and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Sucker Punch (2011) is that after unintentionally outing himself with the gay soft-porn classic 300 (2007), Zack Snyder set out to make a tawdry, anime- and game-inspired women-in-cages, women-in-their-pants fantasy action movie but instead went the full Vincente Minnelli by making a melodrama about female suffering (with camp gothic overtones) crossed with a backstage musical (albeit with the song and dance numbers removed)…
Returning from the holiday break, we picked up and built on some strands from the end of last semester – moving from the rubble of The Third Man and Passport to Pimlico to postwar urban development (foreshadowed in Bicycle Thieves), and extending our thinking about the relationships between built environments and individual/group psychology. For the first couple of weeks we are looking at US suburbs, this week in All That Heaven Allows (Sirk 1955) and next week in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (Siegel 1956) and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) – we might get some glimpses of Truffaut’s adaptation in later weeks, as we move onto postwar European and British development Alphaville (Godard 1965), The Model Couple (Klein 1977) and JG Ballard’s High-Rise (1975).
We began with an array of statistics to get some sense of the extent of – and transformations wrought by – the US post-war economic boom as war-time industries retooled, the growth of the suburbs and related expansion of and easier access to credit, and the development of a new consumer and corporate culture. Some very broad strokes:
- In 1945, 40% of Americans owned their own homes; relatively few families owned a car; shopping was done in neighbourhood groceries; and aeroplane travel was for the military, the wealthy and the occasional businessman.
- In 1960, 60% of American owned their own homes; many families owned more than one car; groceries were bought at supermarkets in shopping malls; and TV had replaced films and radio as the major source of entertainment.
- Between 1947–1960, the rise in average real income was equal to that in the previous half century; GNP increased by 250%; and expenditure on construction increased ninefold.
- By 1960, per capita income was 35% higher than the boom year of 1945.
- By the mid-1950s, 60% of the population enjoyed a secure middle class income ($3000-10,000), twice as many as had done so 25 years earlier, before the Depression.
- In 1946, there were 6 TV stations in the US; by 1956, there were 442.
- In the mid-fifties, 66 % of US homes had a TV; by 1960, 87% (and 75% of American families owned their own car their own washing machine).
- At the height of European emigration to the US in the early years of the 20th century, 1.2 million arrived every year; during the 1950s, the same number of people moved out to the suburbs every year – 18 million in total – as 13 million new homes were built, 11 million of them in the suburbs.
- By 1960, a quarter of the American population lived in the suburbs.
- Suburbs were typically whites-only (and when racial segregation in housing was ruled illegal, other methods were developed to keep suburbs whites-only).
- Suburbs were generally arranged in a class hierarchy – the further away from the city, the bigger the lot/house.
- There was a boom in sales of consumer goods and domestics appliances – which saw electricity use triple during the 1950s, with advertising revenues increasing 400% between 1945 and 1960, three times the money spent on higher education.
- There was a massive increase in automobile usage, with the number of cars in the US increasing 133% between 1945 and 1960.
- There were also government road-building activities: in 1956 Congress appropriated $32 billion to build 41,000 miles of highway, and the Interstate system was developed.
All this affluence surely made people happy? Not really. Eisenhower’s placid decade was also a time typified by an array of deep-rooted anxieties. Again, in broad strokes:
- the cold war
- anti-communist hysteria
- nuclear dread
- the Civil Rights movement
- the Kinsey reports into human sexuality
- dull conformity: endless identical tract homes in the suburbs full of the same consumer durables; the need for men to ‘fit in’ in new corporate workplaces; women pushed out of the workplace in favour of returning veterans and into the home to raise nuclear families
- isolation: destruction or loss of extended kinship networks and communities in old urban centres, changes in access to urban resources
- increase in alcoholism, dependency on tranquilisers, psychoanalysis and a major revival in Protestant christianity – all of which can be seen as methods of coping with and adjusting to circumstances rather than trying to change them
These transformations – affluence and anxiety – can be observed in the culture of the time, as well as being evident in the ways the period is remembered (which includes being misremembered, consciously and unconsciously).
From this admittedly sketchy sketch of suburbs – William Chafe’s The Unfinished Journey, the source of many of my stats, is a good place to begin reading more detail about the scale and consequences of these transformations – we turned to the question of genre. More specifically, what is melodrama?
Melodrama emerged as a stage genre in the wake of the 18th century bourgeois revolutions – in France, America, Haiti – and with the rise of capitalism. As feudal structures/hierarchies were destroyed, so tragedy’s emphasis on people of rank – e.g., Hamlet, Othello, Lear – was replaced by the sentimental drama of the bourgeois family. But such sentimental stage dramas inevitably lack ‘heroic dimensions, overt excitement’, ‘cosmic ambition’ and ‘violence’ (Gledhill 17) – and made up for this deficit by taking on some characteristics from popular theatrical traditions of spectacle, performance and music to become melodrama (French: ‘song’ + ‘drama’). Theatrical melodrama also adopted Gothic fiction’s often Manichean outlook – in Europe, this typically pitted good bourgeoisie against evil aristocrats or good proletarians against evil bourgeoisie; in the US, which likes to pretend it doesn’t have a class structure, this opposition was more typically between good rural folk and evil city folk. Theatrical melodrama also increasingly emphasised ‘unpremeditated feeling as an index of moral status and social value’ (Gledhill 24).
In relation to film, Linda Williams argues that melodrama – ‘a modality of narrative with a high quotient of pathos and action’ (51) – should not be regarded as a ‘specific genre’ but as ‘the fundamental mode of popular American moving pictures’ (42):
the basic vernacular of American moving pictures consists of a story that generates sympathy for a hero who is also a victim and that leads to a climax that permits the audience, and usually other characters, to recognize that character’s moral value. This climax revealing the moral good of the victim can tend in one of two directions: either it can consist of a paroxysm of pathos (as in the woman’s film or family melodrama variants) or it can take that paroxysm and channel it into the more virile and action-centered variants of rescue, chase, and fight (as in the western and all the action genres). (58)
The meaning of melodrama has also changed significantly when talking about film. As far as Hollywood was concerned, until the 1970s:
‘melodrama’ meant action thrillers with fast-paced narratives, episodic story-lines featuring violence, suspense and death-defying stunts. Dastardly villains, heroines in peril and daring adventurous heroes populated these films … Cowboy films, gangster films, crime thrillers and horror movies were typically labelled ‘melodramas’ in the trade press. … what Film Studies has come to regard as ‘melodrama’ since 1970 are films with more words than action, inactive male protagonists, active and even domineering female characters, and anything but clear-cut and easily identifiable villains [and it is this version] of ‘melodrama’ that is now in general circulation, having been adopted by Hollywood filmmakers, reviewers and journalists since the 1970s. (Mercer and Shingler 6)
John Mercer and Martin Shingler also offer a useful discussion of the key characteristics of the Hollywood family melodrama (the kind of film made by Sirk, Nicholas Ray and Vincente Minnelli that is now often conflated with the entirety of melodrama):
- a focus on the conflicts and tensions of a middle-class family, in which social and economic concerns are registered but are typically secondary to the focus on personal emotional trauma
- the audience is invited to sympathise with protagonist (who is often also cast as a victim) and to project their own fears/anxieties onto him/her
- the portrayal of a psychological situation will be pretty direct – there will be no recourse to monsters to express repressed material as in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers or ghosts as in Festen (von Trier 1998)- and the viewer is likely to be able to identify with it from their own experience
- there will be evidence of Freudian repression, of psychoanalytic symptoms and of the return of the repressed – Freudian psychoanalysis was a familiar part of US popular culture well before the 1950s, and sometimes, as in All That Heaven Allows, its terminology is explicitly evoked
- the mise-en-scène will have a symbolic or coded dimension
- expressive music will be used to heighten the emotional impact
- the film will often culminate in a happy ending – but when it does, the happiness and/or the ending-ness of the happy ending will be unconvincing. In Stella Dallas (Vidor 1937), the working-class Stella (Barbara Stanwyck) is able to give her daughter an upper middle class life, but is shut out from it and will never see her daughter again. In All That Heaven Allows, middle-aged, middle-class widow Cary (Jane Wyman) is finally free of her (awful) children to be with the younger, working class Ron (Rock Hudson), but he is injured, reduced to an infantile state as someone she must care for as if she is his mother (despite the ‘erection’ under his blanket); outside the window, the yonic lake is frozen and the deer who wanders up as a potential symbol of new life is also clearly not a wild creature, independent and free, but one who has been domesticated by Ron (like Cary). Also, the society’s – and Cory’s awful children’s – disapproval of their relationship has not disappeared. Such ambiguous/ambivalent/double-coded endings seem to recognise that the problem/contradiction at the core of the film cannot be so easily resolved. They invite the viewer to read the film against the grain
As we mentioned Freud, we also quickly sketched in some very basic Freudian ideas (we will do more with this material in the level two module on genre and the fantastic):
- large parts of human thought remains unconscious
- the human mind expends considerable energy suppressing or repressing certain thoughts and ideas (particularly around sex and aggression)
- repressed thoughts and ideas often sneak out in dreams, nightmares, slips of the tongue and artistic activity (the return of the repressed)
- the unconscious, however, is not simply a ready-and-waiting place for repressed desire – it is produced by the very act of repression
- the tripartite mind: the ego as the fluid product of the conflict and tensions between the id (basic drives around sex and aggression, etc) and the superego (internalised social codes of behaviour); Dr Jekyll (ego) want to chemically realise the angelic part of human nature (superego) but unleashes instead the Mr Hyde (the id)
And then onto Douglas Sirk specifically – his background in interwar Berlin’s leftist creative community, his German and especially his Hollywood films (a contract director who had little choice over what films he made, but found ways to work against their clichéd material; the major melodramas with producer Ross Hunter at Universal), and his belated designation as an auteur in the 1970s (in part aided by his ability in interview to talk a strong leftist game in describing – or claiming – what he sought to achieve in his movies). Since his ‘discovery’, the following characteristics have been discerned in his films:
- he depicts the material American dream not to celebrate it but to critique it
- his visual style subverts his clichéd, conservative narratives
- he uses parody and excess, not for comedy value but to create a distance between the viewer and the film
- this distance is also the product of his preference for medium-shots and long-shots over close-ups so as to keep the viewer from getting too caught up in the characters’ emotions
- he also uses long-shots and creates frames within the frame to ‘stage’ events – to make them seem overtly theatrical and staged, thus working a low-key Brechtian alienation effect
- he uses sets, props and shot construction to create graphic effects
- he uses mirrors to double, distance and reveal – also uses windows and screens
- he uses colour and props expressively
The remainder of the class was devoted to discussing a series of questions posed before the screening.
- How does the film represent different spaces (e.g, suburb vs countryside, the country club vs the Andersons’ party, Carry’s house vs the Old Mill House)?
- What does the film say about: youth, maturity, respectability, class, duty, desire, convention, passion, romance, community?
- How does the film depict masculinity and femininity? What does it say about gender?
- How does the film use colour (especially reds/browns and blues) expressively?
- How does it use specific objects (spectacles, the TV, the teapot, screens, windows, the deer, Xmas trees, etc) expressively?
- Does it have a happy ending? What undermines the happiness of the happy ending?
One of the things we focused on was the use of colour. Cary’s decision to abandon her widow’s weeds for a red dress when she goes to the Country Club suddenly changes how other people see her – she is hit on by a married man. Her children – who are every bit as awful as the children in Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey 1937) and Tokyo Story (Ozu 1953) – struggle to cope with the idea of their mother having desires, being sexual. Her daughter Kay (Gloria Talbott) starts whom the film rather mocks for her book-learning and appeals to reason); significantly, once she falls in love with a boy and they get engaged she also wears red – even as she tells her Cary, who at this point has abandoned Ron for the sake of her awful children (who are awful), that at least she had not really loved him. As her awful child, dressed all in red, spouts blithely spouts this, Cary is framed by a bitterly ironic vase of red roses. (It is some small comfort to know that Gloria Talbott will just a few years later marry a monster from outer space.)
The film also uses a range of reds and browns to signal physical and emotional warmth. Domestic interiors are red/brown against the cold blue of the night outside – almost like the conventional tinting of a silent movie – except in scenes when Cary is being berated for her ‘inappropriate’ romance by her awful son Ned (William Reynolds). Then, Cary is always posed against a warm red backdrop while Ned stands in front of a cold blue backdrop – an expressive lighting scheme that makes no realistic sense in terms of the physical space, light sources, lightbulbs, etc.
In the key scene, when the awful Ned walks out on his mother, the expressive use of props is also evident. Ned strides to posture in front of the fireplace, wittering on his patriarchal nonsense in front of a wall that has already been compared to an Egyptian mausoleum in which Cary is entombed (Cary has just suggested he put a screen in front of the fire, as if to block her passions). He leans on the mantlepiece where his father’s trophy used to be displayed (there has already been a row about Cary referring to it as part of the clutter she has taken down to the basement – a good place for repressed material to be stored). Throughout their conversation before and after this moment, the strong vertical lines of a screen has separated the film screen, with one of them either side of it, cut off from each other. Going even further, when Cary asks ‘let’s not this come between us’ (meaning her relationship with Ron) this is what the shot actually looks like:
Expressive mise-en-scène or what?
Core critical reading:
Mercer, John and Martin Shingler, Melodrama: Genre, Style and Sensibility. London: Wallflower, 2004. 38–77.
Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 4, “Cynical Modernity; or the Modernity of Cynicism.”
Biskind, Peter. Seeing is Believing How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. London: Pluto, 1983. 250–333.
Fishman, Robert, Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia. New York: Basic, 1989.
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. London: Gollancz, 1963.
Gledhill, Christine. ‘The Melodramatic Field: An Investigation’. Home Is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film. Ed. Christine Gledhill.London: BFI, 1987. 5-39.
Hapgood, Lynn. Margins of Desire: The Suburbs in Fiction and Culture, 1880-1925. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005.
Hilliker, Lee. “Hulot vs. the 1950s: Tati, Technology and Mediation.” Journal of Popular Culture 32.2 (1998): 59–78.
Klinger, Barbara. Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture and the Films of Douglas Sirk. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Nicolaides, Becky and Andrew Weiss, eds. The Suburb Reader. New York: Routledge, 2006. Especially Chapter 10, ‘Critiques of Postwar Suburbia’.
Spigel, Lynn. Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.
Williams, Linda. ‘Melodrama Revised’. Refiguring American Film Genres: Theory and History. Ed. Nick Browne. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. 42-88
Probably the first satire on suburban life is George and Weedon Grossmith’s *The Diary of a Nobody (1892).
The struggle to live in the suburbs and the meaninglessness of suburban living is central to James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce (1941), Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road (1961), John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” (1964), J.G. Ballard’s Vermilion Sands (1971), Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) and Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm (1994). Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1967) is set in Manhattan but nonetheless offers a feminist critique of the gender relations more normally associated with the suburbs.
Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959), based on her own family’s experience, is about the desire to move from the overcrowded, run-down city to the suburbs – and the lengths to which suburban Americans went to keep out people of colour.
There are film versions of Mildred Pierce (Curtiz 1945), A Raisin in the Sun (Petrie 1961), The Ice Storm (Lee 1997) and Revolutionary Road (Mendes 2008). Suburban alienation and dysfunction is also explored in The Reckless Moment (Ophuls 1949), Rebel without a Cause (Ray 1955), Bigger than Life (Ray 1956), The Graduate (Nichols 1967), The Swimmer (Perry 1968), Targets (Bogdanovich 1968), Safe (Haynes 1995) and American Beauty (Mendes 1999).
Far from Heaven (Haynes 2002) reworks Sirk’s film, introducing questions of race and sexuality that films of the 1950s could not deal with directly; Todd Haynes also directed a television adaptation of Mildred Pierce (HBO 2011).
More comical visions can be found in Mon Oncle (Tati 1958) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Hughes 1986).