Gothic Plague Scenes: Herzog, PJ Harvey, Aase Berg and Joan Crawford Kabuki

by on Aug.08, 2011

Just watched Herzog’s brilliant remake of Nosferatu last night:

Interesting how this trailer claims “filmed unlike any other vampire movie ever made,” as if it expected the objection that this was just another silly genre movie. In fact it is very much an “other vampire movie” because it is a version of the German Expressionist classic, itself a version of Bram Stokers Dracula. So much in art (whether it’s poetry or film or music) is this defense against version, version that repeat, that are inherently anachronistic, that doesn’t move us “forward” in the narrative of culture. Instead they proliferate.

It is interesting that despite this defense in the trailer, the trailer focuses on the more fundamental genre aspects of the movie, instead of the beautiful spectacles of the plague-devestated city:



At about 1:20 Mina walks past a kneeling figure I believe is Herzog himself. And it’s in this city we get to the ultimate zone of the Herzog genre: where Art leads to an utter staginess, a staginess in which order breaks down and we get, instead of the expected loss of artfulness, loss of luxury, utter luxury and utter Art. (Think Aguirre on the boat with his monkeys.)

In his commentary to the making of the film, Herzog notes that he chose the city because it felt like a “stage.” In fact he seems to have almost begun the movie for this reason. So it seems that this plague spectacle is at the core of not just the gothic genre but of Herzog’s very idea for the movie.

When we founded Montevidayo, the first post I think was Joyelle’s post about the “genre” of “genreless writing”:

But what is genreless writing, or what could it be? The most easily envisioned is a heap of genred writing, a writing that is so excessively or multiply genred that it is simply “out of whack” with itself. That is to say, it is whack, like crack, as Whitney Houston informs us. And as she further held, if she were a drug addict, where are the receipts? When one’s book does not balance with oneself, the receipts are missing. One is a kind of addict. Solipsism and dilation replace the wellmade form. Disgrace, degeneration, decadence. Yet to diagnose this problem is to apply terms from accounting: such a book is unbalanced. It cannot make an account. It does not earn its payoff—or worse, has no payoff. It wastes time, or it wastes the audience’s time.

Started thinking about the nature of genre again. How it is so commonly dismissed as a kind of restriction of thinking, and it’s true that genre comes with all kinds of conventions. For example, the gothic horror story should include love and lover letters and stories within stories, violent sexual encounters (that nevertheless manage to beautifully virginal). But it seems in degraded genres, the B-art of culture, that generates the most saturated, most wasteful moments of art, the moment when the rats have wrecked the city, have left its survivors dancing around and eating luxurious dinners.

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All this summer I’ve been listening to PJ Harvey’s brilliant new record, Let England Shake, which Lucas (who else) mentioned on this blog a while back. I haven’t really listened to Harvey’s music since Rid of Me in the early 90s (played to me immediately upon my arrival when I was visiting a friend who’d been in a mental institute for a year for trying to bash his head into pieces against a bathroom wall – and nearly succeeding – because of his anxiety about being gay ironically.). I did make fun of her late 90s album about being in love in New York in my book Dear Ra. And I did love “Down By The Water” when it was on the radio:

I like how the outfits suggests a kind of Japanese/orientalist style. The make up gives a sense of mask. The song refers to a blue-eyed daughter who becomes a whore and here the blue make up seems to suggest that that daughter is Harvey herself. The gothic having been traditionally seen as a form of metaphorical prostitution, where the authentic self is lost in a “mask.” Her make-up and stylized singing and movement suggests a kind of vampire, a dead woman animated by dark energies. It’s of course “excessively beautiful” and “poetic” in accordance with Daniel Tiffany’s definition of “poetic kitsch.”

The song is of course relevant itself because it evokes anachronistically a murder ballad (she sang “Henry Lee” with Nick Cave on his classic Murder Ballads disc). This is not a stance that depends on a linear sense of time; it loves anachronism, “tired media,” dead poetry etc.

But I did some research and I found this:

Around this time, Harvey began experimenting with her image and adopting an elaborate, theatrical, almost cabaret edge to her live shows. Where she once performed on stage in simple black leggings, turtleneck sweaters and Doc Martens, she now began performing in ballgowns, pink catsuits, wigs and garish, vampish make-up – including false eyelashes and fingernails – and using stage props like a broomstick and a Ziggy Stardust-style flashlight microphone. She denied the influence of drag, Kabuki or performance art on her new image, a look she affectionately dubbed “Joan Crawford on acid” in a 1996 Spin interview, but admitted that “it’s that combination of being quite elegant and funny and revolting, all at the same time, that appeals to me. I actually find wearing make-up like that, sort of smeared around, as extremely beautiful. Maybe that’s just my twisted sense of beauty.”[9] However, she later told Dazed & Confused magazine, “that was kind of a mask. It was much more of a mask than I’ve ever had. I was very lost as a person, at that point. I had no sense of self left at all”, and has never again repeated the overt theatricality of the To Bring You My Love tour. She also sang the theme song from Philip Ridley’s adult fairy tale, The Passion of Darkly Noon.

I’m interested in the way she seems to have entered into this zone saturated by art – a “mask” – for a certain amount of time and then she had to remove herself. It echoes a bit with my post about Swedish pop star Thastrom and his 80s band Imperiet a while back, how he in an interview declared himself embarrassed about all his work with Imperiet in the 1980s precisely because it was too “poetic”, how he felt he’d somehow gotten lost in Art after his initial start as the singer of the authentic punk band Ebba Grön with its more direct, outraged political songs.

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And since I’ve been translating (finished) Swedish poet Aase Berg’s second book Dark Matter, I can’t help from thinking of it too. Like Herzog’s movie, it’s a “genre” book – part sci-f, part gothic (doubly genred!) – that consists almost entirely of the plague spectacles, zones of saturated images, Kabuki dances, scenes of identity convulsions and utter luxury, scenes of strange sexual encounters and weird hybridizations:

Mouth-arms long, folded. The visible stylus and the seed capsule. A nauseating number of butterflies hovered in the odor from our open, sugar-soft wounds. And lanterns rose and fell from the city’s tallest Ferris Wheel. We followed Saskia along an alley of thujas and cypresses, rhodedendrons, purpurea, orchids, opium. The night sky wailed and exploded in fireworks and bursting particle heaps.

And shadows of mongoloids, pinheads, fatdogs and androids moved toward the wood, rubbed against the fossils and the veinage in the cell walls. There the body was harrowed by beasts, thrown back and forth in a deadsilent battle fight between muscle mechanisms and distortions between large milk-white moray eels inside the vein-burst petal skin.

She bites froth into the air. She crawls dog across the cracked floors. She pukes a sound into the mirror glass. The jellyfish burns in her, the planet burns in her. The floors are completely covered with straw, scales, spores, white petal wings.

To me this is one of the great books of modern (ie contemporary) poetry. But I know that having talked to Aase about it, she discusses it very much like PJ Harvey discusses her kabuki phase (and both have orientalist imagery but that’s another post): How she lived for a period of debauchery in Amsterdam, how it was a period of confusion and intensive emotional overload.

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These zones of arts saturation often take place in Weimar Germany:

But they are perhaps best experienced in some lost, anachronistic Hollywood in upstate New York where it took longer to get the “actors” into makeup and costume than actually recording the movie (ie the costume was the movie):

9 comments for this entry:
  1. The Modesto Kid

    Please let’s not forget Monty Python in this regard.

  2. Al Min

    You’ve probably discussed this before (and it’s probably completely obvious), but the whole vampire/dracula genre is interesting as a mockery or counterfeit (and possibly natural progression) from the traditional view of art as immortality. After all that anxiety of influence or whatever it seems only natural to satirize it and make it less serious or maybe give an inroad to outsiders, make it kitschy and accessible to them. It could be looked at as “serious art” (the art institution etc.) co-opting or appropriating to make themselves more legitimate and relevant or the foreign, the outsider, etc. finding an illegal border crossing into a slice of the job pie/black market for the inaccessible “authentic” goods or a symbiosis of the two, breeding a freakish cyborg culture that is unacceptable to either. A Chinatown knock-off of the real immortality? Anyway, I just wanted to express my enthusiasm for this blog. I love this whole being stuck in translation.

  3. Johannes

    Excellent ideas. You should write a post about this! “Chinatown knock-off of immortality.” Love it. Of course the “Chinatown” brings in that whole orientalist angle that I just briefly mentioned but which is its own incredibly interesting topic. Joyelle was just in China and loved all the “fake-ism” she found. /Johannes

  4. James Pate

    Herzog’s Nosferatu was the first horror film that completely mesmerized me…I caught it on cable when I was ten or eleven and could literally not believe what I was seeing (which is the first condition for all great Art)…

    Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr is similar in the way that it brings out the Death aspect of the vampire, the disturbing paradox of living dead…

    You mention murder ballads too…the notion of living death is a continual theme in early blues, Robert Johnson, Geechie Wiley…Grieil Marcus talks a lot about this, the intersection of early blues and country with the vampiric (though he never actually uses the word “vampiric”)…

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