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What makes a good melodrama?

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  March 26, 2013 09:00 AM

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Phil Spector.jpegMelodrama tends to be applied as a pejorative—a way of knocking Hollywood schlock that tugs on our heartstrings while resolving into formulaic endings. But in an essay that ran last week, dramatist David Mamet argues that melodrama can be great art, too, and he offers a rule for distinguishing between bad and good examples of the genre.

Mamet wrote the essay to promote his movie “Phil Spector,” which premiered on HBO this past Sunday. All melodramas, he proposes, are driven by questions. In bad melodrama the answers to the questions are obvious from the start. Good melodramas reward with surprise answers—and the very best ones, he argues, surprise by showing us that the questions we thought we were considering weren’t really the main questions at all.

Mamet tags “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” as an example of “lesser” melodrama because the ending is as obvious as it is satisfying. Better melodramas, Mamet contends, include “The Sixth Sense” and, more recently, the Denzel Washington movie “Flight.” Both achieve surprise by shifting at the last second what you thought they were about. It’s not that those movies end on “A” when you thought they would end on “B.” It’s that the choice all along is revealed to have been between “C” and “D.” (SPOILER ALERT As in, in "The Sixth Sense" you think the movie is about whether or not Haley Joe Osment's character can talk to dead people when it's really about whether or not Bruce Willis's character can accept that he's dead.)

The most interesting part of Mamet’s essay is where he explains how to write good melodrama. In order to surprise viewers, Mamet says that the writer needs to manage to surprise himself. “The audience will foresee anything the Dramatist has foreseen,” he writes. “They will beat you to the punch every time, and figure out that The Butler Did It, unless the writer is prepared to undergo the same process as the Hero.”

Mamet's melodramatic formulation may incline an eye roll: If the writer undergoes the same process as the hero, does that make the writer a hero, too? Regardless, it’s fun to consider why the ingredients of a good movie can be so easy to identify but so hard to create. Mamet is able to name the trick, but without having seen any of his new movie, I do still wonder whether he’ll be able to pull it off.

H/T The Browser.

Image is a detail from the movie poster for HBO's "Phil Spector."

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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