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August 14, 1969, Vol. XIV, No. 44
From Soap Opera to Dope Opera
by Andrew Sarris
A Hollywood wag once defined a “woman’s picture” as the kind of movie in which a wife commits adultery for most of the running time and then before the final fade-out her husband asks her to forgive him. For most critics, “woman’s picture” and “soap opera” are almost interchangeable as terms of cultural opprobrium although there are obvious differences between the two genres simply by virtue of the structural differentiation between a one-shot movie with its enclosed anecdotal material and an open-ended radio or television series with its ingenious extension of domestic aggravations into an infinite future. Hence, woman’s pictures, unlike soap operas, achieve climaxes if not catharses in the process of teasing the emotions. It follows that woman’s pictures are very often tearjerkers whereas radio and television soap operas almost never are. Still, the epithet of soap opera recurs very frequently in movie reviews not so much as the description of a genre as of a certain tendency toward shameless sentimentality and outrageous contrivance. And like any epithet, “soap opera” generally reflects little more than the critic’s conceptual fatigue. I am not concerned here with redefining the term or even with driving it out of circulation but rather with exploring its multiple meanings in question are not logically related, I will tick them off as separate points.
1. What woman’s pictures and soap operas have in common is a blatant bias in the choice of terrain (the home, the family, often the kitchen) on which the battle of the sexes is fought. The dominant viewpoint is more female than male, more concrete than abstract, more adjustment-oriented than ambition-oriented, more domestic than cosmic (as in the basic henpecked husband joke: he makes all the big decisions like Vietnam, the ABM, Biafra, and I make the small ones like where we’re going to live and how much we’ll spend and what we’ll do for our vacation.)
2. Soap operas tend to treat men and women as separate classes within a single class, very much the prescription for bourgeois drama Vittorio de Sica had in mind when he remarked that adultery is the only drama of the bourgeoisie, thereby implying in a slyly Marxist manner that bourgeois characters were compelled to invent problems out of sheer boredom. The problem of the bored wife and the tired businessman husband can thus be interpreted as a kind of class, come-uppance.
3. Soap operas tend to argue that men cannot understand the feelings and problems of women. Men must work and women must weep. The unappreciated self-sacr ifice of a mother (“Madame X”), a wife (“Next Time We Love”), a mistress (“Back Street”) is built into the plot as a reflection of the distaff aud ience’s fantasy conviction that no man knows the trouble a woman has seen and the love she has felt.
4. Elements of soap opera can be found in the most prestigious films. When Dorothy Comingore’s Susan complains to Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane that he gives her every luxury but never anything of himself, she becomes a slightly ironic sister of every fur clad, bejeweled wife who ever cursed her husband’s – merely material generosity. For that matter, there is soap opera in Sophocles, . Shakespeare, Chekhov, in Ingmar Bergman’s “Dreams of Women,” Max Ophuls’ “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” ;n almost all of Antonioni, and in Fellini’s cubist soap opera, “Juliet of the Spirits.”
5. But critics seldom call something soap opera if it works well with audiences. Hence, “Rachel, Rachel,” one of the relatively rare woman’s pictures of recent years, was not called a soap opera.
6. Critics would never call “City Lights” or “Ikiru” or “Umberto D” soap operas. They are what Raymond Durgnat has called male weepies, sagas of the suffering of the romantic or idealistic or merely discarded male. Male weepies are generally described as noble, human documents because the male of the species may represent Man in all his universality whereas the female represents only the most parochial provinces of womanhood.
7. If the soap opera is in disrepute, it is not so much because most critics are male, and hence unsympathetic to the problems of women, as in the fact that most soap operas reflect no deeply felt artistic attitude toward woman, but rather a cynical awareness of the female market for which no fantasy is too false or manipulative. The issue then is not the occasional ironic stylist like Douglas Sirk who gilds soap opera · or the occasional genuine philogynist like Kenji Mizoguchi who transcends soap opera, but rather the horde of hacks who cater to female self-pity with uninspired calculation.
Now that we have touched upon soap opera, let us move to the currently more’ fashionable domain of dope opera, a genre designed for the so-called youth market. The generation gap has replaced the battle of the sexes, but the two genres are not that far apart. As wives were always neg lected, mistreated, or misunderstood by their husbands, so now are young people, neg lected, mistreated, or misunderstood by their elders. All young people seem to have exactly the same problems and th e same values despite differences in class, income, race, sect, and even sex. Thus the pot-smoking hippies, like the adulterous wives before them, come predominantly from the ranks of the bored bourgeoisie. And the market is so large that dope operas seem to be streaming out, as soap operas once did, from the molds of mechanical formula rather than creative inspiration.
“Easy Rider,” the most successful of the current dope operas, received an impassioned defense in the Sunday Times from Richard Goldstein, whose vividly impressionistic style does not brook much discussion, much less disagreement: “Andrew Sarris, who knows a lot more about movies than I do (but perhaps less about Captain America), thinks all this is silly. And it is. Silly as a chili dog, or wig city. Silly as rock ‘n’ roll music. Silly as an astronaut on the moon.” Obviously, Goldstein and I disagree violently on the merits of the mythical projection of Peter Fonda, who (in Goldstein’s view) “embodies an entire culture — its heroes and its myths,” but (in my view) suggests nothing so much as the smug assurance that Daddy will be around in the morning with the bail money. No matter. One critic’s charisma is another’s poison. But I refuse to believe that a pair of heroin-hustling bikers with manners almost as bad as their diction should be treated as sacred cows beyond criticism, judgment, or disbelief. It is not that I am opposed to dope opera in itself, nor that I am unsympathetic to youth in itself any more than I am unsympathetic to womanhood in itself. But just as a female character has to be more than a female, a youthful character has to be more than young, at least interesting, perhaps even inspiring although that may be too much to expect in this age of the anti-hero. Yet even as an anti-hero, Peter Fonda’s Captain America strikes me as spoiled, jaded, corrupt, and probably too stoned to see beyond his own sordid self-concern to the tortured American landscape he litters more than he inhabits.
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