Monday, August 25, 2008

Three Sirk Melodramas

In a new essay at Moving Image Source, Chris Fujiwara contrasts audience responses to Douglas Sirk's 1950s melodramas in the United States and Japan. He argues that Sirk was sincere about his characters' emotions while remaining detatched from the assumptions of the society he depicted. Yes and no. I'm astonished that people would find The Tarnished Angels (1958) funny, but Written on the Wind (1956) has such an ambiguous tone that, when it came time for me to write about it for the blog, I was too intimidated by it to do more than analyze its structure a little. However, I don't see any evidence of Sirk's detatchment from, say, the conservative sexual politics in All I Desire (1953), in which Naomi Murdoch/Barbara Stanwyck is triumphantly restored to the family she abandoned ten years earlier in order to pursue a career on the stage. If this makes Sirk an idiot, then by default so are millions of people who went to see his films in the 50s, the vast majority of whom no doubt believed in their messages.

Seeing All That Heaven Allows (1955) again, I was especially impressed by the subtlty of Jane Wyman's performance. Consider the scene where Cary Scott/Wyman, a suburban widow, is Christmas tree shopping when she runs into Ron Kirby/Rock Hudson, a much younger tree farmer, for the first time since calling off their engagement, and they realize they still love each other. They only make small talk ("I didn't know these trees were yours." "No, they're Mick's"), and yet Wyman has such an expressive face that she's able to convey an emotion without over-playing it. Sirk's restraint as a director is crucial. A master of group stagings and of moving his actors around the set, he's able to direct the viewer's gaze much more subtly through his mise en scène, only going in for close-ups when he needs to. When Mona Plash/Jacquelin de Wit, the town gossip, first sees Cary getting into Ron's car, the reaction shot of Mona and the butcher is too much by half, but this is a rare lapse rather than typical. I find the film so moving precisely because it doesn't bully the viewer with heavy-handed effects.

However, the movie really lays it on thick with the symbolism equating Cary with a freightened deer. The deer first appears outside Ron's home in the woods. When Cary pulls up in her car, Ron's feeding it out of his hand in the snow. He and Cary step inside the old mill, which Ron has renovated so that the two of them can live there. At the end of the sequence, Sirk cuts back to the deer who scurries away. After Ron falls off a cliff and suffers a concussion, Cary, who hasn't seen him since the night she went shopping for a Christmas tree, comes to his sickbed. In the morning, she opens the improbably large shutters of the improbably large window that Ron installed for her in the old mill. As Ron wakes up, the camera moves to the window where the deer reappears. The pastoral setting and innocuous deer offer such a kitschy image of nature that I can't help but laugh at it.

The film's gender politics haven't aged well. Although Ron and his friends, Mick/Charles Drake and Alida/Virginia Grey, enjoy an alternative lifestyle avant la lettre (Ron doesn't read "Walden," he just lives it), Mick and Alida's marriage is strictly conventional. Mick, a former advertising executive turned tree farmer, is the breadwinner and Alida takes care of the housework. I don't see any evidence here of Sirk's detatchment from the assumptions about the roles of men and women in the society he depicted.

Imitation of Life (1959) even goes so far as to equate being a woman with motherhood. Lora Merideth/Lana Turner is a single mother whose career as an actress prevents her from spending time with her daughter, Susie/Sandra Dee. According to the film, she would've been better off had she married, Steve Archer/John Gavin, an aspiring photographer whose dreams of having his work exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art lead to a steady job in the advertising department at a beer company. In an early scene, she runs out on a lunch date with Steve to see a talent agent, Allen Loomis/Robert Alda, but when Loomis advises her to sleep her way to the top, she tells him that she doesn't want to make it that way. A few months later, Loomis calls her about an audition for a new play by David Edwards/David O'Herlihy, a thinly-veiled parody of Noel Coward. Steve, who's just sold one of his photographs to the beer company, tells Lora not to go because he doesn't want to see her get hurt again and gives her an ultimatum: "If you leave, it's over between us." She decides to go. Although the play leads to a career on the stage, once Lora makes it on Broadway, she finds that fame isn't everything she dreamed it would be. Eventually, Lora's inability to lock that down causes a rift between her and Susie, who develops an Oedipal hang-up on Steve when he reenters their lives after a ten-year absense. The choice offered to Lora is one between something real--namely, Steve--and chasing her dreams on the stage, and although she's right in the short run (she gets the part without having to compromise herself), she ends up paying for it in the long run.

Although Lora's black maid, Annie Johnson/Junita Moore, is a devoted single mother, her fair-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane/Susan Kohner, resents her for her race and tries to pass for white. Eventually, she too goes into show business but not on Broadway. The first time Steve (and the audience) sees the grown-up Sarah Jane, he remarks, "The last time I saw you, you were all legs." "I've still got them." Shortly after, we see Sarah Jane in her bedroom in a low-cut nighty in order to prove the validity of her claim and to foreshadow Annie's discovery that she's been working in a sleazy cabaret. When she runs away, Steve hires a private detective to find her. In the film's most heart-breaking scene, Annie travels to California where Sarah Jane is working at a more upscale cabaret, not to bring her home, but to look at her one last time. When Sarah Jane's white roommate drops in, Annie says that she used to look after Sarah Jane, recalling the film's first scene in which Lora asks Annie, "How long have you taken care of Sarah Jane?" As Annie leaves, Sarah Jane whispers, fighting back tears, "Goodbye... Momma." In both sets of mothers and daughters, acting comes between them, preventing Lora from giving love and Sarah Jane from accepting it.

There's Always Tomorrow (1956) was Sirk's second film with Barbara Stanwyck after All I Desire, and in both movies, like Lora in Imitation of Life, her character chooses her career over a family only to regret it later. Here, Clifford Groves/Fred MacMurray is a family man going through a mid-life crisis when an old flame from his youth, Norma Vale/Stanwyck, now a successful fashion designer, shows up at his house one night out of the blue. He bumps into her again at a resort in the desert, but when his son, Vinnie/William Renyolds, shows up unexpectedly with his girlfriend, Ann/Pat Crowley, and sees them together, Vinnie begins to suspect they're having an affair. It's all quite innocent and soon after Clifford invites Norma to their house for dinner so she can meet his wife, Marion/Joan Bennett, who never suspects a thing. Afterwards, Marion tells Clifford that she feels sorry for Norma who so obviously wants to have a family. It's to the movie's credit that Norma isn't a home wrecker or a femme fatale, but once again the film reflects the assumption of post-war American society that the man is the head of a household and a woman's place is in the home.

What does this proove? That Sirk, working in popular genres (primarily melodrama), made films whose messages flattered the attitudes of their audience--primarily middleclass white housewives. Certainly one can find evidence of ideological tensions in his films. In Imitation of Life, although Annie talks about hitting Sarah Jane, we never see Annie do it as it might complicate our sympathy for her. Although viewers in the 1950s probably thought nothing of it, seen today even the fact that she brings it up to reassure Lora is troubling. However, it does seem to me that there are moments when Sirk is being knowingly ironic. In Written on the Wind, when Kyle Hadley/Robert Stack, upon learning he's sterile, walks out of the pharmacy and sees a boy riding a mechanical horse, the image is so over-loaded with symbolism that it gets a laugh. In All That Heaven Allows, the mix of the subtle acting and over the top symbolism creates a push-pull effect, at once drawing us into the characters' emotions while keeping us outside the film by calling attention to its own artifice. Mirrors and windows are two recurring motifs that literally frame the characters. When Cary plays the piano in one scene, the shape of the reflective surface has the same dimensions as CinemaScope. (That said, the symbolism in A Time to Love and a Time to Die [1958] doesn't strike me as funny, intentionally or otherwise.) Since All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life are all overtly critical of post-war American materialism, Sirk's critical distance might reflect the original audience's ambivilance about the subject, condemning and celebrating it at the same time.

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