Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Get Out Your Handkerchiefs: A Brief Defense of Melodrama

"You will get me to defend to the death a good melodrama any day of the week," Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films once said here. "It's an unfairly maligned form that I happen to love."

The Siren's been thinking about this most excellent observation (made on behalf of Million Dollar Baby, for the record) for the past few days, as the film blogosphere has one of its periodic kerfuffles. Remember when the Siren got rather worked up over the Oscar writer who dissed Sunrise right before the cinematography award? That was nothing compared to what Tom O'Neil of the Los Angeles Times dished out last week.


"Sunrise" is paper-thin, hilariously schmaltzy. All three primary characters are cartoonish clichés and their performances 3-inch slices of honeyed ham.

Mind you, I'm the kinda guy who'd normally side with the weepie. On my top 10 list of fave pix of all time are "Peggy Sue Got Married" and "Titanic." But I just can't shed a real tear when the farmer in "Sunrise" decides that he just — by golly! — can't off his sweet, dimpled wifey-pooh, after all. Nor could I cheer the scenes of the couple back together, all giddy smiles and kisses, posing for photos like newlyweds, dancing a happy peasant dance, joyous once he decided not to wring her scrawny little neck and hurl her over the side of the row boat.

What corn pone! Smothered in Cheez Whiz! "Wings" ain't Shakespeare or Scorsese, mind you, but it's better than that!


If hearing this gleeful philistinism from the paper of record in the world's movie capital depresses you, the comments section will cheer you up. This silent classic has far more fans than the Oscars may have led us to expect. The Siren isn't taking on Mr. O'Neil, not when he's been filleted for frying by the best, including Filmbrain and Glenn Kenny. At this point, as Molly Ivins used to say, it's called piling on, and there's a fifteen-yard penalty for it. No, instead the Siren wants to talk with her esteemed readers about melodrama, a word Mr. O'Neil's commenters use several times. Films labeled melodrama are too often maligned, but have a fine pedigree in the American cinema. And Sunrise is not schmaltzy (overly sentimental) nor is it purely a melodrama.

When the Siren's mother dispensed nasty-tasting medicine, she always gave a chaser, so here's our chaser, from The Parade's Gone By. Kevin Brownlow called this chapter "The Golden Path; or, The Curse of Melodrama":


Reassured by the belief that their prime duty was to entertain, film makers bought material of great potential and intelligence, stripped it of motivation and complex overtones, and reduced the action to basic, easy-to-follow melodrama.

Even the dictionary defines melodrama with a certain distaste: "Drama marked by crude appeals to emotion."

The purveyors of entertainment find melodrama an invaluable asset. It requires not the slightest effort on the part of the audience. They are not required to think, they merely watch. They will not miss any subtlety because there will not BE any subtlety. The values are simple, the threat is clear and
the resolution action-filled and straightforward. There is seldom any characterization in pure melodrama, never any complex motivation. Life is reduced to the infantile level of an adventure strip.

Brownlow was writing about the silent cinema, where what he called "the lashed-to-the-tracks, saved-by-the-dog pieces of unabashed nonsense" of the early days eventually gave way to more sophisticated plot drivers. The early silents gave us melodrama on its most basic level. But does anything Brownlow says make you think of Sunrise? No motivation or complex overtones, crude appeals to emotion, no effort required and no subtlety?

Melodrama relies heavily on plot, but Sunrise does nothing of the sort. It's the characters who tug at your heart, if you've a heart to tug. Janet Gaynor cringing away from the husband she loves might strike some as melodramatic in the worst sense. But the mere presence of strong emotion, conveyed in the most nakedly apparent way, doesn't add up to melodrama. Where Mr. O'Neil saw schmaltz, the Siren saw primitive fear, Gaynor showing us the physical terror women have felt down through the ages from certain men, even men they loved. And George O'Brien's torment shows how that violence cuts men off from the love and comfort they crave. You may call it melodrama, but the Siren calls it a conflict more ancient than the Greeks.

Pulling out the stops to draw strong emotions from your audience doesn't make something a melodrama in the Brownlow sense. If, however, you want to expand the definition to include plot-driven pictures, that still have strong motivations and well-drawn characters, and are designed chiefly to give us a good, cathartic burst of emotion, then you get something closer to what Marilyn Ferdinand defends. And the Siren thinks you also run into some of the finest pictures classic Hollywood has to offer. Check out this fine article on Greencine, which lovingly details what the Siren is talking about although it uses the perjorative "weepie," a term the Siren loathes from the depths of her movie-loving soul. Filmsite.org also has a good article on melodrama, where you'll find a list that includes a lot of masterpieces.

In fact, just skimming the list on Filmsite--Caught, Letter from an Unknown Woman, The Bad and the Beautiful, Greed, Some Came Running, Imitation of Life, Stella Dallas, Camille, The Old Maid--makes the Siren wonder if there is some stealthy prejudice at work in the very fact that these are labeled melodramas at all. The appeals to emotion in these films are not crude, unless you consider any appeal to romance or sentiment to be crude. If you want blood-pumping appeals to emotion, without complex motivations or nuanced character development, then the genre that frequently offers that isn't the women's picture or a fable (a term the Siren is borrowing from Todd Holmes) like Sunrise.

You should look right here.

52 comments:

Marilyn said...

Siren - Thank you for taking up the cause for melodrama. I'm happy to have been the springboard for this particular musing.

I'm going to pull a paragraph from my review of the best melodrama to have come along in the past couple of years, Paul Verhoeven's
Black Book
:

"Melodrama is often maligned as somehow more manipulative than a more psychological drama, but I think this is extremely unfair. No films are “true," and with this story in particular, the aspects of memory fused with the truly harrowing times through which Rachel lived create the heightened emotions that are best served by the conventions of melodrama. To go much deeper could invite a pornographic voyeurism regarding feelings most of us will never understand; Schindler’s List, unforgivably for me, allowed us to do just this. Better choice, in my opinion, to let us see some naked bodies than to subject these unfortunates to an emotional striptease."

In the end, this melodrama provided a satisfactory emotional experience while it visited some subtle political themes--also a hallmark of some of the best melodramas (Imitation of Life [racism], Million Dollar Baby [euthanasia], I Want to Live! [capital punishment]). I think the prejudice against these types of films may really boil down to the fact that they're women's films.

And, yes, Sunrise is NOT a melodrama!

Campaspe said...

Marilyn, I am so happy you were pleased with this post because your comment stuck in my brain ever you since you made it here, at least a year ago now. And I came very close to putting that very graf from your Black Book review in the post, and only refrained so as to keep things brief. I am glad you referred to it here. Your point about "pornographic voyeurism" comes quite close to what Brownlow says too, that melodrama "is dangerous enough to border on the immoral" when employed to make a political point. That's also something I talked about when I did my post about Le Corbeau vs. the Holocaust movie Une amour a taire.

Marilyn said...

Actually, I consider more emotional depth with regard to the characters in Black Book as voyeuristic pornography. I don't think that the form is "immoral." In fact, I'm not entirely sure what he means by that, unless he is talking about portraying situations that run counter to the accepted mores and beliefs of a certain society.

I bet if you went up against people who look down on melodrama and say that it is almost identical to the distancing effect Bertholt Brecht tried to achieve with his (political) musicals (again, music), their jaws would drop in confusion.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I read Todd Holmes and agree with him that the main point of praise for Sunrise has never been that it is the most complex story ever written but that it so extraordinarily employs endless dizzying technique to tell its story. It takes a simple tale and fills it with a visual splendor that makes that simple tale profound and immediate. How does a film critic miss that?

I agree with Tom as well that O'Neil is entitled to write what he wants but it is worrisome when a supposed expert has such an uninformed reaction. I can understand that reaction from someone who never watches movies before Titanic, who doesn't realize not all silent films looked like Sunrise, but from a critic, a paid critic? It makes me honestly wonder what he's seen. Even the fact that he chose to use the name "Scorcese", a filmmaker I certainly respect, instead of Renoir, Welles, Hawks, Chaplin (in other words, an older more pantheon cemented director) hints that perhaps he's seen a few "big" classics because he has to but for the most doesn't know much about film history. I don't know anything about him so I have no idea but as a first time reader of him, that's the impression one gets.

Marilyn said...

Jonathan, I've observed a very marked tendency among writers in major outlets to goad comments with perhaps intentionally inflammatory opinion. I think O'Neil is just doing what his pundit class has taught him to do - it creates "sticky" content that a major publisher wants to help sell advertisers those all-important clicks.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Marilyn,
You're probably right and if so it's even worse. I can't imagine someone offering me advertising dollars (or a raise or some other incentive) if only I start tearing down respected and cherished masterworks of the cinema in a flippant and offhand way to bring in the audience. I rather have the audience stay at home and keep my self respect by my side.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I'd also like just once to leave a comment without a typo.

Campaspe said...

M., I think I garbled things a bit here -- Brownlow says "Political issues are far too important, far too intricate, and far too little understood to be presented as black-and-white hokum." It doesn't sound to me (I haven't seen The Black Book, it's somewhere in the middle of my Netflix queue) that the Verhoeven movie is reductive in that sense at all, rather that he's drawing a veil over things the audience isn't entitled to know. Which is something filmmakers used to do quite a lot, whether prompted by a Code or not.

Jonathan, I agree too. Probably the closest I have gotten to what O'Neil is doing here was my brief post on Le Samourai, which I disliked. But I do think I tried to acknowledge its virtues and why it's regarded highly by others, not just vent. O'Neil really digs himself in when Kent Jones (an archivist, unless this is a different guy using his name in comments) points out, as you do, that Sunrise is of immense historic importance and he says he knows that viewpoint, he just disagrees with it. You can't "disagree" that Sunrise was a thunderclap for moviemakers at the time.

Marilyn, I'd agree with you about him trying to get clicks except that the comments have clearly been shut down over there and O'Neil has skedaddled away from the topic and back to awards-handicapping. Another blogger might have posted an in-depth defense by now, certainly there's enough there for a follow-up post. I think he was genuinely astonished by the reaction. Also, in all fairness, the impulse to start a quarrel in order to goose traffic is something that smaller bloggers give in to as well.

Marilyn said...

I'm neither defending or vilifying O'Neil, just making an observation. You might be right that he really didn't think there'd be much attention paid to this post (it IS a silent, after all) and needed to beat a retreat. I've seen better writers and thinkers do the same. But this is a style of "journalism" that has become sickeningly pervasive, as though the adage "any publicity, even negative, is good publicity" had become the 11th Commandment.

As for your illumination for Brownlow's comment, though I respect him tremendously, I think he is too narrow in his "Perils of Pauline" definition of melodrama and doesn't see the value of presenting political/social commentary in this form. I just cite Brecht again for comparison.

Flickhead said...

It's been ages since I last saw Sunrise, but, as I recall, it was on the "10 Best of All Time" list I compiled for Senses of Cinema several years ago. Therefore, I'm unable to summon up any particular scenes from it in my head right now.

Cameron Diaz had to read the teleprompter dis of Sunrise during the last Oscar telecast. I don't knock her for it; the show's writers are to blame...the very same writers some of you were concerned for during the recent strike. Ahem...

Tom O'Neil is of no concern to me. Any paid journalist who actually uses the term "corn pone" is automatically discharged to the dumpster of the mind.

However, his mentioning Peggy Sue Got Married and Titanic speaks volumes. How many of us are conditioned by that personal conceit that tells us the movies of our time (generally - but not always - our informative years) are "better" than those which came before or since? It's a huge subject in and of itself, too much for this comments section. Suffice it to say, anyone who pulls Peggy Sue Got Married out of left field is tragically myopic.

On the new DVD for Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (highly recommended, Siren), director Sidney Lumet had to educate his young cast and crew about melodrama, since the term itself has been distorted over the years, often to describe "schmaltzy" or emotional stuff, movies they used to call "Women's Pictures." Lumet simplified it to illustrate points he was making about this film in particular: "Drama is when characters determine the direction of the story. Melodrama is when the story determines the direction of the characters."

Not very deep, but it's a start.

Ben said...

A great and timely post, Siren!

So much to add....

First, I'm teaching SUNRISE in my American Cinema seminar at the University of Leipzig this week. Unfortunately, I got sick and had to cancel this week's meeting, so I don't get to see what my students think until next week.

At least in the US, students always respond positively to this film, in part because I show them BIRTH OF A NATION the previous week and they have some sense of how extraordinarily sophisticated Murnau's work is.

(I should add that THE CROWD is another late silent film that teaches very, very well. David Bordwell points out somewhere that Vidor cut his silent films very similarly to later, Hollywood sound standards, which might account for their approachability. Of course, THE CROWD is also just a great--if occasionally melodramatic--film.)

At any rate, dissing SUNRISE is really appalling. The LA Times should be ashamed. And SUNRISE not a melodrama, in any simple sense.

But as long as we are discussing melodrama, let me raise my favorite American cinematic melodrama-related question: why has so much attention been given to the films of Douglas Sirk and so little to those of Frank Borzage?

Don't get me wrong. I love ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (and am actually teaching it later this semester). Conventional wisdom (not particularly reflected on this thread) is that all the recent attention to Sirk has rescued the reputation of melodramas.

But why are the great Borzage films--among them 7th HEAVEN, STREET ANGEL, LITTLE MAN WHAT NOW?, THREE COMRADES, THE MORTAL STORM, MOONRISE (ok...that last one isn't a melodrama)--still unavailable on DVD?

Campaspe said...

M., Brownlow's chapter is discussing a particularly egregious American production about the slavering Bolshevik hordes so I think that is what was in the back of his mind when he wrote that sentence.

Flickhead, a comprehensive comment from you is always a welcome sight. I did blame the Oscar writer for the Sunrise dis, although maybe a star of Diaz's weight might have refused the line, had she had the sense. "Cornpone" is a particularly inapt word choice since it signifies folksy homilies and is as far away from the worldliness of a Murnau as one can get.

I have the opposite problem in that my obsession with the old sometimes has me neglecting the new. That bit from Lumet must be wonderful to see and I love the line.

Campaspe said...

Ben, I think Borzage is on the verge of being rediscovered in a big way, as was Sirk. All it will take is Fox getting off its collective fanny and releasing the movies. When they shown in revival the reaction is extremely positive. Dave Kehr has expressed a lot of frustration over the lack of availability of Borzage films. And I just rented Street Angel not too long ago and the print on the DVD was in alarmingly bad shape. I do love Sirk too; in fact I have yet to see the Sirk I didn't like.

I am so glad your classes react well to The Crowd, since it would almost definitely make my personal top 10.

Karen said...

Jonathan, I think your point about Sunrise not being "the most complex story ever written but that it so extraordinarily employs endless dizzying technique to tell its story." I remember one scene early on, in the Man and Wife's home, which is lit to look like a Vermeer in grisaille.

Siren, I'm glad of this post, because for years I've meant to look up the etymology of "melodrama" to see just what exactly it was intended to mean. Imagine my surprise to learn from the OED that the "melo-" prefix is the same one as in "melody," and that a melodrama began as something akin to opera. I mean, it makes sense when you think of the big stories and big emotions of opera, but it startled me. The OED goes on to say that "Originally: a stage play, usually romantic and sensational in plot, and interspersed with songs, in which the action is accompanied by orchestral music appropriate to the various situations (now hist.). Later (as the musical element ceased to be regarded as essential): a play, film, or other dramatic piece characterized by exaggerated characters and a sensational plot intended to appeal to the emotions."

I don't think the characters in Sunrise are particularly exaggerated. I think that the subtitle, "A Tale of Two Humans," is particularly apt: it is a very human tale of temptation, despair, and redemption. There can hardly be a more timeless, eternal story than that.

I do like the musical echo in the term melodrama, though, since the musical score in such films is often as much a character as the cast. I think I'll hold on to that part of the definition, and think of melodrama as the sort of story that elicits the same emotional response as music does.

But O'Neil really does reveal more than he may intend when he equates "melodrama" with "weepie," and then claims that among his top 10 faves are Titanic and Peggy Sue Got Married. I confess I enjoyed Titanic, much the way I enjoy the occasional guilty box of blueberry Pop-Tarts, but I don't mistake them for filet mignon. Titanic sets out intentionally to manipulate and jerk some tears, and it does so pretty effectively. I'm not sure I think that's what a melodrama does, and if so I'm not sure I think that that's what Sunrise does. As for Peggy Sue Got Married--IS that a melodrama? Is it even a weepie? I think of it more as a romantic comedy crossed with a fantasy.

At any rate, for an L.A. Times film critic to write that ignorantly about a classic and seminal film like Sunrise, seems rather embarassing. I'm reminded of the game "Humiliation," invented by protagonist Philip Sparrow in David Lodge's brilliant academic satire, Changing Places. To play, each person in turn has to admit what classic of English literature he or she hasn't written, and the winner is the player whose choice has been read by the most other players. At an English department dinner, one particularly competitive assistant professor cops to never having read "Hamlet." He wins, of course, but a few weeks later, when he's up for tenure, it's denied, on the basis that it's inconceivable for any English department to grant tenure to anyone who's never read "Hamlet."

That's about how I feel about a film critic who can't see the merits of Sunrise.

(Sorry about the length of this post!)

Karen said...

Sorry, Jonathan; I meant to say your comment was dead on.

Flickhead said...

Not that anyone would notice, but "informative years" should read "formative years" in my previous post.

I wish Blogger would allow us to go in and edit these things ourselves...

Jonathan Lapper said...

Karen - Thanks.
Flickhead and Karen - As evidenced by my comment, "I'd also like just once to leave a comment without a typo" it seems to be contagious. Or maybe I should say, "It sems to bee cotnagous."

Marilyn said...

Karen - I really enjoyed that anecdote about the English teacher. I think it is very appropriate in the case of O'Neil. Thanks for sharing it.

I agree with you, Siren, about a Borzage renaissance. Recently, the Siskel Center in Chicago did a retro of his work and another small revival house plants a film or two of his on their schedule from time to time. He's on the radar screen, in other words, and is due for a breakthrough, probably soon.

Personally, I'd love to see Mitchell Leisen get a little more notice, too.

Peter Nellhaus said...

This is sort of second hand (third hand), but I recall a line from Andrew Sarris quoting Raymond Durgnat to the effect that neo-realist films were male weepies disguised by the term "humanist".

As for Cameron Diaz, I recall reading that when she shot Gangs of New York, she asked Martin Scorsese not to mention the old films to her because she admitted a lack of familiarity with them.

Brian Doan said...

Campaspe,
Great piece! I am teaching a course on melodrama in the fall, and this post will definitely be a great resource! And I agree with Peter about neo-realist films: Andre Bazin also spoke (in a tone both praising and equivocating) about De Sica's work being "shot through with melodrama," and I don't think that's at all a bad thing.

Karen said...

Thanks, Marilyn! Lodge's book is really a must-to-read, even if you're not in academia.

But I see that I fell victim again to Jonathan's creeping typo-ism: "has to admit what classic of English literature he or she hasn't WRITTEN" should, of course, have been "has to admit what classic of English literature he or she hasn't READ."

Sigh. What can we do, Jonathan?? I'm with Flickhead--I wish blogger let commenters edit their comments!

NATHANIEL R said...

i loved this post and i'll need to come back for more to get through all the interesting comments but i don't really get the ending.

The link "look right here" doesn't take me anywhere. Is this a joke I'm not getting? If so, sorry to be dense.

Campaspe said...

Nathaniel, thanks for pointing out the broken link. It's supposed to go to Filmsite's Action genre summary. :)

goatdog said...

(On the Borzage tangent) One of the things standing in the way of a Borzage renaissance, much like the unavailability of his films on DVD, is their unavailability for revival houses. We've had a heck of a time getting any of his films, aside from Man's Castle in 2007 and No Greater Glory this past January. Our distributors claim they can't sell us exhibition rights or can't find prints, and unlike the Siskel Center, we don't have access to academic archives. It's frustrating, because it's obvious that people would come out and see them.

Jonathan Lapper said...

By the way Karen I can't even begin to tell you how many classics of literature I haven't written. But I do take credit for Return of the Native. That's one all mine.

chloe van paris said...

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Jonathan Lapper said...

That should read "That one's all mine" and no I didn't do that typo on purpose. I'm going to stop now.

Noel Vera said...

O'Neil's piece is so sad because he can actually make some kind of case, if he approached it with less apparent ignorance.

I for one am not a big fan of the intertitles; they tend to underline the emotions, they're gimmicky (going up and down and at times even melting away) and comment on feelings and sentiments that you can easily see for yourself onscreen. I don't know the story behind their creation, but I can easily believe Murnau was forced into some kind of compromise somewhere--actually believe much of the film's perceived melodrama comes from their use. Personally speaking, my favorite Murnau isn't this, but Faust (though this is definitely up there).

As for melodrama--I believe in the use of melodrama as a genre convention, something I think Murnau was trying to do. Sirk, sure, MInnelli, and I submit my country's very own Lino Brocka.

As a filmmaker he had the gift of documentary immediacy. But I think his greatest gift was of knowing the common Filipino's heart, his love of and familiarity with melodrama, without being totally owned by it. He knew the language--made many a movie that made money (and was well-crafted melodrama) even if they were second in quality to his best works.

In his very best works he did more than that, spoke the language but smuggled within the vocabulary and syntax of melodrama the subtler, more complex results of genuine observation of human interaction. Thus at the end of a film like Insiang (his masterpiece, I think), you don't know who is the rapist, who the victim, who the innocent bystander. In Brocka's (and O'Hara's who wrote the script) eyes, everyone is uniquely guilty, everyone uniquely innocent.

Hedwig said...

I'm reminded by this discussion of the one, only a few months ago, when someone (I've already forgotten the name), summarily dismissed 4 classics. And I stand by my reaction then: you don't like Sunrise? Well, that can happen, de gustibus etc., but the least you can do it try to analyze WHY you didn't like it, instead of just tossing off a few choice sentences with descriptions like "hilariously schmaltzy".

Personally, when I saw Sunrise, I couldn't quite get into the story, but I was swept away by how it looked and how incredibly sophisticated the cinematography and filmmaking was.I can imagine it's not for everyone, and you need to see it in context to see just how much of a revelation it probably was at the time, but it doesn't deserve such shoddy treatment, and I'm glad so many people ran to its defense.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I had to come back again (hopefully typo free this time) because of Noel's comments. I have to admit, the inter-titles are the one area of the movie that mildly annoys me as well. There are so few of them that it seems to be in fact underlining the emotion, as Noel said, when the same intertitle is used multiple times. I also agree with Noel about Murnau even wanting them used because if you've seen The Last Laugh you know how absolutely sparing of inter-titles Murnau could be.

However, for me, this is a minor squabble. The story, the actors and the astonishing camera work make it a monumental film in my book.

And just a few fan thoughts:

1. When I first saw it, the trolley car emerging from the forest while she runs in fear transfixed me. Seeing modern technology suddenly emerge from the woods seemed brilliant.

And

2. In all the esteemed write-ups of this movie in which the cinematography and groundbreaking techniques are explored the things ignored over and over again are all the great individual scenes. Like the pig scene for instance. That's one of my favorite scenes in the movie. I'm serious, I love the pig scene. It is to my mind an absolutely brilliant transitional point in their story, chasing this filthy beer swilling swine until it's caught.

Or the hair cutting scene. Another great one. It's wall to wall with brilliant scenes and how O'Neil missed that aspect of it I do not know. It's a great film that is also great fun to watch.

Flickhead said...

Siren, don’t be too hard on Cameron Diaz. As an actress, I’m sure she figured it was safer to stick with the teleprompter than improvise on TV in front of a gazillion viewers. She seems sweet, but her skin’s starting to get Redfordized from Too Much Sun, and I’ve a feeling she’s intellectually something of a dim bulb, akin to her character in Charlie’s Angels. For example, recently when flipping someone The Bird, the poor girl knew not which digit to raise (click here).

Campaspe said...

Karen, I love that Lodge book and actually did a post at Cinemarati yonks ago where I proposed a game of Cinephile Humiliation. Mine was La Dolce Vita. Which I still have not watched. The nice thing was that it prompted a lot of people to see things they hadn't before. I guess the Hamlet equivalent would be Citizen Kane. Mick La Salle of the SFC recently did an article about four famous films he hadn't seen, and said he knew a critic for a major daily who hadn't seen Kane. To which my response was, fire her ass -- on the same grounds as the prof in Changing Places.

Hedwig is right in that the problem isn't disliking Sunrise, it's the flip treatment, like it's some creaky antique fit for only for us snooty intellectual types.

Campaspe said...

Noel, the intertitles are a problem with a lot of silent movies in my view. I have no idea how much input Murnau had with the ones for Sunrise but your point is well taken. The one whose intertitles really grate is, for me, D.W. Griffith and as far as I know he wrote a great deal of them himself. His sensibility was very Victorian which had good and bad aspects, but the intertitles were often quite overripe and downright intrusive. Thank you for the link to the Brocka film, he sounds like my kinda filmmaker.

Campaspe said...

Jonathan, I love the pig scene too. The more I read O'Neil's take the less I understand it, but I think he just doesn't have much feel for (or, I would be willing to bet, much experience) with silent film. I know it's a cliche but it's a different art in so many ways.

Flickhead, I really don't blame Diaz at all. In terms of intellect I don't think she's Hedy Lamarr but she has a funny, lively quality on screen.

Belvoir said...

Thanks you, Siren. I happen to adore melodrama, that condescending phrase.

To me, it means vernacular, broad strokes: everyone knows what's happening, what the stakes are: even an illiterate immigrant in NYC in 1910 , at a silent film, can know what's going on,- melodrama goes right to the heart . It's not subtle, but it IS democratic and eternal.

We can love both- the broad and the psychologically subtle. But cinema's unique in America, at the time it emerged: perhaps melodrama was considered too "ethnic", too passionate, too far from WASP decorum.

Screw that! I'm happy to imagine some Italian immigrant enjoying a movie melodrama the way he or she would enjoy a melodramatic opera- that is, all of them! Opera is supremely melodramatic!

Anyway, love your meditations. Do wish Wolcott had comments too, but then you're a goddess and he isn't, he'd be the first to admit..

:)

Noel Vera said...

On Insiang--sure thing. Bit of advice, tho, don't read the plot synopsis, it just gives too much of the story away. I do strongly recommend it as a DVD buy. I remember Jonathan Rosenbaum saw it in Rotterdam and liked it as well--we talked about it after and how it reminded him of a Fassbinder film (now there's another master of melodrama).

No, I don't think the intertitles are an unforgiveable flaw, I do love Sunrise, but they are I think the single most noticeable element of the film, and I'd argue the single hokiest thing about them.

I do agree, Griffith is as bad if not worse an offender, tho there are times when he does leave well enough alone (it's after his famous climaxes that he gets extremely heavy-handed--I'm thinking of the allegorical moment in Intolerance, a real jaw-dropper).

Gerard Jones said...

Thank you for defending not just Sunrise but melodrama. It's a rich, endlessly fascinating form, and it's just recently being taken more seriously by people who decide whether things are being "taken seriously" or not.

(I refer anyone interested to Peter Brooks's "Melodramatic Imagination," where he tosses out many ideas including the one that melodrama creates an emotional arena in which people can work out moral conflicts in a "post-sacred" age. So there you go!)

I skipped the Oscars this year so don't even know what the Sunrise crack was. Just as well, I'll bet!

Walrus said...

I think critics need to lose the oversimplified equation of melodrama == cliche. For me, melodrama is a choice, more a style than a overarching genre, and historically it has been full of nuance, variation and innovation. I think melodrama gets its bad name from films that use emotional shorthand. To me, this is more a matter of doing melodrama poorly, rather than demonstrating a characteristic flaw in style.

I'd also like to take a moment to mention that I apply this same principle to "action" films. While that genre/style has plenty of examples that don't do justice to its tradition, I find such films to have plenty of potential for greatness. Even the Bond films seem to be doing a better job than they used to.

Henry Holland said...

Followed the link from James Wolcott's blog, loving this discussion.

I came to Murnau's films via him being listed in dozens of "Gay People In History" lists that I devoured as a young gay guy in the mid-70's. I was blown away when I finally got to see things like Nosferatu, Faust and, of course, Sunrise. I haven't watched Sunrise in ages, but I'm going to give it a spin this weekend.

Oh, and The Times coverage of the arts is pathetic; while people have their pitchforks & torches out for O'Neil, could you make sure that the classical/opera reviewer Mark Swed is swept up in the orgy of mob violence? Please? :-)

Campaspe said...

Belvoir, Noel, Gerard, Walrus, Mr. Holland, when the comments are this eloquent I get stumped for reply. It just makes me want to rush out and rent Tarnished Angels (is that one even on DVD) and follow it with La Terra Trema to test Peter's thesis.

Mr. Holland, I love opera and classical music but don't find many critics I want to read on the subject anymore. I don't know the critic you mention but I am still laughing at your post.

Gloria said...

I have always pretended to be a though girl.

I don't cry at funerals.

I don't put sugar in the tea.

My hands and arms are so eventful in little scars I get at work that I look like a pirate queen.

But I say here and now that whoever trashes melodramas (and, worse even, to praise action movies) doesn't know what He's missing. The cleansing effect in the soul of a pack of kleenex well spent while watching a good melodrama, just can't be surpassed.

Having recently watched (and enjoyed, and cried over) at home such diverse items of the genre as Leigh's "Secrets and lies" or Ozu's "Hen in the wind" I hereby say: Long live Melos!

Marilyn said...

Oooh. Tanished Angels! Only down side is that even if you have a wide screen, it won't do justice to the air stunts. I saw it in a theatre with a wide screen, and it really blew me away.

Campaspe said...

Gloria, now I want to know what you're doing to scar yourself, LOL! a chef, perhaps? in any event I completely agree with you, why else would I be unable to resist another showing of Back Street?

Marilyn, I saw Tarnished Angels years ago at the Public Theater with a guy who is decidedly not a melo fan, and was hugely satisfied at how much he loved it.

Gloria said...

Off topic: Campaspe, I'm a printer. I occasionally get the odd scar handling/cleaning the machine or handling plates, but the most dangerous item, cut-wise is... paper!

Peter Nellhaus said...

Campaspe: As I recall, Durgnat's example of a "Male weepie" was Bicycle Thieves.

I am also reminded of the scene in Sleepless in Seattle of Meg Ryan's love from An Affair to Remember versus Tom Hank's crying over The Dirty Dozen.

Maybe the sentimental reading of Aldrich was intended to be for laughs, but it may actually be closer to the mark than intended considering the guy also made Autumn Leaves.

Campaspe said...

G., paper is brutal. It also leeches all the moisture off your hands, as I can tell you from my years of paper-pushing.

Peter, An Affair to Remember is a taste I've just never acquired. I mean, it's a well-done movie and lovely to look at and it has Deborah Kerr, but something about it always rang phony to me. I honestly think it's Cary Grant, heretical as that may seem. I have no idea what was going on in his life or on set but I don't get any depth of feeling from him in that one. Love Affair, on the other hand, is a favorite.

Henry Holland said...

Mr. Holland, I love opera and classical music but don't find many critics I want to read on the subject anymore. I don't know the critic you mention but I am still laughing at your post

Thank you! Mark Swed replaced the awesome Martin Bernheimer, who could describe the music being played, the performance and the crowd's reaction to it in 4 finely wrought paragraphs of crystalline prose.

Mark Swed, however, can take up half a page on a concert writing clunky, turgid prose and spend exactly two sentences on how the performers actually played because he's too busy riding his hobby horses of "American composers = great, no questions asked; European composers who don't write tonally = bad, no questions asked" and general PR-hackery for the local performing arts groups.

Gerard Jones said...

C: So happy to hear someone dissing Affair to Remember in contrast to Love Affair. I've always thought those two movies show how the same script can be made magically or mechanically. I felt as though AtR was saying to me, "Here are all the elements you're supposed to like in a Hollywood weepie, so now it's your obligation to will yourself to love it." LA stole up on me and overwhelmed me.

You're right that Grant is a problem, although I normally love Grant. In any other case I'd say it was absurd to say that Boyer was ever better than Grant, but here it's true. Grant is just too light, insouciant and detached. Too much like To Catch a Thief. He fails to connect to the fear and hunger he was able to bring up earlier in his career. But the whole point of the character is that he pretends to lightness, insouciance and detachment while in fact he's lost and lonely and desperate for emotional attachment. The Grant of '39 could have done it (as in Penny Serenade a couple of years later), but the Boyer of '39 works better than the Grant of the '50s.

Kerr, too, is just too stolid and sensible. Dunne was better than anyone at looking as though she was trying to be stolid and sensible while letting her giddiness show.

For me, though, the biggest problem is technological. Despite all the big settings--ships, oceans, islands, towering skyscrapers--it's a very intimate story. I might even say the main theme is the very nature of a love affair: that as huge as the world is, when you're in love only two people really exist. McCarey and Co kept our focus on that: there's something distant, almost abstract, about the big settings in Love Affair.

But CinemaScope and Technicolor only emphasize the bigness and inescapable reality of the ship, ocean, island, etc. It becomes a travelogue through which two little people move almost inconsequentially.

And the chapel scene: sublime in black-and-white film and transparent '30s lighting. I feel like I can see God shining through those faces. Grant and Kerr just look like giant pink balls.

I think this is where I like melodrama best: when the reality of the world falls away and everything feels symbolic, transcendent.

Gerard Jones said...

Oh! Just so no one has to correct me: I know McCarey did both versions. Just such a different "and Co," with such different tools, in the first version.

Bob Turnbull said...

Hi Siren...I'm late to the game, but wanted to add my thanks for your great post. I'm not as schooled in classic melodrama fare, so I'm grateful for some of the recommendations here.

My favourite has to be "Written On The Wind". I just found that film to be so much...fun.

Your post also made me think of a couple of Japanese films I've seen recently - "Hula Girls" and "Manji". The former won all sorts of awards (including Best Film) at the 2006 Japanese Academy Awards - and I thought it was awful. Now this was schmaltz. Dreadful music (way too much tinkling piano), drawn out scenes of girls overdoing crying and a story that just can't find the emotion anywhere - so they force it. I could see this being thrown into a "weepie" category (though it has a crowd pleasing finale).

But the second, 1964's "Manji" directed by Yasuzo Masumura, is something else altogether. I found it to use melodrama (heightened emotions at each end of the spectrum) to great use in working through a tale of obsessive love between two women (and the wreckage that ensues). There's lots of other great reasons to see it as well (the framing in each scene is terrific), but I thought it was an excellent example of how to use melodrama for specific effect.

surlyh said...

Been gone for a bit, but I'm happy to be back.

Sure, bad melodrama is bad film. But great melodrama is essential film. They call it the big screen for more than one reason. I've heard many say they don't like musicals, melodrama's equally maligned cousin. To me, dismissing either genre is like saying you don't like the color red--or perhaps purple. Why leave out the vivid end of the spectrum? Do you also eschew strong drink, spicy foods and attractive sexual partners? In other words, why the hell don't you enjoy life?!?

What most folks mean is that they want what is currently accepted as "realism"--or staid, stylistically and generically unchallenging stories and techniques. What a sad, colorless life these sheep must live.

Preaching to the converted here, I know.

randini said...

As a refugee academic I too once thought of doing a course on melodrama after I realized that virtually every film I preferred to run was one, more or less. One hurdle is the etymology of the word, which originally meant just Stories with Music. I would have illustrated that with the 1936 British film of Pagliacci with Richard Tauber (and talk about a Male Weepie!). With that in mind wouldn't a great melodrama be Clouzot's Le Corbeau, one of the Siren's faves I believe. The Main Title music is the ultimate grab-'em-by-the-throat-and-see-if-they-walk-out musical intro. Another must include is a film that was a favorite of Edward Gorey, Madonna of the Seven Moons (Britain 1946), which he saw at Bill Everson's once-upon-a-time Manhattan screenings (does the Siren remember these?). It's a Freudian melodrama set, like The Red Shoes, on the Riviera about a sexually repressed English wife (Phyllis Calvert) of an Italian banker who periodically twists off and assumes an alternate identity as a passionate Gypsy in the arms of Stewart Granger(and I'm not making this up!). Hard to find but very worth it. Corridor of Mirrors with Eric Portman as a psychotic millionaire art collector who imagines himself a modern-day Borgia comes close in mood and style.

Taking melodrama seriously also allows one to explore another one of Ray Durgnat's notions, The Good Bad Movie (which for him was exemplified by Duel in the Sun, another must-include).

Randini