Getting Away With It

Constricted by the social taboos of the Eisenhower era, director and master melodramatist Douglas Sirk explored the mores of more

 

Douglas Sirk didn't introduce irony to American movies, perhaps, but he certainly deserves credit for putting them in bed together. Along with Frank Tashlin in comedy (e.g., The Girl Can't Help It), Sirk conceived the idea of using distortion as an aesthetic tool--pumping up the volume till the speakers pop, turning up the Technicolor till it bleeds. So too Sirk's narratives are cranked up to 11. Pioneering the deliberately unpersuasive resolution (despite appearances, that funeral in Imitation of Life isn't the least bit cathartic), the director brilliantly had it both ways: The appearance of perfect closure appeased the studio's desire for a happy ending, while the undeniable beauty of such privileged moments is also a sick sort of beauty, its flagrant excess suggesting the shallow triumph of capitalist cure-alls and the essence of America. Among the countless ironies of Sirk's oeuvre is the fact that his lavish spectacles spoil us for other movies, although his artistic m.o. clearly survives in the work of Pedro Almodóvar, Lars von Trier, Todd Haynes, and, more than anyone, Paul Verhoeven. (Watch Verhoeven's Showgirls again, if you dare, and tell me if its flamboyant sleaze isn't the spitting image of Douglas Sirk.)

Old as they are, the director's methods remain controversial to this day: Put an AMC cablecast of Magnificent Obsession before a group of co-workers and watch how it separates the cynics from the cineastes--or, in some conceivable cases, the girls (and the "girly-men") from the boys. Among Sirk's stigmas is the fact that he often worked in the marginalized realm of the so-called women's picture, which continues to pay 60 cents on the dollar when it comes to the valuation of "serious" cinema. No wonder film historian Jeanine Basinger wrote an essay called "How to Deal With Sirk Scoffers" 25 years ago: These are the rare works of popular entertainment that demand safeguarding.

The kitschy and the crazy: Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone in Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind
The kitschy and the crazy: Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone in Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind

As for this overprotective Sirk enthusiast (all of us are), I might concede that the director's ingenious replication of conservative social scripts is not the same as a progressive vision, and that his subversion may not be subversive if audiences can so easily fail to note it. (What does it mean if a teary irony drops in a theater, but no one hears it fall?) Yet I still disagree with the less conscientious objectors who seem unwilling to see Sirk's shiny surfaces as reflective of the polish applied by society to the real world. Diverting attractions and placating narratives aren't unique to the cinema, Sirk argues in Imitation of Life, a movie that vividly exposes the myth that the proverbial colors of the rainbow are somehow "natural"--either for the pictures or the people they represent. To Sirk, life itself is a construction--a carnival as elaborately art-directed as his sets, a production whose supporting characters are as subservient to the protagonists as any Hollywood movie's. Among Imitation's countless achievements (file under: race, class, gender, motherhood, religion, cinema studies, and the 1950s), the film depicts America as the cruelest kind of fun house while at the same time it critiques the aspirations of all its characters: a white actress (Lana Turner), selfishly imitating life onstage and at home; her vacuous daughter (Dee), taking after Mom; the daughter's friend (Kohner), a light-skinned black girl trying to pass for white; and the girl's mother (Juanita Moore), an African-American housekeeper who plays the martyr in this life so as to earn points in the next.

Ultimately, all that heaven (or Hollywood) allows appears just out of reach for these earthbound souls. The high-altitude carnival stunt pilots of Sirk's capitalist allegory The Tarnished Angels can't compete with the "flying billboards" of their well-sponsored rivals, nor do the idle rich of Written on the Wind extract anything from those oil derricks other than the grandest misery. As the final scene of Sirk's final movie, Imitation of Life's gaudy funeral procession is also the image of Sirk going out with a bang--his bitter farewell to a Hollywood whose conventions didn't allow for doing the right thing. "I had outgrown this kind of picture-making," Sirk said after retiring, "which...was typical of Hollywood in the Fifties and of American society, too, which tolerated only the play that pleases, not the thing that disturbs the mind." Still, as his work thrives on the tragic distance between what heaven promises and what it allows, the liberated context of the 1960s wouldn't have suited Sirk's art in the least--although it's safe to say that he would have made a hit in these fat but stingy times.

 

Oak Street Cinema's "Universal Sirk" series starts Friday with a three-day run ofWritten on the Wind, and continues through September 2; (612) 331-3134.

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