Gothicism and The Terminator: Fear & the Romance of the Cool

Recently, the Mike-Kate Video Club reviewed The Terminator. I went ahead and re-watched Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Good stuff! But the combination of cool technology plus anti-technology message still bewildered me.

And then I realized: this is neo-Gothicism.

Gothicism, specifically Gothicism in England, was a response to what the English saw as the disappearing past: gone were the monasteries, the priests and nuns and iconic Catholic imagery of the Pre-Reformation world.
Waterhouse's The Lady of Shallot
King Arthur was popular  with Pre-Raphaelites.

That world also included castles and knights and stuff that was slowly but surely departing the English landscape.

Gothicism--like the Pre-Raphaelite movement--was an attempt to recapture this world. After all, let's face it, catacombs, crowns, suits of armor, magic, chivalry, and incense are fairly cool. And the Post-Reformation world--despite Jane Austen and Regency society--was just not as interesting, being so . . . legal and civilized and all.

In fact, the Pre-Reformation world had its fair share of the mundane; it's very easy to glorify and romanticize the past when one is no longer experiencing it. At the same time, turreted castles, armored knights, and Catholic priests were not things 18th century Englishmen would see on an everyday basis, and many people thought this was kind of sad.

Which doesn't mean they wanted it to all come back.

Your average Englishman of the 18th century was not especially fond of Catholicism, associating it with the pope, Inquisitions, and Spain. Moreover, he--and she--tended to link the imagery of Catholicism with those crazy Europeans having that crazy Revolution in France. Colonialists in the Americas wanting the right to appoint judges is one thing; Bohemian radicals chopping off people's heads is another, even if the Bohemian radicals are also anti-Catholic.

The point was . . . England wasn't like that: no Catholics, no radicals, and no excessive aristocratic tradition that gets its heads lopped off. English people respected law, science, and God (the order depended on the person).

In this environment, Gothicism burgeoned as a delectable source of romance and fear. Wasn't the past great?! Boy, we hope it doesn't come back!

This IS Cameron's vision in Terminator 2. (The first movie is really just a fun action flick, where the evil robots of the future fulfill a particular narrative need.) Terminator 2 really pushes the technology-is-evil message. And yet, this message lies side by side with cool effects, cool robots, cool guns, cool . . . EVERYTHING!

It is possible that Cameron comes from the same mindset that wants everyone to go back to living on farms without giving up modern medicine; this pick-and-choose disconnect whereby idealists select favored elements from both pastoral AND urban paradises always makes me roll my eyes; yeah, because nothing is related to anything else; the Industrial Revolution was just about kids working in mills, sure (insert major sarcastic tone).

In any case, I don't think Cameron thought though his ideology any more than the Matrix writers (of the first movie) thought through their argument. In both cases, what we're seeing is neo-Gothicism pure and simple: worshipping the thing one hates. As Mike and I have discovered, 80's movies are underscored with unease about technology. And yet, well, really, how can one give it up? Especially, when film-makers can use it to better their effects?

As I've said before, if aliens ever do show up, they will by-pass the U.N. (despite its Director of Outer Space Affairs) and the universities with their profound questions about life and head straight for Wall Street, i.e. the people selling the cool gadgets. Of course, the aliens' definition of a "cool" gadget might be My Little Pony, but still . . . isn't it far more likely? And wouldn't it just freak everybody out?

In any case, thank goodness that the idealists won't ever win, human nature being what it is. Fear and the romance of the cool produces awesome art.

1 comment:

Mike Cherniske said...

Wall-e always struck me this way. It was made by Disney-Pixar, the king of modern marketing and souvenirs. The film has many incredibly cute and marketable characters, and one can get stuffed animals, video games, toys, stickers, books, and any other type of merchandise you can imagine from the film.

Yet the film is arguably anti-commercialism, and shows a possible future where commercialism and capitalism has taken over society, to the point of removing a persons free will and vitality.

It's also a very interesting take on the sentient robot theme, especially compared to terminator and short circuit.