(Editor’s note: EVERY DAY IS HALLOWEEN is our new column from Rob Skvarla exploreing Goth in Film)
What is a Goth? Look, man, if you’re asking then you clearly don’t belong. There are obvious aesthetic choices — the corsets, the side parts, the dancing — but they’re often meaningless. Everyone from Korn to Lana Del Rey has been tagged a Goth.
What I’m saying is: you can’t explain it; you can only see it. The various lifestyles that make up “Goth” exist to the extent that they’re able to be easily observed. They’re the open recognition of the world as dramatic interpretation, as if life itself is theater and we’re the actors. As such, this overarching designation, the Goth, is observed and commented on on a daily basis in various forms of media; and more than any other form, this is apparent in film. While others, like music and literature, may have some role in codifying how we observe, film is the one medium where they come together. Sound, image, and word unite to create “the Goth,” often by people outside that subcultural sphere.
The intent of this project is to examine how film shapes, and has shaped, the Goth. To accomplish this, I’ve established a (loose) set of criteria on which to judge films:
The (un)Holy Trinity:
- Primary or tertiary characters must be identified as “a Goth” either through direct reference or indirect allusion;
- This identification must be the central position of the character’s identity (i.e. a character cannot just be depressed, or just listening to dark music, or just clad in black; the character must be defined by the fact that they view/are viewed as a Goth);
- This identity must influence interactions of both an interpersonal and intrapersonal nature in the narrative to the extent that these interactions inform how we understand how this character is representative of the subculture as a whole.
With these three considerations in mind, the first film I chose to look at is 2011’s This Must Be the Place. I chose the film for a number of reasons which will soon become apparent, but first and foremost is its whimsical tone. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino as a farce, This Must Be the Place is part Nazi revenge thriller in the vein of Marathon Man and part approximation of American indie dramedy; and at the center of this is Robert Smith of The Cure… or rather, Sean Penn portraying a highly-stylized interpretation of Smith.
This Must Be the Place is actually a fantastic film when you realize that it is a film about films. Sorrentino’s farce lays bare the histrionics of indie dramedies. On the surface it unfolds as a quirky comedy-with-pathos that owes much to Paris, Texas and Stroszek. That’s not to say those films are “comedies” in the modern sense, or even an American sense, but that they’ve influenced a generation of American films like Little Miss Sunshine and Away We Go to intimate a process of dramatic revelation through comedic interactions. The characters who are journeying in these films have an end goal in mind, but the goal is always irrelevant to the trip itself, the strange characters they meet, and the changes they undergo through the course of (and because of) the journey.
This Must Be the Place makes obvious its intentions from the word go. It over-generously dollops sentimentality onto its characters with mischievous relish so that every delivered line of dialogue is heard as a silly platitude. It also takes a playfully hostile attitude towards the use of music in the dramedy; early on an indie band identifies themselves as The Pieces of Shit and their leader states that the name suits the band because “it’s exactly the right name for this moment in history.” In one of the film’s better recurring gags, the fictional Pieces of Shit score most of the journey and many of its revelations. Even more telling, however, is the film’s title. The phrase, “This Must Be the Place,” is used as an attack on the low-hanging fruit of lazy metaphor. Taken from a song title, as most lazy writers do (myself included), to bestow a work with unearned wit by simple association, the phrase is turned into a recurring motif as the song is used to undercut the film’s most dramatic moments.
Those artful subversions alone would make the film great, but This Must Be the Place’s biggest coup is its protagonist Cheyenne. Sorrentino and actor Sean Penn cobble Cheyenne together from bits and pieces of ghosts of Goth’s past. There’s the elephant in the room in the form of Penn’s appropriation of Robert Smith and his visage, but Sorrentino also uses Cheyenne to reference Siouxsie and the Banshees through Cheyenne’s old band Cheyenne and the Fellas, and makes an even sneakier nod to the Virgin Prunes in Cheyenne’s adopted home of Ireland (Gavin Friday of the Prunes also appears on the film’s soundtrack). It’s clear that careful consideration went into displaying a knowledge of Goth rock and its most prominent names. What’s most interesting about this isn’t the referencing but how the references are used to project onto Cheyenne an identity and then how that identity is placed within the context of the dramedy.
When we meet Cheyenne he is already staring into a mirror. He seems uncomfortable in his skin even though he hasn’t actually done anything yet; but more important, he seems uncomfortable with the persona he wears daily. His first real action is to blow a lock of hair out of his eyes in mild annoyance, a joke that returns frequently to droll effect. And as we learn more about Cheyenne as a person, we come to find he’s actually in the process of running from that persona he’s constructed for himself. At various points throughout the film he engages in acts of self-abnegation: he denies his artistic merit in the face of other musicians; he rejects his legacy to a friend by asserting that music isn’t enough to define a human; and even outright denies his own identity when confronted by a young fan. All of these individual moments could lead the viewer to believe Sorrentino and Penn are having fun at Cheyenne’s expense but Cheyenne’s rejection of his identity becomes central to the film’s critique of the American dramedy.
Eventually, Cheyenne is pulled from the miasma of his own self-loathing by a message that his father has passed. Upon arriving in America, Cheyenne comes to find his father was a survivor of the Holocaust and has been tracking down his persecutor for over thirty years. Despite having almost no connection to or affinity for his father, Cheyenne sets out on a cross-country road trip to hunt down and punish the Nazi responsible for his father’s suffering. Along the way, as is typical of American dramedies, Cheyenne meets a strange cast of characters that alternately confound and inform him. This culminates in Cheyenne’s meeting with the Nazi and his life decisions post-revenge. Spoiler alert: Cheyenne ultimately removes the makeup, cuts his hair, and runs into the warm, forgiving arms of a normal, milquetoast existence.
I call the film’s ending a critique of the American dramedy because it fulfills the primary objective of that genre, character growth, but it does so as an openly cynical act. The ending outright mocks both Cheyenne and the viewer for believing that he is finally “an adult.” Early in the film a character tells Cheyenne that he never started smoking because he never grew up, and only adults smoke. This obvious jab at Chekov’s gun is plainly acknowledged at the end as an ironic nod to that growth. But more than that, we never get the sense that Cheyenne genuinely learned anything about himself from his journey. He simply fell into strange encounters with strange people and stumbled into his confrontation with the Nazi because others forced him to do all of these things. Even his confrontation doesn’t ring with a sense of triumph as his choice of tool through which to exact vengeance is ironic in nature: a camera. He doesn’t act on his own behalf, he only observes someone doing it for him.
And herein lies the best joke of the film: Cheyenne’s very identity is used to poke fun at the idea of the traditional character arc in an American indie dramedy. This variety of dramedy for the most part exists as an adult coming-of-age tale. A sad-sack, typically male, is pulled from the comfortable existence of delayed adolescence and must find a way to “grow up.” This Must Be the Place takes a sardonic view on that process. Gothness being something you grow out of after your teens, naturally a fully-grown man still clinging desperately to that identity should be viewed as emotionally-stunted; so, Cheyenne, the Goth, telegraphs a coming-of-age experience viewers expect to see fulfilled. And the film does that, but Cheyenne never actually grows as a person. He simply adopts new signifiers: he completes his father’s work, he starts smoking, and he finally forces a smile.
I said earlier that it could be easy to mistake Sorrentino and Penn’s choices for Cheyenne as having fun at the character’s expense but what they’re actually doing is having fun at the audience’s. They play with expectations of character growth by situating Cheyenne in a persona that seems ridiculous to most Americans, so there’s an illusion of something accomplished by film’s end. But nothing actually happens, and no one is necessarily better off, they’re all just different than they were before. They adopt new identities associated with other more “age-appropriate” constructions. And in that observation, This Must Be the Place is more empathetic to “the Goth” than almost any other American film because it acknowledges all forms of identity as construction, all artifice, and none really better or worse than any other.