Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Screen Theories Essay - An Analysis of the Representation of Family in Three Films: American Beauty, Blue Velvet and Mildred Pierce

Here's another essay I'd like to share with you. It was a colossal effort and there were moments when the task seemed too much for me. I could have taken a very easy approach to the question, but in typical style I decided to challenge myself, and challenge myself I did. The writing didn't come as easy as some other papers, but after plenty of tinkering, I'm more than happy with the final result. Comments welcome.
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Once known as the ‘dream factory’, Hollywood and the institution of film in general is one of the most pervasive cultural mediums for the dissemination of meaning throughout society. This essay will discuss the statement that meaning in any film is produced as a result of combining the formal elements of cinema (the use of camera, lighting, mise-en-scène, use of narrative technique, etc). However, this meaning is also shaped through normative assumptions about gender, race, class, work, the family, and so on, which exist in our culture. Films merely reaffirm these assumptions rather than contest them.
The aim of this paper will be to demonstrate that due to the very nature of Hollywood cinema, dominant ideologies are necessarily entrenched by producers, which work to uphold and perpetuate the hegemony of patriarchal capitalist society. In particular, the representation of family and its attendant ideological assumptions will be analysed with examples provided from two films: Mildred Pierce (Curtiz, 1945) and American Beauty (Mendes, 1999); a third film, Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986), will be deployed as a counterbalance and will demonstrate how a work produced outside of Hollywood can work to disrupt such normative assumptions.
Classic Hollywood cinema is a tradition of filmmaking that dominated Hollywood production from 1917 through to around 1960, and remains a pervasive style in western mainstream cinema to the present day (Bordwell et al 1985:9; Hayward 2000:64). In The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960, David Bordwell titles the opening chapter ‘an excessively obvious cinema’. At first glance this statement would seem to support the claim that Hollywood is a classic narrative cinema with an identifiable body of work, which conforms to a group style, immediately recognisable due to its adherence to certain formal and stylistic criteria (Bordwell et al 1985:5, 12). More importantly, however, he is referring to Hollywood as a set of practices that work together to create a distinct film style, which escapes observation by its very excessiveness (Bordwell et al 1985:11; my emphasis).
The most important criterion in the classical system is narrative causality, which works within subordinate systems of time and space (Bordwell et al 1985:12). The narrative is dependent on a pattern of order/disorder/order-restored, and invariably the agents of causality are individual characters, which are imbued with traits. These include attitudes, skills, habits, tastes, psychological drives, and any other qualities that distinguish the character (Hayward 2000:64; Bordwell and Thompson 2008:94). Traits also perform a casual function, in that the trait of desire, for example, can work to propel the narrative by setting up a goal, and will seek through its development to fulfil that desire (Bordwell & Thompson 2008:95).
In unifying causality, motivation is also necessary to explain justification for certain elements within the film’s diegesis (Bordwell and Thompson 2008:66). It is useful here to introduce the concept of mise-en-scène, which essentially means, “putting into the scene” (Bordwell & Thompson 2008:112). The term is used to signify the control that a director has in staging a scene for the framing of shots, and includes such elements as setting, costume, lighting, and overall movement within the frame (Hayward 2000:231). Mise-en-scène is important for the consideration of space, in that it serves to explain compositional motivation through the choices that the director makes, and functions to establish a cause of impending actions so that the story can proceed (Hayward 2000:242).
To avoid the film drawing attention to itself, the Hollywood filmmaker relies on continuity editing and the strategies of mise-en-scène to ensure narrative continuity. In this regard, the editing is invisible and offers a seamless, spatial and temporal coherence, which presents the spectator with a narrative that appears to have no breaks and no disconcerting unexplained transitions in time and space (Hayward 2000:74, 319). The only time when the temporal unity will be disrupted is through the use of flashback, which is ‘a narrative device used…to go back in time to an earlier time in the character’s life and/or history, and to narrate that moment’ (Hayward 2000:133).
In presenting a seamless reality, Hollywood participates ideologically to disguise the illusion of realism, thereby fulfilling Bordwell’s abovementioned observation that it escapes observation by its very excessiveness (Hayward 2000:311; my emphasis). It is this verisimilitude with reality which makes Hollywood a particularly powerful and pervasive medium for the dissemination of meaning throughout society (Green 1998:16-17). Therefore, it can be said that in presenting a world that appears ‘natural’, the process of naturalising functions to reinforce dominant ideologies and normalises assumptions of gender, race, class, work, the family, and so on (Hayward 2000:258).
According to Marx, the ruling elite, through controlling the means of production, also control the means to which ideas, meaning and reality, are disseminated through society, whereby ‘the ruling ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas’ (Marx in Eagleton 1994:7). In this regard, due to the immense and complicated effort to create a replica of the world, and due to its concomitant reliance on a capitalist mode of production, filmmakers are necessarily intertwined with owners and managers of financial and commercial capital, in whose interest it is to present social institutions as natural and normal, thereby perpetuating the hegemony of capitalist society (Green 1998:17).
It is therefore necessary that the visual images which are allowed to circulate throughout society are those that reinforce thinking which leads individuals ‘to believe that it is right, not merely necessary, to go to work, or to stay home and care for the children; or to obey the law out of a sense of duty rather than of fear’ (Green 1998:25; original emphasis). Thus, it can be argued that Hollywood in presenting social roles as natural, prepares individuals for those roles by making them passively accept, rather than challenge their conditions of subjectivity (Green 1998:17).
Nowhere is this more demonstrable than in the institution of the family, which ‘in so many films serves as the mechanism whereby desire is fulfilled, or at least ideological equilibrium established’, and functions within the narrative to ‘[establish] values of competitive, repressive and hierarchical relationships’ (Harvey 1998:36). According to Harvey (1998:37)
in its hierarchical structure, with the father as the head, the mother as subservient, and the children as totally dependent, [the family] offers a legitimate model or metaphor for a hierarchical and authoritarian society.
As a vehicle for the demonstration of normative values, she suggests that ‘through its manifestation of a whole series of customs and beliefs, the family functions as one of the ideological cornerstones of western industrial society (Harvey 1998:36). It is within this worldview that the dyad of heterosexuality is confirmed to be the norm, and anything outside of that is presented as deviant and threatening. Hollywood achieves this by purporting that happiness, and indeed survival, is only possible within the bounds of its ideologically constructed family and normalised sexuality (Green 1998:29).
Having looked at the nature of Hollywood narrative cinema, and the way it functions to uphold dominant ideologies and present normative assumptions, attention can now be turned to looking at specific examples. Mildred Pierce (1945), directed by Michael Curtiz, and adapted from the original novel by James M. Cain, is part film noir and part melodrama. An examination of the social context of the film’s production provides a clear example of the way in which meanings are negotiated in the production process, and how those meanings are concerned with ideological positioning for desired social effects (Haralovich 2008:239).
At the time of its production, women were going through one of the most dramatic periods of social change, as they took up positions in a workforce to support an economy that was at war. During this time, women were granted unprecedented freedom, however, with the return of the thousands of GIs, there was anxiety over returning women to the domestic sphere so that the men could return to work (Dixon 2006:147). As a shaper of social attitudes, Hollywood provided an important role in reminding citizens of their place in society (Sochen 1978:12).
In Mildred Pierce, this is shown in the complicated and contrasting manipulation of genre conventions, by which according to Cook (1996:69) ‘a hierarchy of discourse is established, suppressing the female discourse in favour of the male’. The narrative is split between a noir present, and a melodramatic past, which is told in flashback by Mildred, the main protagonist. The use of lighting and mise-en-scène can be seen to signify the gendering of the separate genres and the two discourses at play. For example, the scenes in the present are characterised by contrasts in lighting, unsettling variations in camera distance and angle, claustrophobic sets and framing devices, with the events taking place at night. This compares with the scenes from the past, which are evenly lit, with few variations in camera angle, and events occur during daytime (Nelson 1985:453; Cook 1996:71).
The generic split also encourages the sounding of two voices. For example, the female discourse of Mildred’s past is associated with typical melodramatic subjects of family, sexual and emotional relationships, etc. However, the present male discourse of the detective, is that of the law, which seeks to undermine the veracity of Mildred’s story, thereby privileging the “masculine” ideology of the police (Robertson 1990:42). This is further supported structurally in the use of what Nelson (1985:451) refers to as a ‘false suture’.
For example, the film opens with the murder of Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) whose dying words are “Mildred”. Rather than reveal the killer in a conventional shot/reverse shot, the camera pans to the bullet-riddled mirror and the sound of a closing door. The next shot cuts to a car driving away, and then dissolves to a sequence of shots that put Mildred on Santa Monica pier, ready to throw herself into the ocean. The obvious affect of this sequence is to encourage a guilty framing of Mildred. Surprisingly, however, it is revealed after the second flashback that the murderer is Veda, Mildred’s daughter, and the murder scene is replayed, however, this time with the missing reverse shot (Nelson 1985:453).
The dominance of a patriarchal ideology can be seen at work in the film through the way that Mildred is punished for transgressing the traditional boundaries of the nuclear family (Corber 2006:6). After leaving her unemployed husband Bert, she sets up a successful business so that she can provide for her daughters in the absence of a father. This sets off a string of events including a tragic love affair with Monte, the death of the youngest daughter Kay, the transformation of Veda into a sexually treacherous femme fatale, the collapse of the business, and the eventual reconciliation with Bert.
According to Sochen (1978:9), the film worked as social control for women: ‘Women of America, know your place. Erase any ideas you may have to divorce your husband and/or enter the big, bad business world.’ This is important, because had Mildred been allowed to succeed in her transgression, she would have created a new social type: a career wife-mother. Therefore, she ‘had to be destroyed to eliminate any troublesome thoughts held by working mothers’ (Sochen 1978:13).
American Beauty (1999), directed by Sam Mendes, is also concerned with punishing those who dare to overstep the boundaries of their assigned social role. As with Mildred Pierce, a study of the conditions of the film’s production provides a social context which demonstrates dominant ideologies at work. At this time there was a pre-millennium anxiety over masculinity, which had suffered at the hands of feminism, civil and gay rights, and the ‘overall pressures and malaise of an increasingly materialist culture.’ Male authority was perceived to be under threat (Karlyn 2004:71).
This notion is clearly illustrated in the film’s early scenes, which show Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) trapped in a middle-American suburban nightmare. The affect of imprisonment is achieved through the visual style in which the camera traps Lester in a series of framing shots (Law 2006:126). For example, he is shown trapped behind glass in the shower and behind the window as he watches his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) obsessively attending to her perfect rose garden; and at work, his image is reflected on the screen, showing him imprisoned in columns of data.
The family is also in crisis. This is established through the effect of tableau, which works to slow down the narrative and encourages the spectator to contemplate the scene (Law 2006:127). For example, just before the first dinner scene, the camera lingers on the family photographs before cutting to a long shot of the family seated around the dinner table. The mise-en-scène is particularly important here as it sets up the distance between the family members. As the camera pushes in slowly towards the table the simmering tension between the family members is almost palpable.
Narrated by Lester in flashback, the film tells the story of his escape from his job, his overbearing wife, and the responsibilities of fatherhood; and finally, his death. He also goes through a questionable spiritual transformation, which is enacted through an infatuation with his daughter’s friend Angela (Mena Suvari), a sexually precocious teen nymphette. Lester’s lust for Angela signifies reclamation of lost masculinity. In portraying his desire, the filmmakers break from the conventions of Hollywood cinema, once again slowing down the narrative progression, and use stylised surrealist techniques, showing Angela in a series of fantasy sequences (Boeck 2007:184).
As well as being tied to the idea of emasculation, Lester’s rebellion can also be considered in light of the acceleration of consumer culture in America since World War II (Karlyn 2004:81). His mid-life crisis is driven by the need to reassert the freedom he enjoyed in his youth where all he did was ‘party and get laid’. Lester starts smoking pot and listening to 70s music, lifts weights so that he ‘looks good naked’, and buys the car of his dreams. However, whilst the film presents this as a claim for freedom, it fails to acknowledge that it is only due to the things that he is running away from, which enables him to entertain his rebellion. In other words, freedom is only possible if you can afford it (Karlyn 2004:82).
Ultimately, the film is contradictory, and whilst Lester’s transcendence is portrayed as heroic, it uses the disturbing attraction to Angela as the catalyst to which he reaches his epiphany. Guilt is deflected from Lester in the representation of Angela as the typical dumb blonde, which invites the audience to deride her for her ‘naiveté and shallow narcissism’ (Karlyn 2004:2004:87). Finally, given the opportunity to deflower her, Lester is shocked to realise that she is still a virgin, which snaps him back into his traditional fatherly role; he covers her up and offers to make her a sandwich. However, it’s too late for Lester to return to his abandoned social role.
As mentioned in the introduction, Blue Velvet (1986) was produced outside of the Hollywood system. As an independent project it didn’t suffer from the sort of dominant ideologies demonstrated in the discussion so far. Rather, it was able to turn such representations on their head and present a subversive critique of contemporaneous concerns. At the time of its production America was living through Reaganism, a conservative ideology which appealed to old-fashioned values of the past, in particular the post-war 1950s (Prince 2007:147).
Lynch invokes a postmodern style which evokes and mocks the icons of the past, whilst placing them in the present (Denzin 1988:469). By calling into question the ideologies of past representations, the nostalgic ideals to which they appeal are called into question, and ultimately shown to be inadequate (Coughlin 2003:305). According to Jameson (1983:112-113), postmodern texts participate in an effacement of boundaries between the past and the present. He notes the use of pastiche and parody, in which both ‘involve the imitation or, better still, the mimicry of other styles’. In describing parody he says that it ‘capitalises on the uniqueness of these styles and seizes on their idiosyncrasies and eccentricities to produce an imitation which mocks the original.’ Pastiche, on the other hand, lacks the ‘satirical impulse’ of parody.
In Blue Velvet, there is clear evidence to suggest that Lynch is parodying representations of the small-town conservative family, and the ideologies which are packaged with such representation (Coughlin 2003:305). For example, after the credits, the film opens with a close-up of red roses in front of a white picket fence with a deep blue sky in the background, then fades to a slow motion shot of an old-fashioned fire engine with firemen waving, riding with a faithful dalmation as they pass through. Coughlin (2003:305) suggests that ‘these commencing moments forecast precisely that [the] narrative will be located in imaginary small-town America, a concept so often summoned in conventional representation.’
Rather than depicting a traditional family, however, Lynch distorts the idea by exchanging it for a psychic family, and enacts an Oedipal drama, completely subverting the concept of the traditional nuclear family. These Freudian implications aren’t obfuscated requiring psychoanalytical investigation to reveal their meanings; instead they are presented on the surface, and quite obviously at that. For example, in the scene in which Jeffrey is hidden inside Dorothy’s closet and witnesses her ‘rape’ by Frank, the allusion to the primal scene is difficult to ignore. This is further affirmed when Dorothy discovers him and orders him to strip, wielding a knife dangerously close to his genitals, suggesting ‘castration’ (Berry 1988:84).
In constructing the Oedipal family, Dorothy is portrayed as the mother figure and her apartment with its red colour is reminiscent of the womb. Frank is associated with Jeffrey’s father, which is demonstrated in a subjective thought sequence where his father’s reflection is distorted by a mirror, which is quickly replaced by a shot of Frank. And to complete the Oedipal drama, Jeffrey has sex with Dorothy, and at the film’s climax, kills Frank (Biga 1987:46). Interestingly, in the ‘rape’ scene, Frank enters the apartment like a father returning home from work. In the act of copulation (or is it simulated?) Frank calls out “Daddy’s coming home” a reference to his sexual climax, but also to what would appear to be a parody of the sitcom father. This is further exemplified by having Dorothy call him “Sir”.
In conclusion, it has been shown that due to the capitalistic nature of Hollywood and mainstream film in general, dominant ideologies are necessarily embedded into films in the interest of maintaining the hegemony of patriarchal capitalist society. Examples were provided from Mildred Pierce and American Beauty, which illustrated how due to contemporaneous social concerns, dominant meanings were able to infiltrate the text. Blue Velvet was offered as a counterpoint, and it was clearly demonstrated how a film produced outside of the bounds of Hollywood can use subversive techniques such as parody, to call into question the representation of dominant ideologies. Finally, it can be said that films which are produced under the restrictions of Hollywood necessarily reaffirm rather than contest such normative assumptions about gender, race, class, work, and the family, which exist in our culture.

Berry, B. (1988) “Forever, In My Dreams: Generic Conventions and The Subversive Imagination in Blue Velvet”. Literature Film Quarterly, 16, (2): 82-90.
Biga, T. (1987) “Review: Blue Velvet”. Film Quarterly, 41, (1): 44-49.
Boeck, R. (2007) “Ways of Seeing in American Beauty”. Screen Education, 46: 181-187.
Bordwell, D., Staiger, J. and Thompson, K. (1985) The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960. London and New York: Routledge.
Bordwell, D. and Thompson, J. (2008) Film Art: An Introduction (8th edition). New York: McGraw Hill.
Cook, P. (1996) “Duplicity in Mildred Pierce” in E. Kaplan (ed.) Women in Film Noir. London: BFI Publishing: 69-80.
Corber, R. J. (2006) “Joan Crawford’s Padded Shoulders: Female Masculinity in Mildred Pierce”. Camera Obscura, 62, 21 (2): 1-31.
Coughlin, P. (2003) “Blue Velvet: Postmodern Parody and the Subversion of Conservative Frameworks”. Literature Film Quarterly, 31, (4): 304-311.
Denzin, N. K. (1988) “Blue Velvet: Postmodern Contradictions”. Theory, Culture & Society, 5: 461-473.
Dixon, W. W. (2006) American Cinema of the 1940s: Themes and Variations. Oxford: Berg.
Eagleton, T. (1994) Ideology. London and New York: Longman.
Green, P. (1998) Cracks in the Pedestal: Ideology and Gender in Hollywood. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press.
Haralovich, M. B. (2008) “Adapting the Family to Murder: Mildred Pierce” in M. Pomerance (ed.) A Family Affair: cinema calls home. London and New York: Wallflower Press: 235-246.
Harvey, S. (1996) “Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir” in E. Kaplan (ed.) Women in Film Noir. London: BFI Publishing: 35-46.
Hayward, S. (2000) Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts (2nd edition). London and New York: Routledge.
Jameson, F. (1983) “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” in H. Foster (ed.) The Anti-aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. PortTownsend: Bay Press: 111-125.
Karlyn, K. R. (2004) “Too Close for Comfort: American Beauty and the Incest Motif”. Cinema Journal, 44, (1): 69-93.
Law, S. (2006) “Looking Closer: Structure, Style and Narrative in American Beauty”. Screen Education, 43: 123-129.
Nelson, J. (1985) “Mildred Pierce Reconsidered” in B. Nichols (ed.) Movies and Methods. Berkeley: University of California Press: 450-458.
Prince, S. (2007) America Cinema of the 1980s: Themes and Variations. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
Robertson, P. (1990) “Structural Irony in “Mildred Pierce,” or How Mildred Lost Her Tongue”. Cinema Journal, 30, (1): 42-54.
Sochen, J. (1978) “Mildred Pierce and Women in Film”. American Quarterly, 30, (1): 3-20.
American Beauty, dir. Sam Mendes, 1999.
Blue Velvet, dir. David Lynch, 1986.
Mildred Pierce, dir. Michael Curtiz, 1945.


  1. Interesting read timmy. Lynch is the bomb. Currently getting up-to-date with his works. Keep them words coming!

  2. Wicked. Nice one Joe. Words are pumpin!


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