Summary of Discussion on The Yellow Wallpaper and The Diary of Sophronia Winters

We first listened to a copy of the radio version of The Yellow Wallpaper. This included the original advertisements before, within, and after the show. We discussed this especially in relation to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story.

The unnamed heroine suggested connections to the second Mrs de Winter in Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca. Because the radio dramatized action more than the short story – we ‘objectively’ heard conversations – the fact the narrator is not addressed by name by those around her is more evident. We especially noticed the terms used, like ‘pet’, ‘goose’ and ‘dope’.

The issue of the audience the narrator was addressing was also raised. While in the radio version we hear the scratching of her writing, her thoughts are of course conveyed by her speech. Significantly this is not a simple rendering on the short story – a kind of journal. The aural medium almost precludes the need for writing, and makes the narrator seem both less and more cut off: we feel more connected to than since we appear to be more directly addressed, but this reveals that we are all she has.

Indeed the speaker also seems more confined in terms of her activities (in the short story she goes riding) while the radio version foregrounds the house and the attic room. This is evident at the very beginning which opens with description of arriving at the house, which once more reminded us of both the novel and film versions of Rebecca. Significantly the narrator in the radio version of The Yellow Wallpaper describes the atmosphere as pertaining to  ‘ghostliness’ and asks her husband if the house is ‘haunted’.

This nod to the gothic appeared far less subtle and ambiguous than the short story. It does, however, fit with the radio show Suspense’s focus on thrills and spills. (Well indicated by long-term Allred Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann’s theme tune to the series.)  This also connects to the way in which the characters are portrayed. In the short story all is framed by being from the narrator’s point of view. The very fact we hear all characters in the radio version – and get seemingly ‘objective’ takes as to their attitude to the narrator – creates complexity. The husband and sister seem more reasonable in their tone. (Even though we found the husband’s declaration that ‘I’m a doctor and I know’ less than convincing, this could be attributed to concern and despair for his wife.)  This is especially highlighted by the narrator’s speaking over such comments as they happen to assert her family’s bad treatment of her. A potential disconnect is therefore evident.

This is furthermore connected to the decision to emphasise the narrator’s madness from earlier on than in the short story. It can be debated in both the short story and the radio version whether the narrator is already suffering from madness, is sent mad from being perfectly sane by her situation, or if a precondition is exacerbated by her family’s treatment of her. The short story is more open to interpretation, but the radio version has its own audience to consider.  Since it would be a departure from the short story to reveal that the narrator is not mad, but in fact in danger from her husband, the nature of the radio series perhaps demanded a more straightforward, and less ambiguous approach. This was largely conveyed by Agnes Moorehead’s powerful acting of the narrator’s  hysteria which fairly swiftly signals that she is unhinged. We found the scratching of writing on paper to the action of tearing the wallpaper, with her teeth, especially effective.

The narrator’s confinement in the attic and its possible effect on her mental state was a point of discussion. We spoke a lot about the significance of it being a former nursery, and later a gymnasium for children – this infantilised her. The mention of bars and rings, to which she might be chained, in both the short story and radio versions made her confinement more concrete.

We found the ending of both versions especially powerful. The narrator is creeping or crawling, possibly on all fours, like a small child or indeed an animal. The latter is further suggested as we are told of a line at a certain height which is present around the whole room. In some ways, this suggests the tethering of an animal which is then only permitted to exercise in a reduced area. It was also mentioned that it was possible that she was kept in effectively, or indeed actually, in a padded cell.

There were some jarring elements in the radio version, in addition to the heightened emotion. The tension is at times very heavily scored in a way which distances the listener from the intimate story. While they more closely mirrored the original listening experience of 1948, we found the appearance of advertisements throughout the drama disrespectful, disruptive and unsettling. While the break allowed for time to be moved on by 2 weeks (as mentioned by the narrator), we felt we had been taken too far away from the story by the insertion of dramatized advertisements;  two men met the advertising spokesman and not only commented on their products- Autolite Spark Plugs – but also the drama and performances. We pondered whether a few references to cars were not only used to create a more contemporary setting than the 1892 short story, but to provide a connection with the advertiser’s product. We found it especially disturbing, and ironic, that the spark plugs evoked thoughts of Electro Convulsive Therapy. ECT was an intense, and now deeply controversial, treatment which is likely to have been used at the time for similar cases as the narrator.

We also discussed The Yellow Wallpaper’s status as feminist tract. It was noted that the narrator’s exasperation that she was told to both exercise and rest (‘I can’t do both!’) reflected the double bind or the push/pull in many women’s lives.  Furthermore we debated whether the heightened hysteria in the radio adaptation furthered, or diminished, its feminist clout. Some thought that the focus on madness made it harder to argue for it as feminist. Others argued that the drama was not preaching to the converted; it was heard by a wide US audience who perhaps would not have experience of Perkins Gilman’s short story. They might well, however, have been familiar with the presence of psychoanalysis in 1940s cinema and other popular culture. We can also consider that the show was staged again nearly ten years later, again with Moorehead, on the 30th of June 1957. This potentially reached more people at a later date.

We also commented on Elaine R. Hedges Afterword in the 1981 Virago Modern Classics edition. This mentioned that, according to Perkins Gilman, her father had abandoned the family when she was very young, as it was thought having more children would put Perkins Gilman’s mother in danger. (p. 42, this is quoted from her 1935 autobiography, published after her self-inflicted death in the face of terminal cancer).  We spoke about the latitude it is likely that her father, but not her single parent mother, might have enjoyed; he could move away, and perhaps remarry bigamously and start another family. Such an option was not open to Perkins Gilman’s mother.

This led to discussion on the ways in which women are institutionalised when they do not conform to ‘norms’ while this is less true for men. A Spanish film in which a mother is sent to a lunatic asylum after the death of her child was mentioned. It was noted that now the woman was no longer fulfilling the mother role society had expected her to fill, she was classed insane. This was also related to Sarah Waters’ 2009 novel The Little Stranger. We extended this to consideration of single unmarried mothers and those in non-hetero normative relationships.

Finally associations of the colour yellow were spoken about. It was noted that in addition to having connections with sickness and disease, it was more closely linked to mental illness through the work of Vincent Van Gogh, who suffered from severe depression and eventually took his own life because of it.

Next we listened to and discussed The Diary of Sophronia Winters. This threw some of the issues from The Yellow Wallpaper into further relief and commented more directly on matters relating to the gothic.

The episode was written as original Suspense story by Lucille Fletcher – also of Sorry Wrong Number fame. The version we listened to had the advertisements cut, allowing us to engage more with it than with The Yellow Wallpaper.   It is set in 1932, as revealed by Sophronia mentioning that she is 40 and was born in 1892. Coincidentally, perhaps, this is the first publishing date of The Yellow Wallpaper.

Again we spoke about the heroine. We wondered about the unusual name Sophronia. It means sensible and prudent, but such connotations are undercut almost immediately. Sophronia’s introductory narration (in which she is speaking to her diary) prattles about her ‘gorgeous new permanent wave’ and she is conveyed as giddy and frivolous. (We especially commented on Moorehead’s versatility both throughout his episode, as her fear grows into madness, and in comparison to her performance in The Yellow Wallpaper.)

Sophronia views her life as beginning at 40 since she has spent the last ten years caring for her father before he died. This connects to the second Mrs de Winter’s situation in Rebecca – as indeed does her surname. Like the second Mrs de Winter, Sophronia is inexperienced – however she desperately wants to be experienced. This does not go as far as speaking to a gentleman first though. This shows 1930s Emily Post style decorum.

The evocation of St Petersburg, Florida, a playground with its beaches, bingo, alligator farms and sun and fun seekers, was deemed effective. One of the group commented on the accuracy as it was similar to her grandmother’s experience from around the time.

After the initial brisk opening, and the very hasty marriage of Sophronia to Hiram Johnson, the man she meets and who strikes up a relationship with her, events soon turn darker. This is especially seen as the newly married couple arrive at Hiram’s family home: a deserted 125 room gothic-style hotel a taxi driver has refused to take them to.  Sophronia’s initial recoiling from this Old Dark House is substantiated when Hiram angrily rejects her suggestion they stay in town and physically harms her.

It was noted that the US does not have old family piles (like Manderley in Rebecca) and that a large building is more likely to be a hotel than a mansion. The use of a hotel also signals the merging of the private and the public.  If Sophronia has initially had concerns about Hiram, at least the couple will be in the presence of others. This turns out not to be the case and it is after Sophronia is made aware of this that she suggests they find another hotel. We also spoke about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) in terms of a hotel’s potentially malevolent effect on someone staying there– in this case Hiram or Sophronia, or them both.

Hiram emphasises the locking of the gate behind them: after all, no one will be visiting – or leaving. The reference to locked rooms later – and the fact Hiram has a pass key to all the rooms- also draws on the gothic. We were especially reminded of women who are in fact in charge of the house keys (chatelaines) in such films as Rebecca (1940), Notorious (1946) and Crimson Peak (2015). In all of these the keys are controlled not by the heroine, but by her enemy: the housekeeper Danvers, her mother-in-law, and her sister-in-law. Sophronia does not have access to the keys, and therefore is not in charge of the space – Hiram is. This is especially well conveyed by Sophronia’s later pitiful reaction when she realises that on one occasion Hiram has left her room unlocked. He emphasises that there is still no way for her to escape since the front and back doors, all the fire escapes and most of the windows are locked. The very fact there are so many potential ways of escape, but that all of these are cut off to Sophronia, heightens the awfulness of her plight.

After they enter the house, Sophronia hears more about the namesake Hiram has earlier referred to – his sister-in-law, Sophronia Johnson. (We even wondered whether the assertion they share the same first name was an invention on his part.) Hiram reveals that Sophronia Johnson murdered his brother with a fire axe. Hiram’s earlier way of inveigling a relationship with Sophronia was to mention while they were collecting 9 pointed starfish that his sister-in-law too enjoyed that hobby too. Now he points to a further connection: he shows Sophronia a portrait of his sister-in-law and insists on a physical similarity. Since we cannot see this portrait, it is ambiguous whether there is a likeness, but Sophronia’s response suggests recognition of little more than a passing resemblance. The use of the gothic trope of the portrait, and Hiram’s increasingly demented behaviour, further bodes ill for our heroine.

Before long, Hiram is offering to show Sophronia his sister-in-law’s grave in the grounds in the middle of the suitably stormy night. Even more disturbingly, he tells of the graves of the other ‘Sophronias’ he has hunted down. Hiram replies to Sophronia’s question of whether Sophronia Johnson haunts the grounds, that the ‘she-devil’ is a ‘restless sleeper’ often found in ‘disguise’ in ‘warmer climes’ – like St Petersburg. The terror escalates as Hiram states he always has an open grave ready – for the next time he finds Sophronia…

Sophronia Winters is heard to be especially in peril as after her night time excursion her coughing is focused on. While the episode was unfolding, some wondered if this signalled to Hiram’s poisoning of his wife. He appears superficially solicitous, however, suggesting she stay warm and perhaps fetch Sophronia Johnson’s dressing gown from her wardrobe. These scenes in Sophronia’s bedroom (which used to belong to Sophronia Johnson) are especially unsettling. Hiram comments that Sophronia seems to be familiar with the room. She denies this, and puts her odd behaviour down to the fact that it just seems odd since the room has a sense of being lived in. Later, Hiram notes that Sophronia has the embroidery his sister-in-law enjoyed working on in her hand. This surprises Sophronia, and perhaps suggests to the audiences that the Sophronias are merging – or perhaps they have always been the one person. This is an especially interesting take on the concept of the double used in the Gothic.

Such merging of the Sophronias becomes more pronounced as Hiram asks Sophronia to sing a hymn for him while he plays the harmonium. This mirrors the situation when Sophronia Johnson killed Hiram’s brother, and indeed Hiram appears to almost be setting the stage for another such occurrence. Despite his seeming manipulation, Hiram still seems surprised when confronted by Sophronia and the fire axe.

We spoke further about Hiram’s character. We thought that he represented a Bluebeard character- but unusually one with a motive, at least in his own mind. We also commented on Hiram’s age – we thought he sounded about 50, which is similar to the stated age of his family hotel in Maine. This ties Hiram to the hotel space more closely, perhaps even making it complicit in his campaign of terror.

The epilogue of the episode elicited much discussion about whether Sophronia had been driven insane. Sophronia asks a nurse if her ‘dear brother-in-law Hiram’ is dead. This is confirmed, and Sophronia hysterically claims responsibility. While this may signal a medical professional simply indulging her patient, it also suggests that interpretations other than Hiram having sent Sophronia mad are possible. After all, she is Hiram’s widow, not his sister-in-law. Or is she in fact Sophronia Johnson, who Hiram claims he keeps finding? Or is the entire Diary a reflection of Sophronia Johnson’s fevered imagination (perhaps she killed both her husband and Hiram at the time) in which she invents a new role for herself as Sophronia Winters and creates the whole narrative we hear?

Taking the story at face value, and assuming that the women were separate people (or indeed that Sophronia Johnson perhaps never existed), we were pleased to hear that Sophronia was able to protect herself physically from Hiram. As with The Yellow Wallpaper, we also mentioned the way in which women were contained. While the deranged Hiram was allowed to roam the country, Sophronia is at the end institutionalised. We would have preferred to hear of her successfully running the hotel, or indeed for a twist to reveal that she was now searching for Hirams in Florida…

We also spoke of the effectiveness of some of the sound effects in establishing space and atmosphere. The hotel’s creaking doors and ticking clock spoke of age and the uncontrollable passage of time. The fog horn convincingly evoked dreary outside space and the harmonium was a suitably creepy musical instrument to employ. We compared it to the use of the Theremin in The Spiral Staircase (1945).

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the episode was restaged on the 17th of August 1944 – once more with Moorehead and Ray Collins. On the 10th of August 1958 the roles were taken by Mercedes McCambridge and Jerry Hausner.

We concluded with comments drawing together our experiences of the twoi narratives. Both The Yellow Wallpaper and The Diary of Sophronia Winters are tales told by women (played by Moorehead on the radio) who express themselves in writing. They are advised not to by male doctors. The narrator’s husband in The Yellow Wallpaper suggests she should not write, while at the end of The Diary of Sophronia Winters the nurse tells Sophronia the doctor does not approve of her doing so.

Both women are in peril – from their own madness. Whether this is deliberately or unthinkingly brought on, or made worse, by their husbands is a moot point. Fletcher’s episode takes the matter of Gothic further, as she provides a checklist of tropes: the hasty marriage, the tormenting husband, the creepy house, the locked rooms, the portrait and the notion of the Double.

Neither of these stories suggests that marriage is a good idea and the Gothic as a whole questions the rights and consequences of patriarchy. We thought it was especially significant that this wariness of marriage was present most strikingly in The Diary of Sophronia Winters, first broadcast in 1943. This was a time when hasty marriages were being entered into as men were called away to war. By the time of The Yellow Wallpaper radio version (in 1948) this was less pressing and suggest perhaps another reason, other than the format and the original story, for the heightened hysteria of the narrator from earlier in the narrative.

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

Old Time Radio Links:

The Yellow Wallpaper:

29th of July 1948: https://www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com/thriller/suspense/yellow-wallpaper-1948-07-29

30th of June 1957: https://www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com/thriller/suspense/the-yellow-wallpaper-1957-06-30

The Diary of Sophronia Winters

27th of April 1943: https://www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com/thriller/suspense/the-diary-of-sophronia-winters-1943-04-27

17th of August 1944: https://www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com/thriller/suspense/the-diary-of-sophronia-winters-1944-08-17

10th of August 1958: https://www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com/thriller/suspense/diary-of-sophronia-winters-1958-08-10

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 30th of March, 5-7pm, Jarman 7

All are very welcome to join us for the last screening and discussion session of this term, which will take place on the 30th of March, 5-7pm, in Jarman 7.

We will be showing Frances’ suggestion: The Student of Prague (1913, Stellan Rye, 85mins).

Student of Prague

Frances has very kindly provided the following introduction:

The Student of Prague (1913) tells the story of Balduin – the student in question – who is a popular and skilled fencer but feels unhappy and unfulfilled in life. He becomes interested in a countess after rescuing her from a fall in a lake, although she is already betrothed to be married to her cousin. Balduin hopes he can change this, and better his life, by making a deal with a strange man named Scapinelli. Scapinelli promises Balduin great riches and, in exchange, Scapinelli can take whatever he wishes from the student’s apartment. Balduin signs a contract agreeing to these terms and Scapinelli then makes his choice: he touches the full-length mirror in the room and Balduin’s reflection suddenly emerges. This double – now a distinct figure, unattached to its original form and freed from the constraints of the mirror – walks out of the room. Balduin attempts to suppress his amazement and worry over this incident as he soon concentrates on wooing the countess. However Balduin’s doppelganger re-emerges and begins to haunt his former owner…

The Student of Prague is a silent, German film starring Paul Wegener as the titular character. The film has had a few remakes (and re-cuts), including ones in 1926 and 1935, and different versions of the original have subsequently been released. One 2004 DVD release, for example, has a running time of approximately 50 minutes. As will be explained by the opening of the version screened today, details gathered from press releases and exhibitions notes reveal that the film should be over 80 minutes long. Today’s film has been restored by Filmmuseum München and is a more complete version of the film. This cut of the film thus contains expanded scenes which allow for the development of some of the supporting characters, and in particular that of the ‘wandering girl’.

Like many of the other films screened in the season, the double figure in The Student of Prague is an evil, trouble-making doppelganger. Balduin’s reflection stalks his original owner and sabotages his efforts to seduce the countess. As we have discussed previously in relation to this theme, it seems impossible for the double and the original figure to co-exist in these stories. The narrative of The Student of Prague explores the intolerability of this situation but with an additional twist: by removing Balduin’s reflection, Scapinelli effectively removes an aspect of Balduin directly – his soul. This aspect is confirmed by the film’s melodramatic ending which is reminiscent of Simon’s efforts to deal with an unwanted doppelganger in The Double (2013) screened a few weeks ago.

The link between the double and the soul is one of the avenues explored by Otto Rank in his investigation into this uncanny phenomenon in his work The Double, written in 1914. In this work Rank is interested in psychoanalytical investigations and, like his contemporary Freud, is inspired by the recurring themes present in German literature, one of which is the double. Rank, like Freud, calls the double uncanny: for the protagonists in the stories analysed by Rank, the experience of viewing one’s own doppelganger is an unnerving and eerie experience, which usually results in injury or death. Rank wants to understand the attraction of including a doppelganger character in a story and so he adopts an anthropological approach – albeit framed by psychoanalytical interpretations – and explores the history of the doppelganger in various cultures. One aspect he discovers is how traditionally one’s own reflection or shadow was thought of as a double. In this respect, the doppelganger is intimately related to the original figure and completely inseparable. It is for these reasons that the double, he argues, is closely related to death and the soul. Ranks writes: “Folklorists are in agreement in emphasizing that the shadow is coequivalent with the human soul.” (Rank, 1914, 75)

The Student of Prague appears to engage with this type of doppelganger, as Balduin’s double is not a sibling or coincidental lookalike but a ‘part’ of him; his reflection. The link between The Student of Prague and Rank’s research also runs deeper as the film was a big inspiration for the writer. Indeed, Rank begins his book with a detailed summary and analysis of the film as the plot and imagery of The Student of Prague provides several avenues for Rank to explore the figure of the doppelganger. Rank describes the experience of watching the film and its subject matter as uncanny, as he writes: “An obscure but unavoidable feeling takes hold of the spectator and seems to betray that deep human problems are being dealt with here [in The Student of Prague].  The uniqueness of cinematography in visibly portraying psychological events calls our attention, with exaggerated clarity, to the fact that the interesting and meaningful problems of man’s relation to himself – and the fateful disturbance of this relation – finds here an imaginative representation.” (Rank, 7)

What is significant is that Rank’s musings on The Student of Prague extend to think about the medium of cinema itself. Cinema, itself a form of doubling, is compared by Rank to “dream-work”. He is particularly fascinated by how this technology – which was still relatively in its infancy at the time of Rank’s writing – has the ability to both represent the physical presence of the doppelganger and evoke the larger themes of melodrama inherent in such stories. These themes include: a crisis of the individual; thwarted romance; love rivals; and the dissolution of family units. Rank observes:

It may perhaps turn out that cinematography, which in numerous ways reminds us of the dream-work, can also express certain psychological facts and relationships – which the writer often is unable to describe with verbal clarity – in such clear and conspicuous imagery that it facilitates our understanding of them. (Rank, 4)

The filmic representation of the double is a topic we can discuss after the screening. Do join us to watch an early example of the doppelganger theme on-screen, and see why The Student of Prague proved so influential for Rank’s work.

I hope to see you there!

Reference:

Rank, O. [1914] 1971. The Double: A Psychoanalytic Study. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Summary of Discussion on Dead Ringers

Kat has very kindly provided the following excellent summary of our discussion on Dead Ringers (1988):

Never before has there been such a hushed silence post screening! Jeremy Irons knows how to wow an audience…..

The initial discussion focused not on the Mantle twins, but rather on the representation of women in the film, which was not wholly positive. The twins, but most often Eliot, were quite dismissive of women, despite the fact they are celebrated gynaecologists. They wonder at the spectacle of Claire’s “trifurcated cervix”, which in essence is a mutation of the cervix and by the end of the film Beverly only sees “mutant” women who require normalising. Women are represented as functional objects in the film; they are either portals of pleasure for the twins, or child bearers (once successfully treated by the Mantle twins). Even Claire Niveau is not constructed as a sympathetic character – it is challenging to engage and feel empathy with her, even when she realises she has been deceived into sexual relationships with both twins, thinking it was just one,Dead Ringers Claire make up Beverly. Claire talks of how she wishes and needs to be humiliated in taking a role in a miniseries. A later scene where costumes are discussed for her character, Claire’s character is described in terms of being an “emotional hooker” . While in another scene, Claire is visited by Eliot whilst she is having her makeup applied for a scene in the mini-series. The audience is privileged to only one side of Claire’s face and when finally there is a full head shot, Claire’s make-up is to create the appearance of a woman beaten up – bruised and swollen eye and bruised lips and cheek. We discussed this as an externalisation of Claire’s emotions and how she feels she has been treated by Beverly and Eliot – as damaged as the supposedly “mutant” women, Beverly thinks he is treating.

Intertwined in the discussion surrounding the construction and representation of Claire, was an aside thread of the theme of art versus glamour (or art and glamour) in the film. There seemed to be a fine line between both. Beverly enjoyed watching “glamorous” shows on TV. However, there is a suggestion of gynaecology being a “work of art”, or at least a creative process that hints at the Mantle twins being perceived as “artists”. The theme is fully realised in the spectacle of the tools Beverly has made in order to treat “mutant” women that finish up displayed in the window of an art gallery.

dead ringers christ like pose imagesThis thread of the discussion on art/glamour developed into the role of colour, costume and the twins. We all agreed there was confusing representations of the twins in terms of when they undertook surgery. Beverly especially as it was normally he who undertook this work. As he was dressed in his scrubs, he would stand, arms out stretched, as if he was Christ like. However, their work in the process of the creation of life is more God-like, we thought.  Nonetheless, very religious imagery stood out against the grey 1980s colouring in the rest of the film. The conclusion was that this was a confusing and muddled aspect of their representation. The costumed scrubs appeared a little excessive for the narrative. We pointed out that the film is explicit in placing the film in 1988. However, the costumes for the surgery pulls it “out of time”, another puzzling part of the film. However, we agreed this did add to the horror and overall general creepiness. The colour red stood out against the grey, even though we didn’t consider it practical for surgery! There was something priest like, or inquisitional regarding the costume and colour here.

In discussing the doubling trope of the twins, it was observed that even though we were privileged with knowing they were twins from the beginning, there were certain scenes in the film when it wasn’t made explicit which twin we were watching. So, the film succeeded in creating suspense in the twins’ identities by denying the audience knowledge of individual identity.

The final point of the discussion was on the idea of male hysteria. It was noted there are previous examples of the double in the relation to the female example in relation to the double. For example, Black Swan and The Yellow Wallpaper. There are references to female identity with Beverly and Eliot, their names for one. Here we pondered on the idea as to whether here is a feminised hysteria in the construction of the Mantle twins. Beverly appeared “weaker” than Eliot and we view him as the more feminised twin. Also, their job is to give life, as if “mother”, but from the beginning there is the notion of “no touching” of the revering of how fish procreate – underwater and again, with no touching. Are they the mutants for suffering from a feminised hysteria?

Thanks for a great summary, Kat. Your final question is certainly one to ponder!

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

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 23rd of March, 5-7pm, Jarman 7

All are very welcome to join us for our next screening and discussion session, which will take place on the 23rd of March, 5-7pm, in Jarman 7.

We will be showing Kat’s choice: Dead Ringers (1988, David Cronenberg, 116 mins).

Dead Ringers

Kat has very kindly provided the following introduction:

There comes the inevitable point in Dead Ringers (1988), where Claire meets both Beverly and Elliot together for the first time. Having her fears realised that while she thought she was involved in a sexual relationship with one, she had been unwittingly duped into sexual intimacy with both, she is horrified by their presence. This scene is pivotal as in Claire’s repulsion the audience realises fully the true horror of their behaviour. Despite the spectator being privileged with the knowledge that Elliot and Beverly are identical twins and have seen both together on screen previously, the meeting with Claire unveils the creeping extent of the uncanny nature of their existence. It’s as if we are meeting ‘the double’ for the first time.  But who here is the double, Beverly or Elliot, or both?

The film is a meditation on primal fears towards twins. Beverly and Elliot (known as Bev and Elli, very feminine names and both played by Jeremy Irons) Mantle are both celebrated gynaecologists who share everything; knowledge, reputation, work and women. When a famous actress, Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold) seeks treatment from them, Elli, the more outgoing of the twins, begins a relationship with her and subsequently encourages Bev to continue the liaison by pretending to be Elli. Claire’s presence in their lives is a catalyst for an excessive downward spiral for Bev and Elli as sexual depravity and drug use threaten not only their work but their existence.

The doubling in Dead Ringers is a variation on the concept of the double. The explicit difference with the film is that the two act as if one entity and wish to remain so. The horrifying nature of doubling is only disclosed through the character of Claire. It is this introduction of reality and “normality” of love and relationships that is the threat to their existence in endeavouring to separate them into single units.

It’s an uneasy watch as Cronenberg deftly crafts and builds on the creeping horror scene by scene. In an interview, Jeremy Irons explained in order to remember which twin he was playing, he played one by walking on the balls of his feet and the other by walking on his heels. Creeping indeed. Or just creepy?

Do join us, if you can, and please note that due to the film’s length we will be starting promptly.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 9th of February, 5-7pm, in Jarman 7

All are very welcome to join us for our next screening and discussion session, which will take place on the 9th of February, 5-7pm, in Jarman 7.

Lady of the Night

Lies’ choice of film, Lady of the Night (1925, Monta Bell, 70 mins), continues this term’s focus on the notion of The Double.

Lies has very kindly provided the following introduction:

Originally and perhaps more aptly entitled Two Worlds, Lady of the Night tells the story of Florence and Molly, two young women born on opposite sides of the social spectrum. Though they meet only once, near the ending of the film, their lives are intertwined from birth, until finally, as young adults, they fall in love with the same man. Directed by Monta Bell for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the film boasted a supporting cast of well-known actors, such as George K. Arthur, Malcolm McGregor and Gwen Lee. The star of the film, however, was 22-year old Norma Shearer, who performed the double role of Florence and Molly and was praised particularly for her performance as Molly, a type of character Shearer had never played before.

Do join us if you can.

Summary of Discussion on The Dark Mirror

Unsurprisingly quite a lot of our discussion on The Dark Mirror (1946) focused on the Doubling aspect. This was commented on in several ways:  in terms of psychology, technology, Olivia de Havilland’s –performance(s), costume, doubling in terms of our comparing to other films/narratives about the Double, and finally the fact that despite the centrality of the Double in terms of the twin sisters de Havilland plays, the power in the narrative rests with two authoritarian male characters: the police detective (Thomas Mitchell) and the psychologist (Lew Ayres).

 We commented that the psychological theme of the film was established very early on – during the opening credits which played over a background of different Rorschach tests, or ink blot, pictures. This particular test, which is also present in the film’s narrative, especially commented on the theme of the double in terms of its owndark Mirror opening mirroring. It was noted that the particular pictures chosen also seemed to particularly relate to the twin theme central to the film’s narrative since some of the blots appeared to resemble wombs. The doubling theme is elaborated on in relation to the Rorschach test when both Ruth and Terry (both played by de Havilland) are seen to undergo this psychological test soon after one another, but with very different results.

The film’s use of technology while the two characters de Havilland plays appear simultaneously on the screen was praised, with only a few lighting differences obviously discernible. De Havilland’s performance(s) also aided the seamlessness. It was almost possible to forget that the actress played both parts, despite the fact the twins are identical.  Character differences were evident from the start – Ruth’s timidity was contrasted to Terry’s confidence. De Havilland’s playing of these early scenes was nuanced enough to indicate Ruth and Terry’s distinct personalities, without exaggerating them. As time progressed and Terry’s ‘evil’ nature was revealed de Havilland’s facial expressions in particular became more manic. It is impressive that de Havilland also managed to convey Ruth’s apparent descent into madness with a different touch. Terry was tricking her sister into believing she herself had gone insane. ruth going madDe Havilland’s performance as Ruth therefore included expressions of bewilderment and fear in contrast to Terry’s planned and controlled scheming.

Costume also played an interesting role in aiding the audience’s attempt to differentiate the twins. The fact that no-one in the narrative is meant to know that there is more than one twin (the twins share a job selling magazines at a stand) explains some of their identical outfits.  It seems unlikely, however, that they would necessarily need to wear identical clothes at the same time. We also wondered why the twins shared a job.  Perhaps this has a practical application since one twin has, after all, we presume,Ruth and Terry identical clothes but different characters committed murder and might need to be fairly closely observed by the other.  Perhaps it also comments on a deeper psychological attachment. It is also the case that the twins wore the same clothes outside of work, even donning identical nightgowns. The identical costumes tailed off as the film progressed and by end evil Terry is seen all in black and innocent Ruth in a white top.

It is telling that one of the few physical ways the twins can be differentiated is by the use of jewellery. Both own a necklace with their name featured prominently, as well as initial brooches. When Terry is impersonating Ruth, it is even seen that Ruth (and presumably Terry) owns a compact mirror with her initial engraved on it. This was particularly noticed by the group as Terry removed it from her handbag after the Doctor had started to make clear he knew her real identity.  This was a very suspenseful moment – signalled, as was the case throughout the film – with dramatic music. In fact some of us thought Terry was about to brandish a gun. The necklaces, brooches and compact mirrors are items which can all be grouped under the term ‘women’s accoutrements’. Such accessories are sometimes sold, at times in connection with film stars, as ways of individuating oneself. The fact that this ‘female’ item, particularly one used to reflect on one’s appearance, is very significant. This is in terms of commenting on the theme of the double, but also because it is a replacement for the expected item – the arguably ‘male’ gun.

We noted a couple of aspects which we have previously discussed in terms of melodrama. The film’s dramatic music – and the fact that Terry uses a concealed music box to convince Ruth that the latter is going mad with auditory hallucinations – was noted. We also expressed views on the comic elements present in the film. These, usually related to the detective, seemed to sit uncomfortably with the seriousness of the film’s subject matter. They can be related to the presence of the comic subplot in some theatrical dramas – Gaslight UKas evidenced in our read-through of the Melville Brothers’  A Girl’s Cross Roads (1903). More specifically, a connection can be made between Mitchell’s detective and the one played by Frank Pettingell in Thorold Dickinson’s British film version of Gaslight (1940). Interestingly this is another narrative about a relative (a husband in this case) trying to send a woman mad.

Finally we discussed the fact that while the film provided a great showcase for de Havilland and her dual performances, the men in the narrative were afforded far more power. This is seen in the ‘active’ occupations of both the detective and the psychologist. Furthermore this is directed towards proving the guilt of the twin who has killed, Terry, the least passive of the twins. By the end of the film we presume Terry will be institutionalised, while Ruth has been safely domesticated in a romance with the psychologist.

Dark Mirror Mitchell Ayres

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

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 26th of January, 5-7pm, in Jarman 7

All are very welcome to join us for the first screening of the New Year, which will take place on the 26th of January, from 5-7pm,  in Jarman 7. We will start this term’s focus on the Gothic notion of The Double by showing The Dark Mirror (1946, Robert Siodmak, 85mins).

Made at a time when psychoanalysis found popularity in Hollywood films, The Dark Mirror tells the story of identical twins (both played by Olivia de Havilland) who are under suspicion of murder.

The Dark Mirror DV p 11 12

The above advertisement from Daily Variety (6th of November 1946) nicely sums up several ways in which the film references The Double.  Unsurprisingly it focuses on de Havilland’s dual role, increasing the already present doubling of actress and character. The left-side of the double-page advertisement comments on the perceived easy split in morality between good evil demonstrated in de Havilland’s contrasting facial expressions and the tagline: ‘Twins! One Loves…One Loves to Kill!’ Intriguingly the opposite page depicts the view from behind the mirror, invoking notions of spectatorship.

The film should prompt lots of discussion in these various areas, and more, with de Havilland’s acting providing a point of focus for comments on acting in melodrama.

Do join us if you can.

The Double Theme for this Term’s Screenings

Hi all,

Following some discussion on this matter last term, which culminated in our wonderful trip to the British Library’s exhibition on The Gothic, we will be screening some films focusing on The Double this term.

gothic-carousel_853x325

We begin with The Dark Mirror (Robert Siodmak, 1946, 85 mins) on the 26th of January, 5-7pm, Jarman 7. An introduction to this film will be posted soon.

As ever, all are welcome to attend our screening and discussion sessions. More information on other films to be screened this term will be available in due course.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 10th of November, Jarman 7, 5-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are very welcome to join us for the third of this term’s screenings, which will take place on the 10th of November, Jarman 7, 5-7pm. We will be showing Stella Maris (1918, Marshall Neilan, 84 mins).

Stella Maris

Neilan’s film focuses on the two women pictured above: the title character and her inverted mirror image, both of whom are played by Mary Pickford. Stella Maris is a young, paralysed woman who has deliberately been kept ignorant of the suffering people are capable of inflicting on one another. By contrast, Unity Blake is a young orphan who is severely beaten by her violent alcoholic female employer. The pair are brought together by their mutual love for one man – John Risca (Conway Tearle) – and Unity sacrifices her life for Stella and John’s happiness.

The melodramatic plot  outlined above should provide much for us to discuss, while the doubling of Pickford as both characters links closely to the Gothic tradition, discussed earlier this year in relation to Black Swan (2010).

Do join us, if you can, for one of Pickford’s finest films.

Summary of Discussion on Black Swan

Posted by Sarah

Ann-Marie has very kindly provided the following:

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

 

Motherhood

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

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

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

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

Let’s break this down:

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

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

 Female performers/ All About Eve syndrome 

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

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

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

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

 The uncanny and the double 

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

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

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

Sexuality and gender roles

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

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

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

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

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