By Pam Cook

Curated at [in]Transition, 1.3, 2014 by Catherine Grant

Word vs. Image: Making MILDRED’S KISS (2013)

By Pam Cook

The initial idea for Mildred’s Kiss was simple: to reflect on the critical consensus that Todd Haynes’s Mildred Pierce is a faithful adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel. The video essay focuses on what for me is the novel’s most transgressive moment, when Mildred kisses her daughter Veda on the mouth, making her incestuous desire explicit. The scene in the miniseries is close to Cain’s description but the sexual implications are more at the level of subtext, relayed via performance and music. There is subtext in Cain’s words too — even so, I maintain that the subject of same-sex desire is more overtly represented in the novel.[1. Pam Cook, ‘Beyond Adaptation: Mirrors, Memory and Melodrama in Todd Haynes’s Mildred Pierce, Screen 54 (3), Autumn 2013: 378-87.] To support this argument I wanted to create a layered audiovisual text that brings the novel (the privileged source for the miniseries) into the foreground by superimposing Cain’s words over Haynes’s images. I hoped that reading those words synchronously with viewing/listening to the images would unsettle the consensus and move the debate beyond issues of adaptation.

The end result was more complex than I anticipated. When thinking about the project, I was influenced by Gérard Genette’s work on the relationship between paratextual material (Todd Haynes’s pronouncements in interviews about his debt to the novel) and the main text (the miniseries).[2. Gérard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Trans. Jane E. Lewin.] Mildred’s Kiss challenges the commonly held idea that the film object is primary and self-contained by superimposing letters on the screen so that the images are partially obscured. Cain’s words form part of the miniseries, and they also bring it into being. The font (American Typewriter) is intended to connote the writing of the novel. The scrolling text is positioned to allow certain parts of the scene to be ‘read’ in light of Cain’s words. This produces a ‘writerly’ experience à la Roland Barthes in which viewers/readers/essayists generate their own meanings.[3. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, New York: Hill and Wang, 1980. Trans. Richard Miller.] The video essay constitutes an event; it transforms existing material to fashion an open-ended process of re-reading and re-writing.

In Mildred’s Kiss, the superimposition of words/titles onto film disrupts the transparency of visual representation by destroying depth and insisting on the surface nature of the screen image.[4. For an in-depth discussion of this strategy in silent cinema and the American avant-garde, see Galina Savukova, Reading Films: Words on the Silent Screens of American Cinema, The City University of New York, 2010. Unpublished PhD thesis. Available from Proquest: Thanks to Catherine Grant for drawing my attention to this.] In a sense, it defaces the cherished cinephiliac object, only allowing its return at the moment of the kiss. This heightens the eroticism of the taboo-breaking act and allows fetishism full rein: suddenly, at this crucial instance of desire, the image is available to be pored over. The music on the soundtrack adds to the intensity as the soprano voice rises to a crescendo when Mildred moves in for the kiss in huge close-up.[5. ‘Casta Diva’ aria from Norma by Vincenzo Bellini (1831) performed by Sumi Jo in the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce (Todd Haynes, 2011).] The presence of the scrolling letters on screen sacrifices the apparent integrity of the image, which becomes a site of transtextual/transmedia interaction. In Genette’s terms, Cain’s novel is a hypotext appropriated and transformed by Haynes’s hypertext, the miniseries.[6. Gérard Genette, Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997, pp. 5-6.Trans. Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky.] The video essay complies with Genette’s metatextuality; it appropriates and transforms the miniseries, using Cain’s words to create a self-reflexive commentary on Haynes’s images.[7. Genette, Palimpsests, pp. 4-5.]

Critical commentary is a significant part of the video essay’s scholarly potential. Words have always been part of visual representation, and verbal-visual interaction in audiovisual media has multiple manifestations.[8. See Savukova for a comprehensive investigation.] Video essays use verbal text together with moving images in different ways: among them, to illuminate written scholarship; to inscribe personal reflections; to produce poetic ruminations or analytical insights. Words are juxtaposed with images through subtitles, letters scrolling alongside film clips, prologues, titles, credits and/or intertitles. If words are superimposed on visuals, the image itself is rarely compromised even when it is interrogated. Inevitably there are hierarchies at work in the verbal-visual relationship (words have the power to anchor/explain images, to make them ‘legible’, images are capable of undermining the authority of words) and the video essay has the ability to explore that interface. For some scholars, words are inseparable from images — the graphic components of printed words (typography, design, formatting, position on the page/screen) are testimony to their visual qualities, while film images can be seen as a form of writing.[9. Tom Conley, Film Hieroglyphs, Chicago: University of Minnesota Press, 2006; Leo H. Hoek, ‘Image and Word: An Exciting Relationship . . .’, Interactions: The Bulletin of I.A.W.I.S. 12 (1994): 21-29. Trans. Marrije Schaake and Peter de Voogd. Cited by Savukova. Genette discusses the visual impact of typography and paper in Paratexts.]

In Mildred’s Kiss the scrolling writing is not part of the image, it is the image, with all that implies about aesthetic and semantic analysis. It opens up ideas about verbal/visual reciprocity without limiting available reader/viewer interactions, confirming the audiovisual essay’s capacity to make complex concepts accessible. However, as I write this in support of the project, I’m acutely aware of the disproportionate number of words it has taken to unfurl just a few dimensions of a modest proposal that is approximately one minute long. I’m reminded of Magritte’s deceptively artless reflection on verbal/visual representation in his painting ‘La Trahison des images/The Treachery of Images’, which inspired Foucault to write a whole book in response.[10. René Magritte, ‘La Trahison des images’ (1928-29); Michel Foucault, This Is Not a Pipe, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. Trans. and ed. James Harkness.]

Magritte’s artwork and Foucault’s critique can both be seen as ambivalent reactions to the arbitrary nature of visual and verbal signs. The conjunction of images with the pictorial elements of words tests the way we perceive both and representation in general. In exploiting the tensions between moving images and verbal text the audiovisual essay dramatises, depicts and dissects the shifting power relations between them, promising new insights into its own operations as well as hallowed traditions of moving image analysis.


Pam Cook is Professor Emerita in Film at the University of Southampton. She is editor of The Cinema Book (2007) and author of numerous books and articles on film history and culture. Her video essays can be viewed on her website: Prof. Pam Cook.