Non-Normative Gothic (or, Stuff I Like)

I get asked for film and TV recommendations a lot on CuriousCat and I’m never really sure what to say. More often than not, I ignore them, because it ultimately feels quite arbitrary.

I watch everything. Or try to. I used to literally watch everything and my threshold for liking things was low. I paid my dues with French New Wave or Polish Slow Cinema or whatever else. My favourite directors were Kieślowski, Bergman and Lynch but I don’t really want to be the guy who still recommends that stuff at the drop of a hat into his late 20s. (Although, of course, I still think they’re all great.)

If 18-year-old Film Bro me was to give you a list of films that were really influential for me, it would look like this:

A Short Film About Killing (1988, Krzysztof Kieślowski)
The Hour of the Wolf (1968, Ingmar Bergman)
The Devil Probably (1977, Robert Bresson)
The Sentinel (1977, Michael Winner)
The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme)
The Thing (1982, John Carpenter)
Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola)
Possession (1981, Andrzej Żuławski)
The Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)
INLAND EMPIRE (2006, David Lynch)
Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, Philip Kaufman)
Kwaidan (1964, Masaki Kobayashi)
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, Mike Nicholls)
Don’t Look Now (1973, Nicholas Roeg)

I’d still stand by that list, I reckon, but I’m wary of saying it is definitive because I haven’t seen most of these films (except The Thing, which still gets frequent outings) within the last 5 years — 10 years for some. As such, I could just keep going. I’ve seen a lot of films and I’ve liked a lot of films because I was a teenage sponge and there comes a point where a list just becomes redundant because it’s whatever comes to mind first. I don’t want to equate my taste with the effectiveness of my memory. Nowadays, if I watch something and it makes me feel something out of the ordinary, I’ll probably find something to write about it right here.

Beyond this connoisseur-appropriate list, I’ve also really liked The Hunger Games trilogy, Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners and David Fincher movies — Zodiac, Alien 3 and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I really like Michael Mann’s Collateral — the first (and only) movie I ever saw on a plane! I like the most recent run of Marvel movies — which have finally found their stride, I think, after a load of money-grabbing. The last three films I saw and really liked were The Favourite, Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

I could have just said all this when an anon asked earlier if I could recommend some “Gothic media essentials” and, whilst I’d otherwise be happy to, it felt like a good opportunity to offer some broader thoughts on tastes and xenogothic media. Because not all these things are recognisably Gothic and making a list doesn’t really do enough in terms of clarifying that I actually think about the Gothic (and why this blog is called Xenogothic).

I like finding the Gothic in all the telly I watch. My view of the Gothic isn’t that normative because I don’t think the Gothic is — or, rather, it shouldn’t be — that normative. At its best, it ruptures itself. The best examples of the Gothic, for me, are often thrillers and murder mysteries rather than horror movies. More often than not, I end up chatting about the latest murder mystery on Netflix than the latest jump-scare-athon. I’m a big fan of Robin Mackay’s writing on yarnwork in this regard and Robin might be the person I talk to about TV and films the most. (In fact, we shared a folk horror kick last year, watching Blood on Satan’s Claw at Urbanomic’s Cornwall HQ.) He once wrote:

The international thriller and the detective story … present us with a localised object or event that stands out from the ground of normality, suggesting forces as yet unaccounted for. At the same time they transform that vision through abrupt shifts in perspective — the ‘plot twists’ that are the stock in trade of such narratives. This continual interrogation appeals in part because it models the predicament of finite, situated cognition and its aspirations toward universal purchase.

Gothic media essentials are, then, a misnomer for me. It’s about rupturing normality, not finding the best examples of a norm. What I’m interested in is being attuned to the weird as we can find it in the here and now, and the now and then. And there are plenty of examples of media that do that, albeit not being readily seen as “Gothic”. “American Horror Story” never quite got my vote, for example, because it felt so invested in heavy-handed genre tropes. I much prefer the neo-baroque of “Hannibal“, for instance, or, most recently, I liked that new adaptation of “The Haunting of Hill House“. Another series I can’t stop thinking about is “Children of the Stones“, particularly for the way that Mark wrote about it on the Hyperstition blog, tapping into a vigilant and militant dysphoria.

I’ve been interested in finding this sort of thing in all kind of films, mostly recently planning to find the American Gothic in Westerns.

Books are the same. (I’ve written about recent likes here.) Games too. (Here.) All media is the same.

Non-normative gothic is the most gothic.

2 thoughts on “Non-Normative Gothic (or, Stuff I Like)

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