9 votes

Not every movie must be a melodrama

Tags: melodrama

start rant

First, my personal definition of the term: melodrama is a narrative that appeals to our stronger emotions in a lengthy, recurrent, unjustified and exaggerated fashion. Unlike drama, which plays to your sentiments in a more contained and psychologically realistic manner, melodrama overwhelms us with every trick in the book to elicit a powerful emotional reaction by any means necessary.

You can tell from my phrasing that I'm not a fan of the genre, but that's beside the point. Melodrama has its place: operas and soap-operas wouldn't exist without it, and, in moderation, it's a practical way to inject emotion in plots that would be otherwise hermetic and dry.

But even sweetness in excess will make you vomit, and many interesting productions exaggerate it to the point of nausea. Arrival is awesome, but did Amy Adams character (which was basically one the smartest persons on Earth) really need to spend so much time as a freaking wife? We had the coolest movie aliens in the last 20 years, did she really need to marry a boring physicist? And what about the whole parenting conundrum in Interstellar? You're in fucking space, I couldn't care less about your failings as a father! No one could save 1998s Armageddon, but the struggle to explode the giant asteroid heading towards the Earth was way more interesting than Liv Tyler saying goodbye to Bruce Willis over some corny Aerosmith song. The TV show The Killing was particularly annoying... what would prefer, awesome investigation scenes with constant new developments or 30 versions of "look how the same family is grieving in a slightly different way"?

But credit where credit is due: some moviemakers know a thing or two about concision. So my props to Fernando Meirelles (City of God), José Padilha (Elite Squad), Alfred Hitchcock, David Fincher, Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese, Chad Stahelski (from John Wick!!!!) and many others. Thank you for not wasting my time!

EDIT1: And just make things perfectly clear: my issue is not with the presence of drama or melodrama, but with its amount...
EDIT2: to be even more clear: this does not mean that I wish for all movies to be sterile, dry or devoid of emotional content...
EDIT3: a lot of answers seem to ignore the differences between drama and melodrama, the previous edits and the nuance of the post. Ahh... what can I do? :P

end rant

14 comments

  1. [8]
    NaraVara
    Link
    There is plenty of written sci-fi that totally eschews any human-centric story and focuses solely on the broad "look at this technology/alien/world/whatever." They generally end up being extremely...

    But even sweetness in excess will make you vomit, and many interesting productions exaggerate it to the point of nausea. Arrival is awesome, but did Amy Adams character (which was basically one the smartest persons on Earth) really need to spend so much time as a freaking wife? We had the coolest movie aliens in the last 20 years, did she really need to marry a boring physicist? And what about the whole parenting conundrum in Interstellar? You're in fucking space, I couldn't care less about your failings as a father! No one could save 1998s Armageddon, but the struggle to explode the giant asteroid heading towards the Earth was way more interesting than Liv Tyler saying goodbye to Bruce Willis over some corny Aerosmith song. The TV show The Killing was particularly annoying... what would prefer, awesome investigation scenes with new developments or 30 versions of "look how the same family is grieving in a slightly different way"?

    There is plenty of written sci-fi that totally eschews any human-centric story and focuses solely on the broad "look at this technology/alien/world/whatever." They generally end up being extremely boring as novels. Even some of the ones that really do put a heavy emphasis on whatever sci-fi concept root it in interpersonal drama. Rendezvous with Rama has a whole subplot about international spy intrigue and the Mars trilogy is more about different factions of people arguing with each other moreso than the day-to-day work of colonizing Mars.

    Arrival without Amy Adams working through the death of her daughter would be as dry as watching Dr. Manhattan alone on Mars with nobody to interact with. Armageddon without any terrestrial subplot just becomes a really shitty version of Apollo 13

    13 votes
    1. [5]
      mrbig
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      More examples of successful media that contains little to no melodrama: Sherlock (with Benedict Cumberbatch) Southland (TV show) The Wire (TV show) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (book and TV show)...

      More examples of successful media that contains little to no melodrama:

      • Sherlock (with Benedict Cumberbatch)
      • Southland (TV show)
      • The Wire (TV show)
      • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (book and TV show)
      • Pretty much the entire noir genre
      • Pretty much the entire neo-noir genre
      • Most full-blown comedies
      • Most parodies
      • Most horror
      • Most erotic and porn
      • Most political thrillers

      And the list goes on...

      3 votes
      1. [2]
        NaraVara
        Link Parent
        Most of this stuff doesn’t have “melodrama” because the intent of the story is to foster suspense or some other gut emotion instead. But they use the same kinds of manipulative emotional tricks to...

        Most of this stuff doesn’t have “melodrama” because the intent of the story is to foster suspense or some other gut emotion instead. But they use the same kinds of manipulative emotional tricks to create tension instead. I’m not sure how that’s any better. It’s basically just a genre preference at that point.

        7 votes
        1. mrbig
          (edited )
          Link Parent
          My issue is with melodrama, not drama. There's nothing wrong with using rhetorical devices to induce emotion. Melodrama is just a subtype of these strategies.

          My issue is with melodrama, not drama. There's nothing wrong with using rhetorical devices to induce emotion. Melodrama is just a subtype of these strategies.

          1 vote
      2. [2]
        papasquat
        Link Parent
        You sure about The Wire? Where the fuck is Wallace?

        You sure about The Wire?
        Where the fuck is Wallace?

        4 votes
        1. cfabbro
          (edited )
          Link Parent
          Yeah, as much as I love The Wire, it was pretty damn melodramatic... McNulty, Clay Davis and Omar's characters were especially over the top in that regard, but I would argue that most (if not all)...

          Yeah, as much as I love The Wire, it was pretty damn melodramatic... McNulty, Clay Davis and Omar's characters were especially over the top in that regard, but I would argue that most (if not all) of the characters and situations in the show were highly exaggerated for dramatic effect and would qualify as being melodramatic.

          2 votes
    2. mrbig
      Link Parent
      Did you read Permutation City? ;)

      There is plenty of written sci-fi that totally eschews any human-centric story and focuses solely on the broad "look at this technology/alien/world/whatever." They generally end up being extremely boring as novels.

      Did you read Permutation City? ;)

      2 votes
    3. mrbig
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      My issue is not the presence of melodrama, but its amount...

      My issue is not the presence of melodrama, but its amount...

      1 vote
  2. [2]
    skybrian
    Link
    Arrival is based on a story by Ted Chang called "The Story of Your Life." It does have interesting alien concepts but it's centered on a mother's relationship with her daughter. I highly recommend...

    Arrival is based on a story by Ted Chang called "The Story of Your Life." It does have interesting alien concepts but it's centered on a mother's relationship with her daughter. I highly recommend it along with all of Ted Chang's stories.

    Maybe it's not the best example for this argument?

    6 votes
    1. mrbig
      Link Parent
      I read the original story.

      I read the original story.

      1 vote
  3. mundane_and_naive
    (edited )
    Link
    In general, I would agree with you that melodrama is not necessary in sci-fi, or movies in general. However, I have to disagree with your choice of examples here. In Arrival, her marriage with the...

    In general, I would agree with you that melodrama is not necessary in sci-fi, or movies in general. However, I have to disagree with your choice of examples here.

    In Arrival, her marriage with the physicist and the subsequent relationship between her and her daughter is the point. The sci-fi plot introduces us to the concept of non-linear time perception and the family drama is it being applied in a familiar human scenario, putting the theory to the test so to speak. If you can see the future and know what tragedy is waiting ahead, would you still make the decisions that will inevitably lead to said future? The movie argues that you still would. The family drama is necessary to illustrate the serious implication of an otherwise dry and arbitrary concept.

    As for Interstellar, its message is that love transcend space and time. So to illustrate this idea, the movie put the main character in situations where he continuously get separated from humanity and any people he knows, both across vast distance and astronomical stretch of time. Yet in the end, he chooses to make a decision based on the love for his daughter, not knowing if it will amount to anything; and his daughter chooses to follow her hunch that her father communicates with her, despite all logic. You may disagree with the message that the film tries to say, but as far as the message is concerned, the family relationship is what drives the point home and so very much necessary.

    Personally, I'm fine with human dramas in my sci-fi, as long as they're in service of the sci-fi concepts being explored.

    6 votes
  4. [2]
    Comment deleted by author
    Link
    1. NaraVara
      Link Parent
      It’s not like “The Three Body” problem doesn’t itself traffic in stock characters and references. You’ve got the chain smoking, hard boiled detective. You’ve got the sensitive and quiet...

      It’s not like “The Three Body” problem doesn’t itself traffic in stock characters and references. You’ve got the chain smoking, hard boiled detective. You’ve got the sensitive and quiet environmental scientist. It really sounds like your gripe is just with bad movies.

      Clint Eastwood’s “man with no name” trilogy was literally just chock a block with stock tropes. So much so that the man didn’t even get a name! And the. Dirty Harry was just that plus some modern (for the time) crime wave hysteria blended into it. And before that era of Westerns classic cinema was also full of tropey characters. Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart played stock characters as often as anything and recycled film noir tropes.

      In fact, this tradition even goes all the way back to classical theater. Troupes would often have standard characters that got recycled from play to play with no continuity between them. That’s what a Scaramouche is.

      What’s actually happening here is that you’ve seen and analyzed enough media that you’re now able to see behind the curtain into how things are made and what some of the decision making processes are. But these are storytelling conventions as old as time. You’re just now experienced enough hearing stories that you’re starting to see the patterns that have always been there.

      7 votes
  5. patience_limited
    (edited )
    Link
    I totally get it, and mostly agree. It's the manipulativeness in relentlessly and numbingly pressing the same obvious emotional buttons, that drains any enjoyment, and destroys faith that the lazy...

    I totally get it, and mostly agree. It's the manipulativeness in relentlessly and numbingly pressing the same obvious emotional buttons, that drains any enjoyment, and destroys faith that the lazy writer will surprise or enlighten the consumer.

    Generally, if there are child characters or major romantic plot themes, those are warning signs that the writer is going to be tweaking your limbic system extra hard. I find family dramas basically unwatchable for this reason.

    However, I got into Succession (which is arguably melodramatic) because the switches between loathing and queasy admiration for each character were somewhat compelling, at least in their novelty and complexity. Like any taste, it's as you said, monotonic notes bore, but complexity, even if unrealistic, provides more to chew on.

    1 vote
  6. JXM
    Link
    That was actually one of the reasons I liked the recent Rudy Ray Moore biopic Dolemite is My Name. There’s not really any melodrama in it. It’s just the story of one guy achieving his dream. He...

    That was actually one of the reasons I liked the recent Rudy Ray Moore biopic Dolemite is My Name.

    There’s not really any melodrama in it. It’s just the story of one guy achieving his dream. He meets minimal resistance and there’s basically no conflict. They didn’t add a love interest just to spice it up or make it more dramatic.

    It was a refreshing change of pace.