Summary of Discussion on Black Swan

Posted by Sarah

Ann-Marie has very kindly provided the following:

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

 

Motherhood

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

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

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

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

Let’s break this down:

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

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

 Female performers/ All About Eve syndrome 

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

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

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

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

 The uncanny and the double 

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

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

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

Sexuality and gender roles

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

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

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

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

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

Summary of Discussion on The Wicked Lady

Posted by Sarah

Kat has very kindly provided the following summary of our discussion on The Wicked Lady:

Wicked Lady costumeAfter much expressed delight at this Gainsborough romp, the discussion began with reticence over the time period that the film was representing. Many of us thought the costume, especially the wigs represented differing time periods. Internet searches confirmed the film was set in the Jacobean period. Indeed, it was agreed that the film was not overly concerned with accuracy on period costume. There was a suggestion that Hollywood had requested certain scenes be redone as the line of costumes on the women were too low and showing too much flesh for the Hays Code to approve. As was pointed out in the introduction, both Pam Cook and Sue Thornhill have written extensively on costume, identity and nationality in Gainsborough melodramas. These topics were carried over to the discussion afterwards. Apart from noting the possibility of historical accuracy concerning costume, there was some focus on Margaret Lockwood. Thornhill speaks of how Lockwood’s hair is styled into a vulva shape, and that some of her costumes compliment this phallic design.

Following from observations of Lockwood’s costume, further discussion focused on Margaret Lockwood’s acting and her character. Lockwood’s haughtiness was decidedly apt and appeared to add to audience identification. There was general agreement between us we would prefer to be Lockwood’s character than Patricia Roc’s. There was vitality to Lockwood’s character which the group found appealing. There was a mention too of a possible reference to war time women, when Lockwood declares she deserves to “do things” as she’s attractive, capable and intelligent. The camera also, rather clumsily at times, focused on Lockwood’s expression whenever an opportunity to kill someone, or undertake an evil deed was presented to her. These shots did appear somewhat heavy handed and caused much laughter in the group. However, one extreme close up of her eyes was a compelling shot. This reference led to further talk two interesting scenes due to their camera work. The first discussed was the scene where Lockwood is kneeling in front of Hogarth seeking forgiveness, by a roaring Wicked Lady firefire. The camera switches to behind the flames, as if in the fireplace. The framing gives the impression of Lockwood already in hell, surrounded by flames. The other unusual shot was when Lockwood’s character is dying and the camera travels backwards, away from Lockwood and out through the window, focusing on the smaller and smaller body of Lockwood. These two shots were the most distinctive in the film.

Lockwood Mason

There was much (delighted) surprise at the bawdiness of the film and many felt that you could sense how The Carry On films came about, that there was a sense of a distinctive Britishness in this film. Many commented on the excessive use of innuendo in the dialogue and how this added to the viewing experience.  Innuendo was prevalent in the exchanges between Lockwood and Mason, who were electric together onscreen and oozed unbuttoned sexuality. All in all, it was universally agreed that this period romp was an excellent screening choice for the group.

Many thanks to Kat for choosing to show this wonderful film, and for the great introduction and summary of discussion.

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

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 29th of January, Keynes Seminar Room 6, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the second of this term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 29th of January in Keynes Seminar Room 6, from 4pm to 7pm.

We will be screening The Wicked Lady (1945, Leslie Arliss, 104 mins).

wicked Lady poster

 

Kat has very kindly provided the following introduction:

The Wicked Lady is a 1945 film starring Margaret Lockwood and James Mason. Known as one of the Gainsborough melodramas, it is reputed to have one of the largest audiences of its period, 18.4 million. The story itself was based on the novel, The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton by Magdalen King-Hall, which in turn, was based upon the (disputed) events surrounding the life of Lady Katherine Ferrers.

Synopsis

Margaret Lockwood stars as 17th century beauty, Barbara Worth, who steals and marries her best friend’s intended bridegroom, local magistrate Sir Ralph Skelton. At their wedding reception, Barbara meets Kit Locksby. For both, it is love at first sight, but too late as Barbara is now married. As Lady Skelton, she soon bores of rural life and seizes the opportunity to become a highwayman in order to win back her jewels from her sister-in-law, Lady Henrietta Kingsclere. Addicted to the excitement, Lady Skelton continues in her escapades and meets and joins forces (personally and professionally) with fellow highwayman, Capt Jackson. Through murder, robbery and betrayal, Lady Skelton’s double life catches her with her and she is mortally wounded by Kit Locksby. Dying, she confesses all to Kit and asks him to stay with her as she dies. However, appalled and repulsed by the truth, he withdraws, leaving her to die alone.

Lockwood Roc Wicked LadyIt is reported that due to issues with the American censors, extensive re-shooting was required before the film was released in the United States. The problems concerned the women’s dress bodices, which were considered low-cut and allowed too much cleavage to be displayed, and therefore unable to meet the requirements of the Hays Code.

 

The Gainsborough Melodramas

Despite producing a variety of genre films throughout its twenty-five year existence, the Gainsborough studio became synonymous with melodramas, in much the same way as Ealing studios did with comedies. The Gainsborough melodramas were a sequence of films produced by the British film studio Gainsborough Pictures during the 1940s. This cycle of films often touched upon similar themes and frequently starred recurring actors who played similar characters in each film, such as Stewart Granger, Phyllis Calvert, Margaret Lockwood and James Mason.

The first film of the cycle, The Man in Grey, appeared in 1943. Starring both James Mason and Margaret Lockwood, it was based upon the novel of the same name. Its success led to a number of similar films being produced, often based upon on melodramatic period novels, such as, The Wicked Lady (1945), Fanny by Gaslight (1944) and A Place of One’s Own (1945). The films dominated the British box office, grossing top Hollywood productions in the UK. It has been argued that much of their appeal was in their overt escapism at a time when the Second World War was still being fought. However, the popularity of the cycle peaked in the immediate post-war years and the production of the melodramas continued until 1950. At the height of the melodramas’ popularity, both James Mason and Margaret Lockwood were respectively voted the most popular British male and female actors.

Mason Lockwood Wicked Lady

 

Focusing on the handful of period costumes romances produced by Gainsborough at this time, Pam Cook argues that although these films were rediscovered in the 1980s by film historians, the films remain largely ‘marginalised, ignored or subsumed into the consensus in discussion of national identity in British cinema’ (Cook, 1996). Even at the time of its release, Cook notes derision in some quarters. Simon Harcourt-Smith writing in Tribune said of the film, ‘…if the future of the British film industry hangs…on the success of The Wicked Lady, then let us dispense with that future.’ (Aspinall and Murphy, 1983, p74). Cook suggests that this critical neglect is due to how the costume and visual style, the representation of history and their mobilization of national identity contravened official strictures and versions of femininity.  Furthermore, Cook argues that costume romances are at the less reputable end of the historical film genre. Where ‘heritage’ historical films would celebrate the past, costume romances such as the those produced by Gainsborough, mobilize a British past of promiscuity, injustice and inequality, ‘a locus of crisis and conflict as well as sensual pleasure’ (Cook, 1996).

Cook also extends the films’ questionable representation of the past extends to costume and mise-en-scene. Sue Harper points out that visual codes in the costume romances have their own language, which often works against the ‘moralistic trajectory of the script’, creating a tension between spectacle and narrative (Harper, 1983: 1994). For Harper, spectacle plays a positive role in costume drama as the carrier of coded meanings which express the powerful status of femininity, overriding the narrative drive to disempower transgressive female protagonists.

As Pam Cook states, ‘Audiences leaving a screening of The Wicked Lady were more likely to remember the stunning image of a fetishized Margaret Lockwood dressed in highwayman gear astride a stallion than to take on board the moral implications of her punishment by death’ (Cook, 1996).

Cook, P. (1996) Fashioning the Nation. London: BFI Publishing.

Harper, S. (1983) ‘Art Direction and Costume Design’, in S. Aspinall and R. Murphy (eds) BFI Dossier 18: Gainsborough Melodrama. London: BFI Publishing, p 40-52

Harper, S. (1994) Picturing the Past: The Rise and Fall of the British Costume Film. London: BFI Publishing.

Do join us, if you can, for some classic British melodrama.