THE RECYCLING OF A GENRE
Shakespeare never wrote a truer word when he penned sonnet fifty nine and proclaimed, “If there be nothing new, but that which is…Hath been before, how our brains are beguiled.” In layman’s terms the Bard was indicating that there is nothing new under the sun. Although it wasn’t a literary genre that he was waxing lyrical about, it could very well have been the subject of his musings. The Gothic has been in fashion since the later part of the eighteenth century when Walpole produced the now moss covered milestone of the “Castle of Otranto.” Since then literature has been wall-papered with the tropes of Gothic to the point that one can barely watch or read anything without some facsimile of the style being inherent to the plot; dark, brooding locations populated by mysterious beings, intent on causing mischief or at least satiating a habitual blood lust. Gothic has become so engrained in modern society that it can be found in many other artistic mediums including music, fashion, art and is no longer confined to literature. One may hazard that the attraction of the style is grounded in the easily recognizable genre tropes that are appreciated ostensibly by a symbol minded audience.
Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and Stoker’s “Dracula” haven’t been out of print since they were first published in the nineteenth century and still feature among the most enduring and cherished stories. Modern versions of these same tales – although contemporarily bearing only a passing resemblance to the originals – still hold true albeit with tenuous provenance. Likewise the medium of the modern film has succumbed to this retroactive, hair-raising over-spray and has taken it a step further. By utilizing historical characters, whether literary or human, it has not only recycled but has embellished and breathed new life into them with all things Gothic. Time-worn tales that have been told and retold ad nauseam have been resurrected thanks to the supplementation of genre allusion. The addition of appropriate styling has enabled film makers to recreate in much the same way that the medieval writers were able to reimagine the ancient classics without fear of obvious repetition. Gothic trope has become an adornment with which to repackage and stylize older works in order to achieve box office success. In particular one is reminded of Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and that most elusive of villains Jack the Ripper.
The visual medium of film is an ideal showcase to exhibit those traditional tropes of Gothic literature that are so conventional to the reader. Although imagination is a powerful tool the addition of quality illumination, professional cosmetology and a score and that would make an exorcist quail, are not without their place. It’s the Gothic that’s chorus to so many great films and undoubtedly one of the reasons for their continued success. Lightning strikes and thunder crashes; the orchestra strikes up an ominous note and immediately popcorn is forgotten and sugared drinks neglected. The visualization of the unheimlich is a powerful draw and those oligarchs of movie magic recognize its financially beneficial veneer when they assiduously apply it to celluloid. Ominous location, other worldly situations, dark and brooding moments, strange characters and the inevitable parataxis that wrong foots an audience are all part of the well-fingered apparatus of cinematic satisfaction. This doesn’t only apply to the film but also to the carefully crafted siren-song of the movie posters which predict the dark delights of the as yet unseen; supplying the necessary element of uncanny to excite willing flesh and pliable minds. Brilliantly rendered images that paint the imagination before coin has been exchanged for a tooth-to-nail thrill that’s guaranteed to suffuse the blood and raise the hackles. In the dulcet tones of that over familiar announcer whom we’re all acquainted with, “We’ll give you the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge!”
Sherlock Holmes has been a part of the popular conscious since his inception in 1887 when he first appeared in “A Study in Scarlet.” Under Conan Doyle’s’ penmanship, the consulting detective went on to appear in four novels and fifty six short stories, a literary phenomenon whose extraordinary analyzing mind was the key to the character’s success. The stories where quintessentially Victorian with a modern, somewhat removed character able, by the process of deduction and his intimate knowledge of the new scientific methods, to apprehend criminals in spectacular fashion. Although representative of the period and an obvious foil to Victorian society he was never a true Gothic character, although the original inception did create a template for future adaptations. Given the popularity of the genre during the period it was written, trope exclusion would have been contrary to public appeal and so one can recognize the inclusive elements of isolation, mystery, ominous setting and high emotion. Despite being replete with Gothic codifiers, Holmes didn’t become a true Gothic character until the B.B.C. television series featuring Jeremy Brett in the 1980’s. Although many earlier cinematic and television versions were originally filmed in black and white – due to contemporary technology – this later series was deliberately filmed with vague sepia coloration that induced a deliberate sense of the unheimlich; invariably using a smog ridden city scape to enhance the atmospherics of suspense and pending doom. Consequently instead of being an accessible, although eccentric human being, Holmes was cloaked in mystery, associated with the black arts and prone to violent mood swings. The director John Hawkesworth was fond of discordant scenes and used parataxis to enhance the sense of frustration, urgency and rapid thought patterns that to the viewer where bewildering to the point of discomfort. The addition of the Gothic to completely restyle a rather flat character, whose major attributes were a quick mind, a faithful companion and a deerstalker, didn’t happen however, until director Guy Ritchie reimagined Homes in 2009. With a combination of steam punk culture and overt gothic representation the character of Sherlock Holmes was completely reborn.
To date Ritchie has made two films both of which are steeped in Gothic imagery and allusion. Holmes is a complete man of mystery who hides form the world and who although possessed of incredible cerebral gifts has a side to him that could be described as sociopathic. Not unlike Conrad’s “Kurtz” Ritchie has alienated the figure of Holmes so that the reputation of the man is greater than the hero himself. Isolated in 221b Baker Street he is surrounded by the ephemera of empire and foreign travel and the debris that clutters each scene is a distraction and also a precursor to the inexplicable that occurs in subsequent falling action. Ritchie’s cinema craft is so rich that one doesn’t know where to look as each object, situation or new character distracts to the degree that there is an omniscient feeling of anxiety of haste and a burgeoning sensation of the necessity for breathless flight. Holmes, rather than in London, is constantly portrayed in hostile landscapes where he is pursued by mysterious frantic figures. Attacked by adversaries who simply materialize from nowhere and with the inexplicable threat of Moriarty, Ritchie’s ability to confound and surprise are aided by the technical brilliance of camera angle and scene setting to enhance viewer sensation. This looming sense of prophetic evil is not dissimilar to the “Nellie” steaming up the Congo; shrouded in mist and surrounded by impassable jungle where at any minute absolutely anything could happen. It is this kineticism of pending action that continually keeps an audience on its toes. The brooding atmosphere one associates with Victorian Gothic is consistent throughout his films via the medium of lighting, wardrobe and score. Ritchie is the master of metonymy where atmospherics, billowing steam and the ever present Thames fog proscribe the cinematic shorthand for impending doom and danger. The film is rich in doppelgangers, caricatured by the ability of Holmes to manipulate disguises using the “modern” technique of camouflage and period theatre craft. An obvious bumbling stooge to juxtapose the brilliance of the detective in the figure of Watson – as created by Conan-Doyle – is reversed by Ritchie who uses the character to foil Holmes’ innate ineptitude at life. The inclusion of femme fatales, arch villains and irrational momentary characterization rip the novel from the flat page and thrust it into the technicolored, moviescaped brilliance that it becomes in the hands of its director.
Even though the legend of Jack the Ripper has grown from the true events of a nineteenth century serial killer, it is still an exquisite representation of contemporary horror. Given that the events took place during latter years of the Victorian period – the location of his crimes and the dark brooding city-scaped images of a man stalking fallen women with a surgeon’s knife – his adaptation to the Gothic is an easy transition to make. The story of those historic events has appeared in every genre of literature since and can even be found in science fiction; an episode of “Star-Trek” included a character representative of the murderer. Unfortunately as with most early cinematic portrayals – and indeed one only has to go back to the eighties to experience the profundity of poor film craft and inadequate technology – the saturation of inept story telling tended to jade enthusiasm. The disassociation from film as medium of profit to that of an art form was necessary, along with the availability of 21st century technical ability, to bring a tired and worn tale back from the dead. Since the inherent details of the crimes were quintessentially Gothic it’s little wonder that an art-house production of the story was released. Once again the overt application of the Gothic literary genre was used to reanimate an already familiar topic.
“From Hell” was released in 2001 by the Hughes Brothers and centers on a troubled clairvoyant police detective tasked to investigate the murders of Jack the Ripper. Immediately we have the introduction of the uncanny and the unheimlich with a man who can allegedly predict the crimes of others through his opium induced dreams. The inspector is a disparate figure set apart from society by class, ability and personal appetites and although considered by the constabulary to be a maverick, is none the less recognized as one with great ability. Shades again of the “Kurtz” figure of whom similar qualities were attributed. The inspector operates in the smog enveloped urban jungle of White Chapel where street walkers and drunks populate the far margins of society of whom little or no attention is paid. Our hero finds himself in a strange land struggling to survive despite the machinations of diabolical –although human – forces. The inspector has to reconcile duty with the dangerous aspirations of an impenetrable monarchy supported by the unseen hand of the obscure illuminati who attempt to confound him at every turn. Although fear and foreboding are used to great extent along with the most gorgeous use of the cinematic craft, it is the psychological aspect that drives the action. The director deliberately uses darkness and shadow, accompanied by unusual camera angles, to sustain a claustrophobic atmosphere necessary when portraying the Gothic. Although we want the inspector to succeed we know that because his character is flawed and the forces he is up against are so powerful that his likelihood of success is minimal. Associated with the portents of his visions are the inevitable females in distress; prostitutes who for some unexplained reason are slated to be murdered by the Ripper at the express desire of the shadowy hand that is truly behind the crimes. Many of the other trope codifiers are utilized including an indefatigable partner, inexplicable events and – interestingly – allusions to other Gothic writers including Edgar Allen Poe. “From Hell” has transformed itself from the traditional murder investigation story into a psychological battle between the forces of darkness and light.
Gothic trope as is obvious from the two examples given has become an adornment with which to repackage and stylize older works in order to achieve box office success. The addition of appropriate Gothic codifiers has enabled film makers to recreate familiar stories in a new vane and thrill audiences with opulent representations of the Gothic style. The genre which has become so beloved as is apparent by its longevity and chronic metamorphoses has been translated with considerable skill from page to screen. Whether rain or knife slashed the appropriate settings of isolation, decrepitude and desperation – all inherently necessary to the Gothic – find a home in the modern cinema.