Passages of Gothic Project Notes

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

passages of gothic top

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

crimson peak

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

Credits:

Passages of Gothic

Project organiser: Sarah Polley

Project’s writer and content provider: Frances Kamm

Project’s editor: Alaina Piro Schempp

Lead technician: Lies Lanckman

Promotions: Ann-Marie Fleming

IT Support: Oana Maria Mazilu

Contributor: Tamar Jeffers McDonald

Contributor: Katerina Flint-Nicol

 

The Gothic Heroines

Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (1940)

Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944)

Dorothy McGuire in The Spiral Staircase (1945)

Joan Bennett in Secret Beyond the Door (1947)

Claudette Colbert in Sleep, My Love (1948)

Deborah Kerr in The Innocents (1961)

Katharine Ross in The Stepford Wives (1975)

Shelley Duvall in The Shining (1980)

JoBeth Williams in Poltergeist (1982)

Sigourney Weaver in Aliens (1986)

Michelle Pfeiffer in What Lies Beneath (2000)

Nicole Kidman in The Others (2001)

Naomi Watts and Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)

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

Rebecca Hall in The Awakening (2011)

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

Mia Wasikowska in Crimson Peak (2015)

 

The Melodrama Research Group

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

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

International Festival of Projections

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

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

 

 

 

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

Reflections on the Last Academic Year

Posted by Sarah

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

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

11 Events Tea & Sympathy Beach

 

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

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

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

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

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

snow white 1

 

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

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

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

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

16 Links The Girl who Lost her Character

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

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

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

Summary of Discussion on Mulholland Drive

Posted by Sarah

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 12th June, Jarman 7, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the last of the Summer Term’s screening and discussion sessions, which will take place on the 12th of June, Jarman 7, from 4-7pm.

We will be showing Frances’ choice: Mulholland Drive (2001, David Lynch, 146 mins)

mulholland

Frances has very kindly provided the following introduction:

Mulholland Drive is a 2001 feature directed by David Lynch. The narrative of the film is convoluted to say the least but the story is roughly divided into two sections where we follow the actions of the two main female protagonists: Betty and Rita in the first, and Diane and Camilla in the second (played by Naomi Watts and Laura Harring respectively). The film’s narrative (or should that be narratives?) tells a story which incorporates an assortment of themes, drawing upon several generic conventions. In the first half of the film, the search for lost identity is the narrative’s central motivation as aspiring actress Betty attempts to help the amnesiac Rita discover her true name. The representations of betrayal, thwarted lovers and corruption which subtly underpin the events of this first section come to the fore in the second half of the film when our characters transform into Diane and Camilla: the estranged lovers. The women’s interactions with each other are interspersed with scenes depicting the action of several supporting characters including: the director Adam Kesher; his mother and/or Betty’s landlady Coco; the mysterious diners at Winkies who discuss the disturbing dream; and the enigmatic character known only as The Cowboy. How these secondary narratives relate to the story as a whole remains ambiguous as the film evokes genres as diverse as the detective film, thrillers, film noir, romance and, I would like to argue, melodrama.

Part of the narrative’s mystery may stem from the film’s production history, which reveals how Mulholland Drive was originally conceived as a project for television (much like Lynch’s successful series Twin Peaks). When TV executives rejected the project, Lynch filmed an ending to his pilot episode and released it as a much shorter story and feature film. Mulholland Drive also shows the development of several themes Lynch explored in his previous film oeuvre, particularly Lost Highway (1997). Lost Highway is similarly divided into two sections where some actors perform more than one role and the causal relationship between these narratives can be interpreted in several ways. Like Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway concentrates on the confusion created by lost memory, the mistrust evoked by betrayed lovers and a seedy underworld (in this case involving drugs, pornography and gangsters) which seems to seep into the lives of all characters portrayed. Viewed in this way, Mulholland Drive is very much a sister film to its predecessor but with one important difference: in Mulholland Drive the main Mulholland2protagonists at the core of both segments of the film are women. This new emphasis upon a female experience is emphasised by the use of the same actresses in the key roles, their dominance in the narrative’s progression and screen-time, and the lesbian relationship which developments between Betty and Rita/Diane and Camilla. It is in this way that Mulholland Drive begins to evoke the ideas of melodrama discussed by the Research Group thus far and, specifically, the reoccurring trope of the suffering woman.

Lynch’s work has been equated with melodrama before, particularly as his films often seek to expose the illusory nature of US suburban culture: Blue Velvet’s (1986) depiction of the perversion which infects the seemingly perfect town of Lumberton is a good example of this. Mulholland Drive certainly develops this theme further but transforms this evil force into the morally corrupt corporations of Hollywood, where Betty hopes to find her big break. Mulholland Drive appears to consciously evoke the ideas Mulholland 3associated with Hollywood melodrama both in its ‘real’ plot (a betrayed lover) and the movie-making featured within the story (in a nice homage to the 1950s). The film’s plot is consistently ‘melodramatic’ but these moments of excess are uncomfortably controlled: often moments of confrontation do not culminate in the explosive emotional responses expected and Lynch’s camera is often very slow to reveal the important information occurring in a scene or, conversely, concentrates on images which appear to have no significance at all. The unusual pacing of the film is of course reflected in the film’s denial to provide a satisfactory explanation of its narrative. It is partly for these reasons that Lynda Chapple argues for a reading of the film which concentrates on other components: in this case, costume. Chapple relates the film’s use of costume – another topic commonly discussed under the heading of melodrama – to the representation of the female characters: “the costuming practices in this film exemplify a crisis of identification within a specifically feminine cinematic image” (p.322). (For more information on Chapple’s article visit http://melodramaresearchgroupextra.wordpress.com/)

One of the major questions posed by Mulholland Drive is whether the events we are watching actually took place, or are they a dream or fantasy taking place in one of the protagonist’s minds, particularly Betty’s/Diane’s? In this way the film presents an alternative representation for female subjectivity and the feminine experience to those featured in other melodramas which focus primarily on women. Considering the film to be (at least in part) the subjective experience of a protagonist extends the discussion on female subjectivity, as raised in previous films discussed like Gaslight. Other questions which could be considered when watching the film are:

– How does Mulholland Drive’s narrative ambiguity affect our experience of the film as a melodrama?

– Does the film’s tone support or question this classification?

–  How important is the ‘suffering woman’ trope to Mulholland Drive and melodrama?

–  Does Chapple’s analysis on costume help to unravel some of the film’s mysteries and is this an important element of the film’s status as a melodrama?

Enjoy the film!

Do join us to watch the film and take part in the post-film discussion if you can. And please note we start at 4pm.