Summary of Discussion on Miss Christina

Our discussion of Alexandru Maftei’s Miss Christina (2013) ranged across various matters such as how the film related to both the gothic and horror genres. This included our recognition of some staples of the gothic (the old dark house, a portrait, keys and locks) but also interesting innovations in terms of the gothic heroine. We commented on the fact these genres sat uneasily with one another and ways in which the film was marketed. Other areas of interest were the adaptability of the author whose novella the film was based on, and gothic films certain aspects reminded us of.

The opening of the film establishes the large, deserted, gothic house, in the depth of a harsh winter and creates mystery around the dishevelled man looking at and chalking portraits of a faceless woman. Portraits become more important to the film later, as we see this man when he first becomes enraptured by the beautiful woman (the eponymous Miss Christina) he is attempting to capture in her original portrait. Indeed, she seems to step forward from this as she enters the man’s dreams. We particularly noted the significance of the portrait, and the haunting presence of a woman, to Rebecca (1940).

After the long opening scene, the action shifts to a young couple, sat next to one another, as they journey on a train. Despite the very different colour schemes of these scenes (from bright whites to red and yellow tones) it soon becomes clear that the well-dressed and happy young man, Egor (Tudor Aaron Istodor), is a slightly younger version of the man in the dilapidated house. It is mentioned that Egor is a painter. More significantly, further elements of the gothic are introduced, as the young woman, Sanda (Ioana Anastasia Anton), tells Egor that in her family home ‘guests can lose their way’.

Soon after their arrival at the isolated house, with its few inhabitants, odd happenings occur at dinner. Sanda’s mother, Mrs Moscu (Maia Morgenstern), and Sanda’s young precocious and sinister sister Simina (Ioana Sandu) look at a figure unseen to some of the other characters and to the audience. Furthermore, Sanda’s mother eats bloody meat with an undisguised appetite. Mention is made of a relative, Miss Christina (Anastasia Dumitrescu), who is Sanda and Simina’s aunt – their mother’s sister. Other characters provide information on the fact Christina is long dead and comment on her unsavoury character. The presence of a professor of archaeology (Nazarie, played by Ovidiu Ghinita), coincidentally excavating a nearby necropolis, further adds to the sense of the macabre.

We discussed Sanda’s character, and her problematic gothic heroine status. Sanda is seen weakened by anaemia, unable to get out of bed, while her mother seemingly summons mosquitoes. She might therefore be identified as a gothic woman in peril, at the mercy of blood-sucking insects. Egor manfully undertakes to protect her, asking for her hand in marriage so that he has justification in separating her from her family. The fact he then locks himself and Sanda in her bedroom, still causes eyebrows to be raised. While Sanda is in some ways a victim, her seeming willingness to collude with what we presume to be Christina’s vampiric tendencies, complicates the matter. Worried that Sanda is losing her fight for life, Egor briefly leaves his post and, on his return, sees that Sanda’s family has gathered around to ‘help’ her. The family portrait of the three women suggests Sanda’s complicity in whatever process has revived her.

We thought it was especially interesting that the film inverts some gender expectations as in addition to playing the male defender, Egor takes on the active investigator role of a gothic heroine. He prowls around the house at night, lantern in hand, trying to find the answer to the odd goings on. Like Sanda, Egor is also threatened by, and compelled towards, Christina. We realise in retrospect that Egor has in fact been broken by her as she foretold

A significant departure from the gothic narrative is that it is not just one character, and the woman, who feels something is wrong. The archaeology professor, who is already resident when Sanda and Egor arrive, wants reassurance from Egor that he too can hear the light footsteps which pass by their bedrooms. They are later joined by another man – a medical doctor with a penchant for hunting – who also needs to be ensured the other men are experiencing these strange occurrences. It is important to note that we are therefore offered three men’s points of view, two of whom are scientists, rather than the more usual potentially hysterical female protagonist.

The four women share an interesting connection beyond their shared genes and gender. When Egor finally realises that Christina is a vampire and attempts to drive a stake through her grave and into her heart, Sanda and Simina also die. While their mother does not suffer the same fate, she chooses to run into the now-blazing house, ensuring her own death

We found the blazing house itself recalled earlier gothic films. In Rebecca the fire is set by a vengeful Mrs Danvers who hates the current Mrs deWinter (Joan Fontaine). Thornfield in Jane Eyre (1943) burns to the ground due to the lack of care of the nurse responsible for Jane’s (again played by Fontaine) fiancé’s mad first wife. The fire in Miss Christina is notably different. It is started deliberately by Egor (either as, or in protection of, the film’s gothic heroine) as he first attempts to rid himself of Christina.

Despite the film’s many gothic elements (the house, the portrait, keys and locks, the innovative gothic hero/heroine) it unconvincingly lurches towards horror in its final half hour. What was previously heavily implied – Miss Christina’s vampire status – is confirmed as Egor goes on a melodramatic rampage. The pacing of the film seems odd. From a slow build up in the more gothic two thirds of the film, the ‘revelation’ of Christina’s vampirism is rapid. In addition, it is not really a revelation at all for an audience immersed in film and folk lore. The rather heavy hints of bloody meat and anaemia, are joined by embodied items which suggest Egor is not dreaming when he sees Christina – she leaves behind one of her pink gloves as well as her scent of violets.

Maria gave us information about the film’s production, marketing and exhibition (see also the previous post) which shed light on the way it drew on the gothic and horror genres. Despite the film’s high production values (seen in the lavish costumes, settings, and CGI) and its obvious nod to the Hollywood blockbuster in its turn to horror towards the end, the film was released on the festival circuit. This satisfied neither the horror junkie, since the film has no jump cuts or gore, nor those, perhaps more discerning smaller audiences, hoping for a more psychological film with developed characters where we are unsure as to what is real and what is not. Maria also mentioned that Mircea Eliade’s novella apparently gave Christina a more nuanced character, acknowledging that many of the tales of her promiscuity and insistence on having peasants whipped were not true. The film represents these more straightforwardly, with Eliade’s social commentary on the crumbling of the Romanian nobility also missing. It was noted that another adaptation of the author’s work – Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth (2007) – was similarly problematic.

In addition to Rebecca and Jane Eyre, we also commented on other films we were reminded of. The scene in which Sanda is at her window waiting for Christina brought Nosferatu (1922) to mind. The claustrophobic and enclosing atmosphere of the film (we are mostly confined to the house and its grounds) caused us to discuss The Others (2001) since its characters are also bound to the main house and its environs. Crimson Peak (2015) was also compared to Miss Christina. Both films mixed gothic and horror elements with varying degrees of success, with the later film more strongly appealing to horror.

Many thanks to Maria for introducing us to such an interesting film which allowed for useful examination of both the gothic and horror genres, and the background information on  the film’s production, marketing and exhibition.

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

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.

CFP for ‘At Home with Horror?’ Conference at Kent 27th-28th October 2017

Exciting news!

 

Melodrama Research Group members Katerina Flint-Nicol and Ann-Marie Fleming have released a Call for Papers for a their upcoming conference on TV horror which will take place at Kent on the 27th and 28th of October 2017.

 

The CFP info from Kat and Ann-Marie:

 

The Melodrama Research Group presents:

At home with horror? Terror on the small screen

27th-28th October 2017

University of Kent

Keynote speaker: Dr Helen Wheatley (University of Warwick)

CALL FOR PAPERS

The recent horror output on TV and the small screen challenges what Matt Hills found to be the overriding assumption ‘that film is the [horror] genre’s ‘natural’ home’ (Hills 2005, 111). Programmes such as American Horror Story, Penny Dreadful and The Walking Dead are aligned to ‘‘quality TV’, yet use horror imagery and ideas to present a form and style of television that is ‘not ordinary’’ (Johnston 2016, 11). Developments in industrial practices and production technology have resulted in a more spectacular horror in the medium, which Hills argues is the ‘making cinematic’ of television drama (Hills 2010, 23). The generic hybridity of television programmes such as Whitechapel, and Ripper Street allow conventions of the horror genre to be employed within the narrative and its aesthetics create new possibilities for the animation of horror on the small screen. Series such as Bates Motel and Scream adapt cinematic horror to a serial format, positioning the small screen (including terrestrial, satellite and online formats) as the new home for horror.

The history of television and horror has often displayed a problematic relationship. As a medium that operates within a domestic setting, television has previously been viewed as incompatible with ‘authentic’ horror. Television has been approached as incapable of mobilizing the intense audience reactions associated with the genre and seen as a medium ‘restricted’ in its ability to scare and horrify audiences partly due to censorship constraints (Waller 1987) and scheduling arrangements. Such industrial practices have been seen as tempering the genre’s aesthetic agency resulting in inferior cinematic imitations or, ‘degraded made-for-TV sequels’ (Waller 1987, 146). For Waller, the technology of television compounded the medium’s ability to animate horror and directed its initial move towards a more ‘restrained’ form of the genre such as adapting literary ghost stories and screening RKO productions of the 1940s (Ibid 1987). Inferior quality of colour and resolution provided the opportunity to suggest rather than show. Horror, then, has presented a challenge for television: how can the genre be positioned in such a family orientated and domesticated medium? As Hills explains, ‘In such a context, horror is conceptualised as a genre that calls for non- prime-time scheduling… and [thus] automatically excluded from attracting a mass audience despite the popularity of the genre in other media’ (Hills 2005, 118).

Helen Wheatley’s monograph, Gothic Television (2006), challenges the approach of television as a limiting medium for horror, and instead focuses on how the domestic setting of the television set is key to its effectiveness.  Focusing on the female Gothic as a domestic genre, Wheatley draws a lineage from early literary works, to the 1940s cycle of Gothic women films and Gothic television of the 1950s onwards. Wheatley argues for the significance of the domestic setting in experiencing stories of domestic anxiety for, ‘the aims of the Gothic drama made for television [are] to suggest a congruence between the domestic spaces on the screen and the domestic reception context’ (Wheatley 2006, 191).

Developments in small screen horror are not restricted to contemporary output. In his work on the cultural history of horror, Mark Jancovich argues that it was on television in the 1990s where key developments in the genre were taking place (Jancovich 2002). Taking Jancovich’s work as a cue, Hills develops his own approach to the significance of horror television of the 1990s. Hills cites Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X Files as examples of programmes striving to mobilise the genre’s more graphic elements while existing as a ‘high-end’ cultural product: ‘authored’ TV that targeted a niche fan audience (Hills 2005, 126).

Taking these recent developments into account, the aim of this conference is to engage with such advances. Can we say that it is on the small screen where critical and creative innovations in horror are now being made? How has the expansion of satellite television and online sites impacted on the genre? How has the small screen format developed the possibilities of horror? Is the recent alignment with ‘quality TV’ evidence of horror’s new mainstream status? This conference will also reflect on seminal works on television horror and revisit the history of the genre. In addressing these questions the conference will underline the importance of the small screen for horror, within the study of the genre and of the medium, and ask: is the small screen now the home of horror?

Topics can include but are not limited to:

  • The seasons and horror on the small screen
  • Gender and horror
  • Historical figures and events in small screen horror
  • Small screen horror as an ‘event’
  • Adaptation from cinema to small screen ‘re-imaginings’
  • Production contexts
  • Censorship and the small screen
  • Serialisation and horror production
  • National television production of horror
  • The impact of Netflix and Amazon Prime
  • TV history and horror
  • Literary adaptations
  • Children’s TV and horror
  • Genre hybridity
  • Fandom
  • Teen horror
  • Stardom and horror

 

Please submit proposals of 400 words, along with a short biographical note (250 words) to horrorishome@gmail.com by Friday 30th June. We welcome 20 minute conference papers as well as submissions for creative work or practice-as-research including, but not limited to, short films and video essays.

 

Conference organisers: Katerina Flint-Nicol and Ann-Marie Fleming

https://tvhomeofhorror.wordpress.com/

https://twitter.com/Homewithhorror

 

 

 

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 20th of May, Jarman Studio 6, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the second of the Summer Term’s Maternal Melodrama themed Screening and Discussion sessions, which will take place on the 20th of May, in Jarman Studio 6, from 4-7pm.

We are screening Tamar’s choice: Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945, 111 mins)

MP mother and daughter

Tamar has very kindly provided the following introduction:

Mildred Pierce – film noir or melodrama?

Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) is the next film to be screened in the Melodrama Research Group’s series of maternal melodramas, leading up to our symposium on this topic on 3 June. But if it is a maternal melodrama, why is so much written about it under the film noir label?

The film, adapted loosely from the James M. Cain novel of the same name, tells the story of Mildred Pierce and her journey to business success and personal failure. Much of the film’s moody opening seems as if it is trying to force Mildred into the role of noir’s usual femme fatale, but as the narrative succumbs to its flashbacks, her motherhood, as well as other factors, complicates this.

MP double page ad Variety 1

The movie poster’s tagline is in accord with this noir presentation: “The kind of woman most men want – and shouldn’t have! That’s…..Mildred Pierce”, though an earlier piece of publicity had more simply “Kinda Hard Kinda Soft”. Neither seems to do justice to the narrative exigencies to which Mildred is subjected. Perhaps the significant factor for our Melodrama Research Group to ponder is that the film does not easily fit any generic label, but rather exceeds several; furthermore, as theorists have shown, film noir was not an industrial category at the time and, as Steve Neale suggests, neither perhaps was melodrama. There will be much to consider and much to enjoy, then, as we watch Joan Crawford head a talented cast as Mildred and listen to Max Steiner’s supple and evocative score.

Further Reading

Pam Cook, “Duplicity in Mildred Pierce”, Women In Film Noir, London: BFI 1978.

Claudia Gorbman, “The Drama’s Melos: Max Steiner and Mildred Pierce”, The Velvet Light Trap, No. 19, 1982.

Steve Neale, “Melo Talk: On the Meaning and Use of the Term ‘Melodrama’ in the American Trade Press”, The Velvet Light Trap, No. 32, 1993.

 Do join us, if you can, for this Hollywood Classic.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 29th of January, Keynes Seminar Room 6, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the second of this term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 29th of January in Keynes Seminar Room 6, from 4pm to 7pm.

We will be screening The Wicked Lady (1945, Leslie Arliss, 104 mins).

wicked Lady poster

 

Kat has very kindly provided the following introduction:

The Wicked Lady is a 1945 film starring Margaret Lockwood and James Mason. Known as one of the Gainsborough melodramas, it is reputed to have one of the largest audiences of its period, 18.4 million. The story itself was based on the novel, The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton by Magdalen King-Hall, which in turn, was based upon the (disputed) events surrounding the life of Lady Katherine Ferrers.

Synopsis

Margaret Lockwood stars as 17th century beauty, Barbara Worth, who steals and marries her best friend’s intended bridegroom, local magistrate Sir Ralph Skelton. At their wedding reception, Barbara meets Kit Locksby. For both, it is love at first sight, but too late as Barbara is now married. As Lady Skelton, she soon bores of rural life and seizes the opportunity to become a highwayman in order to win back her jewels from her sister-in-law, Lady Henrietta Kingsclere. Addicted to the excitement, Lady Skelton continues in her escapades and meets and joins forces (personally and professionally) with fellow highwayman, Capt Jackson. Through murder, robbery and betrayal, Lady Skelton’s double life catches her with her and she is mortally wounded by Kit Locksby. Dying, she confesses all to Kit and asks him to stay with her as she dies. However, appalled and repulsed by the truth, he withdraws, leaving her to die alone.

Lockwood Roc Wicked LadyIt is reported that due to issues with the American censors, extensive re-shooting was required before the film was released in the United States. The problems concerned the women’s dress bodices, which were considered low-cut and allowed too much cleavage to be displayed, and therefore unable to meet the requirements of the Hays Code.

 

The Gainsborough Melodramas

Despite producing a variety of genre films throughout its twenty-five year existence, the Gainsborough studio became synonymous with melodramas, in much the same way as Ealing studios did with comedies. The Gainsborough melodramas were a sequence of films produced by the British film studio Gainsborough Pictures during the 1940s. This cycle of films often touched upon similar themes and frequently starred recurring actors who played similar characters in each film, such as Stewart Granger, Phyllis Calvert, Margaret Lockwood and James Mason.

The first film of the cycle, The Man in Grey, appeared in 1943. Starring both James Mason and Margaret Lockwood, it was based upon the novel of the same name. Its success led to a number of similar films being produced, often based upon on melodramatic period novels, such as, The Wicked Lady (1945), Fanny by Gaslight (1944) and A Place of One’s Own (1945). The films dominated the British box office, grossing top Hollywood productions in the UK. It has been argued that much of their appeal was in their overt escapism at a time when the Second World War was still being fought. However, the popularity of the cycle peaked in the immediate post-war years and the production of the melodramas continued until 1950. At the height of the melodramas’ popularity, both James Mason and Margaret Lockwood were respectively voted the most popular British male and female actors.

Mason Lockwood Wicked Lady

 

Focusing on the handful of period costumes romances produced by Gainsborough at this time, Pam Cook argues that although these films were rediscovered in the 1980s by film historians, the films remain largely ‘marginalised, ignored or subsumed into the consensus in discussion of national identity in British cinema’ (Cook, 1996). Even at the time of its release, Cook notes derision in some quarters. Simon Harcourt-Smith writing in Tribune said of the film, ‘…if the future of the British film industry hangs…on the success of The Wicked Lady, then let us dispense with that future.’ (Aspinall and Murphy, 1983, p74). Cook suggests that this critical neglect is due to how the costume and visual style, the representation of history and their mobilization of national identity contravened official strictures and versions of femininity.  Furthermore, Cook argues that costume romances are at the less reputable end of the historical film genre. Where ‘heritage’ historical films would celebrate the past, costume romances such as the those produced by Gainsborough, mobilize a British past of promiscuity, injustice and inequality, ‘a locus of crisis and conflict as well as sensual pleasure’ (Cook, 1996).

Cook also extends the films’ questionable representation of the past extends to costume and mise-en-scene. Sue Harper points out that visual codes in the costume romances have their own language, which often works against the ‘moralistic trajectory of the script’, creating a tension between spectacle and narrative (Harper, 1983: 1994). For Harper, spectacle plays a positive role in costume drama as the carrier of coded meanings which express the powerful status of femininity, overriding the narrative drive to disempower transgressive female protagonists.

As Pam Cook states, ‘Audiences leaving a screening of The Wicked Lady were more likely to remember the stunning image of a fetishized Margaret Lockwood dressed in highwayman gear astride a stallion than to take on board the moral implications of her punishment by death’ (Cook, 1996).

Cook, P. (1996) Fashioning the Nation. London: BFI Publishing.

Harper, S. (1983) ‘Art Direction and Costume Design’, in S. Aspinall and R. Murphy (eds) BFI Dossier 18: Gainsborough Melodrama. London: BFI Publishing, p 40-52

Harper, S. (1994) Picturing the Past: The Rise and Fall of the British Costume Film. London: BFI Publishing.

Do join us, if you can, for some classic British melodrama.

Summary of Discussion on Christmas Holiday

Posted by Sarah

The post-screening discussion focused on several areas:  suspense and the theme of concealment and revelation; matters of genre and cycles – especially film noir and melodrama; the main female character Jackie/Abigail; the star images of Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly; costume; Somerset Maugham; a few specific scenes; other related films.

Christmas Holiday

We began by examining the film’s flashback structure. While the fractured approach to storytelling was not unusual for the time, especially in film noir, we found the way the film presented the narrative very odd. After the initial framing narrative of Charles Mason (Dean Harens), a Lieutenant on leave who ends up holidaying in New Orleans at Christmas, the main story begins. Jackie (formerly Abigail, played by Deanna Durbin) shares her life story with her new friend Lieutenant Mason.  She very quickly reveals the reason for her sadness, and her name change: her husband Robert Manette (played by Gene Kelly) is in prison, serving life for murder.

The fact that Jackie is explicit regarding her husband’s guilt and his crime (though not the motivation for it) so early in the film means that little suspense is created until the shoot-out at the film’s conclusion. Following the first flashback, which shows the consequences of Robert’s crime on family life, further flashbacks are provided. These detail Abigail and Robert’s first meeting, some of their subsequent dates, and Abigail’sChristmas Holiday guilt introduction to Robert’s omnipresent mother (played by Gale Sondergaard). Suspense would have been generated by just a slight reticence on Jackie’s part regarding the reason for her distressed state and a reordering of the flashbacks so that they occurred largely chronologically: the first date, subsequent dates, the revelation of Robert’s guilt etc.

While flashbacks and voice-over narration are key to film noir (whether we consider it to be a genre or a cycle) we noted that this lack of suspense did not relate to our experience of the genre/cycle. It also did not seem especially connected to melodrama’s often used theme of concealment and revelation. Of course, genre is often hybridised and any attempt to categorise a film as belonging to one genre or another based on whether certain elements are present is fairly restrictive. However we found it useful to relate other aspects of the film – mostly character – to genre.

It is fairly unusual for film noir to contain a female voice-over, to tell, and to show, the woman’s story. Jackie/Abigail is also treated sympathetically, partly because the rottenness of Robert is so evident. She is not a femme fatale. Robert’s mother is far more sinister. She is a malevolent presence throughout (even, or perhaps especially, whilst knitting in the background) despite welcoming Abigail as Robert’s last hope of salvation. However after the court case she provides one of the film’s most dramatic moments. She berates Abigail for her weakness, shouting ‘You killed him’ and Christmas Holiday knittingslapping her in the face. This is not just dramatic but inaccurate – Robert is soon to be sentenced to life imprisonment, but not to death. It also seems unfair on Abigail when it is clear that Robert’s life has been heavily influenced by his unhealthily close relationship to his mother. This point is also stated in the voice-over when Jackie reveals that it was described by a psychiatrist as ‘pathological’.

The focus on Jackie/Abigail is highlighted by the trailer’s promotion of   Durbin playing ‘The Screen’s Greatest Woman’s Role’. This confuses some of the usual (admittedly binary) gender distinctions of noir as being  ‘male’ oriented   and melodrama as ‘female’ focused – both in terms of character and audience. The melodrama research group has, of course, seen the sheer variety of melodrama over the last year which shows that the narrow view of melodrama as ‘woman’s weepies’ is highly reductive and unproductive.

Another aspect of the film seemed unusual – Deannafor both noir and melodrama. The film’s ending is rather hopeful. The recently widowed Jackie/Abigail looks to a sky in which the clouds are parting and there is a suggestion that she might find love with the supportive Lieutenant.  We related this optimism to Durbin’s star image. Given her hitherto fairly uncomplicated star image of a happy young girl who likes to sing it is noteworthy that this film allowed her to play two roles: the generally happy young wife and the woman ground down by life’s disappointments. Due to the flashback structure these were juxtaposed throughout the film, allowing for the foregrounding of Durbin’s performance. This means that after our first introduction to Jackie we are continually reminded of her ‘earlier’ self and of Durbin’s ‘earlier’ screen self – a happy young girl in love.

Gene Kelly dancerGene Kelly’s star image was also discussed. While today we primarily associate him with song-and-dance roles, contemporary audiences saw him in a variety of roles before Christmas Holiday. These included musicals (Du Barry Was a Lady 1943) and dramas (For Me and My Girl 1942, Pilot #5 1943, The Cross of Lorraine 1943).  (This information on the films’ genres is courtesy of the American Film Institute Catalog and notes some films as ‘with songs’ rather than as musicals: http://www.afi.com/members/catalog/)

We talked quite a lot about the Christmas Holiday Durbin's first appearancefilm’s costumes, especially Durbin’s wardrobe. She begins the film wearing a very glamorous and grown-up evening dress. This is striking as it is our first view of Jackie – and indeed of the ‘new’ Durbin. This is delayed, first by the framing narrative and then by the fact that Jackie/Durbin is first glimpsed with her back to the camera, making her way to the stage to perform a song.  Her next outfit was especially memorable. As Jackie and the Lieutenant sit talking in a café she is dressed in a light coloured trench coat and coordinating hat. Perhaps because of the film’s noirish elements, this reminded us of the detective figure in many 1940s films, and specifically of Humphrey Bogart. It is an especially interesting costume choice as this relation to the male star who played the protagonist of several noirs also Christmas Holiday trenchcoat and hatseems to place Jackie centrally. The wisecracking comments made by both Robert and Jackie were commented on. They reminded us of another film pair at times – Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Though it was notable that they did not interact in this way with each other since only Jackie, and not Abigail, has been made cynical by her experience.

The extent of Jackie’s suffering – being forced to turn to prostitution – is unsurprisingly not made explicit in the film. Hollywood’s Production Code meant that reference to this would not have been allowed by the censors. Somerset Maugham’s novel provided more information and it would be interesting to know just how widely the novel circulated in the United States. The trailer certainly foregrounds Maugham’s involvement.  We found it fruitful to briefly compare the adaptation of Christmas Holiday with Of Human Bondage (1934) which we watched at the beginning Of Human Bondageof term. The earlier, pre-code film, was able to mention Mildred’s descent into prostitution.  There is a key similarity, however.  Both adaptations extract just a small part of the novel, notably the part which deals more with the couple – which often occupies a main position in Hollywood films during the Studio Era.

In terms of specific scenes we noted the connection between the lengthy scene detailing Jackie and Lieutenant Mason’s Christmas Holiday churchattendance at midnight mass and the Abigail’s earlier (though shown later in the film) first meeting with Robert in a cavernous concert hall. In the church Jackie is sobbing… we took this as a reference to her feelings of guilt. However she assures the Lieutenant that she is not crying for the reason that he (and perhaps we) think. The Concert hall scene later shows what Jackie had been crying about – her memory of Robert.

We also briefly discussed the director Robert Siodmak’s other films. Similarities in the plots of Christmas Holiday and Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) were mentioned.

If you missed the screening, or would like to rewatch it, you can find it on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UFSZay18go

After the discussion we watched a more festive Christmas film: Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983). Bunny Mattinson’s short film managed to squeeze Charles Dickens’ novel into 20 minutes, but also managed to explore the relation between melodrama and comedy.

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

Thanks to everyone – especially Tamar, Ann-Marie and Geoff – for this week’s entertainment and provisions. Many thanks also to the entire Group for such a productive and fun term. Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!

Summary of Discussion on Twin Peaks and the X Files

Posted by Sarah

After running the session on Twin Peaks and The X Files, Frances has very kindly provided the following summary of our discussion.

 Twin 1

In this week’s session the discussion focused mainly on the relationship between Twin Peaks and The X-Files as popular television shows and the use of horror and melodrama as predominant features throughout both. Continuing the discussion points raised by the previous session’s screening of American Horror Story, it was commented upon again this week how the serial format of television allows greater opportunity to develop this connection between horror and melodrama, particularly in respect to the viewers’ relationship with the characters of the shows. Twin Peaks is a good example of this as it is a series which features a big ensemble cast and many sub-plots interweaving with the main narrative: the mystery surrounding Laura Palmer’s death.

The clip from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me demonstrates this well as the sequence moves from the portrayal of Laura as a popular albeit troubled high school girl to much darker events which show Laura as the victim of evil forces (human and possibly supernatural) in her own home. The shots focusing on the house’s staircase, Laura’s bedroom door and the strange events which take place during Laura’s dream (her doubling in the picture) are particularly striking and correlate to common Gothic tropes. Twin Peaks’s combination of melodrama, thriller and horror makes it a good example of Gothic Television as outlined in Ledwon’s article, which we found useful. Ledwon’s article does raise the question: what would be a contemporary example of Gothic Television? In this session we did also talk about recent rumours that Twin Peaks may be brought back or re-booted and we agreed that this would probably would not work or be as successful: the series seems very much of ‘its time’.

Twin 2We also discussed performance and melodrama in Twin Peaks and how the acting is, at times, quite ‘hammy’. A good example of this is the sequence where Doctor Hayward comes home to discover Ben Horne in his family home, the latter having revealed that he is the biological father to Hayward’s daughter Donna. Donna is distraught at the news and Hayward is enraged at the upset Horne has brought upon his family and so hits him, causing Horne to fall onto the fireplace and receive a severe – and possibly fatal – injury to the head. The scene ends with Donna and her mother crying, Horne unconscious on the floor and Hayward falls to his knees and cries out, shaking his fists in the air.

The scene is representative of the kind of melodrama used in Twin Peaks which usually takes place in the private space of the family home and involves the revelation of devastating secrets. Another example of this is the scene where Nadine Hurley regains her memory (after believing for a long period that she was a high school teenager following her suicide attempt) and finds that her husband Ed is in a relationship again with an old lover, Norma. This scene, like the one in the Hayward home, is left unresolved. We discussed how this is can leave viewers frustrated by the lack of a definitive conclusion – a comment which can be extended to the show’s finale in general – but also in relation to the fact that often the good characters in Twin Peaks also suffer. Doctor Hayward, in particular, is a ‘nice guy’ but is not exempted from the consequences of the show’s many family melodramas.

 

x files 5We spoke at great length about The X-Files episode we watched called Home. The use of music stood out in this episode, particularly during the Peacock brothers’ attack on the sheriff and his wife. The juxtaposition of such upbeat music with the gruesome and disturbing imagery reminded us of Lynch’s work, particularly Blue Velvet. Home also compares quite well to Twin Peaks as both shows portray the American Dream through the representation of small-town America with a particular emphasis on the family. The crimes which are committed in secret in both these towns are exposed by the intruding FBI agents, although the local law enforcers support the government agency’s work. The sheriff in Home is given particular emphasis as he explicitly states how he loves the town as it is – with habitants leading apparently simple and honest lives – and he does not want the grizzly crime discovered at the episode’s opening or the presence of Mulder and Scully to change that. In this way the episode sets up a number of conventional binaries: small town versus the city; the crimeless rural versus the corrupt city; the traditional nuclear family versus the domination of isolating careers for agents in the FBI. With the character of the sheriff, the episode begins by following this conventional path, emphasising the richness of possibilities such an American Dream can have.

HTwin 3owever the presence of the Peacock family in the narrative very quickly subverts this and, as with the Laura Palmer investigation in Twin Peaks, The X-Files also exposes this dream to be just an illusion and that evil lurks within this small town too. Home presents this subversion in two main ways. First, in contrast to Twin Peaks, Home does not deny that loving families exist: the controversy of the episode is that this loving ‘family’ commits the ultimate taboo – incest. The Peacock family have been reproducing via this practice for several generations and this has led to numerous mental and physical degenerations, which is visibly marked on the brothers’ faces. Their appearance in the show opens the episode and – even before we learn the reasons for their physical deformities – the brothers are portrayed as monsters. The music, the use of heavy shadow and the storm which accompanies their introduction quickly establishes the Peacock brothers as the enemy to be investigated, particularly as the show opens with a disturbing birthing scene which concludes with the siblings burying the offspring in the garden.

We discussed how, in this way, Home addresses two fears: the taboo of inbreeding and the Hollywood’s obsession with the aesthetics of bodies, especially the idea of being ‘body perfect’. The Peacock family not only tackles both these issues head-on, but they subvert expectations by finding this family life ‘normal’. Indeed, the melodramatic moments of family drama in the episode occur because the Peacocks are attempting to protect their way of life from intruders. Contrary to the expectations evoked by the show’s provocative opening, the Peacocks are the ‘small town’ community which are being invaded by the judgement and investigation of others. This interpretation of events on behalf of the Peacock family is reinforced by the fact it is FBI agents – Mulder and Scully – who instigate this intrusion and who, literally, invade the family’s home. The sharp contrast between the x files 4obvious love and loyalty expressed by the Peacocks against their out-of-town counterparts is emphasised in this episode as Mulder and Scully are shown at times to be dysfunctional themselves, and it is stressed how Scully cannot empathise with Mrs Peacock as she has never been a mother.

The second way the show subverts expectations – and the components of the so-called American Dream – is with the way it portrays who is at fault in the episode. Certainly the Peacock family is represented as monstrous; a disturbing corruption of what a family should look like. But an important part of the horror in the show stems from the way the other townspeople have chosen to ignore the repulsive family and their lifestyle in order to maintain the town’s respectability. The sheriff encompasses this attitude: he is eager to find out who murdered the baby found at the beginning but wants to do so in order to return life to the way it was. His unwillingness to investigate the Peacocks – even when it is clear that they must be an important part of the investigation – makes him just as culpable in the crime. We discussed how the horror therefore comes from within: from attempting to keep life the same in the town and ignoring perversions in favour of an illusion of stability and normality. It was commented how this is a very Lynchian trope and peculiarly American.

Extending this last point further, Home also explores similar themes found in horror films which engage with an imagined geography of America, where the small and rural town is threatening in its own way. Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, Home taps into the fear that living in isolation is not only possible but can be the catalyst for the horrific events which takes place in such narratives. The believability that such family like the Peacocks could exist in America is a particularly potent element of this fear. As such the science-fiction label given to The X-Files does not seem entirely suitable. This episode, like many others in the series, does not create horror and melodrama from supernatural or paranormal activities. In this respect we found the Bellon article useful in critiquing the classification of The X-Files as a science fiction, although the use of ‘ontological detective story’ was not found to be entirely satisfactory as an alternative genre either. We agreed that melodrama, thriller and horror are important genres informing the show’s narrative, performance and visual style. This link is strengthened by comparing Home to previous screenings and we found similar themes of holding onto the past, wanting to keep life the same and living in isolation in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.

x files 6Finally Home also presents the viewer with complex representations of gender. When watching the first half of the episode, we think Home is presenting us with traditional ideas of gender: we, like Mulder and Scully, believe at first that the Peacock brothers have kidnapped a woman to reproduce with. Scully comments that the basic instinct to reproduce may be motivating the brothers and Mulder later calls the Peacock’s reaction to their scrutiny as demonstrating raw, animalistic behaviour. The woman-as-mother motif is raised continuously throughout the episode, beginning with the labour scene and the suspicion the brothers have kidnapped a woman, and then again when Scully talks about her own desires for a family. This notion of women is embodied by the
mystery woman in the Peacock house who is revealed to be the brothers’ mother. Mrs Peacock states that Scully (and by extension other women) cannot understand the love she has for her family despite their murderous act because she is not a mother. Mrs Peacock is a form of the monstrous feminine, as postulated by Barbara Creed: she is the source of all life and this is her sole purpose for living. Without any limbs and restrained on a board beneath the bed, Mrs Peacock is a ‘baby machine’, reducing her femininity to the core components necessary for reproduction.

This confinement to the woman-as-mother is emphasised by the episode’s opening, which introduces viewers immediately to the disturbing labour scene. The repeated shot of Mrs Peacock’s eyes – both in this opening and repeated again when Mulder and Scully visit the empty house and then finally when they find the mother under the bed – is very effective as it still gives a human and expressive face to an otherwise biological ‘machine’. Opening the show with Mrs Peacock giving birth also compares to the opening of American Horror Story and Vivian’s gynaecologist appointment. The emphasis of women’s bodies as a ‘house’ in American Horror Story is extended in The X-Files where ‘home’ takes on several meanings: it is the episode’s title; it refers to the creepy Peacock house; and it also references the family Mrs Peacock attempts to maintain, with her body as the means for creating new life. The episode’s ending, where Mrs Peacock escapes with one of her sons, suggests that the Peacocks shall continue in their quest for creating this home.

Mrs Peacock’s agency in this concluding sequence is where the representation of woman-as-mother is complicated. Mrs Peacock is not made into an archaic mother endlessly producing new offspring against her will: she willingly and enthusiastically accepts this role and she is revealed to be the matriarch of the family, the brothers following her commands. Once again the episode inverts expectations. Mrs Peacock does not see herself as monstrous, nor does she need or want to be saved. This revelation taps into and stresses the fears explored earlier and is an important part of the show’s horrifying impact.

As a concluding point, we also noted how the manner in which television shows are watched has changed considerably since the 1990s. Twin Peaks and The X-Files would have both been consumed on a weekly basis. Today, whilst this broadcasting practice still exists, many viewers also watch the shows in box-sets or streamed from online services, with the option to watch many or all the episodes at once. The difference this may make to the narratives of such shows – and particularly how melodrama is used to keep the viewer’s interest – is still an area to be explored.

Many thanks to Frances for choosing such interesting TV episodes and for the great summary!

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

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 9th October, Keynes Seminar Room 6, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the first of this term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 9th of October in Keynes Seminar Room 6, from 4pm to 7pm.

We will be screening Ann-Marie’s choice: Of Human Bondage (1934, John Cromwell, 83 minutes)

Of Human Bondage

Ann-Marie’s introduction to the film:
Based on W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Of Human Bondage is a story of a man and his infatuation with a cruel, illiterate waitress. Bette Davis stars as a cockney girl that manipulates and almost destroys Philip Carey (Leslie Howard). In this role Davis plays her first real ‘bitch’, and it is here that we can see the beginning of the performance style that reoccurs throughout her career. There are few characters as cruel and as damaged as Mildred Rogers, and Davis took a risk in fighting for this role. It is said that Warner warned her that playing such an unsympathetic character will ruin her popularity before she had the chance to earn it. Warner was wrong. Instead, Davis received critical success for her performance, including an Academy Award nomination.
This film was chosen to consider performance and its relation to the definition of melodrama. Questions to consider before the viewing the film:
  • What are the components of a melodramatic performance?
  • How much of an influence does performance have on establishing a genre?
  • Or, perhaps, do stars carry a performance type that will affect the categorizing of a film?
  • Davis admitted that her performance style was theatrical rather than realistic. Is it this style that we find in most melodramas?
  • How does performance differ between radio and film? How does this affect melodrama? (Please see a forthcoming post on Bette Davis links for more information.)

Do join us if you can for the first of 3 films which focus on performance.