The Velvet Light Trap 51 (2003) 54-66
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"God Give Me Strength":
The Melodramatic Sound Tracks of Director Allison Anders
The Subversive Sounds of Feminist Melodrama
Allison Anders's films, which include Gas Food Lodging (1992), Mi Vida Loca (1994), and Grace of My Heart (1996), form a feminist commentary on the melodramatic tradition. Anders's films reveal her long-standing love affair with melodramatic style, an affinity she realized in a "genre epiphany" during the postproduction of Mi Vida Loca (Rich, "Slugging It Out" 16). As she noted in a recent interview, "Melodrama is a genre of film which tells the story from the inside out. It charts the interior journey of a character, and their actions happen as a result of what's going on inside of them. In most films you have the action going the opposite way. The action happens and affects the character. In melodrama the action happens from the inside out . . . I think it's all heightened by people's need to address their spiritual yearning" (Mercurio 26). As this quote implies, Anders's melodramatic vision places the emotional conflicts of her female protagonist at the center of her films. Anders surrounds this core with key conventions of melodrama, such as the figure of the male intruder-redeemer, the stark clash between innocence and virtue, and the reliance upon highly stylized mise-en-scène, to communicate emotional conflict (Shatz 156). However, Anders's conception of melodrama also involves using the sound tracks of her films to render the highly conflicted emotional universe of her female protagonist. In complex and contradictory ways, the sound tracks of Anders's films serve an important melodramatic function by tracing the correspondences between the protagonist's psychological conflicts and her problematic world (Mercurio 27).
Anders's conviction that melodramatic films appeal to her audience's "spiritual yearning" echoes Peter Brooks's classic argument that melodrama is "a central fact of the modern sensibility" that fills a void left by traditional religion-based value systems (20-21). Melodrama can renew a sense of moral order by articulating the clash between virtuous innocence and the threat of evil and by ensuring the triumph of virtue over evil in the register of the "moral occult" (Brooks 43). Anders's protagonists, perpetually oppressed by authority figures and structural injustice, are brought full circle past suffering into survival, empowerment, and eventual triumph. Stylistically, this conflict is dramatized using "expressionistic" devices such as the tableau, through which "the characters' attitudes and gestures, compositionally arranged and frozen for a moment, give, like an illustrative painting, a visual summary of the emotional situation" (Brooks 48). For Anders, tableau is aural at the same time as it is visual and can be used to convey not only emotional tone and mood but also the melodramatic "text of muteness." As Brooks argues, melodrama offers us this "text of muteness" to express inner conflict and emotion through "inarticulate cry and gesture"; hyperbole, antithesis, and oxymoron; and mise-en-scène and music (56, 67, 40, 48). The silence of Anders's protagonists is thus complexly rendered as a sonorous landscape demarcated by the signposts of melodramatic convention.
The 1950s family melodrama used these potentially subversive conventions to broach the period's cultural anxieties and most controversial social issues. Similarly, Allison Anders uses melodramatic conventions to explore dilemmas of agency and fulfillment for which there may be no clear or convincing resolution. [End Page 54] Drawing upon the tools of highly stylized mise-en-scène, melodramatic gesture and tableau, self-reflexive devices, and unconventional sound track-editing techniques, Anders's self-reflexive melodrama intervenes quite deliberately in feminist critical debates over the genre's potentially subversive uses for female spectators. In one key exchange in this critical discourse, feminist critics offered contradictory interpretations of the significance of the last scene of Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937) for female spectators. The working-class Stella (Barbara Stanwyck) has given her daughter over to the custody of her wealthy father in order to ensure...