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“Melodrama Unbound,” or The Elephant That is Melodrama

Linda Williams, UC Berkeley

April 2, 2018 · 4:30 pm6:00 pm · 010 East Pyne

Committee for Film Studies and the Humanities Council's David A. Gardner '69 Magic Project

On Monday, April 2, the Committee for Film Studies will host the sixth lecture in its seven-part, year-long Thinking Cinema series, which structures vibrant encounters between leading film scholars and the Princeton community. Linda Williams, University of California, Berkeley, will deliver “Melodrama Unbound,” or The Elephant That is Melodrama.

Melodrama has seemed a contradictory term. On one hand a special genre for suffering women, on the other hand a genre of blood and thunder action; on one hand failed tragedy, on the other the pathos of an age that seeks a hidden moral legibility. Melodrama is unruly; it is what Henry James, speaking of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, called a leaping fish that alights first in one medium, then another, but seems to continually elude our grasp. Considered as a mode, not a genre, it has been seen by many scholars to dominate not only the popular drama of the 19th century, but also Hollywood cinema and television. Peter Brooks’s pervasive notion of the “melodramatic mode” has given critics much to appreciate in melodrama beyond a failed aspiration to be tragedy. However, in Brooks’s schema, melodrama’s presumed “excess” has prevented it from being understood as the norm of popular entertainment, not its deviation. This paper argues for the normalization of the term “melodrama” as the major mode of popular stage, film, and television, and for the abolition of the term “classical” as an ahistorical, misleading misnomer.

Linda Williams is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, in the Departments of Film and Media, and Rhetoric. During her twenty years at Berkeley she taught courses on film and media theory, popular moving-image genres (pornography, and many “body genres”), and the mode of melodrama. She has also taught courses on Oscar Micheaux, Spike Lee, Luis Buñuel, Pedro Almodovar, documentary, and serial television. Her books include Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible and Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White, from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson. Her most recent books are Screening Sex, a history of the revelation and concealment of sex at the movies, and On The Wire, about the HBO serial. She has received a 2004 Distinguished Teaching Award from Berkeley, the 2011 Faculty Research Award, and the 2013 Career Achievement Award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.

Sponsored by the Committee for Film Studies and the Humanities Council’s David A. Gardner ’69 Magic Project

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