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.

Passages of Gothic Project Notes

Following the intense and enjoyable screening of the Melodrama Research Group’s contribution to the International Festival of Projections,  here is a version of Frances’ wonderful Project Notes for Passages of Gothic.

passages of gothic top

 

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) is often cited as the first in a cycle of films emerging in Hollywood in the 1940s labelled as ‘Gothic’. These films – which have also been called ‘melodramas’, ‘women’s films’ and ‘female film noirs’ – feature similar narratives focusing on the central female protagonist: the Gothic heroine. In all these films, the Gothic heroine encounters the old dark house which harbours a sinister secret which the heroine must investigate, often in fear for her life. This threat usually emanates from a male love interest, or is sometimes presented as the oppression of a larger patriarchal society. These films – which also include Gaslight (1944), Secret Beyond the Door (1947) and Sleep, My Love (1948) – feature remarkably consistent motifs, including keys, staircases, images of the heroine alone in the dark and the threat of the domestic space. Significantly, the study of film history reveals that these tropes are not isolated to the Hollywood Gothics of the 1940s but, in fact, continue to inform and appear within the Gothic cinema of today. This installation shall highlight and explore these similarities.

This project focuses on the female performance in these films in order to show the narrative and visual agency given to characters who are often seen as passive subjects and victims. Whilst the Gothic heroine may indeed be threatened by her male counterpart or dangerous environment, these stories encourage us to identify with the female lead, admiring her bravery. We engage with these films’ narratives by aligning with the Gothic heroine and her experiences. In particular, our exploration of space is mediated by the Gothic heroine’s actions. This project will illuminate how such investigation consistently takes place within the domestic space: the safety of a home is transformed into the mysterious and dangerous space of the old dark house. Comparing these films demonstrates how the Gothic heroine is often framed within the in-between places of a house: the stairwell, the hallway or the doorway. These thresholds are spaces which blur the boundaries between the public and private spheres of a home, in much the same way these Gothic narratives present a slippage between the real and the imagined; the everyday and the supernatural.

It is for these reasons that Passages of Gothic is presented within Eliot Dining Hall. Eliot College is a building which is also both a public and private space, containing professional forums for study (lecture halls, seminar rooms and offices) and private rooms (student bedrooms and kitchens). The Hall is at the heart of the college and provides passageways between these distinct locations. The Hall’s distinctive appearance has also historically made it the site for public and private events, and its scale is evocative of the intimating houses the Gothic heroine explores in these films. As the name of this event suggests, Passages of Gothic therefore invites you to immerse yourself into the Gothic heroine’s world.

The film shall play on three separate screens and is divided into six ‘chapters’. Together, these chapters create a narrative which is reflective of the fictional journey taken by the Gothic heroine: the heroine enters the house; she is forced the investigate strange occurrences; she is threatened by someone or something; and she may or may not survive her ordeal. In Passages of Gothic these six chapters are:

  1. “I dreamt I went to Manderley again”: Gothic introductions
  2. Inside the house
  3. “I should go mad if I stay!”
  4. Lights in the darkness
  5. Women in peril
  6. “Why?”

Passages of Gothic is the culmination of the research conducted by the Melodrama Research Group into female performance, stardom, genre conventions, Gothic tropes and the representations of the heroine on-screen. This installation showcases the re-emergence of Gothic tropes – in a remarkably consistent fashion – across film history, highlighting the importance of the Gothic heroine within this. Our celebration of the Gothic’s strong, brave, and active heroines contributes to an important, broader research question: why, after 75 years, do these representations of the Gothic heroine persist in the 21st Century?

crimson peak

Top image: Lies Lanckman and Ann-Marie Fleming (image from The Innocents (1961); Main text: Frances Kamm; Bottom image: Crimson Peak (2015)

Credits:

Passages of Gothic

Project organiser: Sarah Polley

Project’s writer and content provider: Frances Kamm

Project’s editor: Alaina Piro Schempp

Lead technician: Lies Lanckman

Promotions: Ann-Marie Fleming

IT Support: Oana Maria Mazilu

Contributor: Tamar Jeffers McDonald

Contributor: Katerina Flint-Nicol

 

The Gothic Heroines

Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (1940)

Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944)

Dorothy McGuire in The Spiral Staircase (1945)

Joan Bennett in Secret Beyond the Door (1947)

Claudette Colbert in Sleep, My Love (1948)

Deborah Kerr in The Innocents (1961)

Katharine Ross in The Stepford Wives (1975)

Shelley Duvall in The Shining (1980)

JoBeth Williams in Poltergeist (1982)

Sigourney Weaver in Aliens (1986)

Michelle Pfeiffer in What Lies Beneath (2000)

Nicole Kidman in The Others (2001)

Naomi Watts and Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)

Belén Rueda in The Orphanage (El Orfanato) (2007)

Rebecca Hall in The Awakening (2011)

Chiara D’Anna and Sidse Babett Knudsen in The Duke of Burgundy (2014)

Mia Wasikowska in Crimson Peak (2015)

 

The Melodrama Research Group

The Melodrama Research Group is sponsored by the Centre for Film and Media Research within the School of Arts, University of Kent. The MRG is a cross-faculty group of academics who are interested in exploring the ideas surrounding melodrama as a hotly-contested topic. The group meets for regular screenings and debates, maintains a dynamic blog and has hosted research events. The group brings together scholars from various disciplines in order to foster collaborative networks for studying this pervasive but challenging genre.

https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/

International Festival of Projections

This is a new, free arts festival taking place at the University of Kent from 18-20 March 2016. Spread across both the Canterbury and Medway campus, and with satellite events within the Canterbury City Centre, the festival celebrates the exciting and varied theme of projections.

http://www.kent.ac.uk/projections/

 

 

 

Reflections on the Last Academic Year

Posted by Sarah

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

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

11 Events Tea & Sympathy Beach

 

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

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

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

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

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

snow white 1

 

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

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

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

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

16 Links The Girl who Lost her Character

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

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

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

Summary of Discussion on Mulholland Drive

Posted by Sarah

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary of Discussion on Poltergeist

Posted by Sarah

The post-screening discussion ranged far and wide, addressing several areas: the debate as to whether Tobe Hooper or Steven Spielberg directed the film;  comparisons to other Spielberg films; the film’s relation to drama and melodrama; the film’s central themes of love and family; how the comedic aspects affected the drama, melodrama and horror; some staples of the horror film gene;  parapsychologist Dr Lesh’s function; more specific aspects of the film including set design, particular shots and the use of music; comparisons to non-Spielberg films. As ever, do leave comments or email me at sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

indiana

We started by referencing Warren Buckland’s Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster (Continuum, 2006) in which Buckland analysed Poltergeist’s shot lengths and concluded that the film bore close relation to films directed by Tobe Hooper, rather than those directed by Steven Spielberg. However, the group thought that despite this, the film felt like a Spielberg movie– and he was indeed responsible for the film’s story as well as co-writing and co-producing it. On a very general level, Poltergeist was reminiscent of Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) and its mix of comedy quips and adventure/horror very similar to Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). It was noted that Poltergeist’s parents Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane (JoBeth Williams) had a similar sense of fun to the parents in Jaws, despite the arrival of children. The fact that the film showing on the family’s TV at one point – A Guy Named Joe (1943) – was later remade by Spielberg into Always (1989) was also commented on as further evidence of Spielberg’s close involvement. It was thought that a reason Spielberg might not have been credited as co-director was that he was exclusively contracted as director on E.T. at the time.

So how might the presence of Spielberg’s guiding hand affect the dramatic and melodramatic aspects of the film? Kat interestingly proposed that Spielberg had ‘blockbusterised’ 1930s and 1940s melodrama. It was agreed that the main connection to melodrama was the emphasis on excessive emotion and the heightened drama.  The film’s main themes regarding the power of love and the family and the very high stakes involved – the average American Family under attack from The Beast – were also related to this gesture towards the excessive. In addition, the characters’ relationships with one another were understandably highly emotional. This was aided by the use of non-diegetic music which inspired an emotional response from the audience. As well as at the level of the plot and theme, the cinematic treatment was excessive – the blockbuster special effects for example. This relates well to some of our other discussion about melodrama. Is melodrama most visible at the level of plot (the suffering of characters – as seen in Poltergeist when the family loses its youngest member) or the way in which the story is told? At this point, John Mercer and Martin Shingler’s Melodrama: Genre, Style, Sensibility (Wallflower Press, 2004) in which the authors state that melodrama is perhaps not a genre, but a sensibility or mood was considered. It was also suggested that Poltergeist’s excessive plot and treatment (especially its dramatic, or melodramatic, elements) were what made the film, essentially hokum, believable, at least at the moment of viewing.

In addition, sentimentality, which is certainly one of Spielberg’s hallmarks, was present throughout the film and is arguably connected to melodrama. This sentimentality contributed to the fact that the film, while it had elements of horror, was not too frightening. We also linked this to the comedy aspect present in several Spielberg films. The squabbling siblings reminded us of a US family sitcom. The sudden intrusion of the horrific elements was therefore in some ways surprising. While this might be thought to lead to extra-shock value, it generally toned down the horror elements as it seemed likely that the familiar comedy component would soon return. It was noted that no one actually dies in Poltergeist – which is highly unusual for a horror film and part of what contributes to its status as a family-oriented horror film.

Some more usual motifs of horror were present though. The house was of course revealed to have been built on top of an uncleared cemetery and the family’s ordeal was not over when the characters believed it to be.

leshCharacters outside the family in Poltergeist were also discussed. We particularly focused on the parapsychologist Dr Lesh (Beatrice Straight). It was thought to be significant that as an outsider, and one who must to some extent suspend any disbelief she might feel, Dr Lesh functioned as a mirror for the audience. She acted as intermediary between us and the film’s moments of excessive drama. As an investigator of parapsychology she of course only appears after Carol-Ann is abducted – once the film’s drama has become excessive. She appeared to provide a sense of stability for the audience, therefore, and she explicitly acts in this way for Diane. The Doctor promises she will return, and the pair shares an emotional hug which marks Dr Lesh as a mother surrogate.

Other specific moments of the film we focused on included the shot which magically lengthened the landing corridor as Diane was attempting to reach the end of it to rescue her children. It was thought that the shot itself seemed out of place with the rest of the film, although the sense of urgency it engendered chimed well with the heightened drama. The pan ‘reveal’ which showed that the proposed housing development would be built on was also commented on. The prominent position the staircase occupied in Poltergeist was focused on. This relates to melodrama in terms of spectacle, although in this instance the stairs’ almost freakishly organic, twisty, appearance was deemed unusual.

We also found some echoes of Poltergeist in later films. The plot was compared to that of Labyrinth (1986, Jim Henson), while Poltergeist’s beginning was related to that of A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005) and the bobbing corpses in the back garden to Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell  (2010). The latter is on UK TV this Sunday – Channel 5 9-11.05 pm – if you want to catch it.

We did not get around to discussing Thomas Elsaesser’s article on the family melodrama, but if anyone would like to do so, just add a comment. It should also bear relevance to next week’s screening.

Many thanks to Kat for choosing such an enjoyable, thought-provoking and, at times, quite scary film, and for providing other food for thought!

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 22nd May, Jarman 7, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the third of the Summer Term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 22nd of May in Jarman 7, from 4pm to 7pm.

We will screen Katerina’s choice:Poltergeist (1982, Tobe Hooper, 114 mins)

Poltergeist 1

Katerina has very kindly provided the following information:

“One might suggest that the overall development of the Hollywood cinema from the late 60s to the 80s is summed up in the movement from Romero’s use of the Star Spangled Banner (the flag) at the beginning of Night of the Living Dead to Spielberg’s use of it (the music) at the beginning of Poltergeist.” (Robin Wood, ‘Papering the Cracks: Fantasy and Ideology in the Reagan Era,’ Hollywood: From Vietnam to Reagan)

Poltergeist, directed by Tobe Hooper was released in 1982 and has been described by Robin Wood as “Tobe Hooper’s worst film”, precisely because it has the look of a Stephen Spielberg film (Spielberg co-wrote and was co-producer of the film). Made on an estimated budget of $10m, it grossed over 7 times that in the US market alone. Its success spurred the studios on to make a further two films and a TV series in the 1990s. As with Jaws and its sequels, however, Poltergeist’s sequels offered decreasing financial and artistic rewards.

There is no doubting that Poltergeist belongs to the horror genre, but it is worthwhile reflecting upon the more melodramatic aspects of the film which arguably underpin its structure and success. If we remove “horror” from our approach, the film could be easily described as a family melodrama or drama, as the narrative is purely based on a family searching for their missing daughter (albeit a daughter “lost” in the ether of the spirit world via the TV). Much of the film focuses on the emotive interchanges between the family and the outsiders that aid the return of the daughter to the family. The camera stays close to the characters to heighten the emotions felt by the characters and the necessary emotive response required from the audience. The film updates the Gothic house in line with the concerns of the 1980s and that decade’s ideologies (references to Reaganism run throughout the film). Familial and homely space are explored in the narrative and presented at odds with the attainment of the American dream.

Indeed, in his postscript on Poltergeist in Hollywood: From Vietnam to Reagan, Robin Wood touches on three important elements of the film; the representation of the all American family, the drive for the American dream and the influence of Spielberg.

The themes that could be focused on in the discussion are:

  • The blockbuster as melodrama?
  • The reconfiguration of the Gothic house in Poltergeist.
  • The importance of space, for example the staircase.
  • The influence of Spielberg, especially to the camerawork and aesthetics, and how this aids in anchoring melodrama to the film (consider it in relation to Jaws, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark).

It may be worth reading, ‘Tales of sound and fury. Observations on the Family Melodrama’ by Thomas Elsaesser.

Poltergeist 2

 

Do join us if you can. And please note we start at 4pm.