Melodrama, Masculinity and International Art Cinema

1 . What inspired you to write this book at this point in your research, which has covered a lot of ground from Thomas More and William Shakespeare to Jane Campion and the film adaptations of Māori writers such as Witi Ihimaera––passing through French cinema?

Most of my published work has involved an exploration of the way identity is construed and represented through the use of symbolic figuration, focusing on identities that are individual, cultural, gendered, and sexual. My method has been to trace the lines of connection between the real-life circumstances of the author, whether in literature or film and the nature of the fictive images and narrative structures that he or she imaginatively has invented in response to that experience. I have found that the resulting fictive invention often comprises images and actions that are highly displaced and overdetermined. Moreover, there is always an autobiographical thread running through the fiction; the films examined in this book are all highly personal films.

Over time, my explorations have led me to develop a theory of the creative process involved in fictive representation itself––a theory that involves a synthesis of three evolving areas of knowledge: affective neuroscience; object-relations psychoanalytic theory; and attachment theory. This synthesis was presented in my 2016 book Speaking Pictures: Neuropsychoanalysis and Authorship in Film and Literature. My new book applies that synthesis to an exploration of how the subjective dimensions of masculine subjectivity have been represented in art cinema across a range of national cinemas, with the aim of identifying any continuities of thematic preoccupation or stylistic method. What I found was a body of films that evolved shortly after the end of the Second World War, and which has been hiding in plain sight, given that it has gone largely unrecognized by film scholars. We cannot afford to overlook this corpus, because the number of such films has been rapidly increasing in recent years, and now it is on the verge of becoming a mainstay of independent cinema.

2 . Several decades ago, Roland Barthes pronounced the author’s death as an agent of meaning, but it sounds as if you believe the author is very much alive. Where do you stand in this debate?

Object-relations theorists have proposed that the inner world of human beings, “the place of psychic reality,” lacks coherence until we form a mental representation of it. This occurs through a mental process that affective neuroscientists have labeled symbolopoesis––the stages whereby sub-symbolic or asymbolic experience is brought into consciousness through a progressively elaborated process of symbolic figuration.

In cinema, as in all forms of fictive representation, symbolic figuration operates through narrative structuration and metaphoric images that combine with memory traces to create a very powerful emotional, sensuous, and somatic experience. This can be further intensified by other expressive devices, such as pace and rhythm, lighting and sound effects, and syntactical patternings. All of these creative strategies serve to activate awareness, both in the filmmaker and the spectator, of the fundamental emotional impulses that are motivating the creation of the work itself. And because it is the author who selects which devices and images he or she will use, obviously the author cannot be completely separated from the meaning that the work generates.

This is not to say those cultural dynamics do not exert an influence on the content and shaping of fiction, but that in all cases that shaping is determined by the way the author responds to those dynamics, whether consciously or unconsciously. Each of the films discussed in this book reflects aspects of the ideologies, class structures, and national formations that prevailed at the time they were made, but the filmmaker’s response to them is personal and idiosyncratic.

3 . In this book, you seem to be saying that the art film also operates as a ”genre”––a notion that is antithetical to the premises of much existing research on genres as the expression of popular culture. Typically, art film as a category is defined as an ”individual take” (often dubbed ”elitist”) on a story or topic––hence its association with ”auteur theory,” with ”auteur film” often used as a synonym for ”art film.” How do you distinguish ”genre films” from ”auteur films” in this context?

The difference between auteur films and popular genre films is largely a question of the extent to which the tropes, style, and narratives of the latter have become standardized in response to industrial and commercial considerations––a tendency that was initiated by the Hollywood studio system. Nevertheless, if one invokes Rick Altman’s theory of genres as being constituted by a recurrence of semantic and syntactic elements, it becomes clear from an examination of these male melodramas that they all exploit stylistic practices designed to heighten and convey emotion, and that they all engage with a range of thematic preoccupations that recur again and again. Although there is a lot of stylistic variation in the films I examine, they all draw upon melodrama as a kind of mode, or “meta-genre,” that informs the representation as a whole. Melodrama itself as a category emerges as much more fluid and variable than it has been characterized by studies that focus on Hollywood cinema, which tend to treat melodrama as a genre that pertains primarily to the “woman’s film.”

4 . Some might wonder why you write about the suffering of these relatively privileged individuals when there are many others one might judge as having suffered much more. In particular, a number of these directors would have been deemed to be sexual aggressors today, often with regard to the actresses and actors in their films.  How would you respond to this attitude?

It is true that the sexual behavior of many of the auteurs I discuss is likely to be labelled “predatory”; for the most part, they were fairly troubled, tormented men, as it turns out. But Jane Campion, who made one of the most celebrated male melodramas of recent years, The Power of the Dog, hit the nail on the head in a comment she made on toxic masculinity: “You have to understand why these damaged people are causing damage to others and themselves. […] It has to be addressed and challenged but it also has to be understood. It’s not just about locking away the monster and throwing away the key. Otherwise, it keeps recycling.” The investigation offered in this book opens a window through which we can view the hidden forces that both the filmmakers and their characters wrestle with.

5 . What do you think we can learn from these art film directors? Do you see a range of concerns and issues raised by these directors? Do any have social consciences or are they exclusively obsessed (as some might say) with their own narcissistic preoccupations?

Viewed as a group, the art-cinema male melodramas examined in this book anticipate the findings of a report released by the American Psychological Association in 2018, which suggested that “males who are socialized to conform to ‘traditional masculinity ideology’ are often negatively affected in terms of mental and physical health.” In contrast to popular genre films, which, for the most part, present heroes who display attributes conventionally construed as masculine, these auteur films explore circumstances—both social and psychological—that impede the ability of their protagonists to conform to the expectations of this hegemonic masculinity.

Among the impediments are socioeconomic or cultural conditions that prevent men from fulfilling roles prescribed for them, chief among which are the social and emotional costs of poverty. Furthermore, restrictive codes fail to acknowledge the reality of men’s actual experiences of inner perturbation—the “secret dramas” as Vittorio De Sica called them. Equally, traditional expectations and proscriptions make no allowance for the reality of the non-binary gender or sexual fluidity that many of these cinematic characters display. Most destructive of all are the long-term psychological effects of dysfunctional relationships within the family, especially those that concern parent–child attachments. On the evidence of the emotional difficulties revealed in the protagonists of these films, it seems likely that the male melodrama as a genre came into being as a vehicle for addressing the inadequacy of traditional conceptions of masculinity—a culturally imposed construct that since the end of World War II has increasingly been judged to be insufficiently comprehensive at best, and persecutory at worst. Such films give us some of the most vivid insights into the lived reality of the “secret dramas” with which many men struggle that we are likely to have.

6 . In conclusion, what is the job of the film scholar today? Is history still important? Many viewers today are not interested in ”old” films––should they revise their opinion? Why?

The films discussed in this book have all been recognised for their excellence: they are cinema classics, which is reason enough for studying them, because each time we view them, we not only see something new, but gain further insights that illuminate our own experience. But more than that, if one accepts that chronology is the foundation of all knowledge, as I do, it is important for us to understand how we arrived at the point where we find ourselves. In the absence of that understanding, it is very difficult to imagine where we might want to go in the future. These films provide valuable insights into the origins of certain disturbances that afflict contemporary society, eventuating in violence that extends from the personal to the political arena. As such, they implicitly point the way toward a better world.