Opowieści wściekłości i wrzasku: uwagi o rodzinnym melodramacie

  1. Thomas Elsaesser


Tales of Sound and Fury. Observations on the Family Melodrama

The author in his classical text tries to describe the development of “melodramatic imagination” and establish structural and stylistic constants of the Hollywood family melodrama between 1940–1963. He always tries to depict the psychological and cultural context that this form of melodrama so manifestly reflected and helped to articulate. The author in his reflections leans on half a dozen films by, especially, Douglas Sirk, Elia Kazan, Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray and George Cukor. The film melodrama is, of course, rooted in European sentimental novel, the 18th century French and German drama of the pre-revolutionary period, in Italian opera and German popular forms, like street songs, which were later adapted by romantic dramas. The conflict of melodramatic plot was a way to expose social, class conflicts – the underprivileged position of the middle class. From the very beginning the melodrama has been ambivalent – it functioned either subversively or escapistically. It has depended on the historical and social context. It is a very persistent form because thanks to it “popular culture has taken note of social crises and the fact that losers are not always those who deserve it most”. For its persistence it is also very important that through melodrama popular culture “has resolutely refused to understand social change in other than private context and emotional terms” and has showed its healthy distrust of intellectualization and abstract social theory, insisting that other structures of experience (e.g. suffering) are more in keeping with reality. Thus Hugo, Sue, Balzac or Dickens wrote on the painful problems of dynamically developing capitalism of 19th century using the melodramatic idiom. In Hollywood melodramas of the forties and fifties melos was worked out by music, mise-en-scène and dialog, in which the way of its sounding is more important than its contents. Condensed pictorial metaphors were also very important, some dramatic acceleration and compression of events – all to cause direct emotional involvement of the spectator. In family melodramas, of course, Oedipus themes of moral and emotional identity prevail. The protagonist loses his struggle with the human environment, which is a closed world. The protagonist’s suffering, self-sacrifice leads him to wise resignation. The hero is besieged, strongly forced by his milieu and forceless. Violence in melodrama is rather inner and finally resembles selfdestruction. Melodrama is a masochistic form. Freudian motives of symbolization and signalization – present in all Hollywood genres – in melodrama are parts of frame compositions. They are elements more consciously and discretely transmitted to spectators. Narration is focused on gradation of emotions and on the point of view of a victim – a protagonist who, in turn, is concentrated on the unattainable goal. Hence the melancholic motives of non fulfillment and alienation are presented. The latter is a fundamental condition underlined in Hollywood melodramas. The social space is a prison of conformism and neurosis.

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Studia Filmoznawcze

29, 2008

Pages from 11 to 39

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