Film: The Historical Impact of Melodrama
In the first half of the 19th century, classical cinema was the norm in the American film industry, and filmmakers had become accustomed to uniform styles for creating visuals and sounds used in making motion pictures. Due to the dominance of this distinctive cinematic style, viewers had come to anticipate certain stylistic choices for certain narratives. However, by the second half of the century, melodrama had become the most popular kind of theatrical entertainment, and according to Williams, it successfully tested the boundaries set by the classical Hollywood style (353). By definition, melodrama is a genre in film designed to appeal to the emotions of the audience. The style derives its name from the music it uses to create tension, accompany action, and generate mood; and it is characterized by moral polarization, pathos, heightened emotions and extravagant theatricality. Its popularity in the 19th century was attributed to the omnipresence of active villainy, where the villain would trigger a series of events that would pose a threat to the safety, livelihood or reputation of a hero or a heroine. Each melodrama would typically end with the defeat of the villain and the triumph of good over evil.
Apart from playing an important role in public recognition of pathos, some filmmakers manipulated melodrama to introduce elements of modernity in cinema (Mercer and Shingler, 79). They used it to test boundaries, to eliminate stereotypes, and to reexamine the theories of contemporary film - alongside the prevalent changes in social experiences. The success of their films proved that melodrama was a significant catalyst in the formation of modernity. Thus, melodrama marked the end of classical cinema and its modes of production; and marked the beginning of a more defined and modern cinema. This text analyses the works of two of the most successful films in history: James Cameron's 'Titanic' and Alfred Hitchcock's 'Psycho'. It identifies some of the changes these melodramas made in the American film industry.
Emotion and graphic violence
Melodrama had always been associated with heroic tales of the battle between good and evil. However, the film 'Psycho' by Alfred Hitchcock was the game changing masterpiece of horror (Williams, 355). In fact, the film's famous shower scene still ranks among the most violent scenes ever shot in an American film. The scene, which shows a violent attack in a shower, came as a great shock to the audience, who were left clutching themselves involuntarily, covering their eyes and ears, and recoiling in fear. With unmatched prowess, Hitchcock is able to capture the attention of his audience during the first half hour, where they build engagement with the films lead female character; then, in an unexpected twist, she is hacked to death, with chilling audio effects in the background accompanied by graphic pictures of blood flowing down the shower drain. The camera work expertly captures the darkness of the drain accompanied by a clockwise spiral of the water, then goes ahead to include a reverse pull back out of the dead eye of the actress, evidence of the spectatorial disorientation that made the film unique (Williams, 355). Furthermore, Hitchcock later explained that it was convenient for the film to be shot in black and white as it would have been too grotesque in color and it would have been rejected by censors at the time. Thus, the film tested the boundaries of melodrama, and successfully so. It represented the shift in the levels of violence in cinema by introducing screen violence, which was emulated by other film makers.
The ability of melodrama to appeal to different varieties of audience was also evidenced by James Cameron's 'Titanic' in 1997 (Maslin). Produced three decades after Psycho, Titanic aimed to relive the experience of the sinking of the real titanic in1912; and it was able to bring a new perspective to love, life and death. One key to the film's impact was Cameron's ability to incorporate...
The film starts off with footage from the bottom of the Atlantic, where the audience looks at a ship that sank in real life and they are made to feel like intruders in an unknown world. It is the solemn nature of these scenes that build their suspense and makes the entire film authentic. Just before the end of the film, the audience is awed as the only part of the ship that remains afloat is raised up in the air and remains perpendicular in water. At this moment, the lead actor, Jack Dawson, together with the few surviving passengers is hanging on the rail and in a mix of excitement and Fear, he exclaims "This is it" and leaves the audience at the edge of their seats, as they anticipate the next move (Maslin). The film also set a precedent particularly because, unlike other films of it time, it was able to appeal to multiple emotions at once by incorporating the use of humor, the power of love, the importance of family as well as the fear of death.
The use of technology
Before 1960, classical cinema had relied greatly on the principle of continuity editing, where the sound recording and the camera could not call attention to themselves (Mercer and Shingler, 79). The success of the film would depend on its ability to tell a unique and captivating narrative. However, films like Psycho showed the importance of visual sensations and special effects to create a better experience for the audience. Over the years, melodrama embraced the use of technology in filmmaking in ways that had not been explored before. For instance the high tech visual and sound effects used in the titanic cost the producers approximately $300 million. The ship was made of both large and small models, but the use of computer animation and visual effects convinced the audience that they were looking at a real ship. Moreover, Cameron, himself the ultimate technocrat, was also the owner of the company that created the digital effects for the film. Thus, more effective uses of technology became apparent in creating heightened sensibility that is grounded in the anticipation of the next gut spilling moment.
Before Psycho, the idea of horror was that of fantasies where brave men would fight beasts or act in a manner that would make them seem like monsters (Hadley, 7). The beasts and monsters would be portrayed in various forms and shapes; for example, while some were big, others were minute and others would come from out of space or from a foreign land. More specifically, horror was only associated with creatures that were out of this planet. Psycho, however, revolutionalized the film industry. Hitchcock was able to create the illusion of a monster in a normal individual. His plot revolved around the theme of normal people as the real monsters in the society. Williams states that the film marked the turning point of the genre, where horror moved from collective fears about monsters in an alternate world to a psychosis close to the home and potential in every individual (359). By making the claim that the real monsters lived directly inside the people, the move by Hitchcock to kill off his heroine was meant to pass a message to a world that had seen the real horrors, such as the holocaust and World War 1. It made it clear that people did not need to create any more monsters; rather they had to fight those living among them.
The film saw future filmmakers base their films on topical ideas that would send a message to the audience. Titanic, for instance, was able to provide a twist to the story and at the same time recount the horrors of the sinking of the real titanic. Before the movie began, the audience knew that certain things were bound to happen. The Titanic had to sink, but there had to be a more human story involving some of the passengers. The gap between the rich and the poor was well addressed, as well as the courage and dignity of the people on the ship, the innocence and sincerity of young love, and the shared fear of death (Maslin). Cameron ensured that it took two and a half hours for the ship to sink in order to emphasize the fact that all the passengers in the ship knew what was happening and to make the audience anticipate what they would do next. Following the examples set by these melodramas, other filmmakers have also made an effort to tell relevant stories in their films in addition to entertaining their audience.
Hitchcock was also the first to introduce the concept of time schedules and queuing in movie theatres in order to allow the audience to experience every emotion brought forth by a film; a policy that is used to date.
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