Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Art of Gothic: Britain's Midnight Hour

The Art of Gothic: Britain's Midnight Hour
There is a hallowed tradition with this sort of BBC documentary: at some point it's going to go comically off the rails. The first third is the strongest bit; it gives a lively and informed overview of the Gothic as a historic term, a style of architecture, and a burgeoning literary form that officially started with the publication of Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto but already had deep roots in British literature. If I had a nit to pick with the first episode of the series it would be that Ann Radcliffe didn't get nearly as much spotlight as she deserves as an innovator in the mode. Radcliffe's short-shrift is emblematic of a recurrent problem throughout The Art of Gothic; this documentary seems to imagine the Gothic as the province of male thinkers and male artists without daring to peer outside that blinkered view. (Mary Shelley and Jane Austen are the exceptions, but then, they always are, aren't they?)

But it's in the second act where things start to go a bit strange. The documentary is forced to grapple with a time line in which the Gothic enters a fallow period in the mid-nineteenth century, and thus it starts creating dubious links between cultural artifacts and a larger Gothic worldview to fill in the gaps. Analysis of Augustus Pugin's work on Westminster Palace gets spun-out into grandiose feelings about the inherent darkness of his architectural and decorative ideas (with Charles Barry's work on the Houses of Parliament oddly downplayed to fit the narrative), and the discussion of renaissance faire cod-medievalism is a square peg being fitted to a round hole. 

Worse yet, untenable claims begin to crop up. The idea that the nineteenth-century Gothic made self and identity the site of phantasmagoric horrors is advanced, seemingly without knowledge of James Hogg's eighteenth-century work in the same vein or a consideration that the horrors of self and identity informed the Gothic's literary ancestors. A case is made for Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater as the invention of drug usage as escapism, which conveniently ignores a long history of European alcoholism at the very least.

The third acts starts briskly by giving pride of place to Bram Stoker's Dracula and the various cinematic terrors it inspired, but the documentary ultimately does what many contemplations of the Gothic attempt--it aims to make the Gothic more respectable by tracing its lineage to markers of Real Culture in the twentieth century. Sure, we can read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as colonial Gothic, but then T. S. Eliot is dragged in, one imagines against his will, as is Francis Bacon. All the insight displayed in the first hour of the series falls away, leaving us with the lazy notion that if a thing is grotesque it's probably Gothic. The ending moments are the most cringe-worthy, as they reveal--in what is probably the most British flourish ever--that the mobile phone is the true modern form of the vampire! Muahaha, the call is coming from inside the house!