Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Bubba Ho-tep

The term Southern Gothic vaguely refers to the supposed prominence of violence, the grotesque, and (sometimes) the supernatural in Southern culture. We find early elements of the Southern Gothic in Edgar Allan Poe and in the Southern humorists. The proximity of the frontier in the Deep South for a much longer time than in the northeastern part of the nation may account for these elements, along with the South’s loss of the Civil War, and external perceptions about its languishing condition for nearly a century, with family fortunes lost, family lines burned out, depressed economic conditions, inbreeding, and so on. The decaying ancestral and columned family mansion as a symbol and relic of the dead family fortune and the South’s loss in the Civil War neatly serves the Gothic formula; consider the houses in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! In Bubba Ho-tep (2002, dir. Don Coscarelli) that mansion becomes an old folks home. The creeping Gothic horror is the ancient Egyptian mummy. In the traditional Gothic the creeping horror is often a reflection of family sin and decay. The old folks’ home enshrines the mythology of American cultural icons, especially those connected with the American South.

Bubba Ho-Tep is about an old folks home whose inhabitants include a man who believes he is Elvis Presley and another man who believes he is John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The film allows that these men may be deluded, but it also allows, and depends on, the assumption that they may well be who they think they are—Elvis himself (Bruce Campbell) narrates the film. With J. F. K. (Ossie Davis) he mounts an attack on the ancient Egyptian mummy that is attacking residents of the home and sucking out their souls.

The old folks’ home as a setting symbolizes the distant and irrelevant presence of the mythic Southern past and comments on the more immediate relevance and irrelevance of the myths and symbols that Elvis Presley and J. F. K. signify.

The film builds on the mythology of Presley and of J. F. K. Presley is the modern American hero, idolized and misunderstood, mythologized and ridiculed. His is a Southern Horatio Alger story on the one hand, a Southern Gatsby on the other, destroyed by his own excess and greed and by the greed of others, specifically Colonel Tom Parker, whom Elvis mentions disdainfully in the film. Bubba Ho-Tep exploits our knowledge of Elvis, depends on our familiarity with his life and career, enforces the idea that he was exploited by Colonel Tom Parker and others, that he threw his talent and success away. Elvis in the film clearly believes so. He often mentions with regret his former wife and his daughter. The film depends on our sympathy, and on the idea that we might desire an alternative life for Elvis where things would have gone better. In the decade following Presley’s death, rumors, stories, and folk legends about his survival—in disguise, with another name, in another country—were widely current in American popular culture. (In the film, Elvis tells us that he traded places with the best of the Elvis imitators, Sebastian Haff, who subsequently died of heart disease and drug abuse, while the contract that he and Elvis signed to cement the exchange was destroyed in a trailer fire, so that the real Elvis has no way of proving who he is). The Elvis of the film is the mythologized Elvis—we never go beyond that popular iconic image--what the narration tells us is what we wanted to believe to begin with.

We have another kind of myth-making with J. F. K. We might think of his assassination in a Southern city, Dallas, Texas, as the family sin at the center of the plot, but the film doesn’t go in that direction. Rather through J. F. K. it invokes the conspiracy theories and general paranoia surrounding his assassination and its aftermath. In the film J. F. K. is convinced he was the victim of a vast government conspiracy involving every conceivable person imaginable (including, perhaps, Elvis himself), and that the conspirators are still out to get him. He believes his skin was dyed to make him an African American to hide his true identity. To an extent we might see in Ossie Davis, himself a kind of Southern icon, a commentary on J. F. K. and race. Of all the white people a black man might want to identify with, J. F. K. is a logical choice because of his advocacy of the civil rights bill, not to mention that he is also a symbol of prestige, nobility, popularity, and power, all that we might imagine the character Ossie Davis plays in the film did not have. Davis’ character fantasizes himself into this role--that is, if indeed he is not the actual J. F. K. (Novels by Don DeLillo and Norman Mailer dealt with the mythologizing aspects of the assassination, as does the Oliver Stone film J. F. K. Consider as well the rumors that abounded in the 1960s and 1970s about J. F. K.’s survival of the assassination, his comatose body maintained on the fifth floor of a hospital somewhere near Washington, D. C. A story in a popular scandal magazine described how, after the comatose J. F. K. died, his widow Jackie buried his body in the Aegean Sea during her marriage to Aristotle Onassis.)

The film is infused with major intertextual references to American culture and popular iconography. It especially makes reference to other films: to Ben Hur (in the opening title sequence), Barton Fink (the bug on the wall), The Shining (the hallway scenes), spaghetti westerns, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood.

What is significant, literally and symbolically, about mummies that waken from the dead and that must destroy the living to survive? This is certainly the underlying logic of Bubba Ho-tep. Some reviewer I read suggested that in battling the mummy, Elvis is battling himself, and there is sense in that notion—resisting the mummy that would suck out his soul and reduce him to nothingness (a person whose soul has been sucked away by the mummy, the film tells us, has no prospect of a life after death—the soul simply ceases to exist). Elvis and J. F. K. are battling their aged, infirm physical selves. They are resisting mortality. Elvis is also resisting the caricatured image of himself that he left behind—he’s proving that he is, in the end, a person who can “take care of business.” When, after he sets the mummy afire and pushes its burning carcass into the river, he himself lies on the bank of the river, gasping his last breaths. A message appears in the sky: “All is well.”

In Bubba Ho-Tep the mummy is a caricature of an old West gunslinger, a gambling sharpie, and a geek. The feather in his hat perhaps suggests a Native American connection. But the assemblage of cultural references that he incorporates makes him all the more macabre as well as ridiculous.

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