Body, Excess, and Pathos

I'm rereading Linda Williams' "Body Genres" essay for class today. It's a deservedly influential essay, both for how well it encapsulated a number of theoretical strains to that point and for how it pushed the research agenda to a closer consideration of corporeality, affect, and spectatorial experience. Still, something this time gave me pause. Does melodrama really rely on the spectacle of the excessive, sobbing woman? Sure, you can find examples, and Williams privileges them: Stella Dallas or Steel Magnolias. But pathos often works by not showing - whether in art-cinema de-dramatization (Mizoguchi, Fassbinder) or in commercial melodrama's narratives of communication breakdown.

Take for instance the Sex and the City episode in which Miranda's mother dies (season 4, ep 8, "My Motherboard, Myself"). There are two strains of pathos: Miranda at first cannot grieve because of the pent up issues she had with her mother, Samantha at first cannot be supportive for Miranda because of her inability to deal with mortality. Both eventually do cry on screen, but it's not excessive display of them sobbing that drives the pathos; instead, it is the repression that eventually breaks.

Or, for a classical example, one of the films I'm working on, The Green Years (Victor Saville, 1946), follows poor orphan Robert Shannon as he excels as a science student and takes a test to try to earn a scholarship to learn to be a doctor. Unfortunately, an illness leads him to perform poorly and he ends up just shy of a scholarship. It's a gut wrenching moment not because Robbie cries, but because he doesn't and instead shoulders the fate of working in a foundry, his dreams of class aspiration dashed. Nor does the family react with excess, but instead an icy knowledge of what has been lost.

These moments strike me as more typical than the Williams argument lets on.


Popular Posts