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Melodrama in British Cinema Essay

In studying melodrama as a genre we can note that this term has a link to cinematic “realism”. The term realism is used by many writers as a basis to which other cinematic forms can be compared or contrasted. This also includes melodrama. Moreover, what may constitute realism is somewhat recognizably associated to its historical background. Hollywood refers to it is ‘relationship films’. One can define cinematic realism as being the presentation of “a coherent reality in which individual identity is clear and in which characters’ actions are goal-oriented, motivating a formulaic plot pattern.” (Byars 1991: 107)

Moreover, this coherence is aimed at creating an image of [clearness], with the intention of presenting film not as a constructed product, but as a believable recording of things are (ibid. : 27) This type of mood in British film was shown in wartime productions. Christine Gledhill, in her prominent book Home is Where the Hear is (1987), establishes the link between melodrama and the bourgeois revolutions during the 18th century. Primarily, the plays were meant to entertain the aristocrat elite as manifested in their defined dialogue that portrays the standards and ideas of the upper class.

Soon after, their has been a growing urban audience, categorized by the ‘middle class’ including the industrial working-class, who equally insisted on the same amount of entertainment which later paved the way to the realization of ‘folk’ art and other popular traditions such as “dumb show, pantomime, harlequinade, ballets, spectacles, acrobatics, clowning, busking, the exhibition of animals and freaks, and, above all, musical accompaniment and song” (Glendhill 1987) Antonia Lant, a renowned writer for Women’s roles in Cinema, once stated that modern-day critics advocate British cinema improved and made use of a new form of realism in order to “produce films without false emotion or sentimental heroics” (1991: 14).

He further suggested that there has been a widespread perception that British thoughts and ideas could be expressed and represented only by realism (ibid. : 34)Melodrama has been an important subject for film and media studies since it deals primarily with ‘popular culture’.

This focus on what is popular suited the theme of the film against more traditional academic views of ‘high culture’. This is also associated more with the feminine rather than masculine issues. That is why the term “melodramatic” is often used in abusive form for it may relate to a dramatic movie scene or behaviour in real life. The discussion of this genre’s relation with women will be further discussed in this write-up. Melodrama deal mainly with emotional conflict, much of it focused around family and sexual relationships. Since most of the elements of melodrama are presented in almost all cinematic genres, melodrama as a stand-out type of cinema is quite hard to define in precision and accuracy.

To understand this fully, it can be divided into several sub-genres. Raymond Henry Williams, a Welsh academic, novelist and critic, classifies melodrama within the genre; the “earlier and always numerically common ‘costume epic’, people by pirates, bandits, soldiers, and ‘historical’ figures of all kinds” (1983: 16). Conversely, family melodrama and romance are sub-genres that can be considered in these films. The emblematic forms of this type of drama have been the issue in the analysis and understanding of film studies. In some aspect, this is because of the feminist criticism to ‘reclaim’ the area of ‘women films’ which was once neglected and given less emphasis.

The reproachful usage of that term among the male-dominated ‘critical brotherhood’ which Haskell states refers to “a term used by primarily male academia, it infers that women’s experience and emotions are “of minor significance”” (1987: 154). The perspective that the body of melodrama solely focuses on the experience and intended for an audience of women has strongly been discounted in within the patriarchal set-up. Further to note that this type of genre which is intended for female audience is of significance to various writers.

One of the major concerns “is whether the films expose the contradictions of masculinity, dominant male society (Gledhill 1987: 10) and women’s roles and places in the society, or if “they merely reinforce the dominant ideology” (Lehman 1980: 2.) Byars points out that the “struggle over [the production of] gender films” must be evaluated; it is not solely a way of showing discourse to the dominant ideology or its creation with the influential patriarchal system, “serving solely to reinforce patriarchal patterns” (1991: 6). With this, it can be said that gender in all common understanding is an area of discussion, not merely perceiving it as either conforming or deviating to dominant ideological standpoints.

Melodrama “provides a significant index to cultural aspirations, dreams, and fantasies” (Landy 1991: 189) especially shown in the films made by Gainsborough, a British film studio, where it is noted that they particularly “constitute a unique contribution to women’s representation” further stating that they also “touched on everyday conflicts concerning women’s experience” (ibid. : 195).

Writer and researcher Marcia Landy also expressed on the manner with which “the form of the melodrama costume allows the expression of ideas that could not otherwise be raised in a cinema context. ” (1991: 196) In a quote she made from Harper that says that the films’ “popularity can be in part explained by their representation of a female sexuality denied expression through conventional social forms and signifying systems” (Landy 1991: 196). Landy is noted for her work that discusses about historical films, films of empire, war films, melodrama, comedy, science fiction and social problem films; and changing attitudes towards class, national identity, sexuality, and gender (Princeton University Press).

Although the portrayal of women in the movies are those that involved “rebellious females,” “conflicts over class and status, and, above all, the quest of the female characters for adventure” (Landy 1991: 196); it is also in these films that women are seen to be divided and bear clashes with one another. On the other hand, Landy generalizes that the men are oftentimes portrayed as antagonistic, cruel, or domineering. Women in Britain during those times were faced with various environmental factors that somehow contributed to the inspiration of the melodramatic films. Such factors are the employment of women where they were engaged in occupations ranging from factory and white-collar work (Bruley 1999: 101-102). Also, there has been some suggestions that although women did not gain a simplistic “liberation as a result of this work, a greater degree of liberation was achieved (ibid. : 93).

Writer, Sue Bruley, further asserts that during this period sexuality became much more evident. Divorce was also an important issue; the hardships in this historical perspective suggested that women felt “a kind of yearning, a moment when [they] were desirous of greater freedom” (1996: 91) but unfortunately unable to satisfy. “There was however a large rise in the divorce rate at the end of the war” (Summerfield 1995: 314). European melodrama is concerned with expressing the struggles involving class, race, and gender issues. Melodrama has always appealed to the broad and diverse audiences, extending from the lower classes to all sectors of the middle class, and other times even the members of the aristocracy.

On the contrary, as Sergej Baluchatyj implies, it invariably works with “any group of spectators whose hearts are open to such affecting emotional experience. ” (Baluchatyj:00) He further adds, that such primitive spectators, constitute an extremely broad group, even their range of emotions is limited. Due to its wholesome aesthetic appeal as well as its origins in the “illegitimate” theater of post revolutionary France, melodrama is widely considered an inherent democratic genre (Gledhill 1987). Melodrama served as the genre of choice of the historical voiceless and with that has been the tool used to discuss problems involving class conflicts.

It was also a diversion to the people to be entertained despite the chaos such as the economic problems of the Depression and other social conflicts. Like class, race, and ethnicity, gender also played role in the establishment of melodrama as a genre. Although it is said that melodrama must not often be related to a woman genre, but the centrality of emotion and feeling as shown for moral value continue to tie melodrama to the feminine realm. We may then be able to conclude that melodrama can be perceived as a genre vulnerable to breaking codes – not only of gender or sexual orientation, but also of ethnicity and social class. This has served as way for women to freely express emotions that are not privileged for the male counterpart.

In conclusion, the decline of British melodrama has affected women in the sense that their once dominated genre no longer became the avenue where they can portray their dreams and aspirations. The statement of Landy suggested that the films were able to function as escapism; however they can still capture the “everyday conflicts concerning women’s experiences” (1991: 195). One major criterion of melodrama is on how the twist of the story and the ending would go. For the American cinema it revolves around a ‘happy ending’ in comparison to Europeans who are perceived to be ‘over sentimental’. The Japanese and Chinese melodrama projects their strict codes of honor and with the inevitability of defeat and destruction, in contrast to the ‘bittersweet’ taste of the Austrian stories.

In Britain, however, there seem to be some ‘repressed emotion’ that lead to a sudden outburst from the usual restrained characters. But in the most basic level, melodrama is mainly concerned with only two features: expressive style, and concern in personal relationships. Melodrama is further considered as a form of facilitating the recognition of contemporary issues in most of their films. Overall, Landy’s other statement says that the narratives involved conflicts over class, status, and above all, the quest of the female characters for adventure (ibid. : 196). The melodrama films encompass conflicts on status, gender, and other social issues and thus this is a way of viewing the events in ones life through film.

The dominant feeling of feeling of earlier times that marriage is more of exploitation than equality is very well represented in the melodramatic films that in some way they acquired the feeling of vindication just by knowing that filmmakers understand their predicament. To show that marriage is a thing to be escaped from, and avoided by the inexperienced. This movie theme can be perceived as link to the present discourse of divorce and the probability of women to gain independence. At that time British women are not privileged of a vote. Once they get married, their legal personalities were assumed into that of their husbands. Not many received education, and they were discriminated against and were underpaid in their workplace. All these contributed to the longing of wanting to be heard.

Ironically in some cases, the show of emotions is restricted while they go about their daily lives. The cinema is then a way for all of these to surface. The culminating emotion that is normally felt in melodramatic movies is the one with a happy-ending especially to the romance narrative, wherein women are given the hope to strive for another day. It is not always hardships that they experience during those times, but since there is a great divide between the places of women and men in the society that these movies provided a channel for women to relay their circumstances. In some extent, these types of movies go beyond entertainment. They also played a role in the shaping of ones culture.

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