Tamsin Flower’s TRANSFORMER

We were very pleased to recently welcome back writer/director Tamsin Flower, about 6 weeks after her last visit. It was great to read the first draft of her play TRANSFORMER in full, after the excerpts we were treated to last time. This was especially useful due to the play’s complex and thought-provoking structure. The play’s main characters, overbearing mother Norma and the far less sure of herself and still-developing Eddie, each has a different relationship to the films referenced.

We particularly commented on the impactful nature of the first two scenes. In the first, Eddie’s tangle with an impresario comments on Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky) with her success in winning the dual role in Swan Lake prompting Norma to celebrate and reminisce about her own related experience. This second scene also involves an impresario, though Norma is far more knowing, and pushy, than the heroine she references: that of the young female ballet dancer Vicky (Moira Shearer) in The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger). The fact that the both the obsessive female dancer and the figure of the impresario are archetypes – as demonstrated by the act The Red Shoes is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s disturbing fairy tale (1845) – aids the audience’s recognition of both figures even if they are unfamiliar with the films. But the play delves far deeper than this as Norma and Eddie’s relationship to these related but diverging film texts, and of course to each other, are multi-layered.

While both The Red Shoes and Black Swan focus on a woman’s love/hate relationship with dancing and the control it exerts on her, these women and the contexts of the films are very different. In The Red Shoes the ballerina literally cannot escape her compulsion, dancing up until almost her last moment when she jumps in front of a moving train. In Andersen’s story this a punishment for the pleasure she takes in her beautiful new red slippers she insists on wearing to church, with her only stopping once her slipper-encased feet have gruesomely been chopped off. The more modern Black Swan couches Nina Sayers’ (Natalie Portman) breakdown as the pressure between the oppositional good and bad characters she plays on stage, with the moral judgment of women seen in Andersen’s fairy tale replaced by recognition of the pressures women are under.

(For more on Black Swan see this earlier blog post: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2014/03/08/summary-of-discussion-on-black-swan/).

Norma and Eddie’s relationship is commented on by the tension existing between both characters and the film texts they are connected to. This is seen as despite the fact Norma, as befitting her age, is linked to The Red Shoes, and Eddie to Black Swan, it is in fact the older Norma who pushes boundaries. In her retelling of her meeting with an impresario, asides convey her calculated behaviour. This is similarly demonstrated as she is present in part of Eddie’s first scene, taking over to tell her story and also commenting on the complex mother/daughter relationship present in Black Swan.

While Norma changes little, Eddie develops, after a crisis of identity leads to a period of estrangement and meaning that Eddie following her own path. Here the recognisable film tropes of women empowering themselves through education (Erin Brockovich, 2000, Steven Soderbergh) and of films’ makeover scenes (Clueless, 1995, Amy Heckerling) shine a light on the way audiences in general respond to stars, including as an ego ideal inspiring self-development. Norma is also ‘made-over’ (references to the classic Now Voyager, 1942, Irving Rapper) but her empowerment comes through her manipulation of men (The Damned Don’t Cry, 1950, Vincent Sherman). Even for modern day theatre audiences who might not be familiar with these specific (though widely available and mostly Hollywood) film texts, the fact they reference themes disseminated in films and indeed these themselves reflect their presence in other art forms/discourses of entertainment widens their appeal, reach and relevance.  The script sets up the matter of how specific (though imaginary) audience members might appropriate material from well-known films with female stars whose characters undergo some sort of transformation. Furthermore, as film academics, many of us historians, this bridges the gap between historical audiences who can seem difficult to grasp, offering some insights into how texts are read, re-read and re-purposed including as part of people’ life narratives.

A particularly enjoyable and fruitful discussion revolved around the matter of pre-code films. This too relates to the matter of historically situated audiences as many today would be unaware that some films before the implementation of this heavier censorship in Hollywood (the Production or Hays Code in 1934) actually referenced matters like prostitution, child abuse and other weighty issues. We specifically discussed the pre-code Baby Face (1933, Alfred E. Green) – a film credited as partly responsible for more censorship being necessary. In this, Lily (Barbara Stanwyck) is a young woman who after years of abuse, including being prostituted by her own father, is encouraged (ironically enough by a man) to use men the way men have always used her – to employ sex for her own ends. Although Lily is in some ways ‘normalised’ – although she cold-heartedly climbs the ladder of executives at the company she is employed by she eventually marries her boss and realising her love for him she later sacrifices her hard-won jewellery – she still gains through using her sexual powers, although she may of course be given special justification due to the awful abuse she has suffered.

We contrasted this to The Damned Don’t Cry which is referenced in the play as Norma regales Eddie, and us, with how she used men to further her own financial standing. The Damned Don’t Cry is a somewhat uneven film, veering from severe sympathy for Edith Whitehead/Lorna Hansen Forbes (Joan Crawford) after the loss of her child and perhaps some delight in her turning the tables on men, though she does not have such a damaged background as Lily in Baby Face. Furthermore in the post-code and more conservative early 1950s Ethel/Lorna is punished by the killing of the man she loves by the one she has betrayed.

We also commented on the variety of genres referenced – Norma’s melodrama to Eddie’s drama, adaptation, romantic comedy, and horror. This too makes it more recognisable to various audiences and widens the appeal of the piece. In addition, we thought that the humour derived from Norma’s high campery (itself also chiming well with some of the film heroines she references) provided lighter and enjoyable moments.

We look forward to seeing the next draft of Tamsin’s script (thanks so much for sharing, Tamsin!) and to seeing it staged.

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Summary of Discussion on Black Swan

Posted by Sarah

Ann-Marie has very kindly provided the following:

We had a varied and detailed discussion about Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010). Please find our discussion under theme/subject:

 

Motherhood

Black Swan mother and childEach member found the relationship between mother and daughter disturbing. Firstly, we were unsure whether the mother was a villain or whether we see her through Nina’s interpretation. The film is not always explicit in its depiction of reality (part of its power) but this also leaves for questionable gaps in its reading. A question was raised if ​we should cast blame on the mother? It seems like a “chicken and egg” scenario and is open to either interpretation. Option A: Mother is to blame, showing the danger of the matriarch. Option B: Nina’s illness has caused an over-protective mother, showing the responsibility placed on the role of matriarch.

The mother’s lack of career did not escape us, particularly because she was supposedly destined to the life that Nina has gained.  Two things are suggested here: the mother as self-sacrificing (she gave up her career to have Nina) for the advancement of future women. Or, the continuous replacement of younger women in the entertainment industry. Nina informs us that her mother was already 28, thus past her expiry date. The mother viewed in this sense is a tragic character because she lacks a career, (because of age and children) and is also losing her daughter to the strain of an industry, one that she is acutely aware of.

Another odd occurrence: the moment of Nina’s first sexual experience. Did she imagine her mother in the room during masturbation, or was the mother by her bedside?  If the first interpretation is correct then what does this mean? One option could be part of a guilt complex, but should we be more psychoanalytic?

Yet another confusing mother moment occurs when Nina’s mother attempts to throw away the celebration cake. What are we to make of this over-blown reaction? It was noted that Nina is a ballerina and thus most likely on a strict diet so cake would be out-of-bounds, and Nina suggests this very idea to her mother.

Let’s break this down:

  • ​​Mother buys a giant cake, but knows Nina will not be able to eat much of it. Is the mother masochistic?
  • ​​Nina refuses, as we would expect, so the mother attempts to throw the cake away.
  • ​​Nina pleads her to stop, agreeing to eat the cake. The mother is victorious, firmly establishing the power boundaries.

In this scene we can see a guilt complex working in favour of the mother, and if we then connect this to the masturbation scene we could surmise: the mother keeps her in a virginal room made for a young girl, complete with the habitual tucking into bed and brushing of the hair. Nina moves away from the mother’s “ideal” (good little girl) and is struck by an imaginative view of her mother, caused by an inherent guilt complex. These are merely speculations, but what is important to note is how the power boundaries change and evolve. 

 Female performers/ All About Eve syndrome 

Black Swan fragmentA possible fear that is shown through Nina’s character is the dissolution of self. Nina’s submersion into the two roles that she plays begs the question: is a personality lost when one becomes a performer, and if one can lose the self in a part then what is the self, is it something we continually construct? If this Is the case it is no wonder that Nina would fear others, but more importantly the particular danger of other performers. Alternately, we could also consider Nina (or indeed any performer) as an example of the role picked for us and the person we are. 

The performer is presented to us as a fragmented person (Nina, Erica, Beth). The best example of this can be found in:

  • ​​Nina – Throughout, often by the use of shots, particularly as she dances. Nina is also is often viewed through another object, such as the window on the subway.
  • ​Beth – First caught in a glimpse through a door, and later becomes both Nina and Beth in the process of self-mutilation.
  • ​Erica (the mother) – her drawings are sharp and disjointed, representing an element of her psyche.
  • ​The obscured view of Nina during the dance sequence in the club could also be noted as the completion of this fragmented self because it is from this that she accepts her duality.

We also noted similar connections to this film and The Red Shoes (Powell and Pressburger, UK, 1948). The film shows a performer that lives her role to such an extent that it becomes her literal destruction.

 The uncanny and the double 

Black Swan mirrorThe use of the double was the reason for the initial interest in the film. In many melodramas we have seen the clear distinctions between good and bad (The Wicked Lady, Leslie Arliss, UK, 1945) and the nature of disguise/hiding true self (Gaslight, Thorold Dickinson, UK, 1940 and George Cukor, US, 1945). Black Swan is no exception, in fact, its use of double and its cause for female stress is explicit. Here are just some of the ways the film shows us that the duality of self is at its core:​

  • ​​Half man/ half bird statue
  • ​The use of black and white throughout the film, particularly in décor. Note: the shift between pink/pastel sheets to white and black on Nina’s bed. 
  • ​Costume, particularly Nina’s in contrast to Lily.
  • ​The plot mimics the ballet.
  • ​Use of mirrors and reflections, we view Nina/ Nina’s double/and see other characters.
  • ​Nina replaces a random woman, Beth, Lily, and she also appears in places we least expect, such as the bathtub.
  • Shadow manifestation at the end of the Black Swan’s sequence. Note: there are two shadows.
  • The performance styles, particularly the sexual prowess and make-up of the Black Swan in contrast with the pastel colours and timid, girl-like performance of Nina.

These are just a few examples, but the message is clear: duality is inherent, and it’s everywhere. Interestingly, the duality causes fear and paranoia at first and then destruction by its acceptance.

Sexuality and gender roles

Black Swan Nina and ThomasPurity is seen as a form of weakness. Thomas tells Nina at various intervals to stop being weak and that she seems too reserved, thus, has an inability to lose herself in a good performance. Perhaps most fascinating is Thomas’ mention of Beth. He tells Nina that it is the dark impulses of Beth that makes her perfect, albeit destructive. It seems that the film suggests that a woman finds perfection in accepting her inherent dichotomy. Often the stereotyped woman is the virgin or the whore, and this film challenges those preconceptions as well as challenging the idea of a defined sexuality. Nina experiments with men and has fantasises about women, thus showing the possibility of both a fluid Black Swan Nina and Lilysexuality as well as a rejection of gender roles. However, the “perfection” that Nina feels she achieves by the end of her performance suggests that it is still not possible for a woman to reach the “ideal fluidity,” instead these women will be destroyed by the pressures put upon them.

Another comment in regards to women and sexuality was the intriguing fact that women fear each other.  This fear seems to derive from the opposing woman’s bodily power. The fear results in jealousy and paranoia, reminding the group  of hysteria as a woman’s problem. Note that Thomas finds the notion of another woman trying to steal Nina’s part as ridiculous and he is almost unaware of the pain and stress caused by the decline of Beth’s career.

 Please comment further to continue the discussion on this interesting film.

 You can log in to do so, or email me on  sp458@kent.ac.uk

Many thanks to Ann-Marie for choosing such a  thought-provoking film, providing an interesting introduction and the above excellent summary of our discussion.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 5th of March, Keynes Seminar Room 6, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the fifth of this term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 5th of March in Keynes Seminar Room 6, from 4pm to 7pm.

We will be screening Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky, 108 mins).

Black Swan

Ann-Marie has very kindly provided the following introduction:

The film is said to be inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novel The Double. In the book a man goes mad when he encounters his double, and, like Black Swan, the double in Dostoyevsky’s novel is the polar opposite of the original self.

The film revolves around Tchaikovsky’s brilliant ballet, Swan Lake. Natalie Portman plays both the White and the Black Swan. Her performance, (for which she won a Best Actress Oscar) focuses on the slow spiral into madness caused by an over-protective mother, the intense pressure of her work, confusion of her sexual orientation, and perhaps, the acknowledgment of the short-lived career of her predecessor (Winona Ryder). In fact, it is not hard to see the All About Eve (1950) links throughout the film, particularly if we consider the fear and paranoia of the younger/prettier/talented performers. Show business has a shelf-life, something the women in this film are more than acutely aware of.

The film was chosen for multiple reasons, but none more so than the idea of the doppelganger. The doppelganger is the paranormal double of a living person. The doppelganger is seen to be sinister and bad luck, often regarded as an omen of death. Perhaps most fascinating about the use of the double in this film is the idea of identity, both hidden and the eventual loss of it, and it is this that could be further expanded in our meeting.

 Potential discussion points:

The use of music, particularly in reference to Portman’s character, Nina.

Hidden identity and its connection to melodrama.

The extension of a fictional self and/or the dissolution of self.

The double in terms of polar opposites and its importance to narratives as a whole, but particularly melodrama.

Lastly, dance and movement as an expression of character. This brings to mind the sweeping cape of the Victorian melodramas. Plainly, what type of movement do we identify with a type of character? How does this alter our perception and add to the melodramatic mode? Are the villains prone to excessive movement, and how do we interpret that in our culture?

Do join us if you can.

A link to Dostoyevsky’s novella: http://fiction.eserver.org/novels/the_double.html