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 Dead of Night

Dead of Night proved to be suitably spooky pre-Christmas fare, and prompted much discussion on its unusual structure, its gothic and uncanny elements, as well as its lasting influence.

craig-and-foleyIt is first worth noting that the version of the film we watched was that which was originally released in the UK (102 mins, October 1945), and not the edited US edition (77 mins, released June 1946). Both included at least some of the wraparound narrative of the architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) visit to Eliot Foley’s (Ronald Culver) house, its consequences, and the restarting of the tale. There were significant cuts in the US however. According to contemporaneous sources, the US version excluded the second (The Christmas Party) and the fourth (The Golfing Story) sequences, keeping the first (The Hearse), the third (The Haunted Mirror) and the fifth (The Ventriloquist’s Dummy) (New Movies: the National Board of Review Magazine, August –September 1946, pp. 6-7).

We particularly commented on the Englishness of the two tales cut from the US release. In the Christmas Party sequence the large house was occupied by upper class characters, with cut-glass accents, enjoying games of sardines and blind man’s bluff. This was reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ narrative of Scrooge’s previously happy the-lady-vanishesChristmases in A Christmas Carol (1843). Meanwhile, the golfing buddies are played by Basil Radford (George) and Naunton Wayne (Larry). The comic duo were especially familiar to UK audiences, not just as Charters and Caldicott in The Lady Vanishes (1938, Alfred Hitchcock) but other films whose release was more limited to the UK – including Crook’s Tour (1941, John Baxter) and Millions Like Us (1943, Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder).

As well as the specific Englishness of these sequences perhaps making them unsuitable for US audiences, the decision may have also be related to the time of year of the releases: the Christmas Party sequence seems more appropriate to Autumn than Summer. We found the horror anthology nature of the film reminiscent of M.R. James whose tales of ghosts have become a Christmas staple. Notably it was not just the Christmas ghost tale removed from the US release, but also the only other tale with ghosts.

We turned to more detailed discussion of the sections, noting that each of these contained an uncanny element. In the first, The Hearse sequence,  it was commented on that the immobility of the doctor’s (Robert Wyndham) left arm, while well disguised, became a point of focus for some.

The Cavalcanti-directed Christmas Party sequence was especially gothic. The shadowy shots of the large space, especially the stairs, are effective. This combined with the appearance to Sally (Sally Ann Howes) of a suitably creepy ghost child summoned up gothic associations. This child names himself as Francis Kent. Other characters assertsally-and-francis that his older sister Constance was his killer. This refers to the real-life case of 1860 in which a sixteen year old had murdered her four year old brother.  It gained much publicity five years later, and again in 2008 with the publication of Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. The bringing in of such a notorious case serves to blur the boundary between fiction and reality, adding to the sense of unease.

haunted-mirrorThe woman-in-peril aspect of the gothic was especially seen in the third narrative – the Haunted Mirror. In this, the teller of the tale, Joan (Googie Withers) is in great danger from her new husband Peter (Ralph Michael). He has seemingly been possessed by the spirit of a bed-bound, violent and jealous husband of a century before. This is caused by Joan’s present of an antique mirror in which the husband sees a different background reflected. Joan is only saved when she literally breaks the mirror whilst being strangled by her husband with a scarf.

While the previous Christmas Party sequence seems firmly anchored in the past by its referencing of the Kent case and its Dickensian overtones, the Haunted Mirror had a more modern feel to it. While it too looked back at the past, we found it more striking in terms of the comment it makes on post-war masculinity.  Peter seems passive – especially in his lack of interest in getting married, and searching for a house, while Joan drives things forward. She sets off the entire narrative by purchasing the mirror. Joan’s active nature is also seen as she is pictured sitting on Peter’s double bed, in his presence, before they are married.  The last action of the sequence – Joan’s mirror-breaking during her husband’s only attempt to take charge –  comments further on this.strangling Another odd aspect we commented on was the other main character of the sequence- the antiques shop owner (Esme Percy). His strange manner, especially his lengthy clutching of Joan’s hands when she returns to the store, seems to make the possibility of a supernatural, rather than a psychological, cause even more likely.

triangleOur main thoughts about the golfing sequence involved its comic value – perhaps providing a breather for the audience. One of the key moments, when Larry walks into the water and drowns after having lost the round of golf, and therefore the girl, Mary (Peggy Bruce), who figures as the ‘prize’ – is not very funny though. Nor did we find it scary – life in the narrative simply goes on without him. The ambivalence is furthered when it is implied that after the disappearance of the newly married George and the presence, though invisible, of Larry, the latter will simply take the former’s place (maybe a further reason for the fact this section is not seen in the US release).

dummy-switchWe found the final sequence (the Ventriloquist’s Dummy) the most disturbing of the individual narratives. There are unsettling moments throughout, including the dummy Hugo seeming to move from one place to another without help. The switching of the ventriloquist Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) and Hugo’s voices at the end of the sequence was particularly striking – visually and aurally.

The ways in which the sequences can be compared, as well as the wraparound narrative, were also discussed. The relation of the tellers to their narratives is interesting. The first 3 play significant parts in the flashback sequences – though notably only the wife and not her passive husband is present at the house to tell of the tale of the Haunted Mirror. Given the proximity of the tellers to these spooky tales, they remain surprisingly unruffled by these earlier experiences – all only proffering their narratives once prompted by Craig.

Noticeably the Golfing story sequence is more tangential to its teller Foley, the owner of the house and gatherer of the guests. It is understandable that neither of the golfing buddies can tell the tale- one has managed to disappear while the other in invisible. In addition to the teller being somewhat disconnected from the story, since he is a bystander, the ambivalence towards death referred to earlier, blurs the boundary between life and death.

drThe final sequence also involves its teller – the psychiatrist Dr Van Straaten (Frederick Valk)– to a lesser degree. The reason for the lack of Maxwell Frere at the house is more sinister than previous one – he has gone insane. It is also significant that by telling the tale, the doctor is afforded, and indeed lends, an authority to it – and indeed to his assertions throughout that there is an explicable, psychological reason for Craig’s sense of déjà vu. It is presumably that it is just this which inspires Craig to strangle him.

All the narratives satisfyingly come together at the end. The characters are still presentending in Foley’s house, but there is splicing of various spaces we know cannot be geographically related – for example the separate spaces of the Christmas Party house and the prison. This adds to the sense of terror. We agreed that the most terrifying moment was when the dummy ‘walks’. The circularity of the narrative was also deemed especially effective as there was not just a wraparound story, but the restarting of the film’s beginning with Walter Craig again visiting Foley’s house, once more with a feeling of déjà vu.

We concluded with comments about the influence of the film. While the production of horror films had been banned in the UK during the war the genre exploded following the film’s release. More specific influence has also been attributed to the scene in which Frere switches his voice to that of his dummy. It is echoed at the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).  Jez Conolly and David O. Bates comment on this, as well as the reading of the tussle between the two ventriloquists over the male dummy as a love triangle (Dead of Night, Columbia University Press, 2015). More recently, the presence of the character the Ventriloquist in Batman films is perhaps a nod to this horror classic.

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

I hope you all have a peaceful Christmas and New Year.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, Monday 12th of December, 5-7pm, Jarman 7

All are very welcome to join us for the last meeting of term. On Monday the 12th of December, at 5-7pm, in Jarman 7 we will be screening the UK anthology film Dead of Night (1945, Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Robert Hamer and Basil Dearden, 102 mins).

dead_of_night_poster_03‘How narrow is the margin between dreams and reality, the natural and the supernatural, fact or fiction, is graphically and dramatically shown in this Ealing Studios production based on original stories by H.G. Wells’. This intriguing opening to a Review of the film in Fan Magazine Screenland (August 1946, p. 12) poses these, as well as other philosophical quandaries, in its 5 linked gothic horror narratives. The anthology comprises ‘Hearse Driver’, ‘Christmas Party’, ‘Haunted Mirror’, ‘Golfing Story’ and, the arguably best known, ‘Ventriloquist’s Dummy’ sequence in which a sensitive ventriloquist (Michael Redgrave) comes to fear that his sinister dummy is actually alive.

Do join us for ‘engrossing film fare which really makes you think’ (Review in Screenland, August 1946, p. 12).

You can find the full review on the Media History Digital Library’s fantastic website: http://archive.org/stream/screenland501unse#page/n911/mode/2up

More information on Fan Magazines can be found on the University of Kent’s NoRMMA blog: http://www.normmanetwork.com/

Summary of Discussion on Affinity

Tamar has very kindly provided the following notes on our discussion of Sarah Waters’ novel Affinity.

 

Warning: spoilers!

The group had a lively discussion about Sarah Waters’ 1999 novel, Affinity. Paradoxically, we began by discussing the ending, and our reactions to it. While some of us declared we had never believed in the possibility of magic, that it might actually exist within the world of the novel, others had, and were more likely to empathise with the heroine, Margaret. The sceptics found that they were somewhat detached from her, prevented from fully engaging with the character because of her gullibility over this point.

It was noted that the particular world Waters evoked Margaret inhabiting – brilliantly, we agreed – was stifling in its privilege. It was a closed world, and she was unwittingly yet inevitably forced into her position of ignorance and naivety because of this. The narrowness of her horizons accounted for her belief in, her desire for, the possibility of magic being real. We felt that though the “magic” was achieved through cynical manipulation, perhaps having a working class character who managed to be in charge of events, her own and others’ destinies, would seem like sorcery within the novel’s world. Throughout, Ruth played her class-based invisibility to her own advantage, using it to manipulate the people who literally could not see her possessing subjectivity.

We then pondered whether the novel was Gothic? There was more agreement on this, with group members unanimous in seeing Affinity fitting within the Gothic genre. It possessed many of the usual tropes, characters and narrative patterns. It was easy to read Millbank, the prison as a very Gothic building, fitting with the customary locus of the Old Dark House of books and films. As Joanna Russ lays out in her template of the 70s paperback Gothics, the cast and setting of these are permanent, fixed:

            To a large, lonely, usually brooding House (always named) comes a

             Heroine who is young, orphaned, unloved and lonely. She is shy

and inexperienced…. (Russ, 1973:667)

We also noted that the prison as described seemed alive, organic – wet, cold, animate – which reminded us of the infested space ships in Alien and Aliens, two further films we would claim as inspired by the Gothic.

Affinity also placed the Gothic’s usual significance on keys – though put to an ingenious use, multiplying the usual locked door via all the cells in the prison – and a dead parent, here the father, rather than the original Gothic’s more usual mourned mother. The novel also perpetuated the Gothic’s habitual play with doubles, as Margaret in the house was paired with Selina in prison, and, eventually, with Ruth, as the latter emerged as Selina’s true beloved, her real “affinity”.

We did wonder if the novel could be described as participating fully in the Gothic genre when its seemed that the phallic observation tower at the centre of Millbank was the only overt symbol of a powerful patriarchy operating in Affinity. Indeed, while as usual in the genre all women were victims in its world, yet there was no dominant husband or father figure; although Margaret’s brother did control her money, this seemed to be his only power over her or other women in the family. Unusually for the genre, the men characters were peripheral, non-powerful, non-threatening. Here the heroine’s unkind and stifling mother replaced the evil husband of the 18th Gothics. We wondered if we could see the novel’s world still being subject to patriarchal rule if there were no dominant men in it, but concluded that, within Affinity, masculine power was so taken for granted that it did not need actual men to impose it: the women characters had internalised its dominion.

We concluded our enjoyable debate by returning to the significance of the novel’s treatment of magic. It was wondered whether the reader herself were betrayed, along with Margaret, if she wanted a happy ending for the heroine and the woman she loved, if she wanted the magic to be real. We did not reach a conclusion about this or whether this might be a flaw in the novel, or a device to makes the reader feel the novel’s actions – perhaps, its tragedy – very acutely. Although we ended without tying down an answer, we all enjoyed reading and discussing Affinity, whatever our final conclusions.

Thanks for the great summary, Tamar!

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

Melodrama Meeting, Monday 28th of November, 5-7pm, Jarman 7

All are very welcome to join us for the next Melodrama Research Group meeting. Tamar has very kindly provided the following introduction to this week’s text:

affinity

Affinity, Sarah Waters’ 1999 novel, introduces the reader to two different women: Margaret, melancholy, wealthy, stifled by the protocols of upper-middle class Victorian society and its assumptions about appropriate goals and desires for women, and Selena, clairvoyant, desperate, and literally confined by the walls of Millbank prison, where she is serving a custodial sentence for ‘fraud and assault’. Both women’s lives are easily readable within the parameters of the female Gothic; the novel’s iconography and tropes are familiar, with abundant uses of the genre’s secrets, keys, doubling and uncanny occurrences, and with Millbank standing in for the Old Dark House. But Waters’s work pushes us to think, and to work, harder, challenging us not only to interpret her data but also to judge the genre itself. It seems the question we should be asking as we see the two women’s paths converge is: who is the heroine?

Come and join us at the usual place and time (Jarman 7, 5.00- 7.00pm, Monday 28th November) for discussion of the novel and its implications for the Gothic genre.

Melodrama Meeting, 14th of November, 5-7pm, Jarman 7

All are very welcome to join us for the next Melodrama Meeting on Monday, 14th of November, 5-7pm, in Jarman 7. We will be discussing the film I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016, Osgood Perkins, 87 minutes).

pretty-thing

Released very recently (on Netflix the 28th of October) the film’s title appears to invoke Shirley Jackson’s classic gothic novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962). Like Jackson’s work, the plot revolves around a large house and its unusual inhabitants.  Ruth Wilson appears as Lily, a live-in nurse who is contracted to care for the elderly Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss) but who comes to suspect that her employer’s house may be haunted.

 

 

Screening Timetable for Autumn Term 2016

We now have dates for our Melodrama Screening and Discussion Sessions next Term. Meetings will take place on even Mondays, from 5-7pm, in Jarman 7.

screening

All are welcome to join us on: the 3rd, 17th and 31st of October, the 14th and 28th of November and the 12th of December 2016.

Following the success of the Gothic Feminism conference we will be screening films and reading novels relating to the Gothic.  We start with Bluebeard (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1944, 72 mins) in the first session, also taking this opportunity to discuss the remainder of the term as well as other plans.

Gothic Feminism Conference Closing Remarks

Frances Kamm has very kindly provided the following Final Remarks relating to the fabulous recent Gothic Feminism Conference:

 

crimson peak

A huge thank you to everyone who presented and participated at the Gothic Feminism conference on the 26th-27th May 2016. We have had a great two days discussing and debating the diversity of topics raised by considering the Gothic heroine on film. We are particularly pleased with the way the papers related to each other within their respective panels, and are grateful to our speakers and audience members for engaging in lively conversations in every session.

There are several points arising out of the conference which should be noted as a record of the event and as a way of inspiring future projects. First, the conference emphasised again the importance of the heroine protagonist to the Gothic mode and how this form of storytelling intersects with wider historical and social discourses, particularly in relation to feminism. This theme was illuminated by the fascinating keynote delivered by Catherine Spooner, which reflected upon the representation and significance of the white dress; a central emblem present in several Gothic texts, including the recent Crimson Peak (2015). Catherine’s talk skilfully encapsulated the underlying tone and themes of the other papers: taken together, the papers acknowledged the long and diverse traditions of the Gothic and the Gothic heroine, and reflected upon the renewed possibilities of furthering such traditions on the cinema screen. The papers all, in one form or another, raised the central questions of: why does the Gothic heroine continue to be such an important and distinctive component to these stories? And how has cinema translated these Gothic traits for the filmic medium?

Opening the conference, Catherine’s paper reflected upon how the Gothic heroine’s white dress does not stay white over the course of the tale and instead becomes marked and stained, with this tainting becoming a trace for the heroine’s narrative exploits. Such physical markings can also be, Catherine argued, read metaphorically within a narrative’s historical contexts. Now the conference has closed we can see how these opening remarks can, in a way, be read as a metatextual commentary on the subsequent papers. The white dress becomes an allegory for the Gothic itself which also does not remain the same: just like the progressive soiling of the white garment, the Gothic has changed or been transformed by external factors, such as differing narrative arcs, political or historical contexts, alternative exhibition practices and the adaptation of unusual genres. The centrality of the Gothic heroine, however, remains the constant. Catherine remarked how the white dress becomes the metaphoric page upon which the heroine’s story is ‘written’. There is an analogy here with the definition of the Gothic widely supported by all the papers at the conference: the Gothic becomes the means through which the heroine’s story is told and the implications of this trend were highlighted in a variety of ways across the presentations.

If Crimson Peak was heralded in several papers as an important contemporary example of the cinematic Gothic, then Rebecca (1940) was widely cited as its starting point. As our first panel ‘Return to Manderley’ aptly demonstrated, discussions of the Gothic heroine in cinema return constantly to Hitchcock’s film and the new Mrs de Winter (or, as Johanna Wagner referred to her, Nameless). There were two major significances arising from the continued reference to the Daphne du Maurier adaptation. First, the film functions as a historical marker which indicates how the Gothic became an important mode of storytelling for cinema but – importantly – to relate such discussion back to this point is not to ignore the wider traditions influencing this form. Indeed, several papers cited how this particular strand of the Gothic originates from the Bluebeard tale and thus this tradition of the Gothic focuses upon the heroine’s relationship to her mysterious and dangerous husband, a reading which can be extended to reflect upon wider societal patriarchal structures. It is interesting that this conference, much like the previous scholarship on the Gothic in film has argued, also observed how such a narrative was adapted and repeated by Hollywood in the period leading up to the USA’s involvement in the Second World War. Maxim’s stately house therefore becomes the metaphoric home for Bluebeard’s translation onto the big screen and into film history.

Second, it is poignant that Rebecca denies its central heroine a name as this conference demonstrated the shifting parameters of identity afforded to the Gothic’s female protagonist. Many factors may impact the representation and reception of the heroine’s identity. For example, as the panel on ‘Mothers’ highlighted, transforming the Gothic heroine from the childlike naivety of Nameless in the 1940s into the role of mother central to the films later in the century (and into the 21st Century) radically reforms the power dynamics between the heroine and the structures of oppression highlighted by the Bluebeard tale. In this instance, the heroine may not fear her husband but, instead, her motherhood becomes a potential tool of oppression, with the child (or children) embodying the physical danger present in these films.

The heroine’s identity may also be effected by the story’s context and relationship to space. This was a consistent theme which ran through the remaining panels. The interpretation of the Gothic heroine is inextricably linked to the context of the narrative’s setting and time of production, and these factors may vary quite considerably. In fact, the conference demonstrated how the Gothic may be adopted by a broad range of genres, from the western to science-fiction to 21st Century urban dramas. The Gothic may continue to be relevant to US context but is also present in film texts emerging from Britain, Germany and Australia. The physical dimensions of the archetypal old dark house may alter in these instances but its function remains the same: the Gothic heroine explores these physical spaces and the course of her investigation will expose how such locations can be both repressive and liberating. Interestingly, the conference also highlighted how it is not just the space on-screen which is important: the implicit off-screen space – in the form of alternative sites of exhibition – are also relevant. The conference revealed how the more recent articulations of the Gothic heroine have been adapted for the television drama, comedy series and film festival circuits. The mutability of the Gothic form in film was underlined again by the videographic works which showed how the Gothic narrative may be subsumed into the short film format, or extrapolated for the purposes of a film essay.

The Passages of Gothic work is, in a sense, emblematic of the research which inspired the organisation of this event. As I mentioned in my opening address, Gothic Feminism is the culmination of years of work researching, teaching and studying the trends and tropes of the representation of the Gothic heroine in cinema by Tamar and myself, as well as other researchers in the Film department at the University of Kent. This conference is our first major event to communicate this research with an external audience, and begin a wider conservation about this topic. As Tamar noted at the end of the conference, these thoughts do not constitute concluding remarks so much as indicate the beginnings of new avenues of research and the inspiration for future events. Gothic Feminism is not a one-off event but rather an ongoing project we will continue to explore here on the blog and in the future conferences we are now planning. We hope the delegates who were present last week, and other Gothic scholars, will be able to join us again for events which explore the representation of the Gothic heroine in cinema.

Watch this (Gothic) space…

 

Text by: Frances Kamm

Image: based on Crimson Peak (2015); logo by Frances Kamm

https://gothicfeminism.com/2016/06/03/conference-closing-remarks/

Those attending this stimulating and fun conference would also like to send huge thanks to Frances and Tamar. Thank you!

You can find pictures Frances posted on the Gothic Feminism blog here: https://gothicfeminism.com/2016/06/09/conference-pictures/

Gothic Feminism Conference: Registration now Open!

Registration Open:
Gothic Feminism: The Representation of the Gothic Heroine in Cinema
University of Kent
 
(Registration deadline: 18th May 2016)
 
Keynote Speaker: Dr Catherine Spooner (Lancaster University)

We are delighted to announce that registration has now open for Gothic Feminism: a conference on cinema’s Gothic heroines taking place within the School of Arts.
This conference seeks to re-engage with theories of the Gothic and reflect specifically upon the depiction of the Gothic heroine in film. This conference shall engage with questions of representation, interpretation and feminist enquiry in relation to the Gothic heroine throughout film history including present day incarnations. This event shall illuminate the concerns, contradictions and challenges posed by the Gothic heroine on-screen through reference to specific case studies which re-engage with older examples of the Gothic and/or explore contemporary films, reflecting upon the renewed academic and commercial interest in the genre of recent years.
 
The conference fee is £20 (waged) and £10 (student/unwaged).
The conference fee includes lunch and tea and coffee breaks on both days.
Further updates can be found here:
 
For any queries please contact: gothicfeminism2016@gmail.com
Conference organisers: Frances Kamm and Tamar Jeffers McDonald, University of Kent
Melodrama Research Group
Centre for Film and Media Research
School of Arts

Summary of Discussion on The Duke of Burgundy

Many thanks to Frances for providing the below summary of the discussion following our most recent screening:

The post-screening discussion of The Duke of Burgundy focused primarily on the experience of watching this film, which is quite difficult to describe. The film itself is quite unconventional – with no firm narrative as such – and at times this makes for a challenging viewing experience, particularly at the beginning when Cynthia’s treatment of Evelyn appears abusive. Narrative comprehension aside, watching the film is a distinctive experience, with words such as compelling, hypnotic and intense being used to describe our feelings throughout. These affects are emphasised by the intense focus on nature within the film’s imagery and the repetition within the plot (as seen through Evelyn’s and Cynthia’s re-playing of scenarios), with some of these features compared to the work of Stan Brakhage.

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Many of these observations were linked to the fact that Burgundy is a sensory experience: it evokes a haptic visuality. This is evident even within the film’s credits, which provide reference for costume, lingerie and perfume. It was noted that the latter is not unprecedented (Audrey Hepburn may have credited her perfumer) but here it seems the emphasis is less on brand potentiality and more on the importance of the film as a sensory engagement with the viewer. This appeal to the senses is evident throughout the film. For example, when the initial ambiguity regarding Evelyn’s and Cynthia’s relationship is resolved, the film focuses on the intimacy and sensual encounters between the couple, as when Evelyn caresses Cynthia’s skin and her silk chemise, passionately whispering (in a voice-over) her devotion and sexual attraction to her lover. Similarly, the texture of clothing is given particular attention. Cynthia’s preparation for the women’s roleplaying is revealed in detail, as she is seen transforming her appearance through tight clothing, make-up and wigs. The camera cuts to close-up and medium shots to portray the details of Cynthia pulling on her stocking over her thigh and putting on her high-heeled shoes. The voyeurism of such images is echoed by Evelyn’s actions, as she watches her lover change through the bedroom keyhole; the detailing of clothes touching skin is revealed to be an integral part of Evelyn’s sexual gratification. As such, Cynthia’s body – and how she dresses it – is fetishized on both narrative and visual levels.

Duke DOB_6The emphasis the film places upon images of nature – as well as the titular insect – enhances this sensory experience further. This is established in the film’s opening shots which show Evelyn seated – with her back towards us – within a woodland area. The trickling of the water from the stream and the (unseen) birds in the trees dominant the soundtrack. Interestingly, the film does not resolve the mystery of the identity of this seated figure initially, as the film first cuts to a series of close-ups detailing the running water as it ripples around rocks in the stream. An edit back to the medium to long shot of Evelyn sees her turn her head upwards to the right, which then instigates a cut to a close-up of the sun shining through the trees, with the leaves gently rustling in the breeze. Such imagery helps to conjure up the experience of being in such a place: the sounds of wildlife and the smell of the damp soil in the air. This attention to detail is once again mirrored by the importance Evelyn places upon environments, textures, sights and sounds in the creation of her fantasies.

The use of this imagery also illuminates several tensions at work within the film’s narrative and its viewing experience. This is embodied by the film’s opening: specific features are depicted in some detail (like the running water) and yet Evelyn’s identity remains obscure and is not initially resolved by her first interactions with Cynthia (we only learn later that these events are orchestrated). More broadly, the film has no real sense of place or time – despite the detailing of the environment – and yet the narrative is still anchored by a specificity in locations, with the action occurring between the house, the grounds, the lecture room and the library. The nature scenes evoke connotations of a larger ecology – of life going on elsewhere – as is implied by Evelyn’s question during the Lepidoptera lecture about ‘other regions’. And yet these references to the outside world are contained by the film’s concentration on Evelyn’s and Cynthia’s relationship: the women’s world may be in an unknown location and time, but it is one which is consistent and insular. The intense focus through which we observe Evelyn’s and Cynthia’s lives evokes a feeling of claustrophobia, which is enhanced again through repetition: the lovers re-play their sadomasochistic scenarios again and again (with the same dialogue and actions), and images are also repeated, such as the close-ups of the pinned moths in Cynthia’s study, and the shots which depict Evelyn arriving at the house on her bicycle. This appeal to a sense of claustrophobia parallels Evelyn’s desire to feel smothered by her lover, which culminates in her introduction of the trunk into her sexual activities with Cynthia.

These aspects also point to the tensions which exist between Evelyn and Cynthia, and their relationship to broader ideas about the Gothic heroine. The film complicates our initial assessment of the connection between the women by revealing Cynthia’s apparent maltreatment of her maid to be the carefully choreographed and scripted rituals of Evelyn’s submissive desires. The power dynamics are further complicated by the fact that it is not Evelyn who is therefore the oppressed female protagonist but rather Cynthia, who becomes increasingly uncomfortable and overwhelmed by Evelyn’s insistence on playing these games and controlling Cynthia totally, including how she looks and what she says. Both women, therefore, embody different ideas we have discussed previously about how Gothic heroines are portrayed. Significantly, as with other Gothic films, the house plays an integral part in this: indeed, it is Evelyn’s anticipation from arriving at the front door and being kept waiting before being admitted to the house which a key part of her fantasy, signalling the beginning of her sexual interaction with Cynthia.

It is also interesting that whilst the intensity – and potential destruction – of the women’s relationship is emphasised throughout, Burgundy does not follow the peaks and troughs in emotion associated with melodrama and other Gothic films, such as Rebecca (1940). The intensity of the above tensions is maintained with only very subtle variations in mood: Cynthia’s emotional breakdown is indicated by several close-up shots of her looking dejected by Evelyn’s escalating requests, criticisms of her performance and feelings of betrayal when it is revealed Evelyn has polished another woman’s boots. Indeed, Cynthia’s apparent revenge for Evelyn’s behaviour is portrayed in an understated manner, as she deliberately wears the pyjamas Evelyn hates (rather than the revealing lingerie) and deviates from Evelyn’s script. The moment does not feature an outpouring of emotion or confrontation but is perhaps even more disturbing because of this: Cynthia covers Evelyn’s mouth with her foot when she attempts to say the lovers’ safe word pinastri. Evelyn silently weeps as Cynthia mocks her efforts to stop the roleplay in a scene which depicts the only time Cynthia appears to abuse Evelyn for real.

As argued in the introduction to the film, Burgundy’s relationship to the ‘queerness’ of the Gothic is revealed by these tensions, which act as reminders to the importance of the Gothic heroine within these discussions on the genre as a mode of storytelling. Burgundy takes these discussions further by challenging our assumptions and previous experience of who the Gothic heroine is and the relationship she has with the house. This point is underlined by the film’s ambiguous ending. Diane Waldman argues that, within the Hollywood Gothic films of the 1940s, the ending would reveal whether the heroine’s perspective had been validated or invalidated (a conclusion reflected by whether the film was pre or post-war) (Waldman, 1984). In Burgundy, it is difficult to ascertain whose perspective has been ‘validated’ and whether the film’s (and its characters’) investigation into the women’s relationship has actually revealed and resolved anything. In the final scenes, Cynthia finally breaks into tears and Evelyn begs her forgiveness and love saying she will do ‘anything’ to prove her devotion. The following montage shows the women sleeping in the bed together, the trunk being removed and Evelyn’s scripts and instructions being burnt. There seems to be a fresh understanding between the women and a renewed affection, as reflected by the shots which superimpose the women’s faces during their embrace. A voice-over narration hears Evelyn reassure Cynthia that ‘everything is fine’. Yet this montage ends with an edit to Evelyn seated back within the woodland area, with only the sounds of her environment audible on the soundtrack. The roleplaying game – and the film – repeats again, with Evelyn cycling towards the house and Cynthia putting on her tight skirt and wig. Significantly, we do not dwell on the moment Evelyn arrives and is kept waiting at the door – an action we know from previous occurrences is integral to Evelyn’s gratification. Rather, the final shot focuses on Cynthia as she gazes longingly into the mirror. It is an ambiguous moment which questions Evelyn’s assertion that ‘everything is fine’: is Evelyn controlling an unwilling Cynthia again? Will these actions inevitably follow the tensions previously experienced? Or have the women established a relationship based on equality and mutual respect and understanding? Burgundy once again subverts expectations and, in a truly Gothic manner, leaves such meanings up to personal interpretation.

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References

Waldman, D. (1984). “At last I can tell it to someone!” Feminine Point of View and Subjectivity in the Gothic Romance Film of the 1940s.” Cinema Journal, 23 (2): 29-40.