Narrative Capital: A Mother’s Revenge, Lifetime, and the Culture Industry
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Not entirely joking, I often tell people the reason I enjoy watching Lifetime movies on weekends is that it amounts to casually watching the same movie with a different cast over and over while I can work on the computer and do other things.
Admittedly, my rationale is consistent with what Theodor W. Adorno condemned about the Culture Industry. For the purposes of this essay, my focus is on how Adorno defined the “Industry” component of the Culture Industry: “The expression ‘industry’ is not to be taken too literally. It refers to the standardization of the thing itself...and to the rationalization of distribution techniques, but not strictly to the production process.”
One of the many thrillers in the Lifetime movie stable, A Mother’s Revenge (2016; henceforth AMR) stars Jamie Luner; the film was produced, written and directed by Fred Olen Ray. Three things can be briefly pointed out. Originally titled Accidental Switch, the film was christened with a more generic Lifetime movie appellation; other examples include The Wrong Daughter (aka Love Me or Else, 2018); A Friend’s Obsession (aka Lethal Admirer, 2018); Deadly Matrimony (aka He Loved Them All as well as Vows of Deceit, 2018). Second, Jamie Luner gained fame on the primetime soap opera Melrose Place and has since starred or co-starred in numerous Lifetimes films such as Walking the Halls (2012), The Perfect Boss (2013), The Bride He Bought On-Line (2015), The Wrong Girl (aka Fatal Friends, 2015), and A Lover Betrayed (2017).
Third, Fred Olen Ray began his career in the 1980s cranking out low-budget sexploitation/horror films. Since becoming one of Lifetime’s more prolific suppliers of thrillers and Christmas films in the last decade, Ray has adopted several pseudonyms for his sexploitation films, notably “Nicolas Medina.” This is to say that Ray’s “actual brand name” is now tied to Lifetime and his Medina “alias brand name” is used for his sexploitation products, presumably with an assumed audience of young men and not Lifetime’s assume audience of women.
By the time the opening titles of AMR are over, the Lifetime brand is already established through the pronouncement of an all-purpose Lifetime re-title, the presence of a Lifetime movie stalwart, and the product of one of Lifetime’s “auteur” writer-directors. Moreover, AMR exemplifies the standardized Lifetime thriller. The hero is Jennifer Clarke (Jamie Luner) a divorced mother and successful corporate executive. She crosses paths with the villain Conner (Steven Brand), a malevolent male and career criminal, after inadvertently taking his suitcase –henceforth “Suitcase1” – from the airport luggage carrousel. Conner abducts Jennifer’s teenage daughter Katey (Audrey Whitby) and holds her for ransom: the return of Suitcase1. The problem is Jennifer already returned Suitcase1 and it is now somewhere in transit back to the airport. She decides to buy an identical empty suitcase – henceforth “Suitcase2” – as a ruse in order to gain her daughter’s release. Conner sends Jennifer on a lengthy marathon of checkpoints; to complicate matters, she must evade two detectives after Conner frames Jennifer for the murder of her ex-husband. The eventual rendezvous occurs at Niagara Falls, in which Jennifer distracts Conner with Suitcase2 and rescues her daughter. In turn, the detectives make a timely arrival: they shoot Conner and he plummets to a watery grave.
To say that AMR is derivative of the films of Alfred Hitchcock is a charitable understatement. Nonetheless, in a lesson well-learned from Hitchcock, the hook used by AMR to reel in the audience is “the MacGuffin,” some sort of object that serves as the launching point for the plot trajectory and character conflicts which may or may not be all that important (cf. possession of the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark is of world-changing significance whereas in The Maltese Falcon the titular object is revealed to be a fraudulent copy of something that may not even exist).
Hitchcock’s own predilection for using a MacGuffin to manipulate the audience is arguably best-known in Psycho (1960). The first hour of the film centers on Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) stealing a suitcase with $40,000 – the suitcase being Psycho’s MacGuffin –and negotiating the consequences of her predicament, namely avoiding arrest. When Marion decides to leave the Bates Motel return to Phoenix and return the money, Hitchcock pulls the rug out from under the audience entirely. Marion is murdered by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Her body is hidden in the trunk of her car and disposed of in swamp – along with the suitcase which Norman is unaware contains a substantial amount of money.
It is not until the final shot of Psycho that the suitcase makes a cameo return appearance. Marion’s car is being pulled from the swamp to retrieve Marion’s body and the authorities will presumably discover the suitcase and its contents as well. However, the suitcase has long expended its “narrative value” in Psycho. It was simply a means to construct a lengthy prologue culminating in Marion’s murder. Once that occurs, the suitcase is (rather literally) dumped from the film.
To be sure, it would be a “shock” if AMR ended with Katey dead, Jennifer in prison, and Conner happily reunited with Suitcase1. It would be equally shocking if the film ended with Suitcase1 plummeting into Niagara Falls with Conner followed by Jennifer asking a detective “What was in the suitcase?” and the detective responding, “Well, I guess we’ll never know.” More specifically, it would not only be shocking, but infuriating. Suitcase1 in AMR is not simply an easily-utilized trope with disposable narrative value (i.e. Psycho); it is the one thing that provides AMR with narrative capital in a film teeming with Lifetime stock characters and the most generic of Lifetime plots. The appearance of Suitcase2 as an ersatz version of the actual MacGuffin has a specific purpose: Suitcase2 keeps Suitcase1 safely out of harm’s way, preserving the suspense of discovering the contents.
Richard Leppert observed, “New art (by which Adorno means the avant-garde)...refuses to deliver the package that art consumers believe they have bought...when the package is opened what’s there is notably what was not ordered.” A Mother’s Revenge demonstrates the extent the Culture Industry operates in the opposite way. It guarantees the art consumer will get exactly what was ordered without the inconvenience of any substantial shock while teased with measured suspense. Throughout AMR, the metaphorical contract between Lifetime and the TV viewer is one where the audience “knows” Katey will be rescued, Jennifer will triumph over adversity, Conner will get a well-deserved comeuppance, and above all they will finally learn the contents of Suitcase1.
The payoff comes in the final two minutes when an exhausted Jennifer simply asks what the audience has been asking all along: “What was this all about?” As well as resolving several glaring plot holes, the brief dénouement satisfies the viewer’s expectations with a cursory explanation that gives new meaning to the term “anti-climactic.” The detectives explain that Suitcase1 was successfully located at the airport and a search revealed counterfeit US Treasury Bonds hidden in the lining. Now in the hands of the authorities, the suitcase and its fraudulent currency are taken out of circulation and rendered worthless. Intentionally or not, A Mother’s Revenge offers an internal critique of the Culture Industry. Like the narrative revolving around the pursuit and acquisition of an object filled with bogus capital, the thrill the Culture Industry provides is always in the chase – provided the suspense does not end in an unwelcome shock.
My thanks go to Walter Metz and Joe Tompkins for their comments and suggestions on an initial version of this essay.