Spirits in the Material World
Gods and Monsters (1998) is a fictionalized portrait of the last days of James Whale, the great director who set the standard and style of the best Hollywood horror movies in the 1930s. (Based on the novel Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram, this film contains one of Sir Ian McKellan's masterpiece performances.) I watched Gods and Monsters again tonight, having not seen it since I first watched it in the theatre during its initial release. I found it to be deeply affecting, in ways many of my literary friends no doubt would dismiss—but then, the whole LGBT/outsider subtext is beyond most of them, except intellectually. No one knows what it's like to have to encode your self in your art quite like artists who have been closeted and hidden LGBT or other minorities or oppressed groups. Except perhaps intellectually or theoretically,
If you believe the New Age cliché that We're not physical beings having a spiritual experience, we're spiritual beings have a physical experience, you can come around to the idea of the spirit-in-flesh (spirit enfleshed) rather naturally. But what of the monster's flesh? What of the role the monster plays in each of Whale's films, in which it, or he, stands in for the compleat Outsider, the rejected Other? The monster never asked to be made—none of us ask to be born, either—and finds himself in a world that hates and fears him, simply for being alive. It's not hard to view that as a gay subtext within Whale's horror films; and it's a subtext that has been discussed, written about, and portrayed extensively, not least in this modern film. We are our own gods, as well as being monsters. We are both.
Much is made in the film of Whale's experiences in the trenches of World War I, where he first fell in love with another man, only to see him murdered by war. At the end of his life, in the film, Whale can no longer evade or escape the horrors of his own life: he has too much time on his hands, he has lost most of his creative ability to aging and (possibly neurological, although it's not made explicit) disability, and none of the distractions are working anymore. Not even memories of the pretty boys frolicking nude in his pool in the middle of the night, as he watched, smiling.
Having spent a week dealing with my own memories, my own horrors both recently-overcome and recently-renewed, it's hard not to see the parallels. Isolated by distance, age, time, knowledge, experience, sexual identity: things that cut us off from each other, from the general run of humankind, from the usual topics of ordinary conversation—which all seems so dull, anyway, when your feet are in the fire—you relish even a moment of voyeurism. Which is not the same as pornography.
As a photographer I'm more of a voyeur than a pornographer—even when making photos of the erotic (male) nude. I'm not interested in titillation for its own sake, but only as a byproduct of something that is beautiful. Is it the beauty that turns us on, that makes us monstrous? Or is it the monsters that make themselves desirable? The argument about whether or not homosexuality is monstrous or natural is entirely irrelevant: what matters is whether beauty is also terrible.
Well, it is. It inspires awe, which is a form of terror. Beauty is but the beginning of terror. —Rilke
Another movie I re-watched recently is based on a Marvel Comics antihero, Ghost Rider. In its own way, just as campy as a James Whale film. Gods and Monsters is certainly the more serious of these two films. But both carry similar tropes about being the Outsider, the misunderstood: being the Monster. In both, the heroes are the monsters; the point is made absolutely, and explicitly, in each case. There is no pretending otherwise.
I used to read the Ghost Rider comic book regularly during its most philosophical run in the late 1980s. The character of Johnny Blaze, and his inner conflict with his demonic alter ego, appealed to me, I now imagine, because I was feeling more and more like an Outsider myself. My favorite soap opera at that time in my life was not a TV drama, but another Marvel comic book: The Uncanny X-Men. (In its heyday of being written by Chris Claremont and drawn by John Byrne.) I've watched all the movies made from those characters, as well. In the second film, X2: X-Men United, there is an explicit scene in which one of the student mutant characters comes out as a mutant to his family, who are scared and angry. At one point, the mother asks her son, the mutant, "Couldn't you just stop being a mutant?" The parallels to so many coming-out stories of LGBT youth and adults to their families are explicit and absolutely obvious: how many parents have said to their children, "Couldn't you just stop being gay?" The connection of being rejected as being Other is the same whether you're gay, or have mutant powers. It's rare for an otherwise action-oriented movie to get it so openly, so readily. This coming-out scene was so familiar to me, from my own life, that I had to both laugh out loud and cringe at the same time—which again, is the sort of response the coded layers of humor and pain in James Whale's movies also typically evoke in the clued-in watcher. The parallels are again obvious.
Ghost Rider, the Devil's bounty hunter, who takes his curse and makes it something of a force for good rather than evil, is a spiritual being having a physical-world experience. Movies are flickers of light on a screen: it's hard to get less physical than that, and remain substantially part of the physical world. The generations of men and women who have had to hide their true nature from others, for whatever reason, hid behind screens of coded behavior, coded messages, encoded speech and gesture and knowing looks. And each of these are stories that both tell us who we are, and help us figure out who we are, when such stories are reflected in entertainment. And what else are campy horror movies and comic books but entertainments?
Or perhaps they are something much, much more: perhaps they are the myths we tell ourselves about ourselves, however coded or layered with meaning. Perhaps they are a kind of archetypal autobiography: which is why they remain compelling, decades after they were first written, or drawn, or filmed.
And that's what art does, even more than entertainment: It endures. It still speaks to us, to our human condition, to our wounds and our hopes, long after its makers are gone.