Sunday, April 17, 2016

It's More A Story With Ghosts In It

Mia Wasikowska as Edith Cushing in CRIMSON PEAK (2015)

As much as I hate people, I love any excuse to talk with them about books, so I joined a book club. Well, technically it's my second because I got kicked out of the first one. It was a classic literature group but I thought it was pretty telling that they had left a modern masterpiece like VALLEY OF THE DOLLS off their reading list. But c'est la vie. Henry Campbell, criminal defense legal wizard and best buddy extraordinaire, was also banned for life from the group for showing up to meetings pleasantly sloshed with a Coke can full of gin so that just proves those people are sucking the class out of classic literature. So, in addition to being president of the local chapter of the WARREN OATES Fan Club, Henry took the initiative and formed a brand new book club for the true lovers of literature.

I, for one, appreciated his discussion points from last week's "SINCLAIR LEWIS Is A Wimp" lecture. He talked about how LEWIS is the equivalent of that obnoxious guy at the bar who thinks he's the smartest guy in the room and laughs at all his own jokes. Then when you don't think he's that funny, he tries to pick a fight but then he's all mouth and gets his nose knocked square down to his ass by some biker guy who's not gonna put up with that punk-ass nonsense. I'm looking forward to next week's lecture, "JIM THOMPSON eats other writers for lunch."
However, not everyone is a fan of Henry's boozy, folksy literary lectures. Butch Walker's half-brother (those parents have racked up a few ex-spouses over the years) is vying to unseat Henry as president of the book club. See, before those voices in his head told him to steal a Zamboni and go on rampage through the mall food court, he had earned an M.F.A. in Literature at UVA. He knows more about DREISER than anyone on the planet. While he was doing Rorshach fingerpaintings in a state mental institution, he even formed his own "literary appreciation circle" among his fellow inmates and tried to educate some of the staff about the finer points of THE BROTHERS KARAMOZOV. He even tried to mount a production of THE ICEMAN COMETH with his fellow inmates but there were some real divas in that crowd. Anyhow, he didn't find that SINCLAIR LEWIS lecture amusing.
He couldn't understand how someone could stand back and desecrate American literary masterpieces like BABBIT and IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE.
"Easy," Henry answered. "They're not very good."
Butch's half-brother was saying something about Henry didn't understand the satire of those books and Henry just answered, "How couldn't I understand 'em? They're about as subtle as a sack full of buttholes. Less profound, I might add."
I don't entirely know what that means, but he's got a point.
"Let me put it to ya this way," Henry said. "IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE and ROBERT PENN WARREN's ALL THE KINGS MEN were both inspired by the same real-life subject, right? But ALL THE KINGS MEN is writing, where IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE is whining. And ain't gonna read no damn whining."
Butch's half-brother gets madder than a wet nun and insists that literature is sacred and discussion of it should be conducted with a serious air.
Henry just responded with, "Is it just me, or is FLANNERY O' CONNOR pretty hot?"

Where do I stand on this proposed change to the book club's direction? I'm damn opposed. I refuse to take anything seriously and nothing gets on my nerves more than a bossy guy on Seroquel.
Dave Spencer is also angling to take over as president as it would provide him a captive audience for his one-man show about TRUMAN CAPOTE. He walks around spitting out bitchy putdowns in everyday life anyway so the one-man show really can't be much of a stretch.

And speaking of an appreciation for literature, today I'm talkin' about GUILLERMO DEL TORO's love letter to the Gothic romance, CRIMSON PEAK, co-written with MATTHEW ROBBINS, starring MIA WASIKOWSKA as the resourceful candelabra-wielding heroine, the lovable JIM BEAVER as her father, SONS OF ANARCHY's CHARLIE HUNNAM as her Sherlock Holmes-loving best friend who gets a chance to solve a real mystery and TOM HIDDLESTON and JESSICA CHASTAIN as the sinister Usher-like Sharpe siblings. But the real star is the decaying mansion of the title, resting on acres of blood-red clay.
Things are gonna get a little SPOILER-ific so be warned!

Allerdale Hall in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

In turn-of-the-century Buffalo, NY, Edith Cushing is an outspoken aspiring writer. Her ambitions are met with derision by the high society folks around her, particularly since it is not customary for women to write ghost stories.
"It's not a ghost story," Edith corrects a condescending publisher. "It's more a story with ghosts in it."
Edith is not interested in being a typical, vacuous Victorian lady. When her best friend's social climbing mother patronizingly refers to her as "our own JANE AUSTEN" and remarks that Ms. Austen died a spinster, Edith retorts, "Actually, Mrs. MacMichael, I prefer to be MARY SHELLEY. She died a widow."
Perhaps Edith's upbringing granted her a different outlook. Her mother died when she was only ten and she was raised by her successful industrialist father. He's supportive of Edith's ambitions and her stubbornness. After all, those are the qualities that allowed him to rise from rags to riches. He even gives her a gift of a pen for her writing.
Edith's interest in the supernatural stems back from a childhood incident in which she was given a warning by her mother's ghost.
And of course, a warning that does not make sense to the recipient will go unheeded and figure into the plot. It would be helpful if ghosts would be a lot more specific.
Anyhow, Edith also does not suffer fools gladly and defiantly rejects the wealth and position that her peers embrace, dismissing an aristocrat as "a parasite with a title."
However, she revises her opinion when she meets a real baronet in person: the mysterious, handsome Thomas Sharpe is not only a misunderstood dreamer like herself (he's an inventor), he also praises her writing.
"Where I come from," he says. "Ghosts are serious business."
Edith is charmed by Thomas and the two fall in love, despite the consternation of Thomas's dour sister, Lucille and the disappointment of Edith's best friend, mystery-loving opthamologist , Alan MacMichael. Edith's father, however, is not so easily won over and takes an instinctive dislike to the Sharpe siblings. Perhaps it's that new money versus old money hostility or the fact that they look like living EDWARD GOREY drawings, but Mr. Cushing is mighty suspicious and hires a private investigator to see if there's any dirt on the duo.

Thomas and Lucille Sharpe in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

There is, of course, but the audience will have to wait patiently to find out what it is. In the meantime, Mr. Cushing's attempt to break up this doomed romance ends in a violent head-splitting murder in a washroom that leaves Thomas free to whisk Edith away to a whirlwind marriage and life as a newlywed in his decaying mansion in Cumberland, England.

Married life is not quite as romantic as Edith anticipated. The house is, as Lucille puts it, "full of nothing but shadows, creaks and groans," falling apart and sinking into the red clay pits below. Thomas is curiously distant from his new bride and any moment the two are alone is interrupted by the domineering Lucille. And just what is in that bitter tea that Lucille serves that's making Edith awaken in the middle of the night with severe stomach pains? And just who are those howling, red ghosts appearing to Edith to deliver cryptic messages on her nightly wanderings around the mansion?

With its enthusiasm for Gothic tropes, MARIO BAVA worship (just look at those colors!) and liberal sprinklings of THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER and NOTORIOUS, CRIMSON PEAK is similar to the characters of Edith and Thomas in that it's a little out of its time and a little out of its step with its peers. Coming from me, that is definitely not a criticism, though. The film even wears its old-fashionedness on its sleeve with the use of silent cinema techniques like irises and wipes.
Audiences expecting more oogie-boogie haunted housenanigans were disappointed; after all, in CRIMSON PEAK, horror is not derived from the supernatural.
True horror comes from the living.
While ghosts in the film are something of a bridge between the past, present and future, the living are the dangerous ones.

In the park, Edith and Lucille discuss butterflies and moths. The butterflies are beautiful but cannot survive the winter.
"That's sad," Edith remarks.
"It's not sad," Lucille retorts. "It's nature. It's a savage world."
Not only do the fragile butterflies perish without the sun, they are cannibalized by moths, creatures that, Lucille explains, "thrive on the dark and cold."
The Sharpe siblings make recurring mentions of the weak being consumed by the strong in nature and living things turning savage in order to survive.
When Edith remarks about the bitterness of the tea at Allerdale Hall, Thomas laments, "Nothing gentle ever grows in this land" and that things need to develop bitterness if they don't want to be eaten.

Edith (Mia Wasikowska) and Lucille (Jessica Chastain) marvel at the butterflies in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

Their grim outlook on life begins to make sense as, unlike Edith, the Sharpe siblings did not grow up in a nurturing household.
"Father was a brute," Lucille reveals.
Seems the patriarch of the Sharpe clan broke their mother's leg before abandoning the family and squandering much of their fortune on what Blanche DuBois would refer to as "epic fornications."
When Edith remarks about imagining Lucille and Thomas as small children, Lucille tellingly remarks, "We were confined to the nursery. In the attic."
The siblings were subjected to brutal beatings and emotional abuse by their mother. Lucille, the eldest, became a sort of surrogate spouse and punching bag.
Isolated both physically and by their social class, Lucille and Thomas had no one else to turn to. Attempting to fulfill a series of emotional and physical needs that are normally met by several different people, the Sharpe siblings began an incestuous relationship.
The inbred aristocratic family is a trope of Gothic literature but in the emotional core of the story it rings true as well. Thomas and Lucille had no one to rely upon or trust except for each other; as a result, their relationship became perverted.
Lucille, unlike Edith, has known only trauma and suffering. Lucille sees herself as a moth -- a predatory creature destroying more delicate, pretty things, one that "thrives on the dark and cold" as she lives separated from the rest of the world in a disintegrating old mansion she despises.
She has come to believe one needs to be vicious in order to survive.
It may also indicate feelings of self-loathing as she sees herself as a creature without beauty but that cannibalizes the pretty butterflies.

Jessica Chastain as Lucille Sharpe in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

Her relationship with Thomas, the only person she remotely cares for, is characterized by dominance more than affection. She has transformed him into her willing prisoner and ultimately she would prefer to destroy him rather than have him leave the family home.
Lucille, like many abused children, has adopted the role of the victimizer rather than continue being victimized herself, venting her rage on others weaker than her.
Also, like many children of dysfunctional families, she refuses to break the cycle: it's just too familiar and any other way of living seems suspicious. Thomas, at one point, proposes they simply take what is left of the family fortune and leave the house.
Lucille will not hear of it. As much as she loathes the deteriorating Allerdale Hall, it is comfortable for her.
After all, murder has proven to be a successful method of venting her pent-up rage and she has come to relish her role as a predator. When the Sharpe skeletons all come dancing out of the closet, Lucille literally has her hair down and her long, billowing nightgown flows freely around her (like moth wings?).
"This is who I am," she proclaims.
She has proudly taken on the role of the domineering, abusive matriarch and even wears her red ring.

Jessica Chastain as Lucille Sharpe in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

Lucille, however, has imprisoned herself as well as Thomas. Unable to let go of her rage, she cannot move forward and it consumes her (as well as everyone that crosses her path). At the end of the film, she remains a ghost eternally playing her piano in the decaying house.
She's stuck forever.
The performances in CRIMSON PEAK are all excellent, but I think Ms. Chastain's may be the one that really lingers with audiences. It's like if JOAN CRAWFORD played Lady MacBeth and it doesn't get any better than that.

While Lucille identifies with the moths, the film aligns Edith with the butterfly. Contrasted with the severe blacks and blues of Allerdale Hall and the Sharpe siblings' wardrobe, Edith sports brightly colored dresses. The one she wears most often is even a yellow one, the same color as the butterfly wings seen earlier in the park. The designs on several of Edith's blouses even resemble butterfly wings.
However, the film does not agree with the views espoused by the Sharpe siblings about things in nature becoming cruel and preying upon the weak to survive.
Edith, unlike the butterflies in the park, does not perish in the snowstorm besieging Allerdale Hall. She survives her ordeal through her intelligence and inner-strength.

Mia Wasikowska as Edith Cushing in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

I was talkin' about CAT PEOPLE here the other day, which is another film that never quite got the respect it deserved. I don't think this is a coincidence as both are dark fairytales for adults centering on a female character's coming-of-age.
Unlike Irena Gallier, who was on a quest for identity, Edith Cushing has a good idea of who she is. However, she still struggles to define her place in the adult world -- namely as a writer. No writer worth their salt has had an easy, happy life. And while Edith is not pampered by any means, her life experience does not extend far from her father's house. She is fascinated by the mysterious, dark and hidden aspects of life but she has not had to face much of them herself.
Having discovered the dark secrets of the Sharpe siblings, Edith's father commands Thomas to break Edith's heart and leave or else.
Thomas obeys, hitting Edith where it really hurts: her writing. He tells her she only knows what other writers tell her; that she knows nothing of real love or heart-ache; and -- the real ouch -- that she's nothing but a spoiled child.
Some reviewers have complained that Edith does not have a character arc: she is the same strong-willed young woman in the beginning that she is at the end. I'd disagree: at Allerdale Hall she is forced to confront the darkness she has long been fascinated with and survives her traumatic ordeal.
She now has her own insights into the human heart -- and the monstrousness that can dwell within. By surviving trauma, Edith defines herself as an artist and becomes a published writer.
It's not a coincidence that she defends herself against Lucille with the tool of her trade, a pen.

Mia Wasikowska as Edith Cushing in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

And what about Thomas? Where does he fit into all of this?
Though he's got the melancholy part down, Thomas is not the Gothic hero we've grown accustomed to.
In many ways, his character is more tragic than Lucille. He is stuck in the past -- his aristocratic social standing, the decaying house, the trauma from years of abuse -- but he can also see the future. After all, he is an inventor.
Unlike Lucille, who fancies herself a moth, Thomas has a distaste for violence. While Lucille is incapable of loving, Thomas falls in love with Edith for her kindness and creativity. He senses there is a better way and longs something different, but is unable to break free from his sister's grip and the trauma that haunts him.
"You're always looking to the past," Edith tells him.
Thomas does not possess the strength that both Lucille and Edith demonstrate. Had he been born into a different family, he would have been a genuinely beautiful soul, but instead he is ultimately too passive, too fragile to survive and transform himself.
While the dominant roles in the film's narrative are played by Lucille and Edith, Thomas takes on the role of the doomed heroine. He's the Madeline Usher while Lucille is Roderick.
The character is deftly played by TOM HIDDLESTON who is able to be simultaneously sinister and gentle.

Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) looks at Edith (Mia Wasikowska) with love in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

As it is in all Gothic fiction, the house becomes an Expressionistic space, a metaphor for the psychological state of the characters inhabiting it. Allerdale Hall is decaying, literally sinking into the blood-like red clay that resides beneath it, much in the way that the old aristocracy is sinking in the face of the future and much in the way the Sharpe family has turned inward and destructed. While they have survived living an isolated existence from the modern world, the many shots of snow falling through the holes in the roof into the entrance hall remind us that the reality of the outside world they have tried to barricade themselves against is increasingly intruding.

And speaking of which, there is much ado in CRIMSON PEAK about social class and the past versus the modern. The European aristocracy, one in which you are born into money and social standing, is contrasted with the new money of the industrial age. Edith's father even states to Thomas Sharpe that he knows he has never worked a day in his life; after all, Thomas has the smoothest hands he has ever seen. Unlike Thomas, his hands are rough. He has earned his money not through birth-right but through hard work. 
The casting of the actors illustrates this as well with the fine-featured, distinctively English TOM HIDDLESTON contrasting with the more weathered, gruff-voiced, bearded JIM BEAVER.
While the old aristocracy is collapsing in on itself, the new (new money, new technology and the new frontier, America) is thriving.
Neither is maligned; the aristocracy as represented by the Sharpes is ultimately tragic in that it cannot adapt to the new age so it simply implodes upon itself.
Ghosts, unlike both, are ultimately timeless. On the one hand they are remanants of the past; ghosts in Gothic fiction are metaphors for the inability to let go of the past for, as WILLIAM FAULKNER would remind us, "the past is never really dead." However, in CRIMSON PEAK, ghosts are also aware of the future, offering oracles of what is to come.

Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) finish the waltz in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

As a lover of the Gothic and snowy ghost stories, I was instantaneously seduced by CRIMSON PEAK's many charms. I don't think there's been a more beautiful looking film in the past five years; the photography, production design and wardrobe are all gorgeous. And while some critics will balk at the familiarity of the story, I think that just makes it the cinematic equivalent of an oversized sweater and a nice cup of chamomile tea on a rainy day. There's even a waltz sequence - who can argue with that? It's just too damn classy!
Something about it also spoke to me when I saw it on the whim in theaters many a month ago and I think that has to do with both the female characters both being close to my heart. I can identify with Edith; she resembles the face I present to the world, a composite of the qualities I really like about myself -- the horror writer, the defiant outsider, the outspoken well-educated woman and the survivor who turns her trauma into art. On the other hand, I think my dark side looks a lot like Lucille; the side that's all wounds and bitchiness, the side that wants to remain isolated and thrive on insanity, the side that leaves a bear trap on the front lawn so those jerk neighborhood kids will stay off my turf. It's the side that wants to lay down a lot of whoopass while wearing an elegant updo.

The moth and the butterfly: Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain) and Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).

A Gothic love story with just the right amount of stomach-churning violence, ghosts, feminism and a touch of class all guided by the hand of a masterful auteur -- what more can a culture vulture ask for?

1 comment:

  1. An inspired piece of critical analysis! My favorite parts linked film imagery to themes and themes to the larger tensions of the epoch without losing any of your signature irreverence. One of my favorites.