Trauma & Melodrama: Emotions in the Public Sphere
13th Annual Graduate Student Conference in the Department of Cinema & Media Studies, University of Chicago
April 21-22, 2017
Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts
Opening Remarks by: Tom Gunning, Edwin A. and Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor of Cinema & Media Studies and Art History, University of Chicago.
Keynote Speaker: Elisabeth Anker, Associate Professor of American Studies and Political Science, George Washington University, author of Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and the Politics of Freedom (Duke University Press, 2014).
Memory. Suffering. Upheaval. Displacement. The language of personal and political trauma is routinely also the language of melodrama. As a diverse set of filmic, televisual, and theatrical practices, melodrama expresses the constraints and possibilities of individuals and societies as they mediate between private and public spheres, engage with moral oppositions and ambiguities, and succeed or fail at communicating emotion, pain, and desire. Trauma, an equally protean term, encompasses the experiences of individual, moral, and societal transgressions. We ask how melodramatic conventions are necessary to the recollection and communication of trauma.
This conference invites varied accounts of how melodramatic structures make trauma present—to a screen subject, a filmmaker, an audience, or a national public. How do films and moving-image media deal with critical issues of nationality, ethnicity, religion, politics, gender, mental health, war, disease, displacement, and ecological crisis? How and why does emotion become public in the world, on the screen, and in spectatorial contexts? How do stylization and performance condition a person’s encounter with the traumatic event, the camera, and the screen? In particular, how do moving-image media enlist, transform, or presuppose melodrama as a condition of legibility or opacity?
Recent tendencies in moving-image and media practice compel scholars to address these issues. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing allows the perpetrators of atrocities to clothe their historical muteness in lyrical, spectacular performance. Conversely, Oppenheimer’s follow-up The Look of Silence starkly relates the same muteness to a familiar center troubled not only by political violence, but also by disease and old age. Yet these recent films and others also demonstrate the continued importance and vitality of scholarly appraisal of global melodrama on a broad historical scale that encompasses multiple genres and modes, fiction and nonfiction. Without ignoring the clear importance of the 1950s American home as a melodramatic site, our goal is rather to understand melodrama as a loose alliance of practices of emotional performance, publicity, and presence emerging in various media idioms throughout the history of the moving image.
Possible lines of inquiry may include:
- Lyrical performance in documentary (Eduardo Coutinho’s Playing, Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, etc.)
- Allegory mediating between domestic and national scales (e.g. Khan’s Mother India)
- Reflexive meditation on the political stakes of film production and exhibition (Guzman’s Obstinate Memory)
- Documentary recreation and “ecstatic truth” (Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, Morris’ Tabloid, Herzog, etc.)
- Canonical melodramatic narrative and visual conventions in recent Hollywood films and television (Todd Haynes’ Carol, Lee Daniels’ series Empire on Fox)
- The historical crisis as an explicit or implicit backdrop for fictional narrative (Ritwik Ghatak’s Cloud-Capped Star)
- The politics of individual screen presence (Warhol’s Screen Tests, etc.)
- Media and re-living trauma; melodrama and documentary (Harun Farocki’s Serious Games, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence)
- Melodramatic structures and cinematic realism (Neorealism, the French “New Realism,” the Cinema of Precarity, etc.)
- Melodramatic conventions in conversation with televisual “liveness”
- Melodramatic forms in a variety of national and political contexts and film industries (Bollywood, Nollywood, etc.)
Please send an abstract (250-300 words) to co-chairs Tyler Schroeder, Tien-Tien Jong, and Andrew Pettinelli at uchicago[DOT]cms[DOT]gradconf[AT]gmail[DOT]com by February 13, 2017. Participants will be notified by the beginning of March.