Saturday, April 22
10:00am — Panel 1 — Melodramatic Encounters: Unsettling Identities of Self & Other
Chair: Pao-Chen Tang
Brooke Marine (MAPH, University of Chicago)
Melodrama and Realism in Sean S. Baker’s Tangerine
After the 1965 Watts Rebellion, an alternative Black Cinema called the “L.A. Rebellion” presented the complexity of living as a person of color in Los Angeles, birthing realist cinematic projects of decolonization that provided unsung perspectives on the junctures of race, class and gender (exemplified in films such as Larry Clark’s Passing Through and Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep). The sprawling geographical and cultural landscape of Los Angeles renders the city famous for its glamorous excess and its existence as a colorful sanctuary for the art of performance. At the same time, Tinseltown is also known for its large population of queer youth who live in economic precarity and under threats to their physical safety.
Shot entirely on an iPhone 5S, Sean S. Baker’s Tangerine is stylized as colorful, raw and gritty, which ultimately places the film itself at an intersection between the genres of melodrama (often associated with the “feminine”) and realism (often associated with the “masculine”), just as the narrative structure heightens the critical intersections between gender, ethnicity and class with the overlapping emotional journeys of its two main characters. Thinking with theories on melodrama from Christine Gledhill and Laura Mulvey, as well as Lauren Berlant’s “cinema of precarity” and essays from L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema, this paper will examine how melodramatic conventions are employed within the narrative structure of Tangerine, and how these structures reveal the ways in which the characters of Sin-Dee Rella and Alexandra engage with and communicate their own personal traumas of experiencing incarceration and laboring as transgender sex workers in Los Angeles.
Looking at specific scenes such as Alexandra’s gripping performance of “Babes in Toyland,” the Christmas operetta, to an empty crowd, and the tender display of friendship between Sin-Dee and Alexandra in the closing scene, this paper will investigate how gender, ethnicity, and labor within a late capitalist framework intersect in the face of physical, emotional and financial crises, and depict Tangerine as a true descendent of both mid 20th century melodramas and neorealist films.
Brian Plungis (New York University)
Farhadi as a Conciliator: Realism, Humanism, and Conservatism in Global Film Melodrama
Before awarding the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Picture to Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011), presenter Sandra Bullock stated, “movies are a shared experience that unites us all… they speak to the common humanity in all of us.” Considering the geopolitics of Iran, the icy US-Iran relations that persist even after ratifying the recent nuclear deal, and the international praise for Farhadi addressing sensitive issues of gender and class in Iran, how exactly Farhadi’s family melodrama fosters a sense of ‘common humanity’ amid this contentious politico-economic backdrop necessitates further examination. In investigating the supposed humanism of Farhadi’s filmmaking, this presentation will analyze Farhadi’s preceding film, About Elly (2009), to discern the aesthetic style and thematic concerns that Farhadi revisits and refines in A Separation and later in The Salesman (2016). Centered around a traumatic incident and imbued with ambiguity, About Elly employs a melodramatic framework that engages numerous representations of victimhood as a means of broaching social and moral issues while deftly navigating potential censorship and appealing to global audiences. Although theorists characterize Farhadi’s style as a hybrid of realism and melodrama, this discussion will apply the works of Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams to unpack how Farhadi incorporates realist innovations within the operative mode of melodrama, thereby constructing films that support numerous subject positions, balance structural tensions among transnational audiences, and ultimately promote cross-cultural dialogue. By contextualizing About Elly within the history of American-influenced film melodrama in Iran and briefly comparing Farhadi’s work to similarly-structured American melodramas, including Ordinary People (1980) and Manchester by the Sea (2016), this presentation will examine how Farhadi uses the typically conservative mode of melodrama to work toward progressive political discourse while showcasing the protean nature of global melodrama as it aesthetically and ideologically adapts to different cultural, religious, and political terrains.
Chaz Lee and Dan Wang (University of Chicago)
Yellowdrama: Traumatic Identity and the Model Melodramatist
In contemporary US media culture, the content of race as a publicly knowable thing comes into appearance via the trauma-melodrama process: race causes harm that’s historically undisclosed and must be brought into public light via the expressive efforts of harmed persons. The expressive burden of attaining civic eligibility through emotional legibility generates a mode of governmentality in which minoritized subjects scramble to cobble together a portfolio of humanity––representations in which private suffering is eloquently rendered into something universally recognizable.
Yet “Asianness” complicates these efforts to grasp the content of race in America in two ways. First, how does one ascertain trauma when the paradigmatic stereotype of Asians is the “model minority,” a phrase that describes the transcendence of racial trauma? Second, when the national fantasy of the superlative but soulless Asian worker exists to endow white identity with feeling and warm interiority, how radical is melodrama as a form of political repair, when melodrama itself is a technology that has, since the US’s founding, endowed warmth into its nationalist projects?
This paper addresses how the trauma-melodrama paradigm of racial representation inadequately captures the experience of racialization for Asians in America, and further considers how Asianness as a position within the US racial imaginary can point to paradigms beyond the traumatic model of race. In particular, since Asianness is frequently exempted from race on the basis of success within capitalism, Asianness serves to reconfirm capitalism as a system of delivery from racial injury. To consider trauma and Asian experience, then, is to imagine a form of national racial repair whose endpoint lies beyond redemptive narratives of upward mobility and the just distribution of representation.
Because any cohesive “talk” would reproduce the very kinds of intimate testimony about race that we are critiquing here, this paper will be delivered as a dialogue.
1:00pm – Panel 2 — Genres of Transgression and Excess: Techniques, Technologies, and the Power of Narrative
Chair: Amanda Shubert
Samantha Freeman (Northwestern University)
“Especially Heinous”: Depicting the Trauma of Sexual Violence in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit
NBC’s award-winning Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (1999-), which began its 18th season this fall, is one of the most popular and longest running prime-time crime procedural dramas. Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is often critiqued for depicting graphic violence against women and for constantly recasting the woman in peril trope. However, in this paper, I instead argue that SVU can actually be seen as representative of a televisual attempt to repeatedly engage discourses around the trauma of sexual violence.
In this paper, I combine Michael Newman’s beat structure with Linda Williams’ work on the melodramatic mode to show how SVU employs a formulaic beat narrative structure to melodramatically adapt “ripped from the headlines” major news stories. By looking at recent examples of how SVU adapted popular and contested news stories, such as the Rolling Stone UVA rape and the Duke Porn Star, I argue that through its beat structure, SVU is able to accomplish a narrative compression of these events. By deploying the melodramatic mode, in tandem with the beat narrative structure, these fictional adaptations accomplish a sort of moral legibility and add a didactic cultural commentary on issues of sexual violence (i.e. consent, rape culture, female agency). Ultimately, I argue that through this constant repetitive deployment of the beat structure and the melodramatic mode, SVU attempts to engage the politics of sexual violence, work through discourses of trauma, and combat pervasive social tropes and stigmas— and all in under an hour each week.
Anugyan Nag (New York University)
Song and Dance: Affect, Emotions, and Trauma
Song and Dance is present in some form or the other in most mainstream Indian films, used either in spectacular forms or more intimately to articulate emotion” thus seeing dance as an integral element of “the semi-operatic, musical and melodramatic form of mainstream Indian cinemas…and the pleasures that this cinema (affords)”. Ira Bhaskar’s pioneering essay on Indian Melodramatic form takes the performative and affective form of songs seriously and sees it as “a distinctly expressive melodramatic language of affect to articulate specific cultural and social experiences” drawing upon “indigenous cultural, expressive, and performative forms that give Indian melodrama a different experiential texture and feel” (2012: 163-164). Significantly from the early sound era films with dance narratives (which I call Dance Films) with central protagonist being a female dancer have acquired a generic status-popularly known as the Tawaif/Courtesan films; remembered for their melodious music, lyrical poetry, exquisite costumes and above all the pleasures and spectacle of the majestic dance sequences Adalat (Kalidas, 1958), Pakeezah (Kamal Amrohi, 1972), Sharafat (Asit Sen, 1970), Umrao Jaan (Muzaffar Ali, 1981), Umrao Jaan (J.P.Dutta, 2006). The Taiwaf/Courtesan’s complex internal sufferings and deep seated trauma, desires, sorrows, joys and dreams have been foregrounded through the song and dance sequences most emphatically. These personal expressions of amplified emotions, affectively and allegorically evoke the larger notions of women’s plight in the world of Indian performative traditions, especially that of the Tawaif, where lyrics, poetry, dance choreography and visual aesthetics become the conduit for underlining and expressing issues of sexual exploitations, suppression of romantic desires, marriage and conjugal deprivation, absence of home, motherhood, livelihood and respectability. These films call for a closer investigation and cinematic analysis of how song and dance have been historically deployed and realized through these texts, and demand a further exploration of the intimate and intricate relationship between film narrative and song and dance in articulating trauma and emotion. Hence, this paper will focus on these films that privilege primarily the female dancer figure(Courteasan) to explore this historical-formal relationship along two trajectories; firstly, to observe how these films foregrounded song and dance in innovative and creative ways, and secondly, how song and dance became the mode for subjective expressions, affective pleasures, and personal sufferings(trauma) often reflective of larger social conditions.
Chris Carloy (University of Chicago)
All that Gameplay Allows: Gone Home, Melodrama, and the Videogame Medium
One of the familiar features of the domestic melodrama in film is its displacement of that-which-cannot-be-said onto the mise-en-scene. This paper considers the use of this and other conventions of melodrama in the 2013 videogame Gone Home. Returning home from a study abroad on a dark, stormy night, Kaitlin Greenbriar finds an empty house and an ominous note from her sister. Gameplay consists of combing the house for clues to what has happened while Kaitlin was gone. Along the way, the player/Kaitlin uncovers not only recent events – her younger sister’s coming to terms with her sexual identity and the resulting family drama – but other long-buried family secrets and traumas.
Gone Home presents an opportunity to consider both the videogame medium’s incorporation of elements from other media – in this case the norms and conventions of the domestic melodrama – and its medium-specific resources for representing trauma. How does Gone Home use mise-en-scene as a means of storytelling and of revealing the private feelings, thoughts, and memories of its characters? What does it mean for traditional melodramatic modes of storytelling and representation that the player is actively engaged in uncovering the characters’ secrets and traumas, and what does it mean for a traditional videogame mechanic – exploration – to be applied to entirely new modes of storytelling and emotional registers? What does it mean that Gone Home also includes conventions from another cinematic genre of traumatic domestic spatiality – horror? How do established conventions of the survival horror genre of videogames interact with those of domestic melodrama? Finally, how might its association with melodrama – and traditional associations of the genre with female spectatorship – have influenced Gone Home’s reception by gamers and critics?
3:00pm – Panel 3 — Documentary Poetics: History, Memory, and Spectacle
Chair: Mary Adekoya
Sasha Crawford-Holland (University of Southern California)
Somatic Signs: Performing the Truth of Trauma
This paper considers how corporeal evidence functions as testimony in Joshua Oppenheimer’s groundbreaking documentary The Act of Killing (2012). While Oppenheimer’s film has been written about extensively, few have acknowledged the vital role that bodies play in performing the film’s claims to historical authenticity. Performance is often regarded as a category that separates fiction’s pretenders from nonfiction’s social actors. However, I argue that The Act of Killing’s performances grant us access to historical realities by activating memory’s revolutionary potential. Memories resurge amidst the hallucinatory spectacles that comprise the film as they erupt from performing bodies.
I begin with the premise that reenactment makes an important intervention into conventions of documentary and historical representation. Departing from the rhetoric of truth by which interpretation masquerades as factuality, reenactment negotiates the simultaneous existence of a historical reality and the impossibility of its enclosure. By inviting performance into the archive, reenactment undermines the logics of indexicality and material remains by which conventional truth structures are erected. Instead, the truth of trauma must be performed. I argue that The Act of Killing’s reenactments locate truth inside the body, extending the trajectory by which photographic media has evolved in pursuit of corporeal knowledge. Like melodrama’s tears and pornography’s ‘money-shot,’ somatic evidence is deployed throughout The Act of Killing to signify authenticity. The truth surfaces through tears, vomit, and other bodily disclosures. When performers activate their bodily memories, they perform the paradoxes between national history and personal memory, navigating a critical exchange between evidence and emotion. Corporeally explicit testimony summons the spectral victims of past violence to undermine the presiding historical narrative that insists on their disappearance.
Egor Shmonin (Concordia University)
Pending the Catharsis: Revealing of National Trauma in Postpoetic Documentary Saga We?
The documentary cinema of the Perestroika (“restructuring”, the program of economic and political reform in the USSR) tended to formulate new social and aesthetic categories. Any forms of non-normative otherness that were denied on the screen for almost 70 years during the USSR became in the ’80s visible on screen: wounded veterans of Afghanistan, disabled people, along with victims of social and economic downturns, such as homeless and abandoned children, alcoholics, etc. This new documentary formulated urgent and necessary questions of citizenship, national identity, national trauma and private memory within the new “imagined community”. The documentary We? rethinks this grand narrative in the terms of the catastrophe of the image, what Baudrillard calls “transaethetics” as a mode of aestheticization of any object. We?’s language of ruination produces a description rather than naming, by capturing human tragedies in the hot spots of the vanishing Soviet Union.
In this paper I want to highlight several areas concerned with issues of national subjectivity analyzed within the grand narrative of the communist ideology in the Soviet Union. Podnieks makes explicit reference to the experience of the Soviet avant-garde cinema of the 1920s in an attempt to reconstitute the collapsing reality of the Soviet Empire in the late 1980s. Podnieks’s documentary points its gaze towards suffering and extinction as they reveal the mechanisms of transformation of subjectivity. His film indicates how the representation of suffering works against the constitution of collective memory. Contrary to a totalitarian narrative, postpoetic documentary cinema includes the figure of disappearance into the public discourse. In that way, the trauma of the ruined reality which was always revealed postfactum only, now could be directed to the events of actual history.
Fareed Ben-Youssef (University of California, Berkeley)
Drones Over the Banlieue: Olivier Babinet’s Swagger and a State of Emergency’s Spectacular Trauma
“The present is strange. Maybe the future will be the end of the world, like in war films.” So ponders a teenage daughter of immigrants in Olivier Babinet’s Swagger (2016), a poetic documentary about banlieue youth during France’s ongoing state of emergency. The film follows her spectacle-infused testimony with a dystopian sequence where the drones of a near-future French state patrol the Paris projects. The object of their warlike scrutiny? The very children who serve as the film’s gregarious subjects, whose grand dreams are tempered by a dread of a future in which they are discursively and legally marked as an enemy of the state.
This paper examines such fantastical scenes against legal and sociological studies of migrant youth within France today who are objects of increasingly intense state surveillance. Although they live monitored by CCTV, Swagger’s subjects co-opt the camera’s gaze in dream sequences. They transform into movie stars filled with irrepressible life thereby allegorically disrupting the hold of the panoptic vision which ensnares them. Babinet’s film thus answers the challenge issued by Henry A. Giroux and Brad Evans who find that 21st century minority youth, often positioned as violent threats, need “new alternative futures” ones wherein their “violently fated world might be transcended.”
In its final moments, Swagger stages the present-day dystopia of the banlieue when it shows one of its subjects awoken by police sirens. It juxtaposes this broken slumber against the words of a French-African boy who recalls a dream where he became the French president. As his motorcade passed under the Arc de Triomphe, the spectating crowds yelled, “Victory!” My paper ultimately positions Babinet’s Swagger as a vital documentary of a state of emergency’s spectacular trauma which also offers a portrait of victory, of a new future wherein a resistant hope might be gleaned.