Melodrama: Short Reflections on a Long Subject

By Marcia Landy (U of Pittsburgh)

In their introduction to Melodrama: Genre, Style, Sensibility, John Mercer and Martin Shingler write: "Melodrama, however one might understand the term, always has the ability to provide strong emotions in audiences, from tears of sorrow and identification to derisive laughter" (1). The critical terms in this terse description are "emotion" and "identification."  And this description is inherent to the critical history of the "melodramatic imagination" that entails varied explorations including filmmaking from every continent and culture.  The subject of film melodrama has often been traced to the 1970s and to Screen 's challenge to Hollywood's "classic realist text" as exemplified by the writings of such critics as Colin MacCabe and Stephen Heath.  However, there are other critical routes to trace in the genealogy of the melodrama.

The rise of melodrama as a contemporary object of study should be augmented by attention to the “small, but important body of Formalist writing” in the 1920s, characterized by such critics as Sergei Balukhatyi, Boris Tomashevsky, and Adrian Piotrovsky who analyzed the formal elements of melodrama as a genre in contrast to an ideological approach that championed the “strong didactic and theatrical values of melodrama,” identified with the new Soviet theatre aimed at mass audiences in a new revolutionary society” (Gerould 119-120).  These two directions, the ideological and the formal, have characterized later approaches to melodrama, evident in both Structuralist and Gramscian inflected studies of popular culture, ideology, and social class.

The writings of activist and critic Antonio Gramsci are also among earlier writings on popular culture that have a bearing on studies of melodrama.  Gramsci's hitherto neglected work was re-introduced and disseminated in the 1970s through Stuart Hall and the Birmingham Centre for the Study of Popular Culture, contributing to a rethinking of media culture in relation to the nature of consent, hegemony, and folklore.  In a Gramscian vein, Hall emphasized that the new cultural studies

conceptualises culture as interwoven with social practices; and these practices, in turn, as a common form of human activity.  Sensuous human praxis … as both the means and values which arise among distinctive social groups and classes on the basis of their given historical conditions and relationship, through which they “handle” and respond to the conditions of existence; and as the lived traditions and practices through which these “understandings” are expressed and in which they are embodied (qtd. Gurevitch et al, 27; emphasis in original).

Furthermore, Gramsci, in his address of popular culture emphasized its connections to folklore and its implications for studies of melodrama.  Writing from prison during the fascist era, he noted that:

Folklore should instead be studied as a “conception of the world and life” implicit to a large extent in determinate (in time and space) strata of society and in opposition (also for the most part implicit, mechanical, and objective) to “official” conceptions of the world (or in a broader sense, the conceptions of the culturally determinate societies) that in the historical processes that have succeeded one another in the historical process… This conception of the world is not elaborated and systematic…  It is rather many-sided—not only because it includes different and juxtaposed elements, but also because it is stratified, from the more crude to the less crude…  In fact, it is only in folklore that one finds surviving evidence adulterated and mutilated, of the majority of these conceptions.  (189)

The fragments to which Gramsci alludes are located in language, rhetoric, oratory, all of which he identifies with a melodramatic, or as he termed it, an “operatic conception of life” that can be found in the theater, the courts of law, politics, popular literature, and film.  There is no question that for Gramsci, as for Stuart Hall, melodrama as folklore or common sense is located in history, albeit in forms that require careful disarticulation and analysis.  Following this trend, critics, prominently feminist critics, undertook a reexamination of the gendered character of the “melodramatic imagination,” along with addressing the issues of the family, the social landscape, regionalism and cosmopolitanism, tradition and modernity.  Underpinning much of the writing on melodrama has been a debate about its historical as opposed to its transhistorical—or a-historical—character, and further whether it is a specific generic mode or an overarching style.

One of the most influential works on melodrama has been Peter Brooks' The Melodramatic Imagination , in which he seeks to describe the “modern” mode of expression not “as a theme or set of themes, not the life of a genre per se, but rather … as a mode of conception and expression, as a certain fictional system for making sense of experience, as a semantic field of force” (xiii).  He emphasized that “there is a form, calling itself melodrama, that comes into existence at the start of the nineteenth century, and that this form itself is vital to the modern imagination” (xi).  This “experience” entails a spiritual drama tied to the “moral occult” that Brooks insists is not “a metaphysical system, but [in terms echoing Gramsci] is the repository of the fragmentary and desacralized remnants of sacred myth” (5).

This world is created through “using metaphors that refer us to the realm of spiritual values and latent moral meanings.  Things cease to be themselves, gestures cease to be merely tokens of social intercourse whose meaning is assigned by a social code; they become the vehicles of metaphors whose tenor suggests another kind of reality” (9).  Brooks' historical and cultural exploration is grounded on his examination of a modern sensibility initiated by Romanticism “(… within which we are still living) in that modern art has typically felt itself to be constructed on, and over, the void, postulating meaning and symbolic systems which have no certain justification because they are backed up by no theology and no universally accepted social code” (21).

Brooks' work provides significant insights for the study of cinema in his discussion of the “text of muteness” that focuses on the paradox of the desire of melodrama to express all, “where nothing is left unsaid,” where the characters strive to “utter the unspeakable, to give voice to their deepest feelings, dramatized through their heightened and polarized words and gestures” (4), and yet this expression of emotion is a desperate attempt that is actually one of muteness, of “meaning engendered in the absence of the word” (63).  The importance of gesture delineated by Brooks has also been commented upon by Giorgio Agamben who writes:

[B]ecause being-in language is not something that could be said in sentences, the gesture is essentially always a gesture of not being able to figure something out in language; it is always a gag in the proper meaning of the term, indicating first of all something that could be put in our mouth to hinder speech, as well as in the sense of the actor's improvisation meant to compensate a loss of memory or an inability to speak.  Cinema's essential “silence” (which has nothing to do with the presence or absence of a sound track) is just like the silence of philosophy, exposure of the being-in-language of human beings, of pure gesturality.  (59)

Thus, Agamben validates Brooks' concern with gesture, if not with Brooks' emphasis on the “moral occult.”  Their contribution to an understanding of melodramatic expression resides in this emphasis on the limits of verbal expression and on the corresponding role of affect.

While Brooks' views have garnered widespread support in media studies, there are those that would argue with his limited historical perspective.  In Melodrama: The Cultural Emergence of a Genre, Michael Hays and Anastasia Nikolopoulou write that

For Brooks and those who following in his wake, the melodrama is a drama of “excess” in which life choices finally have little to do with the surface realties of a situation and much more to do with an intense drama of consciousness and “a manichaestic struggle of good and evil … any attempt to define (or redefine) melodrama by turning away from a historical understanding of the genre and its uses and reinscribing it under an aesthetic category named after the adjective derived from it is bound to move critical discussion into a subjective arena that must inevitably disregard the cultural dynamics underlying the actual production and reception of the melodrama.  (viii)

While Brooks seeks to demarcate a cultural moment for melodrama, his restricting his concerns to the aesthetic creates difficulties for identifying its changing historical and cultural dimensions.

Another highly influential critical treatment of melodrama is Thomas Elsaesser's “Tales of Sound and Fury,” which reiterates Geoffrey Nowell-Smith's focus on the bourgeois family melodrama.  Also wedding Freud and Marx, Elsaesser briefly sketches the genealogy of melodrama from the Middle Ages through to the nineteenth century, paying attention to the shifting presentations of social class and culminating in the cinema of the 1950s with his analysis of the family melodramas of Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli, identifying how their films exemplify a particular pattern of continuities and discontinuities, delays, deferral, rising and falling emotions that “occur, as it were under pressure” and create “a universe of powerfully emotional but obliquely fixed relations … the strong emotion, the dynamic movement, the full articulation and fleshed-out emotions—so characteristic of American cinema—become the very signs of the characters' alienation, and thus serve to formulate the very ideology that supports it” (Elsaesser 62).

Elsaesser's monolithic critique is exemplified in the following statement:

The poverty of the intellectual resources in some of the characters is starkly contrasted with a corresponding abundance of emotional resources, and as one sees them helplessly struggling inside their emotional prisons with no hope of realizing to what degree they are victims of their society, one gets a clear picture of how a certain individualism reinforces social and emotional alienation, and of how the economics of the psyche are as vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation as a person's labor.  (66)

Elsaesser's analysis places emphasis on the mise-en-scène, décor, color, all of which highlight the contradictions of this world as manifested in the prison-house of the family.

Yet, one might ask, how removed is this analysis from conventional Marxist economistic conceptions of labor carried over into the realm of the psychic.  Unlike a Gramscian analysis that regards folklore as a form of common sense that, though restricted, also takes into account those elements that “are in the process of developing and which are in contradiction to or simply different from the morality of the governing strata” (Gramsci 189), Elsaesser's conception of this form of melodrama does not take sufficient account of absences relating to an understanding of the historical moment or those gestures that expand—not merely reinforce—one's understanding of this changing world of the 1950s.  The emotions that he identifies are subsumed under the totalizing portrait of the culture.  Here there is no aping of the character's emotions.  Nor is there a sense of the potential reception of these films.

The persistent problem posed by melodrama criticism is taxonomic.  Is it a given genre, a style, an aesthetic category, a folklore masquerading as common sense that returns us to its more commonly-agreed upon character—namely its preoccupation with emotion and, hence, with concern for the subjectivity, involving the issue of who speaks, to whom, and from what position?  At this point, I want to introduce another approach that offers possibilities for alternative directions for a study of emotion along the lines charted by Brooks and Giorgio Agamben.  In her encyclopedic monograph, Atlas of Emotion: Art, Architecture and Film, Giuliana Bruno creates what she terms a “cartography of the subjective” (409) to study expressions of emotion, tracing its expression in traditionally marginal spaces involving other art forms, geography, diaries, landscape, and architecture.  These spaces are revealed through “bodily space” and “bodies-in-space” located in “the hybrid histories of home and the world” (410).  The pertinence of her study for melodrama is that it is not confined to the family romance, to constricting unitary conceptions of nation and national identity, sociological assessments of gender and ethnicity.  She does not abandon these issues but diverts them so as to entertain more specific and resonant interactions between subjects (particularly female subjects) and their changing world.

Her project in this book, I believe, bears on reconsiderations of melodrama.  Of her perspective and method, she says,

Much has been written about spectatorial identification with the filmic text.  We also know something about the phantasmatic structure that links the filmmaker to her text.  I have done my share of thinking about these issues.  But what of the theorist's relationship to a set of texts?  What drives the analyst to an object choice?  What navigates it?  In what ways is the film an object of desire, a site of the bonds of love or domination, an emotional fabrication?  What “architexture” does this relationship dwell upon?  How does one's own position as subject, and the change it undergoes, affect the reading of a film?  Is there a historicity in this trajectory?  What is the geography of this critical history?  Does it have a place in writing?  In short, what should or can we say about a critical journey?...

Film theory generally has backed away from analyzing this subject, especially at the point when, in order to reach out and grasp the sense of the lived subject, one would have to plunge in the subjective realm.  (406-407, 409; emphasis in original)

It is evident from these comments that Bruno has more than an antiquarian interest in tracking down the antecedents of film forms.  If this book is indeed engaged in historicizing, it is animated by historical and cinematic rather than traditional narrative concerns.  While students of melodrama have sought to locate a language of affect, Bruno's book would suggest that the quest is doomed if it cannot map the realm of emotion, or as she terms it “e-motion.”  In her effort to provide a language and method to identify the various maps that comprise subjectivity, she introduces and redefines current usages of terms and their concepts as they open up different areas of thinking about relations among travel, architecture, subjectivity, and gender.  Beyond the importance assigned to mapping, the most familiar term to the reader by the end of the book is “haptic.”  As she defines it—in contrast to other critics—the haptic in her terms serves the function of shifting from the exclusive emphasis on vision and includes other senses and their relations to space.  It is an “emotional space” that is located in “sites,” not merely “sights.”  Her union of film/body/architecture is:

a haptic dynamics, a phantasmatic structure of lived space and lived narrative; a narrativized space that is intersubjective, for it is a complex of socio-sexual mobilities.  Unraveling a sequence of views, the architectural-filmic ensemble writes concrete maps.  The scope of the view—the horizon of site-seeing—is the mapping of tangible sites.  (65)

Her “site-seeing” is reminiscent of Gilles Deleuze's emphasis on the sensori-motor dimensions of film.  Bruno's study of site-seeing is not an inert and isolated study of landscapes and of buildings.  The “tangible sites” that she identifies are complicated by being places of “inhabitation,” of consuming space: one “lives a film as one lives the space one inhabits: as an everyday passage, tangibly” (65).  And, in its focus on the female traveler, the voyageuse, the Atlas “traverses a haptic, emotive terrain” (16) to complicate our understanding of the dynamics of mobility, the “sites of transit” that contributed to the "perceptual field" of modernity.

Her linking of the habitable to the “haptic” involves the art of memory, providing the modern subject with new perspectives on orientation in space and time and for making sense of this motion. Her work suggests that we subject out formulations of melodrama to different conceptions of bio-history and locate new clues for historicizing our relation to texts.  This project is obviously not the last word on reconsiderations of melodrama but a provocative way of reconsidering the ways in which narrative theory has been privileged to the detriment of locating emotion and, therefore the necessity of now being attentive to different clues and different forms of conjectural or “aphoristic knowledge” via the senses.

Ginsburg writes:

The conjectural paradigm employed to develop ever more subtle and capillary forms of control can become a device to dissolve the ideological clouds which increasingly obscure such a complex structure as fully developed capitalism.  Though pretensions to systematic knowledge may appear more and more far-fetched, the idea of totality does not necessarily need to be abandoned.  On the contrary, the existence of a deeply rooted relationship that explains superficial phenomena is confirmed the very moment it is stated that direct knowledge of such a connection is not possible.  Though reality may seem to be opaque, there are privileged zones—signs, clues—which allow us to penetrate it.  (123)

The cartography created by Bruno is an attempt to locate these clues to the senses and to the social and cinematic milieu, and I believe offers clues for addressing melodrama.

After the success of her short film, Two (Dvoe, 2004), Ekaterina Grokhovskaia with The Man of No Return (Chelovek bezvozvratnyi, 2006), has made her first foray into feature length film.  The film has been shown at festivals in Russia and in Sweden, playing along with other European films.  Financed at 1,0000,000 RUR, the film explores sexuality, the family, generational and gender difference, and memory, portraying “a society in crisis” (Gillespie 93).  The film's focus on familial relations would seem to place it alongside the plethora of genre films that have characterized the recent Russian commercial cinema, including comedies, melodramas, gangster films, science fiction, war films, and fantasy.  Given its focus on the family, The Man of No Return would seem to belong to this form of filmmaking.  However, if the family melodrama, as some critics have claimed, is preoccupied with emotional excess arising from irreconcilable moral polarities, recording “the failure of the protagonist to act in a way that could shape the events and influence the stifling emotional environment, let alone change the stifling social milieu” (Elsaesser 55), The Man of No Return undermines these premises.  In an unsettling and elliptical narrative mode, the film prefers to investigate the clichés upon which the family melodrama has been constructed, not only portraying what the characters and viewers see through the image, but how they see.

The film invites a different engagement with the image and gesture in its treatment of landscape, architecture, character, disease, death, and mobility.  In my viewing of the film, I found that it violated many reigning conceptions of melodrama—its theatricality, excessiveness of affect, its preoccupation with loss and mourning, an “ironic” treatment of the characters' disaffections and alienation.  Yet in its focus on the "symptoms" of the characters, their faciality, gestures, and sparse dialogue, and in their movement through a familiar and quotidian world, the film offers clues to a different form of memory, providing fragments of a past and opening onto a different present.

While the film has touched on major topics treated in contemporary Russian cinema—prostitution, health, delinquency, militarism, illegal and corrupt economic transactions, fantasies of romance—it has sought different cinematic strategies in their representation.  For example, it is not a film that opts for a sociological treatment.  It is not a social problem film.  Nor is it an historical film.  It is not an upbeat drama, offering pleasure and hope.  As for being a conventional family and psychological melodrama that highlights the sources of corruption in familial interpersonal relationships, the film works against assigning the sources of conflict to individuals in the family or the family as a unit.  In its focus on temporality, on the body, and on vision, the film strives to attain what Gilles Deleuze has described as a cinema of brain and thought.  This type of cinema functions as the time-image whereby it works with and against clichés.  It rarifies the image “by suppressing many things that have been added to make us believe that we were seeing everything” (Deleuze 21).

If one compares The Man of No Return to Michelangelo Antonioni's films, we can see that the film makes minimal attempts to develop an “intertwining of consequences, of temporal sequences and effects which flow from events out-of-field” (Deleuze 23).  Given the numerous images of characters watching television, gazing at photographs, x-rays, looking at themselves in mirrors, and at the world without through windows, the film highlights a world where vision has primacy.  But seeing is problematic, an instrument of chimeras and of self-deception.  In a sense, the characters are prey to a hallucinatory vision of the world derived from their past, from loss, habit, self-preoccupation, the desire for material and sexual gratification, and from confusion between exteriority and interiority.

By contrast, the spectator is offered a different screen or window to regard the characters' misperceptions and suffering.  While the character has become “a prey to a vision, pursued or pursuing it” (Deleuze 3), the film spectator is situated differently by gaining visual access to how the characters “are suffering less from the absence of one another than from their absence from themselves” (8).  Specifically, through its shifting kaleidoscopic treatment of character and situations, The Man of No Return addresses the viewer by introducing another dimension of history and memory that presses against habituation.  The mother's illness and death is an invitation to reflect on “the gaze which becomes real again at the moment of death” (8).  The film's understated and elliptical style and its undermining of cinematic clichés are emblematic of the film's resistance to interpretation in favor of provoking, questioning, and experimenting with a different mode of seeing, one that is conducive to feeling and thinking.

Marcia Landy
University of Pittsburgh


Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Means without End.  Trans. Vincenzo Binetti snf Cesare Casarino.  Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000.

Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, and the Mode of Excess. NY: Columbia UP, 1984.

Bruno, Giuliana. Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film.  London: Verso, 2002.

Deleuze, Gilles.  Cinema 2: Time-Image.  Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001.

Elsaesser, Thomas.  “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama.”  In Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman's Film .  Ed. Christine Gledhill.  London: BFI Publishing, 1987. 43-74.

Gerould, Daniel.  “Russian Formalist Theories of Melodrama.”  In Imitations of Life: A Reader on Film and Television Melodrama .  Ed. Marcia Landy.  Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1991.  118-134.

Gillespie, David.   Russian Cinema .  Essex, England: Pearson Education Limited, 2003.

Ginzburg, Carlo.   Clues, Myths and the Historical Method .  Trans. John and Anne Tedeschi. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1992.

Gledhill, Christine, ed. Home Is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman's Film.  London: BFI Publishing. 1987. 

Gramsci, Antonio.  Selections from the Cultural Writings.   Ed. David Forgacs.  Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1985.

Gurevitch, Michael, Tony Bennett, James Curran, and Janet Woollacott.   Culture, Society, and the Media.  London:  Methuen, 1982.

Hays, Michael and Anastasua Nikolopoulou.   Melodrama: The Cultural Emergence of a Genre. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Lawton, Anna.  Imaging Russia: Films and Facts.  Washington, D. C.: New Academia Publishing, 2001.

Mercer, John and Martin Shingler.   Melodrama: Genre, Style, Sensibility .  London: Wallflower,             2004.


Marcia Landy© 2007

Updated: 15 Jun 07