bye it can be pronounced in two ways. One, the more standard, makes it sound like fair-al. The other less common pronunciation is more like fear-al.) It suggest not merely wild, or wildness, but of the domesticated thing returning to the wild. For instance if you showed up on the Kerguelen Islands in the Southern Indian Ocean you would find a healthy population of feral cats that had been left behind by sailors from centuries back to eradicate the rat infestation accidentally bestowed upon the islands. I am claimed by a feral cat myself here in Alaska. They can go in and out a feral state. And that is very different from the human race. This could have something to do with the fact that domestication depends entirely on an animal’s relationship to mankind. We are not tamed by our pets or cattle. Now before I tread too far into some politically incorrect screed let’s return to ferality.
So to be feral is to revert to a wild state. Now at this point we bump into a raft of cultural issues that have their primary origins back in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who theorized most famously that ‘L’homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers.‘, which translated says that, ‘Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.‘ It was clear from his writings that Rousseau lamented the state of society that had enslaved us. All those compromises! All that book learning! All of that conformity! The individual must be free as an individual! Vive la Revolution!
Another related idea is that of the ‘noble savage’. Rousseau did not invent the concept nor was he as primitivist as it sometimes claimed. Yet the somehow a reduction of his idea comes down to us like this; that the most free folks on earth are those most free from civilization, those closest to nature and the earth. Rousseau praised children for their purity, primitive tribes when they had achieved the stage of the savage. Regardless of the subtleties of Rousseau’s very influential works, the concepts of the ‘noble savage’ eventually merged with the art movements of 19th Century French Bohemia.
French Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin followed a quest for this kind of wild life when he left behind everything and followed his muse to Tahiti. There was vision at the time that the Tahitians and many other tribes were more liberated than the stale old bourgeois European world that he had left behind, along with his failed marriage and children and the sense of depression that led him to attempt suicide. He wanted to find something in Tahiti. Something he was missing. Yet it could not be found. When he did eventually paint his masterpiece, D’où Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous? (trans. Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?), this was not the work of a man who had found his boho dreams come true. Death and futility are writ large. Paradise, not a paradisaical as the dream. A great painting had been made but the Tahitians were pretty much stuck on the same earth as everyone else.
Nevertheless more and more souls began to empty themselves out into various jungles of the mind in search of the perfect primitive conditions of liberation. Expressionist movements like Les Fauves, the very word meaning wild beasts, followed Gauguin into the primitivist wilds. In fact so much of modern art can be seen as a various forms of rejection of the things that make up the a dull conformist society: a return to nature, a rejection of nature, the artist as prophet, the artist as shaman, the artist as outlaw, the artist as madman, the artist as barbarian, the artist as explorer at the edges and the artist as denizen of the dregs. And all the while the dream of a feral sort of existence haunts the proceedings.
The Surrealists perfected perhaps the most intellectual version of this dream… which is of course an oxymoron. Yet one has to hand it to the Surrealists, whom I have a great deal of respect for. Following Symbolist dream theory and folding into it a strong dose of early 20th Century Sigmund Freud’s reduction of human psychology to the libido, the Surrealists sought among the detritus of tainted experience in childhood, the metal institution and other outsiders for a way to connect, beyond reason, to the meaning of Art and Life. Later artists would discover Carl Jung.
But finally a movement would come along that would bubble up higher than the demimonde of the arts. The Beat Generation were by the late 1940′s pickled in Rousseau’s individualistic liberation dream. All that matters is to be true to yourself. That is the final statement. (With the proviso ‘as long as you don’t hurt anybody’ whatever that means. Actually that is the nail in the noble savage’s coffin.) But the Beats had a few nice twists in the lime of Rousseau’s gin and tonic. One, sex, and lots more of it. Two, drugs, and lot’s more of them. And finally music, or should I say Jazz, with Charlie Parker, (Oops! Sorry! Dead from primitive aid number two!) or Miles Davis in the role of the prophetic noble savage. We’ll overlook the hidden racism in considering black jazz players as noble savages with a pipeline to the primitive urges and demiurges. Did anyone ever at the time notice that being black did not equate to being more in touch with the mysteries of the savage universe? Great musicians? Yes. Fresh from the jungle? Um? Not quite. Pretty damned intellectual actually. So let’s change that addition from Jazz, just cross that out, to let’s look around a little… Oh! Wait! What’s this wild primitive stuff over here? Oh yeah! Rock ‘n’ Roll! And voila sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll (!) equals another variation on the noble savagery theme.
Okay. I’m well aware that white American asses in the 1950′s had gotten damned tight and needed some musical loosening. But in plain fact, find one 1950′s rock ‘n’ roller that was truly in Rousseau’s camp. This was a case of the noble savage interpretation of what was actually fairly standard electric folk music in the traditional American vein. Had Postwar America not been quite so somnambulistically square it would not have been seen as such a radical departure from Jazz or the Blues. Nevertheless by the late 1960′s this Rousseau interpretation of Rock music was standard. (See the burgeoning field of Rock criticism.) Rock had indeed become a revolt against civilization. LSD was the psychosomatic magic which would effect the liberation of desire. Down with Christian prudery! Down with humanistic rationalism! Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go! Vive la Revolution!
And now the feral dream was out of the intellectual closet.
(Next time we continue our little survey of the wilderness from Woodstock to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the Virgin Prunes)
Also here’s another Anadromous essay on a similar theme…
American Gothic Art
(Click on the images to enlarge them.)
Now we come to American Gothic Art. And I think we can say with some confidence if anything has a mangy pedigree in the art world this breed certainly does. American Gothic Art was not born in the studios and galleries of New York City. It is not sold in crafts fairs. It rarely touches the confines of well-considered art in any degree. Only Edward Hopper’s dark desolate structures speak of the kind of quality that is spoken of with admiration in the tonier climes of the art world. But most of the rest of it? Junk really: Cartoons and sideshow banners, pulp and comic books. It’s just illustration: a word sniffed at in some quarters; and with good reason.
Before we get too far into the subterranean realms of art’s American gothicisms, let’s point out what American Gothic Art isn’t. First and foremost, Grant Wood’s American Gothic certainly is in no way American Gothic. (See American Gothic #1.) Jasper John’s American flags are not Gothic. Georgia O’Keefe’s cow skulls are too spiritual, too proto-New Agey, to be called Gothic. Likewise no Pop Art, Minimalism, Abstract Expressionism, no Modernism in general, are connected with it in any way. And all Postmodernism by definition is excluded from American Gothic. But on the opposite end of spectrum: Currier and Ives and especially Norman Rockwell’s cute Americana are not American Gothic, nor do I think they ever will become so. And American illustrations of European Gothic do not qualify, even, as in Bernie Wrightson’s Frankenstein, they are created by artists with a real American Gothic touch.
Again American Gothic has to use American themes, particularly themes now truly lost to the present, or an imagining of the present in its entropic future all the while thoroughly connecting it with America’s past.
The first evidence of something uniquely American Gothic that I can locate is to be found in the works of illustrator and political cartoonist Thomas Nast. He worked for nearly all of the second half of the 19th Century. His most notable illustrations were featured in Harper’s Weekly, which bears some relationship to England’s Punch. While much of Nast’s political cartooning is beyond the scope of this essay once in a while he would portray a theme rife with a specific kind of American darkness. His depiction of Confederate President Jefferson Davis reaping a harvest of skulls is a completely realized American Gothic work of art. And it’s from 1861! And that leads one to speculate how far back American Gothic imagery actually goes. Just as clear is Nast’s influence on Edward Gorey. (And Gorey is a huge influence on filmmaker and artist Tim Burton.)
A brief mention should also be made at this point of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper from the 1880’s. His work often had a curious haunted edge to it.
After the rather outlandish political cartoons of the late 19th Century, (Don’t even get me started on all that minstrel and coon imagery!) we next jump the caravan of the touring carnival sideshow. The truly American institution of the traveling carnival is near to the heart of American Gothic Art. The clumsily painted sideshow banners and circus and freak show posters are a real influence upon the visual palette of the American Gothic imagination.
The Western Frontier contains another cluster of Gothic images waiting to be born. Besides the many illustrations from Dime Novels, even the classic Western Artists like Frederick Remington would occasionally hit upon an image resonant with a receding view of the dark frontier. James Earle Fraser’s famous statue End of the Trail with it’s slouching native warrior reeks of desolation, sorrow and finiteness. Much of the imagery surrounding the destruction of the Native American has acquired an American Gothic flavor. And anytime you see an Indian burial ground in a work of literature (Stephen King) or film (Jeremiah Johnson) you are almost automatically in an American Gothic situation.
In the first half of the 20th Century the carnival with its tricksters and hustles continued to be both a source of fascination and a slowly dying way of life. Yet in films like Nightmare Alley and Freaks and in pulp magazines and comics it yielded much to the artistic side of the American Gothic vision.
Speaking of pulp magazines, we can’t pass by the curious art works of these little rough-hewn compendiums. While much of the art was purely fantasy or science fiction, jungles and robots and barely clad women in a degraded post-symbolist style. Periodically an artist like Virgil Finlay might portray a Gothic scene with purely American roots.
In the 1930’s the WPA (Works Progress Administration) supported many artists including several with definite American Gothic leanings. Thomas Hart Benton’s post-Van Gogh murals and paintings occasionally showed the frightening side of rural America. His Approaching Storm and Prodigal are masterpieces.
The WPA artist who calls forth most eerily with a vision of a lonely desolate America is Edward Hopper. His justly famous Nighthawks is one of the pinnacles of American art and, like most American Gothic work, is completely unaffiliated with the trends of the art world. In Hopper we enter a world of isolation and starkness that is in full concord with the American Gothic prophecy. And quite clearly Hopper’s work has much in common with the worlds of the Hardboiled Detective and Film Noir. (But we’ll leave aside those implications for now.)
At last we come to the 1950’s and another fountainhead of the American Gothic: EC Comics, particularly their horror titles. Starting from the point where Virgil Finlay left off artists like Johnny Craig and ‘Ghastly’ Graham Engels might conjure up a deeply unsettling apparition of the dark heart of America. One cannot overstate the influence of EC Comics upon contemporary horror films. Just one example: George Romero’s decaying walking dead can be found here in a form halfway between the Haitian zombie and the living dead of contemporary culture. EC Comics were so intense that they were eventually banned. But in fact they were quite intelligent and their art might truly be seen as a high water mark of comic book history.
Then came the hippie generation and while the multiplicity of paeans to a kind of overblown indiscriminate love infested both the world and the word underneath the naïveté darker questioning American Gothic seeds began to sprout. One could argue that the underground comics in their scatological anarchy contained many American Gothic ideas. The works of Jaxon, Jack Jackson, come to mind readily. And R. Crumb’s work would eventually shift tone from bubbly acid playgrounds to a veritable Gothic gallery of a decaying America. Meanwhile even at DC Comics, a bastion of caped superheroes, a strange scarecrow-like figure, Brother Power, The Geek, betrayed the hallucination of a gothicized version of what the hippies themselves would eventually look like drenched in dark psychedelia.
In comic book land the American Gothic urge was being revived in other ways: First through Warren’s Creepy and Eerie Magazines, then through the arts of many mainstream comic artists, of whom Bernie Wrightson stands out as one of the great American Gothic artists of anytime. In the Seventies he drew vampires, aliens, superheroes and the rest, but his Gothic Americana stands out. Strongly influenced by EC Comics his works often summon up the more unnerving aspects of the American nightmare. Mementos is more than just Norman Rockwell’s rural inversion. It delivers such a strong statement of that gulp-worthy sense of American Gothic black humor as well. In comes as no surprise that Wrightson also depicted a stunning variation on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. (See American Gothic #1) And his interest in the dark carnival Freak Show is perfectly consistent with the deepest traditions of the American Gothic idea.
Wrightson also understands the power of the EC & Romero styled zombie as the personification of future dread. And it is his fascination not only with the macabre but the specifically decayed dream of an America at the close of its classic age that links him with the nauseating bleakness of outsider artist Joe Coleman. Coleman in his performance art bit the heads off mice, in direct emulation of the sideshow geek, stubbed out cigars on his face and blew himself up with fireworks at that most American of events, the high school reunion. Meanwhile his crammed paintings were filled with the decadent icons of a psychotic country: Charles Manson, Ed Gein, PT Barnum and Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence Kansas. Joe may be an outsider to the art world, but his work is perfectly in line with American Gothic tradition.
American Gothic Art lives like its subject matter on the fringes of an America grown almost pathologically optimistic. Its citizens thrive on conspiracy theories while living vicariously through various commercial pop culture mirages. American Gothic Art, unlike the regnant postmodern species, holds up the prophetic mirror of a ruined future rooted in an abandoned past and a deaf and blind present. As we move on into American Gothic Film we see these motifs intensified.
Come back again if you dare…
Part One: What is American Gothic?
The terms Goth and Gothic have been apply to numerous phenomena: the Germanic tribe that sacked Rome, the cathedrals of Medieval Europe, horror and supernatural literature in the early Romantic age, romance novels of a certain style, the writings of American southerners William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor and more recently to the music and lifestyles of those attracted to images and particularly music of death and darkness often with a Victorian twist. And while these arts and artists appear to be only obliquely related there is indeed a stream that runs through them all. It is felt but rarely articulated.
The Goths were among the many tribes at Rome’s frontiers. Seeking sanctuary within the Empire, the Huns closing in from the hinterlands, they were allowed to settle in Dacia, present day Romania. The Goths only partially acclimatized themselves to life in the decaying pax romana. But Roman arrogance and misrule eventually led them to revolt. They sacked Rome and were given kingdoms of their own in Italy and France. Eventually the fracturing Rome of the Caesar’s became more and more of a memory. The Goth’s had envied Rome though, even as they were allowing the last dregs of its essence to slip through their feudal fingers. The new Gothic and Germanic Europe began to forget and to forget deeply. Among the things forgotten: architecture, engineering, crop rotation and ultimately the Goths themselves. But one can imagine the children of these Ostrogoths and Visigoths, these warlords, riding through the slowly crumbling ruins of temples and aqueducts and amphitheatres longing for the Rome that created them.
Eventually the ancestors of these feudal rulers did create their own art and architecture. They created cathedrals that pierced the clouds, covered in images of Christian saints and demonic gargoyles. And even later in the self-proclaimed Renaissance, the very word proudly meaning ‘new birth’, the cathedrals of this earlier era were called ‘Gothic’ as a term of derision, a term related to those barbarian hordes who thought they could rule the great Roman Empire. The post-Roman age then became known as the ‘Dark Ages’.
In mid-Eighteenth Century German and English Romantics, in their flight from the excesses of voltairian reason, rediscovered the Middle Ages. They considered Gothic cathedrals and the detritus of ancient Europa the perfect fodder for the Romantic Soul. And they began to write. Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis all wrote of old abandoned mansions, dark and stormy nights, chains rattling in the basements, unspeakable family secrets, terrible things too awful to describe and ghosts. Again the longing for something old crept into the proceedings. The word Gothic now seems to have taken on its dreadful quality.
The Gothic idea took off in several directions following the Bronte sisters into Romance, or following Edgar Allan Poe into the horror story. A good case can even be made that detective and mystery fiction are a subspecies of the Gothic. Fairy stories like those of George MacDonald bear heavy Gothic stamps upon them leading to the likes of The Lord of the Rings in the mid-Twentieth Century.
But the hallmark of the true Gothic idea had to with loss or decay and certainly with dread. And so it seemed that whenever something was already found to be lost to the society of the present the Gothic was near at hand. Thus Southern Gothic fiction was born in America below the Mason-Dixon line after the fall of the old antebellum South. William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor are two exemplars of the style. Their scenes of poverty and twisted souls seeking redemption are the reflection of the Gothic image of loss and dread. And it didn’t hurt to have a South strewn with the fading ruins of pre-war mansions.
Obviously when we mention Southern Gothic we are now already firmly inside the doorway of that larger category and the subject of this set of essays: American Gothic. But what is it really? What do we mean by saying that Wise Blood is classic example of American Gothic Fiction? Or that the music of David Eugene Edwards is crucial to an understanding of American Gothic Music? Or to say that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a sine qua non of contemporary American Gothic cinema?
Maybe it might be easiest to point to examples of what is and isn’t American Gothic. Edgar Allan Poe’s work both is and isn’t American Gothic. When it relates to the classic European Gothic, as in The Fall of the House of Usher, it isn’t. But oddly enough a story like The Gold Bug, which is not a horror story at all, bears many of the hallmarks of an American Gothic work. This has to do with the use of American settings and feeling of southern vegetative overgrowth.
In other words just because a person is a Goth in America doesn’t mean they have any traces of the American Gothic outlook. (They could indeed be seen in opposition.) Most people who would identify themselves as Goths have their eyes more firmly facing Europe. Much of the original Goth imagery from the early 80’s had a Euro-centric notion of darkness. Interestingly enough, the first rock band of any sort to have Gothic aspects came from sunny Southern California: The Doors. And yet their music references Bertolt Brecht and French symbolist poets.
Or take that great American genre: the Western. Most Westerns are not American Gothics. Stagecoach, with John Wayne, certainly isn’t. Nay, likewise, to your average Saturday matinée oater from the 40’s or 50’s. Yet Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven most certainly is. Why? Many classic Westerns look forward to a time when law and order will prevail and the West will be settled. Unforgiven does not. It looks back at the West as a dark epoch. And that darkness still consumes us. Yet a film like William S. Harts 1916 Hell’s Hinges reeks of American Gothic. Its images portray a lost and morally bankrupt world that is decaying from within. This would be considered a subspecies: Western Gothic.
This puts the bleaker Western in line with the works of Cormac McCarthy, whose fiction is often American Gothic in the deepest sense. Blood Meridian is American Gothic pure and not so simple. And even his contemporary works like No Country For Old Men bear the same stamp. And so does The Road, although set in the future; a future that looks back to the present in mournful terms.
One really sees this in the film version of The Road, which is the most American Gothic post-apocalyptic film ever made. Its vision of cannibal Americans is a dead serious descendant of the EC Comics tradition of the 1950’s. The scene of armed cannibals attired in soiled ragged work clothes and trucker’s caps emerging from a tunnel flanking the dingiest of massive flatbed trucks in a dire autumnal landscape conjures up a vision of an America possibly being birthed today.
In music we return to the Doors. While good chunks their philosophy sources from Europe nevertheless a nightmarish epic like The End taps deeply into the American Gothic with it’s weird scenes inside the goldmine and the ominous blue bus, an allusion to that most American of institutions the Greyhound bus. The 1967 song practically predicts the rise of Manson styled serial killer cult leaders, also prime American Gothic territory. And it is no surprise that Apocalypse Now featured The End as the psychic breaking point of a US soldier all the while hijacking American Gothic imagery into our foreign wars.
And so what is American Gothic? Look it up and the first thing you will probably come across is Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” painting, which hardly seems to be Gothic at all. Next you might find a dictionary definition based upon that painting: some wheeze about frugality, hard work, socially conservative and rural America.
And yet it is clear that American Gothic as a point of view is a markedly different creature. A sensibility which can include Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, EC Comics, Bernie Wrightson, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Night of the Hunter and Winter’s Bone cannot be reduced to a satirical painting and its comment on old time farmers.
So the elements seem to be simple. First, it is American. That seems rather obvious but in fact it is not. Baseball for instance while wholly American rarely shows up in a Gothic form. Why? It is still quite active. It still has a future. Westward expansion, the post-Civil War South, New England whalers, etc. do not. So it is an America in the minor key, without any sentimental nostalgia.
Second, it must have elements of Gothic decay. And let’s distinguish Gothic decay from other forms decay. Rotting garbage is not Gothic decay, whereas a rotting garbage dump on the Blackfeet Indian reservation puts us firmly within Gothic territory. The decay that has haunted Gothicism all along has been an autumnal specter of the once meaningful, now rendered irretrievably lost.
Third, it must have elements of dread. And this dread is not just fear, terror or horror. It is something still and heavy even when, as in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it is accompanied by a ferocious engine steaming down the tracks. What makes a horror film like TCM Gothic is not the plot, but the atmosphere.
Lastly, in the best cases, it can have an aspect of sorrow leading to the deeper questions of redemption. Unless it is of the humorous species, which is another tale altogether…
Interestingly the American Gothic arts and world view are NOT postmodern nor even modern. The references they make are filled with bitter ironies. Even in the humorous vein, they tend toward gallows humor rather than pomo media appropriation. The bone furniture in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not a deconstruction of Ikea. It is like the skull found in the tree in Poe’s The Gold Bug or the iconic buffalo carcasses in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, an emblem much darker, yet symbolically richer, within the American Dream/Nightmare.
And to get an ax handle on that we’ll have to cross the withered plains of American Gothic cinema, music, literature and art.
(Stick around. Part two in this American Gothic series is on its way.)
“Jungle”, the word, became somewhat suspect sometime back in the late Eighties when the words “tropical rainforest” seemed destined to replace that old, dark, colonial, savage infested, Tarzanian tract of lovable, nurturing, sustainable ecosystem that is indeed at risk of being clear cut. Jungles should be hacked through; tropical rainforests should be saved. Of course, the vast majority of those who get weepy-eyed about tropical rainforests would soon perish if left stranded in one. And they would rediscover the definition that older word, jungle, pronto.
Jungle is too useful a word to really ever get replaced. It comes from the old Hindi word for forest jangal and from a similar Sanskrit word before that. Jungle is a tactile word that awakens almost atavistic fears of dank, overgrown, insect and snake filled, dampness. It suggests a feverish confusion and profusion of plant, swamp and life. And there most certainly are places like this left on earth, approximately 10% of the planet. They have hardly all been cannibalized for their lumber yet. There are certainly vast tracts of jungle in South America, Africa, the Malay Archipelago, Southeast Asia and other zones still as ferociously wild as they ever have been. This is not to minimize the danger to these zones from reckless despoliation. Nor do I wish to romanticize either.
Yes jungle as a word always carries a hint of real danger to it. Even its foreign origin paints it as other. This is especially true to those of European or Northern origin, whose forests are quite different. There are no jungles in Europe. When the European explorer landed in the Caribbean or the central western coast of Africa they were confronted landscapes so utterly alien that they became repositories for many of the darker fears of the explorers and later the traders and colonists. Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness is the literary masterpiece here. Jonestown in Guyana is the reality of the situation. I can imagine that the opposite would be true as well. Had Amazonian tribes discovered the poles these bleak forbidding realms certainly would have likewise played upon their snowless psyches with mythic intensity. And so later the concept of the jungle morphed into a metaphor for our trackless urban confusions back in the concrete territories of Manhattan or Chicago in the early 20th Century. But I want to go back to those primitive rainforests in darkest Africa and beyond, back to the jungle as it plays on our dreams and fears.
First, a confession: I have never been to a jungle. The closest I have ever been is to live on the island of Oahu in Hawaii as a boy for a few years. There are a few junglelike areas there. (Lost was filmed there.) But that Hawaiian island doesn’t have much left that would be construed as jungle. The big island does and was used for several films as a stand in for jungles in other locales. Nor am I itching to go to one. My interest in the jungle is almost purely as a symbol of the imagination. Not that I wouldn’t mind going to any number of jungles, perhaps New Guinea garnering most of my interest. But on a list of personal travel priorities no jungle is near at the top of my list. In other words, I am not obsessed by jungles, (nor tropical places at all for that matter). I don’t have many books on the subject. But I do have a few key pieces of literature, many more films and quite a few ethnographic musical recordings of various tribes from the jungles of the world. In other words I certainly wouldn’t claim to be an expert on the subject. Yet over the years I’ve noticed a curiosity growing towards the subject. Maybe someday jungles may indeed interest me enough to start visiting them. But for now it is the mythic resonance that captivates me.
I am just as fascinated by what we imagine based on our notions of the jungle as I am by what is actually there. The tribe that worships at the ancient gate of the original 1933 King Kong, completely false as a real depiction of tribal life anywhere on earth, nevertheless stands for something quite strange in the interiority of our dream worlds. In one of the few improvements on the original, Peter Jackson’s 2005 vision of this degraded tribe is so striking the film that follows can scarcely bear the weight of the suggestions left behind. His King Kong is interesting, if over the top, and seems to be more about the look in Naomi Watt’s eyes towards her huge cuddly, erratic pet. But the jungle tribe he presents at the beginning is so stark that I wished he’d gone back and told exactly what in tarnation was going on. Or consider Francis Ford Coppola’s tribe of primitive souls at the end of Apocalypse Now: a mixture of Asians, renegade soldiers, aboriginal tribes all having experienced a return of the primitive, of “pagan idolatry”.
In the late Seventies and early Eighties some of the bleakest films ever made were lensed by strange Italian filmmakers like Ruggero Deodato with titles like Slave of the Cannibal God. In these exploitation films cynical Europeans or “Americans” (always dubbed Italian actors) inevitably find a cannibal tribe who guard secrets of some sort. Then our white emissaries make some genuinely boneheaded moves prompting the natives to track them and “Make them die slowly”. The only way to fight these savages is to ape them. (Pun certainly intended.) And usually no matter where the films are shot (the Philippines, Malaysia, South America) the natives always look exactly the same. Inexorably some living animal is carved open and consumed raw. (I guess you can say these films are not exactly animal friendly.) And there are strange sexual rites. These films would be pretty much worthless if they did not tap in to some darkness in human nature that the filmmakers themselves seem to have fallen prey to in jungle. And by exposing that primordial sin they reveal something within us that is uncovered in the impenetrable realms of the jungle.
That came home to me recently after reading Ingrid Betancourt’s remarkable book, Even Silence Has an End, her account of spending more than six years in the Columbian jungle as hostage of the FARC guerrillas. This is a book I highly recommend as testament to the cruelty of humanity in its proximity to the jungle. She is held along with several others as political bargaining chips. The book practically sweats as you read it. You itch as the bugs crawl through. You fester as the foliage scrapes and bruises your dirty skin. Wounds become infected. Diseases weaken your mind and bowels. The guards, leftist peasants with little hope but the demeaning work of drug runners and slave masters, change before your eyes in the jungle heat from sympathetic to brutal with sad regularity as newer recruits replace them. And the hostages are no saints. Even Ingrid seems tainted by the sweltering stew of petty and venal humanity. The guerrillas keep everyone else ensnared in their own limited views of their situation as a means of dividing and poisoning the minds of the hostages against each other. Escape attempts lead straight into the jungle, into the anaconda filled Amazon tributaries, into a land of killer ants, into inevitable failures. The escapees are then punished. Ingrid Betancourt seemed to spend several years chained with a leather strap around her neck. And every time the Columbian helicopters or soldiers seem to get closer to the makeshift concentration camps the guerrillas pack up would move further and further into the endless green hell. And the rain of the rainforest is no friend.
But if cruelty, both of nature and humanity, were the only message of the book I would not tell you to hunt it down and read it. But the jungle did something for Ingrid Betancourt similar to what the gulags did for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It started the process of redemption and the purification of the heart. Ingrid begins to read the Bible and to find the meaning of faith even as her life, at one point, is draining away. She writes:
“I had made my peace with God. I felt there was a sort of lull in my suffering, because I’d accepted what had happened to me. … Because I had already accepted that I could die. My entire life I had believed I was eternal. My eternity had stopped here, in this rotten hole, and the presence of imminent death filled me with a peace of mind that I savored. I no longer needed anything; there was nothing I desired. My soul was stripped bare. I was no longer afraid…
“Having lost all my freedom and, with it, everything that mattered to me—my children, my mom, my life and my dreams—with my neck chained to a tree—not able to move around, to talk, to eat and to drink, to carry out my most basic bodily needs—subjected to constant humiliation, I still had the most important freedom of all. No one could take it away from me. That was the freedom to choose what kind of person I wanted to be.”
And that gives me hope.
In the darkness of the jungle, and it’s fearful revelations of the human heart, with which Ingrid Betancourt’s story abounds, one can choose: not craven survival, but the courage to be who God meant us to be.
(There is much more to be said about the jungle and its meanings.)