Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Melodramatic Mode

The first thing I noticed when I entered the Carleton College Art Gallery last night was the group three young women in light Grecian dress forming a tableau, assuming a series of graceful and stylized poses in a kind of semi-static dance, slowly shifting their position throughout the evening. On the opposite wall was the key to this unusual display in illustrations of the popular Delsarte method of dramatic gesture, devised in the nineteenth century by Fran├žois Delsarte. The Delsarte method became the basis of the stylized acting style associated with silent movie melodramas. At left is an illustration from a late nineteenth-century textbook of the Delsarte method. In the college art gallery's current exhibition, Modernizing Melodrama, similar illustrations of the Delsarte method are juxtaposed with clips from silent films, including The Phantom of the Opera (1925), which features this tableau of Lon Chaney (the Phantom) and Mary Philbin (Christine).

This tableau tells an instantly recognizable story of darkness and light, of monstrous passion and imperiled innocence.

Last night's opening at the art gallery was preceded by a lecture titled "Our Melodramatic Fix," given by film scholar Linda Williams (UC Berkeley), author of Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson (Princeton University Press). She began her lecture with an illustration from Titanic (1997), which features this familiar tableau of DiCaprio and Winslet on the prow of the doomed ocean liner.

But Williams' lecture went beyond the Delsartian gestures to develop a typology of the "melodramatic mode," the essential features that lie behind melodrama and give it its enduring appeal. These are the features of melodrama that she ennumerated:
  1. It features a "home space of innocence," often a humble abode (such as Uncle Tom's cabin) that becomes an object of nostalgia.
  2. It focuses on "victim-heroes" and on recognizing their virtue.
  3. The recognition of virtue involves a "dialectic of pathos and action." The victim-hero's virtue is validated through suffering and revealed through action.
  4. The characters of melodrama "embody primary psychic roles." The innocent girl, the irredeemable villain. Melodrama is generally unconcerned with shades of gray.
  5. Melodrama is continually modernized by borrowing from realism. In Titanic, for example, the melodrama plays out amidst the most realistic reenactment possible of the ship's sinking.
As Williams listed these features of melodrama, I thought of how easily they could be applied to Jessie Redmon Fauset's Plum Bun (reviewed below). In the novel, Angela leaves her "home space of innocence," her parents' home in Philadelphia, and embarks on a journey of suffering and action that eventually reaffirms for her the virtue of her racial identity. Where the novel departs significantly from the characteristics of melodrama is in its exploration of racial "shades of gray," in its resistance to a society that literally sees things in terms of black and white.

But status and identity are certainly important features of melodrama. In Titanic, DiCaprio is a poor third-class passenger and Winslet is a wealthy first-class passenger with a diamond in her pocket. As Williams pointed out, the movie moves spatially between the stern and the prow of the boat, between steerage and the first-class cabins, illustrating spatially the differences in class between the two main characters and underscoring their efforts to bridge those differences. Space is used to similar effect in The Phantom of the Opera, as the action moves from the stage down into the crypt-like basement of the opera house. The stage is the sphere of the ethereal Christine; the basement is the sphere of the monstrous Phantom. In this case, the effort to bridge those differences is unsuccessful.

The Phantom's identity is a mystery throughout the film, concealed behind a mask. In a moment of curiosity and compassion, Christine reaches out to remove the mask, and is horrified by what she discovers. In Plum Bun, Angela assumes a kind of racial mask—she masks herself as a white woman. When she lowers the mask, and reveals herself to be "coloured," many of those around her are horrified. In The Phantom of the Opera, what lies behind the mask has turned the Phantom into a villain, and his blackness is the blackness of villainy. Plum Bun turns the tables: Angela becomes heroic when she drops her mask. Her blackness is the blackness of heroism, and the horrified racist society is the true villain. Plum Bun is a melodrama, but it effectively manipulates the conventions of melodrama to explore the complexities of race in America.

Melodrama opposes black and white, villainy and virtue, and appeals to our Manichaean impulse to see things simply, in terms of good and evil, black and white. But The Phantom of the Opera does invite us to see the villain as a victim—a victim of appearances and circumstances that have distorted him into a monster. Plum Bun goes further toward exploring racial shades of gray and questioning society's racial Manicheanism.

Linda Williams concluded her lecture by characterizing melodrama as "how we attempt to see ourselves as good." It's a moral narrative, a narrative that reaffirms virtue. It reassures us that virtue and hard work will be rewarded. It's also about striking a pose, and slowly shifting our position.

The exhibit Modernizing Melodrama runs through March 11 at the Carleton College Art Gallery.

1 comment:

Shan said...

This is so interesting! I'll have to try to see that exhibit.