Reading Room > film > Carol Laseur > Hons dissertation

The Field of Genre and Australian Filmic Texts:
Transforming Cultural Narratives

Carol Laseur

Chapter 3
'The Melodramatic Film', Romance and Realism

Whereas the previous chapters were concerned with theorising and charting a genre-field, this chapter (and the next) examines actual articulations of generic elements. Specifically, the focus is on instances of multi-generic performance in selected Australian filmic texts: first on Careful, He Might Hear You, Fran and Monkey Grip, then on Palm Beach and Goodbye Paradise. Such an exercise necessarily involves an investigation of a whole range of genre constructions. The selection of these films is not arbitrary. They all demonstrate what is involved in a problematic 'mix' of genres.

The 'melodramatic film' will be analysed in terms of its performance of a range of codes including those of Romance, Melodrama and Realism. Apart from sharing similar thematic material, Careful, Fran and Monkey Grip all work through particular constructions of personal/familial relations, taking these personal (private) and familial (public/social) relations for granted as shared or common-sense assumptions - while incorporating these relations to provide an overall narrative structure. By comparison to Palm Beach and Goodbye Paradise, these films can be seen as non self-conscious texts in the sense that they either take their processes of signification also for granted or - alternatively - present these processes in a way designed to claim a real-life naturalness for them. In the 'melodramatic film' the mix of elements (romance, realism, 'fantasy', suspense) has become muddled, leading to contradictory outcomes. Generally speaking, it will become clear that a conflation of generic elements in any specific film may (or may not) result in a final performative unity.

Careful, He Might Hear You

One of the most striking features of Careful is its apparent seamlessness, the sense that all narrative elements are somehow inevitably derived from the 'dramatic' story that is presented. This seamlessness is achieved in two ways: firstly, through the construction of a linear logic where all narrative elements result from a series of smooth transitions between cause and effect sequences, and secondly, by consistent use of close-ups and extreme close-ups. The film's appeal to Romance genre lies in its unproblematic construction of complex issues such as; the network of family relations, the custody issue, notions of death ('dear one's' grave) and love (i.e. the fetishised nature of every characters love of/for PS alongside the 'adult world' of heterosexual union). All of these narrative lines are connected in terms of their presentation of a romantically binary world of love/hate, loss/gain and truth/falsehood.

Four sisters (though the narrative is primarily centred on two: Lila, played by Robin Nevin and Vanessa, played by Wendy Hughes) argue over a suitable upbringing for their young nephew PS. His mother (Sindon), yet another sister, is dead and his father Logan (John Hargreaves) devastated by the loss and ostracised from the extended family finds solace in drink and work. Each woman enacts (and over-reacts to) heightened maternal instincts, each 'claiming' the boy as their own. The boy's role is multi-referential: he represents the 'innocent orphan' for Lila and George, the sweet nephew for Agnes and Vea and the child-boy-man for possessive Vanessa.

The powerful symphonic music that drives the narrative action of the film also provides the text with a seemingly inevitable 'resolved' ending, as climax. Yet such a closure is worth closer scrutiny for this closure is no more than an end point in a series of traumatic events. It is the point where an overlap of generic codes becomes most evident. Romance invades melodrama and melodrama becomes a type of Realist representation/comment on the nature of the world and the meaning of life. And, as Vicinus has pointed out, any appropriate ending for the melodramatic text is merely a "temporary reconciliation of the irreconcilable".(1)

What we are presented with as an ending in Careful begins with Vanessa's decision to give up the struggle for PS and return to England. This most clearly produces a paradox whereby it is only when she is freed of the duties of motherhood - having won the custody case (and experienced the custodial role) only to relinquish it - she is then enabled to function fully within the authoritative parental position. Her parting words (to PS): "find out who you are PS and then you'll know how to love someone else" provide the key to an understanding of her character and unproblematically reconstructs the overall narrative in retrospect.

In the typical fashion of the presentation of heightened personal relationships, this 'secret' acts as both confession and advice as well as signifying the 'cause' of many of the previous excessive moments. Vanessa's weakness (i.e. not 'knowing herself') is transformed into PS's strength. Later, in the final scene (in the wake of Vanessa's unfortunate departure) when this 'secret' is reiterated in voice-over, PS (miraculously) gains 'his voice', establishing - in a once-and-for-all tone - his identity by demanding of the adults that he be known as 'Bill'.

Despite all the previous melodramatic instances in the film, Careful is recuperated 'romantically' by the happy ending. The good characters (namely PS now "Bill") are rewarded and the bad characters (Vanessa in death and the remaining Aunts and uncle in a rebuff of the boy's affections) are punished. The mixing of romance/melodrama codes results in a sleight-of-hand performance transforming the boy's blissful innocence into relations of power and knowledge. The Humanist ideal of 'self discovery/self knowledge' is now firmly located within a romance-of-origins scenario.

Careful, although romantically positioned, displays many of the typical characteristics of melodrama: the distinctive use of music and lighting to heighten mood and drive narrative action, the use of close-ups, the role of fate, exaggerated emotional states via a concentration on characters' feelings (terror/joy, love/hate, jealousy/friendliness, etc) and the ascription of suffering. This last point is clearly evidenced in Vanessa's inability to be sexually desirable. A potential love scene between her and Logan turns into a nasty confrontation. Her clandestine morality is severely ridiculed when, in a fit of rage, Logan accuses her of being "a stuck up tease" and a "bloody virgin-queen". This scene shows how her attempt to lure Logan (using PS as bait) into a meaningful relationship backfires. She is exposed as being hopelessly insecure, vulnerable and frigid, now doomed to suffer the consequences of her scheming. Can we read this as a type of fitting retribution for the wickedly wealthy? Most of the characters in this film are affected by forms of suffering: Vanessa in terms of sexual frigidity, Logan in his lack of paternal investment, George and Lila are portrayed as victims of the depression (out of work and in poor health, etc) and PS who is knowledgeable yet helpless, determined yet obedient.

Melodrama's appeal to unconscious processes cannot go unnoticed here, whether they be about the boy's observations or the women's motives. The film self-consciously displays this generic aspect in the traumatic ferry scene. Here, the drowning sequences are intercut with shots of PS dreaming the same instance in spatio/temporal unison - a type of symbolic recognition of Vanessa's death is registered.(2) This point is also noted by Dermody and Jacka who comment on the logic of the melodrama where the woman "charged with an excess of desire must go mad or die."(3) Another interesting function of the melodramatic text is defined by Cawelti in that it has "at its centre the moral fantasy of showing forth the essential 'rightness' of world order".(4)

This (moral fantasy) is achieved, he explains, through a series of complications in plot and character, whereby spectators identify with not one protagonist or a single line of action but rather (melodrama) "makes us intersect imaginatively with many lives." His claim that "sub-plots multiply, and the point of view continually shifts in order to involve us in a complex of destinies" is certainly apparent in Careful. It is through this complex of characters and plots that "we see not so much the working of individual fates but the underlying moral process of the world."(5) This is particularly the case in Careful, where the dilemma of custodial rights is motivated by an imperative for moral order. The quest for moral order is contrasted sharply with the characters' disordered lives: PS is 'shared' by two sisters and lives in two distinct environments, Vanessa's emotional life is in disarray, Lila and George are struggling against poverty, and Logan (the long-lost father figure) is embittered and impervious to the needs of others. Ironically, the narrative's 'moral fantasy' is centred around the wishes of the dead sister (Sindon) - whose 'character' is evoked as physically more present than those actually presented in the text. These characters' lives intersect in a number of ways (through marriage, birth, class, gender) and, as a consequence, provide a network of complex relations. Despite the seeming intricacy of the range of character-options in Careful, on closer scrutiny they represent a fairly stereotypical set of personae i.e. the warm-hearted working-class woman, the rich bitch, the spinstered aunt, the orphaned boy, the understanding uncle and emotionally-detached father.

As I mentioned earlier, an investigation of Romance/Melodrama codes enables us to examine particular representations of the domains of the private (personal) and public (social) in relation to the ideologies they foreground. By ideology, I mean the common-sense or taken-for-granted assumptions that underpin a text's system of meaning-making, particularly those centred around relationships of the personal and familial kind. These assumptions are what Bromley has in mind when he writes that the

... representations of individuals and their personal/social relationships in popular fictions are recognised as natural and obvious; they exclude any other mode of representing or seeing man/woman and their relationships.(6)

This recognition of relationships as "natural and obvious" is particularly apparent in Fran and Monkey Grip as both texts are structured around forms of popular romance, primarily centering on the union and/or non-union of the heterosexual couple. This is not to suggest that this element is absent in Careful. In some ways the representation of the couple-formation is less significant - assigned only to subplots - but what is important is the presentation of relationships in general as natural and obvious. The interaction between family members are complicated yet unproblematic. Even the centrality of the boy's role can (at most times) be read in terms of a surrogate for the adult male absence in the film. Continuously, what is assumed is an enactment of 'reality' within the private lives (and traumas) of the characters involved, with only motivational reference being made to a social sphere of activity. It is in this sense that the domain of the social is collapsed into the private or personal world of anxiety and trauma,. It might be more accurate to say that the two spheres are conflated. The private, for example, is established in terms of 'secrets' - or a limited circulation of information - and the public in terms of shared knowledge of a situation, which in this film amounts to no more than the sharing of secrets: let's not forget the title of the film.

The working-over of 'natural values' supposedly inherent in familial structures is in various ways at the centre of all three films.(7) Each narrative utilises a process whereby (and to borrow from Mulvey) the

... social sphere of the family provides a ready-made dramatis personae of characters whose relations are by very definition overdetermined and overlaid with tension and contradiction ...(8).

Fran

Fran provides an exemplary instance here as a genetic link is fostered between the protagonist's own past (as a ward of the state, victim of broken homes and of incest, etc) and that of her children's destinies. The closing frame on Lisa, Fran's eldest daughter, most strongly registers this connection. Having just convinced a younger brother and sister of the 'fun' of meeting their prospective foster families, she is left alone in the welfare room looking expressionlessly into a dressing-table mirror. Her self-worth is reflected back at her in an image of resignation. Comparative tensions from a prior scene do not go unnoticed here. The shot of Fran violently smashing a large wall mirror acts as a type of metaphoric reference for despair and is overlaid onto the closing frame. The dramatic impact of Fran results from an investigation of the social codes defining what it is to be a family living in Australian suburbia. More importantly though, it takes issue with what Mulvey has termed "the socially acceptable road to respectable normality, an icon of conformity, and at one and the same time, [the family] as source of deviance, psychosis and despair."(9) The home and its surrounding environment is for Fran in many ways the place where she is shown to be most out-of-place. The family, then, provides a physical setting(10) in which the home "can hold a drama in claustrophobic intensity and, represent, with its highly connotative architectural organisation, the passions and antagonisms that lie behind it."(11) One can't help but recall some of the interiors in Careful. The overtly stylised nature of these sets, the spaciousness of Vanessa's house in particular, signifies a complex of meanings. Apart from working as an extreme contrast to the working-class dwelling (and backgrounds) of George and Lila it also functions ironically as a type of echo chamber. The signification of wealth, bourgeois class status and all that is associated with refined taste is placed alongside notions of emptiness, loneliness, narrow-mindedness and forms of supercilious etiquette. Added to this, Vanessa is also chauffeured around in huge cavernous cars. She is represented as leading a truly barren existence.

By contrast, Fran is a modest production with local inflections. It shares - in a generic sense - with what Durgnat has referred to as "populism", or movies in which the protagonists are "ordinary people, and whose fair share of extraordinary or wishfulfilment passions are related to ordinary life."(12) Ordinary life for the character Fran presents itself as one long passion of wishfulfilment as she is "bored to distraction by the monotony of suburban living and motherhood."(13) As in Careful, one notices a mix of generic codes ranging from romance and melodrama through to fantasy and social realism. Fran's whimsical desires are often in direct contrast to the social realities she is confronted with. Evidences of her 'blind spots' are foregrounded when she fails to believe that her young daughter has been sexually abused by Geoff, her new-found lover. And in another instance, by her refusal to register for Social Security payments for fear of having her privacy thwarted. Interestingly, Fran has been described as a "hard-hitting drama, a modern tragedy".(14) Most of the drama is highly predictable and any 'tragic suffering' is self-inflicted.

In what can only be explained as a non self-conscious fashion, the film 'documents' Fran's life and times as if at a distance. Close-ups are kept to a minimum, though gestures, codes of dress, colloquial language and pacing produce a mix of mood and action that centres subjectively on the protagonist. In the second half of the film there is a full display of melodramatic scenarios involving fights with welfare officers, teary outbursts of self-pity, moments of self-hatred and simpering longings for loved ones. Unlike Careful, this film was written, directed and shot primarily by women(15 and as a consequence displays an intensely-rendered type of scrutiny of character. Fran, the character, is the film. This intense scrutiny-of-character is presented in a fine moment of intertextual referencing when Fran - on deciding to leave her kids with a foster sister (Carol) and brother-in-law (Graham) in order to travel up north with Geoff - is confronted by Graham's reaction to the proposal. He angrily protests: "Fran's always been a bit of an actress just like Marilyn Monroe, 'cept she went all the way." The concentration on Fran as actor/person/character, over and above thematic development and narrative progress, signals what Richard Dyer has explained as the "masking effect of the ideology of character":

By feeling we are identifying with a unique person, we ignore the fact that we are identifying with a normative figure.(16)

One can see how a type of star/genre model intersects, with each encoding the other and resulting in a pre-given audience expectation about the character being played. A spectator's foreknowledge of the Noni Hazlehurst persona and her involvement in other productions (Stations, Monkey Grip and Play School) could well act to influence how we, as spectators, look and what we see.

Fran is personified through codes of dress and language. She is contrasted with Marge (her friend and neighbour) in that she is lively, inquisitive and 'care-free'. Marge on the other hand is conservative, dowdy and matter-of-fact. Fran is dressed in tight jeans and tops and high heels; Marge is clad in baggy jeans, loose (usually checked) shirts and flat sandals. The camera literally follows Fran's movements through various sequences yet with Marge it is used in a much more conventional way. Fran's use of language (like her specific character-traits) is colloquial and 'inviting'. When, in an inquiry to investigate the terms of her hire-purchase contract, a young man says nervously "you're a hard woman to catch" - "I try to be" is her flirtatious reply.(17)

Fran is a mother-victim heroine driven by her insecurities and locked into conspiracy theories about life in general. Noni Hazlehurst herself has commented on the role:

Fran is just a person with human foibles whose life has been beset by being a victim of many circumstances ... she's not equipped to make the right decisions about her family and herself.(18)

Yet, in the film, this "person with human foibles" is presented primarily in terms of narcissism, like a contemporary Monroe-type figure of the suburbs. The sexuality she experiences is for her benefit not for that of men, or in Bromley's terms, as a character "immersed in self-image and only alive when glassed ... she is personified through physical signs: how she is seen",(19) including how she sees herself.

Monkey Grip

In many ways an earlier performance by the same actress (in Monkey Grip, 1981) shows more clearly the interplay and contradictions involved regarding the performance of melodrama/romance codes in a single filmic text. I note the applause Monkey Grip has received as a realistic presentation of women and place (in the sense of social history), and for its inscription of a type of feminist politics. Much of the film's applause has been centred around Noni Hazlehurst's role as Nora. Dermody and Jacka have referred to it as "partial exception" to the usual 'soft-option' AFC genre roles created for women, inasmuch as "the inner-city sub-cultural milieu that she inhabits has incorporated feminism as a given in its history."(20) McFarlane sees Hazlehurst's role in the following way:

... she has, to start with, just the face for Nora: mobile, intelligent, embattled, vulnerable, with accesses of warmth and humor, and a mouth that can also turn down moodily.(21)

Initially, a seemingly apt and inoffensive description - though on a closer examination one might like to think of the implications of "a mouth that can also turn down moodily" as just another form of seductive pouting. As in Careful, the central role is linked to a specific sense of place, where:

... she clearly belongs to the scenes in which she is presented: in the office of the women's paper, all flagons, posters and tank-tops; in the house she shares ...(22). (emphasis in the original)

Yet, how precisely does this 'placement' work?

Hazlehurst's role is an interesting mix of elements. She is cast as mother, lover, 'problem', professional, friend and rival simultaneously, a juggler of conflicting roles, needs and aspirations. Her desire to love and be loved ("after all, one shouldn't be ashamed to wish for love") forms the central narrative trajectory. Interspersed into this utopian ideal are the 'realities' of these conflicting role/positions. Nora's excessive vulnerability in emotional matters (of the heart) are shown to be in direct conflict with rational and intellectual matters (of the head). Does she continue to live a fairly 'unproblematic' life without Jarvo, or does she trade emotional stability (constructed around notions of motherhood, friendship, independence) for a passionate instability of suspense represented by transient moments of attraction to Jarvo?(23) This process is seen most clearly in the film's closure with Nora's refusal of Jarvo's attempts to 'repair' their relationship. After the refusal, there are only two options. Both are embedded firmly within notions of romance ideology. This becomes clearer on closer examination of the character-positionings presented as being socially available.

Nora is typically positioned - in this last scene - within the limited stereotypical options provided for representations of women in melodrama/romance. Her decision (regarding the relationship with Jarvo) works to determine (and overdetermine) the film's overall ideological outcome. The narrative attempts to suggest that Nora has power over the romance-situation instead of it having control over her actions. Her choice (which is ultimately no real choice) is, of course, presented as the only fitting option for a single mother figure with claims to 'ideological soundness'. The politics of such a closure - surely symptomatic of generic closure - is, as might now be expected, inscribed in the closing line: "... now it's like I'm watching my kid grow up and take off." The ambiguity of this statement (in voice-over) is intentionally problematic: is she referring to her child Gracie (seen in the mirrored image of her mother at the poolside) or to Jarvo her 'child'/lover - a situation of the type described by Roger Bromley where:

... she [female] is constant and based in the idea of the nuclear family where her 'real role' is ultimately defined not in terms of her personality and sexuality, but in terms of the mother-infant relation (the male becoming infant in his domestic refuge).(24)

In Monkey Grip, characters remain within their typed options. It is only the social traumas that are developed.

It is not difficult, though, to see why Monkey Grip might have been perceived as 'realistic' inasmuch as it portrays a close study of a woman's experience in an alternative urban environment. Yet, as has been claimed, in this text "social realism is put in the service not of issues but of feelings ...".(25) It is in this crucial respect, then, that Monkey Grip is aligned with generic codes of melodrama. The quest for romantic wish-fulfilment (activated by a presence/absence of partner scenario) is uneasily juxtaposed alongside social realist strategies of presentation. Rather than bringing the Romance elements into a toughly Realist mode, the result (in Monkey Grip) is to produce a series of reiterated existential moments that are ratified by the cultural 'knowledges' of Melodrama.

In all three of these texts, various combinations of romantic, realist and melodramatic elements structure both the character formations and the development of thematic material. Each text demonstrates, in its own way, the problematics of such a mix of generic codes. Durgnat's comment (specifically on The Witches of Eastwick) that the "film's set of ideas don't constitute a 'structure'; they're a mosaic"(26) is certainly relevant here, too. Though 'mosaic' - suggesting a form of 'shattered' unity - would (in some ways) overstate the coherence of these mixed genre texts. Only in Careful, with its heightened display of Melodrama codes, can one see a performative unity. But then, it is precisely the aesthetics of melodrama that suggests, always, that there are no contradictions in the binary world that it ratifies and represents.

Notes to Chapter 3

1. Martha Vicinus, quoted in Linda Williams, "Something Else Beside a Mother: Stella Dallas and the Maternal Mother", Cinema Journal 24, no.1, Fall 1984, p.4.

2. It is worth noting that, again, in the typical fashion of melodrama, the unconscious processes are foregrounded (Vanessa's death can be linked also to her fear of storms).

3. Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka, The Screening of Australia, vol.2: Anatomy of a National cinema (Sydney: Currency Press, 1988) p.214.

4. Quoted in Modleski, Loving with a Vengence: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women (London: Methuen, 1984) p.90.

5. Ibid., p.91.

6. Roger Bromley, "Natural Boundaries: the Social Function of Popular Fiction", Red Letters, no.7, 1978, pp.34-60.

7. The 'family' structure in Monkey Grip can be extended to incorporate a network of friends, lovers, flatmates, etc. And in Fran the connection can be extended across the intimate family to include Marge the neighbour and her children.

8. Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures (London: Macmillan, 1989) pp.73-74.

9. Ibid.

10. As early as 1915 Vachel Lindsay described what perhaps we know now as the romance/melodrama film in terms of the "Intimate-and-friendly Photoplay". This type of picture made use of interior settings, calling attention to itself through "its photographic basis ... [the] photoplay interior has a very small ground plan, and the cosiest of enclosing walls. Many a worthwhile scene is acted out in a space no bigger than a boy's stool and hat. If there is a table in this room, it is often half out of the picture ... We in the audience are privileged characters ... We are members of the household on the screen. We are gossiping neighbours ... our noses pressed against the pane of a metaphoric window ... It [the Intimate picture] takes its origin and theory from the snugness of the interior." See V. Lindsay, The Art of the Moving Picture (New York: Liveright, 1970) pp.47-49.

11. Mulvey, op.cit., p.74.

12. Raymond Durgnat, "Populism and Social Realism", Film Comment, vol.11, no.4 (1975), p.23.

13. Production Folio, Fran (Perth: Barron Films, 1984) p.1.

14. Ibid.

15. See Production Folio, Fran: "With her work on Fran, Jan Kenny has made history in the Australian Film industry. It is the first time a woman has worked as Director of Photography or Operator in a feature-length mainstream drama film." (p.9).

16. Richard Dyer, "Stars as Signs" in Tony Bennett et.al. (eds.), Popular Television and Film (London: British Film Institute, 1981) p.243.

17. In another scene, where Fran is convincing Marge of the benefits of a good night out, there is this exchange:

Marge:"... they buy you a drink and then they want a bed for the night."

Fran: "Well, if you don't take a punt, you can't back a winner."

The harshness of much of the dialogue between the women contrasts sharply with underlying Romance elements in the story-line.

18. Dorre Koeser, "Noni's Choice", Cinema Papers (Special Cannes Issue), no.51, May 1985, p.51.

19. Bromley, op.cit., p.50. Emphasis in the original.

20. Dermody and Jacka, op.cit., p.66.

21. Brian McFarlane, "Words and Images: Monkey Grip", Cinema Papers, issue 44-45, April 1984, p.21.

22. Ibid.

23. Women characters in Australian films do not usually find ultimate 'fulfilment' with a man, as Meaghan Morris has pointed out: "either he dies (Caddie), and fails her (Winter of Our Dreams, or she just survives the encounter (Monkey Grip, Fran) and dies (Careful, He Might Hear You). Sometimes, with a bit more luck, she heads off with a girlfriend (Puberty Blues) or daughter (High Tide) and leaves the country (Going Down, Maybe This Time)." See Morris, "Fate and the Family Sedan", unpublished paper, n.d., p.8.

24. Bromley, op.cit., p.56. It is interesting to note that pleasure for women in films is frequently linked to notions of domesticity, whether it be providing food and shelter, care and warmth or companionship. Any alternative re-working of this mainstream model usually sees the woman rejecting male companionship for fear of her independence being thwarted (e.g. Monkey Grip, Tender Hooks).

25. Dermody and Jacka, op.cit., p.201.

26. Raymond Durgnat, "Up Jumped the Devil, or, The Jack-in-Pandora's Box: Can The Witches of Eastwick de-spook genre theory?", Monthly Film Bulletin, vol.54, no.644, 1987, p.268.


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