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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 at the levels of both pathos and thrilling sensation. Melodrama has been theorized as a site of excess and containment, fantasy and desire, identification and heightened emotionalism, capable of doing ideological critique as much as arousing viewer pleasure. With origins in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European theater, it came to fruition on the American screen in the action serials and passionate epics of the silent era. However, the term is perhaps most associated with family dramas and “women’s films” of the Hollywood studio era, including sentimental “weepies,” stories of mothers and “fallen women,” and Gothic romances. We will look at these different examples from Marxist, feminist, and psychoanalytic approaches, as well as in the contexts of film authorship, genre, and American culture. Yet, as melodrama never disappeared, we will consider how the definition of the term has expanded beyond Classical Hollywood through art cinema, black-family melodrama, male action films, queer cinema, and television seriality. 

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