Note: In light of some responses I've been posting over at plok's, I thought that I would post in full a brief essay I wrote for a film class in school, where the first rumblings of my ideas on melodrama, and by extension my development of "Trash Theory," can be documented. Having read over it again after it was handed back and graded (A, thanks for asking--though to be honest, I wouldn't have given it that), I realized that there were some things that could be changed around to make it communicate my points a bit more clearly. However, in the end laziness always wins, so I am just copying and pasting the text. Ah well, enjoy. Also: has it really been over two months since I last posted? Man, that's grad school for ya!
Melodrama, when employed properly as a narrative tool, makes use of ridiculous plots and characterizations to tease out genuine meanings regarding the way in which we understand human social relationships. While often used synonymously with mere poorly-written drama, the melodrama is in fact its own distinct style with its own rhetorical devices. Poorly-written dramas make a genuine effort to have their plots emerge from characterization, and where their dialogue is sappy it is nonetheless a naturalistic sappiness rooted in characters that are meant to be read as individual human beings. Melodrama, in eschewing naturalism, letting characters represent concepts rather than people (and thus resist the change that is necessary to the naturalistic drama), and breaking plot from character development (which allows contrivances to be contrivances), exposes an absurdity in the way that social relationships are constructed and maintained through narratives.
Douglas Sirk’s 1955 film All That Heaven Allows, were it a naturalistic drama, would be about two people navigating the circumstances of their class and age and overcoming the pressures of their community in order to have a successful romantic relationship. However, the film is a melodrama, so while a number of those plot points actually happen, that isn’t what it’s about at all. There is no space in the community that Sirk creates for the love between Cary (Jane Wyman) and Ron (Rock Hudson) to exist because the contrast in their environments is too stark and nothing about any of the characters ever changes. All they can do is stare longingly and lament the immutability of their circumstances, until those circumstances miraculously change. This kind of melodramatic structure is necessary in order to point out the stupidity of elevating the importance of the social order above that of human desires, which actually does happen. Sirk’s method of dealing with this dehumanization is to employ melodrama, which removes the humanity from the narrative and allows the ridiculousness of the plot (and of the society in which it exists) to come forward. In a naturalistic drama all of the characters would have to speak out against the social order for the love to work; the critique would have to be overt, which would violate the Hays Code and generally freak the audiences out (because nobody likes to be told that their civilization is anti-human, especially by the Saturday matinee).
The characters in the film tend to represent states of being more so than individual humans.
As representations rather than people, the characters resist change because the structures that they embody resist change. Both Cary and Ron are willing to let their relationship end rather than change themselves.
How do they manage to end up together, then? The only way they can: through contrivance. The plot goes on, because it must in order to be a romance. In naturalistic drama the plot is resolved by the agency, decisions, and changes of the characters. In All That Heaven Allows, the plot is resolved by sheer coincidence.
By being ridiculous, the film demonstrates that social change is the only option. A drama would either have to end tragically, with broken hearts all around for the good of the community, or with the redefinition of the entire fabric of the community in order to accommodate one relationship (as all of the many, many other relationships in the film fit well within the social constraints of the town—including the flings of philanderer Howard). A melodrama, by contrast, is able to preserve the hopeless social structure and the relationship, and to allow the logical gap between the plot and characterization to function as the critique that it dares not make explicitly.