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Improving Passions

Sentimental Aesthetics and American Film

Charles Burnetts

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Reveals a fascinating history of aesthetic debate concerning the emotional and moral functions of art

When did the sentimental start to mean ‘awful’? Why are so many popular mainstream films dismissed for their sentimentality, and are there any meaningful differences between the sentimental and the melodramatic? These are some of the questions addressed in Charles Burnetts’ illuminating genealogy of the concept as both a literary genre and an aesthetic philosophy, a tradition that prefigures the advent of film yet serves as a vital framework for understanding its emotional and ethical appeal. Examining eighteenth century ‘moral sense’ philosophy as a neglected but still important intellectual area for film theory, and drawing on case studies of film sentimentality during the early, classical and post-classical eras of US cinema, Improving Passions is an innovative exploration of the sentimental tradition as both theatrical genre and cultural logic.

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Chapter One: Towards a Genealogy of Sentimentalism in the 18th and 19th Century
Chapter Two: Sentimental Aesthetics and Classical Film Theory
Chapter Three: The Sentimental Chaplin: Comedy and Classical Narrative
Chapter Four: Affect, or Postmodern Sentimentalism
Chapter Five: The Sentiments of War In Spielberg and Tarantino
Chapter Six: Sentiment and the ‘Smart’ Melodrama

About the Author

Charles Burnetts teaches film in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Kings University College, The University of Western Ontario. He has published articles in Journal of Film and Video, New Review of Film and Television Studies and Scope, and in various book collections.

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