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May 2000, Week 4


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Donald Larsson <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Thu, 25 May 2000 14:02:26 -0500
TEXT/PLAIN (97 lines)
John Dougill writes:

> Sorry for crossposting this, but I'm interested to see if I can get
> angle from this list.  I'm trying to gather some thoughts on Drama as a
> genre, but interestingly I've found that there isn't much written in the
> reference books to genre on Drama. The Virgin Encyclopedia ignores it in
> its genre section, which seems pretty typical, and all of the academic
> books I have on genre don't deal with it either. The Western, the gangster,
> film noir, action, SF, horror, spy films, road movies, romance - loads and
> loads and loads galore on those.  Yet a large number of films are
> categorised under Drama and virtually no writings.  I wonder why?  Perhaps
> it's because the characteristics of Drama are not so tightly defined
> compared to the other genres, or perhaps there isn't so much depth for
> critics to get their teeth into.  Anyway, I would have thought someone
> would be able to find patterns in Drama worth writing about, particularly
> on a psychological level, but the only angle I've been able to find so far
> is through Jospeh Campbell and the Hero's Journey.....anyone know of other
> ideas about Drama?

I think that there's a problem of terminology here.  "Drama" as a term
can mean many things.  In some places (TV GUIDE a long time ago, some
video stores, some movie guides), "Drama" means "not comedy" (almost
the reverse of the original distinction of "comedy" as "not tragedy").
But as some of the replies to this post have already suggested, "Drama"
could be conflated with "Melodrama," a term that is almost as
wide-ranging.  Of course, it could also mean "filmed plays" (eg., A

Your own description suggests an identification of this term with what
some have called the "Social Problem Film," but it also seems to
overlap with Melodrama (among others):

> Drama is an unusual genre in terms of popular cinema.  As well as trying to
> entertain, the films try to make people think.  They present life's
> problems, both small and large, and show how people cope with them.
> The focus of drama is on the human character.  It often takes the form of a
> crisis of some sort, such as unemployment, discrimination, relationship
> troubles, or dying.  A common subject is that of illness.  Characters who
> cope successfully with suffering not only give a positive message of hope
> but show the strength of the human spirit.  It is such a common 'recipe'
> for stories that critics talk of films with 'Disease of the month'.
> Conflict and change are crucial to drama.  The heroes search for a way
> through a world of crisis, and in their fight against hardship they win the
> sympathy of the audience.  In a sense they act as our representatives and
> suffer on our behalf.

Here's part of the problem, I think.  A great many films deal with
*personal* crises of one kind or another, but those are not always
linked to a larger problem.  For example, Bette Davis' blindness and
fatal illness in DARK VICTORY has most of the elements you describe but
while it is like many "disease of the month" TV movies, the film does
not really deal with the illness as a social issue (unlike, say, the
wrestling with bureaucracy in LORENZO'S OIL or similar films). The
original version of A STAR IS BORN also has many of these features but
does not really deal with alcoholism as anything more than a fatal
character flaw, unlike films from THE LOST WEEKEND through CLEAN AND

Forrest Gump's problems (mental retardation, physical disability) are
almost allegorical in nature, unlike the examples above.  Despite its
melodramatic elements, the film is often if not always comic and
satirical in tone, verging on the tradition of picaresque literature.

In addition, the "conflict and change" that you cite are essential
elements of many narratives, "drama" or otherwise.  They are also key
components of the "classic Hollywood narrative."  Even the most
mindless "entertainment" film (eg. THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY)
usually has at least the pretense of such a structure.

For resources, if you start by looking under "film narrative," "film
genre," and related terms, you'll find a great deal more to draw on.
DISCOURSE and COMING TO TERMS are good places to start.  Also see THE
HOLLWYOOD SOCIAL PROBLEM FILM, by Peter Roffman and Jim Purdy, among

There is a new article on FORREST GUMP in the current edition of CINEMA

Good luck!

Don Larsson

Donald Larsson
Minnesota State U, Mankato
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