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

Exciting news!

 

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

 

The CFP info from Kat and Ann-Marie:

 

The Melodrama Research Group presents:

At home with horror? Terror on the small screen

27th-28th October 2017

University of Kent

Keynote speaker: Dr Helen Wheatley (University of Warwick)

CALL FOR PAPERS

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

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

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

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

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

Topics can include but are not limited to:

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

 

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

 

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

https://tvhomeofhorror.wordpress.com/

https://twitter.com/Homewithhorror

 

 

 

Summary of discussion on The Witness for The Prosecution

Our discussion about The Witness for the Prosecution in its various forms focused on: differences between the mediums (radio, short story, TV, 1957 film) including of the plot’s key revelation; whether and how various characters received their comeuppance; the characters of Leonard, Romaine, Mayherne (Mayhew in the BBC TV version) and Emily French; matters of gender, class and World War I; general comments on Sarah Phelps’ TV adaptation, especially its pacing and cinematography.

witness-agatha

Starting the session by listening to the BBC’s half hour 2004 radio version meant that we were able to compare and contrast the ways in which Agatha Christie’s 1933 short story was adapted to different mediums. Unlike the short story which reported the meeting between Leonard and Emily French and the latter’s murder in retrospect, the radio version utilised flashbacks which directly reported Leonard and Emily’s interaction; this meant that we were not relying on Leonard’s rather doubtful word (also true of the BBC TV version).

witness-georgeThe quick pace of the radio version, with the fairly rapid switching between its micro scenes, often marked by bursts of Django Reinhardt, was especially commented on. We also noted how the main expansion of the radio version from the short story was its preface. This featured Leonard’s garrulous club-owning friend George (whom we compared to George Sanders’ character in Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of Rebecca (1940) which provided Leonard with some colour by association.  References to the club also helped to establish the metropolitan London setting. Shifts within this were well evoked by sound effects: Romaine asked to speak to Mayherne outside in private and the subsequent scene was punctuated by birdsong. The time setting was established by both references to the date of the crime (in the year 1947) and by the wail of sirens.

witness-margolyesDiscussion also focused on the ways in which the radio medium in its lack of the visual differed to the TV adaptation. This mostly involved our recognition that one of the radio actors played 2 key roles: Miriam Margolyes was recognisably Romaine as well as the part she plays to deceive Mayherne (Mrs Mogdon). While different accents and markers of class were used (we especially noted the newly named maid ‘Flora’ McKenzie’s Scottish brogue) we witness-bennettalso recognised some of the actors by their voices: this meant that our knowledge of the age and appearance of some of the actors gave us particular views of the characters played. We thought Hywel Bennett as Leonard sounded older and more confident than in the TV version – as indeed did Romaine. This meant that the TV version’s revelation of Leonard and Romaine’s crimes, and the level of manipulation employed, were perhaps more surprising.

We also noted how the revelation of Romaine’s performance as Mrs Mogdon occurred in different ways: in the short story Mayherne realises it due to Romaine and the part she plays sharing the same ‘foreign gesture’. Since radio has the audio advantage, it chooses to damn Romaine by her own words: ‘a tree is a tree is a tree’. She utters this both while playing Mrs Mogdon and in court giving evidence. Since the TV version affords Mayhew a larger place in the narrative, and also significantly differs in its characterisation of Romaine, it is framed as something Mayhew finds out only after his success in the defence of Leonard leads to him taking a holiday in Le Touquet. Seeing Leonard and his new bride outside a hotel, Mayhew pays them a visit: Romaine calmly tells him what they had done. This underlined the less calculating Romaine in the radiowitness-dietrich adaptation as the warmth of her voice and her talk of love contrasts to the TV Romaine’s coldness and the impression she is more intent on survival. In Wilder’s 1957 film Marlene Dietrich as ‘Christine’ re-enacts her earlier performance as the scarred woman for the barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts, played by Charles Laughton. While Christine seems to revel in her talent, Andrea Riseborough in the TV adaptation is more subdued and matter-of-fact.

Another significant difference between the original and its several adaptations are whether characters get their comeuppance. While the short story and radio version end with the revelation of the deception, and the impression no justice will be served, the film and TV versions tackle the matter in alternative ways. In the film, Leonard and Christine do not ‘get away with it’ since the existence of Leonard’s girlfriend is revealed in the court room and Christine takes her revenge by stabbing him. It was mentioned that the filming of this is especially instructive as the light from Sir Wilfrid’s monocle, which he spins on the desk, highlights the presence of the knife. In effect, this means that Sir Wilfrid, by now fully cognizant of Leonard’s crime and Christine’s lies, somehow directs Christine towards committing her crime.

In the TV version Leonard and Romaine do appear to have escaped justice – instead Janet McKenzie is wrongly convicted and hanged for their crime. Furthermore, Mayhew was instrumental in Janet’s arrest, causing him much distress when the truth is revealed by Leonard and Romaine. Mayhew is unable to bear the guilt and walks into the sea at the end. Some in the group did not like the fact that Mayhew is the only one to fully accept his guilt for his actions, this seeming to let Leonard and Romaine off the hook. However a note of caution is also sounded for the ‘happy’ couple: Leonard asks whether Romaine will need him much longer, to which she replies that she will – as long as he’s not boring. In addition to suggesting Leonard may yet be punished for him crime, this gives further insight into Leonard and Romaine’s relationship as it shows her very much in control.

witness-showgirlWe spoke further on the matter of gender and especially Romaine. We commented on her emotionless rendering of her signature tune ‘Let me Call You Sweetheart’ at the theatre throughout the TV adaptation. Although her skimpy costume and centre stage placement suggest objectification, she is in fact very closed. This was also true of her seeming breakdown in court: she is confronted by the letters to her non-existent lover she has in fact planted in order to keep her husband out of prison. Although she performs anger at having been discovered, allowing those who accuse her to feel especially smug in the face of her abjectness, she is in fact more opaque than ever – and a willing victim, sacrificing herself for a higher purpose. She is one of the few women who actually get to speak in court and have their words believed – even though ironically they are not the truth. Janet’s evidence is (accurately) put down to havingwitness-mrs-mahyew been coached by the prosecution team.  We compared Romaine’s largely subdued character to a similar quality in Mayhew’s wife (a newly invented character for the TV adaption). The very presence of Mrs Mayhew increased the number of women playing an important part in the narrative, and showed one side of sexual politics as she endured her husband’s attentions.

witness-catrallUnsurprisingly, the TV version was also more modern in its approach to sexual politics. Emily’s maid Janet appears to have a passion for her employer, the cougar-ish Emily, played by Kim Catrall. Emily was not just stunningly attractive, but open about her desire for Leonard. Despite the more modern production context, this made the force used in killing her seem more like a punishment; this was especially evident when we re-watched the scenes in which Emily and Leonard first met and she invited him back to her house. Rather than Leonard helping a little old lady who’d dropped her parcels in the street, it is Leonard who is clumsy as the tray of drinks he is carrying at his place of work crashes to the ground. The fact that this happens just after Emily has passed him on the stairs seems to afford her a certain power of the gaze (heightened later as she watches him in the bath, objectifying his body and feeding him scraps of food from a plate as though he were a pet). Leonard is shown to be her prey, unable to escape her attentions.

witness-maidThat Leonard was unable to escape Emily is also seen in the dynamic between him, Janet and Emily. At the beginning, Leonard is clearly marked as having less agency than Janet. Janet directly tells him to leave within seconds of first meeting him. Emily’s desire, however, trumps her employee’s reservations, with Leonard becoming increasingly forthright (even vindictive) with Janet, and taking advantage of his opportunity. In the end this means that it is Emily and Janet who are punished – both for their desires. Leonard takes Emily’s life in a particularly savage and bloody way, and the fact Janet is wrongly executed for murdering her beloved mistress makes her punishment especially cruel.

witness-wilfridWhile in the cases of Janet and Emily the punishment meted out in linked to gender, the matter of Class comes in to play in different versions. In the film, Sir Wilfrid is higher class and, as noted above, can be seen to have directed justice for his own ends. By contrast, Mayhew in the TV version is clearly shown to be middle class- he has awitness-mayhew comfortable home; but occupies a dank and leaky office and has to bribe police officers for access to potential cases. His punishment comes due to his own error, made partly due to his grief over the loss of his son, killed when Mayhew lied about his son’s age so that they could go to war together. Leonard is clearly a surrogate son he is determined to save.

The TV version’s post World War I setting was especially important. This tied Leonard and Romaine closer together in their desperation – including their first meeting at the very start of the adaptation. We noted that this scene could be interpreted in several ways: as a fairly direct telling of a soldier and a young woman (possibly a prisoner, kept near the front to service the soldiers) meeting, a dream of either Leonard or Romaine, or a metaphorical representation of their relationship to each other and the world.

witness-crimson-fieldWe further pondered the decision to set the adaptation just post World War I. While Christie’s short story was published in 1933, there was little mention of the conflict of twenty years earlier. The radio adaptation, by contrast, chose to place the action post-World War II. We commented on the fact that adapter Sarah Phelps had also created and written the 6 part BBC drama series The Crimson Field. Taking place during World War I, this focused on strong women working as nurses near the front. The post-World War I setting also seems especially timely given the continuing centenary commemorations today. We thought it gave more cause (if not justification) to the characters of Leonard and Romaine. They attempt to excuse themselves to Mayhew by arguing that the murder of Emily is just one more death – what is to be expected when we put the young through the horrifying experience of fighting a war. In relation to Romaine, we additionally considered that a post-World War II setting might unnecessarily complicate her Austrian heritage, and hammer home too forcefully any suggestion of Nazism in Phelps’ expanded narrative.

The legacy of World War I is also seen in the relationship of the Mayhews. Indeed it underpins Mayhew’s relationship with Leonard and Romaine. The former is the surrogate for the son lost at war, and his sympathy for the latter initially comes from a sentimentalised romantic desire which is not reciprocated at home: his wife blames him for their son’s death.  Significantly while experiences during the War have desensitised Leonard and Romaine, Mayhew is still capable of wanting love, and of feeling guilt. It was also mentioned that in the introduction to the BBC’s new tie-in version of the short story, Phelps highlighted the matter of characters performing – which we specially connected to the female characters. This adds another level when considering the performative nature of the mediums of TV, film and radio.

witness-and-thenIn more general terms we also commented on the pacing of the TV production and its  cinematography. Extending to two hours, even allowing for the extra twist Phelps had added of Mayhew ‘discovering’ Janet’s guilt as the Mayhews holidayed in Le Touquet, was a stretch. This is hardly surprising when we note that Phelps’ 2015 3 part TV adaptation of Christie’s novel And Then There Were None had far more characters, and murders, to dramatize. While the revelation that Romaine was going to be a witness for the prosecution rather than the defence acted as a useful pivot between episodes 1 and 2, some of the scenes and shots seemed overlong. We wondered if sometimes the shots lasted so long to allow us to try and discern what was happening in the murkier scenes.  (There was a pervading yellowy green atmosphere to some of the scenes of Mayhew in London – perhaps an ongoing reminder of the mustard gas poisoning he is suffering from.)  Extended shots and scenes on occasion hammered home aspects a little too forcefully, with the images of Emily’s hitherto gleamingly white cat padding in her recently murdered mistress’s blood especially gratuitous.

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

Summary of Discussion on Mildred Pierce

Posted by Sarah

The group’s discussion on Mildred Pierce focused on the following areas: the film as melodrama and/or film noir; comparison of Michael Curtiz’ film to James M. Cain’s novel and the recent TV series starring Kate Winslet; the central mother daughter relationship and differences between Mildred’s daughters Veda and Kay; the career woman in 1940s Hollywood film; Joan Crawford’s star image.

The splitting of Mildred Pierce into melodrama and film noir has been commented on by several writers. In particular Pam Cook (1978) has noted the broad separation into the bulk of the narrative which is narrated by Mildred and largely melodramatic, and the film noir elements.  In fact film noirs often include such a use of flashback narration – Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) is a prime example. Such a clear separation is challenged by Steve Neale’s work on the way in which contemporaneous trade journals used the label ‘melodrama’. Neale asserts that the term was more often used in connection to films which contained ‘mystery, violence, chase’ (Neale 1993, p. 71). This relates closely to film noir. In addition, Linda Williams has proposed that melodrama is less a genre than a mode, and present in most Hollywood films (Williams, 2000). While it useful to further debate the various definitions of melodrama, it is clear that the film contains contrasting styles. We were particularly struck by the film’s opening. In this Wally Fay (Jack Carson) races around the beach house in which Mildred (Joan Crawford) has imprisoned him. We MP Wally on stairsespecially noted the nightmarish shot of a Carson staring up the spiral staircase. Elsewhere Max Steiner’s lush score emphasised the emotional drama (see Claudia Gorbman, 1982). The tagline from a Variety advertisement quoted in Tamar’s introduction that Mildred was ‘Kinda Hard, Kinda soft’ sums up Mildred Pierce’s dual nature well.

MP Ann Blyth cabaret 2Michael Curtiz’ film was also discussed in relation to James M. Cain’s novel. It was noted that Curtiz’ film kept a flavour of Cain’s punchy social commentary. We were a little surprised that under Hollywood’s Production Code fairly obvious references to extra-marital sex and pregnancy were included.  The film was still, as Variety noted in its review, fairly cleaned up from the novel. While in Cain’s novel Veda became a successful opera singer – and therefore profited from her hideous behaviour – in Curtiz’ film she ends up a low-rent cabaret act. A more significant difference is Mildred’s response to finding her eldest daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) and Mildred’s second husband Monte (Zachary Scott) in a compromising position. In Cain’s novel Mildred is so enraged she attempts to strangle her daughter.  Such an understandable response is not present in Curtiz’ film, though.  Instead Mildred’s suffering sacrifice is played to the hilt. Mildred’s one refusal of Veda’s demands occurs when Veda has shot Monte dead. Mildred soon reconsiders, however, and is prepared to take responsibility for the crime herself.

Veda’s selfish behaviour can be usefully compared to that of Stella’s daughter Laurel in Stella Dallas (1937). In King Vidor’s film both mother and daughter make sacrifices. A telling scene takes place on the train. Stella and Laurel, lying in separate bunks, overhear the latter’s friends mocking Stella for her vulgarity. Each pretends they have not heard in order to protect the other. In Curtiz’ MP ungrateful Vedafilm Mildred alone overhears something significant: Veda’s ungrateful comment to her sister that she would not ‘be seen dead’ in the dress her mother has scrimped and saved to buy for her.  This is especially poignant as Mildred has sacrificed her marriage to Veda’s father in order to supply Veda with everything she desires rather than what she deserves.

MP Mildred slaps VedaWhile Mildred’s accepting sacrifice in the face of such an ungrateful daughter in Curtiz’ film is perhaps less then believable, it was agreed that Ann Blyth superbly portrayed Veda’s venal nature. The film ably contrasts Veda to her sweet little sister Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe), whose death scene provides the film’s most distressing moment. We also noted the way in which the film managed to convey complex aspects of Mildred and Veda’s relationship. The repetition of a slap was commented on. The first time this occurs Mildred slaps Veda and, immediately overcome with guilt, profusely apologises. Towards the end of the film Veda slaps her mother. This second occurrence is far more shocking. Partly this is due to the heft of the slap and Mildred/Crawford’s fairly exaggerated physical recoil but it is also notable that Veda does not regret her action. This neatly comments on both the differences MP Mildred is slapped buy Vedabetween the characters and the change in the dynamics of their relationship. The actresses’ costuming, hair and make-up parallel this change. As Veda grows up and Mildred becomes more business-like their outfits and hairstyles echo one another, foreshadowing that they are ‘squaring up’ for the next round of the fight.  We might ponder whether this mirroring is a statement on how much Mildred is responsible for Veda’s spoilt nature.

MP TV seriesJoan Crawford’s performance was compared to Kate Winslet’s in the 2011 TV mini-series. Similarities were noted in the scenes where Mildred puts her children to bed.  In particular the tendency of both actresses to employ minimal mouth movement was commented on. However Crawford’s individuality was also a source of discussion. In addition to the seeming impossibility of her facial features – the severe cheekbones and large eyes and mouth – her wide shoulders were referenced.

 Mildred’s progression from domesticity to high-powered business woman was also commented on. This was compared to the career woman in 1940s Hollywood film – most often in comedy, and portrayed with distinct flair by Rosalind Russell. But we also related it to Crawford’s own star image. In particular her films They All Kissed the Bride (1942) and The Damned Don’t Cry (1950) were mentioned. It was noted that at the time real shop girls were thought to identify with the shop girls portrayed by Crawford in sound films – such as in The Bride Wore Red (1937). It is worth noting, however, that despite the shop girl playing an important part in Crawford’s 1930s star image she actually played a variety of roles. (See Jeanine Basinger, A Woman’s View, 1993, pp. 171-173.) It was thought that perhaps the emphasis in fan magazines on how Crawford herself learned’ through films strengthened the connection.

In relation to Crawford’s star image It's a Great FeelingTamar suggested  watching It’s a Great Feeling (1949) starring  Doris Day, Jack Carson (Wally Fay) and Dennis Morgan. In the film various Warner Bros. contract stars play up to their star images. Crawford in seen knitting in the background (apparently a hobby of hers) and then angrily berates and slaps Carson for no reason. Afterwards she smiles sweetly and replies to his asking her why she did it that ‘I do that in all my movies’. As with the assumption that Crawford ‘always’ played shop girls, this action which’ does in all her movies’ is in fact very specific. Crawford does not perform such an action in all, or even most, of her films.  Indeed it is largely a reference to Mildred Pierce. It is significant that a few years after the film’s release another film from the same studio posits such an action as an essential part of her star image.

We rounded up discussion with a mention of Johnny Guitar (1954). Significantly in Nicholas Ray’s film Crawford starred with the actress Mercedes McCambridge – with whom she reportedly feuded. This of course prompted thoughts on Bette Davis.  Ann-Marie provided some great behind the scenes information on the next film we will screen – The Old Maid (1939- see the next post!) and Davis’ feud with an actress other than Crawford: Miriam Hopkins.

Works Cited

Jeanine Basinger, A Woman’s View, New York: Knopf, 1993.

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

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

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

Linda Williams “Melodrama Revised” in Nick Browne, ed, Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, University of California Press, 1998: 42-88.

A clip of Crawford in It’s a Great Feeling:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=trGF6KrMAbA

Many thanks to Tamar for organising the screening and providing an excellent introduction.

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

Summary of Discussion on Twin Peaks and the X Files

Posted by Sarah

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

 Twin 1

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 13th of November, Keynes Seminar Room 6, 4-7 pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the fifth of this term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 13th of November in Keynes Seminar Room 6, from 4pm to 7pm.

We will be screening Frances’ selection: episodes of Twin Peaks and The X Files.

Frances’ introduction:

Twin Peaks and The X-Files

x files 1

The aim of this week’s session is to continue the discussion inspired by Kat’s screening last week of American Horror Story. As highlighted last week, Kat and I are interested in exploring further the relationship between horror and melodrama, and how this has a particular relevance to television, where such productions are based on the serial format. This week I shall be showing episodes from Twin Peaks and The X-Files as further examples of popular TV shows combining horror and melodrama traditions. Both shows were created and first aired during the 1990s and, as such, represent the forerunners to American Horror Story and the commercialisation of horror as a successful, primetime television component we discussed last week. This week’s session shall therefore look at examples from both series and their spin-offs, including:

–          A clip from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (a 1992 film based on the TV series directed by David Lynch; this film was made as a prequel to the TV show).

–          Twin Peaks episode 29, season 2 (first aired in the USA on 10th June 1991; this episode is the final one of the series).

–          The X-Files episode 2, season 4 Home (first aired in the USA on 11th October 1996).

TP 1Twin Peaks was first aired in the USA on 8th April 1990 and ended on 10th June 1991, after running for two seasons. The series begins with the discovery of a girl’s body wrapped in plastic and washed up on a riverbank in a quiet American town called Twin Peaks. The girl is revealed to a local named Laura Palmer, a high school student and the school’s prom queen. The news of Laura’s murder shakes the town, particularly as Laura was seen as the perfect, all-American teenage girl with a loving and respectable family. This event sets up the key question which drives the rest of the narrative: who killed Laura Palmer? Soon after the discovery of Laura’s body, another teenager named Ronnette Pulaski is found badly hurt and wandering confused just outside of town. The girl slips into a coma and FBI Agent Dale Cooper is called to investigate Laura’s death and any connection this may have to Ronnette. On inspecting Laura’s corpse, Cooper finds a letter concealed underneath one of her fingernails which bears a striking resemblance to a murder case of another girl murdered a year earlier. Believing the cases to be connected, Cooper remains in Twin Peaks to investigate Laura’s death and expose the killer he thinks may be local or, at least, not very far away.

TP 2Cooper’s investigation into Laura’s demise is the core plot point which drives the narrative although the FBI agent’s investigations soon expose the corruption and crime which permeates the seemingly sleepy town. The series also follows the lives of all its inhabitants and thus the show features an extensive supporting cast and interweaving sub-plots. Throughout the course of the show, the picturesque Twin Peaks is found to be harbouring drug dealers, pimps, adultery, domestic violence, child abuse, incest, mental illness, blackmailers, corporate corruption, human trafficking, prostitution and, of course, murder. Laura is revealed to be at the heart of these crimes as Cooper discovers two sides to Laura’s life: on the one side, the happy high school girl who was the prom queen and dates a local boy Bobby; on the other side, Cooper discovers Laura’s darker life, where she is also seeing another teenage boy James, is addicted to cocaine and prostitutes herself to pay for her habit, and has been the victim of sexual abuse since childhood. The revelation of Laura’s suffering exposes the perpetrators of these criminals as Twin Peaks locals, as well as illuminating the family dramas of other residents, not directly responsible for Laura’s death. As such the series plays out like a soap opera, where the personal melodramas of the town’s inhabitants becomes public knowledge and the repercussions of this are great: Twin Peaks cannot return to its (however illusory) status as a normal, quiet American town.

TP 3Twin Peaks is therefore infused with melodramatic sub-plots and performance, and you will see examples of this in today’s screening. The series is indebted to the features of melodrama we have looked at in previous sessions: the detective story; use of delay and reticence; the threat of the domestic space; heightened emotion and exaggerated performance; and suffering women (there are many suffering women in this series which include but go beyond Laura). However Twin Peaks’s genre is difficult to pin-down precisely, particularly as the series features other surreal moments in true Lynchian fashion: Cooper has many dream sequences where he visits a mysterious red room which is not of this world. Cooper is convinced that this dream holds the clues to solving Laura’s murder and it reveals that the mystery hinges on deciphering who or what is BOB. As a result of this strange mixture – the show’s portrayal of intense family drama juxtaposed with dream sequences and suggestions of the supernatural or mystic which lack narrative or logical explanation – Lenora Ledwon suggests that Twin Peaks is a prime examples of the ‘Television Gothic’. Like the Gothic discussed previously in our sessions, this genre also places an emphasis upon the home, the family, the uncanny and the monstrous (either real or supernatural) but is particularly subversive because of the show’s domesticity as a television programme (Ledwon, 1993, 5). She writes:

This new Television Gothic utilizes familiar Gothic themes and devices such as incest, the grotesque, repetition, interpolated narration, haunted settings, mirrors, doubles, and supernatural occurrences. But these elements undergo a sea change once they are immersed in the “currents” of television. What could have been a soothing repetition of formula instead becomes a disturbing process of transgression and uncertainty. (2)

The extracts from Twin Peaks chosen for you to watch today demonstrate this potent combination of family melodrama, Gothic tropes and horror sequences. Twin Peaks questions the stability and conception of American Dream and in particular the idea of small-town America and the nuclear family. In the clip from Fire Walk With Me this is particularly potent: the seedier sides of Laura’s life become increasingly apparent to the viewer and Laura becomes both a Gothic heroine in her own home – a victim of the evil forces surrounding her – but also an active (and enthusiastic) participant in the town’s sleazy underbelly. The show makes extensive use of horror iconography in these examples and helps to complicate the question: who killed Laura Palmer? On one level this is answered (the killer is revealed mid-way through season two) but the surreal and dreamlike sequences used in the show’s finale show that the answer is not so easy or complete. The series questions whether the evil in the town is inherent in the people who live in Twin Peaks or whether another force is responsible. The show’s final episode also extends this question of instability to another form of authority: the US government. Cooper’s status as an agent of the FBI is an important facet to the murder investigation and, along with other law enforcers like the town’s sheriff, they represent the (only) force of good. Yet the viability of sustaining such control and enforcing the law in Twin Peaks also comes under threat. The series thus ends on an ambiguous note: what is to become of institutions like law enforcement and the family? Does the ending offer any hope? These are questions to keep in mind for the screening.

x files 2The last episode I am showing is from The X-Files, a series which ran from 10th September 1993 to 19th May 2002, spanning nine seasons. Both The X-Files and Twin Peaks therefore began in the same decade, although the latter was cancelled much earlier. At first glance the two series seem very different: whereas Twin Peaks appears to adopt a soap opera format with an emphasis on the domestic and the family, The X-Files is commonly classified as a science-fiction series and follows the actions of two FBI agents – Mulder and Scully – who investigate a series of cases which feature paranormal occurrences. Mulder is keen prove the existence of aliens although his partner Scully – a scientist who is assigned to evaluate Mulder’s activities – is a hardened sceptic. Over the course of the show, the two agents become very close and learn from each other’s perspectives, as well as investigating cases which reveal criminal activity, paranormal activity and the corruption of the government. For Joe Bellon, the show’s combination of all these elements means that it should not be classified as just ‘science fiction’. (Bellon, 1999). In fact, the show’s strange mixture of not completely conforming to a pro-science perspective but also not being entirely irrational in its representations either, make for a difficult classification. It is for these reasons Bellon argues that The X-Files functions in the ‘ontological detective mode’, where ‘[t]he question to be answered is not “who done it?” but rather “what is it?”’ (7). This shift in emphasis thus widens The X-Files’s concerns beyond the question of the existence of aliens (although very important) and includes the exposure of corruption and evil which wears a very human face, such as the FBI. These larger issues are comparable to the issues raised by the Twin Peaks finale as well.

The X-Files’s resistance to conforming to the usual conventions of science-fiction does not mean that the show has no discernible genres, however. I would argue that melodrama is an important part of the show, motivating the narrative. Mulder’s preoccupation with all things paranormal is not without cause: he is convinced his sister was abducted by aliens as a child and he is determined to expose the truth. His detective work thus provides the catalyst for the revealing a number of hidden truths along the way, in a manner similar to Cooper’s work in Twin Peaks. Yet the key difference is that Mulder is motivated by his own family trauma: in The X-Files the detective work is a very personal affair. The melodramatic potential of this sub-plot also comes to the fore with another personal relationship, this time the relationship between Mulder and Scully. As the series continues, one of dominant reoccurring stories of the show is the ‘will-they-or-won’t-they?’ question. Although the FBI agents’ relationship is platonic for the majority of the show, the two do become romantically involved.

The X-Files also makes extensive use of horror conventions in its narrative and iconography. The decision to bring horror onto the small screen was quite deliberate: the show’s creator, Chris Carter, mused that there seemed to be a lack of prime-time shows which included horror. He wrote: ‘You look at the TV schedule … and there’s nothing scary on television.’ (quoted in Hammond and Mazdon, 2005, 63). The show’s episodes are therefore littered with monsters, creepy occurrences and unexplained events intended to haunt and disturb. The importance of the horror format is also apparent by the ‘Monster-of-the-Week’ episodes: these are episodes which stand-alone from the main narrative and its concerns (such as Mulder’s sister) but help to develop the evil and horror infecting the larger X-Files universe. It is one of these episodes I have chosen to screen for this session: an episode called Home. In this instalment of the show, The X-Files follows a very similar narrative arc to Twin Peaks: a gruesome discovery in a small, quiet town in American necessitates an investigation by the FBI and Mulder and Scully are sent in. Their investigation leads them to the Peacock family, who live in an old, isolated house and have no contact with the other town’s inhabitants: in fact the family has managed to reproduce through incestuous liaisons. Mulder and Scully attempt to infiltrate this disturbing family home and solve the mystery of the murder.

x files 3Home became quite an infamous episode for the show, as its horrific content meant that the show was broadcast with a viewer’s warning for the first time in The X-Files’s history. Many reviewers criticised the series for going ‘too far’ in the episode and the network did not re-broadcast the show for many years afterwards. Home has also been rated number one out of the ‘Scariest Science Fiction and Fantasy TV Episode’ with the warning: ‘Once seen, this episode will never leave you.’ (see: http://io9.com/top-25-scariest-science-fiction-and-fantasy-tv-episodes-1450803057). Interestingly, the horror of this episode is unrelated to all of the paranormal investigations which feature elsewhere in the series, and a supernatural explanation for the events does not occur. Rather, like Twin Peaks, Home seeks to expose the horrific living in the domestic sphere, questioning the stability and safety of the traditional family unit. Home presents us with a radical re-definition of the American family which becomes unnatural, perverse and monstrous. One noticeable difference between Home and Twin Peaks is that the first’s family appears to function without any female presence or influence at all: it seems that only three of the Peacock ‘brothers’ live in the old house. However the episode soon subverts expectations again and presents us with extreme variations of the Gothic heroine, as the true nature of the situation comes to light and the investigation is solved. As such The X-Files creates a unique and horrific version of the traditional family melodrama.

As with Twin Peaks, this X-Files episode evokes the questions: what is the cause of the ‘evil’ here? How does this reflect upon the idea of family and the domestic home? Can these observations be extended to include the representation of authority, as with the FBI?

Enjoy the shows!

References:

Bellon, J. 1999. ‘The Strange Discourse of The X-Files: What It Is, What It Does, and What Is at Stake.’ Critical Studies in Mass Communication 16, 136-154.

Creeber, G. 2004. Serial Television: Big Drama on the Small Screen. London: British Film Institute.

Hammond, M. and Mazdon, L. (eds.) 2005. The Contemporary Television Series. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Kowalski, D. (ed.) 2007. The Philosophy of The X-Files. Kentucky: The University of Kentucky.

Lavery, D., Hague, A. and Cartwright, M. (eds.) 1996. Deny All Knowledge: Reading the X-Files. London: Faber and Faber. 

Ledwon, L. 1993. ‘Twin Peaks and the Television Gothic.’ Literature Film Quarterly,21:4, 260-270.

http://io9.com/top-25-scariest-science-fiction-and-fantasy-tv-episodes-1450803057

 

Do join us if you can, for more TV horror. Visit our additional blog for more information:http://melodramaresearchgroupextra.wordpress.com/

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

Posted by Sarah

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

We will be screening Kat’s choice: some episodes of the TV series American Horror Story.

Kat’s introduction:

American Horror Story: Murder House

am horror story

American Horror Story: Murder House is the first season of the television series, American Horror Story, which aired between 5th October and 21st December 2011. Produced by 20th Century Fox, American Horror Story was created by Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy.  The series received critical acclaim and won various awards including a Golden Globe for Jessica Lange as Best Supporting Actress.  Two more series have since been commissioned and aired, Asylum and Coven, the latter is currently showing both here and in the US.  The first season revolves around the Harmon family, Ben, Vivien and their teenage daughter Violet who move from Boston to a house in LA known to locals (but not to the Harmons) as the murder house.

Creators Murphy and Falchuk began working on American Horror Story before their Fox series Glee began production. Murphy wanted to do the opposite of what he had done previously and thus began work on the series. He stated, “I went from Nip/Tuck to Glee, so it made sense that I wanted to do something challenging and dark. And I always had loved as Brad had, the horror genre. So it just seemed natural for me.” Falchuk was intrigued by the idea of putting a different angle on the horror genre, stating their main goal in creating the series was to scare viewers. “You want people to be a little off balance afterwards.”

The dark tone of the series is modelled after the ABC soap opera, Dark Shadows, which Murphy’s grandmother forced him to watch when he was younger to toughen him up. He also citied The Amityville Horror and The Shining as influences for the series as well.

It doesn’t take much to persuade me to show anything horror related. However, there are, I think, particular reasons as to why American Horror Story is not only a good choice to show to the group, but also a great example of how horror can work with melodrama. Firstly, structure of a drama series. There has been a proliferation of horrific dramas on TV. Frances will look at this more in the next session, but recent TV has seen a rise in the  commercialisation of horror. Series such as True Blood, Walking Dead, American Gothic, The Following, Hannibal and Bates Hotel. Even Sleepy Hollow! For such series to work, there has to be more than just horror to enable the shows to sustain a lengthy episodic momentum.  As you can tell from the diversity of the examples, TV much more than the cinema, is the medium willing to take chances and experiment with the concept of horror.

American Horror Story: Murder House is an update on the Gothic melodrama format and as the title infers, focuses on all things horror and home that have seeped into American culture. This referencing of American popular culture, history and previous Gothic melodramas makes this first season extremely self-reflexive. The character of Constance is a great example of this.

The series intertwines real life murders such as The Black Dahlia with fictional narratives that places the home as the central force. The extent as to how central the house is, is evident by what is said in a later episode, “Don’t think that you own this house, the house owns you.” As with Gothic melodramas, the house is paramount in that it homes all past secrets that are waiting to be uncovered and you can see how films such as Amityville and The Shining have influenced the series. Secrets are also kept by the Harmon family. The family are under enormous emotional pressure as Vivien had miscarried and Ben had an affair before their move to LA. The melodrama revolves around the family’s relationships. Vivien believes her husband is responsible for her mental state and accuses him of trying to “gaslight” her. Jessica Lange’s character, Constance, is another example of how melodrama is employed in this series. Constance appears of another era, as if she’s walked straight from a Hollywood melodrama of a bygone time. It is Constance and the house that are stars of this series.

I haven’t included much further reading apart from an article from Hollywood Reporter that focuses on the popularity and success of recent horror dramas from American networks and stations.

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/american-horror-story-walking-dead-645007

Do join us if you can. And please note we hope to start promptly at 4.

Summary of Discussion on Of Human Bondage

Posted by Sarah

Our first post-screening discussion after the lengthy Summer Break was lively, and encompassed several areas relating to melodrama, this specific film and Bette Davis. It included comment on: Bette Davis’ performance; the film as an adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s novel;  the film’s music; comparison of the female characters; later adaptations of the novel; stars Leslie Howard and Bette Davis’ other work together; Somerset Maugham as a writer.

Unsurprisingly the discussion began with comments on Davis’ tour de force performance. Davis’ ability to convey Mildred Rogers’ attempts to appear more refined through her voice was deemed especially effective. She shifted effortlessly, and at the appropriate moments, between strangulated cockney and strangulated cockney with a slight hint of unconvincing cultivation. This undulating movement was also present in Davis’ physical performance. This was quite exaggerated.  Using gestures and facial expressions liberally, Davis wonderfully conveyed both Mildred’s flirtatious nature and her at times pointedly indifferent attitude to Philip. We especially noted Davis’ use of Of Human Bondage eyesher eyes to express these contradictory aspects of Mildred’s character.  Occasionally Mildred with her head tipped down, steadily and flirtatiously looked up at Philip across the top of her champagne glass (see picture on right).  More often though, she flicked her eyes away from him, either quickly or slowly, to signal her disagreement with him or to reveal that she was mulling over an offer he had made.

Of Human Bondage tiradeDespite the fact that throughout the film Davis employed theatrics, and could hardly be described as restrained, her two big scenes were stunningly effective. In Mildred’s tirade against Philip, which we discussed at length, Davis ratcheted her performance up a gear. There is constant movement in this scene. Both by Davis, who turns to and away from the camera whilst striding away from it,  and by the camera itself which follows Davis at some speed. Extra impetus was added by the fact that the scene was fairly quiet up to this point.  It was also the first time we saw Mildred really furious. This was prompted by Philip’s comment that Mildred disgusts him. This, in turn, was in response to her attempt to seduce him. After repeating Philip’s words with her voice and body shaking with disbelief and anger, the scene reaches its climax as Davis performs a violent gesture. She tells Philip that every time he has kissed her she wiped her mouth. Mildred clearly thinks this is a useful phrase to torment Philip with, and she repeats it, atof human bondage mouth increased volume. Davis also emphasises the point by ferociously rubbing her arm across her heavily lipsticked mouth.  It is notable that while the gesture is arguably one of the film’s most memorable moments, partly due to Davis’ heightened performance, it does not appear in the novel.

What made it unforgettable is that as Mildred is shouting angrily with mad, staring eyes, she is also smiling, or perhaps more correctly, grimacing. She clearly relishes having the opportunity to express her true feelings to Philip. This was compared to other moments in Davis films when her characters’ real self is unleashed, for example In This Our Life (1942, John Huston).

Davis’ other ‘big’ scene revealed more of Mildred’s vindictiveness. This is very possibly even worse than her spontaneous reaction to Philip’s comment as she has had time to consider her actions.  She gleefully rampages through Philip’s apartment, destroying the works of art which mean the most to him, but which she has declared she finds vulgar.The music which accompanies the following scene is revealing. Mildred coolly picks up ‘baby’ from her cot in preparation of them both leaving Philip’s apartment.  There is a ‘frowsy’, almost comedic, quality to the music. While the audience has never entertained the same illusions about Mildred as Philip has, it suggests that after her tirade and the following rampage the film is now signalling through music that her real nature is indeed shabby. It was mentioned that apparently after the first screening of the film, some of its music was changed as it was considered too comedic in places.

Our focus on performance, and in particular specific moments of heighted emotion and gesture was related to some of the discussion we engaged in at our previous screening sessions. Of special interest, and worthy of further consideration, is how these instances are juxtaposed with elements of restraint.

of human bondage novelAs with some of our previous discussions, we spoke about the suffering woman. While the film showcased Davis’ performance, it was perhaps less about Mildred’s suffering than Philip’s.  This is similar to the source novel.  Much of its 700 pages detailed Philip’s childhood, his time spend living abroad, his medical training and his later search for employment. Unsurprisingly the 83 minute film dispensed with much of the novel’s plot. The fact it chose to focus on Philip and Mildred as its main characters was testament to the pernicious effect Mildred had on Philip and clearly related to Hollywood’s privileging of the romantic couple.

of human bondage kay johnsonPhilip’s other romantic relationships Of Human Bondage Frances dee(with Norah, played by Kay Johnson, left, and Sally, played by Frances Dee, right) were given little screen time, not really enough to compete with Mildred’s central position. The female characters and performances other than Mildred/Davis were very restrained.  Other characters (such as Dr Jacobs, the medical student Griffiths and especially the flamboyant Athelny) were sketched more broadly. We thought these characterisations probably lacked depth because they were given very little time to make their impression. It is perhaps also telling that these are all played by male actors – Desmond Roberts, Reginald Denny and Reginald Owen respectively. While the performance styles differ to the lesser female characters, they also supply contrast to Davis and Howard’s more nuanced portrayals.

Some of the film’s more avant garde touches were also discussed. We noted the straight-to-camera acting of Davis and Howard in particular, during which eyelines did not match and the 180 degree rule was violated. The film’s ending which shows Philip and Sally crossing a busy street was deemed particularly odd. We presume that Philip is telling Sally of Mildred’s death, and the fact he is now free, but the unnecessarily loud traffic noise drowns out the dialogue. There did not seem to be any real reason for this, especially as we had already seen Davis at her most unglamorous as the dying Mildred was collected from her room and taken to hospital.

There was also a dreamlike quality to much of the film, not just during the projection of of Human Bondage dreamPhilip’s dreams. The latter afforded a greater opportunity for Davis to display her acting skills as in these Mildred is far more responsive to Philip, especially facially. In his dreams Philip imagines Mildred speaking with Received Pronunciation. As the ‘real’ Mildred, Davis shows Mildred’s doomed attempts to achieve this accent. This is revealing of Philip’s prejudices and it is also notable that in the dream sequences his physical disability has disappeared. This split between reality and dream also effectively highlights the unusual  social realism of the film and Hollywood’s usual focus on the glamour of coupledom and romance.

Of Human Bondage Henreid ParkerWe wondered about later versions of the story. In 1946 Paul Henreid (Davis’ co-star in Now Voyager 1942 and Deception 1946) and Eleanor Parker starred in a Hollywood remake directed by Edmund Goulding (who often collaborated with Davis).  Kim Novak and Laurence Harvey starred in the 1964 UK film (see a clip of Mildred’s death scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8iVYV93BYw). Interestingly this was written by Bryan Forbes and partly directed by him (uncredited) alongside the UK’s Ken Hughes and Hollywood’s Henry Hathaway. Forbes is known for his kitchen sink drama The L Shaped Room in 1962.

This highlights further melodrama and British social realism’s connections, mentioned in last term’s discussion on Love on the Dole (1941).

TV adaptations were made in a 1949 episode of Studio One starring Charlton Heston and Felicia Montealegre (watch the whole episode here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=klGfU5VKGAc)  and as part of  Somerset Maugham TV Theatre  in 1952.  Cloris Leachman appeared as Mildred.

PetrifiedWe also discussed Howard and Davis’ other films together. They appeared in The Petrified Forest (1936) and It’s Love I’m After (1937) – both directed by Archie Mayo.  While the former could also be described as a melodrama, a gangster melodrama, the latter is a light romantic comedy in which Howard and Davis play a bickering couple. Performance is central to this film too, however as their characters are actors. (Do take a quick look on www.youtube.com for clips and trailers.)

Discussion ended with brief mention of the critical evaluation of Maugham as a novelist. MaughamHe is considered by some to be trashy, and this complements Mildred’s character in Of Human Bondage. Unusually for a male author can be considered middlebrow. We will look into this more next week when we screen Rain (1932) which is a screen translation of his 1921 short story.

Many thanks to Ann-Marie for choosing such a wonderful film which certainly gave us plenty to chew over…

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

 

Bette Davis and Of Human Bondage Links

Posted by Sarah

Please find below the picture of Bette Davis, some links which relate to the Hollywood star and to Of Human Bondage.

Bette_davis_of_human_bondage

Ann-Marie has very kindly provided links to audio material which features some of Bette’s radio performances:

https://play.spotify.com/album/6uC1Qe9gMsEgl7FWJa4CVt

 

Of Human Bondage (1934) on archive.org: http://archive.org/details/humanbondage

A 1949 Studio One TV version on archive.org: http://archive.org/details/StudioOneOfHumanBondage1949

Maugham’s novel on archive.org: http://archive.org/details/humanbondage00mauggoog

 

Do also visit our other blog for more information: http://melodramaresearchgroupextra.wordpress.com/

 

Log in to comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts and suggestions for other links.