Melodrama and Women | Cinema


“Any life-story that deals with a relationship or whatever is a melodrama, and for this reason I think melodrama films are correct.” – Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1977 Interview with Cineaste

“To appreciate a film like Written on the Wind probably takes more sophistication than to understand one of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpieces, because Bergman’s themes are visible and underlined, while with Sirk the style conceals the message” – Roger Ebert, Great Movies: Written on the Wind,

“If you enjoy L’Eternel Retour you may enjoy also King Kong, but not Black Narcissus. If you enjoy Black Narcissus you cannot enjoy L’Eternel Retour (if you think you enjoyed both, you are wrong)” – Lindsay Anderson, Sequence Magazine

Has any genre in cinema history been so maligned as the melodrama? Its focus on emotion, extravagantly unreal plots and current relegation to the realm of day-time soap operas have caused it to be a style that is rarely given a chance to impress. Yet some of the most renowned directors in history have made their masterworks in it; Powell & Pressburger, Sirk, Hitchcock, Fassbinder, Almodóvar to name a handful.

The easy first reaction to a tearful close-up with swelling romantic music or a seemingly random twist-of-fate that sends the protagonists towards their doom is one of scorn and derision. “Ha!” laughs the savvy modern viewer, “what ridiculousness, emotions don’t manifest themselves like that in reality.” The same criticism is often levelled against the melodrama’s sister genre, the musical which does little but reveal the critic’s ignorance of that genre’s purpose. “But I just don’t like those kinds of films,” is the natural response, which is fine, but the fact remains that no other genre has represented women with such psychological depth as has the melodrama. To deride it is to deride half of humanity.

At this point it is necessary to state explicitly that this is not a call to do away with male-oriented genres in favour of melodrama, instead it is a defence of a genre at the expense of nothing.


The Empowered Woman

Traditional male genres like the western or the gangster film have typically relegated women to peripheral roles, someone to worry about or mourn for the male protagonist, while the noir had women acting as “vamps,” leading the otherwise upstanding male character to his doom through seduction and self-interest. Women existed, filmmakers at the time were aware of this, but what direct impact they had on the big important questions, those of war, country-building and law-making/enforcing, well who knew?

So when a film like All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955) comes along, telling the story of a widow whose feelings for her lower-class gardener are in direct conflict with her upper-middle-class neighbours’ opinions of propriety, who could possibly take it seriously when compared with action-filled aggrandizements of war featuring real buff men like John Wayne? Who could take the small domestic issues of a woman chained to her home seriously when the fate of the world was at stake?

Then, as is always the case, the ‘60s happened, and suddenly the oppressed housewife no longer spoke to the women of the world. However, apart from the odd exception that attempted to address gender issues in a quickly changing environment, Once Upon A Time In The West (Sergio Leone, 1968) and Network (Sidney Lumet, 1975) being decent examples, the male-oriented cinema continued to reign, with the women characters now just morally dubious rather than things to be morally corrupted.

With a mindset that could only be considered adolescent some bright-sparks thought “hey, why not make action movies only, wait, this is good, instead of men, right, you with me? the heroes will be women!” and so films like Aliens (James Cameron, 1986) and Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003) that try to empower women by turning them into male action-heroes were churned out en masse, allowing those who were tired of hearing “but where are the strong women of cinema?” levelled at them to point and go “there, look, she’s killing a thousand Chinamen with sword, how much stronger can you get?” (For the record, Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) is a far more subtle and fascinating exploration of gender than the generic action sequel that followed it, and I will write another time about the horror genre’s link to melodrama).

So it remains today that a film that shows a woman kicking the heads off a roomful of baddies in fits of masculine rage is considered to be “empowering women” in cinema, the films that show genuine women with genuine problems tending to be the lot of a handful of directors.


Melodrama; what does that even mean?

Like all genres, melodrama is loosely defined. The use of emotional music and over-the-top plotting are the basic requirements, but when utilised well by the best directors it is quite simply the most effective and believable way of expressing  desire and characters, both male and female, but it also has a grand potential for metaphor that is unrivalled in other genres.

The melodrama has its own peculiar style of acting. In contrast with method acting, where the actor is made to feel his or her character’s emotion and then to bury it for the purpose of “realism” (method acting clearly designed to express more “male” characters, emotionally repressed), the melodramatic style puts everything on the surface so that there is no ambiguity; what the characters feel is made very obvious to the viewer. To say there is only one kind of acting is to limit your experience as a viewer of cinema.

In cinema the melodrama can potentially express so much more when using these basic tools of emotion and plot with a pinch of creativity. Films like Black Narcissus (Powell & Pressburger, 1947), Imitation of Life (Sirk, 1959), The Marriage of Maria Braun (Fassbinder, 1979) and All About My Mother (Almodóvar, 1999) are four of the best films to utilise the melodramatic style

When recounting the plot of All About My Mother it appears to be a piece of exploitation. With characters like Agrado’s transsexual, a transvestite father of two and a pregnant nun with AIDS it does seem to invite scorn, but the film’s brilliance lies in the simple reality of Cecilia Roth’s grieving mother, whose pain anyone can understand, and the fact that she treats all of these outlandish characters as real human beings, has honest relationships with them and makes them sympathetic. These characters are naturally melodramatic, excessive, so they exist in the realm of melodrama. The urge to laugh at them exists, and in a serious drama that would be the prevailing feeling, but melodrama takes the obvious absurdity of their beings and twists it around, so by the time Agrado is on stage recounting her life story we are all laughing with her.

No other form could so beautifully capture the complex issues of our changing understanding of gender. Only in the world of melodrama can an AIDS-suffering transvestite impregnate a nun and instead of rolling our eyes we feel the honest tragedy of the nun’s mother not being able to accept the child in her home for fear of catching AIDS. These are real issues, and the film is an absolutely essential piece of modern cinema in that it tells the stories of a marginalised people in a way that is not meant to be shocking but compassionate.

In many ways All About My Mother is comparable with Sirk’s Imitation of Life in that Almodóvar’s film attempts to bridge the gap between genders, whereas Sirk’s bridges the gap between races. Cecilia Roth’s role is here played by Lana Turner, the single mother with whom the audience empathises and the black woman – also a single mother – whom she takes in as a maid and eventually becomes friends with. The maid’s daughter Sarah Jane is the stand-in for Almodóvar’s Lola, in that she is light-skinned enough to pass as white and does so. She is ashamed of her black mother with a fervour that to modern audiences may seem excessive but powerfully expresses the inner shame forced on a person for being black in the US in 1950s.

If a viewer approaches the film thinking “why does this character feel so strongly?” rather than “that character feels too strongly so I’m not going to take it seriously” then they will set themselves up to be able to see what melodrama has to offer. Imitation of Life happens to be a masterwork and is still incredibly affecting today, as Sarah Jane is torn between the hard-working mother who has little but started with less, and the society that reacts with horror and hatred when they learn of her parentage.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder has described Sirk’s cinema as the only one in which women were shown to think, by which he means they were the only films in which women decided their own fates rather than having them decided for them. He himself interpreted this by variously showing women as being complicit in their own oppression, an opinion every bit as controversial today as ever it was, if not necessarily untrue. In The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) Hans beats his wife Irmgard in front of their young daughter, but when Irmgard phones her lawyer demanding a divorce Hans suffers a heart-attack and is bed-ridden and unable to work. Of her own will Irmgard returns to her abusive partner’s side, clearly moved by the helplessness that drives Hans to depression. When Hans suffers his heart-attack Irmgard is free but she returns to his side, her presence only prolongs his suffering and draws out the long process of his self-destruction. When Hans dies Irmgard is free again but now it is a despairing freedom where before it was purely liberating.

The worth of melodrama then is in telling the stories of the oppressed in society, those whose oppression is perpetrated by society rather than by the individual, which is the main struggle of most male-oriented dramas; the individual against the individual or the individual against the self. A film like Die Hard (1988) uses its villain as a means for the hero to transcend himself, to go beyond his human form and establish order. For the melodrama films mentioned above the drama of the characters comes in their attempts to simply fulfil themselves, to be able to exist in their real form, not as outcasts but as full human beings.



Melodramatic metaphor

Besides the literal facts of a melodrama’s plot the form has one of the greatest capacities of any genre for metaphor. Two of Fassbinder’s greatest protagonists Maria in The Marriage of Maria Braun and Franz in Berlin Alexanderplatz (1982) are both often read as metaphors for Germany in the post-war and pre-Nazi era respectively. Maria’s obvious love for her soldier husband, a representative of the brave and gallant Aryan warrior of the Nazis’ propaganda, an ideal the Germans are purposed to adore, is seen portrayed as hollow when Maria takes up with Bill a black American soldier. Maria’s rise in the business world directly corresponds with Germany’s economic boom, but she is characterised as a soulless woman who eventually destroys herself, literally exploding from inconsiderateness. Franz Biberkopf is an ex-pimp released from jail into a depressed and tense Berlin where his attempts to go straight are foiled by the floundering economy where a man cannot do an honest day’s work with any sense of self-fulfilment or pride. Led into a heist by the mysterious Reinhold he is thrown from a car and ends up losing his arm, unable to work like The Merchant of Four Seasons’ Hans. He, like Germany, is unable to work when it is maimed and so must return to its criminal ways, an inevitable return to self-preservation at the expense of everyone around them.

This is metaphor on an international level but melodrama is also one of the best ways of expressing the goings on of the mind, as is the case in Black Narcissus. A convent in the Himalayas is the setting of the story of Deborah Kerr’s nun and the sisters’ attempt to establish a presence in this part of the world. It is clearly as repressed and isolated a setting as could possibly be imagined but it is the film that has been described as one of the most erotic films of all time for the desire that Deborah Kerr joined the convent to repress. Her memories of her time with her lover in Ireland and his taking off to America without her are shown as the reasons for her joining the convent, but through Mr Dean’s ever-increasingly bared skin and the eventual eruption of Sister Clodagh in a bizarre breaking out in red dress and lipstick and murderous intent, the convent becomes a representation of her mind, and the convent’s failure to integrate itself with the community beyond any superficial level in turn shows that she herself does not belong here.

Dublin, City Absurdia


“Until you have wasted time in a city, you cannot pretend to know it well.” – Julian Green

“If I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world.” – James Joyce

It must be impossible to give a true representation of a city in words. Dublin is the city I know best, but my Dublin is not the Dublin of any other person. The tourists have their Dublin, and that is the one they are shown, of Guinness breweries and Oscar Wilde statues that they will remember through a thousand photographs that look exactly like the photos taken by millions before them.

There is the Dublin of the young family, a city where nothing reaches the senses beyond the fabric of the push-chair or the smell of the car-seat. This also by chance is the Dublin of my childhood, where the city itself as I now know it was only a thing that flashed by the car window, the unconnected images of purposeless and nameless sites and buildings and people and parks and piers that still have the narrow smell of plastic footballs and balloons and ice creams.

I also lived in the Dublin of the blow-in college student, eleven years after leaving the city to return as a visitor, rarely breaking the pattern of wandering from college campus to whatever night club was popular at certain times of year or nights in the week and back home again for those quiet weekends when the college campuses were deserted, when that particular Dublin died every weekend.

These are only two Dublins, the two I happened to live in, but what of the Dublin of the African or the American immigrant, the Dublin of the inner-city, where the erroneously labelled “real” Dubliners are said to dwell, the rich man’s Dublin, the busker’s Dublin, the Dublin of police officer or the night nurse, the Dublin of the violent criminal or struggling business man, of the disabled, of the single working mother, or of the hundreds of variations on each of these things.

All of us are Dubliners but many of us don’t inhabit the same city. I know because the Dublin of my childhood was a Dublin of street football and crayons, of ducks and Crash Bandicoot, of discarded crisp packets and arbitrary alliances, but that is not the history of Dublin that you will read elsewhere. It is purely personal and my own, just as those hazy twilit streets that led up to those homogenous night clubs will not be what will be written about when historians or economists write about the city beginning in September 2008.

However, when Julian Green speaks about wasting time in a city he is talking about a different way of viewing the world. My two Dublins were vessels that carried me along, I no more than a passenger drinking in whatever happened to come my way. But during my time in this second Dublin, that of my college years, I took a mid-summer trip to Paris. Spending one’s whole life marching to the beat of someone else’s drum is not something you break away from easily but I had been starting to hear a different rhythm in my own mind before I went to Paris. It seemed to strike like a breeze rather than a thunderbolt when I stood atop the Eiffel Tower, where presumably every non-Parisian to walk the city streets had stood before and, surrounded by champagne flute-wielding tourists and looking out over a cityscape for which the most iconic image couldn’t even be seen, I knew for certain that I did not want to live my entire life as a tourist in this world.

So I wandered Paris, and later I wandered Chicago and Seville. I wandered San Francisco and didn’t make any effort to include a cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge or a trip to Alcatraz, nor did I go out of my way to exclude these things. The city I found was one of cinemas and shopping malls, the restaurants and markets of Chinatown, the relaxed parks where a cautious man with a small freezer bag looked at you from under thick eyebrows and said “beer?”, the streets in which drug addicts lay sprawled out unashamedly and that seemed to go on forever, the bookshops and museums dedicated to the Beats and to Comic Art, Golden Gate Park in which an elderly Japanese man cheerfully greeted every person who walked by him as he did his morning lunges along the path, the timeless fantasy of Haight Street and the policewoman who dutifully put on rubber gloves to guide a rambling topless man out of the middle of the street, and walking shoes in hands into the Pacific Ocean for the first time. That is my San Francisco and it’s one nobody can go and see, like Jack Kerouac’s San Francisco, as soon as everybody knows about it and decides to go and see it it’s already gone.

This is one thing for a city in which you are just passing through, but the idea of treating the city of your birth as a place to explore, outside the confines of what you have known to this point. To not treat it as a tourist where every mundane statue is a thing to be marvelled at, nor as battered down resident where everything is always stagnant and ugly. It is the idea that if you can learn to live in the city of your birth, and live well, you can live anywhere, or perhaps more accurately, that if you spend enough time in your home city to know what you like about it and what you don’t, then if you leave in the future you will know what to look for abroad.

Too often leaving Dublin is looked at as an escape, which I believe is the wrong reason to leave. Like relationships with people, the attraction of living in a certain city can run its course, but if you haven’t taken the time to see what the city has to offer, to know what you need, what you like and dislike about the city, then what good will going away somewhere else do, when you won’t be able to tell if you really like this new city you go to or whether it’s the adrenaline of a change of scenery.

I feel like I am now living in my third Dublin. The things I like about the city are the things I know I would like about any city I live in. One thing that feels essential is that Dublin has a cultural life, where music and poetry and art galleries and cinemas are given a prominent position in society and the city has enough people living here that are passionate about these things. Almost any week in the year you could arrive in Dublin and find a gig worth going to, owing to the great variety of venues from larger ones like the Olympia and Vicar Street to wonderful atmospheric places like Whelan’s on Wexford Street. I could of course visit a city without this – like I did in Seville last year, a city with a beautiful night life but musically very traditional – but I could never live there.

This blog is the document of my life in this Dublin.

Time Span | Cinema

Before Sunset

Time Span

A film is a slice of life. When you make a film, whether it be ninety minutes or two-hundred, it is absolutely impossible to squeeze the essence of an entire life that may span eighty years into such a small window. It would be like trying to swallow an entire five-course meal in one mouthful, chances are most of it will end up on the floor and the only debate that will arise will be on the definition of success.

Watching a film is like having a conversation with someone. The great ones are the ones you think about and go back to, the ones that you relive and are full of ideas and nuances of expression that are so much more than the simple relaying of historical facts in loosely connected scenes that is the staple of the biopic, films such as Ray (Taylor Hackford, 2004) or Chaplin (Richard Attenborough, 1992), that attempt to capture the lives of men but say less about them than the men’s own bodies of work.

The main problem with the long recounts of a person’s whole life is that it requires jumps through time and eras each with their own unique period style, the use of child actors to portray characters in their youth or old actors – or worse, old make-up – for the golden years all of which works to disrupt the mood and the tone of a film. Even a couple of years between the beginning and end of a film’s time-span can have this effect, where it is the capturing of a specific place and time that is the essence of great cinema, whether it be a scorching summer day in a forest in medieval Japan or a cold and bloody winter in some Minnesotan town.


Time Outside Film

The truly great films are the ones in which you are simply dropped into a brief moment in time, often like one of the characters themselves, as if you have walked straight from your own life into somebody else’s world and that these scenes on the screen are a part of your life for this short time. Take Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942). Rick Blaine is a character with a past and with a future that we know little about, we hear he ran guns in Ethiopia and Spain and that ten years before he met Ilsa while she was having a brace put on her teeth he was looking for a job.

In Casablanca information is scant, there is a mystery behind everybody but all the characters are so vividly and successfully realised that you do feel very much like you have walked off the street into Rick’s Café Americain. One flashback to Rick and Ilsa’s time in Paris disrupts the events that take place over two nights in Casablanca to give an insight into the relationship of these two central characters. The flashback here is completely in service to the main narrative, for us to understand Rick’s bitterness we must live the pain he lived and relives when Ilsa returns to his life. In this way it is a journey into Rick’s mind within the film’s time span rather than a real omniscient flashback, as we later learn when Ilsa reveals why she abandoned him the day the German’s marched into Paris.

The past is always a thing that can oppress and define characters, so its presence can be completely necessary to the short time-span being shown for the simple fact that some past event can be a thing that is always on the character’s mind. The problem then is to reveal this information in such a way that it does not disrupt the film around it. Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966) is an example of this done perfectly. In the presence of the mute Lisbeth on a secluded Swedish island, Nurse Alma starts to open up about her own insecurities. She recounts the story of her becoming impregnated on a beach by a boy, the excitement of the event itself and the guilt of the resulting abortion. It is all told in dialogue but it is so vividly expressed that you feel like you were there, or that these events were shown onscreen. While it happens outside the time-span of the film it would be unthinkable to exclude it because it is clearly something that is on Alma’s mind during the time the film looks at. To have characters thinking about things from outside the time-frame of the film is what gives them life, to not have them expressed in some way would be madness, to express it poorly would mean death.

A grander example of this is Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) which may seem like one long biopic from childhood to death but the main narrative of the film is that of a reporter in pursuit of an article that explains the life of this man. The great bulk of the film is flashback with the goal of understanding the man’s last word, “Rosebud”. This is not to say simply sticking a biopic in a framed narrative solves everything as the framed narrative of Cate Blanchett in the hospital in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, 2008) proves. That film is the kind that does not work, because the purpose of the flashback is simply to recount the events of a man’s life from birth to death, which is the point of the biopic anyway and makes the framed narrative here pointless. Once Upon A Time In America (Sergio Leone, 1981) is less clear cut than either of the above examples as the flashbacks seemingly take place in an opium-induced dream. The various versions of this film that exist make the overall purpose unclear but it could be said to take place inside Robert De Niro’s head, like the flashback in Casablanca.

The Breakfast Club

The Magic of Not Knowing

The sequel culture of modern cinema has stripped much of the magic of the medium. Any number of direct-to-video sequels of beloved animations appeared throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s such as The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride (Darrell Rooney, Rob LaDuca, 1998) or The Little Mermaid 2: Return to the Sea (Jim Kammerud, Brian Smith, 2000) but now these films receive major theatrical releases and even Pixar has begun a shameless nosedive in this direction. Taking characters we grew to love in some way and then examining every aspect of their lives before we knew them then after we knew them is not how we tend to live life and is anti-cinematic. If we go back to see the birth of Rick Blaine in New York and follow his upbringing there then follow his school years as an awkward teen then his release into the wide world then his gun-running activities then his post-Casablanca adventures with Captain Reno then his marriage to whoever he finally settles down with do we still feel the magic of cinema or have we simply picked the carcass clean like vultures with an unquenchable desire for facts rather than humans in pursuit of something beautiful.

The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985) follows its characters outside the grind of day-to-day life and is a reaction against routine and the societal expectations of what we should be and how we should act so all the time that takes place outside of the film is seen as oppressive and debilitating. This is addressed directly when Claire tries to get Andrew to admit that having now become friends in the solitude of detention back in the real world he will simply ignore Brian if he greets him in the hallway with all Andrew’s athletic friends around. The film is the perfect example of film as a slice of life. Jack Bender’s hostile home environment is theatrically brought in, with cigar burns as proof and Andrew’s recounting his empathy for a boy he feels he embarrassed for his own father’s approval takes the physical act of sitting in a circle and talking about life and people into that realm in which time starts to flow like sand through your fingers, and cinema is the act of catching that sand in an hour glass, to be turned and let flow again and again without ever losing a single grain. The Breakfast Club is an expression of pure idealism and any sequels or even flashbacks within the film would have robbed it of its rebellious optimism.

Cleo de 5 a 7

Types of Time

A number of films take place over many years but do not wear the passage of time on their sleeves. Films like The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1971) and The Searchers (John Ford, 1954) do not change actors or bury them under tonnes of aging make-up eventhough they take place over a number of years. These films are epics and there is certainly a place for epics in cinema just as much as there is for films that take place over the course of a day or a week, but the difference is that these particular films do not condescend to try and explain the life of one man in their respective run-times, or to show all the key moments of their lives. As Scorsese observes about The Searchers one subtle glance from Ethan at his brother’s wife explains the entire narrative of why he would spend years tracking the Indians who kidnapped his niece. What exactly Ethan’s relationship is or was with his sister-in-law is something we will never know nor will ever need to know to enjoy the film. Like Rick’s flashback and Alma’s confession Ethan’s glance says as much as needs to be said.

Real-time is not a commonly used time-span but it has so much potential that it is a great pity it is not utilised more often. The tension in High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1956) as Gary Cooper searches futilely for anybody to help him rid the town of the three criminals who have returned for vengeance against him to the backdrop of his having just married Grace Kelly is excruciating and brilliant. As a person living in real time you are aware of exactly how long he has to find someone to take these three men and the result is one of the greatest westerns ever made. Similarly Clèo de 5 à 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962) follows a woman for ninety minutes through Paris as she awaits the results of a medical examination and the long takes of driving through the city feel like real ennui expressed in deep breaths while the scene in which her songwriters arrive to practice a new song which she then sings passes in a flash; it is relativity captured on film. Hitchcock’s Rope also explores the possibilities available to telling a story in real time, but it is largely unchartered territory in cinema.

One of the most interesting American directors is Richard Linklater whose first three films Slacker (1991), Dazed & Confused (1993) and Before Sunrise (1995) all take place in one day, whereas his film Waking Life (2001), for the fact that it takes place completely in a dream, and time passes faster in dreams than in reality, could be said to cover a time-span even less than its run-time. His sequel to Before Sunrise, Before Sunset (2004) follows the same characters as the earlier film only nine years after they first meet. It is a rare sequel that manages to utilise the fact that too much information strips away the magic of certain moments as an artistic tool to show the realities of these characters now in their thirties. It is simply one of the most powerful uses of the effects of time passing ever put to film. His upcoming A Boyhood is another experiment in time in that it began filming in 2004 and has continued intermittently until the present day allowing its actors to age naturally.

A number of recent releases have represented interesting uses of time. Elena (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2011) is a 109 minute film that sets its pace from the very beginning with one long drawn-out shot of the window of a house with a branch in front of it. It does this as a way of cooling off the hectic minds of any cinemagoers who have probably just walked off a busy city street or taken a drive to get to the cinema and now need to be eased into the considered pace of the film. The image cuts to the inside of the house, everything untouched in the early morning and finally we see Elena in bed and watch as she gets up. Very little seems to happen when you watch the film as we follow this woman through her uninteresting daily activities, but when you think back on it you start to realise that the few terrible things that happen in the film creep up on you as they would in reality, you don’t even quite realise something has happened until the film is over, much like a real-life trauma puts a person into shock and denial.

Samsara (Ron Fricke, 2012) uses time in a very unusual way. There can be said to be no overall time-span for the film, what it portrays is the world at a whatever time it happened to be filmed, but the cuts between places are purely aesthetic, like that from a sand-filled old church in Louisiana to a Gothic cathedral in Europe. Time-lapse is used as a method of perspective, as the sun floats along the sky we are shown the angles and imperfections of a number of stone heads through how the shadows move, extending from the nose and brow and it is far more impressive than anything 3-D cinema has shown us.