Melodrama

22/02/2024

The Effectiveness of Affect

  The tropes of Melodrama might be a useful way to start an essay that wishes to marry aspects of the debate surrounding Melodrama as a genre, explored by Thomas Elsaesser, Christine Gledhill and others, and the Melodramatic, including ideas by Peter Brooks and Linda Williams. It is also a way into the genre that will later allow us to find a first principle that distinguishes it not just from drama but more especially tragedy.

        We can start by thinking of one of the great fifties melodramas, All that Heaven Allows, and see its use of several tropes, tics, affective motifs, or whatever we wish to call them. Best, for now, to describe them as affective motifs as we wish to rescue a genre of films that starts more or less with Stella Dallas in 1937 and concludes with Imitation of Life in 1959. Often these affective motifs can seem crude, though one should be wary of calling them ironic or self-mocking. They allow the film in Peter Brooks’ terms to achieve the moral occult, a mode of catharsis quite distinct from tragedy but also a profound feeling that can be accessed in a world that is no longer sacred. Brooks is talking about melodrama’s appearance after the French Revolution: “the heightening and hyperbole, the polarized conflict, the menace and suspense of the representations may be made necessary by the effort to perceive and image the spiritual in a world voided of its traditional Sacred, where the body of the ethical has become a sort of deus absconditus, which must be sought for, populated, brought into man’s existence through the play of the spiritualist imagination.” Brooks describes this as “a repository of the fragmentary and desacralized remnants of sacred myth. It bears comparison to unconscious mind, for it is a sphere of being where our most basic desires and interdictions lie…” (The Melodramatic Imagination) The affective motif allows for the accessing of the excessive, the need to push drama into its melodramaic components all the better to discover this de-sacralised (or perhaps re-sacralised) mind and its most basic desires. One can laugh at these moments and view them with dramatic sobriety, seeing in melodrama a drunken feeling that is embarrassing and obvious. But that would be to take them in a different spirit; and deny them their intoxicating effect for a dry irony.  

    Here are several of these affective motifs from All that Heaven Allows. First, we have the melodramatic pass which is paralleled later by the melodramatic touch. In this story of a widow with two grown-up college kids, Cary (Jane Wyman) goes to a party and gets harassed by the local debauch, who forces a clumsy kiss on her lips. She pulls away, horrified. After all, Howard is a married man, with children, and the audience isn’t supposed to see a character; they are seeing a type. Howard is the type of man who leches after woman and we might be surprised by Cary’s shock. This is what Howard does and everyone knows it. Amid the pass, the film cuts away to a couple of Cary’s friends discussing Howard, with one of them noting that his wife must be either stupid or a saint, a stay-at-home spouse who allows her husband out at night. Like much in melodrama it wants us to believe contrary assumptions simultaneously: Howard is a well-known pest, and Cary is surprised by his actions. We may laugh at melodrama partly because it wants it both ways to the detriment of dramatic consistency. But the purpose of the genre is to access an affective throughline and it will be happy to sacrifice immediate psychological plausibility for such ends. 

  What matters is that Cary is appalled by the obviousness of Howard’s behaviour and it contrasts nicely with the moment when her gardener Ron (Rock Hudson) shows her around his run-down mill house. She starts to go up to the attic and a bird appears, Cary staggers back and falls into Ron’s arms. It is a moment of melodramatic contingency as they touch, a scene when chance brings them into close contact even if we are inclined to see less contingency than the mechanics of melodramatic predictability. We can snigger and refuse the feeling. But the film wishes to make clear this is the moment Cary begins to fall indeed, and Ron looks at her with the firm gaze of the man who knows he has found the woman he wants to spend his life with. As he says shortly afterwards, when Cary says he should do the place up when he meets a nice girl. “I’ve met plenty of girls,” he tells her — while looking at Cary as though she might be the only one who will count.  

   What the scene tells us is that these are characters who may need a nudge from chance but, after that, the responsibility is their own. Ron doesn’t engineer this moment and even warns Cary: “it’s pretty dirty, cobwebs and dust.” Yet when she does fall he wants to make the most of this most happy of accidents. In such a moment, the viewer needs to be both wise to Sirk’s manipulations of convention and thrilled by Ron’s gallantry and strength. To turn such a scene into an overly ironic one, to see Ron as more knowing than he is would be an error. What matters is the balance between the conventions Sirk uses and the feelings he accesses. If we impose an ironic response to the conventions and laugh at how conveniently Ron gets to hold Cary, we are denying the film its power. The melodramatic touch should be felt by the viewer, not mocked. What Sirk shows are two characters who societal convention will not allow to go together but that melodrama can conjoin. If a vital aspect to the genre is yearning, as opposed to the melodramatic, which is a need to escalate the event, then the melodramatic touch allows the manifestation of this yearning as we accept the characters’ desire for each other to come from a chance instance. Sirk says that “the picture is about the antithesis of Thoreau’s qualified Rousseauism and established American society.” (Sirk on Sirk

       Bringing one character, who is trying to live close to nature, and another, who is inculcated in the upper echelons of her society, together, needs what we could call an objective catalytic. That might be a fancy term for contingency but it can have its uses when thinking about how cinema generates situations. Most films offer catalytic subjectivity and this is partly how the melodramatic works: you create villains who want to murder, steal, cheat, and you then need heroes who aim to thwart such villainous desires. It doesn’t tend to rely on chance and so if we are reluctant to find amusing such moments of serendipity which allows Cary to fall into Ron’s arms, it rests on seeing how cinema can use a convention that needn’t be a clear product of character. Sirk offers the scene to show that a bourgeois widow and her younger gardener can fall in love - and illustrates this initial moment by Cary falling into Ron’s arms after the bird dismays her and she loses her balance. 

    Later, as it looks like Ron and Cary will break up, Ron says that she is running away from something important because she is afraid. As she leaves, she knocks over a Wedgewood teapot Ron had spent days and days finding the pieces for after earlier Cary talked about how lovely it was if only it could be fixed. As it shatters how can we not see this as evidence of how fragile their love happens to be, even though Ron has worked hard to hold it together? Yet we should be wary of calling this clumsy symbolism and view it instead as part of Sirk’s imagistic hyperbole. The film wants constantly to propose heightened emotion through heightened mise en scene. After the teapot breaks, the film cuts to a medium shot of Ron coming towards Cary in shadowy profile as we note the whole scene has relied on shadows, silhouettes and artificial lighting all the better to convey the tenor of a sequence that foreshadows difficulties ahead. Robert B. Pippin notes, it would be wrong to suggest that All That Heaven Allows and others are “…best characterised simply as a negatively ironic depiction of such impossibility. In the first place, the irony is not mocking or sarcastic. Many of the characters are well-meaning and earnest, even if also fit subjects for an ironic treatment, for our never taking at face value what they say and do.” Pippin adds, “that is, aside from the purely visual dimensions of irony—that dimension of artificial color, lighting, and the close-up overheated expressions of emotion—there is a subtler dimension of such estranging irony.” (‘Love and Class in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows’) In Sirk’s films and many melodramas, everything potentially becomes symbolic or hyperbolic — which might be the same thing.

  Later in the film, we have another trope: the melodramatic misunderstanding - Cary and Ron have decided to break up. Ron generates a scene (subjectively catalytic) at a party defending Cary from the lech’s further advances and, when she returns home, the son shows strong disapproval after meeting Ron earlier that evening before Ron and Cary went out. At Christmas, Cary is ordering a tree from outside a store and she sees Ron and says hello. They talk, there is still chemistry, and then a woman shows up, moving close to Ron, and Cary assumes this is his new girlfriend. It turns out she isn’t but it both retards the plot and leaves Cary sad until she discovers from a friend of Ron’s that the other woman is getting married — and not to Ron. Cary took for a lover what was simply a friend. It is quite understandable she does so; the body language the woman offers indicates someone intimate with the man she is standing next to, but let us put that aside and see it as the misunderstanding the film insists it was. It means Cary and Ron can see each other again, especially now that we have witnessed that her children, for all their umbrage over Ron’s presence, aren’t going to be around much themselves. The son even suggests they sell the house. The obstacles of true love have been removed, but not before Ron’s fall. 

       Near the end of the film, we have the melodramatic accident. Cary goes to Ron’s place but turns away before knocking. Ron isn’t in but he sees her from up on the hill. He shouts down but she doesn’t hear him, and as he tries to get down to the house before she drives off he loses his footing on the snow and falls hard in a halfway house between the objectively and subjectively catalytic. At the end of the film, Cary is back, Ron is convalescing on the couch, and Cary tells the doctor that she will give him the rest and care he needs. What makes the accident melodramatic is the regretful pathos it seeks from Cary driving off and Ron trying to get her attention. It is causal but it feels as though the cause is secondary to the affect: that Sirk wishes the viewer to see how silly she is and how much Ron cares about her. He could have had the accident a couple of days later but melodrama wishes to generate exaggeration and intensification. As Thomas Elsaesser says: “when in ordinary language we call something melodramatic, what we often mean is an exaggerated rise-and-fall pattern in human actions and emotional responses, a from-the-sublime-to-the-ridiculous movement, a foreshortening of lived time in favor of intensity—all of which produces a graph of much greater fluctuation, a quicker swing from one extreme to the other than is considered natural, realistic, or in conformity with literary standards of verisimilitude: in the novel we like to sip our pleasures rather than gulp them.” (‘Tales of Sound and Fury’) 

  Elsaesser says this is a central aspect of the melodramatic while we only wish for the moment to say it is an important element of melodrama. This is a potential risk since by trying to differentiate melodrama from the melodramatic we are in danger of underestimating how melodramatic most Hollywood films are, a point well-made by Linda Williams when she says: “melodrama is the fundamental mode of popular American moving pictures…melodrama is a peculiarly democratic and American form that seeks dramatic revelation of moral and emotional truths through a dialectic of pathos and action.” (‘Melodrama Revised’) Williams is generally right but if we still wish to find out what melodrama as a genre is during a certain period in American film, such a claim won’t help much — though it would help enormously if we wished to differentiate European film from American movies. Melodrama as a genre seems to take this general dramatic emphasis that both Williams and Elsaesser see, and gives it a form. Nobody mastered that form more than Sirk, and yet to help us understand how this was achieved, we will leave Sirk aside for a moment and say a few words about Stella Dallas, and one particular scene, and the context around it. By doing so, we can comprehend better the melodramatic motifs that we have thus far described, and why a filmmaker would use them. 

    Halfway through Stella Dallas, the title character takes her daughter to an upmarket health resort and dresses so garishly that everyone present laughs at her without Stella apparently noticing. In a series of collective reactions shots, the film shows us how out of place Stella happens to be even if she is doing her best to look her best and to fit into an environment that promptly rejects her. There are various ways to read this scene but, if we were to see it psychologically, it is implausible. Stella is a dressmaker, and the costumes she makes for her daughter are tasteful enough for Lauren to fit smoothly into various upmarket environments including this one. She was also married to a man (Lauren’s father) from a fine background and while he tried to turn her into a refined figure, she remained obstinate and the couple broke up. Yet while she may have wished to reject her husband’s pushy, whiny ways, it would have been surprising if she hadn’t learnt a little about how she was expected to behave. She would surely be aware that her clothes would be mocked at the spa. 

      Stanley Cavell reckons that Stella is more sophisticated than the scene ostensibly proposes. He disagrees with Williams' claim that at the resort Stella is “oblivious as ever to the shocking effect of her appearance.” He reckons of the various occasions where he sees Stella giving offence, the one at the spa hotel is …“the only event…in which she scandalously flaunts the excessive piling on of ornamentation.” (Contesting Tears) It might seem like a scene shortly afterwards contradicts Cavell’s reading: on the sleeper train back, Lauren and her mother are in bunk beds and overhear various girls from the spa discussing the vulgar one who happened to be Lauren’s mother. The film cuts from the girls speaking back to Stella (and later Lauren) listening, and Stella looks dismayed. However, we might wonder whether her horror rests on the vulgarity the girls are acknowledging, and to which she was oblivious, or whether she is aware that she dressed so crudely all the better to create distance between her and Lauren. The horror would thus be that of awareness; not her prior obliviousness. By the end of the film, Lauren will marry into great wealth and her mother will watch from outside the house along with other, poorer onlookers. But while we might be moved by Stella’s absence, at her apparent pariah status, she looks almost triumphant. For all the sadness she would feel estranged from her daughter, she is happy that her plan has worked. She has socially engineered Lauren into serious money by insisting that she has herself been a no-good mother. After all, we have earlier seen her give Lauren the impression that she was seeing her fun but oafish drunken friend, whom she said she was going to marry, left her flat in a mess, and dressed as meretriciously as she did at the resort. Lauren was thus horrified, left and went back to her father’s place. 

    If we think about Stella Dallas (and nobody gives it more thought than Cavell), we see a film that is either hopelessly incoherent or insistently attending to the viewer’s ambivalence. In addressing Williams’ comments on the film, Cavell sees inconsistency: that Williams argues Stella is “oblivious as ever” in the spa scene while earlier arguing that Stella is “increasingly flaunting an exaggeratedly feminine presence that the community would prefer not to see.” ('Melodrama Revised') One could mock Williams for her contradictions but Cavell sees this isn’t a failing on Williams’ part, especially. It is more the uncertainties the film provokes. “I am attributing the cause of ambivalence not to Stella’s struggle but ours in perceiving it. This is by no means to deny that Stella’s struggle can include more pain than we might imagine.” (Contesting Tears

       By exaggerating the film’s form, melodrama often creates a potentially complex and odd set of motivations the more we think about them. The film can then be seen as a hopeless muddle held together by the assertiveness of its narrative throughline and the lushness of its style, or a brilliant way of making viewers think differently about drama. Instead of seeing characters with nuanced needs and desires, the genre plays up internal contradictions that coincide with the viewer’s own. “On this view, the sympathetic, compassionate, or angry emotional intensity of ‘mass audience’ reactions to the film are based on blindness and gullibility. That is often the case, of course. For one thing there are hundreds of terrible, manipulative, thoughtless, but popular melodramas." However, Robert B. Pippin adds, “anyone, however “knowing,” who has ever teared up at the closing scene of Stella Dallas…or who felt so terrible for Annie when she shows up at Sarah Jane’s school with her rain boots in Imitation of Life knows that this neat division between knowing and unknowing cannot be the whole story.” (‘Love and Class in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows’)

      In the six examples under discussion, All That Heaven AllowsStella DallasWritten on the Wind, Imitation of Life, Now Voyager and Letter from an Unknown Woman, the obviousness contains the paradoxical and the perplexing, and this is one reason why filmmakers including Fassbinder, von Trier, Haynes and Almodovar would later turn to the melodrama through their interest in societal contradiction. It is as if Stella DallasAll That Heaven Allows and others determine to access the moral occult without feeling obliged to work through the deliberations of the dramatic, the sort of intelligent narrative explorations that differentiate drama from melodrama. Williams may be right to see that the melodramatic is the Hollywood model, but the difference between Twelve Angry MenThe SearchersOn the Waterfront and Vertigo and the melodramas we are exploring, is a heightening of drama without quite its exaggeration in the former films. Twelve Angry Men heightens the drama by making clear if the accused is sentenced he will face the chair. The jury must unanimously find him guilty and must find him so beyond a reasonable doubt. Make the story about a person who faces a modest fine and the procedural details lack underlying weight. Hollywood’s purpose has often been to make the story exciting by exaggerating the premise; this is why Williams could with some justification conflate the melodramatic with Hollywood drama. 

    Yet this is where Brooks’s useful term the moral occult comes in; where characters cannot believe any longer in the sacred but frequently act with the sense of sacrifice which in another age would have a spiritual or religious dimension. This is also self-sacrifice over sacrifice, an often oddly motivated act rather than an inevitable flaw that will destroy the character. Speaking of Rene Girard’s interest in sacrifice and victimhood, Eric Gans says, “because Rene Girard's anthropology makes sacrifice the prototypical act of human culture one might expect him to find the tragic genre particularly congenial.” Yet central to Girard’s argument is that the victim is without final agency; that the purpose of the tragedy is a ritual form that transcends its content. “Girard's formalism is radical. In his eyes, traditional criticism's strenuous efforts to define and differentiate personalities — to distinguish Oedipus' guilt from his fate, his hubris from his regal sense of responsibility, his worldly self-assurance from Tiresias' prophetic detachment or Creon's gray prudence — far from clarifying the nature of tragedy, it only helps preserve its sacrificial function by distracting us from the arbitrariness it shares with culture in general.” (‘Form Against Content: René Girard's Theory of Tragedy’) Tragic figures are finally scapegoat victims serving a purpose beyond the text. “Ideally, we would like to be able to articulate tragedy's relation to sacrifice in such a way”, Gans says, “as to explain how it incites us both to accept the necessity of the tragic hero's suffering and to condemn it as arbitrary.” It is necessary that the hero dies, and arbitrary perhaps because someone must die and the sacrifice is more important than anything that takes place within the play’s action. In melodrama, the catharsis functions quite differently. If ancient tragedy usually suggests the text functions as a warning that the citizens of the state can learn to avoid, in melodrama the purpose is affective, to elicit a compassionate, even a tearful response to events. 

   If we have noted the importance of various tropes the genre utilises, it is still important that we comprehend what they serve. What is it that makes melodrama drawn to self-sacrifice, which is vital to all the six films we are addressing? Stella gives up her daughter’s love to her offspring’s integration into society’s upper echelons; in Imitation of Life, the black mother accepts her much paler daughter’s dismay at having a mother who is so dark and retreats from her life. In Written on the Wind, the female lead character marries a broken man and hopes to fix him as the film gives the impression that she isn’t there for his huge wealth but for his enormous fragility. In Now Voyager, central character Charlotte Vale insists that she should devote herself to looking after the daughter of the man she loves who like Charlotte is the product of an unloved mother. Rather than focusing selfishly on her love for Jerry, she will redirect it into the self-sacrificing gesture of looking after another’s child. In All That Heaven Allows, Cary initially sacrifices Ron to her children but when the children reveal they don’t much care for their mother but are more concerned about the social disapproval, she decides to go with Ron. But this is cemented after the accident so that she can sacrifice herself to his presumed convalescence. In Letter from an Unknown Woman, the debauched central character reads a letter from the now-dead titular figure whom he knew briefly and who was the love of her life, and he accepts a duel from her husband as if honouring this memory that he can hardly recall but that permeated the woman’s existence thoroughly. He must know he will die in the duel but will be sacrificing himself to her memory.  

  There is often absurdity in these self-sacrifices: Peter Bradshaw says that in Now Voyager, “Charlotte’s plan will have to take the place of actually marrying Jerry, actually having his children, and yes, perhaps there is absurdity in it, examined in the cold light of day.” (Guardian) Much the same could be said of the endings to most of the others as well. Yet the absurd contains a principle that might be closer to a primary feeling. If tragedy wishes for us to comprehend, as if knowledge is power that can be practised to avoid the sort of mishaps characters undergo, then melodrama expects us to access feelings that are inaccessible in our daily lives but can be accessed by exaggerated emotion within the diegesis. Speaking of Stella Dallas, Stanley Cavell noted that Anna Sikolsky, who was attending Cavell’s seminar on the film, reckoned that the purpose of the movie was so that “Stella sees that she must teach Lauren to cry.” (Contesting Tears) And the viewer too, surely. 

        The same might be said of the other five films here even if they would be accessing those tears differently in each instance. Just as we would hope to understand the tropes that drive melodrama, and the fundamental purpose behind the genre that lies in self-sacrifice, so also would we wish to differentiate the intricacies of the affect produced. In Stella Dallas, we don’t cry with Lauren because we are aware that her mother is hurting her to protect her: to allow Lauren to have a better life with her father than she can have with her mother. The elaborate and messy mise en scene she creates in her apartment, her claim she will marry, is to push Lauren tearfully into her father’s arms. No, our tears will be reserved for Stella at the film’s conclusion when she watches the wedding ceremony from outside the window. In Imitation of Life, in contrast, the daughter’s tears will also be our own: she turns up at the funeral in a state of hysterics, aware that she has denied her mother for much of her life and now it is too late as she throws herself at the coffin.

        In Now Voyager, it is when Charlotte prioritises her need to look after his daughter over her claims on Jerry, and in Letter from an Unknown Woman it is when our self-regarding and now debauched pianist Stefan believes there was indeed a woman who loved him. Earlier in the film she says in the letter that he is in the process of reading that she wanted nothing from him assuming that all the other women whom he has been sleeping with have. She also then goes on to tell him they have a child together but that the boy is now dead, and that she too has passed away as he realises the letter he has been sent has come from someone who has herself been unable to deliver it. He has lost a lover and a child without realising he was briefly with a woman who had always cared for him at a moment when he no longer cared much for himself. Stefan will after reading the letter accept the duel with a man who at the beginning of the story, before the film moves into flashback through the letter, would have been deemed just another figure that Stefan had dishonoured by pursuing his wife. But this is now a man Stefan can see who has lost all he loved and the least Stefan can do is fight a duel he will almost certainly lose. (The husband is a military man.) 

   What seems to move us in these films is, then, the self-sacrificial over the sacrificial; the idea that someone will give up their autonomy, their passion, even their life for a higher purpose. This might be for a living person (as in Stella Dallas) or for the dead (as in Letter From an Unknown Woman). But what it will do is indicate there is more to the world than self-interest, even if at the same time it cannot be contained by community. This again might be a basic difference between melodrama and tragedy: that if Girard is right that sacrifice exists for the purposes of the community, then melodrama often predicates itself on its rejection or its division. It is partly why melodrama concerns itself with characters who are often comfortably enough off but not of significance. While tragedy concerns the lives of mythical or historical figures fighting over kingdoms (whether it be in Sophocles or Shakespeare), melodrama is at best an upper-middle-class concern. Even in Written on the Wind where the Hadleys’ oil wealth is immense, the film isn’t at all preoccupied with how this status impacts on the wider community. What matters is how damaged the son, Kyle is, how much his wife tries to love him for all his insecurities, and how Kyle’s best friend determines to help while all the time quietly coveting the wife he would be too honourable to seduce. Even if there are dilemmas (as there are in tragedy), they are usually no more than familial and shameful. When Kyle (Robert Stack) gets into a fight, friend Mitch (Rock Hudson) helps him out and he is left with the shame. It doesn’t start a feud between rival families and tear apart the community: it lacks the grandeur of King Lear and the damage his decision makes when dividing his kingdom; or when Oedipus isn’t just sleeping with his mother, he is also sleeping with the Queen consort. Even in All That Heaven Allows, the fight Ron is deemed to have started leaves people a little embarrassed but nothing else. The films are generally inconsequential.

   Yet this might seem odd. How are we so moved by material that we are claiming is of little significance? This is where perspectives come in: though the characters’ world doesn’t matter beyond their confines, it matters very much to them, and thus it matters to us. When it looks like Kyle can’t have children in Written on the Wind, it is a tragedy for him but we are using the word in a colloquial and personal sense rather than in ramifying terms. If Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy rather than a melodrama it is centrally because of its ramifications: that the characters fall in love despite coming from rival families and these families are violently feuding. Even the servants fight each other at the beginning of the play, and the love between the title characters cannot be innocent even if they happen to be. This seems very different from All That Heaven Allows where the people in the town who disapprove of Ron and Cary’s love are petty: the affair is of no consequence to anybody else, even to the children who are after all grown-up and wouldn’t be living with Ron even if Cary and Ron do share a home. We aren’t moved by Cary’s dilemma but by her self-sacrifice: that she rejects Ron because she doesn’t want to disappoint her children, only to find that this is a futile gesture since the kids won’t be hanging around. Their affair doesn’t impact on the community except as a mild affront. 

   Of the six films, the closest to the consequential is Imitation of Life, with the pale-skinned but black Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) aware that her mother’s active presence will lead to limitations placed upon it. When her mother Annie (Juanita Moore) turns up at school, the children realise she has a black parent; when her mother appears later in the film at a club, Sarah Jane loses her job. Yet the film moves us not because of Sarah Jane’s dilemma and the choices she has to make, but the choice that her mother makes in retreating from her life. Even though it would be insulting to underestimate the racial aspect to Sirk’s film, if it resembles so much Stella Dallas it rests on the dimension of retreat, where a mother is deemed an embarrassment to others. Sirk reckoned “the only interesting thing is the Negro angle: the Negro girl trying to escape her condition, sacrificing to her status in society her bonds of friendship, family, etc., and rather trying to vanish into the imitation….” (Sirk on Sirk) But if we are moved it rests more on Sarah Jane’s rejection of her mother over the problems she faces as a woman trying to be taken for white. Even the terrible scene where she gets beaten up by a blonde boyfriend, who is horrified he has been dating a black girl, adds to the feeling that Annie has to let her child go. Yet the film moves us based on her mother’s self-sacrifice and not Sarah Jane’s difficult choices. The film reveals that while Sarah Jane has been trying to imitate a white life, her mother has been living a very rich black one — evident in the closing scene within the black community. 

       It is Annie’s funeral but Sirk insists it is much more than that — it is also the delineation of a world that has been important to Annie for many years, but that the film has chosen to ignore just as the other characters have ignored it. When Annie tells Lora (Lana Turner), the woman who she has worked for and lived with over the years, as Lora has gone on to become a huge film star, that she belongs to the Baptist church, several lodges and has many friends, Lora looks surprised and said she never knew that. Annie says as politely as she can that Lora never asked. When Annie talks about the big funeral she wants, her wish becomes the film’s command as it offers as grand a ceremony as Annie would have demanded. It shows that black life in the fifties was very rich indeed and that Sarah Jane’s rejection of it has led to a series of humiliations, as opposed to the pride she could have had being part of this community, and thus being able to accept her mother. In a beautiful scene when Sarah Jane sees Annie alive for the last time, Annie visits her at her hotel room and a fellow dancer comes in and assumes Annie to be the maid. Annie plays along, and Sarah Jane in tears doesn’t deny it when the colleague says she had a mammy. The colleague takes it to mean a maid; Sarah Jane acknowledges the woman as her mother in the despair she feels, but not quite in what she reveals — she has asked Annie to leave and not come back. It is as moving a scene as the film’s conclusion. Yet the difference is between disavowal and acceptance. If melodrama can be seen as a genre of manipulated emotion, it does not demand manipulating us in the same way. Sarah Jane rejects her mother as a living woman and we are moved; she accepts her as a dead one and we are no less tearful.    

    Perhaps the difference rests on the cathartically contained and the cathartically released: that in the former scene, the viewer is left to understand the difficulty of Sarah Jane’s position and the terrible rejection Annie must feel. But it is a dilemma emotion — the complex response one may have to an incompatible reality. The film proposes that in 50s America if Sarah Jane wants to get on, she doesn’t need a black mother present who reveals her colour as viewers may wonder what aspects of their pasts they have covered up to succeed; what accent have they hidden; what family members wouldn’t they invite to a party that includes work colleagues, maybe one’s boss? If someone claims Sirk exaggerates the emotion, he might say that this was the US in the fifties and that the hyperbole wasn’t his but the culture’s: that if America insists on being a racist society, it is Sirk’s purpose to (melo)dramatise it. As Sirk says, “you can’t escape what you are. Now the Negroes are waking up to black is beautiful. Imitation of Life is a picture about the situation of the blacks before the time of the slogan ‘Black is Beautiful’.” (Sirk as Sirk)  

    Some might disagree and see, as Bosley Crowther did, that “this modernized remake of Miss Hurst's frankly lachrymose tale is much the same as its soggy predecessor. It is the most shameless tear-jerker in a couple of years.” (New York Times) Sirk is doing nothing more than hiding behind the race question as it offers chiefly melodramatic form. But rather than seeing melodrama as an opportunistic genre as Crowther suggests, better to see it as an opportunity to reveal the cultural problematic in emphatic form, all the better to access an emotion that might only be registered morally otherwise. To help us here let us think of Giant as a film that could be included in melodrama but which we might wish to resist incorporating. Crowther, praising Giant, said it “takes three hours and seventeen minutes to put [the] story across. That's a heap of time to go on about Texas, but [ director, George] Stevens has made a heap of film.” (New York Times) Like Imitation of LifeGiant can be seen as a film about racial justice. Firstly, the wife of the central character’s cattle baron, Bick, insists their doctor helps one of the Mexican children whose family works for the rancher. Much later, as an adult, the boy goes off to fight in WWII and comes back in a coffin. The film gives several minutes to the funeral but it lacks the emotion Sirk extracts, even if it is a fine and noble scene, respectful and dignified. 

        The director George Stevens would have been deemed a more respectable filmmaker than Sirk at this time, the director of A Place in the Sun and Shane, and Giant won Stevens Best Director Oscar (his second) while three years later Sirk wasn’t even nominated — he never was. Imitation of Life was given just two nominations: interestingly for Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner. But what we want to suggest is Giant hasn’t only rejected sentiment, it has also curtailed correlative feeling. It is very difficult for the viewer to identify with the tragic death because the film has given us almost no relationship with the young man who has died. We see him as a child, we see him go off to war, and we see him return no longer alive but it has been the white family’s troubles the viewer has been shown; not this boy’s Hispanic one. Oddly, Stevens offers us a funeral without a life. When Sirk gives us Annie’s funeral at the end of his film, we have an enormous sense of an inner existence that has been given outer form; Annie’s earlier remark about her involvement with the church is shown in all its manifold expansiveness as Mahalia Jackson and a gospel choir sing, and thousands of people attend the ceremony. And there Sarah Jane is, arriving late as if ashamed and destroyed by grief. Stevens’ scene is unlikely to move us though it is very well done, and perhaps for Crowther and others this notion of seeing the skill with which it is put together, as it utilises the train arriving with the idea the son will be on it (a newspaper headline says he will be returning), and pulling away to show the coffin, wrapped in stars and stripes against a darkening sky, proposes an emotionally modest aesthetic, one that asks for our engagement but doesn’t insist on our tears. However, one may wonder if Stevens has done so through relative failure rather than success, and someone looking at the film from a race perspective may see that the director has shown concern but not quite identification. If Sirk insists that the race angle is what interests him he shows it in the attention he gives to the emotional heft of Annie and Sarah Jane’s scenes. 

    Here we can think again of parallel scenes: Sarah Jane getting beaten up by a boyfriend who realises she isn’t white; Bick defending an Hispanic family after his own half-Mexican son has been insulted, and the other family has been told to leave just after they arrive. In Giant, there is very little at stake, with Bick taking on the diner’s owner in a lengthy fistfight that ends with Bick narrowly defeated and with a sign thrown at his chest saying “we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” The scene is efficiently done, using depth of field well as we see in the background of the shot Bick looking on as the Mexican family are asked to leave, and uses ironically ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ before the fight and then during it. But next to the scene where Sarah Jane gets beaten, it seems weak and under-dramatized, no different from any number of sequences where someone gets into a bar brawl. In Imitation of Life, we see Sarah Jane reflected in the mirror as her beau asks her in derogatory terms if it is true that her mother is black. The scene moves between the reflection and the street, with hectic jazz playing loudly on the soundtrack, while Sarah Jane and her boyfriend’s voices compete with the music. The scene is at least as well-crafted and thought through as the one in Giant, but while we have no interest dramatically in the family Bick defends, Sirk insists we melodramatically identify with Sarah Jane here. It helps give justification to rejecting her mother if this is what she is subject to when people know of her bloodline. We might say that this bloodline is something Sarah Jane ought to be proud of and this pride is precisely what the film shows in the funeral scene. But that would demand a different life than the one she has thus chosen, and where she has been brought up looking white and in a white household.

     In both instances, in the funeral sequence and the beating scene, Sirk has insisted we identify with the loss of the mother and the predicament of the daughter and no such identification is offered towards the Hispanic boy who dies in the war, nor the family in the diner in Stevens’ film. In Giant, there is social concern but in Sirk’s there is something more, the moral occultism if we accept Brooks's definition of “basic desires being central to it.” (The Melodramatic Imagination) This means the film activates the viewer’s emotional needs over their ethical preoccupations, relying on the sort of fellow feeling that has us cowering with Sarah Jane when she is beaten, and tearful as she arrives at the funeral. This doesn’t mean the emotion extracted isn’t greater than the emotions Sarah Jane offers. Many will be in tears before she turns up as Jackson sings, but the film wishes to generate identification over compassion, concern or empathy. If the genre can often appear crude it rests on how it achieves this, and yet one reason why it can also be deemed sophisticated resides in a mise-en-scene that reflects these feelings. For some this might appear overkill, that we both are with the character and watching a visual correlation that matches it. Crowther reckoned Written on the Wind wasn’t helped by the fact the “sloppy, self-pitying fellow at the center of the whole thing is a bore”, but it may have been the film’s visual sympathy to that self-pity that he was railing against, and that was also evident for the other rich self-pitying character too: Kyle's sister Marylee Dorothy Malone). That Marylee pines for Mitch is unequivocal but she doesn’t only show her desire, the film insists on showing it too — in the photograph of Mitch we see in certain shots in her room, in the shot where we see of Marylee and Mitch’s initials etched on a tree from many years before, and in the flowers in her room as symbols of her affection. Melodrama doesn’t do understatement; it instead elaborates on overstatement as it forces the viewer to see visual manifestations of affect, ones much greater than merely signs

   This is an important aspect of Sirk’s work, and more generally of melodrama. By insisting on symbols, melodrama can be seen as a correlative to Catholicism and partly why we might wish to disagree with Brooks when he says that melodrama is a desacralised form. It instead perhaps re-sacralises it, offering a post-Christ religiosity not only because self-sacrifice replaces sacrifice, with Christ’s sacrificial autonomy much greater than such old testament figures as Job and Isaac or those figures from ancient tragedy. But this Catholic aspect is also in the films’ interest in mise en scene as symbolic space, seeing that the film wants the viewer to read the images as much through the rooms the characters occupy as through the words they express, and the body language they offer. It generates tautological feeling. Like Catholicism, it wishes to emphasise self-sacrifice through exaggeration. “Not incidentally, rococo is an aesthetic that, although it would ultimately be embraced throughout the West, finds its origins in Catholic culture.” (JstorDaily) Ed Simon adds, “there is, I would argue, an unspoken set of theological-aesthetic commitments that have prejudiced the Anglo-American public into interpreting that which can be read as “Catholic” (or “ethnic”) as kitsch, and that which is Protestant—with its clean lines and unadornment—as the paragon of sensible good taste.” (JstorDaily) Robert B. Pippin invokes kitsch when saying: "in Sirk’s case the films manage both to indulge the audience’s expectations for melodrama, often satisfying them, even as the technique and style exaggerate those conventions, sometimes garishly, often bordering on kitsch…” (‘Love and Class in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows’)

    If we accept that Catholicism offers a greater mise en scene than Protestantism, if we accept too that Jesus is the biblical figure most consistent with self-sacrifice, then we should remember that the person in the bible most famous for his tears is surely Jesus, and we have not only the sentence, “now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’” When Jesus sees her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her are also weeping, Jesus is deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled." We also have the simple line “Jesus wept.” It is as if Christ is not only the person most allied to self-sacrifice in the bible but also the one who is most clearly linked to compassion and tears, vital dimensions to melodrama of course. Yet at the same time, just as Catholicism has built an elaborate mise-en-scene in places of worship that has many regarding the faith as kitsch, so the genre developed a taste for overstatement that we wouldn’t just be witnessing signs of a character’s affections, but that the director would insist on their elaboration. In All That Heaven Allows, Sirk shows, in the characters’ rich colour-coded costumes, that they wear their feelings on their sleeve, their collar and their breast. The sleeveless red dress Cary wears in the first party scene in All that Heaven Allows may be deemed a sign by the lecherous Harvey that he can make a pass, even if we might see it as the first signs of Cary’s attempt to get over grieving her husband, and be aware it comes not long after she has had a tea in her garden with Ron. In Written on the Wind, Lucy (Lauren Bacall) wears a lovely white dress that captures ambivalently an innocence in the colour and sophistication in the cut — a sleeveless plunge design. Kyle watches her dancing with Mitch and seems to see hypocrisy (that apparent innocence) and seduction (that cut). This isn’t only about the costumes of course but evident in the artificiality of the film’s look. When Cary visits Ron’s home after he has done it up and made it a fit place for the pair of them to live, Sirk offers it in a two-tone colour scheme with warm, autumnal beiges and browns near the fire, and cold, arctic blues nearer the window. Will Cary go for the warmth of the hearth and the loving embrace of Ron, or will she retreat into icy solitude of relative safety that she has become used to sharing with her family and community since her husband died? As Ron holds Cary while they stand against the light of the window, he says “you’re running away from something important because you are afraid.” If Catholicism is the most emphatic of religions in its mise en scene, melodrama is the most emphatic of genres.

    Even in perhaps the most subdued of the melodramas we are looking at, the monochrome Letter from an Unknown Woman, we can almost read the central character’s feelings through her dress sense and director Max Ophuls’ camera movements. While a drama like Giant insists on subduing its emotional tenor with a deep focus distance that leaves characters slightly adrift in the environments they are caught in, using colour neutrally and feeling abstractly, melodrama insists on layering the predictability of its content so that, if its meaning isn’t quite comprehended in one way, it will almost certainly be understood in another. In Letter from an Unknown Woman, after Stefan (Louis Jordan) and Lisa (Joan Fontaine) kiss in his apartment, the screen goes dark, the music crescendoes and then the film cuts to Lisa, trying on a new costume in a shop as we see her in the changing room half-dressed. It makes sense that we see her in such a state of undress after she has slept with Stefan, but not before. It adds to our understanding that she is now a sexually free woman; that she is no longer a virgin that she still was only a scene or two earlier where we have seen her on the fairground train, twirling a flower and retreating into her seat opposite Stefan. The hat, the scarf, the buttoned-up puff blouse all suggest a woman not yet fully sexualised. As for Ophuls’ camera, watch as it follows Lisa’s curiosity after she sneaks into Stefan’s apartment early in the film, or following the harried movements of her stepfather at the train station as he intends to take the family away from Vienna. 

   Yet there can also be formal economy within what might seem like the excess of mise en scene. All That Heaven Allows, starts in fall and ends in winter, suggesting just how quickly these characters have fallen in love and how many emotions have been stirred up like the autumn leaves. The obviousness of such an image is nevertheless contained by a feeling that such images — leaves, wind, snow and ice — aren’t easily reversible. That if Sirk's film had started in winter and jumped to the following Autumn, it may have seemed both too long a period, and done damage to its image structure. Just because an image can seem obvious doesn’t mean it isn’t appropriate. V. F. Perkins explores this appropriateness well when writing at length on the formal properties of Letter from an Unknown Woman, saying “the challenge to the film is to arrive at order and comprehensibility without falling into an impoverishing neatness. It is vital to its effect that it should not solicit a literal reading of its devices.” (‘Same tune Again! Repetition and framing in Letter From an Unknown Woman’) Later in the essay, Perkins notes that a shot we see earlier in Letter From an Unknown Woman is repeated almost identically later on. The title character returns to her old apartment in Vienna hoping to see the man she adores and sees him coming into the block with one of the many women he takes home with him. Lisa views the assignation from above as Stefan and the lover make their way up to his apartment. Later in the film, the same point of view is adopted when Lisa and Stefan meet years later and they finally have an affair (though he is oblivious to her earlier younger incarnation). Nobody is now watching, but the viewer may wonder how special Lisa is in Stefan’s life when we see this shot repeated. We might not remember specifically the earlier camera movement but we subconsciously may be aware that when Lisa looked on it was clear to us that Stefan is a man given to constant dalliances. The repeated shot could make us think that Lisa is no more special, and if she could see herself as she manages to see others, from a higher vantage point, she would see that she is just another woman passing through Stefan’s apartment. Perkins’ exploration is formally complex but for our needs, all we need to say is that melodrama can be tautological without being obvious, that it can make its form present without the viewer always immediately comprehending its implications. 

  This can work too in a quite different way, and Pippin discusses the genre’s capacity for irony without claiming that this is based on withholding information from the characters but instead insistently revealing it. “Now, how a cinematic style can suggest irony, how what we are shown can suggest how much in what is shown is not immediately obvious and is easy to miss, is perhaps even the contrary of what is most easily taken in, is a fascinating topic.” Pippin adds, “one thing it does not mean, although it is often taken this way, is that what is not obvious is hidden, not there on the surface. As we shall see in discussing the film, Ron’s smirk, the ladies reading Henry David Thoreau, their mink coats, the clothes they wear are all right there, on the surface." "Another thing that invoking irony need not mean," Pippin says, "is that an appeal is made to two different audiences for a film: a knowing or savvy viewer who sees the point of melodramatic excess, understands it as critique; and a mass audience not in on the joke.” (’Love and Class in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows’)

    What Perkins and Pippin see is the importance of form as evidence of the self-reflexive without either undermining the affect the work produces. Just as nobody is going to be any the less a Catholic because of the signs of Catholicism all around them, so a melodrama viewer needn’t be any the less inclined to cry because the film is peppered with symbolic self-awareness, deliberate camera work and references to Another Way of Life in capital letters. The question might be why, if so often self-reflexivity is in danger of undermining affect. Many works of post-modern cinema leave the viewer appreciating ironic distance over emotional engagement, and this would include work by Peter Greenaway, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman. While we wouldn’t want to say people aren’t shocked or expectant by a scene in Tarantino or moved at all in a scene by Anderson, it would seem the absorption of a post-modern aesthetic into the continuation of affect is most in evidence when melodrama is retained: in Far From HeavenAll About My MotherDancer in the Dark — in what we might call neo-melodrama. 

  The reason for this is twofold and allows us to return to our initial delineation, and also our most fundamental claim. Melodrama is a genre full of tropes that the viewer can immediately recognise, but they also serve a principle that can be easily felt on the level of emotional resonance. When in Written on the Wind, Kyle shows Lucy the exorbitantly luxurious hotel room she will be staying in after whisking her away on his private jet, it is an exaggerated version of seductive power. But in its way, when Ron shows Cary his place done up in All that Heaven Allows it functions similarly. Here are men willing to show their feelings in the mise-en-scene they have paid for or created and Sirk says that he is willing to match their meaningful manipulations with his own. When we see the hotel suite in Written on the Wind it is hard not to laugh, but Sirk well knows this is only an exaggerated version of the wish many have of hoping a person will declare their love boldly. Equally, when in Stella Dallas, Stella struts around the health club in the most over-the-top gear, the film knows that while we are aware of how tasteless her dress sense happens to be, haven’t we all at one point worn clothing that has retrospectively embarrassed or ashamed us, or witnessed a loved one doing so? We might watch the scene and think, this is the moment where Stella really makes a fool of herself, a scene the film has been building towards and where the trope of character embarrassment becomes most pronounced. But this is also the scene that will conjure up various memories too. It is exactly this that Cavell invokes when he speaks of his mother and her asking how she looked and invoked Stella Dallas— “as if one lapse in judgement could reconfigure how she would be perceived.” (Contested Tears)  

    We have noted other instances of various tropes: the ugly duckling turned into a swan, with nobody better exemplifying this transformation than Charlotte in Now Voyager. The yearning lover who can never quite let go is captured by Lisa in Letter from an Unknown Woman as well as any other character in fiction, even if it is based on Stefan Zweig’s story, and may resemble Tolstoy’s Anna KareninaStella Dallas is the ultimate mother who will do what she has to do for her daughter, and Annie in Imitation of Life exemplifies the painful realisation that one’s child is dismayed by their bloodline. We can think too of the melodramatic humiliation of the rich Marylee after she is rejected yet again by Mitch in Written on the Wind; the melodramatic confession when in Now Voyager Charlotte says to her handsome lover that the dowdy woman in the photo he sees is her not so long ago. It can be the melodramatic humiliation, with Kyle in Written on the Wind getting beaten up by a local in a bar only for Mitch to come and protect him. It can be the melodramatic revelation — with a man obliviously womanising his way through life only to realise that a woman he may have been able to love has loved him all along but he never knew it, and now she is dead. (Letter From an Unknown Woman) In each instance, the tropes used allow for a morally occult expression that would have been muted with a less excessive realisation. But if it were only for this end, one still might find the films brilliantly shallow. They would be eliciting strong feeling, though they wouldn’t be sitting behind a strong principle. However, behind all these films is the notion of self-sacrifice. 

    Does this make these films the equal of tragedy? Can we put Imitation of LifeStella Dallas, Written on the WindAll That Heaven AllowsNow Voyager and Letter From an Unknown Woman on the same level as MedeaOedipus RexAntigone and others? This is the sort of question Cavell addresses not so much in Contested Tears, but in his examination of remarriage comedies, The Pursuits of Happiness, when he says, “…I am not claiming that these films of remarriages [His Girl Friday, It Happened One Night, The Awful Truth] are as good as Shakespearean romantic comedies. Not that this is much of a disclaimer: practically nothing else is as good either.” Yet it is also one the novelist Dag Solstad investigates through his fictional central character in Professor Andersen’s Night and finds himself wondering if this is less the problem of art’s increasing mediocrity but of art as temporal. “When were you last strongly stirred by watching or reading a Greek tragedy? I mean really stirred, shaken to the depths of your being”, Andersen asks a colleague as "he had the suspicion that human consciousness was not sufficient to create works of art fit to survive their own period.” While Cavell tries to justify a place for works that mean so much to him that were made during his lifetime, and that he thinks can be talked of as seriously as Shakespeare, Solstad might reply that Cavell would in some ways probably be taking them more seriously than Shakespeare since they are coincident with his own life. If we accept that tragedy, according to Girard, is shaped around sacrifice and a scapegoat mechanism that must find victims all the better to purge the community of feelings that could be dangerous if not thus expunged, melodrama, if we are right, is built upon self-sacrifice, in believing that we would sacrifice ourselves to others we love all the better to express how we feel. Usually, the sacrifice is far less great than in tragedy (characters in melodrama rarely lose their lives and if they do it is not because they are deemed sacrificial), and the action is frequently far more autonomous. Stella’s self-sacrifice isn’t extreme; it is exaggerated — an important distinction perhaps if we are to view extremity as the subjugated and the exaggerated as no more than the excessively altruistic. Equally, Ron’s determination to do up the mill and turn it into a home with such rapidity is exaggerated, Kyle’s expenditure at the beginning of Written on the Wind too, Charlotte’s insistence in Now Voyager that she devote the next few years of her life to looking after someone else’s child is also. 

   If viewers are moved by such displays of emotion, it isn’t only due to the monstrous manipulations of melodramatic moviemakers. It is also surely that such gestures chime with the times that we are living in, however narrow or expansive we will view this epoch. Some might insist it is a Christian ethos, and thus expands two thousand years. Others will see it as one that covers the West but not cultures from elsewhere. One might say it is no more than the history of Hollywood cinema, and that Williams is right to see most American films falling into the melodramatic mode. Still others will say it is a specific, small genre of films made chiefly between the end of the thirties and the end of the fifties. If we have chosen to focus on films from this period that doesn’t mean we believe the affect is only pertinent to it, otherwise why are viewers still moved by these films today? Yet we might notice that the ironies and contradictions critics insisted on seeing when rewatching the films in the ‘70s and ‘80s was their way of making the films pertinent to their moment, as if they couldn’t quite take the work at face value and emphasised the political element over the affective intensity. Laura Mulvey noted, “there is a dizzy satisfaction in witnessing the way that sexual difference under patriarchy is fraught, explosive, and erupts dramatically into violence within its own private stamping-ground, the family” and says too that “Sirk ironises and complicates the theme of the continued sexuality of mothers.” (‘Notes on Sirk and Melodrama’) Christine Gledhill reckoned, “…as feminists, I think, we often want to take the world of melodrama at face value, rather than as offering absurd, overblown plots or blatant ideology to be undermined by the transgressions of mise-en-scene. But as feminist film theorists, we have little reason to suppose that the seductive portrayal of highly recognizable female conflicts can somehow escape the working of the Hollywood machine and patriarchy.” (‘Stella Dallas and Feminist Film Theory’) 

   Often the films were viewed through the prism of Marxism and Feminism, Freud and patriarchy. This didn’t mean they couldn’t be seen affectively, but it was as though the focus on seeing them as both of their time (the forties and fifties), and the critics’ time (the seventies and eighties), meant the fundamental significance of the work was of less importance than the re-interpretive faculty. The advantage of Cavell’s various takes on the melodrama in Contesting Tears and later Cities of Words is their refusal, or indifference, or dismissal, of the discourse that built up around melodrama during this period. Though he mentions Mulvey in both books, it is for her famous essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’ but it is also perhaps as a way of talking about a large body of film theory that he sees as missing the point. “One of the most influential ideas in film studies during the 1980s and beyond (associated particularly with the work of Laura Mulvey) was that (especially Hollywood) films have been made under the sign of satisfying and ratifying the patriarchal, male gaze.” Cavell insists: “Apart from contesting the evidence for this claim, I have proposed that film assaults the human sensorium at a more primitive level…” (Cities of Words) Melodrama cannot only be justified based on its contradictions, irony and critique of patriarchy; many a bad film that needn’t move us at all can do that. One needs to take seriously its primary affect and its first principle: to accept that we as individual viewers are moved to tears, and muse over why that may be so in works that appear to lack the significance of tragedy and do not appear to entertain the psychological and formal complexity to be found in more or less contemporaneous works by Bergman, Resnais, Bunuel and others. 

   Perhaps in conclusion we don’t want to take them as seriously as ancient tragedy, and maybe viewers would be better attending to films that ask us to understand aspects of our contemporary self that don’t invoke tears but instead perplexity; that muse over our condition rather than narrativising just an aspect of it into the emotionally unequivocal. We needn’t elevate even the best melodramas like Letter from an Unknown Woman and Imitation of Life to the level of L’avventura, Belle de JourPersona and Le Mepris. But what we must at least do is recognise the works’ capacity for the profound on their own terms. What these terms are cannot be separated from what these films do; how they make us feel. At one moment in Contesting Tears, Cavell speaks of Freud and says: “what is at stake is whether psychoanalysis is inheritable — you may say repeatable — as science is inheritable, our modern paradigm for the teachable.” One way of viewing this is to say yes — if given a certain cinematographic form. What the tropes help release are the tears the audience expects to shed. If this can’t be repeatable, the film doesn’t pass for the weepie that is central to its genrefication. Not everybody will cry watching Imitation of LifeNow Voyager or Stella Dallas, and some will cry at films that aren’t generically tear-jerking (Elephant ManParis, TexasMy Dinner with Andre). Nevertheless, genres function centrally off the repeatable, a sort of halfway house between the repeatable experiments of science, and the difficulties of a specific session when visiting a therapist. If melodrama is the genre most closely affiliated with psychoanalysis as the sentimental (just as horror is the genre most closely associated with psychoanalysis as fear), then nobody can go into a session expecting the results they would from a weepie or a horror film. Yet thinking of the weepie in the context of tears, why do therapists usually have hankies to hand in their offices, if there isn’t the likelihood that their clients will access the emotions that require, like the weepie, the wiping of the ducts? A headline on an article in Psychology Today offers: “The Tissue Issue: Klein and Kleenex.” It is of course interesting too that cinema coincided with the development of psychoanalysis, both products of the 1890s. 

    However, if genre allows for the repeatable, it doesn’t allow for the scientific except in specific forms and this is where manipulation meets excitation as, for some, behaviourism was deemed more useful than psychoanalysis. Instead of the reservoirs of feeling potentially extracted by a generic work that hopes the tropes will release an emotion, behaviourism was the dominant tradition in American psychology in the 20th century, in the century of cinema. it was pioneered by John B. Watson and became especially identified with B.F. Skinner. As William Davies notes, “It was established with the explicit aim of rendering human responses predictable and thereby controllable.” (London Review of Books) How behaviourist or psychoanalytic cinema happens to be needn’t be seen as an either/or but as a continuum that leads to higher or lower degrees of probability. The jump scare or startle effect in horror films expects us to jump; the end of Imitation of Life or Stella Dallas would like us to cry. But if the former assumes no personal history of feeling as it gets you to scream in horror (even if your susceptibility may have personal roots), the weepie surmises that we will be more inclined to allow the genre to pass through our emotional histories in comprehending the diegetic loss. Cavell provocatively sees Contesting Tears through the prism of his mother, and in the last paragraph of the book speaks of his mother’s mood: ‘somehow associated with the demand to be noticed (perhaps with its explicit failure; perhaps with the implicit failure of having to demand it).’ It is a provocation to write a work of film/philosophy predicated on one’s mother, though Cavell might say something in the genre demands it. This isn’t so much because the genre is repeatable, more that it is accessible: it can more easily than most access the emotional demands of the psychoanalytic session and make them repeatable generically if not categorically so, if not scientifically.

      In conclusion, there are potentially two positions on the genre that could be taken here. One concerns itself with what the genre is doing and the other with what the viewer is feeling. We have claimed melodrama developed numerous tropes to create a generic code we can comprehend, and maybe even laugh just a little to ourselves at the predictability of their appearance: the humiliating beating, the transformative change; the convenient accident and so on. But they are serving a function that gets at the significance of self-sacrifice in our culture just as Girard insists that sacrifice was central to earlier civilisations, (and still of course present in different ways in our time). That helps explain what the genre is doing but there is what the viewer is feeling. This is the psychoanalytic element of the genre; what it manages to find in our tearfulness. As Pippin says: films are frequently “…based on blindness and gullibility. That is often the case, of course. For one thing there are hundreds of terrible, manipulative, thoughtless, but popular melodramas. But anyone, however “knowing,” who has ever teared up at the closing scene of Stella Dallas or who was stunned and ecstatic at the reappearance of the transformed Bette Davis in Now, Voyager or who felt so terrible for Annie when she shows up at Sarah Jane’s school with her rain boots in Imitation of Life, knows that this neat division between knowing and unknowing cannot be the whole story.” (‘Love and Class in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows’) Just because the films use conventions, doesn’t mean they cannot use them for un-ironic ends. If we had the conventions without self-sacrifice perhaps we would find them more risible than tearful. If they didn’t manage to allude to the self-sacrifices that we know parents have made for their children, and the self-sacrifices children have made for their parents in trying to be the child the parents wish them to be, and husbands for wives and wives for husbands, then the films would seem like hysterical oddities, creating echo chamber affects that needn’t find their way into the audience’s preoccupations. 

     A viewer who watches melodrama for a laugh, even potentially one who watches melodrama for the ‘contradictions’ Mulvey and others note, wouldn’t be attending to the complexity of the work nor the complexity of their feelings that are evoked in the watching of the films. Indeed, what might be so interesting about melodrama is that the complexities on screen are relatively undemanding. Next to a film by Bergman, Tarkovsky or Haneke, the works are in common parlance easy to watch. They aren’t even difficult to follow, like The Big Sleep or Night Moves. But they are often oddly emotionally demanding, as though the genre understands that to expect an audience to cry is likely to involve activating aspects of one’s memory that aren’t regularly sourced. If we can talk of the self-sacrificial aspect and how the films explore familial renunciation, we may ask how rarely families discuss openly the pockets of feeling that have gone into love, how rarely families cry together about these self-sacrifices, as opposed to how often they argue amongst themselves. Linda Williams speaks of Italian critic Franco Moretti’s claim that literature which “makes us cry operates via a special manipulation of temporality: what triggers our crying is not just the sadness or suffering of the character in the story but a very precise moment when characters in the story catch up and realise what the audience already knows.” (Film Bodies/Genre, Genre and Excess). It is a valid claim, especially for Letter from an Unknown Woman and Imitation of Life, for Stefan and for Sarah Jane. But maybe what melodrama invokes rather than just presents (since this same claim couldn’t be made about All That Heaven Allows and Stella Dallas, which might move the viewer as much as the other films), is the realisation of regret, of a temporal catastrophe. It is a common enough claim that people wish they had said certain things before a relationship failed, a parent passed away, or a spouse died. Melodrama is the genre where such things are said, however belatedly, all the better so that the viewer accepts, or is resigned to, their inability to say the things themselves. It is a paradoxical genre of the said and unsaid, of the films saying quite explicitly, in dramatic content and in costume, music and (often) colour, what the viewers may struggle to say to their loved ones - even if they might share a tear in the auditorium or on the couch with the family members who are represented by those on screen. 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Melodrama

The Effectiveness of Affect

The tropes of Melodrama might be a useful way to start an essay that wishes to marry aspects of the debate surrounding Melodrama as a genre, explored by Thomas Elsaesser, Christine Gledhill and others, and the Melodramatic, including ideas by Peter Brooks and Linda Williams. It is also a way into the genre that will later allow us to find a first principle that distinguishes it not just from drama but more especially tragedy.

We can start by thinking of one of the great fifties melodramas, All that Heaven Allows, and see its use of several tropes, tics, affective motifs, or whatever we wish to call them. Best, for now, to describe them as affective motifs as we wish to rescue a genre of films that starts more or less with Stella Dallas in 1937 and concludes with Imitation of Life in 1959. Often these affective motifs can seem crude, though one should be wary of calling them ironic or self-mocking. They allow the film in Peter Brooks' terms to achieve the moral occult, a mode of catharsis quite distinct from tragedy but also a profound feeling that can be accessed in a world that is no longer sacred. Brooks is talking about melodrama's appearance after the French Revolution: "the heightening and hyperbole, the polarized conflict, the menace and suspense of the representations may be made necessary by the effort to perceive and image the spiritual in a world voided of its traditional Sacred, where the body of the ethical has become a sort of deus absconditus, which must be sought for, populated, brought into man's existence through the play of the spiritualist imagination." Brooks describes this as "a repository of the fragmentary and desacralized remnants of sacred myth. It bears comparison to unconscious mind, for it is a sphere of being where our most basic desires and interdictions lie..." (The Melodramatic Imagination) The affective motif allows for the accessing of the excessive, the need to push drama into its melodramaic components all the better to discover this de-sacralised (or perhaps re-sacralised) mind and its most basic desires. One can laugh at these moments and view them with dramatic sobriety, seeing in melodrama a drunken feeling that is embarrassing and obvious. But that would be to take them in a different spirit; and deny them their intoxicating effect for a dry irony.

Here are several of these affective motifs from All that Heaven Allows. First, we have the melodramatic pass which is paralleled later by the melodramatic touch. In this story of a widow with two grown-up college kids, Cary (Jane Wyman) goes to a party and gets harassed by the local debauch, who forces a clumsy kiss on her lips. She pulls away, horrified. After all, Howard is a married man, with children, and the audience isn't supposed to see a character; they are seeing a type. Howard is the type of man who leches after woman and we might be surprised by Cary's shock. This is what Howard does and everyone knows it. Amid the pass, the film cuts away to a couple of Cary's friends discussing Howard, with one of them noting that his wife must be either stupid or a saint, a stay-at-home spouse who allows her husband out at night. Like much in melodrama it wants us to believe contrary assumptions simultaneously: Howard is a well-known pest, and Cary is surprised by his actions. We may laugh at melodrama partly because it wants it both ways to the detriment of dramatic consistency. But the purpose of the genre is to access an affective throughline and it will be happy to sacrifice immediate psychological plausibility for such ends.

What matters is that Cary is appalled by the obviousness of Howard's behaviour and it contrasts nicely with the moment when her gardener Ron (Rock Hudson) shows her around his run-down mill house. She starts to go up to the attic and a bird appears, Cary staggers back and falls into Ron's arms. It is a moment of melodramatic contingency as they touch, a scene when chance brings them into close contact even if we are inclined to see less contingency than the mechanics of melodramatic predictability. We can snigger and refuse the feeling. But the film wishes to make clear this is the moment Cary begins to fall indeed, and Ron looks at her with the firm gaze of the man who knows he has found the woman he wants to spend his life with. As he says shortly afterwards, when Cary says he should do the place up when he meets a nice girl. "I've met plenty of girls," he tells her while looking at Cary as though she might be the only one who will count.

What the scene tells us is that these are characters who may need a nudge from chance but, after that, the responsibility is their own. Ron doesn't engineer this moment and even warns Cary: "it's pretty dirty, cobwebs and dust." Yet when she does fall he wants to make the most of this most happy of accidents. In such a moment, the viewer needs to be both wise to Sirk's manipulations of convention and thrilled by Ron's gallantry and strength. To turn such a scene into an overly ironic one, to see Ron as more knowing than he is would be an error. What matters is the balance between the conventions Sirk uses and the feelings he accesses. If we impose an ironic response to the conventions and laugh at how conveniently Ron gets to hold Cary, we are denying the film its power. The melodramatic touch should be felt by the viewer, not mocked. What Sirk shows are two characters who societal convention will not allow to go together but that melodrama can conjoin. If a vital aspect to the genre is yearning, as opposed to the melodramatic, which is a need to escalate the event, then the melodramatic touch allows the manifestation of this yearning as we accept the characters' desire for each other to come from a chance instance. Sirk says that "the picture is about the antithesis of Thoreau's qualified Rousseauism and established American society." (Sirk on Sirk)

Bringing one character, who is trying to live close to nature, and another, who is inculcated in the upper echelons of her society, together, needs what we could call an objective catalytic. That might be a fancy term for contingency but it can have its uses when thinking about how cinema generates situations. Most films offer catalytic subjectivity and this is partly how the melodramatic works: you create villains who want to murder, steal, cheat, and you then need heroes who aim to thwart such villainous desires. It doesn't tend to rely on chance and so if we are reluctant to find amusing such moments of serendipity which allows Cary to fall into Ron's arms, it rests on seeing how cinema can use a convention that needn't be a clear product of character. Sirk offers the scene to show that a bourgeois widow and her younger gardener can fall in love - and illustrates this initial moment by Cary falling into Ron's arms after the bird dismays her and she loses her balance.

Later, as it looks like Ron and Cary will break up, Ron says that she is running away from something important because she is afraid. As she leaves, she knocks over a Wedgewood teapot Ron had spent days and days finding the pieces for after earlier Cary talked about how lovely it was if only it could be fixed. As it shatters how can we not see this as evidence of how fragile their love happens to be, even though Ron has worked hard to hold it together? Yet we should be wary of calling this clumsy symbolism and view it instead as part of Sirk's imagistic hyperbole. The film wants constantly to propose heightened emotion through heightened mise en scene. After the teapot breaks, the film cuts to a medium shot of Ron coming towards Cary in shadowy profile as we note the whole scene has relied on shadows, silhouettes and artificial lighting all the better to convey the tenor of a sequence that foreshadows difficulties ahead. Robert B. Pippin notes, it would be wrong to suggest that All That Heaven Allows and others are "...best characterised simply as a negatively ironic depiction of such impossibility. In the first place, the irony is not mocking or sarcastic. Many of the characters are well-meaning and earnest, even if also fit subjects for an ironic treatment, for our never taking at face value what they say and do." Pippin adds, "that is, aside from the purely visual dimensions of ironythat dimension of artificial color, lighting, and the close-up overheated expressions of emotionthere is a subtler dimension of such estranging irony." ('Love and Class in Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows') In Sirk's films and many melodramas, everything potentially becomes symbolic or hyperbolic which might be the same thing.

Later in the film, we have another trope: the melodramatic misunderstanding - Cary and Ron have decided to break up. Ron generates a scene (subjectively catalytic) at a party defending Cary from the lech's further advances and, when she returns home, the son shows strong disapproval after meeting Ron earlier that evening before Ron and Cary went out. At Christmas, Cary is ordering a tree from outside a store and she sees Ron and says hello. They talk, there is still chemistry, and then a woman shows up, moving close to Ron, and Cary assumes this is his new girlfriend. It turns out she isn't but it both retards the plot and leaves Cary sad until she discovers from a friend of Ron's that the other woman is getting married and not to Ron. Cary took for a lover what was simply a friend. It is quite understandable she does so; the body language the woman offers indicates someone intimate with the man she is standing next to, but let us put that aside and see it as the misunderstanding the film insists it was. It means Cary and Ron can see each other again, especially now that we have witnessed that her children, for all their umbrage over Ron's presence, aren't going to be around much themselves. The son even suggests they sell the house. The obstacles of true love have been removed, but not before Ron's fall.

Near the end of the film, we have the melodramatic accident. Cary goes to Ron's place but turns away before knocking. Ron isn't in but he sees her from up on the hill. He shouts down but she doesn't hear him, and as he tries to get down to the house before she drives off he loses his footing on the snow and falls hard in a halfway house between the objectively and subjectively catalytic. At the end of the film, Cary is back, Ron is convalescing on the couch, and Cary tells the doctor that she will give him the rest and care he needs. What makes the accident melodramatic is the regretful pathos it seeks from Cary driving off and Ron trying to get her attention. It is causal but it feels as though the cause is secondary to the affect: that Sirk wishes the viewer to see how silly she is and how much Ron cares about her. He could have had the accident a couple of days later but melodrama wishes to generate exaggeration and intensification. As Thomas Elsaesser says: "when in ordinary language we call something melodramatic, what we often mean is an exaggerated rise-and-fall pattern in human actions and emotional responses, a from-the-sublime-to-the-ridiculous movement, a foreshortening of lived time in favor of intensityall of which produces a graph of much greater fluctuation, a quicker swing from one extreme to the other than is considered natural, realistic, or in conformity with literary standards of verisimilitude: in the novel we like to sip our pleasures rather than gulp them." ('Tales of Sound and Fury')

Elsaesser says this is a central aspect of the melodramatic while we only wish for the moment to say it is an important element of melodrama. This is a potential risk since by trying to differentiate melodrama from the melodramatic we are in danger of underestimating how melodramatic most Hollywood films are, a point well-made by Linda Williams when she says: "melodrama is the fundamental mode of popular American moving pictures...melodrama is a peculiarly democratic and American form that seeks dramatic revelation of moral and emotional truths through a dialectic of pathos and action." ('Melodrama Revised') Williams is generally right but if we still wish to find out what melodrama as a genre is during a certain period in American film, such a claim won't help much though it would help enormously if we wished to differentiate European film from American movies. Melodrama as a genre seems to take this general dramatic emphasis that both Williams and Elsaesser see, and gives it a form. Nobody mastered that form more than Sirk, and yet to help us understand how this was achieved, we will leave Sirk aside for a moment and say a few words about Stella Dallas, and one particular scene, and the context around it. By doing so, we can comprehend better the melodramatic motifs that we have thus far described, and why a filmmaker would use them.

Halfway through Stella Dallas, the title character takes her daughter to an upmarket health resort and dresses so garishly that everyone present laughs at her without Stella apparently noticing. In a series of collective reactions shots, the film shows us how out of place Stella happens to be even if she is doing her best to look her best and to fit into an environment that promptly rejects her. There are various ways to read this scene but, if we were to see it psychologically, it is implausible. Stella is a dressmaker, and the costumes she makes for her daughter are tasteful enough for Lauren to fit smoothly into various upmarket environments including this one. She was also married to a man (Lauren's father) from a fine background and while he tried to turn her into a refined figure, she remained obstinate and the couple broke up. Yet while she may have wished to reject her husband's pushy, whiny ways, it would have been surprising if she hadn't learnt a little about how she was expected to behave. She would surely be aware that her clothes would be mocked at the spa.

Stanley Cavell reckons that Stella is more sophisticated than the scene ostensibly proposes. He disagrees with Williams' claim that at the resort Stella is "oblivious as ever to the shocking effect of her appearance." He reckons of the various occasions where he sees Stella giving offence, the one at the spa hotel is ..."the only event...in which she scandalously flaunts the excessive piling on of ornamentation." (Contesting Tears) It might seem like a scene shortly afterwards contradicts Cavell's reading: on the sleeper train back, Lauren and her mother are in bunk beds and overhear various girls from the spa discussing the vulgar one who happened to be Lauren's mother. The film cuts from the girls speaking back to Stella (and later Lauren) listening, and Stella looks dismayed. However, we might wonder whether her horror rests on the vulgarity the girls are acknowledging, and to which she was oblivious, or whether she is aware that she dressed so crudely all the better to create distance between her and Lauren. The horror would thus be that of awareness; not her prior obliviousness. By the end of the film, Lauren will marry into great wealth and her mother will watch from outside the house along with other, poorer onlookers. But while we might be moved by Stella's absence, at her apparent pariah status, she looks almost triumphant. For all the sadness she would feel estranged from her daughter, she is happy that her plan has worked. She has socially engineered Lauren into serious money by insisting that she has herself been a no-good mother. After all, we have earlier seen her give Lauren the impression that she was seeing her fun but oafish drunken friend, whom she said she was going to marry, left her flat in a mess, and dressed as meretriciously as she did at the resort. Lauren was thus horrified, left and went back to her father's place.

If we think about Stella Dallas (and nobody gives it more thought than Cavell), we see a film that is either hopelessly incoherent or insistently attending to the viewer's ambivalence. In addressing Williams' comments on the film, Cavell sees inconsistency: that Williams argues Stella is "oblivious as ever" in the spa scene while earlier arguing that Stella is "increasingly flaunting an exaggeratedly feminine presence that the community would prefer not to see." ('Melodrama Revised') One could mock Williams for her contradictions but Cavell sees this isn't a failing on Williams' part, especially. It is more the uncertainties the film provokes. "I am attributing the cause of ambivalence not to Stella's struggle but ours in perceiving it. This is by no means to deny that Stella's struggle can include more pain than we might imagine." (Contesting Tears)

By exaggerating the film's form, melodrama often creates a potentially complex and odd set of motivations the more we think about them. The film can then be seen as a hopeless muddle held together by the assertiveness of its narrative throughline and the lushness of its style, or a brilliant way of making viewers think differently about drama. Instead of seeing characters with nuanced needs and desires, the genre plays up internal contradictions that coincide with the viewer's own. "On this view, the sympathetic, compassionate, or angry emotional intensity of 'mass audience' reactions to the film are based on blindness and gullibility. That is often the case, of course. For one thing there are hundreds of terrible, manipulative, thoughtless, but popular melodramas. However, Robert B. Pippin adds, "anyone, however "knowing," who has ever teared up at the closing scene of Stella Dallas...or who felt so terrible for Annie when she shows up at Sarah Jane's school with her rain boots in Imitation of Life knows that this neat division between knowing and unknowing cannot be the whole story." ('Love and Class in Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows')

In the six examples under discussion, All That Heaven Allows, Stella Dallas, Written on the Wind, Imitation of Life, Now Voyager and Letter from an Unknown Woman, the obviousness contains the paradoxical and the perplexing, and this is one reason why filmmakers including Fassbinder, von Trier, Haynes and Almodovar would later turn to the melodrama through their interest in societal contradiction. It is as if Stella Dallas, All That Heaven Allows and others determine to access the moral occult without feeling obliged to work through the deliberations of the dramatic, the sort of intelligent narrative explorations that differentiate drama from melodrama. Williams may be right to see that the melodramatic is the Hollywood model, but the difference between Twelve Angry Men, The Searchers, On the Waterfront and Vertigo and the melodramas we are exploring, is a heightening of drama without quite its exaggeration in the former films. Twelve Angry Men heightens the drama by making clear if the accused is sentenced he will face the chair. The jury must unanimously find him guilty and must find him so beyond a reasonable doubt. Make the story about a person who faces a modest fine and the procedural details lack underlying weight. Hollywood's purpose has often been to make the story exciting by exaggerating the premise; this is why Williams could with some justification conflate the melodramatic with Hollywood drama.

Yet this is where Brooks's useful term the moral occult comes in; where characters cannot believe any longer in the sacred but frequently act with the sense of sacrifice which in another age would have a spiritual or religious dimension. This is also self-sacrifice over sacrifice, an often oddly motivated act rather than an inevitable flaw that will destroy the character. Speaking of Rene Girard's interest in sacrifice and victimhood, Eric Gans says, "because Rene Girard's anthropology makes sacrifice the prototypical act of human culture one might expect him to find the tragic genre particularly congenial." Yet central to Girard's argument is that the victim is without final agency; that the purpose of the tragedy is a ritual form that transcends its content. "Girard's formalism is radical. In his eyes, traditional criticism's strenuous efforts to define and differentiate personalities to distinguish Oedipus' guilt from his fate, his hubris from his regal sense of responsibility, his worldly self-assurance from Tiresias' prophetic detachment or Creon's gray prudence far from clarifying the nature of tragedy, it only helps preserve its sacrificial function by distracting us from the arbitrariness it shares with culture in general." ('Form Against Content: Ren Girard's Theory of Tragedy') Tragic figures are finally scapegoat victims serving a purpose beyond the text. "Ideally, we would like to be able to articulate tragedy's relation to sacrifice in such a way", Gans says, "as to explain how it incites us both to accept the necessity of the tragic hero's suffering and to condemn it as arbitrary." It is necessary that the hero dies, and arbitrary perhaps because someone must die and the sacrifice is more important than anything that takes place within the play's action. In melodrama, the catharsis functions quite differently. If ancient tragedy usually suggests the text functions as a warning that the citizens of the state can learn to avoid, in melodrama the purpose is affective, to elicit a compassionate, even a tearful response to events.

If we have noted the importance of various tropes the genre utilises, it is still important that we comprehend what they serve. What is it that makes melodrama drawn to self-sacrifice, which is vital to all the six films we are addressing? Stella gives up her daughter's love to her offspring's integration into society's upper echelons; in Imitation of Life, the black mother accepts her much paler daughter's dismay at having a mother who is so dark and retreats from her life. In Written on the Wind, the female lead character marries a broken man and hopes to fix him as the film gives the impression that she isn't there for his huge wealth but for his enormous fragility. In Now Voyager, central character Charlotte Vale insists that she should devote herself to looking after the daughter of the man she loves who like Charlotte is the product of an unloved mother. Rather than focusing selfishly on her love for Jerry, she will redirect it into the self-sacrificing gesture of looking after another's child. In All That Heaven Allows, Cary initially sacrifices Ron to her children but when the children reveal they don't much care for their mother but are more concerned about the social disapproval, she decides to go with Ron. But this is cemented after the accident so that she can sacrifice herself to his presumed convalescence. In Letter from an Unknown Woman, the debauched central character reads a letter from the now-dead titular figure whom he knew briefly and who was the love of her life, and he accepts a duel from her husband as if honouring this memory that he can hardly recall but that permeated the woman's existence thoroughly. He must know he will die in the duel but will be sacrificing himself to her memory.

There is often absurdity in these self-sacrifices: Peter Bradshaw says that in Now Voyager, "Charlotte's plan will have to take the place of actually marrying Jerry, actually having his children, and yes, perhaps there is absurdity in it, examined in the cold light of day." (Guardian) Much the same could be said of the endings to most of the others as well. Yet the absurd contains a principle that might be closer to a primary feeling. If tragedy wishes for us to comprehend, as if knowledge is power that can be practised to avoid the sort of mishaps characters undergo, then melodrama expects us to access feelings that are inaccessible in our daily lives but can be accessed by exaggerated emotion within the diegesis. Speaking of Stella Dallas, Stanley Cavell noted that Anna Sikolsky, who was attending Cavell's seminar on the film, reckoned that the purpose of the movie was so that "Stella sees that she must teach Lauren to cry." (Contesting Tears) And the viewer too, surely.

The same might be said of the other five films here even if they would be accessing those tears differently in each instance. Just as we would hope to understand the tropes that drive melodrama, and the fundamental purpose behind the genre that lies in self-sacrifice, so also would we wish to differentiate the intricacies of the affect produced. In Stella Dallas, we don't cry with Lauren because we are aware that her mother is hurting her to protect her: to allow Lauren to have a better life with her father than she can have with her mother. The elaborate and messy mise en scene she creates in her apartment, her claim she will marry, is to push Lauren tearfully into her father's arms. No, our tears will be reserved for Stella at the film's conclusion when she watches the wedding ceremony from outside the window. In Imitation of Life, in contrast, the daughter's tears will also be our own: she turns up at the funeral in a state of hysterics, aware that she has denied her mother for much of her life and now it is too late as she throws herself at the coffin.

In Now Voyager, it is when Charlotte prioritises her need to look after his daughter over her claims on Jerry, and in Letter from an Unknown Woman it is when our self-regarding and now debauched pianist Stefan believes there was indeed a woman who loved him. Earlier in the film she says in the letter that he is in the process of reading that she wanted nothing from him assuming that all the other women whom he has been sleeping with have. She also then goes on to tell him they have a child together but that the boy is now dead, and that she too has passed away as he realises the letter he has been sent has come from someone who has herself been unable to deliver it. He has lost a lover and a child without realising he was briefly with a woman who had always cared for him at a moment when he no longer cared much for himself. Stefan will after reading the letter accept the duel with a man who at the beginning of the story, before the film moves into flashback through the letter, would have been deemed just another figure that Stefan had dishonoured by pursuing his wife. But this is now a man Stefan can see who has lost all he loved and the least Stefan can do is fight a duel he will almost certainly lose. (The husband is a military man.)

What seems to move us in these films is, then, the self-sacrificial over the sacrificial; the idea that someone will give up their autonomy, their passion, even their life for a higher purpose. This might be for a living person (as in Stella Dallas) or for the dead (as in Letter From an Unknown Woman). But what it will do is indicate there is more to the world than self-interest, even if at the same time it cannot be contained by community. This again might be a basic difference between melodrama and tragedy: that if Girard is right that sacrifice exists for the purposes of the community, then melodrama often predicates itself on its rejection or its division. It is partly why melodrama concerns itself with characters who are often comfortably enough off but not of significance. While tragedy concerns the lives of mythical or historical figures fighting over kingdoms (whether it be in Sophocles or Shakespeare), melodrama is at best an upper-middle-class concern. Even in Written on the Wind where the Hadleys' oil wealth is immense, the film isn't at all preoccupied with how this status impacts on the wider community. What matters is how damaged the son, Kyle is, how much his wife tries to love him for all his insecurities, and how Kyle's best friend determines to help while all the time quietly coveting the wife he would be too honourable to seduce. Even if there are dilemmas (as there are in tragedy), they are usually no more than familial and shameful. When Kyle (Robert Stack) gets into a fight, friend Mitch (Rock Hudson) helps him out and he is left with the shame. It doesn't start a feud between rival families and tear apart the community: it lacks the grandeur of King Lear and the damage his decision makes when dividing his kingdom; or when Oedipus isn't just sleeping with his mother, he is also sleeping with the Queen consort. Even in All That Heaven Allows, the fight Ron is deemed to have started leaves people a little embarrassed but nothing else. The films are generally inconsequential.

Yet this might seem odd. How are we so moved by material that we are claiming is of little significance? This is where perspectives come in: though the characters' world doesn't matter beyond their confines, it matters very much to them, and thus it matters to us. When it looks like Kyle can't have children in Written on the Wind, it is a tragedy for him but we are using the word in a colloquial and personal sense rather than in ramifying terms. If Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy rather than a melodrama it is centrally because of its ramifications: that the characters fall in love despite coming from rival families and these families are violently feuding. Even the servants fight each other at the beginning of the play, and the love between the title characters cannot be innocent even if they happen to be. This seems very different from All That Heaven Allows where the people in the town who disapprove of Ron and Cary's love are petty: the affair is of no consequence to anybody else, even to the children who are after all grown-up and wouldn't be living with Ron even if Cary and Ron do share a home. We aren't moved by Cary's dilemma but by her self-sacrifice: that she rejects Ron because she doesn't want to disappoint her children, only to find that this is a futile gesture since the kids won't be hanging around. Their affair doesn't impact on the community except as a mild affront.

Of the six films, the closest to the consequential is Imitation of Life, with the pale-skinned but black Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) aware that her mother's active presence will lead to limitations placed upon it. When her mother Annie (Juanita Moore) turns up at school, the children realise she has a black parent; when her mother appears later in the film at a club, Sarah Jane loses her job. Yet the film moves us not because of Sarah Jane's dilemma and the choices she has to make, but the choice that her mother makes in retreating from her life. Even though it would be insulting to underestimate the racial aspect to Sirk's film, if it resembles so much Stella Dallas it rests on the dimension of retreat, where a mother is deemed an embarrassment to others. Sirk reckoned "the only interesting thing is the Negro angle: the Negro girl trying to escape her condition, sacrificing to her status in society her bonds of friendship, family, etc., and rather trying to vanish into the imitation...." (Sirk on Sirk) But if we are moved it rests more on Sarah Jane's rejection of her mother over the problems she faces as a woman trying to be taken for white. Even the terrible scene where she gets beaten up by a blonde boyfriend, who is horrified he has been dating a black girl, adds to the feeling that Annie has to let her child go. Yet the film moves us based on her mother's self-sacrifice and not Sarah Jane's difficult choices. The film reveals that while Sarah Jane has been trying to imitate a white life, her mother has been living a very rich black one evident in the closing scene within the black community.

It is Annie's funeral but Sirk insists it is much more than that it is also the delineation of a world that has been important to Annie for many years, but that the film has chosen to ignore just as the other characters have ignored it. When Annie tells Lora (Lana Turner), the woman who she has worked for and lived with over the years, as Lora has gone on to become a huge film star, that she belongs to the Baptist church, several lodges and has many friends, Lora looks surprised and said she never knew that. Annie says as politely as she can that Lora never asked. When Annie talks about the big funeral she wants, her wish becomes the film's command as it offers as grand a ceremony as Annie would have demanded. It shows that black life in the fifties was very rich indeed and that Sarah Jane's rejection of it has led to a series of humiliations, as opposed to the pride she could have had being part of this community, and thus being able to accept her mother. In a beautiful scene when Sarah Jane sees Annie alive for the last time, Annie visits her at her hotel room and a fellow dancer comes in and assumes Annie to be the maid. Annie plays along, and Sarah Jane in tears doesn't deny it when the colleague says she had a mammy. The colleague takes it to mean a maid; Sarah Jane acknowledges the woman as her mother in the despair she feels, but not quite in what she reveals she has asked Annie to leave and not come back. It is as moving a scene as the film's conclusion. Yet the difference is between disavowal and acceptance. If melodrama can be seen as a genre of manipulated emotion, it does not demand manipulating us in the same way. Sarah Jane rejects her mother as a living woman and we are moved; she accepts her as a dead one and we are no less tearful.

Perhaps the difference rests on the cathartically contained and the cathartically released: that in the former scene, the viewer is left to understand the difficulty of Sarah Jane's position and the terrible rejection Annie must feel. But it is a dilemma emotion the complex response one may have to an incompatible reality. The film proposes that in 50s America if Sarah Jane wants to get on, she doesn't need a black mother present who reveals her colour as viewers may wonder what aspects of their pasts they have covered up to succeed; what accent have they hidden; what family members wouldn't they invite to a party that includes work colleagues, maybe one's boss? If someone claims Sirk exaggerates the emotion, he might say that this was the US in the fifties and that the hyperbole wasn't his but the culture's: that if America insists on being a racist society, it is Sirk's purpose to (melo)dramatise it. As Sirk says, "you can't escape what you are. Now the Negroes are waking up to black is beautiful. Imitation of Life is a picture about the situation of the blacks before the time of the slogan 'Black is Beautiful'." (Sirk as Sirk)

Some might disagree and see, as Bosley Crowther did, that "this modernized remake of Miss Hurst's frankly lachrymose tale is much the same as its soggy predecessor. It is the most shameless tear-jerker in a couple of years." (New York Times) Sirk is doing nothing more than hiding behind the race question as it offers chiefly melodramatic form. But rather than seeing melodrama as an opportunistic genre as Crowther suggests, better to see it as an opportunity to reveal the cultural problematic in emphatic form, all the better to access an emotion that might only be registered morally otherwise. To help us here let us think of Giant as a film that could be included in melodrama but which we might wish to resist incorporating. Crowther, praising Giant, said it "takes three hours and seventeen minutes to put [the] story across. That's a heap of time to go on about Texas, but [ director, George] Stevens has made a heap of film." (New York Times) Like Imitation of Life, Giant can be seen as a film about racial justice. Firstly, the wife of the central character's cattle baron, Bick, insists their doctor helps one of the Mexican children whose family works for the rancher. Much later, as an adult, the boy goes off to fight in WWII and comes back in a coffin. The film gives several minutes to the funeral but it lacks the emotion Sirk extracts, even if it is a fine and noble scene, respectful and dignified.

The director George Stevens would have been deemed a more respectable filmmaker than Sirk at this time, the director of A Place in the Sun and Shane, and Giant won Stevens Best Director Oscar (his second) while three years later Sirk wasn't even nominated he never was. Imitation of Life was given just two nominations: interestingly for Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner. But what we want to suggest is Giant hasn't only rejected sentiment, it has also curtailed correlative feeling. It is very difficult for the viewer to identify with the tragic death because the film has given us almost no relationship with the young man who has died. We see him as a child, we see him go off to war, and we see him return no longer alive but it has been the white family's troubles the viewer has been shown; not this boy's Hispanic one. Oddly, Stevens offers us a funeral without a life. When Sirk gives us Annie's funeral at the end of his film, we have an enormous sense of an inner existence that has been given outer form; Annie's earlier remark about her involvement with the church is shown in all its manifold expansiveness as Mahalia Jackson and a gospel choir sing, and thousands of people attend the ceremony. And there Sarah Jane is, arriving late as if ashamed and destroyed by grief. Stevens' scene is unlikely to move us though it is very well done, and perhaps for Crowther and others this notion of seeing the skill with which it is put together, as it utilises the train arriving with the idea the son will be on it (a newspaper headline says he will be returning), and pulling away to show the coffin, wrapped in stars and stripes against a darkening sky, proposes an emotionally modest aesthetic, one that asks for our engagement but doesn't insist on our tears. However, one may wonder if Stevens has done so through relative failure rather than success, and someone looking at the film from a race perspective may see that the director has shown concern but not quite identification. If Sirk insists that the race angle is what interests him he shows it in the attention he gives to the emotional heft of Annie and Sarah Jane's scenes.

Here we can think again of parallel scenes: Sarah Jane getting beaten up by a boyfriend who realises she isn't white; Bick defending an Hispanic family after his own half-Mexican son has been insulted, and the other family has been told to leave just after they arrive. In Giant, there is very little at stake, with Bick taking on the diner's owner in a lengthy fistfight that ends with Bick narrowly defeated and with a sign thrown at his chest saying "we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone." The scene is efficiently done, using depth of field well as we see in the background of the shot Bick looking on as the Mexican family are asked to leave, and uses ironically 'The Yellow Rose of Texas' before the fight and then during it. But next to the scene where Sarah Jane gets beaten, it seems weak and under-dramatized, no different from any number of sequences where someone gets into a bar brawl. In Imitation of Life, we see Sarah Jane reflected in the mirror as her beau asks her in derogatory terms if it is true that her mother is black. The scene moves between the reflection and the street, with hectic jazz playing loudly on the soundtrack, while Sarah Jane and her boyfriend's voices compete with the music. The scene is at least as well-crafted and thought through as the one in Giant, but while we have no interest dramatically in the family Bick defends, Sirk insists we melodramatically identify with Sarah Jane here. It helps give justification to rejecting her mother if this is what she is subject to when people know of her bloodline. We might say that this bloodline is something Sarah Jane ought to be proud of and this pride is precisely what the film shows in the funeral scene. But that would demand a different life than the one she has thus chosen, and where she has been brought up looking white and in a white household.

In both instances, in the funeral sequence and the beating scene, Sirk has insisted we identify with the loss of the mother and the predicament of the daughter and no such identification is offered towards the Hispanic boy who dies in the war, nor the family in the diner in Stevens' film. In Giant, there is social concern but in Sirk's there is something more, the moral occultism if we accept Brooks's definition of "basic desires being central to it." (The Melodramatic Imagination) This means the film activates the viewer's emotional needs over their ethical preoccupations, relying on the sort of fellow feeling that has us cowering with Sarah Jane when she is beaten, and tearful as she arrives at the funeral. This doesn't mean the emotion extracted isn't greater than the emotions Sarah Jane offers. Many will be in tears before she turns up as Jackson sings, but the film wishes to generate identification over compassion, concern or empathy. If the genre can often appear crude it rests on how it achieves this, and yet one reason why it can also be deemed sophisticated resides in a mise-en-scene that reflects these feelings. For some this might appear overkill, that we both are with the character and watching a visual correlation that matches it. Crowther reckoned Written on the Wind wasn't helped by the fact the "sloppy, self-pitying fellow at the center of the whole thing is a bore", but it may have been the film's visual sympathy to that self-pity that he was railing against, and that was also evident for the other rich self-pitying character too: Kyle's sister Marylee Dorothy Malone). That Marylee pines for Mitch is unequivocal but she doesn't only show her desire, the film insists on showing it too in the photograph of Mitch we see in certain shots in her room, in the shot where we see of Marylee and Mitch's initials etched on a tree from many years before, and in the flowers in her room as symbols of her affection. Melodrama doesn't do understatement; it instead elaborates on overstatement as it forces the viewer to see visual manifestations of affect, ones much greater than merely signs.

This is an important aspect of Sirk's work, and more generally of melodrama. By insisting on symbols, melodrama can be seen as a correlative to Catholicism and partly why we might wish to disagree with Brooks when he says that melodrama is a desacralised form. It instead perhaps re-sacralises it, offering a post-Christ religiosity not only because self-sacrifice replaces sacrifice, with Christ's sacrificial autonomy much greater than such old testament figures as Job and Isaac or those figures from ancient tragedy. But this Catholic aspect is also in the films' interest in mise en scene as symbolic space, seeing that the film wants the viewer to read the images as much through the rooms the characters occupy as through the words they express, and the body language they offer. It generates tautological feeling. Like Catholicism, it wishes to emphasise self-sacrifice through exaggeration. "Not incidentally, rococo is an aesthetic that, although it would ultimately be embraced throughout the West, finds its origins in Catholic culture." (JstorDaily) Ed Simon adds, "there is, I would argue, an unspoken set of theological-aesthetic commitments that have prejudiced the Anglo-American public into interpreting that which can be read as "Catholic" (or "ethnic") as kitsch, and that which is Protestantwith its clean lines and unadornmentas the paragon of sensible good taste." (JstorDaily) Robert B. Pippin invokes kitsch when saying: in Sirk's case the films manage both to indulge the audience's expectations for melodrama, often satisfying them, even as the technique and style exaggerate those conventions, sometimes garishly, often bordering on kitsch..." ('Love and Class in Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows')

If we accept that Catholicism offers a greater mise en scene than Protestantism, if we accept too that Jesus is the biblical figure most consistent with self-sacrifice, then we should remember that the person in the bible most famous for his tears is surely Jesus, and we have not only the sentence, "now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, 'Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.'" When Jesus sees her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her are also weeping, Jesus is deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. We also have the simple line "Jesus wept." It is as if Christ is not only the person most allied to self-sacrifice in the bible but also the one who is most clearly linked to compassion and tears, vital dimensions to melodrama of course. Yet at the same time, just as Catholicism has built an elaborate mise-en-scene in places of worship that has many regarding the faith as kitsch, so the genre developed a taste for overstatement that we wouldn't just be witnessing signs of a character's affections, but that the director would insist on their elaboration. In All That Heaven Allows, Sirk shows, in the characters' rich colour-coded costumes, that they wear their feelings on their sleeve, their collar and their breast. The sleeveless red dress Cary wears in the first party scene in All that Heaven Allows may be deemed a sign by the lecherous Harvey that he can make a pass, even if we might see it as the first signs of Cary's attempt to get over grieving her husband, and be aware it comes not long after she has had a tea in her garden with Ron. In Written on the Wind, Lucy (Lauren Bacall) wears a lovely white dress that captures ambivalently an innocence in the colour and sophistication in the cut a sleeveless plunge design. Kyle watches her dancing with Mitch and seems to see hypocrisy (that apparent innocence) and seduction (that cut). This isn't only about the costumes of course but evident in the artificiality of the film's look. When Cary visits Ron's home after he has done it up and made it a fit place for the pair of them to live, Sirk offers it in a two-tone colour scheme with warm, autumnal beiges and browns near the fire, and cold, arctic blues nearer the window. Will Cary go for the warmth of the hearth and the loving embrace of Ron, or will she retreat into icy solitude of relative safety that she has become used to sharing with her family and community since her husband died? As Ron holds Cary while they stand against the light of the window, he says "you're running away from something important because you are afraid." If Catholicism is the most emphatic of religions in its mise en scene, melodrama is the most emphatic of genres.

Even in perhaps the most subdued of the melodramas we are looking at, the monochrome Letter from an Unknown Woman, we can almost read the central character's feelings through her dress sense and director Max Ophuls' camera movements. While a drama like Giant insists on subduing its emotional tenor with a deep focus distance that leaves characters slightly adrift in the environments they are caught in, using colour neutrally and feeling abstractly, melodrama insists on layering the predictability of its content so that, if its meaning isn't quite comprehended in one way, it will almost certainly be understood in another. In Letter from an Unknown Woman, after Stefan (Louis Jordan) and Lisa (Joan Fontaine) kiss in his apartment, the screen goes dark, the music crescendoes and then the film cuts to Lisa, trying on a new costume in a shop as we see her in the changing room half-dressed. It makes sense that we see her in such a state of undress after she has slept with Stefan, but not before. It adds to our understanding that she is now a sexually free woman; that she is no longer a virgin that she still was only a scene or two earlier where we have seen her on the fairground train, twirling a flower and retreating into her seat opposite Stefan. The hat, the scarf, the buttoned-up puff blouse all suggest a woman not yet fully sexualised. As for Ophuls' camera, watch as it follows Lisa's curiosity after she sneaks into Stefan's apartment early in the film, or following the harried movements of her stepfather at the train station as he intends to take the family away from Vienna.

Yet there can also be formal economy within what might seem like the excess of mise en scene. All That Heaven Allows, starts in fall and ends in winter, suggesting just how quickly these characters have fallen in love and how many emotions have been stirred up like the autumn leaves. The obviousness of such an image is nevertheless contained by a feeling that such images leaves, wind, snow and ice aren't easily reversible. That if Sirk's film had started in winter and jumped to the following Autumn, it may have seemed both too long a period, and done damage to its image structure. Just because an image can seem obvious doesn't mean it isn't appropriate. V. F. Perkins explores this appropriateness well when writing at length on the formal properties of Letter from an Unknown Woman, saying "the challenge to the film is to arrive at order and comprehensibility without falling into an impoverishing neatness. It is vital to its effect that it should not solicit a literal reading of its devices." ('Same tune Again! Repetition and framing in Letter From an Unknown Woman') Later in the essay, Perkins notes that a shot we see earlier in Letter From an Unknown Woman is repeated almost identically later on. The title character returns to her old apartment in Vienna hoping to see the man she adores and sees him coming into the block with one of the many women he takes home with him. Lisa views the assignation from above as Stefan and the lover make their way up to his apartment. Later in the film, the same point of view is adopted when Lisa and Stefan meet years later and they finally have an affair (though he is oblivious to her earlier younger incarnation). Nobody is now watching, but the viewer may wonder how special Lisa is in Stefan's life when we see this shot repeated. We might not remember specifically the earlier camera movement but we subconsciously may be aware that when Lisa looked on it was clear to us that Stefan is a man given to constant dalliances. The repeated shot could make us think that Lisa is no more special, and if she could see herself as she manages to see others, from a higher vantage point, she would see that she is just another woman passing through Stefan's apartment. Perkins' exploration is formally complex but for our needs, all we need to say is that melodrama can be tautological without being obvious, that it can make its form present without the viewer always immediately comprehending its implications.

This can work too in a quite different way, and Pippin discusses the genre's capacity for irony without claiming that this is based on withholding information from the characters but instead insistently revealing it. "Now, how a cinematic style can suggest irony, how what we are shown can suggest how much in what is shown is not immediately obvious and is easy to miss, is perhaps even the contrary of what is most easily taken in, is a fascinating topic." Pippin adds, "one thing it does not mean, although it is often taken this way, is that what is not obvious is hidden, not there on the surface. As we shall see in discussing the film, Ron's smirk, the ladies reading Henry David Thoreau, their mink coats, the clothes they wear are all right there, on the surface. Another thing that invoking irony need not mean, Pippin says, is that an appeal is made to two different audiences for a film: a knowing or savvy viewer who sees the point of melodramatic excess, understands it as critique; and a mass audience not in on the joke." ('Love and Class in Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows')

What Perkins and Pippin see is the importance of form as evidence of the self-reflexive without either undermining the affect the work produces. Just as nobody is going to be any the less a Catholic because of the signs of Catholicism all around them, so a melodrama viewer needn't be any the less inclined to cry because the film is peppered with symbolic self-awareness, deliberate camera work and references to Another Way of Life in capital letters. The question might be why, if so often self-reflexivity is in danger of undermining affect. Many works of post-modern cinema leave the viewer appreciating ironic distance over emotional engagement, and this would include work by Peter Greenaway, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman. While we wouldn't want to say people aren't shocked or expectant by a scene in Tarantino or moved at all in a scene by Anderson, it would seem the absorption of a post-modern aesthetic into the continuation of affect is most in evidence when melodrama is retained: in Far From Heaven, All About My Mother, Dancer in the Dark in what we might call neo-melodrama.

The reason for this is twofold and allows us to return to our initial delineation, and also our most fundamental claim. Melodrama is a genre full of tropes that the viewer can immediately recognise, but they also serve a principle that can be easily felt on the level of emotional resonance. When in Written on the Wind, Kyle shows Lucy the exorbitantly luxurious hotel room she will be staying in after whisking her away on his private jet, it is an exaggerated version of seductive power. But in its way, when Ron shows Cary his place done up in All that Heaven Allows it functions similarly. Here are men willing to show their feelings in the mise-en-scene they have paid for or created and Sirk says that he is willing to match their meaningful manipulations with his own. When we see the hotel suite in Written on the Wind it is hard not to laugh, but Sirk well knows this is only an exaggerated version of the wish many have of hoping a person will declare their love boldly. Equally, when in Stella Dallas, Stella struts around the health club in the most over-the-top gear, the film knows that while we are aware of how tasteless her dress sense happens to be, haven't we all at one point worn clothing that has retrospectively embarrassed or ashamed us, or witnessed a loved one doing so? We might watch the scene and think, this is the moment where Stella really makes a fool of herself, a scene the film has been building towards and where the trope of character embarrassment becomes most pronounced. But this is also the scene that will conjure up various memories too. It is exactly this that Cavell invokes when he speaks of his mother and her asking how she looked and invoked Stella Dallas "as if one lapse in judgement could reconfigure how she would be perceived." (Contested Tears)

We have noted other instances of various tropes: the ugly duckling turned into a swan, with nobody better exemplifying this transformation than Charlotte in Now Voyager. The yearning lover who can never quite let go is captured by Lisa in Letter from an Unknown Woman as well as any other character in fiction, even if it is based on Stefan Zweig's story, and may resemble Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Stella Dallas is the ultimate mother who will do what she has to do for her daughter, and Annie in Imitation of Life exemplifies the painful realisation that one's child is dismayed by their bloodline. We can think too of the melodramatic humiliation of the rich Marylee after she is rejected yet again by Mitch in Written on the Wind; the melodramatic confession when in Now Voyager Charlotte says to her handsome lover that the dowdy woman in the photo he sees is her not so long ago. It can be the melodramatic humiliation, with Kyle in Written on the Wind getting beaten up by a local in a bar only for Mitch to come and protect him. It can be the melodramatic revelation with a man obliviously womanising his way through life only to realise that a woman he may have been able to love has loved him all along but he never knew it, and now she is dead. (Letter From an Unknown Woman) In each instance, the tropes used allow for a morally occult expression that would have been muted with a less excessive realisation. But if it were only for this end, one still might find the films brilliantly shallow. They would be eliciting strong feeling, though they wouldn't be sitting behind a strong principle. However, behind all these films is the notion of self-sacrifice.

Does this make these films the equal of tragedy? Can we put Imitation of Life, Stella Dallas, Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows, Now Voyager and Letter From an Unknown Woman on the same level as Medea, Oedipus Rex, Antigone and others? This is the sort of question Cavell addresses not so much in Contested Tears, but in his examination of remarriage comedies, The Pursuits of Happiness, when he says, "...I am not claiming that these films of remarriages [His Girl Friday, It Happened One Night, The Awful Truth] are as good as Shakespearean romantic comedies. Not that this is much of a disclaimer: practically nothing else is as good either." Yet it is also one the novelist Dag Solstad investigates through his fictional central character in Professor Andersen's Night and finds himself wondering if this is less the problem of art's increasing mediocrity but of art as temporal. "When were you last strongly stirred by watching or reading a Greek tragedy? I mean really stirred, shaken to the depths of your being", Andersen asks a colleague as he had the suspicion that human consciousness was not sufficient to create works of art fit to survive their own period." While Cavell tries to justify a place for works that mean so much to him that were made during his lifetime, and that he thinks can be talked of as seriously as Shakespeare, Solstad might reply that Cavell would in some ways probably be taking them more seriously than Shakespeare since they are coincident with his own life. If we accept that tragedy, according to Girard, is shaped around sacrifice and a scapegoat mechanism that must find victims all the better to purge the community of feelings that could be dangerous if not thus expunged, melodrama, if we are right, is built upon self-sacrifice, in believing that we would sacrifice ourselves to others we love all the better to express how we feel. Usually, the sacrifice is far less great than in tragedy (characters in melodrama rarely lose their lives and if they do it is not because they are deemed sacrificial), and the action is frequently far more autonomous. Stella's self-sacrifice isn't extreme; it is exaggerated an important distinction perhaps if we are to view extremity as the subjugated and the exaggerated as no more than the excessively altruistic. Equally, Ron's determination to do up the mill and turn it into a home with such rapidity is exaggerated, Kyle's expenditure at the beginning of Written on the Wind too, Charlotte's insistence in Now Voyager that she devote the next few years of her life to looking after someone else's child is also.

If viewers are moved by such displays of emotion, it isn't only due to the monstrous manipulations of melodramatic moviemakers. It is also surely that such gestures chime with the times that we are living in, however narrow or expansive we will view this epoch. Some might insist it is a Christian ethos, and thus expands two thousand years. Others will see it as one that covers the West but not cultures from elsewhere. One might say it is no more than the history of Hollywood cinema, and that Williams is right to see most American films falling into the melodramatic mode. Still others will say it is a specific, small genre of films made chiefly between the end of the thirties and the end of the fifties. If we have chosen to focus on films from this period that doesn't mean we believe the affect is only pertinent to it, otherwise why are viewers still moved by these films today? Yet we might notice that the ironies and contradictions critics insisted on seeing when rewatching the films in the '70s and '80s was their way of making the films pertinent to their moment, as if they couldn't quite take the work at face value and emphasised the political element over the affective intensity. Laura Mulvey noted, "there is a dizzy satisfaction in witnessing the way that sexual difference under patriarchy is fraught, explosive, and erupts dramatically into violence within its own private stamping-ground, the family" and says too that "Sirk ironises and complicates the theme of the continued sexuality of mothers." ('Notes on Sirk and Melodrama') Christine Gledhill reckoned, "...as feminists, I think, we often want to take the world of melodrama at face value, rather than as offering absurd, overblown plots or blatant ideology to be undermined by the transgressions of mise-en-scene. But as feminist film theorists, we have little reason to suppose that the seductive portrayal of highly recognizable female conflicts can somehow escape the working of the Hollywood machine and patriarchy." ('Stella Dallas and Feminist Film Theory')

Often the films were viewed through the prism of Marxism and Feminism, Freud and patriarchy. This didn't mean they couldn't be seen affectively, but it was as though the focus on seeing them as both of their time (the forties and fifties), and the critics' time (the seventies and eighties), meant the fundamental significance of the work was of less importance than the re-interpretive faculty. The advantage of Cavell's various takes on the melodrama in Contesting Tears and later Cities of Words is their refusal, or indifference, or dismissal, of the discourse that built up around melodrama during this period. Though he mentions Mulvey in both books, it is for her famous essay 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,' but it is also perhaps as a way of talking about a large body of film theory that he sees as missing the point. "One of the most influential ideas in film studies during the 1980s and beyond (associated particularly with the work of Laura Mulvey) was that (especially Hollywood) films have been made under the sign of satisfying and ratifying the patriarchal, male gaze." Cavell insists: "Apart from contesting the evidence for this claim, I have proposed that film assaults the human sensorium at a more primitive level..." (Cities of Words) Melodrama cannot only be justified based on its contradictions, irony and critique of patriarchy; many a bad film that needn't move us at all can do that. One needs to take seriously its primary affect and its first principle: to accept that we as individual viewers are moved to tears, and muse over why that may be so in works that appear to lack the significance of tragedy and do not appear to entertain the psychological and formal complexity to be found in more or less contemporaneous works by Bergman, Resnais, Bunuel and others.

Perhaps in conclusion we don't want to take them as seriously as ancient tragedy, and maybe viewers would be better attending to films that ask us to understand aspects of our contemporary self that don't invoke tears but instead perplexity; that muse over our condition rather than narrativising just an aspect of it into the emotionally unequivocal. We needn't elevate even the best melodramas like Letter from an Unknown Woman and Imitation of Life to the level of L'avventura, Belle de Jour, Persona and Le Mepris. But what we must at least do is recognise the works' capacity for the profound on their own terms. What these terms are cannot be separated from what these films do; how they make us feel. At one moment in Contesting Tears, Cavell speaks of Freud and says: "what is at stake is whether psychoanalysis is inheritable you may say repeatable as science is inheritable, our modern paradigm for the teachable." One way of viewing this is to say yes if given a certain cinematographic form. What the tropes help release are the tears the audience expects to shed. If this can't be repeatable, the film doesn't pass for the weepie that is central to its genrefication. Not everybody will cry watching Imitation of Life, Now Voyager or Stella Dallas, and some will cry at films that aren't generically tear-jerking (Elephant Man; Paris, Texas, My Dinner with Andre). Nevertheless, genres function centrally off the repeatable, a sort of halfway house between the repeatable experiments of science, and the difficulties of a specific session when visiting a therapist. If melodrama is the genre most closely affiliated with psychoanalysis as the sentimental (just as horror is the genre most closely associated with psychoanalysis as fear), then nobody can go into a session expecting the results they would from a weepie or a horror film. Yet thinking of the weepie in the context of tears, why do therapists usually have hankies to hand in their offices, if there isn't the likelihood that their clients will access the emotions that require, like the weepie, the wiping of the ducts? A headline on an article in Psychology Today offers: "The Tissue Issue: Klein and Kleenex." It is of course interesting too that cinema coincided with the development of psychoanalysis, both products of the 1890s.

However, if genre allows for the repeatable, it doesn't allow for the scientific except in specific forms and this is where manipulation meets excitation as, for some, behaviourism was deemed more useful than psychoanalysis. Instead of the reservoirs of feeling potentially extracted by a generic work that hopes the tropes will release an emotion, behaviourism was the dominant tradition in American psychology in the 20th century, in the century of cinema. it was pioneered by John B. Watson and became especially identified with B.F. Skinner. As William Davies notes, "It was established with the explicit aim of rendering human responses predictable and thereby controllable." (London Review of Books) How behaviourist or psychoanalytic cinema happens to be needn't be seen as an either/or but as a continuum that leads to higher or lower degrees of probability. The jump scare or startle effect in horror films expects us to jump; the end of Imitation of Life or Stella Dallas would like us to cry. But if the former assumes no personal history of feeling as it gets you to scream in horror (even if your susceptibility may have personal roots), the weepie surmises that we will be more inclined to allow the genre to pass through our emotional histories in comprehending the diegetic loss. Cavell provocatively sees Contesting Tears through the prism of his mother, and in the last paragraph of the book speaks of his mother's mood: 'somehow associated with the demand to be noticed (perhaps with its explicit failure; perhaps with the implicit failure of having to demand it).' It is a provocation to write a work of film/philosophy predicated on one's mother, though Cavell might say something in the genre demands it. This isn't so much because the genre is repeatable, more that it is accessible: it can more easily than most access the emotional demands of the psychoanalytic session and make them repeatable generically if not categorically so, if not scientifically.

In conclusion, there are potentially two positions on the genre that could be taken here. One concerns itself with what the genre is doing and the other with what the viewer is feeling. We have claimed melodrama developed numerous tropes to create a generic code we can comprehend, and maybe even laugh just a little to ourselves at the predictability of their appearance: the humiliating beating, the transformative change; the convenient accident and so on. But they are serving a function that gets at the significance of self-sacrifice in our culture just as Girard insists that sacrifice was central to earlier civilisations, (and still of course present in different ways in our time). That helps explain what the genre is doing but there is what the viewer is feeling. This is the psychoanalytic element of the genre; what it manages to find in our tearfulness. As Pippin says: films are frequently "...based on blindness and gullibility. That is often the case, of course. For one thing there are hundreds of terrible, manipulative, thoughtless, but popular melodramas. But anyone, however "knowing," who has ever teared up at the closing scene of Stella Dallas or who was stunned and ecstatic at the reappearance of the transformed Bette Davis in Now, Voyager or who felt so terrible for Annie when she shows up at Sarah Jane's school with her rain boots in Imitation of Life, knows that this neat division between knowing and unknowing cannot be the whole story." ('Love and Class in Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows') Just because the films use conventions, doesn't mean they cannot use them for un-ironic ends. If we had the conventions without self-sacrifice perhaps we would find them more risible than tearful. If they didn't manage to allude to the self-sacrifices that we know parents have made for their children, and the self-sacrifices children have made for their parents in trying to be the child the parents wish them to be, and husbands for wives and wives for husbands, then the films would seem like hysterical oddities, creating echo chamber affects that needn't find their way into the audience's preoccupations.

A viewer who watches melodrama for a laugh, even potentially one who watches melodrama for the 'contradictions' Mulvey and others note, wouldn't be attending to the complexity of the work nor the complexity of their feelings that are evoked in the watching of the films. Indeed, what might be so interesting about melodrama is that the complexities on screen are relatively undemanding. Next to a film by Bergman, Tarkovsky or Haneke, the works are in common parlance easy to watch. They aren't even difficult to follow, like The Big Sleep or Night Moves. But they are often oddly emotionally demanding, as though the genre understands that to expect an audience to cry is likely to involve activating aspects of one's memory that aren't regularly sourced. If we can talk of the self-sacrificial aspect and how the films explore familial renunciation, we may ask how rarely families discuss openly the pockets of feeling that have gone into love, how rarely families cry together about these self-sacrifices, as opposed to how often they argue amongst themselves. Linda Williams speaks of Italian critic Franco Moretti's claim that literature which "makes us cry operates via a special manipulation of temporality: what triggers our crying is not just the sadness or suffering of the character in the story but a very precise moment when characters in the story catch up and realise what the audience already knows." (Film Bodies/Genre, Genre and Excess). It is a valid claim, especially for Letter from an Unknown Woman and Imitation of Life, for Stefan and for Sarah Jane. But maybe what melodrama invokes rather than just presents (since this same claim couldn't be made about All That Heaven Allows and Stella Dallas, which might move the viewer as much as the other films), is the realisation of regret, of a temporal catastrophe. It is a common enough claim that people wish they had said certain things before a relationship failed, a parent passed away, or a spouse died. Melodrama is the genre where such things are said, however belatedly, all the better so that the viewer accepts, or is resigned to, their inability to say the things themselves. It is a paradoxical genre of the said and unsaid, of the films saying quite explicitly, in dramatic content and in costume, music and (often) colour, what the viewers may struggle to say to their loved ones - even if they might share a tear in the auditorium or on the couch with the family members who are represented by those on screen.


© Tony McKibbin