Tag Archives: Southern Gothic fiction

Walking Around in Someone Else’s Skin: The Classic Film, To Kill A Mockingbird

#NoSpoilers

Usually considered to have originated with Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto (1764), which was subtitled “A Gothic Story,” Gothic fiction is literature that attempts to combine elements of romance, mystery, and horror — without becoming either too fantastic or too realistic. Initially featuring decaying castles, curses, ghosts or other supernatural creatures and events, madness, murder, and “oft-fainting heroines,” Gothic fiction was hugely popular entertainment.

About a generation after Walpole, Ann Radcliffe introduced the brooding Gothic villain in her novel A Sicilian Romance: a tempestuous, moody, sometimes secretive, and extremely passionate male who usually encounters a heroine that completely upsets his life. Later this type of “villain” would be called the Romantic era’s “Byronic hero.” Radcliffe also introduced more independent heroines to Gothic fiction with her bestselling The Mysteries of Udolpho. Though Radcliffe’s heroines are still pretty helpless and faint far more than anyone I’ve ever encountered, they inspired “gothic feminism” which critics claim the author herself expressed as “female power through pretended and staged weakness.” Further, Radcliffe changed the infant genre of Gothic fiction by introducing the “explained supernatural,” where all the apparently supernatural events, from ghosts and moving furniture to strange knocks and cries in the dark, turn out, eventually, to have perfectly reasonable, natural explanations.

Gothic fiction and its various, evolving components spread into the literature of the Romantic era, appearing in the poetry of Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Byron, and Poe. In the Victorian era, Gothic elements were more prominent in fiction, and are found in the work Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol), Bram Stoker (Dracula), Robert Louis Stevenson (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights), and Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre).

Many of these Victorian authors added strong moral elements to their Gothic fiction, producing novels that questioned everything from man’s relationship with newly developing technologies and medical advances to man’s responsibility for feeding and educating the poor. Gothic literature became more than entertainment to pass the long hours of a dark and rainy night: it explored the meaning of life, morality, social responsibility, and man’s relationship to the Divine.

As Gothic fiction spread to authors in America, especially in the South, it became a sub-genre called Southern Gothic. Authors like Faulkner, Caldwell, McCullers, O’Connor, Capote, and Percy examined family relationships, sexuality, poverty, race, and the Southern myths of an idyllic antebellum past. Southern Gothic is filled with

deeply flawed, disturbing, or eccentric characters… ambivalent gender roles, decayed or derelict settings, grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or stemming from poverty, alienation, crime, or violence.

With its particular focus on the South’s history of slavery, Southern Gothic became a vehicle for fierce social critique.

Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic of both American fiction and Southern Gothic. A coming-of-age story set in the fictional “tired old town” of Maycomb, Alabama from 1933-1936, during the Great Depression, the novel examines everything from family relationships and mental health to societal responsibilities, poverty, violence, and crime. The 1962 film version, adapted from the novel by Horton Foote, eliminated some of the novel’s childhood adventures to concentrate on the aspects of its storyline that make To Kill a Mockingbird so important to American literature and film: the ugly and intractable racism between whites and blacks, a bigotry and intolerance that still exists over most of the country.

Mary Badham as Scout (forefront) with author Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

The film’s (unseen) narrator looks back on her six-year-old self and on the events that changed her from an innocent to a more mature child. In 1933, Scout (Mary Badham) and her brother Jem (Phillip Alford) live in Maycomb, Alabama with their widowed father Atticus (Gregory Peck).

Mary Badham as Scout, Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, and Phillip Alford as Jem, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Together with a visiting neighbor, Dill (John Megna, modeled after Harper Lee’s lifelong friend Truman Capote, who spent summers next door to the Lees with his aunts), Scout and Jem roam around the neighborhood and create their own adventures.

John Megna as Dill, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

One of their most exciting “games” is scaring each other with stories about the never-seen Boo Radley (Robert Duvall, in his film debut),

Robert Duvall as Boo Radley, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

who lives just a few doors down and who is rumored to be a crazed, scissors-wielding psychopath, once locked up in the courthouse basement jail.

Paul Fix as Judge Taylor, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Late one night, Judge Taylor (Paul Fix) comes over to request that Atticus serve as the appointed defense counsel for Tom Robinson (Brock Peters),

Gregory Peck as Atticus, and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

a black man who has been accused of brutally beating and raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox).

Collin Wilcox as Mayella Ewell (foreground), and Paul Fix as Judge Taylor (background), To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Atticus agrees, but despite his attempts to shield his children from the consequences of his decision to represent a black man in a racially charged crime, Scout and Jem soon become involved in the racial “war” brewing around them.

Collin Wilcox as Mayella, and James Anderson as Bob Ewell (both, foreground), To Kill A Mockingbird ©

In particular, the father of the ostensible rape victim, Bob Ewell (James Anderson) tries several times to intimidate Atticus into quitting the case. When that doesn’t work, Ewell threatens violence against Atticus and his children.

Phillip Alford as Jem, and Mary Badham as Scout, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Though the children continue to find “gifts” in the hollow of a nearby tree, these gifts and their former adventures pale in significance to the events surrounding the crime concerning Tom Robinson and Mayella Ewell.

Gregory Peck as Atticus, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

By the time the trial starts, most of the town is divided and angry. Though Atticus warns his children to stay away from the courthouse completely, Jem refuses to be barred from the biggest event in the county, and Scout refuses to be left behind at home if Jem and Dill are going to the courthouse.

Phillip Alford as Jem, Mary Badham as Scout, and John Megna as Dill (L-R, foreground), with William Walker as Reverend Sykes (background, wearing suit and tie) To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Without Atticus’ knowledge or permission, Scout, Jem, and Dill sit in the gallery, in the “Negro section” of the court, and watch the entire trial.

William Windom as District Attorney (L), James Anderson as Bob Ewell (center), and Paul Fix as Judge Taylor (background R), To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Judge Taylor presides as the District Attorney (William Windom, in his film debut) badgers witnesses and makes his opinions about Tom Robinson’s guilt clear. Despite the fact that viewers can have no doubt whatsoever about the jury’s eventual verdict, the courtroom scenes are intensely riveting, especially when Atticus cross-examines Mayella herself.

Gregory Peck as Atticus, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Though the verdict is not in question, Mayella’s father, angry at the Atticus’ not-so-subtle accusations of incest and child abuse, provokes Atticus repeatedly in an attempt to draw him into a physical confrontation. Then, he decides to provoke Atticus by going after his children.

Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, To Kill a Mockingbird won three Oscars:
Best Actor for Gregory Peck, Best Adapted Screenplay for Horton Foote, and Best Art Direction (set design, Black-and-White).

The film also won Golden Globes for Best Actor in a Drama (Gregory Peck), Best Original Score (Elmer Bernstein), and Best Film for Promoting International Understanding (to director Robert Mulligan).

When released, To Kill a Mockingbird was an overwhelming critical and popular success, earning more than 10 times its budget in 1962. To Kill a Mockingbird has gone on to become a classic, with the film listed 25th on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time (2007 list) [#34 on the 1998 list], and taking the top spot in AFI’s Top 10 Courtroom Dramas. Gregory Peck’s character Atticus Finch reigns as AFI’s 100 Greatest Heroes.

Everyone should see this film, though children under 12 may need to be cautioned about the subject matter and the language as this film deals openly with rape, clearly suggests incest, and uses language appropriate to the time and place of its story.

Be sure to watch the black-and-white version of To Kill a Mockingbird, not the colorized one: those who colorized it obviously completely missed the symbolism behind the story’s being filmed in black-and-white instead of in color. Available for rent ($2.99-3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

Related Posts

If You Dance with the Devil:
8MM (Eight Millimeter), the Film

You Are Now Entering the Cruel World:
Texas Killing Fields, the Film

Shutter Island, the Film, is Shuddery Good

Murder, Anyone?
In a Lonely Place, the Film

The Sweet Smell of Murder:
The Noir Film Classic, Double Indemnity

The Citizen Kane of Noir Film:
The Killers

I Hate You So Much, I Could Die from It:
The Classic Noir Film, Gilda

When Murder Smells Like Honeysuckle:
3 Noir Film Classics

Top Crime Films:
Told from the Criminals’ Perspective

When Movies Tell Great Stories:
5 Classics from the 19502

2 Comments

Filed under Actors, Books, Classic Films, Classics, Coming of Age Stories, Crime Drama, Drama, Film Videos, Films, Films/Movies, Historical Drama, Movies/Films, No Spoilers Review, Official Film Trailers, Official Movie Trailers, Official Trailers, Rape, Review, Review/No Spoilers, Sexual Abuse, Sexual Violence, Violence

Why HBO’s TRUE DETECTIVE is not Shallow

Boy, does Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker dislike the female characters in the first season of HBO’s hit series True Detective. In her article “The Shallowness of True Detective,” (dated 3 March 2014 but already available online), she says the female characters are “paper-thin,” though she doesn’t insult the actors playing them, and that “none” has “any interior life.” She then compares them to female characters in shows we should like better, none of which I like at all. The problem with Ms. Nussbaum’s view of the show’s portrayal women seems to be her apparent lack of literary background — like classic noir-crime fiction and Southern Gothic — which is what the show (and its creator’s novel & stories) most resemble.

First of all, let me state most emphatically, that I am a feminist, though I’ve never been to see sexual harassment around every corner. That said, I adore classic and neo-noir-crime fiction, where the emphasis is virtually always on the male protagonists, usually narrated by them, and involves their getting involved with attractive women who are liars, whores, adulterers, predators, murderers, or all of the aforementioned, while said femme fatales maintain innocent exteriors. Don’t get me wrong: the males in noir-crime fiction aren’t angels, by any means, and that’s part of what I like about them: they’re interesting. But so are the women.

Think James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity. Think Cornell Woolrich’s I Married a Dead Man, where the heroine is a liar, a murderer, a conspirator in a murder, and an unreliable narrator, to boot. Think anything by Jim Thompson, from The Killer Inside Me to The Grifters, from Pop. 1280 to A Hell of a Woman. Creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto’s novel Galveston has the same kind of characters, though they’re more mature in True Detective. So do his short stories. Pizzolatto doesn’t seem interested in women unless they’re classic noir-crime fiction women, and that means they’re going to be badder than they initially seem.

So, calling Marty’s wife, Maggie — played well by Michelle Monaghan, “the only prominent female character on the show … an utter nothing-burger, all fuming prettiness with zero insides” and “an outline” is ignoring the fact that no other character in the entire show, besides Detectives Martin Hart and Rustin Cohle (Harrelson and McConaughey, respectively) is developed (though Nussbaum does say that the show is only about those two characters, and I agree wholeheartedly with her on that, and she praises the actors’ performances). I didn’t even realize that the two black detectives interrogating/interviewing Hart & Cohle 17 years after their first investigation of the murdered Dora Lang even had names until my boyfriend, reading the credits one night, said, “Who are X and Y?” I had to look them up. They’re those detectives.  Tuttle, Ledoux, Charlie Lange, the other detectives — all male characters — are so cardboard, most of them don’t have names.

In fact, however, Maggie is developed, and not just a cardboard outline. She’s developed along the lines of the females in classic noir-crime fiction. And along the lines of Southern Gothic fiction, like William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, where sister Caddie, who’s not actually in the novel, has her story told by everyone but her: her retarded brother Benji who views her as a  mother figure, her older brother Quentin who views her as a love-worship object, and her younger brother Jason who views her as a whore (even while he wants to sleep with her himself). In True Detective — no spoilers here — what Maggie did to Rust Cohle in episode 6, and what she did to her husband Marty in the same episode, was calculated, cruel, and vicious. It’s also exactly what a noir-crime fiction femme fatale would do. Then she’d maintain her innocent façade. Ditto Maggie and other women in that genre of fiction.

Hart and Cohle are homicide detectives. They constantly see the bodies of dead victims, investigate the DBs (Dead Bodies), as they’re referred to in the show, and so the women and children in the show are objects to these detectives.  It’s a short step from seeing their victims and DBs as objects, to seeing all the women in their lives as objects. That includes Marty’s daughters, who, as teenagers, are clearly separated into the age-old, mutually exclusive Madonna/Whore categories. In classic noir-crime fiction, the woman is usually something to be won or possessed: she, too, is an object, even if she plays the villainous game better than most of the male protagonists in this genre do.

I love the show. Except for the convoluted Ginger-Cohle-Hart combo kidnappping & shoot-em-up scene in episode 4, which detracted from the show’s main forward drive, I think it’s some of the finest writing and acting since the first season of Damages or of American Horror Story. I gotta admit, though, that I also love FX’s Justified, where the women also take a backseat to the male protagonists. (Actually, this season, the female characters of Justified don’t even seem to be in the same car as most of the male characters, but that’s another post for another day.) I like intellectually and artistically challenging drama, and True Detective seems to be delivering that so far (except for the above-mentioned shoot-em-up, which bored me silly, but excited quite a few of the male fans, I hear).

Maggie’s not a “nothing-burger… with zero insides.” She’s just as calculating, deceptive, predatory, vicious, and morally shallow as Harrelson’s Martin Hart and McConaughey’s Rustin Cohle characters are. Maggie, her daughters, and the dead Dora Lange are also a lot more developed than the two African-American detectives re-investigating the original 1975 fetish-murder of Dora Lange, though every female except Maggie is quite a bit less well-developed, even if we’re comparing them to the females in classic noir-crime fiction.

And, I admit it, after all the bare behinds of the women in the show, I did appreciate the chance to get a good look at Matthew McConaughey’s well-developed glutes.

I’ll leave you with the opening credits of True Detective, about which Ms. Nussbaum claims this:

On the other hand, you might take a close look at the show’s opening credits, which suggest a simpler tale: one about heroic male outlines and closeups of female asses. The more episodes that go by, the more I’m starting to suspect that those asses tell the real story.

The opening credits are accompanied by the show’s theme song, “Far from Any Road” by The Handsome Family.

Related Posts

HBO’s True Detective is the Best MiniSeries on TV

The Good, The Bad, and the Scarred: Inside HBO’s True Detective Finale.

Deadwood Strikes Gold! Again! Still!

My Favorite Film & TV Villains.

7 Wonders of the Horror Movie World.

Nurse Jackie: OD and DOA.

Mr. Blonde Out-Psychos the Seven in this excerpt from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.

Verdict on Anna-K, the Film, starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law, and Matthew MacFadyen.

Why NIGHT AT THE ROXBURY still Rocks.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Actors, Art, Books, Classics, Movies/Films, Music/Song, Violence