In these dark times we live in, some give vent to rage, some bewail misfortune - and some have discovered what an extraordinary weapon of resistance laughter can be. Certainly, we knew this before. After all, who isn't familiar with Hans Christian Andersen's wise child, who noticed the absurd emperor's nakedness? Through laughter, pretensions of grandeur, founded on vanity and lies, can be toppled with the greatest of ease. Laughter is a means of fighting violence with nonviolence, physical aggression with a counterattack of wit.
Laughter, however, can also be a weapon of ignorance, or simply cruelty. Laughter is not a purely singular force that punctures abusers of power; it works equally well as a means of denying a powerless person's worth, especially a marginalized person. Think of the scene in Carrie when a bevy of girls throw tampons at her, yelling at her to 'plug it up,' while she quite literally thinks that she is dying. The joke is horrendously cruel and acts as a catalyst for an outbreak of violence, is itself an act of violence. Laughter, it's true, is an exceptionally powerful weapon against tyrants, but its power isn't diminished when it's wielded against those without power.
These days, few audiences have much patience for melodrama. I use the term without any pejorative connotation, since the melodrama is a genre, just like horror, science fiction, or any other more popular type of narrative. Once a mainstay of novels, cinema, opera, and theater, the melodrama has been relegated to the comedy section through laughter - but is it laughter of the first or second type? It's hard to see in what way laughing at tragedies, created by social strictures, providential coincidences, and fated circumstances, could be interpreted as an act of resistance. There is nothing to resist against, except perhaps an emotional response.
I recently attended a screening of A Woman of Affairs, starring Greta Garbo and directed by Clarence Brown. The film's racy adult themes - including very broad hints at a homosexual relationship between men, drug use, syphilis, and lots and lots of sex - tend to be interpreted as the rum in this Dirty Shirley, the sugar in the otherwise gag-worthy medicine, though this attitude misapprehends melodrama as a genre. Such themes were, and would be still if it weren't moribund, hallmarks of melodrama. After all, their heroines are often courtesans and ruined women. Though it was a treat to see the film on the big screen (it is currently streaming on Filmstruck, as part of their spotlight on Garbo), it was not a treat to watch it with an audience that found every acknowledgment of unhappiness screamingly funny. Garbo's brother wallows in a stupor of drug use after his dearest friend, and presumably lover, committed suicide on his honeymoon with Garbo - people were slapping their knees. Garbo protects the man's reputation, by letting authorities believe her own promiscuity drove him to suicide, instead of blackmail over embezzling, and presumably his gay relationship - hear them roar. Garbo, having just suffered a miscarriage, agonizingly clutches a bouquet of flowers as though it were an infant - the snickers became howls.
To be generous, I realize that most people are unfamiliar with the conventions of silent films and I assume that at least part of this reaction can be ascribed to ignorance, to failing to understand the implications. No title card announces that Garbo's character has just had a miscarriage for instance, but an astute adult viewer shouldn't have too much trouble understanding this.
But, this laughter has an insidious and disgusting meaning. I can only imagine that the same person who thinks it's funny that a heartbroken, closeted man in the final throes of drug addiction is crying, or that a woman could die of heartbreak after a life-threatening miscarriage, abandoned in the hospital and rejected by society, could hardly be especially empathetic. The person who laughs at melodrama - and this is supremely well-acted melodrama - prefers to assert a snide self-superiority, far more mannered than the gestures of agony on the screen. That person insists that any strong feeling that hasn't been diagnosed by a psychiatrist is tosh, bollocks, balderdash, baloney, rubbish, drivel. That person thinks that any love, hate, fury, desire, or passion that leads to tragedy is hilariously avoidable.
Moderns may say, how absurd - the courtesan should just marry the aristocrat and screw the consequences, or why doesn't she just go to the doctor and cure her tuberculosis before it's too late? Why don't these people just buck social convention, why don't they just take care of their health, why don't they ignore any feelings that don't let them, as the social media mavens would have it, follow their bliss?
Those questions, accompanied by snickers and hoots, not only ignore historical reality - there are no antibiotics in the middle of the nineteenth century and just look at Lord Byron's conquests alone to see how happy people who bucked conventions turned out to be - but they also refuse emotional engagement, which is exactly and primarily what melodrama asks of its viewers, readers, and listeners. People who laugh at melodrama give themselves permission to laugh at the emotions they don't dare confront themselves, in a socially sanctioned lifting of the taboo of, say, giggling at the misery of a woman who has lost her mind after having a stillborn child. The exercise of empathy is part and parcel of the experience of the melodrama, and so the melodrama cannot have an audience in a cultural world that divides feelings into positive or pathological. That is why moderns laugh at melodrama: because misery, anguish, agony, and adoration have been compartmentalized and shoved into a box marked 'sick.' Today, we feel a passion for a brand of gelato with a cute logo, which would be fine, except... people still die of heartbreak. People still commit suicide. People still get incurable illnesses, have miscarriages, see their children reject them, have affairs and destroy their marriages, drive their cars into ditches. Some people are miserable. And a few are even still capable of sacrificing themselves for others. Those realities that melodrama dramatizes with full emotional engagement have not been overcome. And as long as that is the case, laughing at melodrama should embarrass us far more than melodrama itself.