Monster House Film Study

monster house

Monster House is a 2006 animated feature length film for a middle grade audience. The script was written by  Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab. Harmon and Schrab had collaborated on Laser Fart previously, a film which I have not seen and will not be adding to my watch list. Monster House is already 12 years old, but the animation still looks pretty good. It was animated at a time when actors were just starting to be used as models, which is why this looks better than The Polar Express. The one thing significantly improved by modern processing power is hair. Inability to depict hair and skin is why Pixar decided to make their first animated film about toys. The hair on the characters of Monster House looks plastic, like you get on a 1980s Ken Doll, compared to what you see in, say, Braveof 2012, in which hair is almost a character in its own right. (Animators have since gotten over their hair obsession, I think. Now hair is just hair!)

Screenwriter Harmon has been working in television since Monster House, notably on Rick and Morty. He also lists The Simpsons in his credits. Schrab has also been working in TV, most notably on The Sarah Silverman Program. Basically, these are youngish American comedy writers with a male sensibility.

MONSTER HOUSE STORY STRUCTURE



Genre Blend of Monster House

Monster House is a genre blend of Adventure and Comedy. Monster House is also a haunted house story, though it’s not DJ’s own house that is haunted, but the creepy old mansion across the road. Though not listed as a horror, this story borrows horror tropes. Horror and comedy are a surefire hit, if done correctly. Jump scares have to be genuine jump scares, and the writers have to know which scenes are to be taken seriously and which are a deliberate lampoon. Monster House achieves this balance, with genuine scares for the younger audience, followed by funny scenes which bring the audience back into safety… for a while. 

Unfortunately, the popular horror genre has some highly problematic tropes, and the writers of Monster House borrowed those, too.

Monster theory states that the characters viewed as villains or monsters reflect cultural unease or prejudices. Often, this leads to the vilification of those who defy gender roles, and perpetuates this vilification in the media. […Many] stories place a heavy emphasis on female sexuality as a particularly awful form of deviance.

Socademia

As for ‘adventure’, what does that mean for writers? It’s more of a director’s term than a scriptwriter’s term. Adventure means several things:

  • The characters will leave the safety of home, in which case we’re often talking about mythic structure. In this case, ‘leaving home’ means ‘walking across the street’, but it’s still really scary.
  • Lots of scenes written with spectacle in mind.

SHORTCOMING

At the beginning of the story DJ has been monitoring the creepy house across the road. He has noticed that when toys land on Nebbercracker’s front lawn they disappear. Something spooky is going on there. The problem is, he doesn’t know what’s going on and because he lives across the road, it’s in his best interest to find out. Things get personal when his best friend Chowder loses his expensive basketball. Then DJ thinks he accidentally killed Nebbercracker. This makes him invested.

DESIRE

Under the surface, DJ wants to prove himself a man. (This is of course related to his major Shortcoming, that he is a powerless boy.) At the beginning we hear his voice crack. He considers himself too old for Trick or Treating. He says he’s too old for a babysitter — he’d be just fine alone with his parents off on holiday. This allows for some good, ironic comedy in which it is revealed that DJ is mostly still a child. He sleeps with his bunny rabbit, he is freaked out by small things (though justifiably freaked out by big things).

In some ways, DJ’s wish to be manly is shown by his desire to be childlike. Unfortunately, as almost always happens in stories about boys written and funded by men, DJ’s wish to be manly is also shown by his desire to be non-feminine. (Hence an actual girl has to come along. More on that below.)

Note to all writers everywhere: The opposite of ‘man’ is not ‘girl’. The opposite of ‘man’ is ‘boy’. Girls do not exist to affirm your heterosexual manliness.

OPPONENT

Chowder and DJ are similar to Jeff Kinney’s Greg and Rowley. Greg is the pessimistic skinny one while Rowley is the chubby, childlike one. (More childlike than DJ.)Chowder is DJ’s Opponent in his mission to be considered more adult. Chowder is full of enthusiasm for trick or treating, and likes to play computer games and eat junk food. By hanging around with Chowder, DJ won’t be considered a man. Before they leave for their weekend away, the parents (especially the mother) are also opponents in this regard. DJ’s mother babies him in the most embarrassing fashion, making inappropriate remarks about his changing adolescent body.

Note that Jeff Kinney probably got this successful trio ensemble from J.K. Rowling, who probably got it from someone else again. The romantic opponent is Jenny — a Hermione character who is smart and organised and who drives the plan. Both DJ and Chowder compete for Jenny, at first objectifying her. We are encouraged to laugh at them as they try to impress her and fail. This, too, is the Wimpy Kid formula, in which girl characters are not quite human, considered a separate species (by the boys, and by extension, by the audience). Girls are also depicted as inherently ‘smarter’: more bookish, more scathing, more wily and underhanded. Jenny is an example of The Female Maturity Principle.

DJ’s babysitter, Zee, initially appears to be The Babysitter From Hell. She is depicted as a duplicitous goody-two-shoes who is actually into heavy metal and stoner boyfriends. The male scriptwriters have given her some pathetic, pseudo-feminist lines to make us despise her even more. Zee is actually on the same side as DJ though, because they have the same goal: To do their own thing in the house while they each leave the other alone. The babysitter’s stoner boyfriend represents the other side of the babysitter — together they form a slightly dangerous team. The audience knows this pair won’t be there to help the boys out should they need it. Parents and parental influences are safely out of the way in this story.

I have just listed the ‘inner circle’ of opposition, but the Big, Bad Opposition at first appears to be Nebbercracker, and is then revealed to be his house. This pairing is an example of a character who IS his house. At least, that’s how it’s set up:

When trespassed upon, the place reacts in a variety of antisocial ways: The lawn can suck things underground, and the facade takes on an unnaturally human visage, with two upper windows as eyes, a peak above the porch roof as a nose and the front door as a mouth, out of which rolls a lengthy tongue-like carpet with frog-like snatching ability.

Variety Review of Monster House

This house is haunted by a wife who Nebbercracker ‘rescued’ from the Freak Show (presumably so he could own her, though he seems wholly redeemed by the plot line). This woman was in the freak show because she was ‘the size of a house’ (very fat). I’m uncomfortable with this. In essence, the big reveal is that Nebbercracker is himself a victim, to a fat woman with PTSD from a lifetime of being held in a cage. Everything I could say on this has already been said, back in 2006:

As the house, Constance is therefore enormous, insatiable, crazed – just as she was in life. Mr. Nebbercracker, in contrast, is small and skinny, the one who placates her great rage. This portrayal of a fat woman as out of control with huge appetites (whether for food or for sex) – as, literally, a maneater – is unfortunately all too common. In fact, the very difference in size between a large wife and a smaller husband, whether in literature, film, or real life, communicates the message that she is the dominant partner. These stereotypes of fat women are particular to fat women – the reverse wouldn’t work. There are no cultural figures of fat men whose appetites must be controlled by their skinny wives.

Further, the house is only silenced when it is destroyed, at which point we see Constance’s ghost dancing with Nebbercracker before swirling off into the sky. Nebbercracker then breaks down in relief that he and Constance have finally been set free. Thus, it is only through Constance’s destruction that her appetite is forever controlled.

What’s wrong with this picture? Monster House doesn’t merely reinforce negative stereotypes – it depends upon them. There would be no plot if not for the purposefully grotesque figure of Constance.

Blogging While Feminist

Circus performers

Another film — not a children’s film — which uses the ‘big as a house woman’ as opponent is What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, from 1993.

Both films present images of the extremely fat woman as a hybridized “woman-house,” whose identity and body are merged with the physical structure of the house to which she is confined. Drawing upon the work of foundational psychoanalytic theorists, we illustrate that the fat woman as “woman-house” threatens those around her with psychic or physical annihilation and therefore must be destroyed.

As Big as a House: Representations of the Extremely Fat Woman and the Home by Caroline Narby  & Katherine Phelps

Stories in which non-conforming women must die at the end extend beyond this narrow ‘women as houses’ trope. It is seen in a wide variety of films, including one of my favourites, Thelma and Louise.

Art didn’t invent oppressive gender roles, racial stereotyping or rape culture, but it reflects, polishes and sells them back to us every moment of our waking lives. We make art, and it simultaneously makes us. Shouldn’t it follow, then, that we can change ourselves by changing the art we make?

Lindy West

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE HOUSE IN GHOST STORIES

The book cover below is strongly suggestive of ghosts. What is it, exactly? The house. The gables. The vintage texture overlay, the aura in the sky, and also the fact that we can only see a part of the house. Dormer windows, and preferably attics, are almost a requirement, as are chimneys — hopefully one of those wide old chimneys — the kind you could send a kid down.

Hoping to rejuvenate their flagging writing careers, Clare and Jess Martin inadvertently move into a haunted house. Not everyone will survive.

The haunted house is a character in its own right, ready to gobble up its inhabitants. One of the most famous haunted house stories was written by Shirley Jackson.

It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

RELATED

Top 10 Terrible Houses In Fiction from The Guardian

PLAN

In a middle grade story where a group of kids must defeat something supernatural, they often visit some kind of sage. This is straight from mythic structure, a la Joseph Campbell. The screenwriters achieve a twist on this sage guy by making him the local video arcade loser.

BIG STRUGGLE

Every time I’ve watched this film I’ve gotten bored for the Battle sequence. I feel this is the film’s structural shortcoming (trumped only by its ideological ones). This is a story would would have benefited from a shorter screening time, but unfortunately the industry is set up so that feature films must be of traditional feature length. The big struggle sequence involves a house which literally comes to life and turns into an animated monster. Spectacle can only last so long before the audience zones out. I have always responded like this to elongated big struggle sequences, though I suspect fans of action movies appreciate them. Reviewers described the big struggle sequence like this:

But the overriding impression is assaultive to a progressively off-putting degree. Kenan keeps hammering away with stun-gun cuts, visual ammo suddenly flying in from out of frame and ear-splitting sound effects and music cues, to the point where at least part of the audience will want to tune out. In this respect, it is a theme-park ride, with shocks and jolts provided with reliable regularity. Across 90 minutes, however, the experience is desensitizing and dispiriting and far too insistent.

Variety Review Of Monster House

Though Jenny was useful for formulating the plans, it’s up to the boys to save the day with brute force:

While Chowder is driving a steamshovel, simultaneously battling the now-mobile house and leading it to a strategic point under a crane, DJ and Jenny are scaling the crane, DJ with explosives in hand that he will drop into the house’s chimney, blowing it apart. Jenny has a minor role in this – I can’t remember the exact sequence of events, but it’s something like, DJ stumbles and drops the dynamite, she grabs it, throws it to DJ, and he drops it in. It was all so predictable – and so unnecessary. Why couldn’t Jenny have dropped it in? Why are girls almost always accessories and rarely the heroes? Allowing Jenny to be the one to finally drop the dynamite would have made it a group effort, rather than a boys’ effort with a girl tagging along.

Blogging While Feminist

That Jenny doesn’t get to use the weaponry is the least of my issues. My issue is that Jenny doesn’t get a character arc.

The mainstream (adult) film equivalent of this is giving the female character the gun while the male characters use brute force with blunt objects and so on. Guns, in movies, at least, are seen as the easy way to win a fight. I am familiar with the ‘feminist equality’ argument for private and unmoderated gun ownership: “Guns level the playing field. A woman with a gun can fight a big man.” American homicide statistics don’t back this argument up, but I digress.

ANAGNORISIS

Ironically, the anagnorisis that DJ has is that after all that adult responsibility of saving the neighbourhood from the massive house woman,  he would like to be a child for a little while longer. We realise this when he agrees to go trick or treating with Chowder.

Apart from this his friendship with Chowder has been reaffirmed. Previously, their child development was out of sync, but now these two buddies have overcome that.

NEW SITUATION

The house is destroyed. One lingering question: Where is Nebbercracker going to live? This is never answered, though Chowder speculates. Last thing we see is Bones climbing out of the rubble of the house. He has been trapped inside. He’ll probably assume he was on a drugged out bender.

In any case, the suburban neighborhood is now safe.

As for the romantic subplot, it’s kind of a rule that DJ ‘deserves’ to win Jenny. DJ is the more conventionally attractive boy and star of our story. Even J.K. Rowling herself has said that Harry should have ended up with Hermione. The problem with romantic subplots is that if the plot really is a distant second to the main action, we end up with a story in which the girl is given as a prize, with no real reason shown for why this girl would be interested in the boy she ends up with. For instance, a believable romance between equals features an ‘I understand you moment’, which is a phrase I’m borrowing from Matt Bird. I’ll just quote Matt:

The reason so many love stories fail, and so many lame love interests drag stories down, is that the writers have failed to add “I understand you” scenes.

“I understand you” moments don’t have anything to do with wanting to change the other person and everything to do with accepting: We don’t root for Beauty and the Beast to get together until the beast gives Belle his library.

Matt Bird, Secrets of Story

Matt does offer a bit of a disclaimer: Sometimes the writer can establish that two characters belong together before they even meet.

But why, exactly, are DJ and Jenny together? I can tell you why. It’s because DJ saw her across the road and it was love at first sight. In turn, Jenny is impressed by DJ’s saving the day while Jenny stood by and watched. I don’t know about you, but I think a smart, knowing character like Jenny would see right through that kind of bullshit. Don’t you? It’s how she was set up!

By the way, it was always clear that Chowder wasn’t going to ‘win the girl’. As explained by Michael Hauge, there are some rules of romantic triangles. (And by ‘triangle’ I mean the variety in which two boys are interested in one girl.)

1. Make the character who will be left behind a jerk who deserves to be jilted. This is the trick used here.Chowder is kind of lazy. The physical shortcut is that he’s also chubby, even though BMI and laziness do not correlate in real life. He says he worked really hard for his basketball, but he only asked his mom for a dollar 28 times. Not marriage material, in other words.

2. Let the rival be the one to realize the hero isn’t her destiny. 

3. Give “Ms. Wrong” someone better to be with, who makes her happier than the hero can.

4. (Rare) Leave your protagonist alone at the end, but better off moving on.

The writers of Monster House have written a film that mostly works, structurally. They’ve relied on established, unhelpful tropes to that end.

To The Manor Born Storytelling Techniques

To The Manor Born is a British romantic comedy series written by Peter Spence which aired from 1979 to 1981. The actors reunited for a Christmas special in 2007. The writer is also known for Rosemary & Thyme and Not The Nine O’Clock News. Spence is educated in politics and American studies, which come across in his one-liners — these English characters have a contempt for all things American and there is a stark division between the blue bloods and the Labour government. He married into the family that runs this estate, so I can’t imagine anyone better positioned to write from an outsider’s perspective about a small English community set around a parish than Peter Spence.

SETTING OF TO THE MANOR BORN

Sydney R. Jones, The Village Homes of England, 1912
Sydney R. Jones, The Village Homes of England, 1912
Characters Who Stand In For Subcultures

Oftentimes when two characters clash in fiction, those individuals stand in for the clash between groups of people irl. This elevates an otherwise simple comedy or domestic drama. In Hud we have a clash between old values and new (1960s) values of the American South. In 2017 we saw a similar clash in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, in which certain characters exemplified racist, insular attitudes. Others struggle to deal with the new, kinder culture. Still others display progressive values. In To The Manor Born we have a very British clash between aristocracy and the nouveau riche — two very different kinds of rich, but both rich all the same, and therefore foreign to the vast majority of the audience.

TO THE MANOR BORN STORY STRUCTURE

Structure Of A Transgression Comedy

Each episode of To The Manor Born conforms to the transgression comedy. This is a perfect structure for two characters whose modus operandi — and main character attribute — is to pretend they are something they are not.

Discontent: someone is unhappy about something

Transgression with a mask: peculiar to comedy (and, incidentally, to noir thrillers)

Transgression without a mask: midpoint disaster when the mask is ripped off

Dealing with consequences

Spiritual Crisis: happens in almost every story

Growth Without a Mask

The stand-out example of this comedy structure is Tootsie, but can be seen all over comedy, including many episodes of The I.T. Crowd.

SHORTCOMING

Returning to To The Manor Born after a long time (it was a series I grew up with), I was slightly surprised to see that Richard DeVere is set up as an equal insofar as screentime and empathy goes. My memory is that this is a story about Audrey. We actually meet Richard first, as he pulls into the village, setting him up as the viewpoint character. Like Richard, we are amused as outsiders by the eccentricities of the vicar. Richard comes across as very reasonable — we sympathise with him.

We soon see that Richard wants what he wants and stops at nothing to get it. He’ll even crash a funeral gathering to get his dream house. Richard reveals himself to be a trickster, though we don’t know the extent of this until episode two, when we learn that he is part Czechoslovakian, part Polish. (This is the perfect example of transgression comedy in which ‘the mask’ comes off. Richard DeVere is revealed to have a Czech birth name. )

Richard’s shortcoming is that he uses people to advance himself socially, and this makes him blind to whatever else is going on peripherally. He demands to be treated with respect, and in the business world he no doubt gets it, but here in blue blood territory he is starting from the bottom and must earn respect in a foreign environment.

Audrey fforbes-Hamilton is presented immediately as a trickster. The trickster is a very popular archetype with audiences, and we needn’t sympathise with them at all because they are so interesting. Tricksters make plans and follow them through. All we need in order to sympathise with a character is right there. We don’t even have to agree with their morality, and we wouldn’t agree with Audrey’s if we knew her in person — Audrey is a pragmatic, gold-digging schemer who will happily use people to get what she wants.

Audrey is also part of a long British tradition of comedic, socially aspiring women, which were very popular sit-com fodder in the 1970s and 80s, and which may be making a comeback.

These women care about no one but themselves and Audrey is probably on the sociopathic spectrum, treating all people as tools, failing to even recognise the emotion of sadness after her blue blood husband dies of double pneumonia and good living.  An older, American analogue would be Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, in that Peter Spencer uses the same trick — he surrounds Audrey with people who do like her. This tells the audience that bad characters can’t be all bad.

Audrey and Marjory are among the second-to-last generation of toff women who were never expected to work, trained only in social manners and managing domestic staff. The very last of that class included women such as Princess Diana, born 1961. Audrey and Marjory would have been born around 1940, same as Penelope Keith. Audrey’s other shortcoming is that she’s just not fit for integration into regular life, even though that is exactly what is demanded of her now that England changed markedly after the war. Audrey has no marketable skills. Unless she marries rich again there is no place for someone like Audrey, and this is a very real problem for her. We could dig more deeply and it says something serious about upper-class women, and how a sexist dichotomy imprisoned them, in its own way.

DESIRE

Richard wants the dream house to impress his business pals, and also to pass himself off as old money. Audrey and Marjory’s xenophobia shows us that Richard has been up against racism his entire life, and we can see why he might want to offload his continental heritage to make life easier for himself.

Audrey wants to continue living in Grantleigh Manor, which has been in the family (her former husband’s family?) for 400 years. I doubt this heritage factor is important to her in the least — Richard pulls her up when she claims certain traditions are ancient when they’re really only new. Audrey wants to stay in the house to maintain her prestige in her community. It is a huge comedown for an aristocratic woman to be ousted from the family manor.

In episode one we are shown Audrey’s history — she had an ‘arranged’ first marriage (arranged by herself), and we’ve not surprised to learn in episode two that she has designs on Richard DeVere, not for him but for the manor. It’s also no surprise because it’s right there in the title. The title is so good because there is irony in it. Audrey is no more deserving of that manor than anyone else. I feel like this show gave modern culture the phrase ‘to the manor born’ but it goes back much further — To The Manner Born is a play on the phrase “to the manner born,” from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. 

The desire-line ‘to marry Richard and move back into Grantleigh Manor’ will sustain the entire series. And because this is a romantic comedy we know the two will get together eventually.

What keeps them apart over the course of three seasons are mini-desires that are either fulfilled or stymied in the course of one half-hour episode.

01: Richard wants to buy Grantleigh whereas Audrey wants to continue living there as a happy widow. (The sustaining desire-line is established.)

02: Richard wants to find a social secretary to help him integrate into the village without impacting on his role as CEO of his supermarket chain. Audrey is not at all happy about being ousted into the much smaller property across the meadow, but wants to reclaim some dignity of sorts by tricking Richard into embarrassing himself by thinking someone else has moved in instead — someone he can use. In this episode Audrey gets what she wants in a small way, while Richard has already got what he wants in a big way — the manor.

03: Audrey wants to turn Richard into a church-going man. This is one concrete improvement she can make to a man she wants to turn into marriageable material. (Marriageable in her own eyes, that is.) Peter Spence is sure we know that this is part of a larger scheme by having Audrey tell Marjery so.

04: Audrey continues on her Richard improvement strategy. He must learn to protect the nation’s heritage. Instead, he has replaced an ugly but culturally significant mantel with a safe full of cash. Audrey wants him to feel bad about this. (It backfires when she ends up with the ugly mantel in her lodge.)

05: Audrey wants Richard to come to her on “bended knee” to ask for help in organising an annual ball. She wants to maintain her former status in the community and also impress Richard with her organising skills.

06: In episode six, Mrs Poo is the character whose desire sets the story going — she is bored at the Manor and wants a party. But because Mrs Poo is a minor character, her desire is also minor, and can be considered a McGuffin desire. It is only once Audrey attends the party that her own story-worthy desire kicks in — she wants to show the village that she is doing well financially. For that she must go on her usual overseas holiday. But as she explains to Brabinger, it’s appearing to go on holidays that is the main thing, not going on the holiday itself. It makes sense for Audrey’s character that she doesn’t enjoy overseas holidays in the slightest. This is shown via her reading a holiday journal from the previous year, in which she was bored. Outside her own very specific environment, the xenophobic Audrey flounders. This harks back to the wider, enduring desireline of Audrey — regain her former position or die. Audrey is the human equivalent of an insect which can only survive on one single blighted species of grain.

07: At the beginning of the episode it is revealed that Audrey has been having cash flow problems. Ordinarily, a real life person would ‘want money’, but because this is a comedy and because Audrey is a comic archetype, Audrey doesn’t really want money. (For her, such a desire is crass.) She is ironically upbeat about the late bills and wants to bounce a cheque at one of Richard’s supermarkets to get her own back. He took her house, after all. Then she wants to know what’s going on at the Manor, because Richard has a clearer desire in this episode — in an attempt to appear more English he is staring in an advert for Fontleroy’s Old English Tonic. When this is revealed to Audrey she has an about turn and her desire changes — she wants to star in the advert herself, considering herself more genuinely suitable for the job.

OPPONENT

To The Manor Born

Romances are so difficult to write because the main opponents are the lovers, to each other. This series follows the fight-fight-kiss-kiss tradition of romance, where the audience sees from the very beginning that two characters are perfect for each other, and now we must (hopefully) enjoy watching them come to the same realisation, swapping witty banter (and it had better be witty).

A mistake some romance writers make when writing these fight-fight-kiss-kiss stories is simply creating personalities that clash. That’s not enough. Their agendas need to clash. Agenda = desire + plan, so their desires and their plans must clash as well.

The manor provides a very solid goal (desire) for both of them, but they can’t both have it.

Audrey and Marjory have a longterm, sisterly relationship in which Marjory is often the voice of reason, speaking for an audience who would otherwise question Audrey’s motives. A staple of British comedy is the stupid sidekick. In The Vicar of Dibley we have Alice, in Only Fool’s and Horses we have Rodney Trotter, and so on. This dynamic is also utilised frequently in cop and buddy comedies, where one guy is wily and the other dimwitted, getting them into trouble.

PLAN

What is Audrey’s overall plan? After the wedding she plans to stay in the Manor, living life as before, only without her husband. This plan is soon dashed when she is told she is in debt. She has a plan to raise funds, but has no idea about how hard money is to come by, so these plans fail and she is required to leave her family manor.

Her plan switches and she intends to win over Richard.  She’s planned this before the other characters realise — she has purchased the lodge, very nearby. Audrey understands Richard completely and knows that in order to win his heart she has to prove herself as wily and socially aspirational as he is himself. All of these trickster stories are flirtation. And the audience loves to see them fall. These are powerful people we’re laughing at, which makes it satire.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle scene in each episode of To The Manor Born involves witty back-and-forth dialogue between Richard and Audrey, often with an audience such as Marjory, sometimes alone. Spence started out as a gag writer for radio, but as he explains in the special features, Penelope Keith told him she’s not a gag actor. Also, gags would not be in keeping for a lady of the manor, so that explains why the big struggles happen in dialogue.

The writer kept the winning and losing about even, to show the audience that these two characters are made for each other. Audrey succeeds in getting Richard to church, but in the next episode she succeeds in conveying the importance of historical buildings but fails at the same time — she didn’t want the old mantel in her house. In “The Grapevine” episode, both Audrey and Richard are victims, discovered by the whole village coming out of the woods at night. They’ve been observing badgers.

In “A Touch Of Class”, Audrey attempts to trick Richard into eating a terrible mean, but she has been outfoxed by her drunkard temporary butler, who serves up a delicious meal, cooked by a renowned good cook as a favour.

ANAGNORISIS

A look at the structure of a transgression comedy (above) maps the ‘anagnorisis’ phase onto the ‘coming off of the mask’.

Over the course of the first series of To The Manor Born we see Richard realise that he has to learn a new culture and make a big effort to fit in, as custodian of the land he now owns. The whole village now knows that he’s not old money, so he’ll have to try extra hard to fit in. He realises in episode two that when you’re living among blue bloods, they’re not always happy to do what you want them to do, e.g. be your social secretary.

As for Audrey, she starts off resenting Richard, then realises she might be able to marry him and return to her manor, then she realises she’ll have to mould him into the sort of man she would want. Finally by the end of season one it is clear both of these characters are more similar than they are different, and Audrey realises she likes him as a person.

NEW SITUATION

The back-and-forth one-upmanship and the discovery that each of them is duplicitous as the other will culminate at the end of season three in a wedding. The wedding episode drew huge viewer numbers in 1981. It was the only episode not written by Spence, for some reason. Perhaps Spence felt more comfortable writing transgression comedy than in tidying up a romance with a happy ending. These are two different skills, and two different sensibilities.

My Summer Of Love Film Study

My Summer Of Love is a 2004 film based on a novel by Helen Cross set in 1984. If you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994), My Summer Of Love bears similarities: A relationship of romantic infatuation between two teenage girls from very different backgrounds. My Summer Of Love puts the relationship between the girls to the forefront, making it a romance rather than a crime drama. This is a love story but it is a tragic one.

My Summer Of Love movie poster

 

GIRLS AND FANTASY LIVES

Picture books and middle grade novels are full of boys with rich fantasy lives, in which the line between reality and fiction is blurred. But when it comes to young adult and adult fiction, what happens to all these dreamy boys? They disappear. Destructive, manipulative fantasies suddenly become a female characteristic.

david the dreamer boy and his fantasy life
David The Dreamer from 1922

At one point the girls enjoy a post-coital cigarette. This is such a Hollywood cliche that filmmakers themselves must be aware of what they’re doing. Here, the girls have themselves been influenced by what they’ve seen on the silver screen. Smoking in bed is what adults do, they have learned, and so they do it.

The girls’ whole summer is a construction of performed melodrama. There has always been handwringing about young women and the types of stories we let them read — a century ago it was thought that novels would rot their minds. Ten years ago it was Twilight, more recently it’s sick-lit, and concerns (justified or not, I’m not sure) that 13 Reasons Why encourages suicide as a legitimate and successful form of revenge. Mona’s background in fiction includes horror films. As evidence we see her mimic the voice of a movie devil. But what has influenced Tamsin?  She says she loves Edith Piaf. We also see she has made up melodramatic things about Piaf’s life. (Edith Piaf did lead a rather tragic life but she didn’t murder anyone, and not with a fork.) Tamsin’s mother may or may not be an amateur actress but in any case Tamsin seems to worship (real) actors, and has no doubt seen a lot of plays and films. She has been exposed to Nietzsche, and encourages Mona to read him, but soon shows that she doesn’t really know anything more than his name.

Perhaps boys continue with their fantasies but those take a different form and are not seen as such. Tamsin’s father is having a series of affairs. Perhaps this should be compared to the sexual fantasies and longing of his teenage daughter.

THE CHARACTER OF TAMSIN

Tamsin is an intriguing blend of savvy and naive. Though she’s not all that dangerous yet due to her lack of power in the world, she is certainly a dangerous woman in the making.

Is Tamsin on the sociopathic spectrum? Not being a psychologist myself, and with Tamsin not being a real person, I am free to speculate. I can certainly make a good case for it:

  • Though this isn’t explored further, we know that Tamsin has been suspended from boarding school because apparently she’s a bad influence on others.
  • The scene which really makes me think Tamsin has zero empathy is the one where they visit the wife of the singer who was using Mona for sex at the beginning of the film. Tamsin revels in the misery she is causing this woman. Neither of the girls are woke enough to see that this woman is not part of the man’s problem, but it doesn’t take a sociopath to fail in that.
  • Later she winds Phil around her little finger for laughs. (Anyone else reminded of that saying: “Men are terrified women will laugh at them; women are terrified men will kill them”? Despite appearances, Tamsin isn’t old enough yet to know to be scared of men like Phil.)
  • Tamsin picks up that Mona is interested in horror movies and gives her a genuine scare by taking control of the ouija board session.
  • Tamsin’s fantasies about her sister being dead are creepy, to say the least. It’s likely she has zero affection for Sadie.
  • Tamsin is charming, intoxicating and fun to be around.
  • I have heard that sociopathic women are not subject to the same body insecurities that most women are. That’s not the same as saying that any woman comfortable with her body must be a sociopath — think of it in the inverse: sociopathic women know exactly how attractive they are, unbound by society’s rules and expectations about femininity.
  • Sociopaths are more likely to use sex as power, and are therefore more likely to identify as bisexual, because power is the goal — gender of sexual target is irrelevant. (Again, not true in the inverse.)
  • The sorts of lies Tamsin tells are in line with what you’d expect from a sociopath — she lies to control others. She has no other reason to lie to Mona. She doesn’t need money or anything like that.
  • Since sociopathy is to some degree genetic, the philandering father is a possible sociopath in his own right. (We don’t learn enough about the mother.)

The audience sees that Tamsin is a ‘fantasist’ before Mona does. The older you are, the earlier you see it.

Tamsin doesn’t change at all over the course of the film. She is a mendacious ‘bad influence’ at the outset and remains so. We know she will go straight back to boarding school, latch onto some new victim and continue to wreak havoc with people’s emotions.

STORYWORLD OF MY SUMMER OF LOVE

Filmed in Todmorden, this story is set in a very similar Yorkshire town.

SEASON

The book upon which this film is based starts in May, 1984. This was apparently a record-breaking heatwave for the area. Season is symbolic here — the extreme heat of this summer mirrors the ‘passion’ these girls feel for each other. Todmorden won’t see another heatwave quite like this one for a very long time. Likewise, we can surmise Mona won’t fall in love like that again.

The music, fashion and cars of the film make no attempt to take us back to 1984 — instead it looks like 2004. Nor is there anything about this that couldn’t be 1964 or even 1944, with a few surface-level modifications.

Here Emily Blunt is dressed in big hoop earrings and a headband from the 1970s, but I was wearing those same things in 2004 — they’d come back into the fashion chainstores.

my summer of love sunbathing
Do people still sunbathe in the heat of the day? Not like they did in 1984, surely. (I can’t speak for Yorkshire.)

In 1984, gay relationships were illegal. In the film the girls get thrown out of the local dance establishment, not just for being high and interrupting the singer, but also for being draped all over one another. For the locals — be it 1984 or 2004 — two girls in love would have been a confronting sight.

But this is not really a story ‘about’ being gay, banding together against the wider, intolerant, heterosexual world. It would be a mistake to focus on this as a lesbian film. Yet the algorithms at IMDb reflect a tendency for filmgoers to focus on the salacious at the expense of seeing the story for what it is:  Two (most probably) heterosexual girls playing out a love fantasy in what one of them thinks could replace real life.

my summer of love keywords

 

THE FAKENHAM HOUSE

The aristocratic house is ‘creepy’ in Tamsin’s words, made even creepier by her made-up stories about it. At various points I was reminded of Rapunzel, though Tamsin had cloistered herself away in her upstairs bedroom largely by choice. (The dollhouse in Sadie’s bedroom is symbolic. )

I was reminded of Rapunzel again later when Mona is literally locked inside her bedroom by her brother. Tamsin chooses to cloister herself inside her bedroom — the world is there for her taking, actually — whereas the financially poor, working class, ill-educated Mona is literally locked into her situation.

RICH AND POOR AS MIRROR CHARACTERS

A story instantly becomes more interesting when rich and poor come together in a story. A little Yorkshire village is the perfect opportunity for this — more so than London, probably — because country villages comprise tiny rows of cottages where the poorest people live, with ticky-tacky but newer cottages where middle-class people live (e.g. Mr Fakenham’s lover), but just beyond the town’s border lie the large homes of England’s aristocracy. The private-schooled daughter from the mansion down the drive is legitimately sharing the same country road as the girl from the pub.

riding bitch my summer of love
The ‘riding bitch’ trope isn’t limited to male-female duos — here we have the more dominant girl sitting behind the girl under her thumb. Though Mona is ostensibly in the drivers’ seat, it’s all an illusion. A double inversion on the trope.

NOTES ON THE STORY STRUCTURE

IS MY SUMMER OF LOVE A COMING-OF-AGE STORY?

[This is more] a movie that is about being an age, than coming out of age

— Roger Ebert

What is a coming-of-age story? This isn’t an easy question because, at its widest interpretation, everything with a character arc could be considered a ‘coming-of-age’ story.

A coming-of-age is a genre that focuses on psychological and moral growth of a protagonist who is growing from youth to adulthood. Personal growth is the most important characteristic in this genre.

What, then, makes My Summer Of Love not a coming-of-age story, in Roger Ebert’s eyes? I guess it’s because 15-year-old Mona does not grow. Not in any desirable sense. She certainly comes to a realisation. She learns that she has been let down in love — again — that she has no one in the world apart from a volatile, ex-crim brother, and when she almost drowns Tamsin in the river she demonstrates that she has a bit of her brother’s murderous rage within her. When she walks down the road in that last scene — we don’t know to where — I get the strong feeling that her life will be just as terrible and deflated as she always expected it to be. In this story there’s nothing of the psychological ‘growth’ characteristic of a coming-of-age story. Rather, Mona briefly saw grander possibilities for herself during a brief brush with a child of the aristocracy, and now she has shrunk back into herself. A feature of a coming-of-age story is that the main character is now equipped with the strength and courage and independence to face the world head on, and to move into adulthood living her essence. Because we don’t get to see where Mona is going, it’s up to audience interpretation regarding what will happen to her next. Another viewer might see her attempted strangulation of Tamsin as a form of female empowerment, but I am not in that camp. I see this violence as a warning sign.

MIRROR PLOT

The plot of the ex-con older brother’s religious conversion seems unrelated at first but over the course of the story we realise both get at the main question: What does it mean to be a genuine person? Failing to live up to his standards of Good Christian Person, Phil tells his church buddies to up and leave the premises. Like Mona, Phil too is probably back on the path to ruination.

SOME DIFFERENCES BETWEEN BOOK AND FILM
  • Mona narrates the book, so her Yorkshire dialect is strong. In the film we only see her idiosyncratic way of speaking when she actually speaks, and she doesn’t say that much.
  • Mona and Phil — called Porkchop in the novel because he is fat — have a sister named Lindy who is getting married for the 2nd time. In the film it is suggested that there are more kids than just Mona and Phil, when Mona tells Tamsin about her future hypothetical life in which she’ll have a bunch of kids, wait for menopause, or cancer, seeming to mirror her own mother’s sorry life. The entire subplot of the wedding has been omitted from the film probably due to the constraints on time. More story fits into a novel.
  • In the book we know Tamsin’s last name: Fakenham. It never comes up in the film. Being an allegorical name, I guess this might be seen as too on-the-nose.
  • In the book Mona is self-conscious of her appearance whereas nothing is made of this in the film. Perhaps because Mona has red hair, is skinny and freckled the audience is supposed to ‘know’ this about her without having to be told. Almost every 15-year-old who goes by that description in fiction has huge body image insecurities — the most famous being Anne of Green Gables. Mona bears other similarities to Anne Shirley — she is terribly alone in the world and has the ability to sink into fantasy. Perhaps Mona is Anne Shirley from another time and place.
  • In the film, Phil is shutting down the family bar at the beginning of the story but in the book Mona works as a barmaid at the pub where the family lives.
  • Mona thieves, plays on the fruit machines and drinks alcohol to help her cope with the day. We see Mona smoking and drinking but the film doesn’t show her gambling and thieving tendencies. This makes her even more of a naive puppet in Tamsin’s games.
  • Tamsin has returned home from boarding school and seems to be lonely, so Mona gets a ‘call to adventure’ when asked by Tamsin’s father Mr. Fakenham to befriend his daughter.
  • In the book Mona is on her way to school when she decides to visit the Fakenham house.  There is no mention of school for Mona in the film. We assume she’s left, or at least, she’s not going back. Her education is over. She seems a bit older than 15, too. Ages are not mentioned.
  • Mona finds Tamsin’s parents arguing about Mr. Fakenham’s affairs when she first visits the big house. In the film we don’t see Tamsin’s mother until the very end, and we find out about Mr Fakenham’s affairs through different means, left in the dark about whether this was actually going on, or if this too was another part of Tamsin’s fantasy.

SIMILAR STORIES

Heavenly Creatures is based on a true story which I feel is the main edge it has over this story. Peter Jackson’s film is also more heavily stylised, but the acting is on a par. Like Kate Winslet, Emily Blunt has gone on to be a big name.

The book My Summer Of Love — with its emphasis on a sister’s wedding absent in the film —  has been compared to The Member Of The Wedding by Carson McCullers.

Tonally, I am reminded of We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson. Jackson’s novel is narrated by the mendacious teenage girl, whereas this story is narrated by a more ordinary viewpoint character. The setting, too, is similar. Merricat Blackwood is sequestered in her ‘castle’ but occasionally goes into the village.

Wallace and Gromit: A Matter Of Loaf Or Death

In Wallace and Gromit: A Matter Of Loaf Or Death, Wallace and his dog, Gromit, open a bakery and get tied up with a murder mystery. But, when Wallace falls in love Gromit is left to solve the case.

The Japanese title is “The Bad Dream Of Bakery Street’.

GENRE BLEND OF ‘A MATTER OF LOAF OR DEATH’

comedy, horror, romance >> cosy mystery

STORY WORLD OF ‘A MATTER OF LOAF OR DEATH’

The town’s milieu was inspired by thoughts of 1950s Wigan. It’s sort of like 1950s steampunk. Similar towns are seen in the live action Midsomer Murders series. It’s very English. As a consequence, Wallace comes out with very British idiomatic expressions pretty much every time he speaks. His life revolves around very English foods, especially cheese.

The films appeal to a dual audience partly by including a frequent scattering of allusions to pop culture. There are plenty of puns and nods of recognition in the intratext — Meat-a-bix written on Fluffles’ bed box instead of Weet-a-bix, for instance.

A MATTER OF LOAF OR DEATH BAKERY

STORY STRUCTURE OF ‘A MATTER OF LOAF OR DEATH’

SHORTCOMING

Wallace has a kindly nature, and is perhaps a little over-optimistic. This blinds his view on reality. In a Courage The Cowardly Dog sort of character combo, it’s up to Gromit to save the day while his owner goes blithely about his everyday business. Wallace is basically Muriel. While Wallace wants cheese and hot pots all the time, Muriel likes a nice cup of tea. (No coincidence that Muriel is from the British Isles, even in an American cartoon series.) Isn’t it a shame that Wallace never met Muriel? Now they would’ve made a happy couple.

DESIRE

Wallace is a single man who readily falls in love with any attractive woman who crosses his path. He wants a pretty wife. (This is also his downfall because he keeps meeting the wrong women.)

OPPONENT

A MATTER OF LOAF OR DEATH PARK BENCH SCENE

This story has a romantic plot, so the romantic target is also the opponent in any romance. Here, the romantic opponent is also the villain.

Piella Bakewell is a hyper-feminized villain whose lipstick, elaborate hair-do and sausage-skin-tight dress work to tell us that she is not as she appears underneath. She is also a middle-aged woman who was thin in her youth, and has a vendetta against bakers because they bake all the delicious things which have made her fat.

I find this character and her storyline problematic. Femininity as artifice is a trope common throughout both fiction and real life. This is most clearly seen in stories (including reality TV shows and documentaries) featuring male-to-female transgender people. But it also applies to feminine cis-gendered women.

In our present system of gender, when drawing the lines between femininity and masculinity, we’ve positioned the latter as being the natural, stripped down, down-to-earth, nice and simple, no-frills, no-frivolity concept. We like to imagine that the masculine is just pragmatic and to the point, lacking in any unnecessary aesthetic considerations. We imagine it to be efficient and direct. Conversely, the feminine is believed to be artifice, an elaborate costume, all just poses and aesthetics and frivolous dalliance, wholly lacking in any pragmatic value. It’s an ornament, rather than a tool, and is anything but direct, instead regarded as endlessly complex, subtle, mysterious and intuitive. Full of uncanny, inscrutable excesses like feelings and beauty and style. The feminine is fey, precious, wild, unknowable. The masculine is rational, basic, objective, and ever so apparent.

FTB

While Wallace is stupid, any individual male character can be stupid, especially when it comes to love. This is not connected to hyper-masculinity. Wallace’s stupidity does say something about how men can be easily taken in when they fall in love, but this is provoked by the woman’s artifice. It started in the Garden of Eden.

At least since Biblical times, Women Are Liars is a cultural narrative from way back. Femininity As Artifice is a subtype of that idea.

As for the message about body shape, the whole story relies on the audience’s implicit knowledge that, for this middle-aged woman, putting on weight is one of the worst things that could happen. There is never any critique of this idea. Fatness is the joke. Specifically, female fatness. Wallace is allowed to glory in food to his heart’s content.

The thing is, this is a very clever story. The symbolism and the jokes work so well. It makes total sense that Piella would want to get rid of bakers — not only that, there’s a perfectly timed joke about getting a full ‘baker’s dozen’. The dough itself resembles doughy middle-aged people. Piella’s hyper-femininity works well as a ruse because pink, flowers and 1950s housewives are popularly considered the antidote to the masculinity of big struggles which take place in the outside world. Because this is all so clever, it’s can all be explained away. But a story is never just a story. This particular story relies heavily on worn-out sexist tropes.

On a less annoying note, Piella Bakewell has a little dog — a female who is a poodle. The poodle is a victim — a mute cute — and does what she can to help Gromit defeat their mutual opponent. I am grateful to the writers that Gromit and Fluffles do not end up an item, a la Milo and Otis and many other stories, where it seems the only truly happy ending for a boy character involves falling in love with a pretty girl character, even when the personalities are animalised children.

PLAN

It’s up to Gromit to save the day. Realising Piella’s evil plan, he is unable to talk owing to his being a mute dog, so he is left with no other choice but to research how to build a security machine. He frisks Piella at the door to their house with an airport security type thing. He confiscates her ladle. He has already locked away all the knives in the house.

BIG STRUGGLE

This is foiled with Piella cracks on Gromit bit her. Gromit is muzzled with a bread basket and chained to the sink.

GROMIT LOAF OR DEATH

Fortunately he has already set up a Rube Goldberg type machine to send her flying with a sack of flour on a string.

For a while it looks like the story is over, but we sense it’s not. How does the audience know that, after Wallace and Piella have first split up, that the story isn’t finished? What exactly is it that we’re sensing? If the story had ended there, there would have been insufficient build-up. A big struggle is a big struggle sequence. Sending Piella flying with one small sack of flour does not match the formidableness of the villain.

Piella arrives for a forced reunion and has bought a ‘cake’, which viewers know to be some sort of trap — is it poisoned? Is there a punching machine inside? We soon find out there’s a cartoon bomb — the big round ball with a single lit fuse.

LOAF OR DEATH BOMB

There is an extensive action scene in which the bomb is caught inside Wallace’s trousers. Gromit saves him by filling his trousers with dough.Jokes involving trousers and the exposure of bums are particularly funny to a middle grade audience. The bomb blows up but Wallace is saved. This is the exaggerated, comical final big struggle that viewers expect from a comedy which has already opened with masterful action sequences (the cycling downhill and the near death experience falling into the alligator pit).

LOAF OR DEATH BAKE O LITE BALLOON

ANAGNORISIS

Wallace seems to have a anagnorisis after the break up, sitting at the table drinking tea with Gromit, the Only Sane Dog in the room. There is no true anagnorisis because these are plot driven stories and we can’t have Wallace coming to his senses or there would be no more adventures to be had. When Wallace turns his attention back to food this is funny precisely because he has zero anagnorisis.

NEW SITUATION

Piella is thrown into the alligator pit, the one we saw earlier, which just so happens to exist nearby. Her vanity is her downfall. She has insisted on riding the advertising blimp despite being too heavy for it. The murder conveniently takes place off screen, down the well and out of view, but we know she’s been killed because the alligator burps.

As in every Wallace and Gromit story, Wallace soon turns his mind to food, the clock which runs his day.

The story ends with a setting sun.

LOAF OR DEATH STREET SCENE