Monday, January 24, 2011

Spielberg and Melodrama -a love story

Melodrama: a dramatic form that does not observe the laws of cause and effect and that exaggerates emotion and emphasizes plot or action at the expense of characterization.

It’s a bad word in story. In college I took a screenwriting class and my professor had an intense dislike for melodrama. The worst offender to succumb to using melodrama, in his forceful opinion, was Steven Spielberg. In my professor’s mind, Spielberg was particularly bad because he used melodrama to evoke a reaction out of the viewer that was patently false. That is to say that Spielberg set out to play us all like fiddle and that was a foul thing to do. Because an emotional reaction from the viewer (or reader) should be an organic reaction, not based on manipulation –or at least a manipulation that sacrifices the truth of the story.

Then again.

Spielberg isn’t exactly known for his flops now is he? I mean people love Spielberg films BECAUSE they evoke such strong emotions. But is it melodrama? Melodrama done right? Can one do melodrama right?

One of my professor’s favorite examples of Spielberg playing us was Saving Private Ryan. If you haven’t seen the movie, it goes something like this. One mother has just found out that she’s lost three of her sons to war, on the same day. There is a fourth son but he has been declared missing in action. This makes for bad PR and a unit is formed to retrieve Ryan. This mission is dangerous and men will die. All in an effort to save this unknown man. All good. Only Ryan turns out to be something worth saving, which in my professors mind, makes everything just a bit too pat. Wouldn’t it be better if Ryan was an asshole? Wouldn’t that up the moral ambiguity? But no, because Spielberg always falls to the feel good, sympathy card and takes a hard story into the realm of melodrama. Honestly, I think my professor was a bit cracked in his Spielberg hate. (g) But it does make you think about melodrama and its uses.

Personally, I think Spielberg sort of fell into using melodrama. There is the infamous story of his work on Jaws. The spectacular mechanical shark they had made wasn’t working. Spielberg was tearing his hair out and in danger of losing the whole film –his big break. So what does he do? Not show the shark and rely instead on the viewer’s imagination –well that and some really good mood music. And it worked brilliantly. So much so that I think Spielberg learned a big lesson about emotional manipulation and proceeded to use it throughout his career. But is this wrong?

Take one of Spielberg’s other hits, The Color Purple. For some inane reason, I decided to watch this movie when I was pregnant. I’d seen it before but it was on cable… yeah, my husband came home to me sobbing. Shocking since I never cry at movies. Damn you, Spielberg!!!


The Color Purple is based on Alice Hoffman’s brilliant book of the same title. If you haven’t read it you should. If only to compare the book to the movie. If you’re unfamiliar with TCP, the story goes like this, Celie is a quiet, meek girl whose been repeatedly raped by her father and bears him two children, both of whom are taken away at birth. After all of this, she’s married off to Mister –a man who needs a maid, and a nanny for his out of control children. Mister is in love with Shug Avery, a vivacious and often bitchy blues singer. Celie’s only love, her sister Nettie is taken away from her after Mister tries to have his way with Nettie. Then there is Sophia, the proud, headstrong wife of Mister’s oldest child, Harpo. Sophie makes the mistake of standing up to a white woman, and ends up being beaten within an inch of her life and ends up that woman’s maid. In short, these people are beaten down or beat people down. It all sounds quite depressing. Celie let’s herself get trod upon for much of it. None of the characters are perfect. Each of them can act miserably. Yet each of them has great hurt and disappointments in their lives. And that is what saves this story from being a melodrama –because each of them act like real, fallible, rotten, people. (g) And in the end, each of them face this, and overcome their issues in some sort of way.

All of this, however, is Alice Hoffman’s story. So what does Spielberg bring to it? Because, as my professor loved to point out, there is SO much material for Spielberg to twist into a saccharine, overwrought melodrama. But he doesn’t. And for all of my professor’s ranting, I kind of like the movie a bit better. Here is why. Because Spielberg adds a layer that the book didn’t have. With all the sorrow that is going on, we need to breath a bit, we are in danger of drowning under it. Spielberg gives us this breath. And he does it by going to his trademark use of music. Now here is the thing, this use of music takes us just to the border of melodrama. It is a tool to evoke emotion. There is no doubt, he is forcing emotion on us, both joyous and bittersweet by using this music. But it works. It is a trigger for that emotional explosion that the rest of the story has wrung tight. So that when he pulls out the use of music, we go off. To me that’s quite brilliant. Here is one scene in the Color Purple that highlights what I'm talking about. I can't watch this with out choking up. Damn you again, Spielberg!!!

Which begs the question, was it wrong of him to use it? Even if it is blatant emotional manipulation?

For me, it points out a truth in storytelling, whatever works, works and things are never black and white. Glimpses of melodrama, purple prose, etc need not be bad if used correctly. I suppose it comes back to knowing how to use it. Fail at it and you’ve got people groaning and gagging such as when I was stuck in the theater watching that god awful melodrama, Mission to Mars. I swear, some guy was supposed to be dying and people were actually yelling, “Just die already.” Not. Good.

So while I would in no way promote the use of melodrama, or blatant character manipulation in an effort to make your audience feel, I do think there is a time, place, and use for every trick in a writer’s arsenal. Just learn how to use them is all. (g)


  1. Hah, I was musing over the "whatever works, works and things are never black and white" question just last night.

    The book I'm reading has an opening chapter that is almost completely divorced from the rest of the story's plot. The first chapter deals with an eighteenth century naval battle between the French and the English, whereas the rest of the story revolves around a murder and the London opera scene. It's kinda like one of those prologues we're told to never write. (g) And yet, it works ... because there is one tiny, tiny, thread that links that battle to the murder investigation, and this is enough to make me keep reading to find out the greater connection between the two stories. So yeah, whatever works ...

    Great post!

  2. I wonder... I wonder if the emotional, musical manipulation (if that's what we call it) would work without all the other elements? That is, if the stories you cite didn't already feature compelling characters, twisty plots, and so on, would the music or the sometimes sappy twists be enough to start us bawling? When I think of melodrama, I think of stuff that's so over the top it starts making you laugh instead of cry. Any other directors your professor had a beef about? [g]
    (The one scene that gets *me* in Jaws is the one where the little baby boy is playing by himself near the water - what kind of parent lets their kid do that??)
    (And if I can be snarky... what bothered me about Saving Private Ryan was the crowd in the theatre. Melodrama or not, it was a movie about the Second World War. It was emotional, it was... Anyway, to come out of the theatre and start babbling right away about the shopping you want to do or the humdrum gossip from your own life... I just wanted to ask everyone 'what did you come to see this movie for??'
    (Also, why does Google Chrome spellcheck keep underlining movie?)

  3. Hey Deniz - I think you're right, it wouldn't work without the framework that is already in place. That's why I think Spielberg is more working right up to the line of melodrama. Melodrama in the spirit of manipulating the audience into an emotion by really playing certain things up, as opposed to telling the story in a more straightforward manner and letting the audience feel for themselves. But is that wrong? I don't think so. It works so no harm no foul. OTOH, yeah, I agree, true melodrama makes me gag and want to laugh. Some might kill me for this but the end of Ghost was totally melodramatic for me. The whole "ditto" thing had me rolling my eyes. At the same time Ghost was a huge hit. So again, is it wrong?

    Heh, my professor was pissy about a lot of directors (usually those how had a lot of commercial success -God, to have him get started on Titanic!), but he LOVED Ingmar Bergman. Figures. (g)

  4. I can't believe you mentioned Ghost! That's exactly the movie I was thinking of the entire time I was writing my comment. Though I still think I preferred it to Titanic... One person's sweet is another's saccharine, I guess [g]

  5. Was looking for Spielberg and melodrama just after being bombarded with tons of it by Endgame