BFI’s Gothic Film Season

Posted by Sarah

I thought it would be worth drawing attention to an upcoming melodrama-related event. This especially ties into the Gothic strand of melodrama the Melodrama Research Group has recently been investigating.

The British Film Institute has announced its season of Gothic Films. This is scheduled to run from October 2013 to January 2014 and involve indoor and outdoor events across the country.

BFI gothic

Visit the website http://www.bfi.org.uk/gothic for more details, including a spooky video trailer.

Radio Soap Operas

Posted by Sarah

I thought it might be useful over the Summer Break to delve into two areas relating to melodrama which we have yet to deal with in detail. Radio is a medium that we have not really discussed, and likewise the soap opera (with its melodramatic storylines, suffering characters and implausible coincidences) has been a little neglected.

radio soap opera

Television soap operas are popular in the UK, with soaps like Eastenders and Coronation Street continuing to top the ratings and to have a large presence in celebrity magazines. Soap operas also have an impressive history which spans several decades and a few different media. For example, Radio 4’s The Archers (an everyday story of country folk) has been going since 1950. Indeed, the very first soap operas were created for radio. This was during American radio’s ‘golden age’ which roughly coincides with Hollywood’s Studio System – the 1920s to the 1950s.

rinso2The term ‘soap opera’ itself comes from the advertisers who sponsored the radio programmes – such as Proctor and Gamble and Lever Brothers (Rinso – see picture on left). They were designed for female audiences, and often written by female writers. In particular they were meant to appeal to  housewives. The programmes were often 15 minutes long and could either be listened to whilst undertaking chores or when enjoying a short break from the housework. They were generally broadcast 5 days a week, had on-going storylines, constant cliff-hangers and revolved around women. The main female characters often suffered and had a special talent for self-sacrifice.

Romance of Helen Trent

Much ‘old time radio’ was never recorded at the time, but transmitted live, and consequently not all that many copies exist. There are some episodes of well-known radio soap operas from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s on archive.org. These include wonderfully-titled programmes such as The Romance of Helen Trent (1933-1960 – see picture on right), Big Sister (1936-1952), The Guiding Light (1937-1956), which inspired The Right to Happiness (1939 -1960), Hilltop House (1937-1941,1948-1955 and 1956-1957), Joyce Jordan M.D. (1938-1948, 1951-1952, 1955) and its offshoot The Brighter Day (1948-1956), The Career of Alice Blair (1939-1940) and  Against the Storm (1939-1942, 1949 and 1951-1952). (Information for the above has been taken from John Dunning’s incredibly useful  On the Air: The Encyclopaedia of Old Time Radio, Oxford University Press, USA, 1998.)

I would especially recommend Big Sister (http://archive.org/details/BigSister), Joyce Jordan MD (http://archive.org/details/JoyceJordonM.d), Hilltop House (http://archive.org/details/HilltopHouse_214) and The Romance of Helen Trent (http://archive.org/details/RomanceOfHelenTrent).  Several consecutive episodes are available for each of these which gives a better view of the soap opera’s serial nature. In addition, since the first 28 episodes of Big Sister are on the archive it is possible to trace it from its beginnings. I have also uploaded the first 28 and later 4 consecutive episodes of Big Sister, the 2 sets of 5 episodes of Hilltop House, the 4 Joyce Jordan and 3 Helen Trent mp3s to our additional blog so you can put them straight onto ipods and suchlike, should you wish: http://melodramaresearchgroupextra.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/radio-soap-operas/

UPDATE: I’ve listened to some of the mp3s which I downloaded (these are brilliantly melodramatic!) and it seems, as ever with OTR, there is some mislabelling! The 3 parts of Helen Trent are probably in the right order, but I suspect there are episodes missing. Joyce Jordan’s episodes of the 25th and 26th have been switched (so do listen to the 26th first!), and those listed for the 27th and 28th are the same episode; which appears to be totally unrelated to the other two. The first 5 episodes of Hilltop House are consecutive though. I’ll update again if I notice any more…

As ever, log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts. And do get in touch if there is anything melodramatic you would like to post over the Summer Break…

Music and the Melodramatic Aesthetic

Posted by Sarah

I just happened upon some interesting information on the University of Nottingham’s webpages. It relates to a vital part of melodrama that we have not had much chance to explore: music. It contains some useful videos which consider the intersection of melodrama and music, most of which seems to have been posted in 2008 or earlier.

Do take a look: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/music/research/projects/mma/index.aspx

There is also a report on the Music and the Melodramatic Aesthetic Conference which took place in 2008: http://www.scope.nottingham.ac.uk/confreport.php?issue=14&id=1129

Summer Activities

Posted by Sarah

It will be a rather long three months until the group meets again… In the meantime, I intend to occasionally post subjects of interest (such as links to films, radio dramas, books etc on archive.org, youtube and other free-to-all platforms) which people can get involved with by commenting on the blog. If you would like to propose something to be included please do email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk.

I plan to email individual members when something new has been posted on the blog, just to make sure you don’t miss out!

Reflections on the Last Academic Year

Posted by Sarah

It would be useful to draw together some of our group’s activities and discussion on melodrama over the last 9 months. I’ve added my own thoughts below which ended up being far more fulsome than originally intended!), but do log in to comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to include your ideas. It would be great if people provided their own overviews, or a detailed focus on an element (such as the definition of melodrama or a specific film) which especially interested them.

8 Events Magnificent ObsessionWe were very fortunate to begin the academic year with a Research Seminar at which Birmingham School of Media’s Dr John Mercer (co-author, with Martin Shingler, of Melodrama: Genre, Style, Sensibility, 2004) presented. John’s talk ‘Acting and Behaving Like a Man: Rock Hudson’s Performance Style’ focused on Hudson’s ‘behaving’ in several Douglas Sirk melodramas:  Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written on the Wind (1956). This provided us with some great insights into probably the most referenced Hollywood director of film melodramas as well as underlining the close relationship between melodrama and performance.

11 Events Tea & Sympathy Beach

 

Nottingham Trent University’s Dr Gary Needham also presented at a fascinating Research Seminar. In ‘Revisiting Tea and Sympathy (1956): Minnelli, Hollywood, Homosexuality’. Gary, like John, explored the work of specific Hollywood director associated with melodrama: in this case Vincente Minnelli. Gary’s work interestingly opened up debate on gender relations and sexuality with a sensitive re-reading of Minnelli’s Tea and Sympathy.

In our fortnightly meetings since January we have broadened out from this focus on 1950s Hollywood melodrama. We have screened a surprisingly wide variety of films with connections to melodrama, which hailed from France, Britain, the US, and Hong Kong and stretched from the silent cinema of the 1900s to contemporary film of the 2000s. We have also organised a very enjoyable and useful read through of a play.

We started with debate on the male melodrama by referencing Steve Neale’s reconsideration of melodrama in ‘Melo Talk’.  Neale argued that unlike the 1970s The Narrow Marginfeminists who wrote on melodrama in relation to the ‘women’s film’, trade press from Hollywood’s Studio Era was more likely to attach the term ‘melodrama’ to films with male-focused themes, such as film noir. Viewing Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin (1952) which was hailed at its time of release as a ‘Suspense Melodrama’ allowed us to engage with Neale’s argument in a practical as well as theoretical way.

son of the SheikBut melodrama is more usually thought of as being related to suffering.  The American Film Institute defines melodramas as ‘fictional films that revolve around suffering protagonists victimized by situations or events related to social distinctions, family and/or sexuality, emphasizing emotion’. (http://afi.chadwyck.com/about/genre.htm). In keeping with this, we screened George Melford’s The Sheik (1921). The Sheik and the next film, Robert Z. Leonard’s The The DivorceeDivorcee (1930), were more closely related to traditional notions of melodrama focused on by feminists in the 1970s. Both of these centred on melodramatic plots and had suffering women at their hearts. Though the earlier film presented events in a more melodramatic way, partly due to the type of acting which is thought to predominate in the silent era.

Our screening of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938) opened out our discussion to animation. Once more the melodramatic plot was in place, though we did note that the use of comedy tempered the melodramatic elements.

snow white 1

 

Gaslight UKShowing two versions of Gaslight – the British film directed1 Welcome Gaslight by Thorold Dickinson in 1940 and the Hollywood remake helmed by Gorge Cukor in 1944 – allowed us to compare examples from two major film industries. In terms of melodrama the same, or at least a similar, story being told in different ways was especially illuminating. The plot underpinning both is melodramatic, but the polished approach of Hollywood was strikingly different to the ‘blood and thunder’ uppermost in Dickinson’s film. The Gothic subgenre of these films also provided much discussion.

Love on the Dole 2Weekly activities in the Summer Term provided us with scope to show more, and some longer, films. We began with John Baxter’s Love on the Dole (1941) which fascinatingly combined a melodramatic plot with the aesthetics of social realism. Its unusual, downbeat, approach was highlighted by the films we screened the following week: George Melies’ Barbe-Bleu (1901), D.W. Griffiths’ The Mothering Heart (1913) and Lois Weber’s The Mothering HeartSuspense (1913). Showing some very early short melodramas by French and American film pioneers George enabled us to directly compare films from cinema’s earlier days, afforded us the opportunity of watching the work of a female director which seems apt given melodrama’s usual focus on the female, and provoked thoughts regarding the use of suspense and restraint.

Poltergeist 2The screening of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) turned the group’s attention to horror. This provided us with an opportunity to assess the way melodrama works with, and amongst, other related genres. Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Happy Together tangoTogether (1997) proved to be another surprising, but interesting choice for discussion. The clearly melodramatic plot concerning two young lovers’ trials was presented, at times, in a documentary style. This was thought to be revealing of melodrama’s inherent variety.

A read-through of Frederick and Walter Melville’s 1903 play A Girl’s Cross Roads returned us to more traditional notions of melodrama. The plot and the performances (at least when ‘performed’ by us!) were certainly over the top, with suffering central to the play.

16 Links The Girl who Lost her Character

Our most recent screening of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) proved very useful as it was a thoughtful meditation on melodrama especially in its parodying of the genre and Hollywood films of the 1950s.

In addition to our screenings and the read through we have been contacted by the BFI who are staging an event about melodrama in 2015. They intend to screen 50 unmissable melodramas. We compiled our own list of 50 unmissable melodramas (https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/03/03/the-bfi-and-50-unmissable-melodramas/) which we had reduced from the longer list of 225 titles (https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/03/03/unmissable-melodramas-the-long-list/) We are currently working through (and adding to!) these. We also plan to widen out further from film melodrama by engaging with theatre, television and radio(see the next post on Summer Activities for more information).

The Melodrama Research Group is busy working on several events: a screening of Midnight Lace (1960) in September, a forthcoming Symposium, a Festival, a Trip and is looking into Publishing Opportunities.

Summary of Discussion on Mulholland Drive

Posted by Sarah

Our post-film discussion covered several areas, including how melodrama functions in Mulholland Drive; the relationship between the melodrama and horror genres; David Lynch’s other films; and definitions of melodrama. Do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

MulDrWe began the discussion by noting the ways in which Mulholland Drive (2001) was related to our understanding of melodrama. Broadly speaking, the fact the plot focused on love and domestic matters was thought to relate closely to the family focus present in many melodramas. At a more specific level, some of the aesthetics pointed to melodrama: especially the scene which places Betty (Naomi Watts) firmly within the domestic setting of the kitchen as she makes coffee at the huge sink. This had echoes of 1950s melodramas, especially as it externalised the internal states of characters. Other of the film’s settings, and the costumes, also harked back to earlier Hollywood.

 

Mulholland Betty arrivalIndeed the film was a self-conscious meditation on melodrama, especially Hollywood melodrama. At times this slipped into parody or pastiche. Betty’s boundless joy at arriving in Los Angeles in particular seemed like a moment from a bad 1950s melodrama, or perhaps a ‘Visit Hollywood’ advertisement.  The staging, dialogue and acting in the first part of the narrative was self-consciously Mulholland Dianeunconvincing, especially when involving Betty. There was praise for Watts’ performance(s), however.  The switch from perky optimistic Betty to distressed Diane was very well-realised.  Watts persuasively inhabited the role of suffering Diane in the second part of the film, making the character markedly different through the way she held herself and facial expressions.

Other self-conscious aspects of the film drew attention even more strongly to the fact the film was constructed prior to our viewing of it. At Club Silencio the emcee informs Betty and Rita that the sound has been previously recorded, foregrounding the importance of illusion.  It was also suggested that it is significant that this is the point just before the film’s narrative turns: that it is signposts the switch from melodrama parody to melodrama ‘proper’ as Diane is seen to be really suffering.  Other instances in the film appear to downplay the melodrama though. The dramatic, if not melodramatic, fight scenes are undercut by slapstick comedy and black humour. We have previously noted that melodramas use humour, sometimes of minor characters, in order to provide polt1some relief from the melodrama (for example in both film versions of Gaslight), thereby heightening the melodramatic aspects. It is perhaps unusual to find the dramatic and comedic so closely entwined as in Mulholland Drive, though interestingly Poltergeist, another film with links to horror, employed this tactic.

The importance of horror, its similarities to and differences from melodrama, was also raised.  Both genres externalise the internal and Lynch’s particular combination of the two genres in Mulholland Drive – attaching the horror aesthetic to the melodramatic plot – was especially unsettling. Comparisons to Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) were made. It Lost Highwaywas noted that Cowboy (Monty Montgomery) in Mulholland Drive served a similar function to Mystery Man (Robert Blake) in Lost Highway. The importance of performance in these and other Lynch films – such as Eraserhead (1977) and Blue Velvet (1986) – was also noted. Despite similarities, Lost Highway was thought to be out-and-out horror, while Mulholland Drive’s use of melodrama complicates the matter. It was suggested that Lynch’s film express a modern melodrama, related to the Gothic, which is extreme.

This led, once more, to debate on the definition of melodrama. A definition of melodrama has proved somewhat elusive – Martin Shingler and John Mercer define it as a ‘sensibility’ (in Melodrama: Genre, Style, Sensibility, 2004). We wondered if it would be useful to more fully appreciate the fact melodrama, like other genres, is not static.  While other genres allow for subgenres to become more fully integrated into notion of what that genre is, this seems less true of melodrama.  This is especially odd given the fact that our screenings have revealed the versatility of melodrama and its omnipresence.  Indeed Linda Williams (in ‘Melodrama Revised’. Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory (1998) pp. 42-88) states that melodrama is the American art form. Meanwhile Hollywood arguably remains the dominant force in world cinema.

If we begin to take into account more subgenres of melodrama, and looser relations that exist between melodrama and other genres, this would open up new areas of discovery. It was suggested that it might be more profitable to talk of the melodramatic rather than melodrama. In addition, while it would be positive to not speak of melodrama in pejorative terms, this is in fact the way in which people use it, and changing this seems unlikely to happen.  This comments effectively on how the Melodrama Research Group has engaged with the notion of melodrama: as it is, rather than how it should be, understood. Over the last few weeks the collision of melodrama and horror (Poltergeist and Mulholland Drive) has been especially useful in showing the long reach of melodrama.

Many thanks to Frances for selecting such a fantastic and fascinating film, and for kick-starting such fruitful discussion…

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 12th June, Jarman 7, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the last of the Summer Term’s screening and discussion sessions, which will take place on the 12th of June, Jarman 7, from 4-7pm.

We will be showing Frances’ choice: Mulholland Drive (2001, David Lynch, 146 mins)

mulholland

Frances has very kindly provided the following introduction:

Mulholland Drive is a 2001 feature directed by David Lynch. The narrative of the film is convoluted to say the least but the story is roughly divided into two sections where we follow the actions of the two main female protagonists: Betty and Rita in the first, and Diane and Camilla in the second (played by Naomi Watts and Laura Harring respectively). The film’s narrative (or should that be narratives?) tells a story which incorporates an assortment of themes, drawing upon several generic conventions. In the first half of the film, the search for lost identity is the narrative’s central motivation as aspiring actress Betty attempts to help the amnesiac Rita discover her true name. The representations of betrayal, thwarted lovers and corruption which subtly underpin the events of this first section come to the fore in the second half of the film when our characters transform into Diane and Camilla: the estranged lovers. The women’s interactions with each other are interspersed with scenes depicting the action of several supporting characters including: the director Adam Kesher; his mother and/or Betty’s landlady Coco; the mysterious diners at Winkies who discuss the disturbing dream; and the enigmatic character known only as The Cowboy. How these secondary narratives relate to the story as a whole remains ambiguous as the film evokes genres as diverse as the detective film, thrillers, film noir, romance and, I would like to argue, melodrama.

Part of the narrative’s mystery may stem from the film’s production history, which reveals how Mulholland Drive was originally conceived as a project for television (much like Lynch’s successful series Twin Peaks). When TV executives rejected the project, Lynch filmed an ending to his pilot episode and released it as a much shorter story and feature film. Mulholland Drive also shows the development of several themes Lynch explored in his previous film oeuvre, particularly Lost Highway (1997). Lost Highway is similarly divided into two sections where some actors perform more than one role and the causal relationship between these narratives can be interpreted in several ways. Like Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway concentrates on the confusion created by lost memory, the mistrust evoked by betrayed lovers and a seedy underworld (in this case involving drugs, pornography and gangsters) which seems to seep into the lives of all characters portrayed. Viewed in this way, Mulholland Drive is very much a sister film to its predecessor but with one important difference: in Mulholland Drive the main Mulholland2protagonists at the core of both segments of the film are women. This new emphasis upon a female experience is emphasised by the use of the same actresses in the key roles, their dominance in the narrative’s progression and screen-time, and the lesbian relationship which developments between Betty and Rita/Diane and Camilla. It is in this way that Mulholland Drive begins to evoke the ideas of melodrama discussed by the Research Group thus far and, specifically, the reoccurring trope of the suffering woman.

Lynch’s work has been equated with melodrama before, particularly as his films often seek to expose the illusory nature of US suburban culture: Blue Velvet’s (1986) depiction of the perversion which infects the seemingly perfect town of Lumberton is a good example of this. Mulholland Drive certainly develops this theme further but transforms this evil force into the morally corrupt corporations of Hollywood, where Betty hopes to find her big break. Mulholland Drive appears to consciously evoke the ideas Mulholland 3associated with Hollywood melodrama both in its ‘real’ plot (a betrayed lover) and the movie-making featured within the story (in a nice homage to the 1950s). The film’s plot is consistently ‘melodramatic’ but these moments of excess are uncomfortably controlled: often moments of confrontation do not culminate in the explosive emotional responses expected and Lynch’s camera is often very slow to reveal the important information occurring in a scene or, conversely, concentrates on images which appear to have no significance at all. The unusual pacing of the film is of course reflected in the film’s denial to provide a satisfactory explanation of its narrative. It is partly for these reasons that Lynda Chapple argues for a reading of the film which concentrates on other components: in this case, costume. Chapple relates the film’s use of costume – another topic commonly discussed under the heading of melodrama – to the representation of the female characters: “the costuming practices in this film exemplify a crisis of identification within a specifically feminine cinematic image” (p.322). (For more information on Chapple’s article visit http://melodramaresearchgroupextra.wordpress.com/)

One of the major questions posed by Mulholland Drive is whether the events we are watching actually took place, or are they a dream or fantasy taking place in one of the protagonist’s minds, particularly Betty’s/Diane’s? In this way the film presents an alternative representation for female subjectivity and the feminine experience to those featured in other melodramas which focus primarily on women. Considering the film to be (at least in part) the subjective experience of a protagonist extends the discussion on female subjectivity, as raised in previous films discussed like Gaslight. Other questions which could be considered when watching the film are:

– How does Mulholland Drive’s narrative ambiguity affect our experience of the film as a melodrama?

– Does the film’s tone support or question this classification?

–  How important is the ‘suffering woman’ trope to Mulholland Drive and melodrama?

–  Does Chapple’s analysis on costume help to unravel some of the film’s mysteries and is this an important element of the film’s status as a melodrama?

Enjoy the film!

Do join us to watch the film and take part in the post-film discussion if you can. And please note we start at 4pm.

 

Summary of Read-through and Discussion of A Girl’s Cross Roads

Posted by Sarah

Our first (yes, there may be more….) read-through of a play from the Templeman Library’s Special Collections (http://www.kent.ac.uk/library/specialcollections/)  was challenging logistically, but very enjoyable as well as illuminating regarding the nature of melodrama.

Discussion was brief due to time constraints so do log in to comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

A Girl's Cross Roads 2We mostly focused on the plot: the suffering, tragedy and several deaths. It was noted that within this coincidence played an important, and less than credible, part. This linked A Girl’s Cross Roads very strongly with other melodramas we have studied. (And, it was thought, to Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey.) In addition, the comic sub-plot of the play was mentioned.  This too was connected to other melodramas we have seen and caused us to again wonder if such a switch is tone is needed to make the melodrama seem even more melodramatic.

The play’s characters were also commented on. We were impressed that the comic characters were still funny today, and that the villains had a real air of menace which made their actions more believable.

There were other very powerful moments. The fact that a delirious Barbara turned to the audience at the end, including them in her drink-fuelled hallucination of people watching her, was found to be particularly striking.

Thanks go to everyone who took part so enthusiastically. Special mention goes to Helen Brooks for so wonderfully playing Barbara – the play’s most demanding role. And many thanks, of course, to Jane for organising the event: supplying copies of the script, recording equipment and other provisions!

Do visit our additional blog: http://melodramaresearchgroupextra.wordpress.com for more information.

Melodrama Read through, 5th June, Jarman 7 UPDATE

Posted by Sarah,

I just thought I’d reiterate that it would be great if those who are free a little earlier than 5pm tomorrow, can turn up and congregate outside Jarman 7 at about 4.45pm. I’m hopeful that this will mean we can sort out some of the practicalities beforehand and start the read-through itself promptly at 5.

I look forward to seeing you there!