Elsaesser puts the “melo-” in drama

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

When one thinks of melodrama, the mind immediately conjures a weeping Kate Winslet on the ill fated Titanic. To offer a different perspective on melodrama, last night in LPAC Thomas Elsaesser, an expert scholar on cinema studies from the University of Amsterdam gave a talk on the meaning of melodrama and it’s questionable importance. The talk which unsurprisingly was sponsored by Swarthmore’s Film and Media Studies department, and was also funded by a Mellon grant and Penn’s film department.

To analyze the various aspects of melodrama, Elsaesser often studied the protagonists of melodrama, which according to Elsaesser was “not just in film” but in other forms of art as well. The main characters of melodrama were often stories of a victim. Elsaesser added that in addition to women, the protagonists of melodrama were often children “since they represent an innocence and helplessness.”

Melodramas often represented views of those who were underrepresented and repressed in society, and often tended to steer away from the common patriarchal, conservative society. Taking a unique view, Elsaesser claims that giving a voice to the oppressed, the use of melodrama has “led to conflict resolution.”

While an antiquated meaning of melodrama solely referred to a combination of music and drama, melodrama in film not only referred to stories told by victims but also “exaggerated values,” consisting of hyperbolic fights between “good and evil and virtue and vice” adds Elsaesser. Melodramas tend to follow a pattern of a type of narrative based on the principles of improbabilities, emphasizing pathos, and a sentimental, satisfying closure summarizes Elsaesser.

Despite the exposure of different cultures and ideologies through melodrama, “it is not real, it is a placeholder,” adds Elsaesser. It provides a hyperbolic view on the flaws of human nature. Similar to the Greek tragedies of the past, melodrama is, as Elsaesser adds “the only form of tragedy available to us.”

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