Notes on Crimson Peak (film, 2015)

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* Someone said this was a gothic novel adaptation of an unwritten book rather than a horror movie. That’s very true. The flow is a bit awkward no matter how you slice it, but Crimson Peak does work better considered in that capacity.

* I almost prefer Edith, the heroine, before she marries. She loses herself a bit in the second half. Perhaps that’s an intentional effect, but it’s not entirely working for me on the “Rebecca” level. I wish we had a protagonist who, even befuddled by the horror, didn’t try to walk out of this snow-hell without shoes.

* My friend Jade pointed out that it was fairly interesting that the ghosts were benign, and that the movie made an effort to ask ‘what is ghosts’ deal? What do they want?’ She is: CORRECT. The horror’s never been the haunted house, or the ghosts. We’re in one of those ‘people are the true monsters’ psychological gothic horror stories. I like that subgenre, but feel the film’s hold on this material could have been tighter.

* The house looks a lot like the similar manor in the more recent adaptation of The Haunting, which isn’t good per se but is compelling nonetheless. It has some of that film’s beats as well. The titular house is hella Aesthetic movement. Unless it’s original gothic, and let’s face it, it isn’t, and even if it is—no, sorry, it’s still really 19th c., design/serving post-Strawberry Hill realness at the very earliest, just look at it. Thus there’s been no time for these features to have mouldered to the extent they have. I wonder how common mismatched eras of decoration and degrees of decay are in horror movies?

Also, why not tarp over the ceiling hole that is artistically admitting drifting cascades of… something. Petals, or leaves from overhanging trees this property doesn’t seem to have. Sell half your shit to get that done, it’s your clear and present structural priority. They’re hard up, but this place is still LUSH with moveables. I’m mentally pricing these mantelpieces. You don’t even need this Bluebeard scheme, just call Lyon & Turnbull.

The visuals are indeed lush, but it’s hard to take the protagonist seriously in her diaphanous mutton sleeves. She looks like Sarah in the Labyrinth ball sequence. In fact these amazing visuals are almost getting in the way of the plot. We have to be in this house, so we’re here, even though the villains’ motivations for remaining (having sunk multiple fortunes into this place they hate, and yet never having bothered to repair that roof-hole) are shaky, and become less intelligible as the plot is revealed. If the siblings had some mystic connection with the house I could see staying, but in fact they could have cut and run ages ago, on any one of these bride-fetching trips or after their first murder. More time could have been spent on why they don’t.

* The logistics of this bride plot are strange. Did none of these women call shenanigans on the absence of sex? They can’t all have been in mourning—at least that isn’t explicitly mentioned. When the protagonist and HigPig: Incest Edition finally do the deed, on her first sexual outing Edith is confident, pain-free and cowgirling adroitly like a rodeo champion, no problem. You have to work up to those technical skills! Unless he has a dick like a pen nib, I guess, but even so one does not simply walk into Mordor/instinctually know where to put one’s limbs for more advanced manoeuvres. More seriously, the fluidity and the normalcy of the sex normalise what could be a site of intensity and strangeness, possibly a jarring period moment, or a moment of cute intimacy between the couple.

* I guessed from its first appearance that our heroine was being being intentionally slow-poisoned by this shit-tasting tea, but honestly it could easily just have been some Victorian wellness bs. It’s not like that lot haven’t tried restoratives that turned out to be medically terrible ideas in good faith before now.

* Why are our protagonist and HigPig sharing a bedroom? It’s not very period, and it’s not as if they don’t have enough rooms. This is especially true given HigPig’s secret incestual relationship—which I also called pretty early—and consequent practice of marital chastity. It’s hard staging these gothic novel plots now. Nothing is so shocking you can’t clearly guess it’s coming, and nothing is religiously or conventionally abhorrent in a deep and sacred sense. Gothic no longer quite works, in its accepted forms, as transgressive social horror.

* In general I feel periodicity is kind of strangely conveyed by props and clearly flagged pop cultural references in this film. It vaguely conditions aspects of the characters’ relationships, like making the sexless union and the live-in sister more possible, but it doesn’t inflect people’s behaviour or challenge audiences. It’s set dressing.

* Or protagonist is ‘so different’ from her predecessors, according to Hiddleston. How? This is never really explored. She was specifically picked to be like them, just going by her CV. Knowing more about what’s happening here would shore up the male lead’s pivotal turn against his sister, making it believable and meaningful.

* Burn Gorman’s Dickensian-lookin ass was goddamn meant for these Hammer Horror roles. It’s a pity he was in such a meh Bleak House, because he is an ideal Smallweed, visually. I never know if he can act: he seems fairly capable, but is generally cast in quite one-note roles. (I’m not walking it back, PacRim people.)

* ’Fuck’ doesn’t feel like the right verb for the sister’s class. Victorians posh people usually went for blasphemy related curses, while lower class people went for physical. Possibly the implication is that the asylum coarsened her (adding a degree of class horror to the mix), but if so, that could be clearer.

* Killing the dog is just excessive.

* Alternate boyf fucking skis his way here or some shit. Fuck knows how he gets here with vague directions in this weather, knowing nothing of the area.

* I’m a little more interested in Edith’s weird tension with the cray sister than I am in the multiple heterosexual erotic configurations, to be honest. There’s some Munchausen’s by proxy up in this joint which we touch for but a moment before gliding on. I want this movie to dwell in its oddness more than it does, to let these characters feel this strange, murderous, jealous, sisterly queerness. The movie sort of knows this, though—it stages the final confrontation between these two.

* The movie could use some honey-slow, sinister, dipping moments that couple its aesthetics with feeling. Something like ma, as Jade would say.

* Crimson Peak feels like a somewhat less successful version of something like Labyrinth, which is a flawed and at times incoherent fairy tale about maturation, desire and responsibility that resonates deeply with a lot of women, despite its structural issues as a text. I know a lot of people have this relationship with Jupiter Ascending, though I don’t personally. There’s perhaps something to be said about this category of films that just hit women’s fictional kinks in an attractively-shot but not quite cogent kind of way. Ultimately I want Crimson Peak to do more for me, emotionally or thematically or visually, to earn that status, though I understand it does something like this for at least one of my friends.

* I guess there’s something interesting to be distilled from all this about the siblings’ desperate, pitiless effort to try and keep the estate together, to repair and rebuild this decaying structure—about class and families and rurality, child abuse and trauma and haunting. Possibly there’s also something to be made of Edith’s status as a monied American transplant, a colonial from the New World and the only survivor of this too-long-steeped mess. She’s so reminiscent of the many real heiresses who ‘saved’ British aristocratic houses with their funds. People are always returning from the colonies bearing with them or coming into gothic unrest in the contemporary (and mentioned-herein) Holmes canon. I can’t quite pin these elements down, though, and I think that anything I did come up with would be a narrative imposed on rather than drawn out of the rich but ultimately uncultivated material of Crimson Peak.

(Have now read and liked Abigail’s piece on this, as well.)

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Don Giovani, ENO 2016

CONTENT WARNING: SOME DISCUSSION OF SEXUAL ASSAULT (which occurs in the opera)

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I hated the ENO’s production of Don Giovanni so much that after seeing it I was trapped for a day or more in an existential confusion spiral, left wondering whether I hated this production specifically, the ENO, Don Giovanni in general, Mozart or all opera. The theatre is powerful. It can make you question things, like whether you only hallucinated everything you ever liked about a composer.

The ENO is bedded into the old Coliseum theatre, so the venue’s gorgeous in this cheesy, dear, bust-encrusted sort of way, but the cheap seats are uncomfortable. Not Haymarket legendary ass-torture bad, but not good either. A Dark Truth Revealed: I was also a bit afraid my pants were riding too low (come on, you also worry about this at the theatre with a dudesman right behind you, you too are mortal). This resulted in me weirdly shifting a lot. As did boredom.

The English National Opera’s schtick is that they only do English language opera, so shit is always translated there (baring when they wheel out like, G&S, as they are perpetually doing: the ENO’s finances and operations are, I am told, a hot hot mess at the moment, so the money from said wheeling doesn’t come amiss). Because lines sung as opera remain hard to make out even if they are being sung in your native language (though not everyone in a London audience is necessarily super-proficient in English, of course), the ENO still does surtitles. But! only for songs proper, not sung dialogue. So like, good luck making the dialogue out.

Essentially, I think the ENO’s mission is kind of pointless now that surtitles are so well done. Why translate the opera on stage, given that you still need the surtitles? You can see how it’d bodge the music. But this is the organisation’s raison d’être, and while you can argue with this organizing concept’s utility and results, you do have to acknowledge that mission statement’s role in the ENO’s operations (something those angry over Emma Rice’s dismissal from the Globe do not, I think, adequately admit when dismissing historically-informed staging, aka Wanamaker’s organising principle).

Act 1 took nine hours, minimum, and not much happened during that period: it was like one of the more tiresome gothic novels. You could argue (and after this staging I wondered if one ought to) that not much happens in any opera, honestly. They’re usually a sort of bad play, with a thin plot and shite dialogue. A conversation with my sister, who’s classically trained (at everything, really, Meghan sings and plays a disgusting number of instruments), gave rise to examples of really good librettos and talked me down a bit as far as All Opera goes. But some combination of this libretto and this translation resulted in essentially the same bad lines repeated over and over for stretches of several minutes. Day-long, three-play Young Chekhov at the National earlier this month was less tiring (and the lines were generally worth hearing once, and maybe even multiple times, though I was never asked to do so).

Now, again, I don’t have a good enough ear to distinguish whether the problem was the score or the performance, but I came away from this production thinking ‘20% of Mozart is really good. REALLY good, as good as Amadeus promises you. The rest is plinky boring Cassio keyboard midi file hell.’ In this case we were stuck, musically, with a Diet Coke Figaro. Actually the opera-savy acquaintance I was with, who I’d also seen a Figaro with earlier this summer, wasn’t terribly impressed by the singing herein.

The set design, blocking and acting strongly reminded me of a uni production, but with a more adult budget thrown into achieving those uni-level effects. Here we are with the cast all in black and the set all in green—a sort of mid-century German minimalist look. But these choices were to no evident particular purpose. I can’t tell you what they did for this staging. It felt like the production team decided they had to do something and plucked this out of a hat without any particular vision of the effect they were going for. Same with the blocking/acting, which wasn’t so much about creating and conveying characters’ emotional through lines as giving the actors and extras Business. The most egregious moment in terms of blocking occurred during the party scene at the end of Act I. A ton of extras feebly seize-jived for ages (dark! sexy!) in the same positions as the core cast kept tripping over streamers these extras had thrown out. It was am-dram as hell—excruciatingly so, given that the National was concurrently staging Amadeus, and that their New Years party scene had a very similar moment, but staged just ridiculously better and to excellent, enthralling, chilling effect.

Yet singling out this moment downplays how many awkward impasses this production came to. The choice to stage Don Giovanni fairly naturalistically results in a lot of odd blocking, just to fill the physical space of longish arias. We opened with overture acting—never a great choice, because it tends to Stage Business. We meet Don Giovanni as his assistant helps him procure a chain of women. The Don goes into a room with each woman (and one man, oh aren’t we naughty here are the ENO) for 30 seconds, and sure, I get it’s a montage, but between this and the fact that you cast an older dude who, per my girlfriend, looks like a mid-level mobster: wtf, he seems bad in bed (30 seconds, eh?) and not hot, why are these women into it?? And they are so into it: this production if anything amps up Giovanni’s engrossing power over women.

Apparently there’s a stage tradition of playing with the complicity of Donna Anna, a woman who, per a flat reading of the libretto, Don Giovanni attempts to rape at the start of the opera. In this production, Donna Anna willingly played a rape-fantasy sex game with Don Giovanni. This went wrong when her father burst in to save her from her attacker and Giovanni killed him. Intervention in the text or no, this staging falls firmly into the ‘bitches lie about rape’ camp (the effect is exacerbated as the production goes on). Is this the staging choice you want to make right now, when rape culture is such a public discussion? Clearly this is what they’ve pinned their characterisation of all Donna Anna’s relationships in this production on, but I’d argue that doesn’t do enough for the staging to justify the choice. Besides, those relationships are kind of incoherent and unsatisfying in this rendering, so, what was the point?

Also it’s just practically awkward, because this sex game is taking place in something like a dingy hotel, but her dad is Also There with a prostitute in another room, and like… he doesn’t say ‘hey, why are you here with my daughter?’ or anything like you just… would? In such a circumstance? I begin to resent ham-fisted attempts to insert utterly silent big side plot arcs that work against the text in ways the text would comment on if this inserted development were the case. I’ve seen it a lot now with opera and Shakespeare. I am all in favour of interpretive stagings, but when your desire to mark the text or ‘add spice’ over-rides your desire to create a cogent production, ya done the badfic. The clever subversion that actually isn’t, what we’re left with is an OR DID I JUST BLOW YOUR MIND?? sophomoric, self-important mess of commentary.

As a result of this production’s initial choice to render Donna Anna complicit, we also get her lying about her father’s murder and obfuscating her knowledge of it, not wanting her fiancé at all for reasons we know nooooothing about, and, worst of all, after all her hatevows, apparently fucking Don Giovanni again in Act II during her song to her lover about how she’d never be cruel. That’s just fucking odd in the action of the story.

At the end Don Giovanni plays the gothic ghost scene like he’s not at allllll afraid, and the gothic just doesn’t work like that. There’s no trace of religious awe, for sure. The ghost scene is not operatic here, it’s not scary or grand or particularly funny. It’s just a dude in a suit and a trap door. Nothing. You’ve removed all my ability to cathect one of the big endings in opera, you stupid bastards.

Don Giovanni also switches places with Leporello, his aforementioned servant, when the devil tries to drag him down to hell. He abandons his servant to his own rightful fate and then goes back to his old tricks at the end. Essentially: Don Giovanni experiences no terror, the ghost grabs him, Don Giovanni’s a bit put out, Leporello tries to save him, Don Giovanni switches places with Leporello. Down his sole homie, Don Giovanni gets another servant to wear the Leporello wig and fucks another thousand Spaniards, raping here and there, I guess. He’s not really an amusing merry rogue, he’s a garden creep: all too mundane. How many of his seductions are just pressured servant girls? It’s sort of implied, and that’s also just dull, predictable rape. Even his lack of punishment’s mundane—he’s probably a promising athlete or something.

My girlfriend likes the idea of this non-traditional, very much not in the script ending because it makes sense for Don Giovanni’s character and picks up on an earlier farsical identity-swap. And it’s not a bad idea, but again, it’s a big SILENT CHANGE in the plot, working against the voiced text. I mentioned the shake-up to a friend who likes the opera a lot. She was kind of horrified by the loss of the story as she conceives of it, and wondered how the emotional arc could work with this particular altered ending. I could go with the swap more than I could go with the Donna Anna fucking Don Giovanni in Act II weirdness, but I see her point. I have only ever seen one good thing at the ENO (Sweeney Todd with Emma Thompson), and honestly I need to remember never to try again. I’ve been more than twice burned, and the ENO does not help me decide whether opera could be my thing, like, at all.

Links, June 25

GOTHIC

The 40 Most Breathtaking Abandoned Places In The World
Witches and Wicked Bodies: Imagining the ‘Other’
Go for gothic
The Shock and Horror Picture Show: Étienne-Gaspard Robertson and the 19th-century phantasmagoria
While evil stars whir: Terror and Wonder at the British Library
The Face in the Glass: Mary Elizabeth Braddon and the Victorian Gothic Tale
Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination: a review
Death Becomes Her: The Dark Arts of Crepe and Mourning
Dan Cruickshank and the Family That Built Gothic Britain
Vintage Gothic: tales of the macabre
How to tell you’re reading a gothic novel – in pictures
Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination: British Library Site
Fan Girls and Fangbangers: gender and the Gothic audience
Witches and Wicked Bodies: TimeOut