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006 - Ch6 - Silent Film Melodrama

006 - Ch6 - Silent Film Melodrama

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Published by Joseph Eulo

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Published by: Joseph Eulo on Sep 01, 2009
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Genre and the Genre System
"Genre" is a French word that refers to a kind, type, or category ofaparticular phenomenon or thing. In the cinema, genre is a term that isused to designate various categories ofmotion picture production.Majormovie genres include such broad types offilms as musicals, comedies,action and adventure films,Westerns,crime and detective films,melodramas, sciencefiction and horror films, gangster films, war films,suspense thrillers, epics, and disaster films.These genres can frequently be broken down into subgenres, orsubdivisions of the major genre. Thus, horror films can be subdividedinto specific types such as vampire, mad doctor, demon-seed/ evil-child,splatter,or slasher films.Comedies can be categorized as slapstick, romantic, screwball, and so on.Genres serve to stabilize an otherwise unstable filmindustry. Motionpicture production is extremely expensive. In 2007,for example, theaverage negative cost (that is, the amount ofmoney it cost to produceafinished negative of the filmbefore prints were made or costlyadvertising and distribution expenses were incurred) was $70.8million. (Bycomparison, in 1950,average negative costs were approximately$1.1million, which translates into $8.4million in today's dollars.) Marketing, advertising, and print costs in 2007averaged an additional$35.9million. Industry analysts estimate that,for any filmto break even(whether it was made in 1950or 2007),it would have to earn roughly
2 l1 z
times its negative costs.Given these costs, motion picture producers facetremendous riskseach time they make a film. These risks are increased by the very natureofthe motion picture product.Unlike other consumer products-suchas cars, household appliances, and fashions, which rely on brand-namerecognition for much of their market appeal-motion pictures areessentially one-of-a-kind products.Eachfilmisnecessarily different fromevery other film,featuring a story and a cast that are unique. Each film
is thus an unknown quantity; its producer has no assurance that it willmake a profit at the box officebecause, unlike other consumer items, ithas no brand-name status in the marketplace. The star system and thegenre system attempt to compensate for the dangers involved in thisprocess. They serve to hedge producers' bets against the unknowns andvariables that underlie the production ofevery film.Unlike cars and other merchandise, movies are not durable goods.They have no physical existence; they are not objectsthat can bebought,taken home, and used.They are, ofcourse, consumed, but the consumerhas little or nothing to show for that consumption. Audiences takehome no tangible product but only the memory of an entertainmentexperience. The genre system that structures the American filmindustryrepresents an attempt by the filmindustry to control the entertainmentmarketplace in a way that is similar to the control over the consumers of durable goods exerted by brand-name products.Genres result from the proven success ofone-of-a-kind films in themarketplace. Thebox-officefortune of one particular kind offilmresultsin the production ofanother filmthat resembles it in terms ofplot andcharacter type. The filmindustry assumes that the audience that cameto the earlier hit will return to see a filmsimilar in nature to it.This canbe seen most clearly in the proliferation of sequels (and prequels) thataccompany so many box-officehits of the 1960s,1970s,1980s,1990s,and 2000s.Thus, the exceptional profits of the firstJames Bond film,
Dr. No
(1962),led to a succession ofothers. This also explains the string of 
Godfather, Jaws, Rock  y , Star Wars, Superman, Star Trek, Indiana Jones,
andother films of the 1970sand 1980s.Films that belong to a specificgenre draw from afairly fixedbodyof character and story types, settings and situations, costumes andprops, thematic concerns and visual iconography, and conventionsthat are shared by other films in that particular genre. Westerns, forexample, regularly contain certain character types such as cowboys,town marshals, Indians, dance hall girls, schoolmarms, cavalry officers,saloon keepers, Indian agents, gamblers, and rustlers who are readilyidentifiable by the costumes they wear, the props they use, the thingsthey do, and the situations in which they find themselves. The filmsare set in the Westand feature certain kinds oflandscapes or settings,ranging from the vast stretches of the Great Plains, RockyMountains,and barren deserts to cattle ranches, bunkhouses, and frontier towns.Eachnew filmin the genre banks on anumber offamiliar genreelements,motifs, and themes but combines them in anovel way. The
g o to
g e nreilm s are
the promise,of 
~~ ~
m ~ } r ~
Theatrical melodrama,which began without avoice, perfected the craft ovisual expression,translating thought andemotion into gesture,costume, decor,and otherelementsof mise-en-scene. It discovered how tosay all without literallysaying anything. Melodramaeven developed its ownsign language.Adapting acting techniques fromclassical theater, it produced a system of gestures and hand movements,which were subsequentlyrecorded and catalogued by a French scholar, Fran<;oisDelsarte.At the sametime, melodrama manipulated traditional mise-en-sceneinanattempt towringeven greater expressiveness from it, freezing the actionat particularly significant moments into atableau.In tableaus, which frequentlycameat act endings,the actorsassumed particularlyrevealing and characteristicpositions and thenheld them for several momentsin an attempt to underscore or crystallize events, feelings,orideasforthe audience. Melodramaworksonapurelyemotionallevel,rootingitsdramainacommon base of feelingthatcrossesover all linguistic barriers.In thesciencefiction tearjerker
..:The xra-T erresial
(1982),the heart of the filmresidesin E.T.'s large,expressiveeyesand poignant facialmovementsrather than inanything anyonesays.Thisistypicalofcontemporaryfilmmelodrama.Inanother Steven Spielbergfilm,
CloseEncounes of heThird Kin
(1977),communicationbetween humansandalienstaesplaceon apurely affectivelevel-through fivemusical tones.E.T.moves somewhat beyond that primitive stage, to speech.But when words are used, asin the phrase"E.T.phone home!"theytend to beminimal and rudimentary-almost nonverbal.E.T.'sspeechignoresestablishedlinguistic conventions andgrammatical rules;he / itspeasdirectlyfrom theheart.The expressivenessofthesesemiarticulatestatementsderives,inlargepart,fromtheir childlike simplicity-from the inabilityof thealien toexpress in language the complexlongingsbehind thephrase.Thisismelodramaticspeech. Spielberg'sfascinationwith themelodramatic resurfaces with avengeance in
 A. I .:Artificial Int elligence
(2001).Attheheart ofhisstoryisaboyrobot,David (HaleyJoelOsment), who has been programmed tolove.Adopted byaamily whose childhasbeen placed insuspended animation until acurecanbeound or his terminalillness, David wins the love ofhis new mother, but,af terher own childisrestored tohealth, she abandonsDavid in the woods.Neither he norweever quiterecoverfromthistraumatic moment.Afigureofpurepathos, David thenspendstheremainder ofthefilmlookingortheBlueFairywho, he hasbeen told, can make him human andthus enablehim towin back thelove of hismother.As inE.T.,Spielberginveststhe alienother-here themachine, David-with acapacityforeelingand emotion thatexceedsthatofany ofthe actual human beings in the ilm.In
thesimulation of emotionsbecomes real emotion. The popularity of melodrama asa form of theater forthemiddleclasses during the nineteenthcentury,and itsabilityto conveycrucial dramatic inormationvisually,made itanidealformforthesilentcinema.Virtuallyevery silent film-includingthe slapstick comediesof CharlesChaplin and Buster Keaton-was, on onelevel or another,a melodrama.During the1910sand

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