American Gothic #4: 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.