Hollywood Gothic

Don’t be fooled. I’m still reading Tim Powers’ Medusa’s Web and Old Hollywood plays a major part in the Gothic sensibility of the novel. To discuss all the films with a Gothic flavour that the great Hollywood studios put out over the years would require at least a couple of chapters, if not an entire volume, all to itself. Here, I just want to look at the lure of old Hollywood, and how Tinsel-Town came to have a dark side that was all its own. If you are lucky enough to get your hands on a copy of Hollywood Babylon, you’ll see what I mean.

Hollywood in the 1920s was rife with wild parties – if you could get in – starlets, drugs, sex and drink galore. Probably no different to the 1970s, except that the spangles were real and for the majority, it really was another world. Even a feel-good musical like Singing In The Rain hints at this – Cathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) has come to LA to become an actress, but starts off as a chorus girl entertaining guests at a studio party. Her acting career stutters after she upsets the studio’s big star, Lena Lamont (Jean Hagen), who then resolves to make sure Selden “never works in this town again”. The crucial part of the film’s plot deals with Selden protecting Lamont’s career by sacrificing her own, ghost-singing and speaking Lamont’s lines in the early talking pictures. Marni Nixon made a similar career, lending her singing voice to Deborah Kerr in The King and I (amongst other films).

It wasn’t easy being a film star in those days.

Even today, Los Angeles is the City of Dreams; the film industry creates dreams, and everyone wants to be in the business. Virtually every waitress or coffee shop barista has an audition coming up or a script they’re working on. There are more people than there are roles, and even my (just about scraped) pass at Economics A Level knows that supply is far outstripping demand. The studios are ruthless, hearts get broken and illusions are shattered. Hollywood is, after all, about illusion – nothing in the cinema is real, it’s all smoke and mirrors in the end.

It’s intriguing to me that this notion creates a very gothic sensibility, particularly with some of the older black and white movies. I love the old Universal horror movies, some of which are still quite terrifying because they allow the imagination to fill in the gaps – which is how good horror works, after all. And I really like how Powers weaves this into his novel. The old bits of film set that are scattered around the house render it more sinister than I suppose it is – but then I find circuses creepy too, and that’s a whole other story entirely! The references to the caption screens on silent films that Claimaine and Ariel quote to each other starts has a distinct edge to it, hinting at hypnosis, a Svengali relationship, that probably doesn’t otherwise exist. Indeed, a minor character informs Ariel that “doing spiders” was a big thing in Hollywood studio parties in the 1920s – hinting at the decadence of the period.

It’s always been known that there was a dark side to the film industry, but it’s interesting to see it being used as a Gothic motif.

Addicted to the Occult

One of the themes Powers looks at in his novel is addiction; the reader is told in the early chapters that Scott is an alcoholic and Ariel has been “clean” for four years – although clean of what is not initially very clear. What she – and Clairmayne are addicted to is magic, in particular the momentary time travelling afforded by the “spiders”, monochrome occult symbols which transport the viewer back into the body of any person who has previously viewed it. It’s quite clear that Powers considers it more than possible to become addicted to magic – much like Willow in Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – and that this addiction has significant physical effects.

It would be easy – and perhaps slightly banal – to suggest simply that all the reader needs to do is swap “spiders” for “heroin” and it would be the same novel; it wouldn’t, by a long haul. The fact is that the magic contained in the spiders is central to the story and the human addiction to it is simply a sideshow. There is much, much more to the story than that.

But it’s interesting that two very different (and separated by a good decade) texts, for want of a better expression, should latch onto the idea that magic is addictive. I suppose it’s the power trip, isn’t it – the idea that you have power that other people don’t have, or power over other people, and that power becomes seductive until it controls you rather than the other way round. Unfortunately the only power I have seems to be guessing which contestants on University Challenge are Australian – I’ve got a 100% record on that so far. Must be the safari suits.

Anyway, I digress. There is certainly an idea that dabbling in the occult is addictive and that this is a good reason why it should be avoided or conducted only by people with iron discipline – which is not many, to be fair. Perhaps this is why the Jedi counsel against the temptation of the Dark Side; they know it’s a slippery slope.

Oh well, there’s another theme for me to pick up again in my reading – the occult as addiction. Who’d have thought that a novel could be so much fun?

A Distinctly American Gothic?

I’m reading Medusa’s Web by Tim Powers at the moment. It’s a creepy read with lots of weird and wonderful things going on to keep me interested. It’s set in a crumbling old house in the Hollywood Hills, constructed (and in part held together) by pieces of old film sets, where the reclusive occupants find their peace interrupted by the enforced arrival of estranged cousins after the death of a relative… does all this sound a bit familiar? If I’m honest, it reminded me an awful lot of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle – which featured a crumbling old house, reclusive occupants interrupted by the arrival of a more worldly cousin after the death of a relative – and this made me wonder if there was a style of Gothic that was distinctly modern American.

Now before there are any claims of plagiarism levelled against Mr Powers, I have to stress that his book is totally different to Jackson’s – it’s about three times the length for a start, and as far as I can tell, nobody murdered their entire family by lacing the sugar bowl. It’s just the background premise was so striking, I simply had to mention it – and this made me wonder if it was a distinctive aspect of the Gothic sensibility that isn’t shared across the Atlantic.

American Gothic is not new – and I’m not referring to the Grant Wood painting either. Edgar Allen Poe, HP Lovecraft and Nathanial Hawthorne each did their bit to create a particularly American style of terror. What Jackson and Powers are doing is quite different and seems to share similar, classically Gothic themes but with a definite twist. The damsels in distress in this story either don’t seem to care or seem to actively want to stir up the supernatural rather than be rescued from it. In Jackson, the supernatural seems to hardly make an appearance at all – Merrikat seems quite happy to conduct her sympathetic magic, but she’s the only one who believes in its effectiveness and she has to take practical steps to achieve her aim of removing her cousin Charles from their lives.

Many classics of American Gothic feature the crumbling house – the Bates Motel of Psycho being another example – which is considerably too big for the number of inhabitants it houses. The house often in considerable disrepair, with the occupants reduced to a handful of rooms, or sharing occupation with a variety of itinerant guests. It’s also quite isolated, either by vast grounds or by fencing and gateposts (as in Jackson’s story). This creates the necessary seclusion to allow the Gothic elements of the story to develop, without unnecessary intrusion from the real world.

The outside world (i.e. outside the confines of the house) intrudes briefly in the form of former inhabitants (Powers), estranged members of the family (Powers and Jackson) or paying guests (Psycho). These intrusions form the catalyst for the apparently supernatural elements to take place. In fact, only Powers has overtly supernatural elements in his story, but this doesn’t detract from the overall sense of Gothic in Jackson and Psycho. And yet, despite this, I can’t imagine any of these stories being set in England. I simply don’t see how they could work.

I want to explore some of the ideas that Powers follows in his novel further but I do think that there is a distinct American Gothic that would merit a bit more exploration in the future. Perhaps I can use it as the basis for one of my occasional series?

Eco News of the Week

Sorry, I’ve been on a series of courses this week, so the Econews is a bit of a mishmash. Here’s some of my favourite stories from the Guardian over the past few days…

Suicides of nearly sixty thousand Indian farmers linked to climate change

That’s a slightly misleading headline. Climate change isn’t the reason for farmers killing themselves; but it is destroying their crops and ruining their livelihoods, and one thing leads to another, if you understand. I don’t doubt that this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and we will hear similar stories from other countries reliant on agriculture – China, most of Africa and South America – which begs the question of when it will start to affect European and American farmers. Already many farmers in Britain are going out of business. Intensive agriculture simply isn’t sustainable but the public demand a constant supply of cheap, fresh food. We have to change our mentalities or this will soon be a major issue worldwide.

Underground magma triggered Earth’s worst mass extinction with greenhouse gases

I love a good geology story, me. I have to admit that some of my favourite films feature massive volcanic explosions and earthquakes; if I get an additional landslide or avalanche chucked in for good measure, I consider that a bonus. I’m fully aware that it’s pretty strange to be so obsessed with rocks but I am, so something like this was bound to attract my attention. And it looks like it won’t be long before the Yellowstone supervolcano gets blamed for climate change, so therefore it’s okay to burn coal and oil (if you believe what is said in certain corners). It’s nonsense, of course. It isn’t the fact of climate change that is the issue (although that’s pretty bad), but it’s the rate of change. Mass extinctions happen, either through climate change, asteroid strikes or disease. We can’t legislate for that, but what we can legislate for is how quickly the mass extinction happens. And it may be time we pulled our metaphorical fingers out.

Is it fair to blame Coca-Cola and big corporations for our waste crisis?

Personally, I’m very happy to blame pretty much anything on Coca-Cola, McDonalds and any other big corporation I’m not a fan of. I’ve put on three pounds this week? That’s Exxon Mobil’s fault. I can’t remember where I put that important phone number? That’s all to do with GlaxoSmithKline. It isn’t their fault at all, but I’m not going to take the blame am I? And this is entirely the problem – we don’t take responsibility for our actions. In the First World, we can usually choose to buy produce without packaging, but we don’t because we’re lazy. We could pester companies about the amount of plastic that they use and suggest biodegradable stuff, but we don’t because we don’t think they’ll listen. If we stopped buying their stuff and dented their profits, they’d listen – but we have to recognise our own role in this. They supply the demand we create. The quicker we sort this out, the better. But in the meantime, carry on blaming Pepsico and others regardless; it’s the least they deserve.

Climate change to cause humid heatwaves that will kill even healthy people

One of the ladies I work with is getting married at the weekend, and they are having their honeymoon in Rome. Or they were, until they got an email from their travel agent – because the temperatures have hit “dangerous levels of heat” and there is a drought in Italy, their honeymoon is being relocated to a Greek Island – still lovely, but not what they’d booked. In 2003, people in Paris died during a heatwave where temperatures regularly exceeded 100F over an extended period. If temperatures exceed 35C regularly, especially if the weather is humid, the body cannot cool itself and people will die. It’s not something that will just happen in far away countries – it can happen anywhere. This is one of the realities of climate change.

Green & Black’s new UK chocolate bar will be neither organic nor Fairtrade

We all love chocolate, right? (Okay, I’ll make allowances for the girls I work with who are allergic to it.) So who else is disappointed by this story? I’ll admit that I haven’t eaten Green & Black’s for a while, because they stopped making their Dark Cherry Chocolate, which I absolutely LOVED, and then somebody told me that they were owned by Cadburys – who have since been taken over by Kraft and we’re back to large corporations taking over small independent firms. So now I only eat Hotel Chocolat (who do make a dark cherry chocolate – with alcohol) as they are also organic and Fairtrade. It seems that American owned companies are somewhat dismissive of the Fairtrade objectives, and so it is a good time to show support for an excellent cause – and hit the buggers in the profits.

Have a wonderful weekend everyone!

Antony and Cleopatra isn’t really about them

I’ve found it quite hard to read Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra for no better reason than the film screen in my head kept going to the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton film. Well, it was an epic that spawned a thousand make up looks, so it’s hardly surprising. It’s also a true – and quite well known – story, unlike Coriolanus, which we only really know about through Shakespeare and Plutarch, and not many people have read either or both (apart from me, apparently). I have a feeling that Julius Caesar will suffer from a similar problem, but in that case I’ll have to rid myself of Kenneth Williams exclaiming “infamy” at every available opportunity.

If I’m honest, the most interesting character in the play is Caesar. This is, of course, Caesar Augustus, Julius’ nephew and soon to become the first Emperor of Rome; but first he must rid himself of his co-triumvirs, Lepidus and Antony, which involves quite a bit of skulduggery and reading between the lines. Lepidus is quickly despatched, having become drunk and quite friendly with Cleopatra’s half-brother Ptolomy, who then stupidly goes and declares war on Rome. That there’s treason, that is, says Caesar and has his co-ruler clapped in irons and quickly removed from power. That just leaves that pesky Mark Antony, and he’s in Egypt…

Trying to marry him off to one’s sister doesn’t work, as Antony sends Octavia back with a flea in her ear before returning to his true love, Elizabeth Taylor… sorry, Cleopatra. This leaves Caesar no alternative but to declare war on Egypt and triumph at the Battle of Actium. The rest, as they say, is history.

I have to admit that I dislike the characterisation Shakespeare uses in this play; Cleopatra is histrionic and unreasonable, Antony is moody and dour, Caesar is petulant and conniving. However, it does mean that the casting in the Taylor/Burton/Harrison film is spot on, which might be why I keep thinking about it. The scenes with the title characters are simply not very interesting; I get it that Cleopatra is trying to manipulate Rome, but unlike Tamora from Titus Andronicus, her manipulations seem petty and ineffective. The Battle of Actium is dealt with as an aside – why did the Egyptian fleet flee? It’s not discussed. We know that Antony followed Cleopatra, and consequently was viewed as a coward in Rome – but why did she retreat?

Much as I love Shakespeare – and I do – this is not one of my favourite plays. That’s okay, I’ve got a “comedy” lined up next, and I usually hate those.

Where Has All The Good TV Gone?

I need a new TV show to watch now that all my favourites have either finished or are on their last series, but I can’t seem to find anything I fancy. I’m getting tired of Game of Thrones – especially now winter is here and the endgame seems to be underway. I’ve never got on with Preacher and if I’m honest, I just found The Handmaid’s Tale a bit depressing (it didn’t help that I’d read the book at university and didn’t enjoy it then either). The next season of The Expanse feels like it’s years away from being broadcast and I just can’t abide Poldark. So what do I watch instead?

Answer – nothing. I’ve gone back to reading, which these days feels like an incredibly radical idea, but since my “to read” pile needs planning permission it seemed like a pretty good idea. And so it has turned out. I’ve read some absolute corkers lately (and a few stinkers, but there we are). I might watch an occasional film over the weekend, but if I’m honest, I’m not missing the TV at all. It just isn’t grabbing my attention the way it once did.

Admittedly, a lot of what I’m reading relates to climate change and environmental matters – as recent blog posts will testify, this is an important subject for me – but since quite a lot of it is fiction rather than non-fiction, I’m able to imagine my favourite actors clinging on for dear life as the Pacific Ocean wipes out California or landslides destroy most of Sydney. Although that may have more to do with my love of disaster movies – few things makes me as happy as the sequence in The Day After Tomorrow when tornadoes devastate Los Angeles. I’ve seen it dozens of times and it never fails to entertain me.

It’s unfortunate that there is little television that has caught my attention lately. There used to be some wonderful stuff broadcast from Australia which I loved, because it was genuinely interesting and very well done – Deep Water and The Code being just two. I’m not sure about Top of the Lake because I missed the first series, but I note that the second has Gwendoline Christie in it, so that’s a possibility. Otherwise, I shall just keep reading until something comes along or I get to the bottom of the pile.

This Week’s Eco News

Here’s what caught my eye in the Guardian this week…

Monday – Rome Facing Water Rationing as Italy Suffers Driest Spring for 60 Years

I could have picked two or three stories this morning; there were a few that merit further reading (I recommend the pseudo public places, the death of the oldest manatee and the images of Fukushima) but I settled for this one. It has been hot in Europe recently, with record temperatures in Spain and parts of Italy closed to tourists because of the heat. These are poor countries that really need the income from tourists, but if it’s too hot to go out and see the sights, they are going to suffer. Italy, already quite an arid nation, faces drought and water rationing, something only seen in desert nations or science fiction novels, which can only damage the tourist income – and native infrastructure – even more.

Tuesday – Extreme El Nino Events More Frequent Even If Warming Limited to 1.5C

Yet again, I could have picked two or three stories here, but I plumped for this one because, being British, I’m pretty obsessed with the weather. What this story tells us is that even if we restrict our carbon emissions and limit global warming, we’ve still done enough damage to ensure droughts, floods, hurricanes and goodness knows what else. However, before you think “oh what’s the point then?” – it’s a question of scale. Yes, the effects will be felt but they won’t be as severe as they would be if we did nothing and let global warming run rampant, so it is still incumbent upon humanity to endeavour to keep global warming to a minimum. This means planting more trees, moving away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy sources and rethinking our relationship to the environment – and quickly.

Wednesday – Call for Action to Protect Scotland’s Endangered Capercaillie Birds

Fifty five years ago, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a classic of environmental literature in which she demonstrated how the uncontrolled use of pesticides on farmland was having a detrimental effect on the bird population. The silent spring of the title was one where no birds sang, because they had all died. In 2013, Conor Mark Jameson published Silent Spring Revisited, where he used his personal diaries and journals to reflect on how things had changed. The short answer is – they haven’t much; bird populations are still in decline and intensive farming is still the main way to work. It’s not really good enough and the loss of any species will devastate an ecosystem. The loss of a species as talismanic as the capercaillie should stir people into looking at the environment differently. What would they film on Springwatch otherwise?

Thursday – The Ick Factor: Dutch Project Making Bike Lanes and Bottles from Used Loo Roll

Oh get over yourselves! They clean it first! Besides, I think sooner or later we are going to have to get used to the idea of recycling pretty much everything, so sewage and other waste may as well be fairly high on the list. It’s not like we want it laying around, is it? I applaud the Dutch for their forward thinking and hope others take the hint.

Friday – Climate Change Drawing Squid, Anchovies and Tuna into UK Waters

This makes a pleasant change, a story about climate change that doesn’t involve species extinction – yet. Mediterranean species, such as calamari squid and anchovies are moving northwards, because the temperature of the ocean is better for them – meaning it’s too hot in the Med and cold-water fish such as cod and herring are going to move even further north. So while on the one hand it’s nice to read – especially as I love squid, they are beautiful creatures and highly intelligent – there’s that nasty, niggly little dark side. Warming oceans are not a good thing, no matter how many lovely little cephalopods they bring my way.

Have a good weekend!