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 ideological critique and viewer pleasure. With origins in “blood and thunder” spectacles of European theater in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, melodrama came to fruition on the screen in the action serials and passionate epics of the silent era. The term is perhaps most associated with family and women’s pictures of Classical Hollywood, including sentimental “weepies,” stories of “fallen women” and mother/daughter relationships, and the Gothic romance. 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 ways in which it persists in especially apparent cases—art cinema, magical realism, the male action films of Kathryn Bigelow, and the queer films of Todd Haynes—that have further expanded our definition of the term.