In preparing an essay on Minnelli’s The Cobweb, I had the opportunity to revisit my conception of the melodramatic subject, which I had previously understood as split between a body that suffers and a consciousness that tests how ideas inflict suffering (slightly reformulating Elsaesser’s explication of the mechanisms of pathos). In The Cobweb, the figure of the observant consciousness—Dr. McIver (Richard Widmark)—is confronted by a further split in the suffering body, divided between Stevie (John Kerr), McIver’s patient, and Karen (Gloria Grahame), McIver’s wife.
The film stages an almost comical conflict: in a mental health clinic, three different groups become invested in the replacement of the drapes at the library clinic. Vicky (Lillian Gish), the clinic manager, wishes to replace the drapes with cheap rep; Karen wants to install chintz drapes to become closer to McIver; finally, as part of a patient group project, Stevie is designing his own drapes, which depict the lives of patients at the clinic.
The second split between Karen and Stevie points to the virtual character of the melodramatic subject. The suffering body—a body taken ahold by social roles—does not merely stage the effect of ideas; it also stages a pull away from ideas in two opposite directions: a Baroque, decorative impulse toward filling the world with images (exemplified by Karen), and a countermovement directed toward freeing itself from these images (exemplified by Stevie). In this light, melodrama appears as a mode that stages not only the effects of ideas on bodies but also the efforts at releasing affects from the prison of social roles.
The virtual quality of melodramatic subjectivity is best signaled in the film by a significant fact: Stevie’s drapes are neither finished nor hung at the library. The designs themselves are sketches rather than finished drawings. The lives the drapes imagine are virtual not because they remain unrealized possibilities in the actual world; their virtuality lies elsewhere, namely, in the work of decoration, which does not only code the suffering of bodies in the decor but also spawns subjectivities where there were none.