Gatherings at Country Houses, Day 3: Bonus Tracks

We got quite enthused about this new imaginary genre, and decided to stay with it for a while, so we devised one final pair of movies: Gosford Park, as a recent, self-conscious and high-profile classic G@CH movie, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, as a representative of the underrepresented class of ‘Unexpected Gatherings At Country Houses’. Watch this space for a final, final, extra Country House Bonus Track next week.

Gosford Park (Robert Altman, 2001): Ika’s review

In one of Jean Rhys’s early novels – I think it must be After Leaving Mister Mackenzie – the lead character, who’s a chorus-girl, talks about her desire to read a long, comfortable book in which nothing much happens: ‘a book like sheep grazing in green fields’. THIS FILM IS THAT BOOK. It’s very boring, but in a really pleasurable way.

I’d seen it before, and remembered it as boring but amiable, and also as being as country-house-y as all get-out. This time round, I’d noticed when I was googling for information about La regle du jeu that Altman had cited it as a major influence on Gosford Park, so I was looking for interesting takes on the Renoir movie – but I didn’t really get any. The main thing the comparison did for me, actually, was make me see Gosford Park as being incredibly flat in the way it was shot, with only one, unvaryingly medium-to-close-up, plane of action – so I guess I noticed the famous multiple planes of La regle du jeu unconsciously, at least. So Gosford Park, surprisingly, actually suffered from being watched in the context of its genre – partly, I think, because I never managed to distinguish the glittering aristocrat characters from each other or untangle their relationships, while the below-stage relationships and characters were mapped out for me with an almost insulting clarity. So when it turned out that the aristocrats were a giant red herring and the film’s emotional and narrative core were to be found among the domestics, I wasn’t so much thrillingly surprised at this overturning of genre conventions as mildly annoyed that I’d bothered trying to distinguish Anthony from Freddie from Raymond in the first place. But only mildly annoyed, because I was in a soporific haze of period-detail-induced contentment, slightly punctured by the broad humour of Stephen Fry’s bumbling copper which seemed to have wandered in from another film, and by my total lack of belief in the film’s insistence on the moral consensus of everyone in the film (set in 1932) that all the unmarried pregnant factory-girls should have DEFIED CONVENTION (and, er, starvation?) and KEPT THEIR PRECIOUS PRECIOUS BABIES. I totally believed in the accuracy of all the period detail (posh people used to eat fish with two forks!), but there was a massively anachronistic 21st-century gaze being turned on it.

Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975, Jim Sharman): Ika’s review

Hoorah! G@CHs returns to source, as the morals of the bourgeoisie are dissolved by contact with the dissolute aristocracy!

– Beyond that, it’s hard for me to say anything about this film, which is just part of my (my generation’s?) mental/conceptual furniture. Frank N Furter is one of the great characters of twentieth-century fiction – a proper bisexual and a gloriously queer mash-up of Caligula, Quentin Crisp and the new gay masculinities of the 1970s – and the floor show/swimming-pool/climactic death scene is as much a part of my mental landscape as the ball scene in Labyrinth. And I am very proud of myself for spotting this as an absolutely classic G@CH movie: desire is rerouted away from the sanctioned marriage bond along queerer lines, and it all leads up to the firing of a gun – except that this time the gun is a laser capable of emitting a beam of pure anti-matter, it’s fired because of a palace coup, the troubling queerness of the castle is sent back to its place in a distant galaxy, and the married couple get to return older and wiser. So maybe it’s most like Chinese Roulette – a seventies country-house movie? But then also, the floor show to the empty auditorium and the themes of impersonation and transcendence were clearly important influences on Mister Lonely.

The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932): Ika’s review

So the other ur-country-house text, as well as 120 Days of Sodom, would be The Fall of the House of Usher? (Not that I’ve read it. Actually, I haven’t read 120 Days of Sodom either, but I have read Grant Morrison’s version, 120 Days of Sod All, so I expect that counts.) Anyway, this was a cracking little movie, which the guy in our local DVD shop pressed on us when I explained why we were renting the first two: it’s a 1932 James Whale horror movie, 70 minutes long (I like my films short) and packed with incident. I did get a bit lost in the narrative, because of being completely incapable of telling the two male leads apart, but the evil Femm family, who inhabit the country house on the Welsh border in which the other characters take shelter from a storm, were a delight – four entirely different flavours of sinister aristocratic insanity. (Unintentionally chilling: the reminder of how recently being ‘mad’ or indeed ‘mute’ was enough to render a character inhuman and/or monstrous: disabled characters get a pretty raw deal in the country house, cf Chinese Roulette.) I also think the film was tightly structured around a meditation on class and the new post-war society – the dissolute, marginal/rural, decayed-gentry Femms shelter a normative middle-class married couple, a single man ruined by the war and contemplating his own uselessness to society, a Northern manufacturer whose wife died of having posh women mock her clothes, and a chorus-girl with a heart of gold. But, because of me not being from 1932 and missing the underlying assumptions, that unifying structure was rather lost on me, and the film became an alternation between tedious discussions of whether chorus-girls are marriageable and awesome James Whale set-pieces – the high point for me being Saul, the pyromaniac Femm brother, explaining that ‘flames are like knives’ (shiver). Lots of future echoes of RHPS, too, including the mute and brutish butler (Boris Karloff, fresh from playing Frankenstein’s monster in James Whale’s movie version) carrying Saul’s dead body tenderly away in his arms at the end of the film in a close visual pair to Rocky and Frank.

But on the whole, the passage of time has made this one a bit cryptic: perhaps I do need Robert Altman’s anachronistic/simplifying take on 1932 after all.

All three movies: Jenny’s review and summation

I remembered Gosford Park as the quintessence of country-house-party movies and I figured Stephin Merritt had left it out because it would be implicitly present anyway. But watching it at the end of the festival, it seemed more like a passenger (or even parasite) on the genre. The murder mystery is both cursory and backgrounded, relying on fond memories of Golden Age detective stories, and the class analysis is way behind Jean Renoir. The film’s main contribution to the genre is its careful explanations of country-house minutiae – how the 1930s posh ate fish, which stairs the servants used – a strategy that turns its creators and viewers into time-tourists, gawking at foreign customs. And from this distance, Altman dispenses easy moral judgements (young Scottish maid good, old English factory-owner bad, and so on), which flatten most of the star-cast performers: only Maggie Smith manages to transcend the binary by turning an unredeemably selfish character into a magnificent comic monster.

So it was good to move on to the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was (we’d realized while trying to list other examples of the genre) a classic country-house-gathering movie, dominated by the hottest comic monster of all time. It was only the second time I’d seen it:* I saw it when it first came out, but I’m seriously squicked by corpse comedy, so the meal eaten from Eddie’s body (which turns out to only occupy a minute or so, who knew?) dominated my memories of the whole movie. This time, however, I loved the duel between two versions of queerness, the Mick Jaggerish Frank N Furter and the Morrissey-like Riff Raff; I loved that the servants won, for once; and I loved the way Tim Curry subverted what in some ways remains a stereotype of the tragic queen, so that it can also be read as 70s androgyny. But most of all, I was impressed by the sheer number of genres that the film’s simultaneously working in – science fiction, crime, horror, farce, porn and musical comedy – confirming my sense that country-house movies have outlasted the country-house parties on which they are based because, like Mary Poppins’s carpet bag, you can get almost anything you need out of them.

Despite this new enthusiasm, however, I still felt The Rocky Horror Picture Show didn’t quite hang together (what is the Eddie sub-plot about?), so I was looking forward to ending our country-house festival with the serendipitous recommendation of The Old Dark House, as the movie that inspired RHPS. But The Old Dark House wasn’t the Rosetta Stone that explained RHPS and, by implication, the country-house genre as a whole: it turned out to be something much more idiosyncratic. The house is brilliant, dominating the tiny humans but itself vulnerable to fire and rock falls, and for the first time in the festival there was a character I could unequivocally identify with – Sir Horace Femm, played by Ernest Thesiger ::swoon::, who is frankly terrified from the beginning, goes to his room at the first opportunity, and stays there till the violence is over. But I couldn’t make sense of the rest of it or (apart from the opening sequence, where the young couple take shelter in the old dark house) see any resemblance to RHPS… until I did some googling, which reminded me that Charles Laughton was gay as well as Thesiger and director James Whale; pointed out some homoerotic moments that I’d missed (Sir Horace’s hellfire sister, who clutches the ingenue while denouncing her, just like Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, the grief and tenderness with which the mute manservant gathers up the body of his psychotic master); and, most usefully of all, told me that James Whale came from a working-class background but passed as a toff in Hollywood, which explained the long and, in plot terms, irrelevant diatribe against the English upper-class spoken by Charles Laughton.

In other words, The Old Dark House gathered together a bunch of stuff that was important to James Whale, never completely unified but all meaning something to its creator and therefore conveying a sense of meaning to its viewers, even if we don’t actually know what it means. Once I’d put that into words, I realized it applied to the entire festival: The Draughtsman’s Contract and Mister Lonely would come high on my list of annoyingly obscure/confused cultural productions but I don’t doubt that Peter Greenaway and Harmony Korine put a lot of themselves into their movies. So James Whale has the last word after all. Country houses are an excellent way to gather disparate/contradictory themes or obsessions under the one roof, with a notable emphasis on queer theories.


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5 Responses to Gatherings at Country Houses, Day 3: Bonus Tracks

  1. Hope you’ve seen the Channel Four reality documentary “The Edwardian Country House”.

  2. nowandrome says:

    Ooh, that sounds great! And we absolutely have to see Upstairs, Downstairs, it is ridiculous that we haven’t. (We might watch, er, Moonlighting first though.)

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