Thomas Elsaesser 1992 [1972], 'Tales of sound and fury: observations on the family melodrama', in Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen, & Leo Braudy eds, Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, fourth edition, Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford: 512-535. 791.4301 FIL 1992

Linda Williams 1992 [1984], 'When the woman looks', from Mary Anne Doane, Patricia Mellencamp & Linda Williams eds, Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism, University Publications of America, & the American Film Institute, Frederick, Md. 791.435 R454

Ten Types of Australian Film, Chapter 5, Melodrama



Main screening:
Lantana (Ray Lawrence, 2001), 115 min.

I had a problem in 2004 with the three weeks (4, 5 and 6) on the social problem film, the melodrama and woman's film - and particularly with the last two - because of the amount of overlap between them - which made it difficult to find clips from unique films to illustrate these types of film. So, in 2005, I dropped the social problem film from the fourth week and replaced it with the road movie. [Another possibility was and remains children's movies: with which I could show clips from early Nicole Kidman movies, Bush Christmas and BMX Bandits. :-]

For example, the main screening for Week 4, the social problem film week, Angel Baby (Michael Rymer, 1995), is undoubtedly a family melodrama. Kate's father is apparently the main cause of her problems (she has PTSD: post-traumatic shock disorder, not "schizophrenia"), and the central problem in the plot is the conception, gestation and birth of Kate and Harry's baby, Astral. When the family fails Harry - through the death of Kate - he appears to be going to kill himself.

A film from which I showed an excerpt in Week 4 of 2004, Teesh and Trude (Melanie Rodriga, 2002), is also a family melodrama: here a central problem is the custody of the two women's children; another concern is with their partners. And the film I showed complete in Week 2 of 2004, Mullet (David Caesar, 1996), is a family melodrama, as I argue in some detail in my chapter on this topic. So let's consider those three films as examples for this week. The Boys (Rowan Woods, 1997) also has elements of the family melodrama: the "boys" are three brothers without a father.

The reason I put the long and difficult reading from Thomas Elsaesser down for this week was because my particular interest in the family melodrama, and he has published this significant paper on the subject. I should, perhaps, have given you an edited version of the paper, but as a university teacher I prefer to allow students to make their own selections of what they think they need to know. But I do apologise for requiring you to read all that. It's up to you and your tutors what use you make of it.

The hypothesis that I'll be putting to you today about the family melodrama is somewhat different from Elsaesser's argument, which is summarised in this quotation.

The family melodrama, by contrast [with the western], though dealing largely with the same Oedipal themes of emotional and moral identity, more often records the failure of the protagonist to act in a way that could shape the events and influence the emotional environment, let alone change the stifling social milieu. The world is closed, and the characters are acted upon. Melodrama confers on them a negative identity through suffering, and the progressive self-immolation and disillusionment generally ends in resignation: they emerge as lesser human beings for having become wise and acquiescent to the ways of the world. (1992: 523-4)
By contrast with this negative view, I want to suggest that the family melodrama has what it sees as a positive project. Emphasising the group rather than Elsaesser's reduced individuals, I propose that the program of the family melodrama is in fact the maintenance of the family, or of some sort of family, or of anything like a family.

But before I try to demonstrate that in extracts from some films, I'll briefly refer to the antecedents of the meanings of the film melodrama, as discussed in the my chapter on this topic. Elsaesser himself gives some of the history of the melodrama (p. 519).

This week's thesis is that the much-maligned and almost-forgotten melodrama actually has an important program: the restoration of the nuclear family. (I'll argue next week that the also much-maligned and almost-forgotten "woman's film" still has a role to play in claiming a position for a female POV.) It doesn't seem to matter what this family nucleus contains: the intention is that THERE WILL BE a family of some kind.

I'm thinking about this in terms of the family, but there is a larger context, as signalled by Peter Brooks (1976), that even larger forces are marshalled under the sign of "melodrama": the very idea of order itself, as against that which will upset it. But I shall be modest in my ambitions for this week, and for Australian cinema, and I shall confine myself to the family, in the ordinary sense of that phrase: the Aussie family, with its 4x2 bungalow, tracky daks and corn flakes.

That's the political part of this week. The other aspect of this week's project is stylistic. Melodrama, particularly in the adjectival form of the word, "melodramatic", has come to be associated with an exaggerated way of acting and also unexpected events which are designed to have an emotional effect on the audience. (One of the distinguishing features of the melodrama, as argued by Moretti, is in fact the production of tears.)

Because of the crucial nature of the family for many/most people, the stakes are high in relation to the power structures involved. As anyone who knows anything about the Family Court knows, drama and even violence are near at hand. And the excess of the drama of the Oz melodrama is in keeping with its expression.

Way Down East DVD coverWay Down East (D. W. Griffith, 1920)

I'm showing this clip from one of Griffith's more highly-regarded films to indicate the silent antecedents of the present form taken by melodrama in film - and, indeed, the link between the theatrical origins of melodrama and the form it takes in films clips from which I'll show later.

Of the questions raised in the excerpt, one of the most significant is whether or not the child has a father; that is: is the family complete? The main character in this film is threatened with the loss of her child because she was tricked into a false marriage and now has no husband. She does her best to supply one by baptising the child herself - in the name of the Father and the rest of the Holy Family, Son and Holy Spirit. When the child dies and no husband appears, the mother is asked to leave the premises.

(Just by the way, the actress, Lillian Gish, the beautiful heroine with the expressive eyes, Griffith's favourite actress, lived into her hundreth year, and has to her credit no fewer than 101 films made in the 75 years between 1912 to 1987.) [clip: "baby" 50.18 - 54.30 "Holy Ghost"]

Caddie DVD coverCaddie (Donald Crombie, 1976): Helen Morse plays the part of a Sydney barmaid in 1925-1930: the film was based on an anonymous autobiography (written by Catherine 'Caddie' Edmonds - with the assistance of Dymphna Cusack and Florence James). Clip: 2'50".

Coming forward a few years, we find another melodrama, another single mother with a sick child, and another family needing completion.

There's not much dialogue in this sequence, so we can take the opportunity to think about the importance of music - melody - in melodrama - and in the creation of the meaning of the film. Caddie is actually not a particularly melodramatic film: this true story of a woman's life in poverty in Sydney around 1925-1930, at the beginning of the Great Depression, is uniformly drab and depressing, somewhat like a documentary - and there are few high moments. This is one of the lowest: the single mother faces losing one of her two children. The music expresses her despair during the long wait; and then picks up when the child recovers from diphtheria and a possible partner enters her life: he's played by Jack Thompson; Helen Morse plays 'Caddie'. This film was funded from the Women's Film Fund, although directed by a man. [clip "hospital" 29.12 - 32.44]

High Tide DVD coverHigh Tide (Gillian Armstrong, 1987): Lillie (Judy Davis) rediscovers abandoned child Ally (Claudia Karvan), who has been brought up by her paternal grandmother, Jan Adele; Frankie J. Holden is an Elvis impersonator, Colin Friels the love interest; 100 min.

The clip shows the mother (Judy Davis) spying on the child (Claudia Karvan) - who believes her mother is dead. Lillie (Ally's mother) is seen by the child's grandmother, Bet (Jan Adele), who chases her, and there is an altercation between the two. When the upset grandmother goes back to the caravan to tell the child they have to leave, there is another confrontation and the two say they "hate" each other. [clip "sanding" 51.00 - 55.22]

The Sum of Us (Geoff Burton & Kevin Dowling, 1994)

The clip I've chosen commences with the arrival of Joyce (Harry's "choice") for New Year's dinner at Harry's (Jack Thompson), whom she hopes to marry. She does not know that Harry's son Jeff (Russell Crowe) is gay. When she finds out, we become aware of her conventional notion of the family. Harry's reaction leads to an over-the-top melodramatic speech which includes the words of the title of the film. To make the moment as melodramatic as possible, Harry suffers a stroke as the fireworks go off at midnight on New Year's Eve. [clip "revelation" 1.02.48 - 1.08.44]

Innocence (Paul Cox, 2000): wr. Paul Cox; Bud Tingwell, Julia Blake, Terry Norris, Robert Menzies, Marita Dusseldorp, Chris Hayward; screened Toronto 2000

Now I'm going to show you a clip from a film about the Eternal Triangle: one woman and two men. The first scene shows the woman's husband remonstrating with her. She runs off to her lover, who is prepared to receive her, but not with the passion she wants. The husband acts melodramatically, banging and the door and shouting; and then, with her lover, the wife also acts melodramatically: "Keep me here! Help me! ... There won't be a tomorrow. Now you take me here and now, otherwise you will never ever see me again! ... I don't want sacrifice, I want love." It's doesn't come much more melodramatic than that. I hope I manage not to let you know before you see the film clip that the characters - and of course the actors - are over 70 years old. Another striking thing is that the married couple, Claire and John, are played by a real married couple, Julie Blake and Terry Norris. (Paul Cox wrote the film, he says, for Julia.) The "other man" is the actor with the greatest longevity in Australian film: Charles "Bud" Tingwell (as Andreas, the retired organist). Bud Tingwell (born 1923) starred in Always Another Dawn (T. O McCreadie) in 1949, after having spoken his first (one) line in a film in Smithy (Ken G. Hall, 1946). You might remember him from The Castle (Rob Sitch, 1997), in which he plays the humane retired barrister. [clip "passion" 36.23 - 38.39]

Walking on Water (Tony Ayres, 2002): wr. Roger Monk, prod. Liz Watts; Vince Colosimo, Maria Theodorakis, Nathaniel Dean, Judy Farr, Nicholas Bishop, David Bonney, Daniel Roberts, Anna Lise Phillips; Gavin dies of AIDS and his friends and family have to cope with the manner of his death

The selected clip begins with the arrival of Gavin's natural family at his house: his mother, brother and his wife. They meet Gavin's three friends, his acquired family, Anna (Maria Theodorakis), Charlie (Vince Colosimo) and Frank (Nicholas Bishop), Charlie's boyfriend. There is a minor confrontation between the natural and the "cultural" families. The clip ends with a "melodramatic" event, and unexpected and emotional moment, both in terms of the plot and of the effect on the characters and therefore the viewer. [clip "death" 6.43 - 14.34]

Mullet (David Caesar, 2001): at last, a more conventional family

The clip is from the end of the film. Ben Mendelsohn's character Eddie, who is also called "Mullet", returns to his home town, after making no contact with anyone for some time, to find that his girlfriend Tully (Susie Porter) has in the meantime married his brother Peter (Andrew S. Gilbert). The tension caused by this discovery has to be resolved somehow: let's see how David Caesar (also the writer) brings this about. Will there be a melodramatic moment?


Peter Brooks 1976, The Melodramatic Imagination, Yale University Press, New Haven & London.

Other films considered for excerpts but not shown:

Amy (Nadia Tass, 1998): DVD
Angel Baby (Michael Rymer, 1995) ... shown in Wk 4 2004
The Boys (Rowan Woods, 1997) - for Week 9
The FJ Holden (Michael Thornhill, 1977): DVD - for Week 10
Blackrock (Steven Vidler, 1997): DVD - for Week 10
Lonely Hearts (Paul Cox, 1982) ... videotape
Lilian's Story (Jerzy Domaradzki, 1996) ... videotape
Mall Boy (Vincent Giarrusso, 2000): videotape
My First Wife (Paul Cox, 1984) ... not owned
The Quiet Room (Rolf de Heer, 1996) ... not owned
Romper Stomper (Geoffrey Wright, 1992): shown in Week 2, 2006
Teesh and Trude (Melanie Rodriga, 2002): videotape
Yolngu Boy (Stephen Johnson, 2001): DVD - for Week 10

New: 22 March, 2004 | Now: 3 August, 2014 | Garry Gillard