Monday, May 14, 2012

Dark Shadows: Birthing Hips & the French Revolution

Because many of the anti-capitalist films of the year will be coming from director Tim Burton, we should pay attention to the rhetoric and complaints lodged in Dark Shadows because we will be hearing it all again in Frankenweenie and Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. The thesis of Dark Shadows is: capitalism enslaves everyone and is a monster, and because it has created the American economy in its own outdated image, there is no other way to save the economy and the country but to do what the French did and destroy the upper-class and their power base.
How does Dark Shadows create this thesis?
To some degree, Dark Shadows and I agree about what happened to society, but we disagree about when it happened and the causes. Dark Shadows would site the beginning of America's decline as being "built upon blood" (which not only means the American Revolution, but the blood of American workers, I guess; this is sited when Angelique and Barnabas have their bloody fight in Collinswood Manor and Angelique makes the portraits bleed). I site the degrading of society with World War II, the atrocities Americans witnessed (and were committing to end the war) killed the soul of America that then buried itself in material goods and capitalism. After the sins and horrors of World War II, economic crimes didn't seem so bad and Americans went from bad to worse. Dark Shadows seems to hold up Elizabeth Stoddard as the exemplary female of the film, but I prefer David's mother; we do, however, seem to agree on young female sexuality, specifically Carolyn and her being turned into a werewolf (more on all this below).
Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) and his family sail from England to the "New World" to start the fishing industry which they do and name the town after themselves. One of the Collins' servants, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) falls in love with Barnabas and while he enjoys physically indulging himself with Angelique, he doesn't reciprocate her love; Barnabas falls in love, instead with Josette (Bella Heathcote) and, in her envious fury, Angelique--employing witchcraft--hypnotizes Josette to walk off a cliff and, unable to save her, Barnabas jumps after her. Landing on the rocks below and not being dead, he discovers that Angelique has turned him into a vampire, turns the town against him, locks him in a coffin and buries him alive for 196 years.
The cast members in the Collins' home. What's interesting is the architecture, which is ribbed vaulting, a feature of Romanesque churches, signifying to the audience that these people have become the "new church" of America so who are they? From right to left, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), her brother Roger Collins, Willie Loomis (the butler/groundskeeper), Mrs Johnson (the maid), Barnabas Collins, Victoria Winters/Maggie Evans/Josette (she plays both Barnabas' early love and his re-incarnated love and the nanny to David), David Collins (son of Roger and his mother died at the bottom of the sea), Angelique, Carolyn Stoddard (Elizabeth's daughter) and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) who is the therapist to David that has been with the family for three years. The great wealth the Collins incurred made it possible to build the Collins Manor so it becomes a symbol of America and capitalism, and has fallen into terrible ruin, like America today.
Barnabas symbolizes the early forms of capitalism which started America because of his family's migration to make a new start and the wealth they accumulated. Angelique was a servant in the Collins' house who took up witchcraft to get what she wanted; because she has a monopoly on the fisheries of Angel Bay when Barnabas is freed from his coffin, she aptly symbolizes monopolies, that ugly head of capitalism. Josette/Victoria, because of her "birthing hips" (TBD below) symbolizes America and what America gives birth to, the form of the economy and its people. The question of the film, then, is Josette's/Victoria's birthing hips going to give birth to the future America, or Angelique's monopolizing breasts?
Barnabas standing beneath his portrait done about 196 years previously to demonstrate that he is Barnabas Collins. The point of this moment is, capitalism hasn't changed since the early days of America, a point I disagree with. Barnabas' constant astonishment of the world of 1972--when the story takes place--is meant to make capitalism seem totally outdated and old-fashioned and it's only the more dangerous form of capitalism--the monopoly--which has kept up with the times.  Just today, President Obama is calling Republican Mitt Romney an "economic vampire" which is language that will not be going away even though many Republicans see Obama's socialist programs as economic vampirism draining the economy of money and building up the debt (one of the ways that both sides utilize the same image to articulate their own arguments). Dark Shadows argues that because people are working for the Collinses or for Angelique, that makes the capitalists vampires; does it make Tim Burton a vampire because people helped him to make Dark Shadows? Tim Burton might be a vampire for other reasons, but if he makes that the threshold of monstrosity, he should be careful about where he points his camera and what it records.
Young Barnabas is torn between two French women: Josette DuPres and Angelique Bouchard. Josette, seemingly an upper-class woman, and Angelique, a servant and lower-class worker, represent two faces of the French Revolution (because both have French names and vie for the love of wealthy Barnabas at a time in history when revolution was popular). Josette would be the higher ideals of the Revolution (being the "true love" of Barnabas and the one for whom he would willingly die, like many of the academic French as well) while Angelique with her blood-lust would be the decapitation and murderous forces for which the Revolution is still famed.
"Victoria Winters" (really Maggie Evans, who is really Josette 196 years later) first entering Collingswood Manor. She hitched a ride with some hippies to get there, and we meet up with them again later in the film when Carolyn tells Barnabas he needs to hang out with people who are cool (and Barnabas ends up draining them all of their blood). The idealism of the "unshaven youth" is literally Victoria's/Maggie's vehicle to returning to Collinswood Manor to be re-united with her true self (Josette). Like the idealistic French in the beginning of the Revolution, the hippies believe in peace and love and equality, qualities which Barnabas politely smiles at before he drains them of his blood, as the makers of Dark Shadows believe capitalists do to any concept that is not religious in origin or economically based (i.e., such as gay marriage, socialism, abortion, free birth control, etc.).
In the early days of America, we were so debt-ridden we could be of no assistance to the revolutionaries in France; America was very much modeled on the English economy and society, not the French because the atrocities taking place turned people away from the French as a potential model. The death of young Josette seems to be a thesis that, had the respectable/academic face of the French Revolution not died so young, America might be more French in manner today, than English and, if those ideals had been adopted, we wouldn't have the vampire capitalists we have today (since, I suppose, there are no millionaires in France, oh, wait, I guess there are...).
Bella Heathcote plays two different characters with three identities: Josette and Victoria who is really named Maggie Evans. Little Maggie saw Josette's ghost when she was growing up so her parents had her sent to an asylum (symbolically, people who believed in the "higher ideals" of the French Revolution and supported them). Escaping from the asylum (the Hippie Generation freeing people to talk about those ideals again) Maggie goes to Maine to apply for the governess position at Collingwood Manor under the name of Victoria Winters, Victoria because of Queen Victoria and America's close economic ties with England and Winters so as to give the idea of one, Victorian morality as "frigid" and two, because of the seemingly coldness some perceive in the British demeanor. The Barnabas waking up in 1972 falls in love with Victoria Winters because the British model is what he sees as the realization of youthful ideals in 1972 (yes, it is confusing), but when he realizes Victoria is really Maggie, and Maggie is a part of Josette, he wants Josette back.
In this sense, Josette--as the higher ideals of the French Revolution--can be understood to be hypnotized and walk off the cliff  because the blood-thirst of the Revolution took over (Angelique) the higher ideals (Josette). At the end of the film, Collingswood Manor--the sign of wealth and power for the Collins' family--has been destroyed and once again, Victoria/Josette is walking off the cliff when Barnabas stops her and she tells him, knowing he's a vampire, that she lives in light and he lives in darkness so they can't be together; she jumps (probably symbolic of the "fall of the economy") and Barnabas jumps after her, turning her into a vampire before she hits the rocks below. When she awakens, she says her name is Josette, meaning, the ties to the English economy have been severed (Victoria is no longer alive) and the higher ideals of the French Revolution have been "raised from the dead" even as the upper-class has been destroyed (Collingswood Manor as the power of the upper-class) and this is what Dark Shadows wants: no upper-class and the dead ideals to live again.    
Why is the vampire not seeing his reflection important? As we discussed last October in False Light: Interview With the Vampire, vampires can't reflect because they kill mindlessly (they don't know what they are doing) and Barnabas can't see his reflection because he doesn't see what his capitalism is doing (so goes the logic of the film regarding the main hero). When Barnabas wakes up after 196 years, it's because a construction crew digging finds his coffin and opens it and he drains them all of their blood, translating, that capitalism by its nature not only drains workers of their blood, but enslaves them, as Barnabas does to Willie, the Collingswood Manor butler/housekeeper/groundskeeper. Of course, I am an ardent capitalist myself, and I find the same fault with Dark Shadows that I did with The Hunger Games: show us a viable, desirable alternative to capitalism? Both films are happy to critique capitalism, but neither can offer a system in its place. Dark Shadows assumes that people do not have a free will and we do not choose to work, we do not choose our line of work and we are enslaved to the dollar; without these conditions, the arguments of Dark Shadows don't really stand unless it defines humans as empty-headed animals.
Let's temporarily put the economic discussion on hold and discuss some of the other characters. Why is Carolyn Stoddard a werewolf? Angelique claims she sent a werewolf to bite Carolyn when she was still in the crib; we might deduce that the werewolf was her uncle, Roger Collins, because we see him going through the coat pockets of the guests during the "happening" and stealing, just as Carolyn's innocence must have been stolen from her when she was still in the crib (sexual molestation could have prematurely started her sexual development unnaturally). This isn't such a stretch because, when Victoria sits down to dinner the first time with the Collins family, David says, at the dinner table, that Carolyn touches herself (masturbates) and that would mean Carolyn Stoddard has something in common with a girl from 1973: Regan McNeil (The Exorcist). 
Barnabas has just come into Collingwood and found Carolyn and David, referring to the young Carolyn as a "woman of the night" to which Carolyn understands she's been called a prostitute. More than anything, this probably signals where Carolyn is going in life if her current course is not halted and she's steered in a different direction. The sensitivity to Carolyn's problems as a young female and the damage that has been done to her sexual identity is something I wasn't expecting from Dark Shadows, but Dark Shadows does seem to undermine the importance of it when Carolyn tells her mother, "I'm a werewolf, let's not make a big deal out of it," because it is a big deal, but Elizabeth's carrying her daughter out of the destroyed house symbolizes that Carolyn can still be "saved" through the strength of her mother's love for her.
Besides  their sexual habits, Regan of The Exorcist and Carolyn of Dark Shadows have another interesting commonality: neither has a father in their lives. In The Exorcist, Regan's mother calls Regan's father on her birthday and can't get a hold of him; in Dark Shadows, Carolyn takes the microphone after Alice Cooper's performance and asks Carolyn in a sexy voice, "When's daddy coming back? He's been gone such a long time?" and Elizabeth can only glare at her daughter. Just as Regan is possessed by the devil in The Exorcist, so Carolyn becomes a werewolf in Dark Shadows. The consequence of this is that neither girl has her father in her life to anchor her identity in a genuine love and self-worth so she turns instead to culture and the occult to replace what's missing in her life (please see The Exorcist: Absent Fathers).
Barnabas in Carolyn's room getting advice on how to court Victoria. Carolyn tells Barnabas she's 16 and he's surprised she isn't married yet. We can tell by her room, however, that she is married to popular culture. Just as her room is filled with Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper, so she is filled with them also. When we first see Carolyn as a werewolf, she's upside-down, meaning, her perversity has made her into a werewolf (perverse means upside-down) and that translates into how she has used her body for her own sexual pleasure rather than saving herself for marriage and, since she's all ready sexually active, it's definite that she won't wait until marriage to have intercourse.
Previously, meaning before 2012, werewolves were always male because a werewolf is a man who has given free reign to his sexual appetites to rule over him and so he is turned from a rational man into an irrational animal (please see The Bright Autumn Moon: The Wolf Man). In the recently released The Cabin In the Woods, however, a werewolf attacks Dana towards the end, suggesting that she has werewolf-like sexual appetites (please see The Cabin In the Woods: Free Will, Husband Bulges and Jim Carrey). There is another dimension to establish Dark Shadows with The Cabin In the Woods: husband bulges and birthing hips.
This is a great shot. In the novel Dracula, the Count goes up and down the castle walls like a lizard, reflecting his "unnatural" state of existence within nature (like Carolyn hanging upside down from the wall when we first see that she is a werewolf; please see For the Dead Travel Fast: Dracula for more). In this shot, it's the "happening," or party, at Collingwood and Roger has gone through the coats of all the guests robbing them while getting the "female coat attendant" high on weed and proceeds to make out with her. This incident is part of what leads Barnabas later to putting to Roger to either be a good father to his son David or leave the house and Roger chooses to leave. The point of the shot is (surprisingly) that even someone who is unnatural (Barnabas) can see that Roger is unnatural himself in not being a father to David, surprising, because Tim Burton is not married to his children's mother, Helena Bonham Carter, nor was Johnny Depp married to his daughters' mother, Vanessa Paradis; since fatherhood and the quality of fatherhood is brought up in the film through Barnabas banishing Roger and Elizabeth's silence on Carolyn's father, (although Barnabas himself had a wonderful father) the standards of fatherhood and masculinity should have been better realized in the film.
In The Cabin In the Woods, a "husband bulge" is a term used to describe a man's erection which should be reserved for natural desire for his wife within the bonds of matrimony; in Dark Shadows, "birthing hips" refers to the natural end of a woman's body to give birth to children. Of course, Feminists and the film itself mocks the concept of "birthing hips," but even in mockery, just bringing up such a concept (against Carolyn's unnatural sexuality, as well as Julia Hoffman's and Angelique's sexual appetites) and its close junction in time with husband bulges should give us pause to consider the alternatives females have today besides becoming mothers.... like Angelique, and whether the film is really undermining its own presentation of what women should aspire to be.
Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Julia Hoffman, a psychiatrist who was hired by Elizabeth to help David overcome his talking to his mother's ghost but three years later, David still talks to his mother's ghost and Dr. Hoffman is still there. When Elizabeth introduces Dr. Hoffman to Barnabas, he exclaims his amazement that there is a female doctor in "this day and age" (of 1972); the film depicts Julia Hoffman, however, as being a rather weak female (something I would be very upset about if I were a Democrat/Feminist). She has no professional standards (she steals Barnabas' vampire blood to turn herself into a vampire after she has performed oral sex upon him even while he's her patient, violating the codes of ethical conduct). Dr. Hoffman has neither been able to help David in three years (professional failure)--has she even tried?--and she can't reverse the vampirism in Barnabas through transfusions--did she even want to? In short, Dr. Julia Hoffman isn't much of a woman nor a role model and makes one wonder (as in Pirates! Band Of Misfits) what Liberal/Democratic men really think of women today.
Angelique's identity in the film changes depending on her context: she can be a servant girl, the bloody French Revolution, the monopolizing tendency of capitalism or a slut and, in this last identity, we should explore her in her threats against Barnabas. Angelique attempts buying Collins Canning Co. for $1.75 million (an enormous sum in 1972) and Barnabas refuses the offer; she then threatens him that she will kill Victoria if he doesn't give into her, so he does and has sex with her; this is prostitution, and that money doesn't exchange hands is irrelevant because Angelique uses sex as a weapon (a commentary on Feminist sexuality?). This understanding is important because, when Angelique turns the townspeople against the Collins family (as in the French Revolution) Carolyn--as a werewolf--tries to take on Angelique and fails, not being powerful enough to overtake her.
What is it that Angelique really envies the Collins family for? Class. At the beginning and end of the film, Barnabas as narrator says that blood identifies us, the blood of the upper-class means they have a life of leisure, while the blood of the lower class condemns them to a life of servitude and work. Personally, I think this is a gross mis-understanding of American history (so much so that it looks like an intentional mis-understanding) but there is an interesting detail in Angelique's office. Back when Barnabas' family first comes over from England, we see the figure-head of the ship upon which they travel, and Angelique later has that figure-head in her office, meaning, the ship allowing her to immigrate was the vehicle of her upward mobility in American society over 196 years. Angelique seems to hold onto the idea of the upper-class like it's the peerage in England, something which never existed in America, but seems to be tied in the film makers' mind as the real evil of capitalism. Even though Angelique has an immense amount of money, she doesn't seem to feel like a member of the upper-class, that is reserved for the Collins, and that kind of "old family money" seems to be the real target of Dark Shadows but who is to determine who has worked for their wealth and who hasn't?  At the end of the film, however, it doesn't matter, because anyone who had money is dead.
There are only two ways for the Collins family to defeat Angelique when she comes into the Collins' home bent on destroying it and all within it: to be infinitely superior to her in goodness, or to be infinitely superior to her in wickedness. That Carolyn's perverse sexuality (bad enough that she's characterized as a werewolf, a woman with the appetites of a man) isn't as bad as Angelique, only deepens the wickedness of Angelique more (and the business woman she is); that Elizabeth isn't good enough/strong enough to overcome Angelique means that the "female heroine" of the film isn't really good at all (the self-declared Feminist head of the family), which leads us to our two last characters, two mothers.
Another bad representation of women by Dark Shadows (and by "bad" I mean bad for Feminists, because I actually agree with how these women are being depicted, but Feminists have other ideas): just as Julia Hoffman used her psychiatrist's office for sexual relations with Barnabas, so Angelique has used her office for sexual relations as well (pictured above).  Dark Shadows suggests, then, that the work place has become a den of sexuality for women who have moved into the professional world, which is really saying that sex is all women are really good for after all (regardless of education or business achievement).
Elizabeth is the head of the Collins family; what happened to her husband, we don't know and Elizabeth doesn't care. Elizabeth is probably the film's ideal of a woman because she always appears in a scene from the top of the staircase (the level of higher consciousness). Elizabeth also wears notably false eyelashes, and, since they draw attention to her eyes, in this case, probably refers to her wisdom and ability to see (perceive and discern). Contrariwise, Dr. Julia Hoffman also wears false eyelashes, yet her lashes clump, symbolizing her lack of wisdom because she can't see well, as in wanting to become a vampire and the foolishness that means. But Elizabeth can't be "all that" because she isn't strong enough to overcome Angelique.
Elizabeth Collins Stoddard with her shot gun she uses as Angelique tries to destroy the house at the end. When Barnabas first introduces himself, it's to Elizabeth, and he confesses he is a vampire and proves he is a member of the Collins family through his knowledge of the house's many secret chambers and passageways, one of which leads to where Elizabeth keeps her collection of macrame (weaving). Macrame would be the only traditionally feminine activity we see Elizabeth engaging (and we don't see it) so her femininity, like the macrame, is kept locked away.
David Collins lost his mother at sea and tells everyone that he can see her and she talks to him, for example, the second time Angelique locks Barnabas up in the coffin, David comes to save Barnabas because David tells Barnabas that his mother told David Barnabas needed help. After Carolyn has failed to stop Angelique in the destruction of Collingswood, David tells Angelique to stop, and the audience might half-way expect David to turn into some monster; rather, he tells Angelique that his mother will stop her and she does.
David and Barnabas; I don't think this actual scene is in the film, but after David's father Roger has tried to find the secret stash of wealth Barnabas uses to restore Collinswood and the family business, Roger tries to find it for himself and that's when Barnabas gives him the choice of staying and being a good father to David or leaving and Roger chooses to leave. When Roger leaves, David holds a pink triceratops dinosaur; the dinosaur invokes an ancient identity and the pink is femininity (at one point, Barnabas looks at Alice Cooper and says, "That is the ugliest woman I have ever seen," and the gender switching [also with Dr. Julia Hoffman] is intentional) suggesting that, with no real male role model in his life, David is going to grow up and not fulfill his male identity. To underline this, as David runs off after his father has left him, the "mirror ball" from the party nearly drops on him (mirrors symbolize meditation and reflection) and it nearly destroys David because David has all ready started "reflecting" on not having a father and being an orphan now; Barnabas saves David from being killed by the ball, but enters the sunlight and catches on fire, meaning, Barnabas can't be a good role model for David either because he's a vampire.
Angelique suggests that David's mother was not of a good breeding and that she had his mother thrown overboard, causing her death. What's important is, David's mother still loves him and watches out for him, and is determined to protect him. She might have been from the lower-class, but her love is strong enough to permanently defeat Angelique's powers and save the family (although the Manor is now lost). David, a child, is the only one believing in his mother and that she's still communicating with him; like little Maggie Evans (Victoria Winters/Josette) who sees Josette's ghost with her everywhere (symbolizing the ideals of the French Revolution that died) David is seeing the ideals of motherhood that have died but is still there to protect him.
In conclusion, the "curse" of Barnabas Collins is lifted when he's joined to his love, Josette, when she has been raised from the dead and Barnabas has lost all his wealth and status. This indictment of the upper-class, whether historically accurate or not, and the romanticizing of the French Revolution, whether viable or not, is not even the point, but that we are in a political and cultural era when such ideas and thoughts have entered into mainstream entertainment; each of us have to answer these questions for ourselves because they will be decided in November, one way or the other. The issues raised by Dark Shadows will only gain momentum and voice, not diminish, with each new film being released, as everyone takes a side and a stance.
Why is it so difficult for Barnabas to find a place to sleep at Collinswood? Because there is "no place for him" in this day and age, a subtle but important point the film makers want to make about capitalism. Willie, the butler/groundskeeper, tells Victoria as she looks at a portrait of Barnabas, that "His name is Barnaby or something like that, there's a barn in there somewhere," and that "barn" refers to how Barnabas and his kind (the upper-class) stored up riches for themselves (like the treasures buried under the house).