Melodramatic Interiors: Talking About the Movies with Dawn Clements 

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The L: Who are some of your favorite actresses?

DC: I love Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyk. And I love Lana Turner. With all those actresses, I don't know, I think they just grab onto a role and they own it and go all the way with it. All three of them, especially Crawford and Stanwyck, they worked practically till the day they died... and never walked through a role.

The L: What's your favorite era of Joan Crawford?

DC: I like the late 40s and 50s. I like 'em all. But I particularly like it when she left MGM, starting with Mildred Pierce.

The L: Do you like Autumn Leaves?

DC: I love Autumn Leaves!

The L: I thought you might.

DC: In fact I did a drawing of the interiors of that bungalow.

The L: When you talk about artificiality of delivery, I think of those later Joan Crawford movies, like Autumn Leaves, Johnny Guitar or Female on the Beach. Her delivery is so stretched out, not real at all, yet it's so meaningful and so moving. And I'm not sure why.

You said melodrama was non-classical, but I would almost describe it as sub-classical. It seems to follow the classical form, in some way, but then it's almost like experimental film sometimes. Especially in some Minnelli films, it gets quite abstract.

DC: I'm just thinking about what classical is. It has idealized proportions—like classical architecture in ancient Greece, or the Renaissance with its proportions—and there's drama, in a grand sense. But it has a kind of perfection about it, where the proportions are really considered and nothing is out of place, and I think there's a great beauty in that.

So if you think about the Renaissance, and then you think about Mannerism, which follows that, all of the sudden there's a movement away from maybe Leonardo di Vinci and Rafael to Pontormo and Rosso Fiorntino. And they're still dealing with similar subject matter, with religious subject matter, but the color in Mannerism gets keyed up, and the figures get all stretched-out and distorted.

One of the things that I love about art history is that often times there seems to be this cycle: you have a classical period and then you have a period of mannerism. In the 16th century the first quarter was The Renaissance and then you have Mannerism. Then in 1600 you have Baroque, which is working with the more distorted forms of Mannerism but returning to classicism again, and to a kind of rationalism again. Then after Baroque you have Rococo, which is this stretching out of things and exaggerating things. Then, after the Rococo, there's a return to classicism again, and it goes on and on and on. And I love that about art history—there's always an action and a reaction.

So for me, I think of melodrama as that kind of excess of emotion—it's not restrained. And it's not perfect; it really goes too far. It goes too far in so many ways—maybe the way people are dressed, the way people feel, maybe the narratives are really outrageous. That might be an aspect of melodrama that a lot of people may not like, because it's not real: It's not really the way people talk; it's not really the way people dress; things really wouldn't happen that way—all of these reasons why people would say it's not real. But they're just talking about our exterior life. I think melodrama captures an interior life in a really amazing way, that I think is as real as anything the classicists want to put out there. I think if Joan Crawford is screaming or is expressing some kind of excess of emotion, well, ok, if you saw someone doing that in real life you'd probably call the ambulance, but people really do feel that way sometimes, it's just we don't do that socially. But of course it's all out there in the movies, because that's the only way we can experience it. Because how do you express emotion in the movies?

The 2010 Whitney Biennial closes on May 30.

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