- Disappearing, Inc.: Hollywood Melodrama and the Perils of Criticism
Why does classical Hollywood melodrama still hold our attention? That, of course, assumes that it does, and despite yet another spate of books on the subject, Hollywood melodrama as it has been understood is vanishing. This should not come as a surprise. The time elapsed between the explosion of writing on melodrama in the U.K. in the early 1970’s and the re-issue in March, 1997, of Jon Halliday’s Sirk on Sirk is about the same as the time between John Stahl’s Imitation of Life (1934) and Douglas Sirk’s (1959). The quarter century between Imitations was time enough for several revolutions in Hollywood; the quarter century between Sirk on Sirks (1972 and 1997) [End Page 958] has been in criticism as well. These recent books, then, bear witness to the abandonment of a critical project of remarkable endurance.
However attractive individual melodramas (Now, Voyager, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Written on the Wind) may have been to individual critics, what got the generic ball rolling was the utility of its excess. Hollywood melodrama was good for thinking because it gave criticism films that were critical of social formations and popular at the same time. As in many other fields, these “maladjusted texts” made critique a populist endeavor. 1 Thomas Elsaesser, in his foundational article, “Tales of Sound and Fury,” which initially appeared in Monogram in 1972, attributes this feature to the combination of the genre’s inherent focus on the victim’s-point-of-view and instances in which everyone in the story is plausibly a victim. This moves “the critique” to the “social and existential level.” It makes melodrama “capable of reproducing more directly than other genres the patterns of domination and exploitation existing in a given society.” At the same time it reveals that these are patterns “with which the characters themselves unwittingly collude.” 2 Melodrama, “at its most accomplished” gave pathos to the problem of false consciousness.
What helped bring an end to this project of tracing out just what consciousness counted as false, just what oppressions were operating, and just what could count as critique (or resistance, or subversion) was its complete acceptance. (This should no longer seem ironic.) When melodrama makes its brief appearance in Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson’s The Classical Hollywood Cinema (1985), any generic subversion, Bordwell writes, would probably itself have been understood as “‘conventionalized.’” In other words, subversive genres are themselves part of a system; they “operate as limited plays within the classical compositional dominant.” 3 It would be a mistake to take this as an argument against subversion that depends on a critical point of view (“It’s not subversive.” “Is, too.” “Is not.”). That is the burden of Stephen Heath’s “The Question Oshima,” which elaborately recontains the “Ophuls” subversion as part of a continuing evaluative effort. 4 The classical Hollywood cinema argument, which appears to extend or shift the neo-marxist analysis to the “mode of production” is rather a practical move that makes it possible (or, more possible) to see any claim of subversion as less a truth claim about a particular film than a disciplinary claim on the one hand and an element of the pre-existing industrial discourse on the other. Where before, critique was the limited but conscious property of the critic and the popular but unconscious property of the mass audience, now critique became [End Page 959] available, more or less consciously, to everyone. This dispersion of knowledge, in turn, opens up a complicated, and seemingly unlimited, sociology of receptions.
Barbara Klinger’s Melodrama and Meaning carries out just such a “social...