Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Streaming Rain

Melodrama's emotions, like those of music, aren’t clearly articulated by either speakers or listeners. It must be often noticed that in melodrama articulation and emotion conjoin in a way that shows that each also withdraws from the other. It is not only in films that they do this, but it's more nearly peculiar to melodrama that emotions seem as a result to be on the outside, conveyed by inanimate and nonhuman forces and objects (streaming rain, speeding trains, or in the mode of pathos, the glass that falls from the table) or by the outsize contrast between their authority and the abilities of the personages in the frame. At a concert, we tend to feel that the music is expressing something on our behalf. In melodrama it's as though it were up to us to do something with what goes unexpressed, but which we're somehow aware of all the same. The melodramatic figure is stunned speechless (Fred MacMurray staggers out in the street in the rain after Barbara Stanwyck in There’s Always Tomorrow) or talks in a failing effort to buy time, only so as not to be swept away, while some nonhuman element is expressive "but not for him." Although it seems partly as though the streaming rain is invested with the protagonists' sentiments, it's also no secret that the rain is not really that at all, and that what the viewer feels is as much a response to its alienness as to its symbolic expressiveness. The surprise that the genre never gets tired of is that something else appears in place of the protagonists' language to make it clear that from the film's perspective, their efforts are full of nothingness, as if as soon as we were really paused or disoriented by any event of consequence--if we only shut up for a second--the vast inhuman world, including the machinic force of society, were suddenly obvious. Instead of voicing criticism of this condition, melodrama exposes proto-protests that can't yet be voiced. Inarticulate criticisms are handed over embedded in the structures from which they want to be released. We can think of this strategy or symptom, in turn, as an implicit comment on the limits of "voicing"--but the melodrama, like the dreamwork in Freud, can't seem to say this outright, itself. The TV that Jane Wyman’s children give her to replace her lover’s company in All That Heaven Allows is sometimes said to be the cruelest moment in any of Douglas Sirk's plots; it seems so because it radicalizes the phenomenon I'm trying to describe. Not only is Wyman forced to substitute an inanimate object for a desire she’s trying to express, but this invention is to be always on the scene from now on, stifling her future struggles toward articulation along with the present one. If it were possible for that to happen, the tension between the effort and the collapse of expression that sustains melodrama would simply end. Instead, however, the tension is actually intensified by this moment that imagines its total blockage (Jane Wyman's face, and later the flames in her real fireplace, appear reflected in the TV ....)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have not seen either film you have here mentioned. Probably won't ever. Also, I do not completely understand what you are talking about. Moreover, I can't say I approve of the way you think about things. And yet, here I go, about to opine in your same strange language. How much fun you seem to have! [I apologize beforehand if I have completely misunderstood you]

I am not quite in agreement here that "emotions seem as a result(?) to be on the outside." Now, if I can only figure out what you mean by this. [Please forgive me, but I too will converse in vague shorthand]

It seems that the "emotion" you are talking about here is not the one belonging to any character, but some sort of effect the film intends to communicate to you, the viewer. In your example of the streaming rain, I will guess that you are describing some kind of ironic distancing between something you see: rain as emotional tears; an un-voicing (thus, seemingly emotionless) hero.

Such juxtaposition can make us feel emotionally drained or distanced. We may feel that the hero has been stripped of emotion. And yet, I believe that this is one common method of INJECTING certain sets of emotions into a character, especially one who mutes himself (or has been muted). In the case of the mute hero and an indifferent rain, what we might get out of it is the sense of isolation and loneliness (among other emotions)--a sense that we feel is INSIDE HIM.

This effect is the result of two sequential translations of three different "languages." The first language is simply a series of images which quickly replace each other--this is the movie. This translates into a language which are the emotional responses we get from the film. And then we can give emotions to the characters we see. This is the third language.

Obviously, this sequence is not always the case; a different sequence of images might compel you to switch the sequence of the last two languages. In this new case, the movie will make you figure out the emotional state of a character BEFORE asking you to be affected.

Ultimately, however, I agree with you to an extent. In a way, it is correct to say that emotion is on the outside. This is because in drama (on stage and screen) emotion is ALWAYS on the outside. character emotions exist primarily in the minds of the viewers. How so? Note, characters are not "real." They are abstractions. Thus, they carry no emotions. We are the ones who carry their emotions.

Furthermore, it is irrelevant what the actor himself feels. It is the worst kind of acting when he tries directly to show us--the viewer--what he is feeling. This is pejoratively called "indicating." Thus, in a way, he has little control. It is the context--the scene, the music, the cutting (film editing), other characters, etc--that creates the sense that he has emotions. You can improve the performance of a non-actor by telling him "not to act." What this does is take away the tendency in novices to indicate. But superior performers know that that is not useful advice. The competent actor need only to interact with the other actors in the way he would like his character to behave in that particular situation. It is the context of it all which helps us to determine our understanding of his character's emotional state. (Indeed, the screen actor is at the editor's mercy: if the editor is careless or evil, he can make a potentially great acting job seem ridiculous and something to be mocked.)


There is a reason why I don't see myself watching these two movies. Melodrama is the genre of self-destruction by self-flagellation. There are other genres, like noir, interested in self-destruction. Also, the whole mode of tragedy has a thing for it, too, I guess.

But in melodrama--the thing that draws some and repels others--is the unrelenting masochism of the protagonists which is manifest as self-muting. Their resistance to voice is pathological. What makes it especially bad is that, in almost all cases of melodrama, the reason the plot gives for the self-muting act is not good enough to justify it. In fact, the reasons are usually pathetic. Lame. I think that the single most improtant, absolutely critical aspect of plot is JUSTIFICATION. If the writer fails to justify any action or desire, then the story will collapse. The story will collapse no matter how beautiful all the other parts are.


Finally, I want to mention that I do not enjoy MacMurray or Stanwyck. I especially can't understand the critical fuss surrounding 'Double Indemnity.' Oh well. Forgive me my trolling. I am enjoying your blog. Take care. ;)