Summary of Discussion on The Devil’s Vice

Our discussion on The Devil’s Vice included comments on: its Gothic elements; references to other Gothic films; Richard’s ‘Gaslighting’ of Susan; the audience’s genre expectations; the audience’s alignment with Susan; Richard and Susan’s relationship in terms of control and isolation and Susan’s realisation that Richard is her abuser; the role of technology; the film’s contemporary setting; the film’s purpose of the promotion of awareness of domestic abuse and the relation of this to the Gothic.

Like last session’s The Diary of Sophronia Winters, The Devil’s Vice contained a checklist of gothic elements. The opening shots of Susan, as a woman-in-peril, falling through the space from the top of the stairs onto the hard floor beneath emphasises the importance of the house. This is where much of the film’s events take place (the only other settings are a hospital, a  local library, a coffee shop and a police station), with its two staircases also playing prominent roles. Other aspects of the house are significant: there is a mirror on the stairs, several locked doors, focus on a keyhole, creepy portraits (specifically an old black and white formal photograph of a group of children and their schoolteacher, nicknamed ‘Smiler’ by Susan and Richard and seen as a demon), bats in the attic (and later in reference to this a comparison to Dracula’s house) and a disturbing doll in the no-longer needed nursery. In addition to Susan’s status as woman-in-peril she, like many other gothic heroines, is an active investigator who is seeking an answer to what is happening – and engages in the often-present action of walking down the stairs in her nightwear. In keeping with the contemporary setting, Susan is clad in pyjamas rather than a nightdress, and lacks a candlestick to light her way.

More specific references to gothic and horror films abound. The spiral staircase invokes memory of Robert Siodmak’s 1945 film. Susan’s research into the possible presence of a poltergeist summons up thoughts of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), and her misleading suggestion that they call in a catholic priest brought to mind William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). Other points of plot similarity to gothic films include the pain of child loss (in J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage, 2007) and concern for Susan expressed by her husband Richard to his wife’s friend (Douglas Sirk’s Sleep My Love, 1948). Aspects of The Devil’s Vice’s style also appeared to be referencing other films: the black and white footage of Richard’s attack on Susan was likened to scenes in Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2009).

Smaller moments also inspired comparisons. The appearance of the sunglass and strange oculist equipment-wearing medium, Madam Barbara, reminded us of Insidious (James Wan, 2010). Shots of Susan painfully and slowly crawling across the floor after being attacked in the kitchen were similar to Michelle Pfeiffer’s attempts to escape her husband in Robert Zemecki’s What Lies Beneath (2000)Richard’s sing-song taunting while addressing Susan by her name as she’s attempting to find proof of his attacks echoed that in The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980). The colour red also gains significance when Richard is about to repaint the no longer needed nursery in a blood red hue; when combined with The Devil’s Vice’s concern with children and the occult, this made us think of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

We also brought in our own knowledge of other gothic texts and films. Particular attention was paid to Susan’s moment of realisation that her husband is her attacker. This occurs in the office as she watches footage form the cameras she has placed in the kitchen. It was noted that this pivot is in some ways is akin to Bluebeard’s eight wife entering the secret room which contains the bodies of his previous wives.  Such a device was also used in Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door (1947) when Celia (Joan Bennett) uncovers her husband’s secret.

The film’s self-aware drawing on of other gothic texts is probably most obvious in its use of Gaslighting.  The term comes from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gaslight (notably filmed in the UK by Thorold Dickinson in 1940 and the US by George Cukor in 1944) in which a husband attempts to make his wife think  she is going mad and thus gain control of her fortune. In The Devil’s Vice, Richard engages in such behaviour by placing the creepy photograph in their home. Susan later doubts herself when she remembers that the schoolteacher’s eyes in the photographs have always been closed while Richard insists the opposite is the case.  (He has presumably used digital alteration to support his position, since the audience agrees with Susan.)  Not all Richard’s manipulations are as clear-cut. His suggestion that Susan research the history of the house seems less than helpful, while his subtle undermining of Susan to her friend Helen and the hospital doctor includes him planting the idea that Susan harms herself.  We even wondered if the anti-depressants in Susan’s system were only present because Richard was drugging her in order to undermine her at this point.

Much of this is only seen in retrospect, once it is revealed that Richard is an abuser. This is also true of the way in which Madam Barbara’s ambiguous warning to Susan that ‘he’ will kill her, and that she should leave the house, becomes reframed as a clear denouncement of Richard. Similarly, Susan’s friend Helen asking Susan if she has received the messages she gave to Richard, and indeed her straight forward question of whether Richard is hurting Susan, are afforded extra significance. The oddness of the latter was made more apparent when we considered it later – Helen would hardly have asked this unless she was already concerned.  Some of us suspected Richard early on; he seemed too perfect and his ever-ready smile caused us to make connections with ‘Smiler’ in the photograph. In addition, we are familiar with Gothic tropes, and in the gothic the husband is often the perpetrator. Yet like Susan, who is clearly also aware of some of the horror tropes present (she researches the Occult, knows about poltergeists and considers calling in a catholic priest for an exorcism) others in the group, despite their awareness of the related matter of the gothic, only realised later.  It was knowledge of horror films which led to this. It occurred just after Richard claimed he had been attacked by the demon – while the woman often sees the demon in horror films, this is far less true of the man.

The delayed realisation reveals the success of the film’s attempt to align us with Susan. We spend most of our time with Susan, with Richard’s life away from the house little commented on – we just see him in his pinstripe shirt and suit, setting off for an undemanding day at work. Our alignment is not just in terms of sympathy, but in point of view. This is not strictly literal, but significantly we, like Susan do not physically see her attacker until the camera footage is screened. This means the revelation is indeed a plot twist for some of the audience.

We further pondered Susan and Richard’s relationship, speculating on how long they had been together and when the abuse started. Susan seems highly conditioned to her situation, accepting Richard’s control and her isolation without question. Oddly many of us also accepted Susan’s isolation until considering it more after the screening. In addition to the earlier mention that Richard has isolated Susan from Helen, we found it troubling that she had no friends or family to turn to – even by telephone. The house, in which Susan spends the majority of her time, is also physically isolated – with Richard using the couple’s one car to go to work every day. Some of us even credited Richard with more control than he possessed by wondering if he planted the card for Madam Barbara in the library book on the Occult. What happened during her visit discounted this theory, since Madam Barbara does not reinforce Richard’s ideas on the presence of demons. While Richard has not arranged the Madam Barbara’s appearance, she nonetheless seems frightened of him too since she leaves after giving only an ambiguous warning to Susan, and does not return to check on Susan.

Instead, Susan takes the matter into her own hands. She escalates the situation with Richard by goading the ‘demon’ until he attacks her – in full view of the cameras in the kitchen. Susan is prompted to take this action after ‘Smiler’ has apparently attacked Richard. The couple sits in the car, with Susan at the wheel, ready to drive them both away from the danger in the house. She is stopped by Richard, who asserts that Susan will never be able to escape from the demon, who he claims is feeding off the guilt she feels at losing her unborn children. This argument is illogical since Susan’s miscarriage occurred when she was attacked (seemingly by the demon). Susan does not question Richard’s logic.  It is only after Susan sees the visual evidence from the cameras that the two parts of her brain which have previously been dissociated, join together, and she sees Richard as her abuser.

The consequences of this realisation are grim for Susan. Richard hits her over the head with the laptop on which she has been viewing the camera footage. We wondered if perhaps a similar realisation had prompted the attack at the start of the film. It is also possible that Richard deliberately timed it so that causing the loss of her babies would further punish Susan, make her more vulnerable, and place her more fully in his control. Sadly it is the case that an abuser never needs a reason to abuse. The morning after Susan’s discovery, Richard seems a little wary of her. Susan is especially forceful in her squashing of sausages in the frying pan, perhaps causing him, like us, to wonder if he was about to be attacked with this most domestic of weapons. He is right to be concerned. Although Richard foolishly takes at face value Susan’s suggestion they consult a catholic priest, she finally finds proof of his abuse (courtesy of the camera she placed in the fruit bowl which she has previously overlooked)  and leaves him.

Symbolically Susan leaves behind her rather ostentatious engagement/wedding ring. Susan and Richard are obviously comfortably off; they rent or own a large house, have a four wheel drive car, neither is overworked, and Susan can spend several hundred pounds on her investigations without blinking. The ring is another sign of this wealth. It is also indicative of something else though. A member of the group was reminded of the Adrienne Rich poem ‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’. This discusses the ‘massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band’ on Aunt Jennifer’s hand and references imperialism and the oppression of women by men. (You can find the full poem here: http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88v/rich-jennifer-tiger.html)  As with The Yellow Wallpaper and The Diary of Sophronia Winters, patriarchy is signalled to be damaging, and women are advised to avoid marriage.

Susan, with the help of technology, manages to extricate herself from her situation. Seeing film footage of Richard attacking her is what makes Susan see the truth, and also provides proof for the police. Susan was also able to access this technology via other technology – she orders the cameras over the internet she perhaps surprisingly has some access to. Technology is not wholly positive, however, since Richard uses it to physically attack Susan.

Such instances of technology clearly place the film in the modern day. The modern is also reflected in the decoration of the central aspect of the house. While it has Gothic elements (an almost church-like appearance, especially evident in its windows) the interior is stylish and modern. The fact it is largely functional also suggests emptiness. There seem to be few personal items, with the main photograph that of a group of children and their schoolteacher. While some Gothic films are set in contemporary times (notably Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), Secret Beyond the Door, and Bryan Forbes’ The Stepford Wives (1975)), more often they take place in the past (Gaslight, The Spiral Staircase, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Dragonwyck (1946) and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961).

Setting films in the past provides the audience with distance from the narrative, to allow them to deny the relevance of the gothic (and its disturbing overtones) to the present day. By contrast, The Devil’s Vice is set in contemporary times since social documentary and feature film maker Peter Watkins-Hughes’ main remit was to raise awareness of domestic abuse and to encourage people to seek help.  It was released at the time Clare’s Law –the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme was rolled out across the UK. The law allows people with concerns to make enquiries about a partner. You can find out more on the film’s website: http://www.thedevilsvice.org.uk/

We thought that the film was very effective in using its small cast of fewer than ten, limited running time and few locations. These all added to the sense of constraint. However, the tone was occasionally uneven (especially in Helen’s visit to the house seemingly being played for a little comedy), and we found Susan’s desire to return to home a bit unbelievable. Regardless of how much Susan is being controlled, she has suffered not just terrible physical trauma but the emotional effect of losing her unborn babies. This is dealt with quickly. While the focus on extreme physical violence is understandable in terms of seeing what is already in plain sight, it underplays the significance of the more subtle ways people abuse others. Since the film’s release, the matter of coercive control has also been more discussed, and indeed in March 2015  was included in the Serious Crime Act https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/482528/Controlling_or_coercive_behaviour_-_statutory_guidance.pdf)

But the film did raise our awareness in making the connection between Gothic heroines and domestic abuse – whether physical, emotional, or both. This crystallised for us the continuing relevance of the Gothic, especially in a world that continues to be unequal.

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

Summary of Discussion on Black Book

Posted by Sarah

The discussion on Black Book ranged widely and encompassed: the film’s relationship to melodrama; the trope of the suffering woman; the family in melodrama; rhythm in melodrama and the film’s unending revelations of betrayals; the film’s characters Akkermans and Muntze; moral ambiguity; costume; women’s fluid identity/ies); melodrama and real life.

Black book Rachel Ellis sufferingWe began by isolating some of the elements which coincided with our understanding of melodrama. The continuous suffering of the main female character Rachel/Ellis (played by Carice van Houten) was especially noted. The group has commented on the suffering female(s) present in previous, and varied, screenings, including:  D.W. Griffiths’ The Mothering Heart (1913), Gaslight (Thorold Dickinson 1940, George Cukor 1944), Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (1954), Twin Peaks (TV 1990-1991), and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001).

Black Book RachelEllis bombingThe film begins in 1950s Israel but soon a triggered memory causes it to flash back to Nazi-occupied Holland in 1944. At his time Jewish Rachel Stein is separated from her real family and finds shelter with a Christian family.  Her relatively quiet existence is soon shattered as her hiding place is bombed when she is out, presumably along with its inhabitants. Rachel’s real family has been hiding elsewhere but soon they are reunited. This might at first appear coincidental (another important melodramatic trope which is also present elsewhere in the film) but is in fact explained away by a mutual acquaintance (her father’s solicitor Smaal) being aware of Rachel’s plans and informing her family.  Almost immediately after the family reunion Rachel witnesses the slaughter of her mother, father and brother just when they, and other Jewish families, seemed on the road to freedom. After losing her surrogate family and home then, Rachel’s suffering is heightened, indeed overtaken, by the loss of her real family.

The family is often central to melodrama, and it is also the case here since it prompts Rachel’s later action, and she relives this particularly traumatic scene. On the first occasion this is implicit. In Rachel’s new, non-Jewish, identity of Ellis de Vries she has joined the Dutch resistance. These defend themselves against Nazi soldiers, gunning them down, and then stripping their bodies of useful uniforms. This reminds the viewer of the earlier scene since after the slaughter of the Jewish families the Nazi soldiers divest them of their jewellery.  The connection is reinforced as Rachel/Ellis can only stand by as a mute witness as both events occur.  Later on, a powerful reaction to again Black Book RachelEllisrelivingseeing the man who was responsible for Rachel/Ellis’ family’s slaughter is indicated not just physically (Rachel/Ellis runs to the cloakroom to vomit) but psychologically: the film provides a flashback of the earlier scene, from Rachel’s point of view.

Black Book RachelEllis and Muntze at stationRachel/Ellis’ suffering is not confined to these awful events, however. She suffers more as she witnesses some of her new friends being caught by the secret police. Rachel/Ellis also suffers conflict by falling in love with the high-ranking Nazi official, Ludwig Muntze (played by Sebastian Koch), she has been sent to spy on after meeting him, by chance, on a train and charming him. Tellingly the first scene of their lovemaking is accompanied not by a lush romantic score, but one more indicative of danger, danger Rachel/Ellis (and to an extent) Muntze, cannot for a moment disregard.  Rachel/Ellis later suffers as Muntze is arrested and sentenced to death, and she is imprisoned after a botched attempt to rescue him. Another Nazi official, Gunther Franken (played by Waldemar Kobus), inflicts further suffering as he leads stages a scene within the hearing  of a ‘secret’ microphone Ellis previously hid. This leads Rachel/Ellis’ friends to think she has betrayed them, and is a further level of suffering: others’ belief in her good character is taken from her.  Rachel/Ellis and Muntze later escape together, enjoy a few moments of rare  domestic bliss on a boat, but are captured after confronting Rachel/Ellis’ father’s solicitor Smaal with suspicions of corruption. Franken’s destruction of Ellis’ good name has practical consequences too.  After peace has been declared she is rounded up with other traitors and detained, beaten and humiliated.  Finally she hears that her lover Muntze has been killed. This is tellingly the moment at which she actually lets her emotions out, collapsing to the floor, sobbing uncontrollably and rhetorically asking ‘when does it end?’ Even the film’s conclusion, which returns to a time in the 1950s just after Rachel’s flashback has begun, follows the pattern of a momentary respite before suffering again intrudes. After a brief happy moment with her husband and children we can see that another war rages around them.

We thought that Rachel/Ellis’ continual suffering fitted Matt Buckley’s description of melodrama’s often relentless ‘rhythm’ when he gave a research talk the other week. Further relation to earlier theatrical melodrama, specifically Victorian, was suggested as the ‘Jerries’  were a force outside of the characters’ control, much like fate.  The film’s numerous false reveals of the person who betrayed the whereabouts of the Jewish families can also be seen to be connected to the notion of rhythm. First the ‘friendly’ secret policeman Van Gein is suspected. While he is indeed revealed to be working with the Nazis, he is not the traitor.  Next Rachel/Ellis’ father’s solicitor Smaal is accused. He and his wife are immediately killed however, with Muntze chasing after the offender, but only Black Book Rachel Ellis collapsesucceeding in being caught himself. Finally Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), a Doctor and key resistance figure, is unmasked as the man responsible. He foolishly does this himself after attempting to kill Rachel/Ellis with an injection of insulin, but not waiting for it to take full effect.

The scene ends when Black Book RachelEllis crowd surfingRachel/Ellis manages to grasp some chocolate which rather ironically Akkermans had earlier given her and is able to reverse the effects of the insulin. She then, somewhat implausibly, escapes by rushing past Akkermans who is addressing the crowd from his balcony, and throwing herself into the mob below. (On a side note we also found the ambiguity of Rachel/Ellis’ motives here intriguing: was she bent on survival or destruction?) Nearer the film’s beginning Rachel/Ellis had told Akkermans that a friend of hers used to eat chocolate when he had over-injected with insulin. This is an example of the film’s fairly-heavy handed use of foreshadowing. Another key example occurs in relation to Akkermans. Earlier in the film Akkermans, to the delight of his resistance colleagues, mocks Hitler by donning a makeshift toothbrush moustache and speaking in a mock-German accent. Now he is indeed corrupted by power, with a very high opinion of himself, and is addressing the crowd as a leader might.

Akkermans is certainly a complex character. Some of  this is linked to narrative necessity –  he must appear one thing while actually being another, and do so convincingly as the film works its way through unmasking its variety of different ‘villains’.  This leads to perceived emotional complexity – has he always been corrupt, or been made corrupt through necessity and/or power? We found the character of Muntze more interesting, however. Although a high-ranking Nazi official he is even less the wholly bad villain of melodrama. Muntze is redeemed by the film in several ways. The first of these, which ties him closely to Rachel/Ellis, is that he too has been affected by the loss of his family. His wife and children were bombed by the British. The film also shows Muntze attempting to institute a ceasefire with the resistance. Furthermore, he does not betray Rachel/Ellis to the authorities when she confesses her true identity and purpose.

It was also commented upon that the actor playing the ‘nice’ Nazi Muntze (Sebastian Koch) was attractive, while the actor playing the ‘nasty’ Nazi Franken (Waldemar Kobus) was less easy on the eye. This led to further discussion about the ambiguity of the film’s, and its characters’, morality. The way in which those thought to have betrayed their country by collaborating with the Nazis were treated – Rachel/Ellis’ and others’ humiliation – was lingered on by the film, rather than evaded. Some in the group wanted Rachel/Ellis and Gerben Kuipers (a resistance man who had lost his son because of Akkermans’ betrayal) to take the moral high ground after they had tracked him down. Instead, Rachel/Ellis used the point of her locket containing family pictures to screw down his coffin lid in order to suffocate him – a poetic revenge. Rachel/Ellis and Kuipers discuss the fact that they should let Akkermans live. Neither does, despiteBlack Book RachelEllis and Kuipers Rachel/Ellis’ earlier agreement with Smaal that everyone is entitled to a fair trial. One of them notes that Hans has gone quiet and we might presume he has died. It was thought that some uncertainty, however, allowed Rachel/Ellis and Kuipers some moral leeway.

Black Book RachelEllis red dressCostume also featured in our discussion. We questioned the historical accuracy of some of the outfits, especially the women’s.  However of more concern to us was the symbolism of the costumes. The floor-length leather coasts and jack boots which singled out the most high-ranking officers are especially iconic and were easy to identify. In most cases their presence immediately signalled a character’s loyalties and standing, though Muntze was an exception. Rachel/Ellis’s costumes were of particular interest. It was telling that a few in the group who had seen the film before had misremembered the colour of a dress Rachel/Ellis wears at one point. Rachel/Ellis leaves a party she is attending to crawl though the coal store and allow her comrades access to the Nazi’s underground prison. The dress she wears was remembered by some as being white, though it was in fact red. It was thought that this was because white is linked to notions of innocence and that is how we view Rachel/Ellis. The red dress of course has other connotations – to do with passion, desire and sex. This led to further discussion of women’s costumes. We especially noted that Rachel/Ellis and her fellow worker Ronnie use clothing as part of the wiles they rely on to survive from day to day. Rachel/Ellis’ decision to wear to work a see-through blouse which revealed her underwear highlighted this. We further noted the fluid identity of these two main female characters – they have to morph and adapt. Ronnie was very interesting in this regardBlack Book RachelEllis and Ronnie dance as she was revealed to be more scheming than we might have been anticipated: she affects Rachel/Ellis’ and Muntze’s joint escape from prison. We wanted to know more about her, especially as her presence in Israel and recognition of Rachel/Ellis sparked the film’s extended flash back. What was Ronnie’s story?

Whose story is the film based on?’ was another question we asked. The opening credits assert that it is ‘based on a true story’. The film’s many coincidences and revelations may make this seem unlikely. But it chimes again with Matt Buckley’s recent talk. In this he emphasised the increasing relevance of melodrama not just to art, but to lived modern experience.

Many thanks to Tamar for choosing this rich film, especially apt due to the School of Arts upcoming trip to Amsterdam.

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

Summary of Discussion on American Horror Story

Posted by Sarah

After running the screening session on American Horror Story, Kat has very kindly provided the following summary of our discussion:

AHS house

Throughout the session, a constant discussion point was the house, and the importance to the narrative. Many of us commented on the fact it was presented as a gothic house. Also how there was a strange sense of space. The geography of the house did not appear logical – this was mentioned in relation to when Ben’s phoney patient went to leave the house. The front door did not appear where you thought it should be. However, the audience are more aware of the space and the size of the cellar. This use of space to confuse added an unreal aspect to the house – much like The Shining. It was noted how space was beginning to become associated with individual characters and how there was a lack of action outside the space of the house – even in the garden! Some of us who had seen it revealed that the narrative does move to the garden later in the series. Also noted was the lack of possessions in the house – we could see no photos or personal ornaments. Is this important? Maybe the lack of possessions was representational of Ben and Vivienne’s relationship? Empty? The lack of lighting was discussed – how dark the house was lit, adding to the Gothic ambience. Ann-Marie shared that the house was also used in an episode of Buffy entitled “Fear, Itself”. It was observed how the opening of the first episode cut from murders at the house to Vivienne at her gynaecological appointment – making the link with house, procreation and birth. One of the group mentioned how important children and birth are to the narrative, more so as the series goes on and how Constance said how important a “good line” is.

The concept of and use of ghosts was discussed. It was remarked that there is a split (evident later in the series) between those who are malicious and those who are good. The point was made how the character of the ghosts were forged and cemented at the point when they were killed. Although this did not seem to be true for Moira who appears to have a split personality. There is a certain morality in Moira as well as a form of archaic womanhood as she says, it’s women who always cleans up the mess (which she does at the end of episode 2). There was also a discussion on ghosts and the spaces they inhabit. Do they get to go outside? Again, those of us who have watched the series mentioned the episode of Halloween (without giving away any plot spoilers!).

AHS cupcakesThe style of the series was a point for discussion. It was suggested that the storyline involving the cupcake was very Hitchcockian – how the camera focused on the cake and its movement. It was reminiscent of the glass of milk in Notorious but also of Suspicion. The amount of male nakedness was a talking point! There appears to be much more of this than female nakedness. This appeared to be connected with Ben’s sadness and how his sadness is intertwined with his sexual desires. Notably in the scene where he masturbates and cries. The format of the series allowed for more risks in content and for more creativity in the horror/melodrama. The series could not just rely on horror, so there is an emphasis on the drama and melodrama. We invest in the family and, like a crime drama, we want to know what happens next. One of the group observed how revelatory each episode was – and that revelations were not just confined to episodes, but also in terms of ad breaks. You could tell where the ad breaks would occur and how the revelations would be formatted to allow for these breaks, which appeared very Dickensian, or reminiscent of how Dickens serialised his novels for weekly publication. The importance of editing was observed. There is a massive use of jump cuts, which adds to the unsettling nature of the series.

The violence of the series was noted. The excess of Vivienne’s attack on Ben when she finds him with the other woman – she strikes and cuts him with a knife. Also the replaying of Addie’s words “You’ll regret it” over this sequence. It provides a sense of foreboding. It appears as if a comment on modern relationships and how they are somewhat horrific and the split in the family which creates the horror. The focus on the family and the home and the idea of perfection and its attainment. The series appears to be providing commentary on the “all American dream” centred on the home (coded as gothic) and the family. Addie wants to look like a perfect girl and Tait was intended to be the perfect child.

AHS ConstanceJessica Lange’s Constance was a large focus of the discussion. She was discussed in terms of her allure, her power, her sexuality and as a mother. She appeared – through costume and how she spoke – as if a throwback from the 1950s. Constance is a melodramatic constructed woman as she could be from a Sirk film or a Bette Davis or Crawford vehicle. She has no qualms in calling Addie a mongoloid or a freak and locks her in the room of mirrors, which must be a horrific experience for Addie. But she is also very protective of Addie. Constance appears to be vested with some other worldly power which is part of her allure. She too was looking for the “perfect American life” in wanting to be an actress, which is how she came to be in LA.

Many thanks to Kat for organising a screening which led to much discussion, and for summarising it so well!

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

 

John Mercer’s Magnificent Obsession talk

Posted by Sarah

We were fortunate on the 29th of September to host another fascinating talk by Dr John Mercer of Birmingham City University (http://www.bcu.ac.uk/pme/school-of-media/applying-to-us/our-staff/john-mercer)

Prior to a screening of Douglas Sirk’s melodrama Magnificent Obsession (1954), John spoke about the fact that the orthodox version of Hollywood history often depends on gossip and rumour.

8 Events Magnificent ObsessionJohn subsequently challenged some misconceptions relating to Magnificent Obsession. These range from matters of reception to production. It has been claimed that it was populist trash primarily targeted at female audiences. It has also been the view that the 1935 film  the 1954 version was a remake of was obscure. Meanwhile it is often assumed that Producer Ross Hunter was more interested in the project than Sirk.

mag ob novel

The 1929 source novel by Lloyd C Douglas (see book cover, left) was one of that biggest selling of the  year. In  addition, a previous 1935 film adaptation featured the established and incredibly popular star Irene Dunne and the up and coming Robert Taylor and reaped enormous box office rewards. These three facts reveal that the narrative was in fact highly significant since it was very familiar to audiences.

 

It was pointed out that Hollywood had not abandoned the Magnificent Obsession  magnificent-obsessionnarrative in the almost twenty years between the first and second film versions. It was adapted for Lux radio in 1936 (with Dunne and Taylor), in 1940 (staring Claudette Colbert) and 1942 (starring Dunne). In addition, the sequel to the source novel was adapted for TV as a popular soap opera in the early 1950s.

John also noted the different ways in which stars are treated in the Film Studies. There are those who have always been present both in popular memory and film scholarship; those largely forgotten by the masses but who are in some ways recovered by film scholarship; those who are simply ignored. While Hudson might be said to belong to the first category, Jane Wyman, sadly, belongs to the last.

John provided a useful summary of Wyman’s career. Although beginning as a fairly light jane wymansecond lead she progressed to challenging roles. Significantly Wyman received a Best Actress Oscar in 1948 and was nominated a further 3 times (including for Magnificent Obsession). Wyman was clearly well thought of at the time despite Film Studies’ subsequent lack of interest in her. In relation to melodrama Wyman specialised in ‘dignified suffering’ and was a ‘model of femininity’.Wyman’s status as a star, and her importance to Magnificent Obsession, was highlighted by John’s discussion of the film’s finances. Wyman received a large proportion ($150,000) of the film’s ($780, 000) budget.

Rock Hudson

Hudson’s career was also outlined by John. Interestingly, while today many assume that the contemporaneous opinion of Hudson’s acting was less than complimentary, John’s research in fact reveals that this is not the case.

 

Discussion of Sirk focused on the prevalent view of him in Film Studies as a cynical intellectual auteur and the ruthless efficiency with which he manages the audience’s emotional responses.  The sheer lavishness of the costumes and the cinematography was also mentioned.

Foster Hirsch’s description of the actors’ performances in Magnificent Obsession as ‘hushed’ was also referenced. This seems particularly at odds with the general view of ‘melodramatic’ acting and will be of special interest to the group for the first 3 screening and discussion sessions of term  which focus on performance.

Many thanks to John for another insightful and enjoyable talk which has inspired us to consider screening not only Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) which also starred Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson but the 1935 version of Magnificent Obsession….

Do, as always, log in to comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Melodrama Events at the University of Kent on Sun 29th of Sept

Posted by Sarah

A reminder that the following exciting melodrama events are taking place at the Gulbenkian Cinema at the University of Kent on the 29th of September.

The first focuses on Douglas Sirk’s film Magnificent Obsession (1954).

8 Events Magnificent Obsession11 am: There is a free 30 min talk on melodrama by Dr John Mercer, Film Studies, City Birmingham University http://www.bcu.ac.uk/pme/school-of-media/applying-to-us/our-staff/john-mercer

John is co-author, with Martin Shingler, of Melodrama : Genre, Style, Sensibility. London ; New York : Wallflower, 2004

11.30 am Magnificent Obsession screens.

The Gulbenkian website description of the film: “Based on Lloyd C. Douglas’ spiritual novel of the same title, churlish playboy Bob Merrick becomes indirectly responsible for the death of a much loved local doctor when he foolishly wrecks his speed boat. In trying to make amends, he falls in love with the doctor’s widow and must remake his life in order to win her love.”

For further details and to book your ticket go to:

http://www.kent.ac.uk/gulbenkian/cinema/films/2013/september/2013-09-magnificent-obsession.html

6.45pm: Dr Tamar Jeffers McDonald of the University of Kent man who knew(http://www.kent.ac.uk/arts/staff-profiles/profiles/film/t_jeffers-mcdonald.html) will introduce Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Man who Knew Too Much (1956). Tamar is the author of a forthcoming book on one of the stars of the film, Doris Day, and will speak about Doris’ darker films.

The Gulbenkian website’s description of the film:  “A family vacationing in Morocco accidentally stumble on to an assassination plot and the conspirators are determined to prevent them from interfering. Includes a 5-10 minute introduction”

For further details and to book your ticket go to: http://www.kent.ac.uk/gulbenkian/cinema/films/2013/september/2013-09-the-man-who-knew-too-much.html

Doris Day Confidential

To see more details of Tamar’s book Doris Day Confidential: Hollywood, Sex and Stardom go to: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Doris-Day-Confidential-Hollywood-Stardom/dp/1848855826/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1378711364&sr=8-1&keywords=doris+day+confidential

 

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 Happy Together

Posted by Sarah

Our discussion extended into several different areas: Happy Together’s melodramatic elements; the importance of home and family to melodrama and to Happy Together; the Argentine setting;  aspects of the film which negated the melodramatic elements; Wong Kar Wai; the articles by Kenneth Chan and Thomas Elsaesser; melodrama and excess vs restraint. As ever, do leave comments, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Happy Together roadWe began by moving from the very general question we’ve often asked ‘What is melodrama?’ to ‘Is this particular film a melodrama?’ Some aspects of the film certainly fitted in with our understanding of melodrama: the suffering endured by ill-fated lovers Lai (Tony Leung) and Ho (Leslie Cheung) often expressed by tears; the exaggerated melodramatic gestures used by the actors when the couple lose their way (perhaps metaphorically as well as literally) on the road, as well as some of their other, more physical fights; the coincidences which occur throughout the film as Ho always manages to find Lai, and Lai runs into Chang’s family in Taipei.

Notions of home and the family were central to Happy Together. It was commented on that this was related to the family or domestic melodrama which Thomas Elsaesser focused on in his ‘Tales of Sound and Fury’ article. Home was less connected to Lai’s bedsit in which a fair amount of the film took place, than the fact the three main characters all wanted to leave Argentina to return to Hong Kong or Taiwan. This was Happy Together tangodespite the fact that the culture of Argentina welcomed the main couple (the tango after all was first performed between male partners). It was thought important to consider that while the film must be contextualised within Chinese and Hong Kong melodrama (as Chan’s article does), the Argentine setting was also significant. However, it is true that the Hong Kong community had a strong presence in the film’s portrayal of Argentina. The focus on people rather than places was also seen in the assertion that family make home what it is. When Lai meets Chang’s family he says that he can see why Chang is happy to travel. At first this appears insulting, but he goes on to explain that this is because he has the security of his family to come back to. Conversely Lai’s father is disappointed in his son’s behaviour.

However, other elements of the film negate the melodramatic connections. Stylistically the film does not seem very emotional or melodramatic. The black and white cinematography which is used for much of the film denotes a documentary aesthetic. This associates the film more strongly with realism. The characters’ voice overs reinforce this as at times they help to explain the on screen action. The main voice over is Lai’s which in itself might link to melodrama and the fact this is his story. But the appearance of other voice overs skews this focus.

The melodrama is also downplayed by the cyclical nature of the narrative. The film restages similar situations (often focusing on strong emotions such as jealousy and passion) fairly regularly, but these also revolve around quite mundane situations. Little is ever resolved. Fights begin but do not always reach a dramatic climax, either because the other half of the couple does not wish to argue, storms out, or the film cuts away – sometimes to completely unrelated scenes. In addition, at times the film suggests connections through its editing, but these go nowhere. A lingering shot of Lai washing blood from the outside the abattoir he works at is juxtaposed with a scene of Ho scrubbing the bedsit floor and crying. It was thought at first by some that perhaps Ho written on the windhad killed Lai and this was the cause of his tears. Yet this was not followed up in the film. Happy Together’s cyclical pattern was compared to that of some of Douglas Sirk’s films, and the family/domestic melodrama more generally. In both Wai and Sirk’s films the characters are tragic figures who do not learn from their mistakes, though in Wai’s film the patterning is at a more narrative level. Indeed, this compulsion to ‘start over again’ is a key theme of Happy Together as Lai is always being persuaded to do just this by his on-off boyfriend.

Happy Together FallsThis inability to resolve extends to the film’s ‘false ending’. At a point quite near to the actual ending of the film, Lai revisits the Falls which have played a key symbolic role in the film. Yet this is not the conclusion to the film: Lai then visits Taipei on his way home to Hong Kong, and Chang visits the lighthouse to try to lose Lai’s sadness. This happy ending seems added on and somewhat negates the melodramatic elements. It was also commented upon that the fact no one commits suicide at the lighthouse (which was initially how some of us interpreted it as a place for  ‘leaving sadness behind’) makes it less melodramatic, as does the fact, unusually for a gay drama of the 1990s, none of the characters die.

It was also remarked upon that, as Kenneth Chan noted in his article, the film’s editing was particularly important. Indeed much of the film’s dramatic power originated in its editing as well as its subject matter. While the film’s pace was slow at times, at others it was very snappy – especially the speeded up scenes of public spaces which seemed unrelated to much of the ‘action’ and indeed to melodrama.

We also discussed Wong Kar Wai as an auteur. On a broad level, the notion of Hong Kong heritage and identity is clearly a main focus of his work. The symbolism of the Falls as an example of Wai’s wider concern with pathetic fallacy was more closely linked to melodrama, however. The ‘false ending’ intercuts scenes of Lai’s return to the Falls, his face saturated with spray, and those of Ho at the bedsit, crying. The symbolism was compared to similar instances in Wai’s works Chungking Express (1994) and In the Mood for Love (2000).

in the mood for love

Comments were made on Elsaesser’s 1972 article.  This relates to Wai due to the director’s status as an auteur and Elsaesser’s focus on auteurism. Elsaesser was clearly very influenced by Cahiers du Cinema and the examination of mise en scene for symbolism. In Happy Together this is mostly represented by the Falls.  But while Elsaesser discusses a director’s other works, he does not address how an audience might have access to this information. Indeed his approach was thought to include much ‘reading-in’ from a critic or academic’s response rather than an audience’s.

Finally, contextualising Wai among other Asian directors was undertaken. Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows (2004) downplays the inherent melodrama of a mother abandoning her children. We wondered if this restraint was therefore particularly true of Asian cinema. However it was also noted that directors from other National Cinemas such as Britain’s Ken Loach are also downbeat in their approach. We noticed that some of the films we’ve watched over the last 9 months have been melodramatic in plot as well as treatment (The Sheik, Gaslight) while others focus on suffering but are less obviously concerned with excess (Love on the Dole, Happy Together). This neatly comments on the infinite variety of melodrama, its treatment and its many meanings….

Many thanks to Keeley for choosing such an interesting film, which provoked a lot of useful discussion!