28 October 2008

Then & Now, Voyager

So, i've now watched what might have been my first 'woman's film', or at least the first one i tried to 'take seriously'. Last fall when David Halperin came to talk about melodrama i was skeptical, at best. "Really" i thought, "melodrama is something we're considering now", but now that i've seen one (Now, Voyager), i'm totally an expert.

We might, in some sense, think of melodrama as a sort of an ├╝ber-Genre for Hollywood (this is a stolen idea, though i'm not entirely sure from whom). Everything that Hollywood makes aspires to melodrama in some sense... I'm starting to become truly convinced by Patrice Petro's (via Linda Williams {or vice versa}) idea of 'Body Genres', which are films that hit us viscerally, that force us to react bodily.

So, Tuesday we watched Now, Voyager in class and i was surprised not only by how much i enjoyed it, but by how much it paralleled the very real horrors of the American family i got to dig into in September*. Charlotte (Bette Davis) begins the film as a repressed daughter, an unwanted late child whose charge is to take care of her widowed, really quite scary, mother (mostly because she clearly won't ever find a man for herself, so she may as well be useful to someone). At one point Mother even points to this idea, finding comfort in a 'late child' by knowing that that child will care for you in your later years (the 'pre-late years', that is). This system only works, of course, if said child doesn't go off on their own path, make their own life (which in the world of melodrama {but perhaps more generally in contemporary American culture, too} means pairing off and starting a family of your own). So Mother stalls the child's development employing guilt, classist proclamations of 'proper' behavior, and constant reminders of the child's weaknesses (& sickliness) in order to assure her remaining at home.

What interests me in particular, is not necessarily the plot of Now, Voyager, or family melodramas like it. Rather, i find the underlying notion of the family structure itself an interesting (and often frightening) object of inquiry. My brother Tim has reflected on how 'the Family' operates for him, and i don't mean to present some personal sob story about my own family (i'm hugely fortunate in this regard), but i'm interested in the institution (notice the word, an odd word) of the family structure itself...

There's a model of the family (originally presented by Antonio Gramsci, i think), which operates as a sort of Social Taylorism, in which the worker's life is organized and managed to such an extent that not only is their work-day set up in assembly-line fashion, but through familial obligations and constructed consumerist needs, the worker's life outside of work (their leisure in other words) is similarly orchestrated (even to the extent of their 'entertainments' are constructed both through television & bar life {maybe even bowling}. Though bars and pubs might formerly have been been a place for radical organization {three cheers for the real Sam Adams}, but now they operate as places to lose yourself, to obliterate yourself. The music, the setup, and the way we no longer speak to strangers discourage any kind of organization in the modern bar).

Ok, this is just a start to this thinking, but it's where i'm going...



*This September a local matriarch passed away and it fell to brooke's family to do much of the sifting through the house. Along with a life-time's worth of stuff, we uncovered box-fulls of old letters, photos, and journals that painted a less-than-idyllic picture of this upstanding family.

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