ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 12/01/09
My reward for arriving an hour early on Friday, June 20, 1997 for the first showing of Batman and Robin was free choice of a strategically assessed aisle seat and a film experience that proved somewhat disappointing. Any pop culture critique that aspires to something more than a newspaper review, however, requires a theoretical construction of some intellectual rigor against which to read it. The construction I propose traces its roots back a thousand years and provides a framework in which to read a contemporary film trend which I call Punk-Gothic. Represented by such films as old as Blade Runner, as new as this summer’s The 5th Element, Batman and Robin, and Spawn, this trend originates in the Gothic novel of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which, in turn, owes its beginnings (and name) to medieval Gothic architecture. When we examine the history of transformation from one art form to another and another, what perplexes us is the total alteration of meaning that occurs. What the Gothic represented for medieval Europe stands in complete contrast to what it means in these films. Of specific interest to the new Batman film’s relationship to the Punk-Gothic (PG) is its reversal of the Punk-Gothic voice, its main streaming the voice of alienation.
Gothic Architecture/Gothic Sensibility
Gothic Architecture was the art of the later medieval period. The erection of these great monuments to a holistic Christian world view was a communal activity which mimicked the hierarchy of the cosmos itself. In marked contrast to the fragmentation of our postmodern age, the medieval period was a time of cosmos, where Western Culture perceived unity in all things. This order was rigidly hierarchical, both ontologically, from the lowest non-living matter to the highest created angel, and socially, from the lowest serf to the highest King. The symbol of this unity was the Gothic cathedral. If we dare to risk over generalization by summarizing an entire age in a few words, we could perhaps say of the middle age that it was a time when human happiness, comfort, and meaning were not sought in the diversity of earthly things but in the unity of heavenly being. We might say it was a Platonic rather than Aristotelian age, one in which emphasis was placed on heavenly realms and hopes at the expense of earthly motivations. If the purpose of art is to teach the imagination, the Gothic cathedral was designed to teach the medieval imagination to look heavenward to something otherworldly as the source of beauty, meaning and happiness.
To this end, Gothic architecture combined the pointed arch and ribbed vault of its predecessor, the Romanesque, with new techniques in the use of light and the relationship between structure and appearance (Simson 3) in order to serve a single purpose: to draw the eye heavenward. Verticality is the aesthetic of Gothic architecture (7). To achieve this, the Gothic makes use of long, narrow spaces, high vaulted ceilings and several elements which achieve the illusion that the walls holding the edifice up disappear, dissolving within a series of ribs, arches, recesses, windows and the interplay of stain-glass light with shadow that makes the Gothic wall seem “porous: light filters through it, permeating it, merging with it, transfiguring it” (Simson 3). A sense of mysticism or the miraculous in the construction, the abundance of vertical lines, and the diffused/other-than-solar light (permeating the entire space but seeming to emanate from nowhere) all contributed to the medieval viewer’s sense of having entered an otherworldly place, a presage of the heavenly city for which the viewer longed.
In this quality we can summarize the significance of the Gothic cathedral in the medieval period: Otherworldliness. A viewing of the interior of the cathedral was a vision of a supernatural/transcendent world for which the viewer happily longed. One of the theses of this paper is to answer the question, how did the Gothic vision come to represent something so completely opposite in Punk-Gothic film?
Before we can consider how Gothic architecture contributes to, even creates the visual (and perhaps intellectual) landscape of the Gothic art forms that follow, however, we must