Notes for the Action Film and the Melodrama tradition

Bruce Willis:

“Action films serve the same function as Westerns--they present morality plays, albeit with cursing, a lot more blood, and violence, and tits.”

“In my mind, a big, exciting, thrilling, scary, violent jfilm is no different from the newest ride at Disney World.  You’re sitting in a darkened room with 100 or 200 people, and these little flashing points of light on the screen are able to scare you, trill you, make you jump. That’s the trick.  That’s the art form”

Action Film as a genre
Action as a recurring narrative element (example: HEAT)

male oriented (or woman taking male role)
good masculinity
bad masculinity

                        swashbuckler (light swords in STAR WARS)
            martial arts/hand to hand
            technological combat (TOP GUN)

hero’s body
excessive body--Terminator, Cyborg  (anxiety? as sertion?)

buddy form
            racially different or female buddy (Lethal Weapon series) Mel Gibson/Danny                         Glover

High Concept (general strategy)
Action film (specific genre)
High Concept--new form of marketing

not aiming at art, but at $
essence: simple pitch, single image (INDEPENDENCE DAY) (also sound JAWS dinner theme, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE theme)

star powered
--about 10-12 male, 5-6 female stars who will always bring out an audience
--films built as vehicles around them
       Stallone--take shirt joff, make $; keep it on, lose money
       Clint Eastwood, crime thriller
       Harrison Ford--espionage thriller
       DeVito/Schwartzenegger  TWINS
advertised on tv--30 sec. spot, simkple print ads, saturation release
emphasis on narrative--simple story with broad appeal
       pitch in 25 words or less (THE PLAYER)
       fashionable subjects (“terrorists,” serial killers, women in combat, etc.)

aimed at a specific (large) audience
      youth, esp summer and holidays
      pre-sold (Batman, earlier films, comic books, tv series, etc.)
      recombining the familiar (Flashdance=Rocky for women)
      Star Wars--“Space Opera” sci-fi
            swashbuckling (light swords)
            WW2 fighter sequences

connected to merchandising and tie-ins (Disney the master of this)
      Lost World --Burger King watches,

high level of technical achievement
      special effects--a certain style
      acting stunts


both image and sound track
they are closely related (like music video)
soundtrack becomes very imp[ortant--dialogue not key
spectacle--esp. sequences (like the musical in terms of narrative function)
     special effects
     body prosthetics
often high tech/futuristic/industrial
bold images
little character psychology

Production design--full and integrated
Cinematography--highly coordinated
Character/star image (fused)

The 19th C stage melodrama

A Moral World
   Villains and Victims: clearcut and consistent
   Evil in the City: a place of danger
   Confrontations: evil must be confronted by good; dramatic highpoint

Home and Family
   Cult of True Womanhood
       piety, purity, domesticity, submissiveness, nurture and sacrifice
   Patriarchal Family
        Male as authority; foundation of  economic security of the family
        Familial relations
            motive for actions are familial (to protect, help, rescue, etc.)

Visible Fictions
    Story in the Picture; the image itself (costume, gesture, etc.) tells the story
    Frames and Tableaux: the set and blocking the actors tells the story
    The signs of feelings (acting, gesture, makeup, etc.) emotions are on the surface
    ***cinematic techniques on stage--episodic, fades, spectacles, off-screen/stage (traps etc) etc.

Plots and Situations
    Secrets and the past  (innocence restored, justice)
    Suspicions and revelations (misrecognition)
    Suspense and rescue (dramatic tension; relief and triumph)

US version of melodrama
    right feeling rather than social position (based in 18th C sentimentalism)
    natural justice (champion the oppressed)
    greater realism (Belasco)

Performance, Music, Theatre
     Body language
     Music (heighten emotions)  [the melos in melodrama]
     Total theatre (set, lighting, etc)

     Popular Spectaculars
     History as spectacle (exoticism)

Drama of real life
     Problems and Issues (what ought to be rather than what is probable)
     Social Panorama (high and low; rural and urban; etc.)
     The sensations of realism (novelty, astonishment, anxiety, etc.)

Pathos and Tears
     Victims  (unjust situation)
     Outcasts  (scapegoats and social rejection)
     Pathos and irony  (problem of balancing a sincere and heart-felt pathos with the potential for an ironic reading of the same material)
     Women (femininity seen as more emotional)

Other issues
     Race  (especially significant in some cases--e.g. Uncle Tom’s Cabin;
      mass entertainment
      consumer aesthetics

Some sources on structure/
19th c stage to 20th c film

Bordwell, David.  Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison: U of WI Press, 1985. 

Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson.  The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960.  NY: Columbia UP, 1985.  508. [also in Core]

Fell, John L.  Film and the Narrative Tradition1986 [re-issue of 1974 U of OK edition ed.]  Berkeley: U of CA Press, 1986. 

Stanton, Stephen S., ed.  Camille and Other Plays.  NY: Hill and Wang, 1957. 

Vardac, A. Nicholas.  Stage to Screen: Theatrical Method from Garrick to Griffith.  NY: Benjamin Blom, 1968. 

19th C well made play (piéce bien faite) from Stanton

1. plot is based on a secret known to the audience and withheld from the major characters which is then revealed to them in the climactic scene

2.  the plot usually describes the culmination of a long story, most of which happened before the play (late point of attack).  The audience must be informed of this through exposition

3.  action and suspense grow more intense as the play proceeds, this is arranged in a pattern using the contrivances of entrances, exists, letters, revelations of identity, etc. (add psychological revelations w/ O’Neill, etc...)

4. the protagonist  is in conflict with an adversary and experiences alternately good and bad fortune.  This creates an emotional rhythm.

 5. the lowest point in the hero’s fortune is followed soon after by the highest point which occurs in an obligatory scene (scene à faire) which discloses secrets.

6.  The plot is complicated by a misunderstanding that lets different characters understand different things (quid pro quo).

7.  The dénouement (untying) or resolution is logical and clear.  It is not supposed to have remainder or to be continued or unresolved aspect to puzzle the audience.

8.  The overall pattern is repeated in each act.

usually topical (dates quickly)

avoids metaphysical concerns (imponderable), avoids radical evil in society (evil villain is ok)

most always has a love plot line

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