Sunday, April 3, 2011

Working Class Melodrama: the Fulfilling of a Wish Fulfilled?

Like Kelley last week, Ross made me reconsider, at least briefly, the annoyance I feel when an audience member loudly responds to or comments on a film while it is playing at a movie theater. According to Ross, this is how working class audiences responded to films in their early days and one way to perhaps measure audience reception. And though my experience of this phenomenon has usually been confined to the jackass that talks on his phone in the row behind me or occasionally shouts out stupid jokes at the screen or asks his girlfriend to read the subtitles for him, I recognize the importance of audible responses in determining the effect of the film on the audience.

Of course, Ross discusses other methods of studying receptivity. To do so, he extends his notion of audience to include "not just ticketholders sitting in movie houses, but people outside the theater who reacted strongly to what was shown on the screen: capitalists, censors, police, government officials, union and radical leaders, and the rank-and-file members of their organization" (107). I think that this is a smart move on Ross's part in order to more fully measure a film's impact not just on an individual viewer--which would be in most cases impossible--but on a culture as a whole. One part of his analysis, though, that might not quite translate to a contemporary audience is his discussion of melodrama as the major mode informing the plots of radical working class films. He claims that the employment of melodrama by working class radical filmmakers showed that it "was not inherently bourgeois or individualist" but, quoting Robert Lang, "'a drama of identity, of protest, of wish-fulfillment,' that contained 'both progressive and reactionary impulses'" (100). It's hard, at least for a contemporary reader like myself, to reconcile working class film as melodramatic wish fulfillment with actual labor activity. In other words, in a Brechtian sense, if the wish of a working class audience is fulfilled by a film, do they need to actually enact the fulfillment of the wish in reality? Or is this just the criticism of a jaded contemporary viewer, who tends to see inauthenticity in any clear cut, good vs. bad plot line?

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