Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts

Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts

Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts

Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts

Synopsis

In this groundbreaking investigation into the nature and meanings of melodrama in American culture between 1880 and 1920, Ben Singer offers a challenging new reevaluation of early American cinema and the era that spawned it. Singer looks back to the sensational or "blood and thunder" melodramas (e.g., The Perils of Pauline, The Hazards of Helen, etc.) and uncovers a fundamentally modern cultural expression, one reflecting spectacular transformations in the sensory environment of the metropolis, in the experience of capitalism, in the popular imagination of gender, and in the exploitation of the thrill in popular amusement. Written with verve and panache, and illustrated with 100 striking photos and drawings, Singer's study provides an invaluable historical and conceptual map both of melodrama as a genre on stage and screen and of modernity as a pivotal idea in social theory.

Excerpt

Melodrama and modernity—two terms belonging high up on any list of big, vague concepts that despite their semantic sprawl, or perhaps because of it, continually reward critical inquiry. The goal of this book is to investigate some of the interconnections between the two, situating melodrama, particularly sensational melodrama in American popular theater and film between 1880 and 1920, as a product and a reflection of modernity—of modernity's experiential qualities, its ideological fluctuations, its cultural anxieties, its intertextual crosscurrents, its social demographics, and its commercial practices. This study also has a basic historical objective: it unearths two fascinating cultural phenomena—popular-priced 10–20–30 blood-and-thunder stage melodrama and early sensational film serials—that, while largely forgotten today, are crucial to an understanding of American popular culture in the decades around the turn of the century, and beyond.

It is fair to say that modernity has not been a particularly important concept in film studies, at least not until quite recently. In social theory, however, it has long been a foundational theme, motivating work by Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Tönnies, Simmel, and many others. Given its core question—What distinguishes modern Western industrial society from all others?—modernity is, not surprisingly, an extraordinarily expansive topic, encompassing an array of socioeconomic, cognitive, ideolgical, moral, and experiential issues. My first order of business will be to try to give some structure to this inherently diffuse body of social theory. In chapter 1, I offer an introduction to key discourses on the nature of modernity. The breakdown I propose delineates six facets: modernity as an explosion of socioeconomic and technological develop-

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