Sleep Dealer as a modern melodrama

by Keifer Wiseman

In Chapter five of Andras Balint Kovacs’ book Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, he puts forth his view on the difference between classical and modern Melodrama.  Kovacs’ criteria for what makes a modern melodrama can be broken down into a few main ideas.  In a modern melodrama the source of the conflict in the film is not something concrete, rather it is represented by a lack of something, in other words, a nothingness. The protagonist does not have a complete awareness of his or her situation. The protagonist has a passive reaction to the provocation caused by their situation. Finally, concrete narrative events are just representations of the greater crisis of the world that the character inhabits. (Kovacs 89, 90)  In this essay, I will discuss how Sleep Dealer fits Kovacs’ criteria of a modern melodrama.  I will also discuss how the same events in the film contribute to the theme of disconnectedness.

Sleep Dealers and Kovacs’ modern melodrama.

In Sleep Dealer the “greater power” is not some singular enemy that we can pinpoint, rather it is the general societal situation that the protagonist inhabits.  In the world of Sleep Dealer corporations have taken over water supplies, and people’s labour is exploited using dangerous technology.  In Sleep Dealer, the bigger power is the unchangeable societal situation, where Memo has to face “…an existential lack of these positive values.”(Kovacs 90)  Some examples of this lack of values are when he first arrives in Tijuana he is robbed.  After that, he gets a job, but the labour practices are exploitive.  Even his relationship with the girl is temporarily ruined when he feels he is being used by her.  All of his money is being sent back to his family, so he can’t even enjoy that.  All of these things add to the fact that there are positive values in his world.  The Greater Power in Sleep Dealer is a lack of hope and connection to people and the fruit of his labour.

“The bigger power in modern melodrama is represented by something that is stronger not by its presence buy by it’s absence.”(Kovacs 89)

The protagonist Memo was born after the dam was built, and his community (Santa Ana) was left dependent on a corporation for its water.  Memo never knew any other situation, unlike his father, who live before the dam was build.  For Memo “Santa Ana was a trap. dry, dusty, disconnected.”  Memo had the sense the community was futureless and he pined for a more interesting life, and he felt no connection to the land that provided for him.  Memo’s father, on the other hand, was angry about the damn and longed for the old days, when he was allowed to provide for himself and his family with the fruit of his own labour.  After Memo’s father dies, Memo moves to Tijuana to find work as a remote labourer and succeeds, with the help of a young writer.  He works as a remote labourer and supports his family and he now has what he wanted, to live in the city and have a more interesting life.  Despite having what he wants, his life is still hopeless, because of the of lack of job advancement and the fact that the technology used slowly makes its users blind.  In Kovacs’ book he describes one aspect of modern melodrama:

“We talk about modern intellectual melodrama when the protagonist finds herself in front of an existential situation that she cannot understand, and this lack of understanding provokes passivity, suffering and anxiety.”(Kovacs 89)

The father, because he has memories from before the situation was so hopeless, he recognizes the lack of positive values in his world.  In other words because he has memories of positive values he sees the nonbeing of these values, he recognizes the nothingness.  In this film, we can clearly see that Memo does not understand his situation, in the film he never seems to consider the unfairness of his situation because he has known nothing else.  Memo does not recognize his situation, as a result, he feels bored, hopeless and anxiety.  Sleep Dealer fit into Kovacs’ definition of a modern melodrama Because Memo Doesn’t understand his situation.

Kovacs says that in a classical melodrama Characters react at first but then “abandon themselves to pure emotional suffering”(Kovacs 89). In the case of modern melodrama, he says: “The reaction of modern melodramatic heroes to the provocation of the environment is even more passive.”(Kovacs 89) Memo clearly fits into the archetype of a modern melodramatic hero.  When faced with the provocation of his world he does nothing in response, because there is nothing he can do.  Memo simply moves through his world not responding to provocations physically.  The forces that are causing the conflict are far to insurmountable for him to even consider doing anything in retaliation.  Memo is facing several provocations most notably when: the father is killed, he is robbed, the working condition at his are exploitive.  His response to all these provocations is completely passive.  At the end of the film Memo is track down by the remorseful pilot who killed his father and the pilot wants to make amends.  The pilot with the help of Memo damages the Damn in Santa Ana letting water through.  Memo plays a passive role in this plan, he merely allows the pilot to do it, and once it’s done it is clear that very little will change in the long run.  Sleep Dealer fits Kovacs’ idea of a modern melodrama because Memo reacts passively to the provocations he faces. The event that triggers the narrative in Sleep Dealer is when Memo’s father is killed by an American military aircraft that bombs their house.  Kovacs says that in a modern melodrama:

“No matter what concrete event triggers the narrative action, it is but a superficial manifestation of a deeper and more general crisis for which no immediate physical reaction is possible.”(Kovacs 89)

The Inciting incident in Sleep Dealer (the father’s death) is representative of the greater crisis in the world being represented.  Namely the marginalization and oppression of Mexico and it’s people by America and corporations.  This crisis also brings with it the existential consequences: hopelessness, anxiety, etc. Furthermore, there is no possible physical reaction to either Memo’s father’s death or the greater societal crisis.  This further shows that Sleep Dealer fit into Kovacs’ description of a modern melodrama. 

Disconnectedness and Nothingness       

One of the themes of Sleep Dealer is the idea of disconnectedness, this idea is manifested in the protagonist Memo.  At the start of the film, Memo feels bored and disconnected from the world, and he blames the fact that he lives in rural Mexico.  After he moves to the city he meets a girl who he forms a  connection with but he later finds that it was partly contrived by the girl because she was using Memo to sell memories.  so even though he moved to the city he is still not able to form a real human connection.  Another aspect of the film that reinforces the theme of disconnection is his job.  At Memo’s job, he works for hours on end and when he is finished there is a very little tangible reward and  Much of his money goes to support his family.  The only thing to show for his hard work is his slowly degrading vision.  This theme of disconnectedness is related to nothingness in that Disconnectedness is an absence of connection.  This theme relates to Kovacs idea of nothingness in modern cinema.