RECENT DEVELOPMENTS IN FILM THEORY
Christine Gledhill's forensic introduction to her 1987 edited collection of essays on melodrama, Home is Where the Heart Is , outlined the range of debate on the subject until that point and began to open up the possibility for a reconsideration of film melodrama. Primarily, Gledhill discussed the feminist intervention in the debate and pointed to the largely unsuccessful attempts to reconnect film theory with the historical roots of theatrical melodrama. She noted that film studies' notion of melodrama, which is concerned primarily with the domestic and the feminine, has little in common with the theatrical genre of melodrama, which is focused on action, incident, and jeopardy. She called for a more progressive and encompassing engagement with what melodrama is and does in cinema, a call that initially remained largely unanswered, as the model of family melodrama remained entrenched.
By the late 1980s and 1990s, however, such theorists as Linda Williams, Steve Neale, and Rick Altman, as well as Gledhill herself, revisited melodrama to examine these generic assumptions. Steve Neale, for example,
investigated the uses of the term melodrama in the trade press during the Classical Hollywood period in order to find evidence of the term being used to describe the same films that scholars now identified as melodrama. His findings suggested that the term usually was not applied to films set in the domestic environment, with feminine concerns, as it is today. In fact, when the term was used it was typically to describe action-orientated films such as those that would now be called gangster films or thrillers. Second, Neale noted that the so-called "woman's films" of Classical Hollywood were not, as had been suggested, considered inferior to male-oriented genres but often were regarded as serious, high-quality dramas in contemporary reviews. Neale thus called the Film Studies account of melodrama as a genre into question, an issue that he expanded upon more fully in a chapter dealing with the problems of identifying melodrama and the "woman's film" as genres in Genre and Hollywood (2000). There Neale called fundamental debates around the notion of genre into question by arguing that film scholars should return to industry-based genere definitions and categorization. While the issues that Neale raised are of considerable importance for the development of film scholarship, their implications seem to be opposed to equally important scholarship.
This point was made by Rick Altman, who questions Neale's approach to genre and suggests that his reliance on industrial classification limits the ways in which films can be read and understood. Altman notes that Neale's research is based on a study of the trade press and not of the film industry itself, which Neale seems to regard as interchangeable. Rejecting Neale's idea of relying on industrial classification as the way to identify genre, Altman argues that film scholarship should open up cinema to interpretations that are not limited by industrial factors. For Altman, melodrama is one of the best examples of a category largely constructed through film scholarship that has enabled critics to discuss a range of otherwise disparate films. Altman also usefully argues that while film theorists may have formulated the notion of the family melodrama, this idea is not antithetical to the more traditional notion of melodrama based on high drama and action that Neale notes was the industry-based classification. Altman's arguments about melodrama and questions of genre more generally open up a far more inclusive and sophisticated notion of both theoretical terms, which acknowledge that different groups (the film industry, film critics, scholars, audiences) have different conceptions of genre and that specific film genres can be understood only by recognizing them all. Barbara Klinger builds upon this idea in an analysis of Sirk's "classic" melodramas (1993). She suggests that
b. Lester Anthony Minnelli, Chicago, Illinois, 28 February 1903, d.
25 July 1986
Minnelli began his career in the 1930s as a theater costume and set designer in Chicago and on Broadway. The exuberant love of theatrical spectacle, evident in all of Minnelli's work, led to his early employment as a set designer for Busby Berkeley and others before he gained his first chance to direct with the musical Cabin in the Sky (1943). Minnelli is perhaps best known to a wide audience as a director of some of the most successful Hollywood musicals of the 1940s and 1950s, including An American in Paris (1951), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), The Pirate (1948), The Band Wagon (1953), Kismet (1955), Gigi (1958), and Meet Me in St Louis (1944), the most famous of several creative collaborations with his wife, Judy Garland.
In addition to his considerable popular reputation and commercial success as MGM's premier director of musicals, Minnelli also made a series of dramas that many critics have seen as typifying Hollywood melodrama, including the sensationally lurid The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) is an overheated depiction of of the Hollywood film industry, while The Cobweb (1955) is set in a mental institution and stars Richard Widmark, Gloria Grahame, and Lauren Bacall in a complex love triangle. Others include the family melodrama Home From the Hill (1960); Some Came Running (1958), with Frank Sinatra as a disillusioned writer returning to his hometown following the war; and the notorious Tea and Sympathy (1956), a tellingly repressed and neurotic depiction of homosexual confusion in a boys' school.
Minnelli's films, especially his melodramas, have been the focus of attention for film theorists for a variety of reasons. For some, the rhetoric of Minnelli's musicals exemplifies the stylistic and narrative strategies of the genre; while for others the filmic devices of both Minnelli's musicals and his melodramas demonstrate repressed ideological conflicts and tensions that erupt at moments of high drama through music and mise-en-scène . From this perspective, the films may be read through recourse to the psychoanalytic concept of conversion hysteria, which accounts for the excessive and stylized quality of Minnelli's work. For still others, Minnelli stands as a good example of the distinction between the auteur, whose work possesses and is governed by a consistency of artistic vision, and the stylist or metteur en scène, the category that Andrew Sarris claims Minnelli typifies.
Cabin in the Sky (1943), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Clock (1945), The Pirate (1948), Madame Bovary (1949), Father of the Bride (1950), An American in Paris (1951), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), Brigadoon (1954), The Cobweb (1955), Lust for Life (1956), Tea and Sympathy (1957), Some Came Running (1958), Home from the Hill (1960), Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962), Two Weeks in Another Town (1962)
Fordin, Hugh. The World of Entertainment!: Hollywood's Greatest Musicals . New York: Doubleday, 1975.
Harvey, Stephen. Directed by Vincente Minnelli . New York: Museum of Modern Art; Harper and Row, 1989.
Kaufman, Gerald. Meet Me in St. Louis . London: British Film Institute, 1994.
Minnelli, Vincente with Hector Arce. I Remember It Well . Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974.
Naremore, James. The Films of Vincente Minnelli. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
there is no single definitive meaning to any film or group of films, that in fact all films operate in a "network of meaning" based on the discourses within the film industry and among scholars, film critics, and audiences alike.
The most significant contemporary developments in the melodrama debate have been offered by Linda Williams and Christine Gledhill, both of whom have made an invaluable contribution to understanding of the form, particularly as it relates to issues of feminism. The work of both theorists is informed by Peter Brooks's important study of theatrical and literary melodrama, The Melodramatic Imagination (1976), which argues that melodrama is a rhetorical strategy that articulates the struggle between moral forces in the modern world. For Gledhill and Williams, as for Brooks, melodrama is primarily concerned with morality and uses a heightened emotional, visual, and stylistic language to convey and articulate moral dilemmas. Both Gledhill (in Reinventing Film Studies , 2000) and Williams argue that it is necessary to look beyond generic boundaries to discuss melodrama and suggest that it is more useful to think about melodrama as a "modality" or an "expressive code." Melodrama is thus more than a genre and is not confined to the established categories of the "woman's film" or the family melodrama, but is a narrative and stylistic register that appears across a wide range of cinematic texts. Williams (1998) goes even further by claiming that melodrama is not merely one of a range of rhetorical devices, but is in fact the dominant mode of American filmmaking.
Williams argues that melodrama is a central feature of American cinema and American culture more generally and can be traced from its roots in the theater through nineteenth-century sentimental and romantic literature, through early cinema in the work of Cecil B. De Mille (1881–1959) and D. W. Griffith and Classical Hollywood, to the contemporary work of directors such as Francis Copolla and Steven Spielberg. As examples, Williams analyzes Vietnam films such as The Deer Hunter (1978) and Platoon (1986) as contemporary articulations of the melodramatic mode. This encompassing notion of melodrama opens up a far wider range of texts for analysis as examples of melodrama, enabling the discussion of action films such as Die Hard (1988) and Gladiator (2000) with their male protagonists and seemingly masculine concerns, within this context. This wider view of melodrama also makes it possible to look outside mainstream Hollywood cinema to find melodrama in, for example, popular Hindi cinema, Chinese cinema, and cinema aimed at marginalized groups in society such as gays and lesbians, testifying to the form's continuing influence and relevance as a distinctive form of cinematic expression.
Altman, Rick. "Reusable Packaging: Generic Products and the Recycling Process." In Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory , edited by Nick Browne, 1–41. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama and the Mode of Excess . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1976.
Byars, Jackie, ed. All That Hollywood Allows: Re-reading Gender in 1950s Melodrama . London: Routledge and Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
Cook, Pam. "Melodrama and the Woman's Picture." In Imitations of Life: A Reader on Film and Television Melodrama , edited by Marcia Landy, 248–262. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1991.
Gledhill, Christine. Home is Where the Heart is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman's Film . London: British Film Institute, 1987.
Gledhill, Christine, and Linda Williams, eds. Reinventing Film Studies . London: Arnold, 2000.
Mulvey, Laura. "Notes on Sirk and Melodrama," Movie 25 (1977): 53–56.
Neale, Steve. Genre and Hollywood . London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
——. "Melodrama and Tears." Screen 27, no. 6 (November–December 1986): 6–22.
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. "Minnelli and Melodrama." Screen 18 (Summer 1977): 113–118.
Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking and the Studio System . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981.
Williams, Linda. "Melodrama Revisited" in Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory , edited by Nick Browne, 42–88. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.