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

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, 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.

 

Summary of Discussion on Early Film Melodrama Shorts

Posted by Sarah

This week we had the opportunity to compare some varied short film melodramas: Barbe-bleue (Bluebeard, 1901, 10 mins) directed by and starring George Melies, The Mothering Heart (1913, 22 mins) directed by D.W. Griffith and starring his frequent collaborator Lillian Gish and Suspense (1913, 10 mins) co-directed by, and starring, Lois Weber. I have summarised the discussion below, but do log in to comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Barbe bleueDiscussion on the earliest of these film shorts, Barbe-bleue, noted that, in keeping with other films produced at the time, it was filmed by a static camera. However, the fairly frequent set changes and constant on-screen action (including some of Melies’ trademark trick shots of a character – a taunting imp –  appearing and disappearing accompanied by a puff of smoke) added impetus to the already melodramatic story. This story was closely related to the gothic with some powerful imagery involving a secret room, keys, Bluebeard’s dead wives hanging from nooses and the latter characters invading his current wife’s dreams.  Significantly the narrative centred on a woman (or perhaps more correctly women) in peril, which has been a constant theme in the films the Melodrama Research Group has screened. Appropriately for Melies, known for his magic, Bluebeard’s dead wives inexplicably become reanimated, just in time to be rescued by men who had rather magically appeared.

 

suspenseLike Barbe-bleue, Suspense bore close relation to the gothic since they both focus on a woman in jeopardy. The threat to the woman in Suspense is explicitly sexual, however. Tom Gunning’s article on the use of telephone in early film “Heard over the phone: The Lonely Villa and the de Lorde tradition of the terrors of technology.” Screen 32.2 (1991): 184-196 was referenced. In this, Gunning notes the fact that both telephonic and cinematic technology manage to bring us near to, but at the same time keep us at a distance from, the subject (either the person at the other end of the telephone, or the characters in the film). We are not in a position to affect what occurs onscreen, while the husband in Suspense is similarly hamstrung by his physical distance from his home and wife whilst they are under attack. It was noted that Gunning mentions D.W. Griffith’s Lonely Villa (1909) which also uses a telephone in the narrative.

As well as an exciting narrative, Suspense included some stunning shots. Especially striking were those from a character’s point of view. One of these was a shot from above of the tramp looking up and threatening the woman, supposedly from the woman’s point of view out of an upstairs window. In addition, the tramp was shown to be particularly menacing as he ascend the stairs and looms large in the frame. The split screen which sectioned the tramp, the husband and the wife into separate areas was also very effective.  The car chase afforded some great opportunities for inventive camerawork.  There was a point-of-view shot from the second car of the first, while the wing mirror of the first car neatly showed those pursuing it several times.

mothering

D.W. Griffith’s The Mothering Heart was very different to both Barbe-bleue and Suspense. The melodrama focused on the less fantastical, and arguably less suspenseful, issues of marriage and infidelity.  It was preoccupied, as were other films of the time, with the split of the woman into virgin (as represented by Lillian Gish) and the vamp (Viola Barry). Both of whom were interested in the same man (Walter Miller). Discussion of Griffith’s film focused mainly on the presence of Lillian Gish and the similarity of her role to the one she played in Griffith’s Way Down East (1920) in which she also appeared as a mother who tragically lost her baby. While Gish’s character here appeared to act more progressively than in Way Down East – she leaves her husband while she is pregnant due to his infidelity – the reconciliation at the end over their dead baby’s body felt very contrived. Griffith’s inclusion of Apache dancing taking place in the background of the club where the husband meets the vamp was also commented upon. A comparison was drawn between the Apache woman following her man and the foregrounding of suffering Woman – a common theme of melodrama.

It was also especially interesting to compare the work of two often-referenced male film pioneers (Melies and Griffith) with a lesser known, though hugely important, female director of the silent era.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 15th May, Jarman 7, 5-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the second of the Summer Term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 15th of May in Jarman 7,                from 5pm to 7pm.

We plan to screen some short melodramas, which will probably centre on the early works of American Cinema pioneer DW Griffith.  As well as influencing editing techniques, Griffith was well known for his melodramas such as Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920) and Orphans of the Storm (1921).

The films we may show include What Shall we Do with Our Old? (1911), An Unseen Enemy (1912, starring Lillian and Dorothy Gish) and The Mothering Heart (1913, starring Lillian Gish).

unseenwhat shallThe Mothering Heart

 

 

 

 

Frances also has some film shorts to share. She has kindly provided the following information:

Suspense (1913) is an early narrative film about a woman and child threatened by an intruder in their home. One of the film’s directors, Lois Weber, was a prominent female director in early cinema and she also wrote, produced and starred in many of her films.  Weber’s films often featured social problems and tackled controversial issues, as with Hypocrites (1915), Where Are My Children? (1916) and Shoes (1916). This latter film – which tells the story of a woman who sells her body for much-needed work shoes – bears a striking resemblance to the themes discussed with last week’s Love on the Dole.

Suspense’s narrative centres on the representation of the telephone – a fairly new addition to domestic homes at the beginning of the twentieth century – and, as Tom Gunning notes, the film features one the earliest elaborate uses of the split-screen device. (Gunning, 1991)

Barbe-bleue (Bluebeard, 1901) is one of the earlier works of French filmmaker and magician Georges Méliès. Popularly described as the grandfather of special effects cinema, Méliès makes use of his trademark trick shots, superimpositions and dissolves in the construction of his “artificially arranged scenes” (Méliès, 1907) in Barbe-bleue. The film is based on the folktale of the same name which tells the story of a villainous nobleman who murders his wives. Melies’ film shows the latest young wife who is left alone in Bluebeard’s castle and forbidden by her new husband from entering a locked room. Inevitably, the temptation becomes too much for the bride and she discovers Bluebeard’s deadly secret…

Both Suspense and Bluebeard continue in one of trends we have explored in other melodramas: namely the focus on the woman’s story which often features the female protagonist suffering in some manner.  In this sense Suspense and Bluebeard can also be classified within the gothic tradition – a genre/cycle closely related to melodrama – as the films place a particular emphasis upon the domestic home as the site of terror and danger.

References:

Gunning, T. 1991. “Heard over the phone: The Lonely Villa and the de Lorde tradition of the terrors of technology.” Screen, 32 (2): 184-196.

Méliès, G. 1907. “Kinematographic Views”. In: Gaudreault, A. 2011. Film and Attraction: From Kinematography to Cinema. Urbana, Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

 

In addition to screening shorts, we will be discussing plans for the  group’s future such as the possibility of organising a conference or symposium as well as publishing opportunities.

Do attend if you can. And please note, we start at 5pm, not 4pm as previously advertised!