Courses / Undergraduate

Fall 2020

  • Special Topics in Film Genre: “Listen to Your Heart” – The Politics of the Melodramatic Mode

    171-001 | CCN: 33175

    Dolores McElroy

    4 Units

    *This course will be taught via Remote-Synchronous instruction

    Lecture: Tu/Th 3:30pm-5:00pm; Screening: Wed 3:00pm-5:00pm

    “Melodrama” is a contested term. In popular culture, it is often understood as pejorative: one might call something “melodramatic” in order to dismiss it as “over-the-top,” “extra,” or perhaps clichéd. In film studies, “melodrama” has often indicated a specific genre, signaling films centered on women or the family which are emotionally moving. But “melodrama,” argue scholars such as Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams, may also be the primary mode of storytelling in Western culture and beyond since at least the 19th century. This melodramatic mode is characterized by a focus on victim-heroes, and stories that seek the dramatic revelation of moral and emotional “truths” through a dialectic of pathos and action. Furthermore, they argue, this melodramatic structure is the basic structure of the typical Hollywood film. By understanding the melodramatic form, we can begin to understand how unresolved political tensions, particularly of race, gender, and class, get highlighted or “resolved” by popular culture, including mainstream films. But the significance of melodrama extends well beyond film. In many ways, it informs the style of TV talk shows, self-help discourse, and the arena of electoral politics. The emphasis in this class will be twofold: First, we will contend with the debates around melodrama itself: is it a genre, a mode, a mood? Second, we will consider the mechanisms and implications of the melodramatic emphasis on the feeling of individuals as the locus of moral and ethical truths by analyzing cinematic and media objects such as early 20th century American racial dramas, the 1940s “woman’s film” and midcentury Hollywood “melodramas,” the work of directors such as Douglas Sirk, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wong Kar Wai, and Todd Haynes, as well as Lifetime movies, TV talk shows and biography specials, and contemporary political discourse in the popular media.