Showing posts with label Son of Frankenstein. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Son of Frankenstein. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Mirror, Mirror

In Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein’s creation—the “monster”—eventually sees his reflection in the water, and is shocked by it, understanding at that moment why others find him so hideous. There’s a similar moment in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) too, when the monster (Boris Karloff, in his last appearance as the monster in a feature film) sees his reflection, and has a similar reaction. It’s a great moment, one that hearkens back to Shelley’s source novel. In the horror film, as in Gothic literature, the mirror is an instrument of truth—it cannot lie, and therefore can only reveal to us the terrible truth. The mirror shows us the real, and it is for this reason why so few of us wish to gaze too long at our reflection in it. Jean Cocteau said, “We watch ourselves grow old in mirrors. They bring us closer to death,” by which he meant, mirrors do not lie, and serve as constant reminders of our mortality.

The mirror figures in blues great Robert Pete Williams’ song, I’ve Grown So Ugly, included on the album Free Again (1961), recorded soon after Williams had been released from Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where he’d spent the previous several years of his life. The years in prison have been hard and long, and Williams sings about a moment of (mis-)recognition similar to that of the Frankenstein monster in Shelley’s novel. He sees himself in the mirror, but doesn’t know himself anymore: “Oh baby, baby this ain’t me. I’ve got so ugly I don’t even know myself.” Years have gone by, and he has grown old while locked away in prison, and can no longer recognize himself.

Captain Beefheart covered “I’ve Grown So Ugly” on the album Safe As Milk (1967), as Grown So Ugly. His electrified version of the song, interpreted as if it were being sung by Howlin’ Wolf, is perhaps most significant because it allows us to decipher the role of the mirror in Beefheart’s music. There is, of course, the album Mirror Man, belatedly released in 1971, but there’s also “Son of Mirror Man—Mere Man,” on Strictly Personal (1968). The homonymy of mirror/mere reminds us of Cocteau’s insight, the link between the mirror and mortality (“mere man”), but “Son of Mirror Man” also happens to be an enticing link to SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. Surely your imagination is not so impoverished as to think that “Son of Mirror Man” refers only to one particular “take” or version of the song. The link explains why Beefheart's music has often been characterized as “gothic blues.”