Gothic: Five Stars
The ideal artistic narrative can be likened to a delicious cake of three layers. First, this artwork, or cake, must have an enticing surface, at once ridiculous and detailed, frightening and comical. A satisfying, rich inner layer of ideas and themes playing off one another must follow. These themes need not necessarily be profound, just interesting, or interestingly juxtaposed. Finally, there must be a deep core of formless yearning so sweet that it is painful, like a cream-filled doughnut or a Depeche Mode song. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor D, and Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West, are two examples of artwork succeeding along this framework. Another is the 1986 movie, GOTHIC.

What is GOTHIC? Is it a horror movie? The name certainly suggests this, as the creators have made the unusual decision to title their work after an an entire genre. But in a rare post-modern move, this work is not what it purports to be! Instead, what you have hoped and longed for, and thought could not possibly be true, IS true: GOTHIC is a movie that uses horror tropes to depict the psychologically intense interactions between Lord Byron and the Shelleys.

Wait, what? But Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, her half-sister Claire Clairmont, and Byron's physician John Polidori - the movie's protagonists - are historical figures! The only acceptable and virtuous way to depict these important people in the medium of cinema is to have actors meticulously reconstruct abridged scenes from the Shelleys' letters, while wearing beautiful, accurate costumes of the time, with appropriate sorrowful or tempestuous music in the background. Right?

Well, wrong, obviously. If you like movies like that then you are a fucking moron with no taste.

GOTHIC just shows what would happen if you put five real, self-absorbed goths into a decadent gothic mansion for one night. They would use drugs and try to have sex with each other, while offering incoherent, high-minded justifications of their actions. They would enter unprovoked hysteria many times and run from scene to mad scene with few to no transitions. They would act like caricatures. There would not be a clear sense of narrative progression. It would be exciting and boring at the same time.

During the summer of 2004, GOTHIC strongly resembled my life.

Did I mention the use of horror tropes? For example, the movie opens with locals spying on the perverted Lord Byron's haunted Swiss villa. A man salaciously tells a woman to direct the telescope to the bedroom. Then, in stark, immediate contrast to this scene of life and light, we see the bedroom itself as though through the lens of a telescope - and a brooding figure glares balefully out of a window therein! Is it the infamous, haunted poet? No, it is only his creature, Doctor Polidori, a twisted emotional wreck of a man who loves leeches, blood, and sodomy. He also harbors feelings for his Luciferian employer, which the latter unfortunately does not reciprocate!

The objects of Polidori's scornful regard are the other characters, who are rowing across the lake to Lord Byron's house. Percy Shelley is a New Agey, laudanum-addled youth, an enthusiastic promoter of polyamory. Claire Clairmont is a fucked up, crazy bitch who is doing it with both Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, her half-sister's boyfriend. Mary Shelley is the film's "moral center." She loves the foolish Percy and wants to have a baby. Yet, in the phantasmagoric world of GOTHIC such a simple, natural wish may have gruesome consequences...

Percy Shelley gazes into the mirror after a laudanum-filled night

GOTHIC does have flaws. In addition to being patently ridiculous, the movie is hard to follow. I still remember almost the exact sequence of all the scenes in Showgirls. With Showgirls, the logic propelling the movie forward was bizarre, implausible, and yet - in part because of this - memorable. With GOTHIC, the logic propelling the movie forward is nonexistent. It is not unusual to be in the middle of watching and find yourself unable to remember what just happened. This is especially true during repeat viewings, when you don't know if a favorite scene has or hasn't happened already.

The plot of GOTHIC is as follows: Percy, Mary, and Claire arrive; Byron greets them evilly; everyone starts acting crazy. I guess the craziness is supposed to increase in intensity as the night progresses, but it really doesn't. The emotional pitch stays about the same, whether Byron is brutalizing Claire at the dinner table, or the gang is reading ghost stories, or Polidori is attempting a baroque suicide, or Byron is tenderly seducing Percy Shelley by telling him that "poets... are for each other," or Mary Shelley is running around in a phantasmagoric maze that represents her own mind.

One night of horror at the Villa Diodati supposedly inspired the protagonists of GOTHIC to "create monsters," to "bring their fears to life." Mary Shelley got the idea for Frankenstein, and there was a lot of implicit comparison between a woman giving birth to a dead child and a woman writing a book (see, this is what I mean when I say a great artwork must have a rich inner layer of ideas and themes; this is what I'm fucking talking about). Yet the most lasting monster that they created that night was Romanticism. It is an aesthetic sensibility that, like an ancient fetus deep beneath the chill waters of Lake Geneva, haunts us to this day.

Posted by xerxes on Fri, 21 Mar 2008 00:02:22 -0400 -- permanent link

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