Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011
Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0
Welcome to MediaCommons Press.
This entry is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
Leave a comment on the whole post
Leave a comment on paragraph 1
Mail (will not be published) (required)
Notify me of followup comments via e-mail
June 17, 2013 at 7:36 am
“his sex life perks up” in season one–true, but isn’t this also the season when he attempts to rape her, thinking she doesn’t mean no when she keeps saying no? their sexual relationship in season one is fascinating, and her pregnancy makes it interesting as well.
See in context
June 3, 2013 at 5:23 pm
I like the way you focus on how Soap points the way forwrd in ways that MH2 doesn’t. I wonder if there’s still a step missing here, perhaps revisiting the legacies (or lack thereof) of those other high-profile “nighttime soaps”: Dallas, Dynasty, Knots Landing, etc.
June 3, 2013 at 5:20 pm
I agree entirely with your effort to reconnect melodrama to contemporary complex television. Let me put on my “filmie” hat and say that I think the same thing is true on the film side.
Bear with me as I spell out the parallel story. Melodrama rose to new heights in the 19th century Western theater, having borrowed things from Greek tragedy (the reversal, for instance), medieval passion plays (the importance of symbolically encoded objects), the Gothic (the sense that something wrong is lurking under the cultured surface of appearances), French popular theater (an emphasis on gesture, spectacle, and music over language), and so on. Nineteenth century melodramatic theater also added a few tricks of its own: the tableau (where action freezes at a picturesque moment of heightened dramatic tension. Cf. Ben Singer and Lea Jacobs) and the “text of muteness” (Peter Brook’s lovely phrase for how melodrama tends to put characters into a situation where they can’t say what needs to be said for fear of greater catastrophe).
At the same time, the 19th century gave rise to the “realist” theater (Ibsen and company) and the well-made-play, whose emphasis on gradual, motivated character change has now become dominant in our definition of what “good” drama is. As “realist” theater rose in status, melodrama began to look shabby because it had a very different goal. Melodramatic theater tried to pack in as many emotional highs and lows as possible (“reversals”) to maximize its impact on audiences, throwing characters into stressful situations with sometimes abbreviated attention to motivation.
Along comes film. Note that most American silent feature films that weren’t comedies were described as melodramas (including a broad range of content: crime melodramas, Western melodramas, family melodramas, and so on). By the time Hollywood was establishing itself as a mature studio system, the M-word was no longer a particularly attractive label for an industry that sought to establish itself as having social legitimacy. But popular audiences were raised on the familiar appeal of melodrama. It’s a quandary. What do you do with shabby melodrama without jeopardizing your hold on popular audiences?
Sound and the studio factory system helped provide the answer. This combination encouraged a proliferation of genres. At the same time, “melodrama” shrank down to a fraction of its former self: the domestic melodrama. By the 30s, Hollywood had even come up with another name for it: the “woman’s film” (relabeling something unpopular is always a good idea; just ask any politician). At the same time the legacy goes to “soap opera,” and my story dovetails with yours.
That’s the story of melodrama as genre. The dirty little secret is that melodrama splintered into a range of narrative techniques that appear in many, many more “legitimate” films…and complex television too.
Consider the tableau. This moment of inaction appears at the climax of the “action-oriented” Western: the gunfighter showdown. It also appears with great regularity in complex television. Look at the many moments in Lost where characters are frozen into a stalemate right before the commercial break, only to have the stalemate broken by one character finally doing something when we return from the commercial. The television commercial provides a variation on the classical theatrical tableau (encouraging us to ponder the possibilities for where the characters will go from here), so there is historical/medium specificity to be acknowledged here. too. Although Lost and High Noon are not melodramas (viewed as a genre), they do rely on narrative devices originally engineered by the melodrama.
Or the text of muteness. A young woman can’t acknowledge her own (black) mother because to do so would endanger her chances of passing (Imitation of Life). David spends the entirety of Six Feet Under’s first season worrying about whether he should reveal his sexual orientation to his family. Will it hurt them? Will they cause David pain with their reactions? Once he does tell them, their reaction is underwhelming, but that’s not the point. Like any good melodrama, we have gotten to watch David suffer for an extended period of time. That’s part of the pleasure of melodrama.
Or melodrama’s tendency to imbue objects with psychological significance that allow them to “speak” when characters cannot. As far as I can tell, this is the whole reason for the existence of lockets: so that characters can open them up and look at them. It’s also why we write letters (or at least we used to!): so that characters can find the letters and find out the truth (Ibsen wasn’t above borrowing this melodramatic trick himself). And on and on…
My point (yes, I do have one!) is that I’ve always been underwhelmed by wimpy definitions of film melodrama as causing “strong affect with moral legibiliity” (heck, what mainstream film doesn’t at least TRY to do this?) or “having a good cry.” Yes, melodrama causes tears, but it (historically speaking) also caused a range of other emotions (suspense being a primary one). (By the way, reading your chapter, I was reminded of Raymond Durgnat’s description of that realist-movement-par-excellence – Italian neorealism – as “male weepies,” an apt phrase that plays into both my story of the competing discourses of realism and melodrama and your story of the gender associations of melodrama. Just look at Umberto D.)
It is at times useful to treat melodrama as a genre if the film includes enough of these tropes (it’s hard not to see Stella Dallas as melodrama). And it’s useful, oh discursive genre man, to track how that term moves across social space/history. And the idea of melodrama as mode is useful too, but it lacks a certain specificity in how that mode gets its work done. My suggestion is that melodrama’s historical development produced a set of narrative DEVICES that are now used much more broadly, including in complex television. That doesn’t make complex television (or film Westerns) melodramas, but it does mean that those more “masculine” texts also rely on the strong, dependable emotional payoffs provided by melodramatic devices. It’s not surprising (since I am bottom-up-narrative guy) that I am advocating that we consider melodrama’s primary legacy as this set of fairly localized storytelling devices that underwrite much of non-shabby film and television narrative. I find that a much more productive, grounded way to think about the continuities of melodrama and contemporary “quality” television than some of the vaguer attempts to explain melodrama by its broadly intended effects.
Thanks for listening. Like I said, it’s a parallel story, so I’m not quite sure if it has an impact on the main narrative you’re telling here, but it’s a historical thread that I think is important.
May 16, 2013 at 11:27 am
“At end of the episode” should be “At the end of the episode”
I think “suspense inducing cliffhanger” should have a hyphen between suspense and inducing.
May 13, 2013 at 11:53 am
I’m not sure Ava registers as a dominant secondary figure in every season, and Mags is only in one, but I take the point.
May 13, 2013 at 11:52 am
First off, I do think the question of ancestry/lineage is a good way of framing your argument here.
Secondly, however, I do wonder whether we can actually identify the source of “borrowing.” Evolution we can argue more clearly, in that we’re making external judgments on how narrative forms have developed over time through analysis of those storytelling forms. But, from my perspective, the process of borrowing is caught up in discourses of authorial intent: can we really know if someone is borrowing from one place or another? I agree that we can’t necessarily know that this borrowing came from soaps, but I also don’t think anyone is in a position to convince me that it wasn’t borrowed from soaps. Your argument is that we’re too quick to casually accept an evolutionary argument, that these are common sense assumptions you want to work again, but “borrowing” for me opens a door to thousands of specific instances rather than a more broad evolutionary argument. I think that’s why the McClain case is such a thin one for me: it’s fine as an example of evolutionary logic more generally, but if we’re talking about specific instances of borrowing it opens up a much wider range of arguments and conversations that I don’t know if we can generalize about to the same degree.
May 13, 2013 at 11:45 am
I don’t think it needs anything substantial after reading the whole chapter, but I do sort of think that even a brief bit of discourse could help ground it. We recently had students read part of that New York Review of Books review of Mad Men, which is full of such distinction (albeit not from the show itself but within popular discourse).
May 13, 2013 at 11:29 am
Great point! I’ll definitely foreground how s2 changes the melodramatic tone. I think that the style of the show is still non-excessive outside of the football field, but that the plot events fall into the contrived and extreme tradition of melodrama. Much of the disconnect around the Landry/Tyra plot was how out of place those events felt to the style of performance, dialogue, visuals, etc.
May 13, 2013 at 11:24 am
Good point – I’m hesitant to analyze this too much, given that the final eps remain to validate or counter this reading. As of now, it is a counter-reading not a preferred one, but it feels to be growing in prominence in a way that I can imagine rising up in s 5+. So in the words of Walt, I’ll stick a pin in it for later…
May 13, 2013 at 11:14 am
Funny – I have a student writing a thesis on female characters in Justified and Sons of Anarchy, and following her analysis, I lump Ava & Mags in with Tara & Gemma as vital secondary figures in a dominant masculine constellation.