plainly and simply parasitical on the obvious or univocal reading

Monday, November 06, 2006

All That Heaven Allows and the Case for the Effectiveness of Melodrama

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. Cary is the desire of the mature woman, while Ron is the sexual potency of the nature lover and the working class. Accordingly, there is no space for Cary to even exist in her world or in Ron’s. In such a bright and colorful film, she dresses so drably most of the time—the symbolic value of having her appear out of place no matter where she is takes precedence over any personal fashion statements. The exception is the red dress that she wears in the beginning, the last time that she really feels comfortable in the country club environment. Her friend Sarah (class propriety and politeness), by contrast, fits in fine there, and wears vibrant colors to go with her head of outrageously red hair. To go along with her outfits, her outlook on life generally has no place in her community. When Sarah mentions needing to find a date for Mr. Allenby (who is Cary’s age), Cary perks up, but then Sarah not only brushes her off, but steers her toward the older, sexless Harvey. “At least he’s available…” she says, implying that someone her own age shouldn’t be considered so. Cary’s daughter, Kay (the intellectualization of physical desire) invokes whatever Freud lesson she was taught that week, saying, “When we reach a certain age sex becomes incongruous.” She is shocked by Cary’s racy bedside literature. Is it any surprise that there is no space in any of their minds for Cary’s relationship with Ron?

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. Cary’s children are certainly not about to modify their worldviews to accommodate their mother’s desires. As for the rest of the town, come on; its name is Stoningham, which implies a threat of collective retribution for transgressions against the social order. This resistance to change is what Sirk holds on to most tightly, and it is the reason why this film and the critique it presents can only exist in a melodrama. In a naturalistic drama, the community’s attitude toward relationships like the one that Cary has with Ron—that is, an older and wealthier woman involved with a younger man from a lower class—would have to change in order for that relationship to succeed. But while perhaps more naturalistic, that option is less realistic. Either that or Cary and Ron would have to change, but what could they change? The obstacles to their relationship emerge from the fundamental circumstances of their lives--not from themselves, but from a social order which does not allow them a space to exist.

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. Cary’s daughter is getting married and will no longer need to live in her house. Her son is leaving the country on business. Cary finds out that Ron is not, and has not been, in a relationship with Maryann like she had thought. Ron gets injured and needs someone to care for him. And she is under doctor’s orders to re-enter the relationship. The characters have no agency. The obstacles to their relationship simply vanish. A story that has the outward appearance of being a tale of love overcoming social scorn, and of the value of staying true to oneself is in fact no such thing. The only way that the film could end happily, as required, is for it to end stupidly, and therein lies the real message: if you think that romantic love can thrive in such an oppressive, dehumanizing social structure, you’re out of your mind.

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.


Anonymous said...

""As" she thought", of course...

Pretty nice, Dan! And, wow, what a coincidence, I was just about to resuscitate an old essay of my own, on "Talk Of The Town", Stagecoach", and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"...being lazier than you I'm not going to hunt around for it, though, just kind of briefly sketch what it's about.

You'll have to come read it when it's done. Maybe sometime tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

It's up!