Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Hollywood Gothic

Hollywood Gothic necessitates a different kind of narrative logic. The Gothic mode usually proceeds by uncovering the dark, rancid heart that beats beneath a skin of normality; the feeling of profluent movement is encapsulated in the coming-to-light of an unkeepable secret that propels Gothic narratives. But in the Hollywood Gothic, there is no coming-to-light, no return of the repressed. Instead, in its place we have only confirmation. Hollywood Gothic operates on the realization that the corruption we all assumed was there all along is in fact the reality we can reliably expect. Hollywood Gothic offers no surprise, no revelation; it gives affirmation to our fears about Hollywood.

I. Coldheart Canyon
When I first read Clive Barker's Coldheart Canyon, I was disappointed. I felt let down that the book didn't try to leverage its ghostly promise. The premise had the potential to work as a traditional Gothic novel: there was something lurid, grotesque, and uncanny about the possible spectral return of the 1920s film vamp. Instead, we get the ghost of a modern plastic surgery disaster movie star sporting a ludicrous erection for all eternity. What I didn't see at the time is that that was the point: we know Hollywood is absurd, we know it is a vortex for narcissists, their egos, their wealth, their ultimately sad desires. The pathetic specter with his unflagging rigidity may not be what we want, but deep down we know its the only ghost Hollywood's necromancy can invoke.

II. American Horror Story: Hotel
Hotel was a welcome return to form for the American Horror Story franchise. Where AHS goes wrong is when it attempts to take itself seriously; it just can't sustain any sort of narrative weight without collapsing into itself, like a cathode ray black hole. But when it brought its narrative around again to Los Angeles, and evoked the particular shades of old Tinseltown, it found its way back on track. The reason why is simple: Hotel gave the show the freedom to focus on shallowness. Everything in Hotel exists on a surface level; scratch the surface and you only get more surface. The themes and plot actively resists deeper reading. The show knowingly mocks its own shallow depth and winks at its own essential emptiness in the end. This is, again, confirmation of what we expect: everything in Hollywood is plastic to the core, and cruelly dispossessed of meaning.

III. Maps to the Stars
On first blush it appears that Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars deals in the standard Gothic convention of incest, but the film turns that well-worn thematic to a particular, and elusive, use. In most Gothic tales, incest functions as the thematic shape of uncontrollable desire or an irrepressible secret within the body familial, but in Maps to the Stars the incest is more akin to the ideas put forth by Anais Nin's House of Incest. That is, incest in Cronenberg's film is really symptomatic of an excessive self-love, a narcissism that can only recognize the self as an object of desire. The incestuous relationships in the film do not extend their erotic energies outward; they are instead essentially masturbatory and inward-facing. The reality we feared is real; in the dark masque and mummery of the Hollywood Gothic, the only love that exists is a loop of celluloid forever entwined with itself--an ouroboros of inverted libidinal economy that chokes on its own tail, forever.