Melodramas are excessive and often embarrassing. They traffic in heightened emotions, stylized gestures, and schmaltzy scores. They center on broken hearts and broken homes, and they tell stories punctuated by contrived meetings, missed encounters, sudden reversals of fortune, and sentimental scenes of revelation, rescue, and irretrievable loss.
All of this may sound old-fashioned, but film history suggests that melodramas are here to stay. Directors continue to draw on and creatively re-imagine melodramatic conventions in their explorations of race, gender, sexuality, and power. For their part, film scholars now argue that even the campiest tearjerkers should be taken seriously. Once dismissively labeled “women’s weepies,” melodramas have been seen more recently to represent “the dominant mode of classic Hollywood cinema.” Often disparaged as politically out of touch and aesthetically over the top, melodramatic modes have also been called the only “realisms” adequate to contexts of radical inequality.
In this course, we’ll assess these and other claims about the long life and surprising social relevance of melodrama. We’ll study films by Almodóvar, Araki, Borden, Daniels, Gerima, Haynes, Hitchcock, Mankiewicz, Matarazzo, Nava, Sirk, Vidor, and Washington, among others. We’ll also read key critical essays and a few literary texts; authors will include Berlant, Brooks, Cavell, Doane, Le Guin, Miller, Mulvey, Povinelli, Puga, Sexton, Thoreau, Wilderson, and Williams.