Friday, October 29, 2010

Gods and Monsters

Gods and Monsters (Bill Condon, 1998) Frankenstein begot "The Monster."  Mary Shelley created Frankenstein.  But the Modern Prometheus who caught lightning in a bottle and made Frankenstein more than the sum of its parts was director James Whale.

When considering Gods and Monsters, the film purporting to be about the last days of Whale, there is always a giddy part of me that recalls the delirious segment of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" (aren't they all?) called "Farming Club,' in which a serious BBC commentator begins to discuss the composer Tchaikovsky before it deteriorates ("which is a bit of a pity as this is 'Farming Club'"), and then returns to a discussion of the composer with the lead-off: "Tchaikowsky. Was he the tortured soul who poured out his immortal longings into dignified passages of stately music, or was he just an old poof who wrote tunes?"

Cruel, maybe.  But the film makes the mistake that a lot of us who "read" films does—it makes its assumptions out of things it already knows, and, once having made those assumptions, stops.*  It does a fine job of recreating Whale's work making his "monster movies," specifically Frankenstein, the one that towers over them all.  It's good that it at least brings into the light of day Whale's homosexuality and how it might have informed his work.  But, just as his two "Frankenstein" movies overshadowed the rest of his career, Gods and Monsters seems to only concern itself with that aspect of Whale's life.  There's a lot more that the film either ignores or glosses over, in exchange for trumping up a story about a possible relationship that Whale (played by Ian McKellenmight have had with his gardener (Brendan Fraser), a result of which, Whale ended up drowning in his own swimming pool.  As such, it does as much a disservice to its subject as Hollywoodland does to George Reeves.

The fact of the matter is, both movies try to shoe-horn some psycho-babble and ginned-up rumor to try to explain the completely private act of suicide.  We don't what what drove these two men to take their lives.  We can only conjecture.  But, what was on their minds at those final moments can only be explained by the subjects themselves, and those critical thoughts are far more complicated for the sort of detective work that might easily solve "who stole Lady Penelope's diamonds?"**

There's more to Whale than Frankenstein.  He was a prisoner of war during WWI, where he lived a kind of "King Rat" existence, accumulating a sizable amount of cash from his fellow prisoners in poker games.  He was an "out" homosexual at a time when everything was "on the QT and very hush-hush."  He lived in Hollywood very well, from some extremely good investments, and in a long-term relationship with one man.  He directed for both film and stage, and among his other works are The Old Dark House, the Claude Rains version of The Invisible Man, and Show Boat, considered by many to be the best version, which one could argue simply because it contains the towering presence of Paul Robeson.  But there's more, and much more.  However, owing to the vagaries of box-office and the whims of fashion, not all of Whale's work is available to see.  And so, it becomes no longer part of the equation in the matter of considering Whale, the artist.  What we're left with is his best known, but not most typical, work.  Frankenstein explains James Whale as much as "Rosebud" explains Citizen Kane.  And that is, inadequately.

Gods and Monsters is, finally, dishonest.  It serves up melodrama, for what is a more compelling, if depressing, truth.  What this "Master of Horror" finally feared was a life out of his control, that he was no longer master of.  And rather than face that fear of life unimaginable to him, he chose the fast way out.  Not as compelling, maybe, as what Condon's film serves up, but, I think it would be truer to the source—and tie in better with the milieu it's obsessed with—if it was to make the point that Horror isn't cooked up in flashes of lightning and sparking laboratories.  It is far more commonplace.  Horror can be Nature itself, as ordinary as illness and disease and frailty.  It's a better message, I think.  But try and get an audience to go see that.

* Look.  I do it, too.

** The best evidence, of course, was Whale's suicide note, which was kept secret for many years, and as Nature (and Hollywood) abhors a vacuum, that allowed for decades of speculation to become fact—or rather ill become it.  This is what Whale's final message read: 

"Do not grieve for me. My nerves are all shot and for the last year I have been in agony day and night—except when I sleep with sleeping pills—and any peace I have by day is when I am drugged by pills.
"I have had a wonderful life but it is over and my nerves get worse and I am afraid they will have to take me away. So please forgive me, all those I love and may God forgive me too, but I cannot bear the agony and it [is] best for everyone this way.
"The future is just old age and illness and pain. Goodbye and thank you for all your love. I must have peace and this is the only way.

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