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Neo-Raconteur

Allocating Southern-Gothic Symbolism into Design Media

by Mark Compton

 

The Southern Gothic artist are often bound by internal burns and scars caused by the true Southern “B” attitudes: bias and brutality, bravado and beguile, plus beauty and benevolence; these experiences that transport the Southerner into new realities, if he is artistically inclined, forces the individual into a response, in my case by Gothic expression. I define “Gothic” as an artistic genre characterized visually by darkness and shadow and emotionally by despondency and pessimism, often involving the grotesque or supernatural in an isolated and/or peculiar local. I have found through my own personal relationships and those of most of my friends that the experience that often leads to Gothic expression by the artist is but baggage to the philistine.


Oh the philistine, I have witnessed the philistine in action; I have even lived amongst them. It’s not too hard to come upon this species of humanity, no matter what the region in any country. No social class can be immunized from the philistine, like homosexuals (also not immune) they flourish in every social class and in every race. Artists and high art are complicated and most human beings appreciate the complexity and depth of expression; some citizens even pay the artists for their inspiration, but not all. There are those who just cannot see past the instantaneous and/or probe the possibilities of perhaps. These individuals are known as “the philistine;” they are the fuel for fads, a mine for a magnitude of monetary waste, and have filled my life with moments of misplaced superficial meanings as to the keys of life. Pearson says of the Sitwells, an early 20th to mid century English family of letters and the benefactors of many Modern era artist, as having “been at war for years-with their parents, with the Golden Horde and the philistine, with all those malevolent black forces which had been threatening their comfort and their ideal world of beauty.” For me it is the philistine of the American South that have astonished, dazzled, and even traumatized me so that I can’t help but to express myself.

 

Like Marley in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, "I wear the chain I forged in life, I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?"iv The first chains I forged were in South Carolina where I was privileged to witness the full macrocosm of the socioeconomic system in an isolated small town setting, as well as the last days of the Southern agrarian culture that is now corporate, not to mention the religious, political, and social structures that faded and/or were revived with the civil rights movement. I am a bridge between the Old South and the New South, Southern Gothic by the grace of ancestry and time and by the affects of those who believe in a God with Southern “B” attitudes.

 

CHAPTER 3 - INFLUENTIAL ARTIST - FLANNERY O'CONNOR:
WRITING WITH A PEACOCK'S FEATHER

When I teach an English class, no matter the course, I always insist on every student reading Good Country People, by Flannery O’Connor. Salman Rushdie said, “Probably the cruelest short story in the English language is Flannery O’Connor’s Good Country People.” v Truly there is no one who can reveal a story more beguilingly and as viscous; she strikes at the social fiber of the American South like a gin pulling seed from the cotton. Whether the protagonist or antagonist, O’Conner’s characters strip away society’s layers revealing polite violence, savage good intentions, and/or an antihero who’s life is a self-created delusion. If the character is a God fearing zealot, it is a signal of a flaw. Characters such as Manley Pointer in Good Country People or Onnie Jay Holy in Wise Blood know how to make a buck in Jesus’s name. Like O’Conner, I create characters with underlying motives that use religion to obtain their goals. Joy/Hulga Hopewell in Good Country People makes many assumptions under the belief that Manly Pointer was a Christian. Hulga falls into Manley’s trap and his motivation is divulged (Collecting her artificial leg) and he reveals she was not the first (He stole another woman’s artificial eye). Of course all of these “Godly” characters depend on individuals to make the assumption that their motivations are pure and holy. From O’Connor’s Roman Catholic view, the consequences of the ‘holy’ characters’ actions are not realized until their victims bare the scars allowed by their own assumptions that all Calvinistic Christians that carry the banner of God are good.

 

“While the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.vi (O’Conner, 44) What I borrow from O’Conner is that the ultimate demise of the protagonist falls under the shadow of the “religious” antagonist. In my screenplay Lord Have Mercy (http://www.lordhavemercyfilm.com/), the central character meets his fate due to his introduction to the religious practice of feet washing, a monthly ritual at his grandfather’s church. The same can be said of Hazel Motes, the anti-hero protagonist in Wise Blood, his tragic end begins upon his return home and also being drawn into the business of religion. In both stories the protagonists are haunted by their belief systems and their deaths can be directly linked to religion. In Lord Have Mercy and my short From An Elevation, religious overtones become the devises that pilot my work into the realm of Southern Gothic, a genre where the drama is so scandalously outrageous it loses the drama and at times becomes atrociously comical. This sometimes includes how characters are named. Now Flannery O’Conner was not the first and she won’t be the last, but like her I name my characters based on their character. O’Conner did this often, sometimes even explaining the character’s name, sometimes letting the name speak for itself: Manley Pointer, Hazel Motes, Mrs. Hopewell, etc. I too name characters to indicate something about their characters: Randy Lee Earnest and Sweet Ride are characters from my screenplay Lord Have Mercy and my novel Fruitcake.

 

I have traveled to Savannah, Georgia to lay flowers at the steps of O’Connor’s birthplace. Her stories were and are still a slap of cold water in the face of the Southerner, testing their sensibilities concerning their identity due chiefly to her ability to elevate a hidden moral or reveal an ugly truth that collide with shaded hypocrisies that often originate from the pulpit. She held up a mirror to her contemporaries and to future Southerners who she knew would be contaminated by the harsh, cold, black and white philosophies of Calvinism and its Protestant siblings. I own that mirror.

 

CHAPTER 4 - INFLUENTIAL ARTIST - LOUIS MALLE:
CONVERSATIONS AND THE LOST OF INNOCENCE

“The Southern Bible Belt is a place and it is a condition; it is here that all Flannery O'Connor's stories are located.” vii(Forman) Although not all of my stories begin in the American South, they all end there. In my opinion it’s all about location, location, location… this is not an attribute that falls solely on the regional literary artist. For example, John Waters always situates his films in Baltimore. The French New Wave filmmakers were famous for filming on location. Again, Forman said, it’s not just a place or a location but the South is a condition. The condition of any location legislates to the actor and the director the boundaries of reality in making the shot but also how the story will be revealed climatically as well. I found this to be true especially with three of my shorts, Folly, From An Elevation, and A Preacher’s Portion, where the locations are just as important as any character as far as revealing the story. Folly, as a short, falls at every turn into the Southern Gothic tradition, dark in content and mood; it is predominately reliant on location to convey the story. Location shooting as mentioned is a preponderate in the French New Wave whether one is referencing the “Left Bank” group who were centered on political/sociological issues or the “Cashiers” group that are limited to the critics who wrote for theorist and film critic André Bazin’s Cashiers du Cinéma.viii (Temple & Witt, 183.) Location is essential for the conveyance of the Southern Gothic genre, especially exteriors where time and environment are exploited for mood and character development.

 

Of the filmmakers from the “Left Bank” of the French New Wave, I have to say I am most intrigued with Louis Malle. Louis Malle, more than any other director (possibly ever), knew the purpose of the camera. He was Jacques Cousteau’s cinematographer and co-director of Silent World (1956), the deep-sea documentary that won both an Oscar and a Palme d’Or.ix His images from Les Amants (The Lovers, 1958), staring one of his favorite actresses, Jeanne Monreau (Elevator to the Gallows -1957, Viva Maria! -1965), were considered so sensual and erotic that the Ohio theatre owner, Nico Jacobellis, was fined $2,500 for obscenity in 1964 for screening the film. Jacobellis filed an appealed and won the 1968 Supreme Court case Jacobellis v. Ohio, which Justice Potter Stewart uttered probably the most famous line from any court decision, “I know it when I see it” in reference to obscenity. The court sided with Jacobellis; it was a decision that has completely changed cinema in how a story could be told visually.x Today the images from The Lovers seem commonplace, but when compared with the majority of movies coming out of the Hollywood studios during the same period (late 50s, early 60s), they have more vitality driven by reality. Louis Malle’s pacing changed with the subject matter of his films; one can’t find a pattern to his style in his earlier work. Elevator to the Gallows (1958), a suspense/thriller, is parallel to Hitchcockian fair, Viva Marie! (1965) is a star vehicle for Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau with comedic timing similar to Barbara Streisand and Goldie Hahn films of the time. The opening of Viva Marie! is very shocking post 9/11; a young girl around age four is walking in a park with what seems to be kite string, it is actually a fuse for an Irish Liberation Movement bombing. Having seen most of Louis Malle’s narrative work, this has undoubtedly the fastest pace of his films I have seen, appropriately so considering the subject matter. Murmur of the Heart (1971) begins a stylized pattern for Malle, from now on his work is character based, driving by the pace of the chief character which is the storyline. With Murmur of the Heart, Malle enters into the realm of the “Grotesque” and with the exception of Atlantic City his narrative films deal with the dynamic of family and/or situational impacts upon a character in his or her youth. His later work in his native French could arguably be labeled Modern French Gothic, autobiographical, cinematically dark and gloomy, it relates to his experiences set during WWII and German occupation.

 

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