Saturday, April 13, 2013

Carnivale of Myth

I've been watching a lot of Carnivale lately, which is one of those hobbies that has to be a short-term thing, like reading the GOOP newsletter or ice fishing. Carnivale was a 2003 HBO drama about a travelling circus and a seemingly unrelated ascendant radio preacher. Set in Dust Bowl America, the show was really about good and evil, and how we define normal, freakish, and everything in between. It's gorgeously shot, all chiaroscuo lighting and lingering shots on humanity's various malformations.

The story is too complicated to get down in a blog post, but the bones of the plot are that Michael J. Anderson (you may remember him as the dwarf from Twin Peaks)'s travelling circus picks up Ben, a young man who seems to have a healing gift despite the fact that he is often played with slack-jawed stupor by Nick Stahl; this circus has a collection of weirdos, like the family-act strippers, the bearded lady, and the conjoined twins. Some of the other circus members are decidedly more otherworldly, having been gifted with second sight and other supernatural powers. At the same time, a California preacher named Justin Crow is having visions, ones that inspire him to start a new congregation in the desert. He's a little too close with his sister (I mean, what would an HBO show even be without incest, amirite?) and seems to be able to control people with his mind, but he's a man of the cloth: he can't be all bad....except that the horrible rape scenes seem to suggest otherwise.

The show is just amazingly designed: it looks incredibly tactile, as though you can feel the fine layer of grime and blood on every surface. The downtrodden glamour of the circus is breathtaking- I want to steal the design elements for my home, except that I don't actually want to take decorating advice from blind mystics and coochie dancers. But the stripes! The feather fans! The overalls and handlebar moustaches! The caravans and painted elephants, the trousers and the bobbed hair! It strikes exactly the right balance of glamour and seediness, like stealing your dad's old leather jacket from his college bar-fight days, or drinking rum in back alleyways, or a slept-one smokey eyeshadow. It's bare red lightbulbs, falling-down thigh-high stockings, and cutting your own hair with paper scissors after three drinks.

What impresses me most about Carnivale is how adept it is at capturing how good America is at myth-building. Maybe it's a by-product of growing up in Canada, where we're mellower on chest-thumping nationalism, but I've always been fascinated by how Americans seem to be so good at creating stories about what it means to be American. There's even the phrase "American dream," which about boot-strap-yanking optimism and the chance to make yourself into a new man.

When I was a kid, I became a little obsessed with Disney. I read a couple biographies of Walt Disney, the man behind the empire (my favourite anecdote about how his Mickey Mouse persona clashed with his actual personality was that his employees would use their desk-to-desk phones to whisper Bambi's famous line "Man is in the forest," whenever Walt stomped into the building), but I was actually more interested in Disneyland and Disneyworld, the giant alternate universes Disney had built. It was fascinating to read about the design process, sure, but also to think about the narratives Disney was creating through spaces like Frontierland (a sanitized westward expansion where the Indians were dirty enemies) or Tomorrowland, where Disney presented his brand of futurism to the American public. He offered a cleaned-up past and limitless future, all meticulously maintained and complete with a snack bar.

A few years later, I became equally obsessed with Stephen King's epic novel The Stand, the 1000-page exploration of good and evil in a post-apocalyptic world. It raised questions of what I would do in that kind of situation - die? Side with the baddies? Have nutty dreams? All of the above? - but more importantly, created a whole self-contained world that was openly dealing with the questions of fate, destiny, God and whatever dark forces s/he works against. When I was fourteen, I needed that story so badly.

Mythmaking seems like it's an American pastime. Think of the phrases "in a post-9/11 world" or "remember the Alamo," or how concepts like baseball, jazz, or the Army are presented. They're particularly adept at creating good-versus-evil stories in which they are, naturally, the good guys. I think this is why conspiracy theories have always been particularly robust in America: like any country, America is an ethically ambiguous entity, but so much of the country's identity rests on being the good guy; creating an all-powerful "other" to take the fall for fucked-up shit means ordinary schmoes can distance themselves from America's bad behaviour. American is a sucker for a mascot: the Statue of Liberty, Klansmen (hey, not all mascots are good), Marilyn Monroe, the honorable soldier, the entrepreneur.

Combining all these elements into one 1930s-era stew is delicious. Carnivale is one of the slowest shows I've ever watched - even though the action is often creepy, the dialogue is obtuse and plots meander off and on the screen for a few episodes before things get to a head - which gives me plenty of time to peruse its Wikipedia articles and try to figure out all the seemingly random (so not random!) lines of dialogue and flashes of imagery. It's also fascinating to me that the show is set in a time when America was vulnerable - after the golden Jazz Age, before the revitalizing pulse of WWII - because those are the moments that seem open to creating new mythologies. We all need new stories when our old ones no longer fit; America, it seems, has always been on the lookout for both the Next Big Thing and Our Glorious Past, and this show nestles right in the middle.

I guess the only thing I can think of to compare would be, indeed, that post-9/11 world, when Americans were seen as victims and heroes. The shock of the attacks led to a moment of pure, still panic as dust and paper and bodies fell on New York City; this was followed by months and years of flag raising, xenophobic hollering, Dick Cheney, Iraq, Jon Stewart, and a thousand other mini-industries. Imagine that coming towards your family farm in 1936 in the form of a dust storm a thousand feet high. Imagine that happening for years. No wonder the producers of Carnivale were drawn to that setting. Those people must have been exhausted. They must have been ready to listen to anybody. I know I would have been.