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On course: Weepies

Moving Pictures: Screen Melodrama and Spectatorship

In 2003, Bryn Mawr’s Program in Film Studies blossomed in response to the increasing hunger of students to scrutinize the world of visual culture, a culture that is ripe—perhaps overripe—for deconstructing.

The program graduates eight to 12 minors each year. The minor (one introductory, one historical, and one theoretical course required plus three elective courses) reflects both the long tradition of film studies and the new directions in the field. After students have taken the larger intro courses, they are treated to senior seminars in small spaces. The screening rooms of English House provide intimate, softy-lit settings for viewing of scenes and for reflection.

Visiting Assistant Professor Jennifer Horne, who has offered courses in film analysis and film history at the College for four years, also studies the history of film criticism. According to her research, in the United States, the academic study of film can be traced back to the 1920s when courses in film appreciation were first offered at New York University and Columbia University teacher’s college and the New School for Social Research.'

“Bryn Mawr is also connected to that history,” says Horne. “It was the first institution to host a screening of film from the Museum of Modern Art’s circulating film library, in
April 1935.”

Since those early days of film appreciation courses, the field has expanded. “It now aims to study all moving images—not just those produced, edited, and distributed on 35mm celluloid and not just those that are produced for entertainment,” Horne says.

Horne is writing a book called Spectators into Citizens: American Film and Civic Discourse, a project tracing the representation of citizenship and political participation in American silent film. Her work has appeared in The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, and Afterimage. She is a member of the National Board of Film Preservation and recently appeared as a guest on WHYY’s A Chef’s Table to talk about food and film.

Due to the strengths and diversity of the faculty, the Program in Film Studies minor is truly interdisciplinary. Students who want to study a particular national cinema can take courses from faculty who are expert not only in film, but also in that language and culture.

The Film Studies Minor: Sample Courses

American Attractions: Leisure, Technology and National Identity

Exhibition and Inhibition: Movies, Pleasure, and Social Control

Film Theory

Global Masculinities: The Male Body in Contemporary Cinema

History of Narrative Film

Identification in the Cinema

Introduction to Film Studies

Movies and Mass Politics

Nation and Identity in Post-War Austrian Literature and Film

No Place like Home: Nostalgia in German and American Literature and Film

Orientalism and Cinema

Russian/Soviet Film

Screening Shakespeare

Sexualities and Gender in 20th-Century German Literature and Film

Silent Film: International Film to 1930

Soviet and Eastern European Cinema of the 1960s

Soviet Cinema: The Masterpieces of Russian and Soviet Cinema

Theories of Authorship in the Cinema:
Alfred Hitchcock

Topics in Contemporary Art: Video


Moving Pictures: Sample Films

Way Down East, D.W. Griffith, 1920, USA

Stella Dallas, King Vidor, 1937, USA

Gone With The Wind, Victor Fleming, 1939, USA

Meet Me in St. Louis, Vincente Minnelli, 1944, USA

Since You Went Away, John Cromwell, 1944, USA

Brief Encounter, David Lean, 1945, United Kingdom

Letter From An Unknown Woman, Max Ophüls,
1948, USA

All That Heaven Allows, Douglas Sirk, 1955, USA

Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973, Germany

Terms of Endearment, James L. Brooks, 1983, USA

To Live, Zhang Yimou, 1994, China/Hong Kong

All About My Mother, Pedro Almodóvar, 1999, Spain/France

Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes, 2002, USA/France

Water, Deepa Mehta, 2005, Canada/India

“It’s impossible to teach film studies in a vacuum,” Horne says, “because film has always, at some level or in some way, had international or
global aspirations. And it’s difficult to name a field in the sciences, social sciences, or humanities untouched by film. Either the ideas of that discipline have been expressed in narrative, fictional form or film and video have been used in the processes of laboratory or field research. Understanding how cinema makes arguments or uses rhetoric is a very important skill in any field.”

In keeping with Bryn Mawr’s tradition of academic excellence, faculty are committed to teaching film that demands close attention not just to form, but to history and theory, with an eye to difficult films that fall outside of the category of escapism.

Horne says that film studies advances the core values of a liberal education.

“The discipline of film studies,” she notes, “is a critical
field of study, not a technological one. We aim to produce students who write persuasively and well about the image culture they are studying. And if we expand our understanding of the field’s purpose to include exposing students to alternative realities, diverse visions, and multiple perspectives, it does so even further.

“As a social instrument,” she says, “films’ powers are un­quest­ion­able and dangerous and also potentially liberating.”


Moving Pictures

Why teach melodrama? Isn’t it just a poor cousin to serious cinema?

According to Horne, the past two decades have seen vigorous debate among critics, theorists and philosophers on the definition of film melodrama, and many argue that melodrama has important political and social significance. Film studies theorist Linda Williams writes in her essay, “The American Melodramatic Mode,” that melodrama is “neither archaic nor excessive but a perpetually modernizing form.…By what better name…shall we refer to those novels, stories, stage plays, movies, songs, and media events that move us to sympathy for the suffering of others?…Its genius lies in its protean ability to ‘leap’ across centuries and media, to make jaded readers, audiences, and viewers thrill to ever new forms of pathos and action.”

“Melodrama cuts across all of the different film genres and traditions and every national cinema” says Horne. It is melodrama’s ubiquity—as well as its connection to morality—that makes it such a rich source of study.

Horne elaborates on the moral aspects of melodrama: “One idea that comes from Peter Brooks in his influential book The Melodramatic Imagination (which is about theater and literature) is the notion of the ‘moral occult’ in melodrama. Melodrama takes place in a modern and secular world. Good and evil are clearly and symbolically depicted, but free of non-human spiritual forces. The moral occulting of relations in, for example, D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East or Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, places the drama between individuals entirely in the world of ordinary society. On the other hand, things that happen in this super-real world are also depicted as happening by chance, happenstance, or coincidence suggesting some preternatural order. Often this is where swelling music takes the place of dialogue or rational explanation.”

Music in melodrama is a crucial addition to the mise-en-scène of the film, signaling the appropriate emotion for the spectator/viewer. Some theorists also draw a connection between the role of music in the early silent films and the specific sound of the spoken word in “talkies.” (Director Howard Hawks trained Lauren Bacall’s voice so that she could be given ‘male’ lines in To Have and Have Not; her voice then becomes part of the mise-en-scène.)

Along with the romantic orchestral scoring of the soundtrack to signal or heighten emotion, melodrama is marked by missed meetings, sudden conversions, last-minute rescues, and deus ex machina endings, according to theorist Steve Neale, all of which help the viewer empathize with—indeed, suffer with and for—the protagonist/victim. Melodrama is fundamentally about loss, about the “too late,” about the “what if” or “if only” the spectator feels at the tragedy unfolding before her.

By focusing on the drama of the “what if,” melodrama draws its spectators into an imagined field of action versus non-action. The spectator ponders how she should act having witnessed a drama of loss. Hence, Horne says, “many have argued for [melodrama’s] political value as a popular vehicle for the critique of class, race and gender structures” both within the “text” of the film, and within the film industry itself. Bryn Mawr’s status as a women’s college allows Film Studies students a unique opportunity in which to view and interrogate the highly gender-biased film industry.


Stella Dallas

First a novel (1920), then a movie (1924), then another movie (1937), then a radio serial which aired for 18 years, and finally another movie (1990), the story of Stella Dallas and her love for her daughter finds its pinnacle in the 1937 film starring Barbara Stanwick as the eponymous mother, social climber and swanky dresser.

But the film also marks a turning point in film studies, from defining “women’s weepies” as a subgenre of melodrama, to an examination of the idea of “women’s film” as a category unto itself.

In Stanwick’s brilliant portrayal, Stella Dallas is a complicated mom living in a world that wants uncomplicated mothers. She loves her daughter, Laurel, and in the end, feels she must break from Laurel in order for Laurel to live the good life. It is a heart-breaking film, for Laurel and for the viewer. Having accomplished the separation, a tearful Stella witnesses her daughter’s wedding through a window…but then she turns and walks toward the camera and step by step a smile spreads across her tear-stained face. The question becomes, what does that last shot mean? Is she smiling in triumph? Relief? And if so, at what? Having sacrificed herself wholly for her daughter? If she is sacrificed, does she still exist (at least enough to feel triumph)?

In the essay “Melodrama and the Women’s Film,” Neale writes that debate about the notion of women’s films has “usually focused on issues of audience and audience-address, on the extent to which [melodrama] allow[s] for the articulation of a female point of view, and on the extent to which that point of view­—and the fate of the female protagonists—may be channeled, distorted, recuperated or dictated by patriarchal contexts of production, circulation
and reception.”

In Horne’s classroom, students debate the possible explanations for that smile. As soon as one is postulated, another debunks it, and so on. Theorist Jeanine Basinger could easily have been discussing Horne’s class when she wrote, “What emerges on close examination of hundreds of women’s movies is how strange and ambivalent they really are.…Contradictions abound.”

The discussion remains lively as Horne freeze-frames scenes for close examination. Students ponder: What does that pillar represent? What about the handkerchief? What about Stella’s diction? Even script flaws are opportunities for ambiguities and hence exploration and discussion. One student dubs the film “a big sea of estrogen.” Another points out that “you can’t have a mother who is a tart.” There is some discussion of wardrobe and lots of laughter.


The End

Horne’s students are required to write their final paper on a melodrama found outside the course films/reading. Horne says that topics from previous courses ranged from Desperate Housewives to Mexican telenovelas and Indian film. As well, students have turned their attention to the political, moral and social ramifications of news reporting, in one instance the reportage of the 2005 tsunami.

And typical of the nature of the interdisciplinarity of film studies, Horne’s students’ concerns range over the textual and extratextual, employ feminist, post-modern and many other analyses, and ultimately remain unsatisfied, the hallmark of open liberal minds.



Return to May 2007 highlights





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