Summary of Discussion on In This Our Life

Our discussion on John Huston’s film In This Our Life Stanley and Williamnoted its focus on family. Sisters Stanley (Bette Davis) and Roy’s (Olivia de Havilland) lives are closely intertwined, partly as the former steals the latter’s husband (Dennis Morgan). In addition, the women’s father previously co-owned a business now run by their invalid mother’s (Billie Burke) brother (Charles Coburn). This is further complicated by the suspiciously close, and highly disturbing, relationship between Stanley and her uncle. Such interconnectedness comments on the American Film Institute’s (AFI’s) definition of melodrama, which notes family as an important aspect: The AFI defines melodramas as ‘fictional films that revolve around suffering protagonists victimized by situations or events related to social distinctions, family and/or sexuality, emphasizing emotion’. (http://afi.chadwyck.com/about/genre.htm)

Davis and de Havilland in this Our Life first dressesFamily is further emphasised were by the constant contrasting of Stanley and Roy. This was done on several levels. Personality and behaviour are of course key, but costume also plays a significant role. While Olivia de Havilland is introduced wearing a muted blue outfit (her father helpfully comments on the colour of the dress suiting her since the film is shot in black and white) Stanley is often seen in flashier outfits of prints, plaid patterns and flouncy frills. Furthermore she is criticised by other members of her family for wearing skirts which are too short.

 Stanley and Roy’s reactions to tragedy also tellingly involve clothes. After learning that her husband has deserted her for her sister Stanley, Roy angrily asserts that ‘I’m not wearing black’ and resolves to buy a red hat with a feather.  We see her wearing the accessory soon after, but the film’s black and white photography downplays the colour’s vividness. Similarly, when Stanley is supposedly heartbroken after the suicide of her husband she soon casts aside black outfits. Instead she opts for a light plaid which shocks her bed-ridden mother. The reactions of both sisters therefore involve the dismissal of black costumes. However, differences in the degree of seriousness of theIn This Our Life Davis plaid dress situations they are responding to is significant. While both have lost a husband (the same husband) Stanley has driven Peter to suicide. Also while Roy speaks of behaving badly to get what she wants (as Stanley always does) she does not follow though on this. Instead she does what the narrative expects – she falls in love with Stanley’s discarded fiancé, Craig (George Brent).

De Havilland and Davis’ acting was also markedly different. While de Havilland was not necessarily always restrained, her main outburst is the one outlined above. By contrast Davis is constantly playing at fever pitch. Davis’ performance involved variation in terms of embodying coyness, girlishness (very much denoted by Davis’ higher than usual voice), anger, seduction, deviousness etc, but there were very few, if any, moments were Davis/Stanley was completely still. Even when Davis/Stanley is sat listening to a gramophone record she is performing a dance with her shoes. It is also very noticeable that Davis’ face is never at rest.  We particularly commented on Davis’ use of her eyes.

We also related Davis’s performance to her precious incarnation of Mildred in Of Human Bondage (1934, John Cromwell).  (You can see our earlier discussion of this film here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/10/10/summary-of-discussion-on-of-human-bondage/) Stanley and Mildred are both irredeemable characters, devoid of any moral compass. The impact of Stanley’s selfishness is more far-reaching however. While in Of Human Bondage the main person who suffered was the film’s protagonist, Philip, in In This Our Life Stanley devastates Roy and Craig, other members of her family and significantly a young employee of colour, Parry Clay (Ernest In This Our Life de Havilland hatAnderson), who Stanley blames for a fatal car accident she caused while drunk. This is shown in opposition to Roy and Craig’s kind treatment of Parry. Roy works with Parry at an Interior Decorators and she finds him work at Craig’s law office (Craig is a Civil Rights lawyer) when Parry expresses his wish to train as a lawyer.

Max Steiner’s score was also discussed. This accompanies many of the film’s emotional moments and is also used to foreshadow bad news. During several telephone calls when we are only privy to one side of the conversation the film’s music heavily underscores a sense of impending doom also conveyed by dialogue and actors’ expressions.

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

Summary of Discussion on Black Book

Posted by Sarah

The discussion on Black Book ranged widely and encompassed: the film’s relationship to melodrama; the trope of the suffering woman; the family in melodrama; rhythm in melodrama and the film’s unending revelations of betrayals; the film’s characters Akkermans and Muntze; moral ambiguity; costume; women’s fluid identity/ies); melodrama and real life.

Black book Rachel Ellis sufferingWe began by isolating some of the elements which coincided with our understanding of melodrama. The continuous suffering of the main female character Rachel/Ellis (played by Carice van Houten) was especially noted. The group has commented on the suffering female(s) present in previous, and varied, screenings, including:  D.W. Griffiths’ The Mothering Heart (1913), Gaslight (Thorold Dickinson 1940, George Cukor 1944), Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (1954), Twin Peaks (TV 1990-1991), and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001).

Black Book RachelEllis bombingThe film begins in 1950s Israel but soon a triggered memory causes it to flash back to Nazi-occupied Holland in 1944. At his time Jewish Rachel Stein is separated from her real family and finds shelter with a Christian family.  Her relatively quiet existence is soon shattered as her hiding place is bombed when she is out, presumably along with its inhabitants. Rachel’s real family has been hiding elsewhere but soon they are reunited. This might at first appear coincidental (another important melodramatic trope which is also present elsewhere in the film) but is in fact explained away by a mutual acquaintance (her father’s solicitor Smaal) being aware of Rachel’s plans and informing her family.  Almost immediately after the family reunion Rachel witnesses the slaughter of her mother, father and brother just when they, and other Jewish families, seemed on the road to freedom. After losing her surrogate family and home then, Rachel’s suffering is heightened, indeed overtaken, by the loss of her real family.

The family is often central to melodrama, and it is also the case here since it prompts Rachel’s later action, and she relives this particularly traumatic scene. On the first occasion this is implicit. In Rachel’s new, non-Jewish, identity of Ellis de Vries she has joined the Dutch resistance. These defend themselves against Nazi soldiers, gunning them down, and then stripping their bodies of useful uniforms. This reminds the viewer of the earlier scene since after the slaughter of the Jewish families the Nazi soldiers divest them of their jewellery.  The connection is reinforced as Rachel/Ellis can only stand by as a mute witness as both events occur.  Later on, a powerful reaction to again Black Book RachelEllisrelivingseeing the man who was responsible for Rachel/Ellis’ family’s slaughter is indicated not just physically (Rachel/Ellis runs to the cloakroom to vomit) but psychologically: the film provides a flashback of the earlier scene, from Rachel’s point of view.

Black Book RachelEllis and Muntze at stationRachel/Ellis’ suffering is not confined to these awful events, however. She suffers more as she witnesses some of her new friends being caught by the secret police. Rachel/Ellis also suffers conflict by falling in love with the high-ranking Nazi official, Ludwig Muntze (played by Sebastian Koch), she has been sent to spy on after meeting him, by chance, on a train and charming him. Tellingly the first scene of their lovemaking is accompanied not by a lush romantic score, but one more indicative of danger, danger Rachel/Ellis (and to an extent) Muntze, cannot for a moment disregard.  Rachel/Ellis later suffers as Muntze is arrested and sentenced to death, and she is imprisoned after a botched attempt to rescue him. Another Nazi official, Gunther Franken (played by Waldemar Kobus), inflicts further suffering as he leads stages a scene within the hearing  of a ‘secret’ microphone Ellis previously hid. This leads Rachel/Ellis’ friends to think she has betrayed them, and is a further level of suffering: others’ belief in her good character is taken from her.  Rachel/Ellis and Muntze later escape together, enjoy a few moments of rare  domestic bliss on a boat, but are captured after confronting Rachel/Ellis’ father’s solicitor Smaal with suspicions of corruption. Franken’s destruction of Ellis’ good name has practical consequences too.  After peace has been declared she is rounded up with other traitors and detained, beaten and humiliated.  Finally she hears that her lover Muntze has been killed. This is tellingly the moment at which she actually lets her emotions out, collapsing to the floor, sobbing uncontrollably and rhetorically asking ‘when does it end?’ Even the film’s conclusion, which returns to a time in the 1950s just after Rachel’s flashback has begun, follows the pattern of a momentary respite before suffering again intrudes. After a brief happy moment with her husband and children we can see that another war rages around them.

We thought that Rachel/Ellis’ continual suffering fitted Matt Buckley’s description of melodrama’s often relentless ‘rhythm’ when he gave a research talk the other week. Further relation to earlier theatrical melodrama, specifically Victorian, was suggested as the ‘Jerries’  were a force outside of the characters’ control, much like fate.  The film’s numerous false reveals of the person who betrayed the whereabouts of the Jewish families can also be seen to be connected to the notion of rhythm. First the ‘friendly’ secret policeman Van Gein is suspected. While he is indeed revealed to be working with the Nazis, he is not the traitor.  Next Rachel/Ellis’ father’s solicitor Smaal is accused. He and his wife are immediately killed however, with Muntze chasing after the offender, but only Black Book Rachel Ellis collapsesucceeding in being caught himself. Finally Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), a Doctor and key resistance figure, is unmasked as the man responsible. He foolishly does this himself after attempting to kill Rachel/Ellis with an injection of insulin, but not waiting for it to take full effect.

The scene ends when Black Book RachelEllis crowd surfingRachel/Ellis manages to grasp some chocolate which rather ironically Akkermans had earlier given her and is able to reverse the effects of the insulin. She then, somewhat implausibly, escapes by rushing past Akkermans who is addressing the crowd from his balcony, and throwing herself into the mob below. (On a side note we also found the ambiguity of Rachel/Ellis’ motives here intriguing: was she bent on survival or destruction?) Nearer the film’s beginning Rachel/Ellis had told Akkermans that a friend of hers used to eat chocolate when he had over-injected with insulin. This is an example of the film’s fairly-heavy handed use of foreshadowing. Another key example occurs in relation to Akkermans. Earlier in the film Akkermans, to the delight of his resistance colleagues, mocks Hitler by donning a makeshift toothbrush moustache and speaking in a mock-German accent. Now he is indeed corrupted by power, with a very high opinion of himself, and is addressing the crowd as a leader might.

Akkermans is certainly a complex character. Some of  this is linked to narrative necessity –  he must appear one thing while actually being another, and do so convincingly as the film works its way through unmasking its variety of different ‘villains’.  This leads to perceived emotional complexity – has he always been corrupt, or been made corrupt through necessity and/or power? We found the character of Muntze more interesting, however. Although a high-ranking Nazi official he is even less the wholly bad villain of melodrama. Muntze is redeemed by the film in several ways. The first of these, which ties him closely to Rachel/Ellis, is that he too has been affected by the loss of his family. His wife and children were bombed by the British. The film also shows Muntze attempting to institute a ceasefire with the resistance. Furthermore, he does not betray Rachel/Ellis to the authorities when she confesses her true identity and purpose.

It was also commented upon that the actor playing the ‘nice’ Nazi Muntze (Sebastian Koch) was attractive, while the actor playing the ‘nasty’ Nazi Franken (Waldemar Kobus) was less easy on the eye. This led to further discussion about the ambiguity of the film’s, and its characters’, morality. The way in which those thought to have betrayed their country by collaborating with the Nazis were treated – Rachel/Ellis’ and others’ humiliation – was lingered on by the film, rather than evaded. Some in the group wanted Rachel/Ellis and Gerben Kuipers (a resistance man who had lost his son because of Akkermans’ betrayal) to take the moral high ground after they had tracked him down. Instead, Rachel/Ellis used the point of her locket containing family pictures to screw down his coffin lid in order to suffocate him – a poetic revenge. Rachel/Ellis and Kuipers discuss the fact that they should let Akkermans live. Neither does, despiteBlack Book RachelEllis and Kuipers Rachel/Ellis’ earlier agreement with Smaal that everyone is entitled to a fair trial. One of them notes that Hans has gone quiet and we might presume he has died. It was thought that some uncertainty, however, allowed Rachel/Ellis and Kuipers some moral leeway.

Black Book RachelEllis red dressCostume also featured in our discussion. We questioned the historical accuracy of some of the outfits, especially the women’s.  However of more concern to us was the symbolism of the costumes. The floor-length leather coasts and jack boots which singled out the most high-ranking officers are especially iconic and were easy to identify. In most cases their presence immediately signalled a character’s loyalties and standing, though Muntze was an exception. Rachel/Ellis’s costumes were of particular interest. It was telling that a few in the group who had seen the film before had misremembered the colour of a dress Rachel/Ellis wears at one point. Rachel/Ellis leaves a party she is attending to crawl though the coal store and allow her comrades access to the Nazi’s underground prison. The dress she wears was remembered by some as being white, though it was in fact red. It was thought that this was because white is linked to notions of innocence and that is how we view Rachel/Ellis. The red dress of course has other connotations – to do with passion, desire and sex. This led to further discussion of women’s costumes. We especially noted that Rachel/Ellis and her fellow worker Ronnie use clothing as part of the wiles they rely on to survive from day to day. Rachel/Ellis’ decision to wear to work a see-through blouse which revealed her underwear highlighted this. We further noted the fluid identity of these two main female characters – they have to morph and adapt. Ronnie was very interesting in this regardBlack Book RachelEllis and Ronnie dance as she was revealed to be more scheming than we might have been anticipated: she affects Rachel/Ellis’ and Muntze’s joint escape from prison. We wanted to know more about her, especially as her presence in Israel and recognition of Rachel/Ellis sparked the film’s extended flash back. What was Ronnie’s story?

Whose story is the film based on?’ was another question we asked. The opening credits assert that it is ‘based on a true story’. The film’s many coincidences and revelations may make this seem unlikely. But it chimes again with Matt Buckley’s recent talk. In this he emphasised the increasing relevance of melodrama not just to art, but to lived modern experience.

Many thanks to Tamar for choosing this rich film, especially apt due to the School of Arts upcoming trip to Amsterdam.

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

Summary of Discussion on The Skin I Live In

Posted by Sarah,

Frances has very kindly provided the following summary of our post-screening discussion on The Skin I Live In (2011):

skin i live in

This week’s discussion centred on the topics of sexual identity, motherhood and other representations of femininity, performance and the use of the male gaze as evoked by the screening of The Skin I Live In. The session began with an introduction from Keeley, as well as some notes on the film’s production from Rosa. Rosa explained how the shooting of the film was quite stressful for all involved and this seems to have affected the performance of the actors in the film which is particularly apt for the film’s troubling themes. A lot of the film was shot at night and on location and Almódovar was quite an excessive character to work with, demanding sets be re-built from scratch if they did not meet his exacting standards. Rosa also noted how the colour red is important for the film, and Spanish culture more widely, representing as it does passion, love, war, blood, fire and sexuality. Almódovar is particularly adept at skin i live in almodovar and redutilising the colour as red can be found in a lot of his films (especially on the posters) and red is also present somewhere in the frame in most of the shots in this film. Rosa also told us that the vintage shop seen in The Skin I Live In is a real shop belonging to costume designer Paco Delgado (who, more recently, has worked on and received an award nomination for Les Miserables).

Rosa remarked how these anecdotes of a difficult shoot are fascinating to consider, as they both reveal the unique workings of the director and how such a stressful production, combined with a difficult plot, can infect the crew and their modus operandi. Rosa commented that this production history translates into the viewing experience of the film, as The Skin I Live In draws audiences into its complicated tone and difficult story, as though making them a ‘prisoner’ of the film as well.

Keeley offered another thorough introduction to the film which focused on the main themes of the narrative. She mentioned how, in particular, maternal devotion, sexual identity, family relationships and the home are central to the film. Another recurring and important motif is that of the double: this is present on a narrative level with the physical transformation of Vicente to Vera, but it is also apparent elsewhere in the film, such as with the visual similarity of characters (Vera is made to look like Robert’s deceased wife) eyes withoutand through the comparable roles assigned to characters (there are three mothers which feature in the film). The double can also said to be present in the way The Skin I Live In relates to other melodramas, such as Frankenstein, Eyes Without a Face and Rebecca. Obsession and sexual identity also features in the narratives of these films, just as it does in The Skin I Live In.

Keeley found the following quote particularly helpful in thinking about this film. It reads:

“In its final scenes, The Skin I Live In takes a turn that is as unexpected as it is brilliant. It no longer tells a story or revenge, but rather the story of a conversion.” (Gustavo Martin Garzo in The Pedro Almodovar Archives, edited by Paul Duncan & Bárbara Peiró, 2011. p. 373).

The film, in this way, is about accepting (or not) the identity forced upon you and this has particular implications for the film’s ending: is this positive or not? Keeley stated she thought that it was as it signalled hope for Vera and this was a discussion point we returned to later. Keeley also noted that The Skin I Live In is an important film to think about Almódovar as an auteur and where it fits into his larger body of work. This film is, in many ways, Almódovar’s most polished film although skin i live in directionmelodrama runs throughout all of his films. The Skin I Live In is a denser and more emotionally complex film. It is also interesting that Antonio Banderas should appear in the film: this is his first film with Almódovar for a long time and also signals Banderas’ return to Spanish film. The Skin I Live In allowed Banderas to explore a deeply emotional character and our reaction to Robert was another discussion point we returned to later.

skin i live i  vera

After the screening of the film, comments opened with the thought that secrets are an incredibly important aspect to the film’s narrative and melodrama more widely. The secret as to the ‘true self’ occurred on several occasions in The Skin I Live In and is reflected by the film’s unusual structure: the crucial backstory explaining who Vera is – and how she became Vera – is delayed. Another delay occurs with Vera’s true intentions, which sees her murdering Robert at the end. There is some debate whether this was Vera’s plan all along or as a result of seeing Vicente’s image in the newspaper again after all those years. Vera’s actions at the end of the film are also complicated because the love making scene which takes place between her and Robert seems genuine and affectionate and therefore not does hint at Vera’s murderous intent moments later.

The relationship between Vera and Robert was discussed at length and we commented how the almost incestuous nature of their coupling is an important part of the film’s difficult narrative (by making love to Vera, Robert is having sex with the person who raped his daughter). We agreed that the most disturbing sex scene is the earlier one between Robert and Vera, following the latter’s rape by Zeca the ‘tiger man’. Although Robert clearly expresses his desire for Vera earlier on in the film (by watching her intently on the large TV screen), this sexual liaison Skin I live in screenappears to be for the purpose of Robert reclaiming Vera as his ‘property’ and ‘marking his territory’ after her defilement by the tiger man. The fact all of these scenes take place before the revelation of Vera’s original identity and early on in the narrative, makes the film an uncomfortable viewing experience from the start.

We discussed the film’s enigmatic ending and Keeley explained how she finds this conclusion quite hopeful for Vera: Vera’s return to the shop points to the cyclical nature of the narrative and emphasises how she is now free from her captivity. The shop assistant is important to this scene: we see earlier Vicente’s banter with his fellow employee and the emotional and physical attraction between them is evident again at the end, perhaps even more so with Vicente’s transformation into Vera. The shop also seems like a fitting and safe place for Vera to return to not only because this is home but because this is the only place where we see some humour in the film take place (the dubious customer service and buying of ‘fat’ clothes seen earlier in the film when we are first introduced to Vicente). Yet even in this seemingly light-hearted sequence, the film appears to prophesise Vicente’s demise, as there is a visual match between the skin i live in endingearly shot of the dress in the window (with Vicente on the inside of the shop), and the shot of the dress in the window again at the end (with Vera reflected from the outside). Keeley also noted how this latter shot features a background patterning in the shop which is similar to the drawings Vera makes on the walls of her locked room in Robert’s house, as though foreshadowing Vicente’s inevitable imprisonment as Vera.

Although there is a hopeful tone to the film’s concluding moments, the ending is not without its ambiguities and frustrations for the viewer either. Importantly, the film fades to black before Vicente’s mother can react to her son’s new appearance, which is also significant because the mother firmly told the police that she believed her son to still be alive. We expanded this point to comment how an integral part of the melodrama of the film is not just the suffering of Robert and Vera (and, by extension, Norma whose downfall is a combination of her mother’s death and Vicente’s actions), but the narrative also includes three suffering mothers. These are: Robert’s mother, who tells Vera her tragic life story and is also the mother of Zeca; Robert’s wife, who attempts to elope with Zeca but is left to burn in their crashed car and eventuallyskin i live in suffering mother commits suicide; and Vicente’s mother, whose child is pronounced dead by the authorities even though she believes he was kidnapped. Therefore The Skin I Live In features several personal melodramas occurring simultaneously and the complexity with which these stories relate poses a challenge for spectators and their engagement with these characters.

We also discussed how performance, identity, and costume become conflated in The Skin I Live In, with characters frequently embodying the roles of their outer appearance. For example, Zeca’s tiger ‘skin’ is an apt costume as he acts aggressively first towards his mother (who he ties up in the kitchen) and then towards Vera. Zeca’s depraved treatment of Vera begins by him licking the TV screen displaying Vera in her locked room and we then see several cuts of Zeca ‘stalking’ his prey before raping her. Vera also plays the role dictated to by her outward appearance. For example we see Vera perform domestic chores, cleaning her room and preparing breakfast for Robert. Robert skin i live in vera defends robertattempts to enforce a very specific definition of femininity onto Vera, by supplying her with dresses and make up. Yet Vera also uses her new ‘feminine wiles’ to trick Robert, as when she attacks him when wearing the black stocking she asked him to zip up, or later when Vera tries to convince Robert to give her freedom to roam the house by attempting to seduce him.

This rather stereotypical representation of the feminineSkin I live in mannequin is also emphasised by the exaggerated use of the male gaze in the film. This occurs with Zeca and his licking of the TV screen, but Vera is also subjected to Robert’s gaze. Robert watches Vera on the huge TV screen in his room and he fragments Vera’s body for his own gratification by zooming the camera in on Vera and again, quite literally, through the process he performs to transform Vicente into Vera and the other procedures he performs to reinforce her skin. Vera’s body is also juxtaposed with the paintings of figures in Robert’s house and the clay bodies Vera makes and decorates with her torn dresses. Yet Vera also subverts this male gaze by performing for it: she knows Robert watches her and Vera hopes this knowledge of Robert’s attraction towards her will help win her freedom. Vera also returns the gaze: she looks down the camera towards Robert forcing him to reflect upon his own act of looking. The male gaze is subverted again as it is Robert’s and Zeca’s mother who witnesses Vera’s rape on the TV screens.

We commented on the unusual structure of the house, where the majority of the film’s melodramatic moments takes place. The house’s geography is complicated and it remains unclear where the distinctive areas of the house exist in relation to each other (thus contributing to Vera’s hopelessness at achieving freedom on one occasion). There is also a strange mix of styles present in the home, with the cave-like place where Vicente is kept initially, combining with the traditional façade of the house (and rooms like the kitchen), which in turn contrast sharply with the clinical sight of the operating theatre. The film’s central debate of whether one is ‘at home’ in one’s own skin and ultimately defined by this outwardly appearance is thus mirrored by the house’s abnormal structure: it, too, is an ‘un-homely’ home.

skin i live in vicente and normaWe also discussed how the central event in the narrative – Norma’s rape – does not evoke the ‘melodramatic showdown’ one might expect from such a story. Indeed this part of the story is the most difficult to interpret, as Vicente expresses to Robert that “I don’t think I raped her [Norma]”. The scene depicting Vicente’s encounter with Norma is challenging: at first Norma seems to be engaged with Vicente’s attraction to her but, after the edit which takes us back into the house and to the wedding party, her participation in the liaison is no longer consensual. The scene is also difficult to evaluate because it is clearly portrayed as a subjective memory, as both Vera and Robert’s dreams take us into these flashbacks.skin i live in norma Leaving aside the question of whether such memories are to be considered reliable, the difficulty for interpretation and identification is pushed further as Vicente’s original role as the rapist and Robert as the doting and loving father is swiftly usurped by Vera’s depiction as the victim and Robert as the oppressor. The moral compass of the film is constantly misdirected and confused.

We concluded our discussion by talking about how successful and well received the film was on its release. This is in contrast to this week’s set reading from Film Quarterly, which was quite dismissive of the film’s representations of sex, sexuality, aesthetic qualities and apparent misogyny. We disagreed with these conclusions as we found the challenges posed by these questions an important part of the viewing experience for a film which does not offer any easy answers.

Many thanks to Kat, Keeley and Frances for jointly selecting such a fascinating film for us to view, and for providing the great introductions and summary. Thanks too to Rosa for the extra, inside, information on Almodovar.

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

Summary of Discussion on Poltergeist

Posted by Sarah

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

indiana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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