The enduring reach of melodrama in contemporary film and culture
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Stewart, M. (2015) The enduring reach of melodrama in contemporary film and culture. In: Dowd, G. & Rulyova, N. (eds.) Genre Trajectories: Identifying, Mapping, Projecting. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 165-182.
That melodrama has become increasingly visible in film studies in recent times raises a number of theoretical and methodological questions. However, it should come as no particular surprise given the centrality of melodrama to popular culture throughout the modern period. Melodrama, argues Gledhill (1987), was both ‘a central nineteenth century paradigm and a formative influence on twentieth century mass culture’ (p. 14). The melodramatic mode, she notes, was part of the more general expansion of visual culture in Europe and North America in the 19th century — when the world became ‘saturated with pictures’ (Booth, cited in Gledhill, 1987, p. 22), and the primacy of images and illustrations was inseparable from the invention of the plate-glass window and electric lighting, and the multiple spectacles of urban architecture and life. The emphasis in 19th-century theatrical melodrama on visuality and spectacle was equally shared, notes Gledhill (p. 22), by painting, which drew frequently on acting manuals and theatrical tableaux, and the novel — not only via the greater demand for illustrations, but also in a narrative mode that favoured arresting moments and, volte-face, moral drama and the play of Manichean opposites. Melodrama’s battle between polarized forces, argues Sypher (in Gledhill, 1987, p. 20), provided the foundation for much 19th-century culture and thought; and to this extent, Darwin, Freud and Marx might all be considered ‘products of the melodramatic imagination’ (Gledhill, 1987, p. 20).