Historical Context of the Remakes of The Phantom of the Opera Essay
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The Phantom of the Opera has undergone subsequent remakes. This Hollywood film has undergone numerous remakes at different historical moments throughout the world. In Hollywood and the United Kingdom, it has spawned more than ten film and TV versions that differ significantly in selecting the settings for the horror-romance [Paris, New York and London] in accounting for the phantom’s disfiguration, in portraying the opera understudy, as well as Christine’s attitude toward the phantom.
However, they all follow the male phantom-teacher and female opera-student structure so that heterosexual desire [manifested in two men’s competition for a woman] remains the prime move of the plot.
My focus in this essay is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version of the aforementioned text.
My emphasis in this text will be how the phantom [including his image and voice] is represented within the film technology available at that time [in contradistinction to the manner in which the phantom’s image and voice is represented in different versions of the aforementioned text].
My working hypothesis is that since the phantom, by definition, exceeds visual representation in the silent and the sound versions, his voice, as a singer and a music teacher, emerges a primary site for representation and signification.
To explore the representation and the significance of the phantom’s voice, I will focus on (1) how the phantom-teacher relates to his student through voice as well as visage, (2) how the teacher-student relationship differ from film to film [from Schumacher’s film in contradistinction to the other version of the film], (3) and how to read these relationships in allegorical terms, or in relation to their respective material-historical conditions. The last question leads me to map the teacher-student relationship onto the tension between an “original” film and its remake(s).
In the end this paper will demonstrates the manner in which each remake strategizes its position vis-a-vis a historical moment and a prior film text hence it follows from this that each remake [specifically Schumacher’s remake] should not be subsumed into an echoing tradition in the corridor of the history. I start with the representation of phantom’s voice and its interplay with the shadow. The aural-visual dimension is crucial for our understanding of the issue of subaltern film remaking, which is ultimately an issue of power circulation and distribution.
In the film diegeses, the phantom holds power over the student and other people for two reasons: (1) he eludes audio-visual representation and (2) he assumes the empowered teacher position. The 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera centered upon the triangular tension between Erik, The Phantom (Lon Chaney); Christine (Mary Philbin), an understudy in the Paris Opera House whom the phantom has trained and elevated to the diva position; and Raoul (Norman Kerry), Christine’s fiance. As indicated above, the phantom, by definition, exceeds direct visual coding.
The problematic of representation is further compounded by the fact that the film, being silent [that being the 1925 version], cannot represent the phantom’s voice except through the theatre orchestra’s performance. This means that the voice and other diegetic sounds the audience hear do not [seem to] emit from the screen. This representational dilemma is alleviated through the use of shadow [an image that signifies the fusion of absence and presence, thus most appropriate for the phantom figure].
More specifically, this silent film mobilizes venues of representation before Christine sees the phantom. The first is the shadow, proffered exclusively to the audience who, according to Michel Chion, is “deaf” and cannot hear the phantom’s voice (Chion 7). The other, the phantom’s “angelic voice,” is heard only by Christine and other characters. The differentiated knowledge distribution leads to two modes of spectatorship, one being exclusively visual, and the other exclusively aural. In both cases, the phantom is omnipotent when remaining a mere shadow or a disembodied voice (Chion 19).
When lodged in a physical body, a process the power is lost. This takes place in The Phantom of the Opera when Christine’s fascination with the acousmatic phantom turns into dread and disgust once the voice is embodied in a visual image [i. e. , the skull head that she has unmasked]. Thus, the phantom’s deacousmatization depletes his magic power over Christine. Not only does his horrendous visage drive Christine to cover her face [which may implicitly mirror a female viewer’s typical response to a horror film].
It also forces the phantom himself to cover his face. The implication is that to maintain his power, he has to remain invisible. In the same manner, for a horror film to remain horrific, it must not be seen in unobstructed view. As Dennis Giles observes, the more [the viewer] stares, the more the terror will dissipate… to the extent that the image of full horror will be revealed (unveiled) as more constructed, more artificial, more a fantasy, more a fiction than the fiction which prepares and exhibits it.
To look the horror in the face for very long robs it of its power. (48) By covering his face, the phantom symbolizes the horror film’s attempt to block the viewer’s vision. In other words, the power of the phantom, and by extension, of the horror film, consists in deprivation of visual representation. The problematic of representing a phantom in a silent film thus finds resolution in a paradox, namely, the possibility and effectiveness of representation consists precisely in a lack of direct visual representation.
Acousmetre is also crucial for maintaining the teacher student relationship. Once deacousmatized, this relationship comes to an end, which in turn de-legitimizes the phantom’s proposal to Christine. After a long sequence of suspense, sound and fury, during which Christine is salvaged from the Opera House’s underground catacomb, while the phantom chased to a dead end, the film [initial version of the film] closes with a double shot of Christine happily married with her aristocratic fiance.
Instead of a beauty and the beast story, in which the beast is transformed into a handsome nobleman by the beauty’s kiss, the monster in this film remains a monster and the opera actress gets punished for her scopic and epistemological drive [a “monstrous” transgression she must redeem by betraying the monster] returning to humanity [defined as white heterosexual normality] and succumbing to a domesticating marriage. The containment of the female deviancy is built into the film producer’s plan to reinforce what they perceive as the audience’s wish: “a movie about the love life of Christine Daae” (MacQueen 40).
The film thus ends with a triumph of a bourgeois fantasy premised on the domestication of women, and the destruction of the monster. Joel Schumacher’s remake of the original Phantom of the Opera, did not come as a surprise, given the frequent practice of borrowing and adapting at the time. Schumacher’s version retains the powerful phantom figure whose self-de-acousmatization again successfully captivates the student, Christine. Nevertheless, it also displays far more intense interactions between the phantom-teacher and the singer-student.
Briefly speaking, their relationship goes through four successive steps: ventriloquism, reverse ventriloquism or excessive mimesis, performative reiteration, and finally, the Benjaminian “afterlife” [which delineate Christine’s gradual usurpation of the phantom’s power while also contributing to the dialectical image provided by the phantom-teacher and singer-student relationship]. The phantom begins with ventriloquizing Christine’s in the latter’s reenactment of the former’s masterpiece, now titled “Romeo and Juliet,” replacing “Hot Blood” in Song at Midnight.
During the performance, Christine falters at a tenor note, but is undetected by the theatre audience, thanks to the phantom’s backstage “dubbing,” visually represented through cutaways. The camera first holds on Christine’s bending over the dead “Juliet” then closes up on his slightly opened mouth and bewilderment, and subsequently following Christine’s puzzled look, cuts to the cloaked phantom in profile, hidden behind a window curtain in the backstage, emotionally singing out the tenor notes.
Cutting from the front stage to the back stage area also echoes. In the aforementioned scene, it is important to note that the moment of ventriloquism gradually gives way to Christine’s agency. Indeed, Christine’s centrality in the film is evidenced in the predominance of the perspective shots that mediate the off-screen audience’s knowledge and sensorial experiences. This viewing structure contrasts sharply with The Phantom of the Opera’s 1925 version.
Whereas Christine deacousmatizes the phantom, the audience actually sees the disfigured face before she does. Similarly, Christine’s knowledge [regarding the phantom] is one step behind that of the audience who hear the phantom’s midnight singing and see an enlarged shadow cast on the wall at the opening of the film after the initial portrayal of the opera house’s condition after the fire. The contrast between the two aforementioned versions of The Phantom of the Opera suggests two different ways of constructing history.
One is to hide away the past [embodied by the phantom] that has transformed beyond recognition so as to reproduce its old, familiar image in a present medium, or the student. The other is to acknowledge what the past has become, in order to re-suture it into the present without reducing the present into a mere mirror image of the past. Thus, Christine’s agency and the Phantom’s revival become interdependent. The teacher-student hierarchy, as argued previously, is analogous with the hierarchy between the master and the slave.
Furthermore, it can also be mapped onto the tension-ridden relationship between a film and its remake(s). These interconnected, parallel relationships allow us to situate the cultural production of a film in a dynamic socio-political field (Gilloch 17). Following Gerard Genette’s definition of “hypertextuality,” which designates that a hypertext both overlays and evokes an anterior text, or hypotext (Genette 5), I argue that a remake occupies the student position, and that its very existence testifies to and evokes its “teacher” or “predecessor. As a form of cinematic doubling, how the “student” film situates itself vis-a-vis the “teacher” and its own historical moment determines possibilities of remaking (Smith 56).
The major divergences between the two versions of The Phantom of the Opera mentioned above suggest two diametrically opposite agendas. Whereas the former prioritizes domesticating and suturing women into white-oriented heterosexuality, the latter historicizes and politicizes the hetero-erotic relationship between the teacher and student. There are several ways in which one may understand the aforementioned divergence.
It is important to note that the text adapted by Schumacher for the construction of his version of the aforementioned film is in itself a divergence from the original. In comparison to Lon Channey’s version of the aforementioned film [which is an adaptation itself], Schumacher’s version discarded most of the horror version aspects which have been associated with the film [as well as the original text by Leroux]. Examples of these are evident if one considers Schumacher’s choice for the depiction of the phantom himself [as a disfigured individual as opposed to a skull hiding behind a mask].
In a way there are several ways in which such a depiction [the change of depiction] may be understood. Initially, one may state that such a shift stems as a result of the shift from the operatic version of the film as opposed to the “Beauty and the Beast” theme associated with the film. Second, in line with the initial claim of this paper, one may understand the shift [in terms of the phantom’s depiction] as a means of mirroring the historical conditions of the film’s production.
The process of mirroring the initial work as a means of showing the teacher-student relationship [in relation to the silent film version and Schumacher’s version] may be understood as a means of employing the manner in which the student has transcended the master to the extent that such a transcendence enabled the initial freedom from the heterosexual archetypal relationships which enables the submission of the female to the norm [that being the norm of female submission towards the male].
It may indeed be argued that Schumacher’s version also enabled such a submission since Christine chose Raoul over the phantom. It is important to note, however, that such a choice may be understood differently in relation to the original silent film adaptation of the aforementioned text. Note for example the depiction [as well as the characterization] of the phantom in the initial version of the film. As was noted at the onset of the paper, the depiction of the phantom in the initial version [silent film version] presented a horrible figure [i. e. a skull for a face].
Such a presentation may be understood, in such a way, that the phantom is presented as the depiction of the deviance resulting from the inability to adhere to the norm. Deviance from the norm, in this sense, may be seen [and in fact understood] as a horrible act itself. Schumacher’s version [with its depiction of the phantom as figure with a face [a handsome one in fact despite its minor deformities] may be seen as mirroring the manner in which deviance from the norm [that of the adherence to the heterosexual and in a sense highly patriarchal relationship] is more acceptable within the current context of the film’s production (McQueen .
Schumacher’s version begins with a reel from the 1919 occurrence at the Opera Populaire wherein the old Raoul is depicted as buying knickknacks that serve as the reminder of the occurrences that led to the aforementioned opera’s demise. What follow this scene is a reconstruction of the Opera Populaire resulting from the flashback of memories to those who where in it during 1819 thereby providing the spectator with the truth behind the masked lives of those who lived within the opera at that time.
What is interesting to note in Schumacher’s version [in relation to the reconfiguration or rather redepiction of the phantom] is the manner in which one is now given a new manner of understanding the means in which Christine gains her agency. In fact, agency in Schumacher’s version of the film is depicted as a manner of choice and not as mere adherence to a prescribed norm [in comparison to the original adaption of Webber’s text].
Dramatically, the story hinges on a series of conflicts which continually redefine Christine’s position in relation to her surroundings [as well as to the individuals around her]. Webber’s version [as adapted by Schumacher] depicted this process through a series of musical themes, motifs, and textures which portray the development of characters, attitudes, and emotions. Note that the materials in each of the musical themes and motifs are rarely modified except through instances of fragmentation.
Although fragmentation occurs, it is interesting to note that when considered together, these musical themes literally play out the drama involved within the play (Snelson 110). In summary, in this paper I argued that the “teacher” text does not simply crumble when the “student” text arises in resistance, but rather experiences a revival. This is because the remake cannot fulfil itself without simultaneously evoking [not “imitating”] the “afterlife” crystallized in its textual “predecessor” (Mignolo 112).
A film remake re-presents its “hypotext” not by turning itself into a submissive double, which simply reifies the “hypotext,” but rather by revalorizing the unique historical position of the “hypotext,” paradoxically achieved by the remake’s stress on its own distinction. In this sense, the various adaptations of Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera may be understood in such a way that both versions [that stand in a teacher-student relationship] present a challenge of the archetypal heterosexual relationships which stand as the pervading theme of the various versions of Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera.