American Film Melodrama
Film scholar Linda Williams calls melodrama “the fundamental mode of popular American moving pictures.” Following her argument, this seminar suggests that to study American film melodrama is to deepen our understanding of American cinema’s aesthetic and affective expressions. A cinema of heightened emotionalism based on excess and containment, fantasy and desire, and pathos and identification, melodrama has been theorized as a site of both ideological critique and viewer pleasure. With origins in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European theater, melodrama came to fruition on the American screen in the action serials and passionate epics of the silent era. The term is perhaps most associated with the family dramas and "woman's films" of Classical Hollywood, including sentimental “weepies,” stories of “fallen women” and mother/daughter relationships, and Gothic romances. We will look at these different examples from Marxist, feminist, and psychoanalytic approaches, as well as in the contexts of genre and American culture. Yet, as melodrama never disappeared, we will consider how the definition of the term has expanded further through art cinema, black-family melodrama, male action films, queer cinema, and television seriality.