Surrendering to Outright Melodrama

Stephen Farber is a film critic for Movieline magazine and a regular contributor to Calendar

Melodrama is a genre that is often deliriously embraced by audiences and contemptuously derided by critics. For an example of this dichotomy, you need look no further than the reactions to "Pearl Harbor," which opened to huge business in defiance of staggeringly mediocre reviews.

But this is hardly the first time that critics have turned up their noses at a form of storytelling adored by the masses. In his study of the English novel called "The Great Tradition," critic F.R. Leavis excluded Charles Dickens, the all-time master of melodrama, from the pantheon; in his view, Dickens was merely "a great entertainer," distinctly inferior to artists such as George Eliot and Henry James who favored psychological realism.

In the world of movies, highbrow critics of the 1950s sneered at the glossy tear-jerkers of Douglas Sirk--"Magnificent Obsession," "Written on the Wind," "Imitation of Life"--though his films were enormously popular and became cult favorites of a later generation of auteurist film historians. Yet critics continue to malign melodramas that do not have the imprimatur of the auteurists to give them respectability.

In 1994, reviews were pretty scathing for "Legends of the Fall," a sweeping family saga set at the time of World War I. Even so, audiences flocked to the movie. It found some of its most passionate partisans among women, which may have seemed surprising considering that it was such a manly marathon. But women have often surrendered to melodramas that male reviewers belittle. (Exit polls have shown that women gave the highest marks to "Pearl Harbor," a romantic melodrama posing as a war movie.)

There are plenty of other recent examples of critical antipathy toward melodrama. The best movie I saw in 1999 was "The Red Violin," but you didn't find it on many other critics' 10-best lists. Actually, that movie wove together five separate melodramas, spanning several centuries and continents, as it followed the travails of various people who came to possess an exquisitely handcrafted but cursed violin. The film's fans saw it as a lush, stirring epic, but many critics dismissed it as an overwrought welter of cliches.

Similarly, "Billy Elliot," which seemed to me one of last year's most affecting movies, received tepid reviews from serious critics. They grudgingly praised the performances, but they trashed the movie as a manipulative heart-tugger that relied on too many supercharged scenes of family conflict and reconciliation.

All of these harsh judgments, going back to Leavis' condescending view of Dickens, seem to me to grow out of a fundamental disdain for the essence of melodrama, even in the dictionary, which defines melodrama as "a drama, such as a play, film, or television program, characterized by exaggerated emotions, stereotypical characters, and interpersonal conflicts." Not a bad definition, but if you substituted the word "oversized" for "exaggerated" and "archetypal" for "stereotypical," it might sound more neutral.

I would argue that melodrama is just as valid a form as comedy, and critics should be distinguishing good examples from bad ones, not dismissing the entire genre out of hand. I'm not talking here about suspense thrillers and action films, which are, of course, melodramas of a different kind. Rather, these controversial melodramas are sagas of romance, family trauma and social conflict played out on a grand, breathless scale.

But it's revealing that critics are far more likely to endorse male-oriented action melodramas than romantic melodramas that have their greatest appeal to women. Is "The Matrix," filled with martial arts action and New Age mumbo jumbo, really a better movie than "Billy Elliot"? The evaluations have a lot to do with the eye--and often the gender--of the beholder.

Some feminist critics like Molly Haskell have tried to point out this sexist bias and reclaim movies that male critics have long dismissed as "soap operas." Is melodrama the same as soap opera? Not exactly, though there's a close connection. Soap opera is a smaller domestic story of extramarital liaisons and parent-child conflicts. Melodrama may incorporate those elements, but it plays out on a larger canvas. It usually has a more exotic backdrop and a plot more packed with intrigue and incident, coincidence and surprise.

What's the difference, then, between melodrama and tragedy? To tell the truth, that isn't always easy to define. "Hamlet" certainly incorporates elements of melodrama, but maybe it reaches the loftier realm of tragedy because of the depth of the characterizations and the uncompromising bleakness of its vision (not to mention the poetic precision of Shakespeare's language). Melodrama is a bit more purple than tragedy--more lurid and overheated. But, like tragedy, it trades in crisis and catastrophe, and it aims to tear at our emotions.

Going back to Lillian Gish cast adrift on an ice floe in "Way Down East," movies have always thrived on melodrama. There's certainly a line from D.W. Griffith to "Gone With the Wind" and on to "Titanic" and "Pearl Harbor."

Despite everything that's wrong with the new Michael Bay-Jerry Bruckheimer World War II extravaganza, critics have once again missed the point in some of their savage denunciations. Unflinching realism was never the goal of "Pearl Harbor." The bottom line is that the movie provides a wrenching emotional experience while concocting a fervid epic tale of courage, sacrifice, romantic turmoil and mass destruction.

There are, however, some crucial differences between a great melodrama and a serviceable but schlocky one, and "Pearl Harbor" certainly falls far short of the classics it aims to emulate. The scene of Kate Beckinsale's Evelyn ministering to the wounded in the makeshift infirmary clearly echoes the famous scene in "Gone With the Wind" of Scarlett O'Hara wandering among the hordes of dead and dying Civil War soldiers. But the stalwart Evelyn is a pallid, one-dimensional character compared with that magnetic vixen, Scarlett.

"Gone With the Wind" had a bountiful gallery of memorable, sharply defined characters. "Pearl Harbor," by contrast, is woefully underpopulated. The massive bombing sequence that is its centerpiece would have had greater impact if we knew something about a few of the victims aside from the colorless leads.

Characterization, then, is one of the elements that distinguishes a rich melodrama from a routine one. Narrative is another. Everything that happens in "Pearl Harbor" is predictable. You know that when Ben Affleck's plane goes down 45 minutes into the movie, he's going to reappear, and you know exactly how the romantic triangle is going to be resolved. A juicy melodrama doesn't have to unfold in this paint-by-numbers fashion. Dickens delighted in unexpected plot developments, and it's worth remembering that "Gone With the Wind" violated romantic conventions when Rhett walked out on Scarlett at the finale.

Is it contempt for the audience that makes "Pearl Harbor" so formulaic, or is it simply that basic storytelling skills have declined since the days of "Gone With the Wind" and "Casablanca"? Probably studio interference hobbles today's big-budget melodramas, because the evidence suggests that writers and directors still have the talent to spin hypnotic tales. Melodrama is alive and well--a long way from Hollywood. You can see its enduring vitality in "The Red Violin" and "Billy Elliot." And if you want to catch another great movie melodrama, search out "Bread and Roses," which may be the best movie I've seen this year.

Some might be surprised to hear me call it a melodrama, since it's directed by Ken Loach, the British director who's known as a social realist. But "Bread and Roses" is unlike many of his other movies, which include "Kes," "Riff-Raff" and "Land and Freedom." That may be why it hasn't been as well reviewed as those earlier films. While it tells a story (inspired by real events in L.A.) of the battles to organize a janitors' union, it's a long way from cinema verite.

"Bread and Roses" begins with Maya (Pilar Padilla) sneaking across the border from Mexico and then narrowly avoiding rape at the hands of a ruthless human smuggler. Right away, Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty let us know that they mean to invoke Dickens, not docudrama. As it continues, the movie incorporates a hotheaded heroine, a dastardly villain (the loathsome supervisor in the building where the janitors work for slave wages), sibling rivalry and betrayal, a robbery that leads to a deportation. One climactic scene has Maya's sister recalling a life of prostitution in an impassioned monologue that resembles an operatic aria.

In short, this film is not a humdrum "slice of life." Everything is heightened, teeming with import. "Norma Rae," the 1979 Hollywood movie about a union organizing in a textile workers' plant, made more of an effort to avoid melodramatic plot turns, whereas "Bread and Roses" positively revels in them. Because "Bread and Roses" is splashed across the screen in bold primary colors, you remember the experience, maybe more than you remember some of Loach's more rigorous, understated earlier movies.

All melodrama requires suspension of disbelief and a willingness to sign on for a wildly emotional ride. Both "Pearl Harbor" and "Bread and Roses" provide visceral jolts. But the latter offers vibrant characterization, deft plotting and passionate concern for society's outcasts. As a result, when you surrender to the unbridled emotion that is the hallmark of melodrama, you feel exalted rather than battered into submission.

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